For the Moments I Feel Faint.

The last couple months have been full of some of the highest highs and the lowest lows and I feel as though in the midst of all that, I momentarily lost my voice.

Keyword: momentarily.

In these moments of insecurity and jumble, I always have my kids.

Whenever I experience any negativity or frustration, I can always count on my kids to have my back, and often times they don’t even realize it. The wit, the jostling back-and-forth we have, laughter while we’re learning — all this reminds me where my roots have been so deeply placed.

My school implemented a 7 Habits lesson at the start and end of every week called HOWL University. Normally I get pretty agitated when my instructional time is taken (I am a very selfish teacher in that way), but having the chance to talk about character and good habits is easily one of my favorite things (does anyone else get super stoked when a kid asks you about integrity? Anyone? Bueller?).

Recently, our topic focused on Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind. We talked about student futures and students shared what they wanted to do when they left middle school, high school, and beyond. I posted prompts around the room, like the one below, so students could take a few minutes to reflect.

Love a good Top Ten.

Love a good Top Ten.

As I surveyed the room and made my rounds, a boy sitting at the station above called out,

Ms. Stewart, can I put “science class” for this one?

indicating that science class was one of the things he loved to do. I told him that of course he could list it if that’s something he loved, and he smiled and told me it was. He said he didn’t like school too much, but he loved science class.

I’ve seen huge gains in this kid not only as a science student, but as a young adult trying his best to figure himself out (and aren’t we all still doing that anyway?).

A couple more minutes went by and I found myself at another station with a girl and the same boy I mentioned earlier. The question asked about student talents and how students are using their talents. This girl looked at me and said,

Well…what if I don’t have any talents?!

I looked at her, staring mesmerized at the paper, like she was waiting on it to give her an answer. We talked about how everyone has talents, whether that’s being a strong math student or singing or just communicating with other people. I saw doors opening in her brain when we discussed all the possibilities of talents, and I think she saw herself differently when she walked out of room 208.

These moments where I’m able to simply be real with them and help them through their lives in some capacity — pointing out their talents and giving them the space and opportunity to shine — this is where I find my voice.

Publishing Hiatus.

It’s been nearly three months since I last published something here.

I’ve had so much to write — so many thoughts, so many stories, so many teachable moments. Sixth grade has been such a breath of fresh air for me in a multitude of ways that it’s hard for me to decide where to start when I want to sit down and write. I’ve drafted numerous pieces about parents and student achievement and just classroom stories, but none of them fit properly. They didn’t seem right.

A lot has happened in the last three months. I’ve lost a loved one, I’ve had potential romantic relationships fail, I’ve nearly gone insane trying to do everything. I’m applying to graduate school for public policy/administration and I’m kicking butt and taking names with my work alongside the Public School Forum in Raleigh. I haven’t been sleeping enough and am still trying to finish Aziz Ansari’s book Modern Love that I started six months ago on a plane to Seattle.

Time is a fleeting concept.

One of the things I started doing these last few weeks is keeping up with a bullet journal. I’m a total nerd and have an affinity for typeface, so this analog system of keeping track of my life has been fabulous. A piece of my journal is a monthly self-care tracker, where I’m checking to see how I do with my overall well-being that is not tied to or for school.

Writing is on my list.

I need to get back into the swing of writing more about the the things that are working (and not working!) in my class. My PLN is such an invaluable resource, and I need to make it a habit again to constantly be sharing and searching.

So now, here I am, prepared to give you something to read about. 🙂

Growing Pains & Transition.

I completed teaching my first quarter of sixth grade science on Friday, September 25.

Honestly, the transition itself wasn’t nearly as hard as I expected it to be. The first day of school I was more nervous than anything in my entire LIFE and at this point I am clueless as to why I was terrified in the first place — maybe because they’re bigger than me? Regardless, I’m realizing that sixth graders are basically big third graders with more emotions, and you know what? I love it.

The biggest and most difficult transition for me was, hands-down, the copious amounts of grading. I think in part I was overcompensating since I had zero concept of how many grades I should have for the quarter, and that ran me into a pretty deep hole by the end of the nine weeks. All I was doing in my free time was grading (well, grading and watching The Wire sometimes…) and it was driving me to tears some nights.

I’ve worked in a classroom without a TA before, but what’s different is that now I have nearly 100 students as opposed to my 26 that I kept all day in Durham. 100 students, no TA to help grade, and a desperate need for copious amounts of coffee to manage the morning after few hours of sleep the night before (because of this, I should probably invest in stock with Bean Traders down the road from my apartment).

