Spoken Word Poetry!

One of my freshman girls approached me yesterday. She told me about how she watched Sarah Kay’s TED talk about spoken word poetry and instantly was hooked. I was exited to hear this news, as my student also remarked that she “has never really liked poetry before.” In an attempt to latch on to this enthusiasm, I tweeted #engchat and asked for their help.

I’m creating this post to have a holding tank for the responses. Thanks for your replies, everyone!

And here are the responses!


Pre-conference Excitement!

**Note: I originally wrote this as part of my slice-of-life story challenge, which is happening on my closed kidblog account. My original audience was my 9th-grade students, which explains why I sometimes directly address them in this post.**


For those of you who have seen me this week, you’ve probably heard me talking about my upcoming trip to Washington, DC. My mom is dropping me off at the train station bright and early Thursday morning, when I’ll head down to DC in order to participate in a conference called Teaching & Learning 2014. The conference is sponsored by National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS), an organization with which I am actively involved.

Originally I hadn’t planned on going to the conference because it was expensive, and I’m trying to be more frugal these days (then why, oh why, did I get Amazon Prime????). However, I got an email a couple weeks ago from NBPTS, and they were looking for volunteers. In exchange for my time, they are giving me a free ticket to the conference (which is pretty awesome, considering registration is $250!). Knowing I’d save some bucks, I figured why not. I quickly got myself in gear and booked a hotel and a seat on the express train (literally…that wasn’t a metaphor). Now that everything is basically all set to go, I don’t know why I ever even considered not going. This is an opportunity I can’t pass up.

The conference doesn’t officially start until Friday, but there are these pretty amazing pre-conference workshops on Thursday afternoon. Basically, people can choose to learn about a particular topic in like the most awesome places. There’s a documentary and discussion at the Newseum, there’s a presentation about research at the Library of Congress, and there’s a lesson on oratory at Ford’s Theater! Yes, the one where Lincoln was shot. I will be attending a session on portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery, where I’ll learn “how to ‘read’ portraiture and use the art as a springboard into a more in-depth discussion about biography and history.” Be prepared, froshies; I’m sure you’ll be seeing the effects of this when I come back all obsessed with reading portraits!

Most of my day on Friday will be taken up by volunteering; I’ll be escorting a woman called Linda Darling-Hammond around. I know she’s no Miley Cyrus or anything, but it’s still a pretty big deal! In simplest terms, she’s teacher famous (most of you probably know that it’s my goal to become teacher famous). So even though I’ll have to miss David Coleman’s presentation about the new SAT (am I the only one creeped out by his headshot??) to escort Ms. Hammond around, I’ll still learn a lot and make some great connections!

My next step is to look more closely at the sessions they’re offering and build my schedule for Saturday. There are some great plenary sessions (btw “plenary” is a level G vocab word!) throughout the week, like an interview with Bill Gates and a performance by Bobby McFerrin! This is not to mention all the “in the classroom” workshops I can attend throughout my time there, plus a VIP reception I was invited to as a reward for volunteering. Woo hoo free dinner on Friday!

Phew! I’m overwhelmed just typing all this! I know it’s going to be an awesome convention, and I apologize in advance for the multiple slice posts about it, as well as the crazy numbers of tweets I’ll be making this weekend! You might want to unfollow me for a few days…

Thanks, Barry!

Every year, my goal is to blog more, and every year, I fail miserably at my goal. I am thankful to have been tagged by Barry Saide in this chain blog of sorts. I have never liked to pass on chain mail. Even in the days when I’d get actual letters in the mail asking me to put my name at the bottom of my list and send out 10 post cards, I was a chain breaker. I think it stems from my (sometimes illogical) need to not inconvenience people. I don’t even like to have parties because I worry that people will feel obligated to come. So here I am, yet again, breaking the chain. I started making a list of bloggers and couldn’t get past that feeling that they’d roll their eyes on me. Sorry, Barry! I don’t even know why I think they’d feel that way; I for one found this to be a fun exercise, and I enjoyed doing it! I’m working on these issues, I swear.

