Sunday, September 27, 2015

Three Clichés



They say
home is where the heart is

and they talk about
the circle of life.

But home feels
more like a tomb,

which may be the final residence
but it’s no damn circle.

But, then again,
home is where the heartache is:

it’s piles of scorched possessions
and the relentless upkeep unkempt.

But, after all, I’m a rolling stone
so I’ll leave that moss behind.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

My Top Ten Reasons to Be a Proud NEA Member


It never fails: at least once a year somebody asks me why I give my hard-earned dollars and precious hours to the National Education Association, KNEA, and ONEA. My response usually seems to satisfy the asker’s immediate curiosity, but I’ve never been satisfied with it. So, here’s the response that does satisfy me.

10. Cha Ching! NEA Member Benefits
I’ll be honest . . . I am not a big coupon or discount person. On a recent plane ride home from Orlando, I had a fellow NEA member tell me all about how she saves the equivalent of her dues money each year from the NEA Magazine Service, NEA Click and Save, and discounts on home and auto insurance, among other benefit perks. I would imagine that this energetic elementary school teacher also loves watching Extreme Couponing. While I can’t say that I’ve explored all of the membership benefit options, I can say that my 14-year-old loves cats, so I subscribe to Cat Fancy for free. I am pretty sure that paying actual money for that magazine would hurt my soul. But, on a more serious note, when I went through the National Board Certification process, I secured a low-interest loan through NEA Benefits to cover part of the fees until my district reimbursed me. All in all, NEA Member Benefits are just a nice hidden perk of something much, much larger.

9. Connecting to the Cool Kids
Because of my work at the local and state level, I have met the coolest people. They are passionate, educated, and even a bit crass at times. Without my ONEA work, I would have never come to know the likes of Kate Thompson, Anna Koehne, Brett Parker, Calin Kendall, Kathy Meyer, Linda Albee, Sara Schnug, Leigh Ann Rogers, Tiffany Huitt, Sara Mochel, Connie Welch, Holly Laflen, Drew Thomas, Erin Meyer, and Christie Jepson in the interesting ways I know each of them. And if you know just a couple of the names on the list, consider yourself lucky. If you want to know more, you know where to find the cool kids now!

8. Feeding My Inner Geek
From NEA Today to Lily’s Blackboard to the NEA Twitter account, I devour just about anything written about education. My “go-to” source of high quality information about education is NEA. Period.

7. Professional Security
As a teacher, I serve many, many masters. From students to parents to administrators to colleagues, the work I do every day is visible to the public, and sometimes doing what is right for students means making somebody else unhappy. While my legislature is doing its best to take away any protection to do the right thing in these situations, I know I have liability insurance and legal support in the absolute worst case scenario. Can you find liability insurance cheaper through some other organization? Sure. But, I challenge you to find lawyers who know more about education law than those employed by NEA and KNEA.

6. Pulling My Own Weight in Collective Bargaining
In the Olathe School District, and districts across the state as well as the nation, representatives from the local association sit down with representatives from the district to negotiate everything from salary to insurance to working conditions. Some years, this process is easier than others. But the recent state budget fiasco and attacks on teacher rights have made the process much more strenuous. I am immensely thankful for the people who negotiate on my behalf. In the end, I look at paying my dues as paying my part for the collective good. As a single mom supporting two teenagers without any financial assistance, I manage to support my family AND do my part.

5.One Organization, Many Opinions
I know some people get caught up in the whole “But I’m against____” argument for not joining. I’ve heard that blank filled with everything from abortion to protecting bad teachers. Putting aside the fact that NEA isn’t “for” abortion or protecting bad teachers, my response to that argument has always been to ask, “What large organization are you a member of whose members you agree with 100%?”. If you are a Christian, do you agree with the opinions of all Christians? What about if you’re Muslim? A pro-gun rights activist? I’ve chatted with NEA members who are pro-lifers, Republicans, and Ex-Gays, and we still had a common interest: education. I love the fact that 3 million people with such diverse opinions can join together for a common passion.

4. Passion by Association
I am a magnet to passionate people. When I hear people speak and passion runs out of their pores, I hang on each syllable. So, this summer, I heard some of the most passionate people on the planet speak about education: I was star struck. You will be too once you take just a few minutes to listen to Shanna Peeples, National Teacher of the Year; Lily Eskelsen Garcia, NEA President; John Stocks, NEA Exectuive Director; or Jose Lara, the 2015 Social Justice Award Winner. Trust me, each of these speakers is worth way more than that cat video you were about to watch!

3. UNION Pride
While some people shy away from the “U” word, I am proud member of the largest labor union in the United States. And in case you are one of those people who think the “U” word is a dirty word: check this out: 36 Things Unions Made A Reality.

2. Feeding My Inner Activist
If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s sitting back and complaining without action. My involvement in NEA has sharpened my inner activist. From tweeting legislators, to calling local voters for school board elections, to walking to Topeka—I’ve done a bit of everything. And I can’t wait to see what’s next!

1. Power of the Profession
This summer, I served as an elected delegate to the 2015 NEA Representative Assembly. I am lucky to have been elected to attend the RA five times. The RA is where I learned more about many of the cool kids. The RA is where I refuel on passion, often drained by the stress of the prior school year. But, most importantly, the RA is where I feel most connected to the power of my profession. When I sit in a room with nearly 10,000 other education professionals, engaged in discussions and debates about social justice and youth issues, I know I am home. I know I am part of something bigger than myself. I know I am a teacher.

What would you add to my list of reasons?

