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Cimarron Middle School

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When it’s Hot, Read a Lot

Playing outside, competing with your sports’ teams, spending time with family, playing video games… these are all enjoyable ways to fill days when we are out of school. What else can we do with our time during these lazy days and nights of summer – READ!

According to Stephen King, “Books are a uniquely portable magic.” When your child reads, there is not only comprehension and fluency growth occurring in his brain, he/she also may be traveling to the dystopian world of futuristic Los Angeles, reliving some of the horrific experiences of the displaced children in World War II England, rejoicing in the bravery of a young wizard, or discovering what it’s like to walk a day in the shoes of a middle school student that has a very different life than he does.

There are a variety of opportunities available. How do you find the best books for your particular child?  That is where I come in.  Most people already know about series like Harry Potter and Hunger Games. What I have tried to do is create a list of titles that aren’t as well-known, but are equally as intriguing as some of the more famous books and series. The list below includes some of my favorite titles divided by genre.  In parentheses after the author, I have included suggested grade levels for interest and content:  ES=elementary school; MS=middle school; HS=high school; A=adult.  Please know that these age levels are MY opinion and may not match your family’s preferences.  I encourage you to look up the descriptions of the books and use your judgment as to which titles you feel would be appropriate for your child. Use this as a springboard to help your kids’ summertime reading get off to a great start, or visit a public library or local bookstore for other recommendations your kids may enjoy. Whatever your chosen method, encourage them to read, Read, READ!

P.S.  Reading is also a great pastime for adults! You may find that I snuck in a few enjoyable grown-up reads on this list too…J

Dystopian

Legend  – Marie Lu (upper MS, HS)

Cinder – Marissa Meyer (MS, HS)

Steelheart – Brandon Sanderson (MS. HS)

Unwind – Neal Shusterman (upper MS, HS)

 

Fantasy/Science Fiction

Peter and the Starcatchers – Dave Barry, Ridley Pearson (MS)

Ender’s Game – Orson Lee Card (upper MS, HS, A)

Goose Girl – Shannon Hale (MS, HS)

 

Realistic

Crossover – Kwame Alexander (MS)

I Still Dream About You – Fannie Flagg (A)

we were liars – E. Lockhart (HS)

Rules – Cynthia Lord (upper ES, MS)

Wonder – R. J. Palacio (upper ES, MS)

Big Stone Gap – Adriana Trigiani (A)

Millicent Min, Girl Genius – Lisa Yee (MS)

Stanford Wong Flunks Big Time – Lisa Yee (MS)

 

Historical Fiction

The War that Saved My Life – Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (MS, HS)

Copper Sun – Sharon Draper (upper MS, HS)

Lonesome Dove – Larry McMurtry (A)

Gone With the Wind – Margaret Mitchell (HS, A)

Between Shades of Gray – Ruta Sepetys (MS, HS, A)

Any book from the I Survived series – Lauren Tarshis (upper ES, MS)

 

Mystery/Thriller

Michael Vey, Prisoner of Cell 25 – Richard Paul Evans (MS)

Stormbreaker – Anthony Horowitz (MS, HS)

The Forgotten Garden – Kate Morton (A)

Hatchet – Gary Paulsen (MS)

 

by Laura Maple (see more about Laura by reading her bio here)

Can you Relate?

In order to cultivate meaningful relationships and teaching experiences with our students, it’s vital to remember what it was like to be a middle-schooler (emotions! drama! angst!).  The thing is, in the process of growing older and gaining more and more responsibilities in life, it’s not always easy to remember what it was like back then. For me it takes something more tangible to help me remember some of the experiences I had as a kid.  Books are my reminder.