With that being said, I didn’t want to cop out completely, so I at least did my little-known facts and answers to Barry’s questions! Here they are:

  1. I am a sometimes runner. I have done two half marathons and many 5ks, but I am inconsistent in my practice. Even though I know how hard it is to build my mileage back up, I still slack off and go months without running, only to lose the endurance I have trained for. I follow the same patterns with organization, cleaning, eating right, blogging, and having a normal bed time. Basically I struggle with anything that requires consistent motivation and dedication.
  2. I am going to Spain this summer. After years of hemming and hawing about grad school, I have finally decided on a program: an off-site graduate program in global educational leadership . I am excited to be back at my alma mater , and I’m even more excited that the classes are being held in Palma de Mallorca. It is a post-masters certificate program that culminates with my NJ principal’s certificate, although I currently have no desire to become a principal. I’m just ready for something new, and I have a good feeling that this will lead to my next step. The one issue is that I haven’t actually applied to the program yet. I’ll be doing that this week; fingers crossed that I actually get in!
  3. Since high school, it has been my secret desire to be the guest star on an episode of Saturday Night Live. I find myself to be hilarious, and I think that being the guest star on SNL would validate my assertion.
  4. I don’t know how to find a style. Whether it’s decorating my home or dressing myself, I have always been a mish-mash. This frustrates me because I really want to look more put together. I marvel at how some people are always in fashion and chic; I don’t understand how they have the time or money to keep up like they do. I once asked a particularly fashionable friend about it, and she said she takes out extra student loans and uses that money for clothes and shoes. It made me feel better about my humble style; I’m not willing to go in debt to look good. However, if money, body type, and time weren’t an issue, I’d like to look like basically every girl on ModCloth.
  5. I have always been someone who goes through obsessive phases. Once I find something that excites me, I work on it obsessively until I get bored with it. This often comes at the expense of things that should be a higher priority. For instance, right now I’m sitting here writing this blog post instead of getting my winter break to-do list done. Somehow or other, though, I always get things done when I have to.
  6. My recent obsession is my Word-a-Minute vocab videos. I am making them because I don’t have time to read the vocab words aloud in class each week, and I wanted to give students some extra review. I showed them the first few videos early in the year, and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. While I really enjoy making them, part of me feels like I bit off more than I can chew. There are 300 words in the book! This will take me some time. I know I can have students make them in my computer class, but I’m too proud of this series, and I think it’s got potential. I’m usually fine with letting go of control, but not in this case.
  7. I am a cancer and a blue, which means I’m a sensitive soul and I take things personally. I am ruled by emotion and make impulsive decisions as a response to anxiety and discomfort. This can be difficult when teaching, as I worry too much about my teaching style. I think I’m a pretty out-of-the-box teacher, especially in a school like mine, where the majority of students (and teachers) are more logical, scientific, and grade driven. As our school rankings continue to climb, students become more and more tied to logic, right answers, and grades. This becomes challenging when I try to teach them to take risks in their writing and work hard for the sake of learning. I have them write about what they read; they ask why we don’t have more comprehension quizzes. I have them blog; they wonder why I don’t give grammar worksheets. I continue to do what feels right to me because I believe it’s important to stay true to who I am. Nonetheless, it becomes lonely sometimes.
  8. I was a member of the inaugural faculty at my school. This means that when I was first hired, I was the only English teacher in my entire school. There were seven other teachers (one for each subject), one principal (who was an RN so we didn’t even have a separate school nurse), and 60 students. Due to my aforementioned blue nature and obsessive personality, I threw my heart and soul into building something great. While I am more than proud of all we’ve built in the past nine years, I’m also exhausted. It was one of the best experiences of my life, but I don’t think I could muster the energy to do it again.
  9. I know I just said I’d never start a school again, but I think I’m lying. My dream is to open a school called The School of Now: Because the Future is Here. It would be the type of place where bureaucracy would be pushed to the side, teachers could teach, and students could learn. My problem, though, is that, as a blue, I’m great with ideas but not so much with their execution. It’ll probably continue to be a fantasy rather than a reality.
  10. The only reason I went into teaching was that I hated driving and wanted summers off. I used to work 72 miles away from home. I live at the Jersey Shore (no, I don’t know Snooki), and I was commuting way north for work. I was driving home on 287 and the Parkway one Friday in the summer (those of you from Jersey know how miserable of a trek this can be), and I knew I needed to find something that could allow me to make a living, work close to home without leaving the shore, and have time off in the summer. For those reasons, I went into teaching. Imagine my surprise when I realized that teaching is my calling; I feel lucky to have found my passion, regardless of the fact that it was selfish reasons that got me here.
  11. I have traveled with students more times than I can count. I’ve chaperoned leadership conferences, EF tours, service trips, and more. People think I’m crazy for voluntarily spending days (or even weeks!) at a a time with large groups of teenagers, but I believe student travel is integral in cultivating global citizens. I love seeing how independent students become in such a short period of time. While I’m definitely on hiatus from student travel this summer, I’m sure there is more to come. An added benefit is that I’ve been places like Australia, New Zealand, Ecuador, The Galápagos Islands, France, Spain, Ireland, and England for basically free. I can’t complain about that!

