gstevensblog

Slice of Life 2013

Talking About Tough Topics

As I was driving in to school on Monday morning I kept thinking about all that had happened over the weekend in our country and if I could/should talk about it in my classroom. In the days since the election, many of my colleagues and I have been tip-toeing through the new political landscape, anxious not to step on toes yet strongly convicted to speak up about the issues that matter. This is not easy in a “red” state in the south.

I chatted with a few of my colleagues after I arrived at school, and they too felt that we needed to address it, but how? How do we even begin to address the chaos that is happening in our world today?

I opted to have the students respond to a prompt that I put up on the board. The prompt consisted of a statement about the executive order to ban Syrian refugees and the travel ban on the other majority-Muslim countries. I asked students to share their response to this event as well as ask any questions they had.

The response was lukewarm at best. Students either wrote “I heard something about a ban, but I am not sure what it’s about” or “I guess the president is just trying to keep us safe.” One student wrote that President Trump was just “doing what he promised” and he didn’t understand why people were so “surprised” by it.

I received the strongest reactions from my 2nd period ESL English II class. This class consists of immigrants from mostly Latin American countries, and one student who is a recent arrival from Syria. They wrote of confusion of why President Trump “hates” them and why he wants to send people back to countries where they might be killed. Their responses were heartbreaking. My student from Syria said he felt like the “luckiest person alive” since his family was one of the lucky ones to be able to come to this country, when many members of his family and friends were still stuck in Syria. He also shared that it took his family three years to complete the vetting process. Extreme vetting?  Talking about what is going on gave me and my co-teacher the opportunity to reassure our students that we are here for them and that we support them.

While most of my colleagues agree that we must talk to our students about what’s happening in our country today, none are really quite sure how to go about it.This is all new territory for most of us. I believe that the lukewarm response from my students is at best a reflection of their lack of engagement with the news. Students whose parents are vocal tend to have the most knowledge about what’s going on, but the students in my classroom today seem largely unaware of the seriousness of the rapidly changing political landscape.

How about you? Are you wanting to teach about the Muslim-ban, the “wall” or any of the other executive decisions coming down from Washington?

Here are a few resources I’ve found over the past few days that might help you:

Facing History

Pernille Ripp started a google doc with a multitude of resources: 

New York Times Learning Network 

I teach high school freshman, and I think about how they will be eligible to vote in the 2020 election. It is imperative that I help them to be informed and to learn to think critically about the issues facing our country today.

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Courage over Comfort

I’ve been reading some of the slices posted today by women who participated in the Women’s March this past Saturday. I also participated in the march here in Raleigh where organizers were expecting 3,000 women and ended up with an estimated 17,000+ marchers.

When I first heard about the March on Washington a few weeks ago, I remember texting my daughter to see if she would be participating since she lives in DC. She was on board from the start and was eagerly anticipating the event, not knowing what to expect.

When I discovered that there would be “sister marches” all over the country I quickly researched and found one right here in Raleigh. I knew it was where I needed to be.

Like many of you who marched, it was an overwhelmingly positive experience for me, my husband, and my daughter and her friends. We came away from the march even more committed to supporting the causes that are important to us and felt empowered to take action in the face of opposition. History was made that day and we were all a part of it.

In the days since the march, the trolls have been busy trying to discredit the legitimacy of the march, openly questioning why women marched in the first place, and posting memes and making comments ridiculing the women who marched. Even one of our NC senators took a shot at us on Twitter. You can read about it here.

This is just one example of the kind of negative responses many of us were confronted with after speaking out. I don’t know about you, but I am not big on criticism, especially this kind. I expect a lot of you feel the same way. What I suspect is that the people who are throwing stones at us for marching are hoping that this backlash will cause us to withdraw from the fight, to stop speaking out to avoid further criticism and attack. Appeals abound on Facebook and Twitter for “people to get over it” and “stop trying to divide our country even more.”