I’m already planning my amendment of this for quarter two, and it’s pretty simple: don’t grade as many assignments. I’m also going to start using some quick quizzes with Google Forms (all hail Google) and use an app called Flubaroo to grade them for me — then, all my data is already in a nice spreadsheet that can be turned into graphs! And there’s color-coding! And YAY!

Another thing that was hard, and it was more of just a growing pain, was that I felt myself teaching differently. I still used technology and we still talked about vocabulary, but it was in a very different way than I am used to. I realized that I didn’t really read with my kids as much as I would have liked, and I didn’t focus on vocabulary as much as usual. I didn’t do TPR with them and my “word wall” was really lacking because of the wall space I have in my classroom.

#lablife

#lablife

I’m not accustomed to teaching in a classroom that…isn’t really a classroom. The wall space is limited and inconvenient for students to access with cabinets and sinks standing in their way to the wall; shelves take up nearly the entire length of one of my walls which leaves little room to hang student work or academic aid.

World, I need y’all to know that I geeked out SO HARD when I found out I was teaching in a lab, but this is foreign territory for a former third grade teacher. In my last classroom, my walls were donned with exceptional environmental print (100% biased since I made everything that went up on my walls) and vocabulary with pictorial and TPR support was abundant. I read books and articles with my students about the science topics we were learning and we had discussions about those things.

I realize that middle school teaching probably should be a little different than what I did in elementary school, but I also see so much value in holding onto some of my elementary principles for my middle school classroom.

Next quarter, I’m going to do a word wall with words/pictures paper clipped to the blinds of the windows where my students have the best access. I was initially apprehensive to do TRP with middle schoolers because I wasn’t sure if they would buy into the concept of hand motions for words, but I’m going to do it and get really hype about it, since the hype factor is a big thing for some of the kids who think they’re “too cool for school” (who even came up with that phrase? School is the coolest!). I will be even more intentional about vocabulary.

I’ve also been on a serious hunt for some middle school science books, fiction or nonfiction, to help teach our next unit concept. Since we’re studying Earth, I thought it could be neat to read through parts of Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne and kind of “mythbust” the science in the story. I see books as a way to rope students into science who might not be instantly turned on by it, especially if it’s a topic that might not interest them right off the bat.

It’s kind of strange not doing small group instruction in my former blended learning model from last year…though I’m working on that concept with a fellow teacher on my team for a little teaching experiment with our kids in November.

Planning didn’t feel too overwhelming, but then again I was teaching concepts I was already pretty familiar with. Our first unit, which lasted the entire first quarter, was about plants and ecosystems; these topics are also taught in third grade, so I was able to just scale up some activities for my middle school babies (can I still call them babies if they’re all a foot taller than me?). Our next unit about the lithosphere and Earth structure might be a little more of a challenge since that wasn’t a third grade science topic I’ve been used to teaching, but regardless I’m looking forward to brushing up on my geology skills (insert the assistance of my geology-major brother here)!

I spent a decent amount of time last quarter grading learning about this new school and how middle school works on a large scale level, but I think I kind of get it now. I’ll continue to learn this upcoming quarter, but I’m excited to implement a little more of what I know is best for kids from my elementary experience. I’m thankful for teammates who are open to cross-curricular collaboration and students who are willing to take any academic plunge with me. These kids seriously stepped up their game toward the end of our first unit with their big project and I was wildly impressed with them.

I’m so grateful for these growing pains. When I first started thinking about the things that didn’t work out the way I wanted them to, I got kind of frustrated; as I continued to think about those things, I saw a window of opportunity to learn more about a practice which I knew so much about at a different grade level. This experience is challenging me in a way I’ve longed for, and I can tell that by the end of the year I will have grown immensely, and THAT is always a plus.

What’s been something you’ve been growing with lately? For my traditional calendar friends, I know y’all are only halfway through first quarter — anything you’d like to implement before the nine weeks are over!?

To Not Settling.

Here we have an ode to not settling for average.

A moment where a student made the conscious decision that a 77 wasn’t good enough. A moment where he was frustrated and wanted to leave his paper on the table, face down. A moment where I’ve never been more elated to see an upset demeanor on a child’s face.

This is a kid who would fall through the cracks. He lives in a bad part of town, flanked by strip clubs and gang initiations. His parents aren’t in the picture, and he likes to start trouble with other kids in class. He talks at inappropriate times and flirts with girls like that’s the real reason he’s in school (but isn’t that what we all thought our middle school purpose was anyway?). His exterior says that he doesn’t care about learning or getting an education, but once you crack that shell, he’s all gooey educational brilliance inside.