Friday, June 12, 2015

Developing Lifelong Readers

A few years ago, I felt I was hitting my stride in developing lifelong readers. Inspired by Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide and Donalyn Miller’s Book Whisperer, I had given up on trying to “catch” kids who weren’t reading their outside reading books; instead, I focused my energy on observing my students as they read self-selected books in and out of class.  Then, things changed. Leadership in my department changed. Standards changed. Assessments changed. And I cowed to those changes.

At the end of the 2014-2015 school year, my students completed a during-reading assignment over their outside reading book, which they selected from lists of banned and challenged books. The end assessment was an in-class writing, a letter to the district library coordinator advocating for the book to be included in high school libraries or requesting that the title be pulled from the shelves. In theory, this seemed a great assignment. It was aligned with the Kansas CCR standards, which requires student to cite evidence from text in their writing. However, as I graded the during-reading assignments—and even the in-class writings—my frustration about the rampant plagiarism and surface-level thinking boiled over. I was livid that students were using book passages and summaries from various Internet sites to complete their assignments rather than just reading and thinking about what they had read.  Then, it hit me: they had put about as much thought into doing my assignments as I had about the REAL PURPOSE of outside reading.

As I plan for the 2015-2016 school year, I begin with a clear, concise PURPOSE for outside reading in my class: To develop lifelong readers. Am I going to chuck the district curriculum out the window? Nope. Am I going to flip the bird to my superiors? Not yet, anyways. Am I going to ignore the fact that my students take standardized assessments?  Sadly, no. I will attend to the district curriculum and prepare my students for assessments with other components of my class; however, I pledge to keep my efforts regarding outside reading pure. I pledge to not cow again.
Luckily, I do work with some colleagues who support and even share a vision of developing lifelong readers. At a recent Unconference, one such colleague, Emily Dawson, and I had the opportunity to collaborate on designing a component of class that would encourage students to engage in habits of lifelong readers. Now, in order to do my due diligence in citing my sources, 90-95% of this component isn’t mine. My colleague came up with the original concept, and I used ideas from Donalyn Miller, Kelly Gallagher, and even Penny Kittle to flesh it out. But, the draft of this component excites me so much that I just have to share it. So, here it is:

  • Note that the document introduces students to the habits of lifelong readers in simple language.
  • For each habit, four specific activities that exemplify it are listed.
  • For each activity, students are told exactly how they “prove” they completed the activity.


I am under no illusion that this document is perfect, or that completing the activities on the document will magically transform my students into lifelong readers. I still have a lot of thinking and planning to do. However, I do feel confident that I am going in the right direction once again.


So, what do YOU do you your classroom to develop lifelong reading habits?

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Intentional Connection: What Matters Most


The 2014-2015 school year remains a blur in my memory: a hazy conglomerate of assessments, melt-downs, and grading. Of course, the school year also introduced me to more than 100 unique adolescent faces to appreciate. Those faces emerge out of the haze as the silver lining of teaching in a state that devalues teachers in this anxiety-ridden educational era.

Even though I still believe that creating meaningful connections with students is a strength of mine, I began this summer with a piercing guilt. I questioned whether I knew my students well enough to serve their needs; I wondered if they felt like they were a person in my class, not just a name on my roster.

And then, I decided to attend the U3Unconference at MNU, which featured Dr. Michael Wesch. His message hit home: teaching starts with creating communities. He challenged me to learn my students’ superpowers. He urged me to start my planning with the question “Who?”, not “What?”. He inspired me to ask my students who they wanted to become and how I could help them. He demanded that I ask myself how my students should change because of the time I spend with them. He knew exactly what I needed to hear.
My self-serving summer guilt morphed into goal-orientated motivation as I attended the second day of the Unconference, in which I spent time with a small group of elementary and alternative education teachers exploring the topic of meeting student needs beyond the intellectualFrom this professional conversation and my individual reflection, this blog post was born. What is more important is that I am committing myself to an intentional planning process to connect with each student, just as I plan the instructional components of my class. After all, research shows teachers who develop connections to students are more effective than those who just deliver pedagogically sound lessons to those who happen to be in their rooms.

Any good teacher knows to begin with the end in mind, so my planning process started by envisioning May 2016. I confronted the questions Dr. Michael Wesch posed, and allowed myself to visualize those last days of the 2015-2016 school year, which invariably transported back in time to first days in August. As an English teacher who spent hours of her childhood in libraries and years of her life with her nose in a book, I designed a metaphorical set of book ends:

August 2015
1.    Write a letter to me in response to my letter to you.
·         While you can approach the letter any way you would like, you must address the following questions:
·   Who are you? What do you like/dislike? What’s important to you? What are your superpowers (what are you good at)? What’s your kryptonite (what are your weaknesses/what’s hard for you)?
·   Who do you want to become by the end of this school year? By the end of high school? By the end of your life? How I could help?
2.    Draft six-word memoirs from your letter.
·         You will use key words/phrases from your letter to create several six-word memoirs to capture who you are as we work on improving word choice. 
3.    Select your best six-word memoir: Juxtapose it with a picture (self-created or found--but no words).
·         I will create a class video featuring your six-word memoirs, as well as my own.
4.    Place your six-word memoir in an envelope that you will receive back in May.

May 2016
1.    I will hand back your envelope.
2.    Write a letter to me explaining how the year has changed you/how you would revise the six-word memoir.

I know that this set of bookends is just a start on my journey to be more intentional about student connection. But, I think it’s a solid base on which I can build authentic relationships.


So, what are your techniques for building connections with students? I’d love to hear what I can place in between my book ends!