Whoa, this post is getting long. Without further ado (there’s been plenty of ado already), here are my answers to Barry’s questions:

  1. Q: What are you currently reading right now?  A: I am currently reading Divergent by Veronica Roth. I’m only a few chapters in, but it seems interesting so far. Typical dystopian stuff, which is always a good time. Professionally, I’m reading How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-ability Classrooms by Carol Ann Tomlinson. I randomly found it in my boxes when I was unpacking for my recent move, so I figured why not? It’s pretty good, although it’s outdated. I had a good laugh when she suggested showing laser discs in class to appeal to visual learners.
  2. Q: What do you usually eat for breakfast and where do you eat it? A: On school days, I eat a small Lenders bagel with cream cheese, and I eat it in my car (horrible habit, I know, but I can’t get myself up early enough to eat at home). When I don’t have school, I have oatmeal, an English muffin, eggs, or a bagel, and I eat it at my dining room table.
  3. Q: Describe one incident of road rage you were involved in. A: A couple years ago, some crazy car cut me off as it was pulling out of a 7-11. I honked to catch its attention (I’ll admit it was probably an angry honk). He stopped the car, opened the doors, and stared me down. I thought he was going to pull out a gun; it was terrifying. When he got back in the car, he screeched his tires and acted like he was going to try to run me over. Fortunately, he just drove past me and kept going. The whole thing was nuts.
  4. Q: One non-educational dream you have that is recurring. A: I still have the occasional “wharfmare.” I used to work at a restaurant called the Wharfside, and I still have that classic I’m-a-waitress-but-I-can’t-keep-up-with-all-my-tables-and-all-my-customers-hate-me-right-now dream.
  5. Q: From 1 – 5, one being least, five being most, how much of a fan of The Walking Dead are you? A: Is zero an option? I have never seen it.
  6. Q: What was one conversation you had that changed you? A: Whoa, Barry, tough question! I’m gonna have to say that most conversations with my graduate school professor Doc Flanagan changed me. He was an adjunct who I only had for one class, but we stayed in touch, and I honestly think I would have quit teaching after my first year if it weren’t for him. I can’t even count how many times I emailed him through my tears, and his words of encouragement got me through. He passed away in September, 2012, and I think of him every day. When I begin to doubt myself in the classroom and think maybe I’m crazy for seeing education as I do (see #7 above), I hear him cheering me on. It is in his honor that I teach to change the world, and it is because of him that I will never let my optimism fade. Some of his lines that have stayed with me are, “Praise the child and she will blossom,” “Preparation is infinitely more important than planning,” and (I’m paraphrasing here) “you have 25 kids with 19 personalities each on any given day. No wonder teaching is so fun!”.  To get an idea for what an amazing man he was, read his advice to his grandkids.
  7. Q: What was one time you helped someone, but it will never be recognized? A: I think teachers do this all the time. Sometimes we don’t even realize that one simple thing we said or did that made an impact on a kid. I’m not trying to toot my own horn or anything, but I’d like to think I’ve done this at least once.
  8. Q: Name one disturbing thing you saw in person. A: Parents pressuring their kids about their SAT scores. Especially when it’s a younger sibling, and the parent is going on about how great the older sibling did. Happens all the time, and breaks my heart every time I see it.
  9. Q: Does your significant other tell you to order a different meal when going out to eat if you both want the same thing? (or is it just me?) A: Hey, this is a biased question, Barry. I am currently sans S/O. However, I will say that I don’t care who orders what when I go out to dinner.
  10. Q: Favorite dive bar where it feels like everyone knows your name. A: I don’t think it’s there anymore, but in college we went to this place called LaNutties (pronounced La Nudies, but it’s not what you think) every Friday night. There was a giant flying saucer carved into the walls, and the beer was cheap. Good times indeed.
  11. Q: Something someone once said that blew your mind. (think inconceivable!) A: Pretty much anything Kurt Vonnegut has ever written.