I passed back the scientific method quizzes today and he got a 77. I didn’t really expect to see any kind of reaction out of him; I mean, it’s a C. It’s average. The status quo. I wasn’t sure how he’d react, so I guess I just thought he wouldn’t.

As soon as I turned my back, I heard a fist slam on a table.

He was mumbling to himself, looking annoyed. I went over to him and said, “It’s a 77 — that’s close to a B!”

He wasn’t appeased.

“You know, a 77 isn’t THAT bad — it’s average!”

Who the heck am I trying to fool here? If I got a 77 on anything, I would have definitely been feeling the same way, begging my teacher to have mercy and let me do test corrections to bring up my score. Here I was, trying to make this kid feel better about his average grade, when I should have been firmer and pushed him harder about what it was he missed. A moment of weakness on my part and he triumphantly brought me back to my center: doing what’s best for kids, and I know what’s best for kids is holding them to high, clear expectations.

His defeated attitude about his quiz score was sad to see, but it also got me really excited.

“You want to retake this quiz, don’t you?”

He nodded and looked away from me, trying to maintain his “cool” status while still attempting to show me that he was interested in academic achievement.

A-ha! I knew he cared!

We talked about when he could come to my room to start studying and showing mastery, and we both were feeling hopeful and better about the current situation.

I should note that this kid, when given the chance to use laptops in my class during homeroom time, was the only one of my students who used them during that half hour block to locate a current event article that was due this past Friday.

I am a firm believer in tough love, not so much in grades and numerical percentages.

After today’s meltdown over an average grade, my heart leaps knowing that this kid wants something better for himself. Yeah, it’s a scientific method quiz grade, but you know what? It has to start somewhere.

We have to push our kids to a higher standard and let them know that yes, average is okay, but you are capable of so much more. Can you imagine what that can do for a child in your class?

Like I said, this is an ode to not settling for average — not settling for average quiz grades, not settling for average work ethic, not settling for average expectations.

Here’s to a great week of learning and watching this kid grow not only as a student, but as a scientist and hardworking human being, too.

Warm Hearts & Good Reception.

I got to do one of my favorite things tonight: make a positive call home about a child to his parent.

I could technically do this every single day for a child; I’m a firm believer in celebrating the good that kids do on a daily basis (and there’s a lot of it). Unfortunately, there are only 24 hours in a day, so making calls home every day to parents and families is a little tricky for a teacher with nearly 100 students.

Tonight’s particular call though left me with so much joy. My heart was so warm and my message so well-received; I was pacing with glee while I was on the phone with this mother.

What made this call so special, you wonder?

Two days ago this child had a bad day, and not just any normal case-of-the-Mondays bad day. I had to have administration remove this child because he was so distracting to others in the class, even though I had given verbal and nonverbal redirects to this child. He was removed from my class on Monday, and again on Tuesday he came close to leaving again. This kid struggles with a lot going on at home, and at the beginning of this week those problems were manifesting themselves in his classroom behavior.

Because he had to be removed by administration, I had to file an office referral. I called the family that night and left a message on their machine giving them the heads up that their son had to be removed since he was so disruptive in class.

Tonight’s call was so beautiful because I got to call this kid’s mom and tell her how incredibly awesome he was today.

I told her how he followed directions in my class, how he stayed focused and did his work; how he was kind and respectful not only to me, but to his peers; how he even offered to put up a girl’s chair for her while she finished packing up.

Before he left for his electives, I pulled the boy aside and told him how proud I was at his engagement level today. I thanked him for being so helpful to others at the end of the day and we established his end-of-day classroom job — to make sure everyone is good to go, that all the chairs are up, and that the classroom is clean. As I told him these things, he stood in front of me, bouncing, beaming.

“You know, I’d really love to tell your mom how you did in class today — does she like emails or phone calls? Is it okay that I tell her how awesome of a day you had?”

“CALL HER! Call her!!!”

We smiled and the boy started to walk away and then quickly turned around to hug me.

Recounting the afternoon’s events, I could feel how happy this mama was. She was thrilled to hear that her son had such a great afternoon with me today, and she was so happy that she wasn’t getting another phone call like the message I had to leave on Monday. She was kind, encouraging, and was up front in letting me know how to contact her in the future if I needed her during the school day. She asked questions about her son’s homework for my class and how she can guide him, and she told me she’s coming to Open House tomorrow night.