My nature tells me that if I continue to speak out and become more engaged in this fight I will have to face more of this and likely it will intensify as we make progress in the battle for human rights. Honestly, I’m tired and we are only a few days in!

“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9) 

I am praying that I will not grow weary in the days ahead. That I will not give up but keep on fighting for what’s right. That all the women, men, and children who marched all over the world on Saturday will continue to speak out and it will make a difference.

brene-brown-quote

 

 

 

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Independent Reading: Choice Matters

Today was the last day of the semester at our high school and I asked my students to reflect on their independent reading experience. I wanted to know if the time we devote, ten minutes at the start of every class period, is worth it (in their eyes). I teach on the block schedule (85 minute classes) and I strongly believe that offering students ten minutes of uninterrupted reading with books of their choice is key to helping them to become better readers and it is essential to helping them develop a love of reading.

This past semester I taught two honors level English 1 classes. I assumed that most of these students liked (if not loved) reading, but I found out that was not the case. Yes, they could read well but they didn’t like reading, and only a few would admit to loving it. It honestly broke my heart.

Over the course of the semester I did my best to help match reader to book. I spent a small fortune updating  my classroom library and tried to get the latest hot titles in my students’ hands. Matching students to the right books was key; knowing my students and knowing books was essential to this matchmaking process. I eagerly passed new titles on to the right students and they eagerly devoured them.

So today I was anxious to see what they would have to say.

Here’s the question I asked and some of the responses I received follow:

In this class, we have spent ten minutes nearly every day on independent reading of choice books. How has this practice had an impact on you as a reader? How important is it for teachers to allow time for independent reading?

“It has helped me build empathy towards others as well as reminding me that we are all not the same.”

“It is important for teachers to allow independent reading because it gives students a chance to step into another person’s shoes in life.”

“When we first started the class I would never read because reading is not my thing and I felt as if I can’t understand so why push myself harder? Now since the first day my reading is better and I feel better and confident in my reading.”

“…it has helped me to become a more fluent reader and it showed me that you can really have a love for reading.”

“Hopefully the next teacher I have will allow independent reading because it is very important to me.”

“Reading a book for ten minutes every day has exposed me to so much vocabulary…”

“Reading for ten minutes every day has made me a better and stronger reader.”

“This class helped me learn to like reading once I actually find a book I like and actually get into the book.”

“Before taking this class, I read books that were interesting from the very beginning, now I can read books that have a slower pace as well.”

“I also believe ideals/morals can be created through books, thus students in the future years should read books like To Kill a Mockingbird for a better future.”

“The first ten minutes of class are the best part of class.”

“The consistent 10 minutes of reading has made me a much stronger reader. I believe I can tackle much harder books than before.”

“Not only is reading good for me emotionally but mentally, reading puts me in a calm state.”

“…it gets students into a literature mindset.”

“I think the time has given me more patience for books and to enjoy the parts with not a lot of action. Now I also enjoy books that are slower (paced).”

“I believe it is extremely important for teachers to allow time for reading because it might give the students a love for reading they didn’t have before.”

Overwhelmingly, the student responses from both classes were very positive with most students admitting that they had either discovered a love of reading or rediscovered a love of reading they thought they had lost. All students said they needed their teachers to provide this time and choice to help them continue to develop as readers.

I share this feedback about the importance of student choice and time for independent reading in our classrooms to encourage those teachers who might want to do this in their own classrooms but they’re afraid they “don’t have time.”

When teachers tell me they can’t fit independent reading into their curriculum because there’s not enough time I  remind them of this simple truth: If you don’t give your students time to read in your classroom, they won’t read outside of your classroom.

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Something’s Missing

Slice of Life

 

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Something’s Missing

It has been a really long time since I’ve written a “Slice of Life” entry…not that I haven’t written, but I haven’t submitted to the SOL blog. I’ve been feeling the need to get back into writing and submitting and I guess this gift of a “snow day” is the impetus I needed to get going.

