Hypothetically Speaking…

At last week’s Education Innovation Lab presented by BEST NC, a question was posed that got me thinking —

What do you want education in North Carolina to look like?

I sit and ponder this question with great intentionality.

There would be more technological resources, as well as old school resources (because honestly, children basically eat at least one glue stick a day and take the markers home for snacks). There would be more human capital in schools to work with students, such as social workers or therapists, in order to meet the mental health needs of all students. There would also be human capital like TAs to help with daily tasks so teachers can focus on actually doing their job (which is teaching in case anyone forgot). Standards wouldn’t be so constraining and there would be a huge focus on soft skills/people skills in curriculum.

(Side note: do we even need science and social studies standards, anyway? I understand language arts and math standards need to be a little tighter based on developmental needs, but why can’t we just let kids choose which topics within science and social studies they want to learn about? This would allow for deeper content knowledge and the opportunity to put that knowledge into practice somehow with an application phase of coursework perhaps. Just thinking “out loud” here and would love to hear some of your ideas with this, too!)

Essentially, everything would be centered around a problem. Students would have to find solutions to real world problems in a PBL setting in their classrooms. Everything would be framed around relevance for students, with an emphasis on current events, too.

I’ve always been a believer that I want my students to leave my classroom better people, not just better students. I care more about them learning how to collaborate with one another than whether or not they remember how earthquakes occur — that’s why all of my projects are in a group/partnership setting.

There are studies showing that many high schoolers don’t feel prepared for ‘adulthood’ when they graduate because school didn’t prepare them for the real world. That, to me, is an extreme disservice. Our schools should absolutely be preparing students for what’s to come down the road, whether that’s college or instant career experience.

Needless to say, you can bet that I’ll ask my students this question upon our return from fall break next week.

So now I ask you, friends, both in and out of North Carolina: what do you want the future of education to look like?

Deep Gladness, Deep Need.

Last week I attended BEST NC’s Education Innovation Lab at SAS. It was refreshing to sit with those both inside and outside of education to try to solve the state’s overarching issue of recruitment & retainment of teachers. There were several keynotes followed by smaller breakouts, both of which had my wheels turning at an alarmingly rapid rate.

Andy Baxter of the Southern Regional Education Board spoke about the narrative around teacher turnover, and how ultimately, according to a NC DPI report on turnover from 2008-2014, only 1.5% of North Carolina educators leave the profession because they’re dissatisfied with teaching. Despite this small number (that has, to be fair, risen since 2008), we keep hearing about all the teachers leaving the state to teach elsewhere or exiting the profession because they’re burnt out or tired of dealing with the same problems that seemingly go unfixed every election cycle.

The point he made that resonated most with me was a quote from one of his campus pastors when he was in college.

Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.

Deep gladness, deep need.

I sit and think about why I do what I do. This job is exhausting, and honestly, I have REALLY been feeling that this year. I’ve been frustrated with so many things, mostly outside of my control, and all my sprinting from these last five years teaching is finally catching up to me. I sometimes find myself unmotivated when I get home, and many nights I am just exhausted. But why do I do this? I do it because I get student feedback on projects that say “I learned that I can do more than I ever thought I could” and “I learned I can make friends.” I do it because it’s worth it when a kid comes back and thanks you for being a hard teacher because (s)he learned more from you than any of the other ‘easier’ teachers. I do it because watching students’ eyes glisten as they see their dreams 3D printed into reality is real, actual, unadulterated magic.

I do it because I find deep gladness in fulfilling a deep need: the need to invest in children and educate our society.

There is a very special happiness that washes over me when I am in my element with students, helping them learn to love stuffing their brains to the brim with knowledge. Moments where I can step back into my doorway with students not noticing I’m there, when they’re so engaged in their own learning process that my presence is irrelevant — those moments I savor. They’re moments when I remember my deep gladness meeting, maybe even exceeding, that deep need.

My focus for the upcoming quarter and remainder of the year is to make it a continued priority to stop and take pause to recall these small moments, to revel in gratitude for my passion to work in the lives of children, no matter what the circumstance. It is imperative for us all to remember why we carry on in this profession.

Deep gladness, deep need.

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. 😉

So is THIS what my teachers feel like when they see me now?

I started my adventures into the world of education during undergrad at UNC Chapel Hill. My fulltime student teaching placement was in a 4th grade math and science class and a 5th grade reading class at Carrboro Elementary. I learned a lot from my cooperating teacher about SIOP strategies, inquiry-based learning, and teaching with standards at the heart of my lessons. I also learned a lot from my kids, like what it actually means to see a lightbulb go off for a kid during a science experiment and how exactly I should go about solving upper-elementary drama when three girls can’t be best friends because only two people can be best friends. At the end of my year, my best friend and my TA put together a little book of letters for me from my classes. I still have the class photo from that year, and I am pretty sure I can still name all those kids when I look at that picture.

I know these names and faces because I’m in the business of building relationships with kids.

Today I went to the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center with my parents on our last day of vacation here in Topsail Island. We’ve been coming to this beach and to the center for the last 20 years, and it’s been amazing to watch the program grow. As we were touring the new facility, we came to our last stop in sea turtle bay where they house the rehabilitating turtles.

Looking up, I see a familiar face asking me if I used to teach at Carrboro Elementary. She’s a little taller than me and clad in rainbow rubberbanded braces and a lime green Topsail Turtle Project shirt. My eyes widened as my memory catalog flashed through all of the school pictures I’ve watched my kids take the last four years.

Cue my teacher tears of pride and joy.

Cue my teacher tears of pride and joy.

“Bess!”

We simultaneously say her name and she says to me, “I was in your class!”

Naturally, I’m freaking out at this point and beckon her with arms wide open for a hug (it’s cool to hug your old teachers, especially when you’re on vacation). She asks what I’m up to and where I’m teaching, and when I tell her that I’m moving to middle school her eyes get big and she makes a silly face. She continues to tell me that she’s a junior intern (how are students I taught old enough to be “junior interns” anywhere? Is this what it’s like getting old?) at the center for two weeks and that she’s really enjoying it. We part ways after she tells the group about the sea turtles flanking her, and as soon as I walked through the exit doors I started having all the feels.

I was proud and happy and excited — I suppose I should note that I was having all the positive feels. It was so awesome and unexpected to see her there, and I was thrilled to see her in an element where she found passion. I was so proud of her initiative in being a junior intern; I was proud to see her engage in a community supported science initiative; I was proud of the young woman she’s becoming.

Driving back to the house, I stopped myself and thought,

Is this what my previous teachers feel like now whenever they see me?!

If these feelings are the same as what my past teachers feel when they check in with me, I get it. I understand it now. The investment you place in a child leads to a reward that is indescribable in its preciousness to you.

That’s why I choose to be in the business of building relationships — lasting relationships — because that is what kids remember over math lessons and reading homework.