There’s something really special about making positive contact with parents. So many times teachers are bogged down with grading (…speaking from the most personal of experiences right now) or planning or even negative classroom behavior that we forget how great it is to let parents know that their kids are fanfreakintastic.

Here’s to you, busy teacher — I know you’ve got a million things on your plate, but why don’t you give a kid’s family a call and let them know something wonderful about their child?

Note: This act is guaranteed to make you smile.

Back to (a Different) School.

Middle school, where have you been all my life?!

I’ve spent the last three years teaching third grade and I truly loved every minute. Every hug, every letter, every lightbulb flickering endlessly before finally illuminating.

After three years of third grade, I realized how desperately I wanted to go deeper into content with my kids. I constantly wanted to give them more time to explore and more time to research. I realized that I was outgrowing third grade, that I needed something different. I longed for a change of pace in both curriculum and environment.

This year, I’ve graduated from elementary school and am teaching sixth grade science at Centennial Campus Magnet Middle School (because hey, why not try my luck with a multiple of three if three years in third grade was so great?!).

I just finished my second week of school (working on a modified year round schedule), and let me tell you something: magic is about to happen in the sixth grade science lab.

I can’t recall the last time I was so nervous. My nerves were palpable as I paced back and forth in my four-inch heels, trying to make sure I didn’t forget anything for the first day.

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Four-inch heels. I know my mindset was in the right place (Must…be taller…than…the children…), but the practicality of my decision was dim. Hindsight is always 20/20.

The bell rang and you could hear students shuffling through the hallways, first day chatter echoing off of the lockers. My heart was beating faster and I could feel my face getting warmer.

EL and CM walked through my door, hands clutching their backpack shoulder straps and eyes wide looking around the room.

My heart was beating so fast and loud that I could feel it all the way down in my stomach.

What.the.heck.am.I.doing?! MIDDLE SCHOOL WHAT?!

We engaged in conversation and the second I shook their hands I knew I was in the right place.

More students trickled in, eyes big and excited, terrified and happy. You could hear a pin drop in all my classes that first day. Unbelievable.

Another bell rang and it was time to start class. It was time to go back 15 years and re-enter the world of middle school, only this time on the other side of the desk.

I started talking and it was so easy. We made jokes, I told stories, kids played games. I was connecting with these kids just like I had connected with my little ones for the last three years.

Every year I do a letter writing activity the first week of school. I have a letter prepared for the kids on their first day so they can learn a little bit about me. In the letter, I ask them to share a little bit about themselves. It can be as long or as short as they want; it’s just for me and it’s just so I can learn more about them as people, not just learners. The greatest piece of this puzzle is that I take the time to read every single note and I write each kid back.

I was well aware of the daunting task I had before me, seeing as I have nearly 90 students now. To stay sane, I could only do a few letters each night (hey, if they had a week to write to me, I get a week to write all of them back, right?!), but the information gained from reading all these letters is invaluable. Students want to feel important and heard, and I love letter writing because it opens this door of transparency that many students haven’t experienced.

If I’ve said it once, I’ve probably said it a million times: teaching centers around relationships with students, and what better time to build strong relationships that in middle school years?

I’m so thrilled to be in middle school and I can’t wait to encounter everything that accompanies it — every hug, every letter, every lightbulb flickering endlessly before finally illuminating.

And also probably increasingly high levels of sass, but shockingly enough I’m still excited about that, too. 😉

One time, I went to teacher space camp…

AND IT WAS AWESOME.

Finally, my post about my time in Houston at NASA Johnson Space Center has been published with EdNC. I encourage you to check it out on their site, since they have so many other wonderful articles that you might enjoy. Below is my initial draft without any edits, so apologies for it being a little longer!

*** *** ***

Be still my heart, y'all.

Be still my heart, y’all.

In May, I read a Congratulations! on my iPhone screen as my Gmail notifications began to bing, my kids all immediately asked me what was going on.

“I’m going…to…well, basically TEACHER SPACE CAMP!”

Needless to say, my kids shared in my moment of intense bliss, screaming and jumping up and down with me.

See, my kids love space in all its vast, immeasurable glory. We spent about nine weeks earlier in the year working on a rigorous space and flight unit that I wrote last summer during my Kenan Fellows internship, and my class has been highly invested in the space game ever since (I mean, we designed rockets that we ended up 3D printing and then presented them to a panel of experts — how could we all not be invested?!). When we all found out that I was heading to Houston at the end of June, it was completely normal for us to be this excited.