Thanks again for the tag, Barry! This was fun to write; I hope it motivates me to sit down and blog more often! Sorry again for being a lame-o and breaking the chain!

A Student’s Response to PISA Score Release

Yesterday I had my freshmen read the article “American 15-Year-Olds  Lag, Mainly in Math, on International Standardized Tests” in The New York Times. I gave them an intentionally vague prompt to elicit their response about the article (see prompt below).

Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 8.19.10 AM

I have to say, I was impressed by their responses. Many students addressed the issues with reliability of the scores. They even did the math and found that 6,100 15-year-olds represent less than 1% of the entire population of 15-year-olds in the United States. They argued that this is too small a sample size, and they even noted that the US is so diverse that there is no way that such a small sample can possibly be representative of all students in America.

I may be biased, but I am quite proud of the ways in which my students stopped and thought critically about the validity of a test that so many adults seem to take at face value.

But that’s a whole other post.

The real reason I’m writing is to share one student’s response to the article. In just 43 lines, this 13-year-old freshman offers real insight on some pretty big ideas. She asks, “How can my end / be defined by a moment?” I wish I could have said it so well. Without further ado, here is Sim T’s poem!

Numbers and Symbols,
Mixing together in my head.
A chaotic scramble,
Unclear with no end.

The teacher stands up front,
Tests in hand.
The crisp clean white paper,
Deceivingly bland.

Beats of sweat appear,
Shivers down my back.
My vision blurs,
And my foot begins to tap.

Deep Breaths.
Breathe in,
Breathe out.
Clear your mind,
Focus on this,
For this… is your future.

But how can my end,
Be defined by a moment?
Aren’t I more then just that?

Why should I be,
Just a number on a screen?
I AM more than that.

Shouldn’t I be judged on my
Everything that makes me me?

But alas, however
Society is unadvanced.
I am required,
To fill out this paper.
This form of doom,
They call a “test”.

Innocent little bubbles and lines of text,
Stare at me from the pages.
I take one last breath,
Pick up my pencil,
And am lost in a sea
Of numbers.

On how the Internet reaffirmed my faith in humanity.

I like to think that I’m like Kurt Vonnegut in a lot of ways. I might not smoke unfiltered Pall Malls or have a mustache, but, like Vonnegut, “I still believe that peace and plenty and happiness can be worked out some way. I am a fool.”

Because I am an eternal and hopeless optimist, I have never actually lost faith in humanity. To be sure, I’ve come close, but I have always held on to an unwavering conviction that humans are, in essence, good. I am a pacifist and a seeker of silver linings; I have been accused of bleeding sunshine and rainbows. What can I say? I’m a cancer and a blue; it’s a dangerous combination.

Every now and again, something happens that makes me proud to be such a Pollyanna, and one of those every-now-and-agains has recently occurred.

This summer, I was working with two of my closest colleagues, Sarah Mulhern Gross and Kelly Harmon, on something for our district. As is typical of those rare moments when we actually get to spend time together, we got to chatting. We voiced our concerns about our students’ increasing panic when they aren’t perfect. We have noticed that in the past few years, the tremendous pressure students put on themselves is getting more and more intense. We work in academically-rigorous high schools, and our freshmen come to us after being at the top of their middle school classes. Oftentimes, they have become accustomed to being perfect, and they are challenged for the first time in their lives when they get to us. We want to teach them to welcome that challenge and learn that they can overcome anything that life throws at them, but sometimes their fear of making a mess and letting themselves, their parents, or their teachers down is paralyzing. Being the bleeding hearts that we are, we decided to do something about it.