“I walk around the school hallways and look at the people. I look at the teachers and wonder why they’re here. If they like their jobs. Or us. And I wonder how smart they were when they were fifteen. Not in a mean way. In a curious way. It’s like looking at all the students and wondering who’s had their heart broken that day, and how they are able to cope with having three quizzes and a book report due on top of that. Or wondering who did the heart breaking. And wondering why.”
— Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower)

I was never bullied in school as a kid, so I have a hard time relating to those kinds of experiences.  Yaqui Delgado helped me see the hurt and humiliation that comes with being bullied.  Her story helped me to try and empathize with students who have been/are being victimized at school.  It also helped me to see how quickly a student can go from being a good, willing student to seemingly bored or rude.  Not because she didn’t love school, but because she was terrified of being there.

I didn’t grow up in poverty.  I never went to school hungry. How can I relate to kids who have such different lives? (Even kids right here in affluent suburbia?)  With an incredible balance of humor and honesty, Junior taught me about poverty and racism, and the struggle it is for some of these kids to even make it to school. He taught me the enormous impact a teacher can have in a student’s life.

“Do you understand how amazing it is to hear that from an adult? Do you know how amazing it is to hear that from anybody? It’s one of the simplest sentences in the world, just four words, but they’re the four hugest words in the world when they’re put together.

You can do it.”
— Sherman Alexie (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian)

This small excerpt changed me as a teacher. 

I have read phenomenal books about children living with autism, dyslexia, and other challenges.  These authors have beautifully written these stories from the perspective of children, and it’s a wonderful experience to feel like you have a glimpse into their lives and struggles.   

“Empathy isn’t as hard as it sounds because people have a lot of the same feelings. And it helps to understand other people because then you can actually care about them sometimes. And help them. And have a friend.”
― Kathryn ErskineMockingbird

The value of reading these stories isn’t solely because of the insight they can provide. Our kids are reading these books, too.  They’re reading these stories to help them learn to relate to the world around them.  When we read these same stories, we can better connect with our students.  On some level, I think that when we take the time to read the books our students are reading, it shows that we’re interested in them. We’re interested in their lives and we’re invested in them. 

The end of this school year is fast approaching.  I want to challenge you to read at least one YA book over the summer.  You won’t regret it, I promise.

Extra Credit  http://www.cultofpedagogy.com/ya-middle-school-books/

Suggested titles:

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass

Goodbye, Rebel Blue

The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Mockingbird

Fish in a Tree

This Song Will Save Your Life*

Counting by 7s

The View From Saturday

Wintergirls

Speak

Cut

The Possibility of Now

Legend*

Red Queen*

Secret Language of Sisters*

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children*

The Fault in Our Stars*

Compound*

Micheal Vey, Prisoner ofCell 25*

*Student Favorites

by Tish Ivie (see more about Tish by reading her bio here)

You can Either be Right or be Happy

It finally happened!  After all of those years of bucking the system, I started to hear my mother in my own voice.  Yes, I was emulating my mother.  She was completely uncool and beyond logic or reason in my teenage mind.  Yet, here I was, a mere 25 years later, spouting the philosophies of my mom.  I find that I can’t help it.  Whenever my own children start to act up or my students begin to have conflicts with their peers, I hear that sage advice.  You can either to right or be happy.

It can be hard for adults, let alone children, to come to terms that we all have a choice every moment of every day. We have the choice of how we interact with others.  We have a choice in how we see others and how they perceive us.  It is not enough to float through life simply taking the role of a victim with no responsibilities of how others treat us.  I am not saying that we should simply tolerate meanness or bad behavior, but we do have a choice in how we respond to it.  

I find with my own children and with my students, the struggle is very real.  You can see it in their eyes during group discussions or group projects.  They are challenged to see that they cannot always be right.  In order for the group to function and the task to be finished, they must learn to give a little in order to take a little.  I will sometimes hear a student blurt out, “You’re wrong.” Or, “That is a dumb idea.”  Unfortunately, this never leads to a meaningful group project.  By the time I reach the group, one or more of the students has already “checked-out” of the group.  

My challenge as both a mom and educator is to try to stop the downward spiral before it reaches the point where feelings are hurt during group discussions.  I don’t always succeed.  This life lesson takes lots of reminders and even more patience.  