My kiddos working really hard on their rocket designs - engagement game: strong.

My kiddos working really hard on their rocket designs – engagement game: strong.

Flash forward about a month and a half from that blissful moment: school’s out for the summer, I curriculum planned for three days, hit the pool once with my best friend, went to Monuts Donuts, led professional development at NCCAT for Kenan Fellows, watched my oldest friend get married, and BOOM, it’s time for me to fly to Houston.

Honestly, I felt like a five-year-old going off to sleep away camp for the first time when my dad dropped me off at the airport at 7:30am on a Sunday. He helped me get my bag out of the truck, gave me a hug, and told me to have fun; then, he waved his hearty wave and drove off into the traffic of the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. I stood there, alone, with my tye-dye backpack hanging off my 5’ frame, wearing my glow-in-the-dark constellations shirt. It was finally time to go to sleep away camp for teachers who are really nerdy about space.

When I landed in Texas, we hit the ground running. Everything was highly informative, but I did have a few favorite activities.

LEGIT. It's cool everyone, I have CLEARANCE FOR PLACES THE GENERAL PUBLIC CAN'T GO.

LEGIT.
It’s cool everyone, I have CLEARANCE FOR PLACES THE GENERAL PUBLIC CAN’T GO.

Hearing the expertise of retired engineer Norm Chaffee.
This man started working for NASA in 1962 (…1962!) and recounted his time as a rocket engine engineer. He spoke fondly of the Apollo 8 and Apollo 11 missions; it was like watching a History Channel special play out five feet away from me. He trekked with us over to Rocket Park at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, carefully detailing each stage of the rocket to us. It’s incredible talking to a person with experience like this man, who has seen so much change happen in this industry.

Norm Chafee, retired NASA engineer, walking our group through all the stages of the Saturn V rocket at Rocket Park at Johnson Space Center.

Norm Chafee, retired NASA engineer, walking our group through all the stages of the Saturn V rocket at Rocket Park at Johnson Space Center.

Participating in a Mission Control simulation.
Our group was split so half of us were in a Mission Control room and the other half were in a spacecraft. Everyone had a job in both the control room and on the spacecraft, and we communicated according to our list of instructions, just like they do in actual Mission Control. We dealt with problems along the way, like gas leaks on the vehicle. It was exhilarating to take part in an activity like this where you really put yourself in the place of the people working at NASA, both on the ground and in the air.

Team Biology: FOR THE WIN.

Team Biology: FOR THE WIN.

In the REAL MISSION CONTROL. Obviously really excited.

In the REAL MISSION CONTROL. Obviously really excited.

Experiencing fieldwork with experts.
My favorite thing about the entire week’s experience was going out to the NASA labs. We went to the robotics lab, the food science lab, and the neutral buoyancy lab (pictured respectively, below). I had the opportunity to hear from the people working in these labs firsthand and got to watch some of these brilliant engineers do their work. I saw Robonaut up close and personal, heard from one of the main engineers of the Orion spacecraft, and watched a Mars rover get test driven around the parking lot. I learned how the food scientists cook and package food for the astronauts. I witnessed the life-sized mockup of the International Space Station (ISS) submerged in 40 feet of water to help train astronauts for their extravehicular activities (EVAs). Even when I wasn’t walking around a lab dragging my jaw on the floor behind me, experts came to us in our conference rooms. We heard from a NASA spacesuit engineer, ISS science officers, and astronauts, both active and retired.

brb going to DEEP SPACE on the Orion spacecraft. #springbreak2k17

brb going to DEEP SPACE on the Orion spacecraft. #springbreak2k17

IMG_2275

The Food Science Lab — where those yummy Earth treats get dehydrated and vacuum sealed to go to space!

IMG_2300

The Neutral Buoyancy Lab — this is where astronauts train for their extra-vehicular activities (EVAs).

This experience was the truest, most authentic academic professional development I’ve experienced. It wasn’t sprinkled with classroom management and pedagogy, but was strictly science-based. I was given resources to actually apply the science knowledge I gained, and I can’t wait to share that with my students this fall.

An activity about landforms on planets in our solar system (with a sketchnotes appearance in there, too).

An activity about landforms on planets in our solar system (with a sketchnotes appearance in there, too).

Kids, get ready to look at a lot of NASA satellite photos of the Outer Banks and study the future of space exploration — it’s going to be a wild ride!

TEAM APOLLO 11 <3

TEAM APOLLO 11 ❤