Somehow or other, we got on the topic of Keri Smith’s Wreck This Journal and how cathartic it could be. I’ve been working on mine since the spring, and I think it’s pretty cool, if I do say so myself! (EDIT: It’s not as cool now that I’ve seen this one.) We noted that it would be so amazing to get a class set of the journals for our freshmen. However, we knew that procuring materials in a public school system can sometimes be a lengthy process, so we wanted to find another way. Thus, our idea was born!

The plan was simple; each of us would sign up on DonorsChoose and write a grant for a class set of Wreck This Journal. We’d highlight the fact that our STEM schools have no art classes, and our science-brained students often struggled with finding catharsis. We figured we’d at least get someone to donate something, right?

We had no idea how right we’d be!

Once we started writing our DonorsChoose grants (which you can find here, here, and here), we realized that we’d be short about twenty books in total. But more on that later. We got to work tweeting, facebooking, and emailing our links around in the hopes that someone would help.

One morning, I figured I’d email Keri Smith, the author of Wreck This Journal and let her know about our project. I thought maybe she could put us in touch with someone who would help us get a group discount on the remaining twenty journals.

She couldn’t.

No, she’s far too amazing for something like that. Instead, she posted on her blog and asked her readers to help out with the projects. That must be it, right? No. Not only did she personally donate to each of our projects, but she also found a way to ship me the twenty extra copies of the journals directly! Note: don’t read this and bombard her with requests for money and books now! She’s done enough; hit up someone else for your cause!

Faith in humanity continues.

I seriously cannot WAIT to distribute these to students!

I seriously cannot WAIT to distribute these to students!

It wasn’t long before Sarah’s grant was completed. Mine was next. I honestly couldn’t believe it. Many of my donors were friends and family, and it goes without saying that they’re amazing for supporting me and my students. Some contributors were anonymous, so I don’t even know who to thank. Not only that, but others were people I’ve never interacted with from all over the United States! Random strangers, for no reward other than to support a crazy project created from a five-minute conversation, were helping us teach our students that it’s ok…nay…it’s awesome to make mistakes! I’m pretty sure those were Keri’s readers; yay for the power of the Internet!

I don’t know how this project will go throughout the year, but my instincts tell me that we’re on to something. The impact of these journals on our students will be enormous; I can feel it in my bones. You can bet I’ll be back here blogging about it once the DonorsChoose books arrive (the ones Keri sent are here and at the ready). But for now, all I can say is that they need this, and it wouldn’t be happening if it weren’t for the kindness of strangers.

So thank you, dear Internet, whoever and wherever you are. Somewhere in the fourth dimension, Vonnegut is cheering you on.

Back-to-school goals 2013

I seriously cannot believe I go back to school tomorrow; how did this happen? I don’t know why I’m surprised, considering that summer flies by way too quickly every year. This year I am looking forward to a fresh start, especially after dealing with Superstorm Sandy last year. Although I was fortunate to not have any significant damage in my home, I feel like the whole year was just “off” ever since the storm. By April or May, I found myself desperate for a reset, and I’m excited to get that tomorrow. 

I didn’t write out my goals last year, and I missed doing so, so it looks like it’s time to do it now! This year, I would like to:

  • focus on my physical wellness. Don’t let the busyness of school and moving put exercise, eating right, and getting sleep on the back burner. If I don’t take care of myself physically, I won’t be with it mentally and emotionally. 
  • be diligent about the little things. Taking attendance, updating lesson plans, stuff like that. Don’t whine…just do it! 
  • grade more efficiently. They don’t need a bajillion comments, especially when they’re redundant. Find ways to maximize efficiency while still being kind, honest, and helpful. 
  • go to bed at a normal hour! I know this one is basically a repeat of bullet 1, but it warrants its own mention. Michelle, just put the phone down and go to bed! And that doesn’t mean you should pick up the iPad either!
  • stay positive. Attitude is contagious. Make the kids catch smiles, not frowns. 
  • curb the sarcasm. With the freshmen, anyway. The juniors can handle it.
  • say no. Your plate is full. Put no more on it.
  • blog regularly! This one is twofold. Keep the homework blog updated (I’m pretty good at this already). More importantly, build this professional blog like you’ve been wanting to do. It’s ok to change the URL early on if I finally find my schtick. 
  • keep making vocab videos. The word-a-minute idea is a good one; keep it up!
  • focus on the froshies. Last year the juniors got the bulk of your attention; it’s time to make the frosh curriculum awesome, too! 
  • but don’t forget the juniors! Don’t let that mean you can ignore the juniors. Find the right balance. 
  • find perspective. I love my job and teach in teacher heaven. Don’t forget it. Remember, #TIL 