At the beginning of the year, I made a poster about what constituted “Accountable Talk”.  Since we do so much group work and labs in science, I knew this was a monster we needed to tackle from the very beginning.  We practiced changing our words and demeanor before the very first lab.  Instead of saying, “I can’t believe you said that!” to “I heard you say…..  Is that what you meant?”  We practiced saying, “You have a point.  Here is another option.”  Instead of “I don’t like your idea.”  

Believe me, this is not easy.  I find that we need refreshers throughout the year.  Even I need to remind myself that I can’t always be right.  As a teacher, it is sometimes hard to let go of this mentality.  I need to be open to seeing the point of view of my students.  When I do this, I am amazed at the brilliant ideas and thoughts that they have.  When these encounters happen, I am reminded about how much happiness can be found in a classroom where we let go of our need to be right.  We work together so much better and the students feel that their voice matters.  

This shift of thinking has become even more important this year with our new Science Standards.  We have moved away from “recipe labs” where there is only one way to perform an experiment.  Now, I allow the students a voice in how to set up their labs.  I give the students a problem and model one way that they can conduct the lab.  Then, I challenge them to come up with new innovative ways to solve the problem.  I am completely blown away with the creativity these kids have.  When we do these experiments, I no longer see students; instead I see future doctors, teachers, and entrepreneurs.  I see problem solvers.  I don’t want to always be right and would much rather see my students grow and find happiness.  Learning doesn’t need to be about what is always right from my point of view.  In the end, it is our ability to work together to in a meaningful way that matters.  We can all bring our strengths to the group, but only if we are willing to let go our need to be right, even just a little bit.

by Heather Thornton (see more about Heather by reading her bio here)

The “Reset” Button

I don’t know about you, but in our house, we are often lamenting our disappointing electronics and their burning desire to ruin our lives by malfunctioning or performing poorly. You can expect to hear, “Have you tried the reset button?” on a daily basis from at least one of us. It is frustrating and disappointing when this equipment you’ve invested so much energy toward decides to fail us – somehow it feels personal, however ridiculous that seems. While we hope for a miracle each time we hit the reset button on the modem, occasionally said miracle comes to fruition, magically fixing the problem, thus erasing the irrational personal feelings of frustration and disappointment we experienced just minutes before. So, what if kids had a reset button? Wait… they do!

When I began teaching in another district seven years ago, I had been a stay-at-home mom for nine years with my son. I soon realized there is a stark contrast between molding, shaping, and directing a child from birth and being a teacher who meets her students 11 years into their lives. This was a tough adjustment for me my first year. I had the expectation of kids doing what I asked, what was right, following the rules, and generally not being disappointing to me, however misguided that may seem. I soon learned that it had nothing to do with me; it had to do with my ability to be sincerely useful as I assisted them on their paths. Most of the time kids are quite adaptable and will yield to a teacher’s expectations and rules. On occasion they do not. What should we do when they make those poor choices? Is there a reset button that comes with, or after, the consequence for our students? With our own children, we allow a certain amount of grace and forgiveness when they make poor choices because we love them unconditionally. After all, staying mad and disappointed at them forever would be an awful existence for everyone. So, as parents, we discuss the poor choices, we discuss alternatives to the poor choices, we generally employ some level of consequences, and then we do something critically important – we hit the reset button… and mean it.

As adults, we are faced with many decisions that could ultimately change the course of our lives forever – good or bad. Adults lead a sort-of “Hunger Games” existence, either make good choices, or eventually you’re out of the game. Children are not adults, and sometimes we are all guilty of forgetting that, especially when they look like adults and, at times, even act like adults. Adults don’t generally get multiple chances (reset buttons) and they certainly aren’t guaranteed… but should they be guaranteed for children whose brains are still developing, or should we just count them out of the game, too? I believe that we have an obligation to allow kids something that we, as adults, aren’t always afforded – someone who is willing to hit the reset button for them, and truly mean it.