Here’s what is on my mind this morning: A close friend of mine and I have been sharing our mutual discontent and lack of enthusiasm and creativity for teaching lately. We used to teach at the same middle school, but I left to go to the high school almost two years ago and she stayed on. (This is my 17th year teaching; she’s at 19 years).

When I left middle school I was hoping that the switch to a new school, a new grade, would be just the ticket to kick my creative juices into gear, and that needed kick would carry me through to retirement (10 more years before I am eligible to retire with full benefits). I have enjoyed being a creative teacher and am used to spending a lot of time reading, researching, creating, collaborating with others to bring energy to my classroom. Over the years I have been blessed to work with other teachers who have been eager to collaborate with me and as a result I was successful at keeping my own energy and enthusiasm up for teaching in middle school. The last two years of teaching 8th grade language arts, I was growing more and more frustrated by the micromanagement of my administration and felt that it was limiting my creativity and interest in teaching. I knew that it was time to leave and try something new.

Since moving to high school, I have found it difficult to find that same level of energy and enthusiasm that I once had and I am trying to figure out what caused it and how to fix it.

I am now in my 2nd year of teaching English 1 (Fall semester) as well as English 2 ESL Sheltered (Spring semester). I started teaching an ESL English 1 sheltered class (co-teaching with an ESL Teacher) in my first year at the high school and found that I really enjoyed it. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I petitioned my principal to ask if we could create an English 2 sheltered class that I could teach so that the students who were in my class could catch up and finish two English classes in one year (most of the students were older to begin with—average age of 17). He agreed and I ended up keeping this group for the entire year. I loved teaching these kids because they were eager to learn English and it was easy to form relationships with them as we were together for the whole school year. I received a lot of gratification from working with my ESL students and they were the highlight of my first year of high school teaching.

For a number of reasons, I have had a difficult time forming relationships with my current students. My colleagues say that block scheduling is to blame…that students know they only have you for one semester so why bother getting to know you or building a relationship when you will not be in their lives in four or five months? As a former middle school teacher, I also notice that unlike middle school, I only see these students when they are in my classroom. They are off to other parts of the campus after that and I don’t often run into them like I would when I worked on a “team” and saw them all day between classes, lunch, and then bus room. Also, unlike middle school students, I have found that high schoolers are largely uninterested in their teachers. They have other more important things on their minds and/or they are completely absorbed in their phones. I often feel as if I am completely invisible in my own classroom.

Teaching high school is a completely different animal than teaching middle school. I am not sure why I feel this way but I do. While we are not “required” to teach certain texts, most English teachers still do, leaving those of us who prefer standards-based teaching out of the loop. It is difficult to find other teachers to collaborate with because so many of them are deeply invested in keeping things as they are. Last year I felt very much alone. This year I have a first year teacher who is eager to collaborate with, but with his lack of experience, much of the planning falls in my lap. I know that I have always done my best work when having a collaborative partner. It’s just not as easy to find one where I am now.

So all this is to say I am trying to figure out if I can somehow muster up the creative juices needed to remain vital and connected to my students in my classroom. Is this just a phase I’m in as I adjust to the transition from middle to high school? Am I able to find what I’m looking for where I’m at?

Some of you may be thinking that perhaps I need to move again, find another school, go back to middle school, etc.  I work at a good school, and was recruited to come here by my former principal. He has been and continues to be supportive of whatever it is I am doing in my classroom, so administrative support is not the problem.

Am I just in a slump? Winter blues? I am not sure. I have been struggling with these feelings for a while now, so I don’t think it’s a phase.

Am I being prepared for a different role? Is this a natural phase for someone at the tail end of their teaching career? Although many at my age might be retiring, I am not able to do that for at least a decade, so I can’t and won’t just get by until then. I owe it to myself and my students to figure out how to be the best I can be in my classroom.

Anyone else out there feeling these things, too?

I would love to hear your thoughts.

Thanks!

 

 

 

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