I feel like every time I write my goals, they’re practically the same as they’ve always been. Well, at least I’m consistent! Here’s to a great year!

Why I Love Having a Class Facebook Page

*Note: I originally wrote this post in August, 2011 on my old blog. I am updating and reposting it here, in hopes of getting my blogging creative juices flowing. 

Last August, I was at my local Barnes & Noble doing some work. Ok, you’ve got me. I was SUPPOSED to be doing some work, but in truth, like so many of my students, I was Facebooking instead. For some reason, I started messing around with the “pages” option, and I decided to make a page for my class. I wasn’t quite sure what would happen with it, but I thought if nothing else, I could spend the next hour fiddling around with that rather than writing lesson plans. 

I ended up with my class Facebook page. I think I uploaded a photo of my classroom, wrote a silly status message about how no one would “like” it, finished my grande skinny decaf caramel macchiato, and called it a day.

Three hundred and twelve “likes” later, I have to say that the class page was the best thing I could have done that day. As the year progressed, I realized that what had started out as a way to procrastinate had somehow transformed my classroom. It became a way for students to communicate with me in a way that they enjoy. I chuckled every time students interact with my page during the summer months…so much for “no more teacher’s dirty looks”!

Below are just a few of the ways I have come to utilize a Facebook class page.

Develop relationships with students
It is called SOCIAL media, after all. Even though I’m not comfortable with “friending” current students on Facebook, the class page enables me to interact with them and get to know them better than I normally would. The public nature of the posts/comments engages a variety of students and gives me a chance to communicate with them in a different way.

Post links that relate to class
I love to post links for my students, from SAT tips to literary puns to news articles about my favorite authors. These links do not necessarily have to relate directly to class. I share links with news about the upcoming literary films, funny comics that I think the kids will like, music videos, and other things that I happen to find interesting. 

Inspired by FridayReads, I decided to post a status on my page on Fridays and ask students what they’re reading. Sometimes I get 20 or more comments. Sometimes I get zero. Either way, I think it’s an easy way to get kids fired up about what they’re reading and share their latest literary conquests with their friends. It’s also a great excuse to share what I’m reading with them!

Answer questions from students
I don’t know why I was so surprised when kids started posting homework questions on my timeline. I guess it’s because I just saw the class page as a fun thing rather than a work thing. Eventually, students started using FB to reach me instead of the email system that our school provides to all staff and students. A couple of students remarked on my course evaluation that they liked when others asked questions because they often were wondering the same thing but were too afraid or lazy (their words, not mine) to ask.

Keep Stakeholders Informed
I hope this never happens again, but when our district was affected by Superstorm Sandy, social media was invaluable. I was able to keep stakeholders informed and get updates about how students were doing, and we kept in touch during the two weeks that school was closed. I think it brought us all a sense of comfort to know that we missed each other. In fact, a FB conversation led to a meet up at a local mall. Over thirty students and a bunch of teachers showed up! I know that I for one felt that I started to heal because of that day.
Allow students to share what they find
Students often post links to my class page, and I especially (selfishly) love this because it’s enabling me to gather lots and lots of supplemental resources to use for years to come. I mean really, how cool is it when a kid posts a link to a web comic about Pride and Prejudice at 2am on a Saturday night? If that’s not taking learning beyond the classroom walls, I don’t know what is.

I know that social media in the classroom can be scary. I’m a huge techie, and it even took me a couple of years to feel comfortable communicating with my kids in this way. However, this is their world, and even though students have started to move more to Twitter than Facebook, the point is that social media is here to stay. (Perhaps Twitter in the classroom will be my next post!) If we don’t get over our fear and guide our students in safe and appropriate use of media, who will?