  As teachers, we are temporary co-pilots of our students’ paths, both academically and personally. We have a tremendous ability to impact which choices they make, how they handle the struggles of their youth, and what ultimately results from their choices. Prepare to gasp as I propose that beyond whether they truly grasp the importance of the proper use of gerunds, the lifelong skill of being able to multiply exponents, and the doubtless significance of the Boston Tea Party, lies what may trump all of these – our adult reactions to their inexperienced choices, good and bad.  This is where the significance of the “reset button” cannot be underestimated. The reset button is invaluable for those kids who seem the most broken or lost. I’ve also found it may take multiple resets to effect true change. I don’t know about you, but I’ve tried a handful of reset button strategies on my devices and electronics, e.g., the 15 second button hold, the quick push, unplugging and resetting, the unreasonable 90 second hold down, and just simply turning it off for a while. Clearly we are willing to try multiple resets on our equipment, but how about for our kids? After all, he or she is probably broken or lost and in need of resetting, or he or she wouldn’t be sending up flares with repeated poor choices.  While it can be extremely difficult in certain scenarios, I believe that as adults it’s our job to see this flare for what it is, and to react appropriately.

I try to focus on this analogy when I think about students and flares. Let’s say a sailboat has been missing at sea for weeks, and one day a rescue vessel sees a flare in the distance – clearly the lost sailboat, long since given up on. What course of action follows the flare? Does the rescue boat crew say, “Hey, there’s a flare, they need help. Let’s leave them there because they should’ve known better than to sail into rough waters, which is how they got in this situation in the first place.”  No, the rescue crew sees the flare, attends to the sailboat in need, and aides the recovery of the boat and its crew. Lectures about sailing safety and whatnot are certainly not the immediate response. But what if it were? Would people value a flare as a signal for help? Or would they see it as a signal for punishment? It’s something to consider.

Now imagine the teacher is the rescue vessel, and the child is the lost sailboat. This mindset helps me adjust my thinking about a child who has acted out in some way and my initial reaction was to get frustrated, stay disappointed, or to just give up on him or her. Instead, I choose to assume the miracle of the reset button will work. Just the same as with my electronics, I assume a miracle is possible. After all, it can’t hurt, and who knows, maybe a miracle will occur within that child because you gave him or her a chance to reset, and truly meant it.

Middle school students are a weird bunch; I will never claim otherwise. That said, I have tremendous respect for the individuality and resilience that evolves in most students over their three years of middle school.  It’s like a science experiment, watching them grow and change, while still learning what choices to make, how to shuffle through a myriad of seemingly difficult scenarios, and ultimately making those “good choices.” Their experiences are not trivial, even though we adults too often do trivialize the process, especially in retrospect. I bet each one of us can recall a middle school choice or experience that we look back on with a squint of despair, shame, or embarrassment. As adults, we have something that children have yet to experience – experience. My dad always says something that I used to find redundant in my youth, that is, until I became a teacher: “Nothing succeeds like success.” If we give up on kids when they make mistakes, and punish them indefinitely without guidance and support, then how can we expect them to gain experience and eventually succeed? Granted, in education, success is generally measured with grades; however, I have no doubt most educators, counselors, and principals would tell you that we witness successes every single day that have nothing to do with grades and everything to do with the growth, mentoring, maturity, and slow successes of a child. Furthermore, I feel confident in saying that most children who have struggled with discipline issues, only to eventually overcome them, would be able to point back to at least one educator who was willing to push the reset button for them along the way… and actually mean it

Every child deserves a safe harbor in the adult pool, who smiles when everyone else frowns or seems mad at him or her, who loves him or her without judgment, and who sees his or her best qualities, discarding the worst. Most of all, I believe that each child deserves at least one adult who is willing to hit the reset button for him or her when everyone else seems to have given up…and truly mean it. Every single person who works at a school will eventually be presented with that opportunity at some point, whether it is an aide, a teacher, a custodian, a principal, a cafeteria worker, a counselor, or a bus driver. My hope is that we can all be willing to have the same optimism for a child’s reset button as we do for our electronics. After all, just as with equipment, the reset button may not always work. But then again, a miracle might happen, so you might as well give it a shot.

by Lindsey Henry (see more about Lindsey by reading her bio here)

The REPLY Button

Hi my name is Adam Basset, and I am addicted to my email. Every time my iPhone chimes its distinct sound of a new incoming email, I have to check it. As I’m writing this blog post, my school email inbox currently has 10 emails, which is an indication that my life is stressful. Most of the time, I try extremely hard to get it down to 5 or less. The emails that I keep in the inbox are the ones that I’m still working on or are the ones that are awaiting a response. This sort of Email OCD can be a curse, but it also has its benefits and rewards.

When I first started teaching, I never thought I would receive as many emails as I did. Between every class I would see that little notification that an email (or 5) was unread. I found as many opportunities that I could to reply to those emails, especially the ones from parents. I try to respond to parent emails before I leave for the day, if not sooner. As I made this a habit, I found something quite interesting. Most of the time, when the parent responded back, their first words in their reply were variations of “Thank you for your quick reply!” or “I appreciate you getting back to me so soon!” I started to see a pattern. The tone in parent emails, which is hard to determine sometimes, was generally positive. When they had questions, I gave them answers in a timely manner, thus building trust and showing that I care about the needs of their students in my class. Because of this foundation, parents are then more receptive when I have needs and concerns of my own.  I’m not telling you to be as OCD as I am with email. What I do think is important, however, is that you reply to your parents in an efficient manner. For some people, just replying at all is a battle. It’s easy to see that email from the parent that seems to email you at least 5 times a day, and just hit that DELETE button, which seems to be awfully close to the REPLY button.

Here are a few email tips that I’ve found useful in conquering my school email:

-Give yourself a goal of when you would like to respond to an email. Whether it’s by the end of the day or within 24 hours. Even if you can’t answer right away, reply back stating you need to look into it and will respond again when you know the answer.

-Proofread your responses before sending. I can type 103 words per minute, but that doesn’t mean I don’t make typos. If something doesn’t make sense at a first glance, then it’s not going to make sense to a parent.

-Write responses professionally. Try to stay away from writing short, quick or apathetic responses to your parents. If you show them that you’ve taken the time to formulate a response, they will see that you care about their questions.

-Set up Folders and organize your email. Every email client has features that you can use to your advantage. When I’ve taken care of an email but still need to keep it for my records, I put it in a specific folder other than the Inbox. This also gets it out of the way so I don’t lose control over my unread emails.

-Delete emails that you don’t need anymore. Duh right? I know people that have literally thousands of unread emails. Why keep it in there if you don’t need it? It’s like not throwing away that small piece of metal in your “junk drawer” that you swear you will need some day! You know you all have it.

-Beware of the REPLY ALL button. Make sure you know who and how many people you are replying too. Whether it has to do with student confidentiality, or even as much as not adding another email to someone else’s inbox who doesn’t need to see the response.

As an educator, parents are an important part in reaching your students. As my oldest daughter goes into Kindergarten next year, I constantly think how her teacher will communicate not only effectively to us as parents, but also efficiently. I’ll leave you with one picture of a friend of mine’s phone, who almost made me have a heart attack. Happy Replying Panthers!

iPhonePic

by Adam Basset (see more about Adam by reading his bio here)

Analyzing Data Analysis

Think back to before school started. Recall looking over last year’s test scores? Perhaps, your scores were thrown out. Maybe, the scores weren’t released at all. Or, your results were field tests that didn’t “count”.

Many of you were probably thinking or grumbling to yourself, “This is great, but how can this help me with the kids I will see in a couple of days.”  Which is then followed with instructions to pass the results up to the next grade of teachers to look it over for their incoming kiddos. Unfortunately for me, I would have to travel to several elementary schools to even see the scores.

Many of you are also thinking, “Yes!!! Data on scores over subjects I don’t even teach!” (Insert sarcastic giddy giggles here!) Perhaps you are an elective teacher, teach special education, or are in a core subject that is just not tested this year– Science, Social Studies, or Spanish. While getting an idea of the skills the whole group scored low may be good to know, for some of us, it doesn’t feel helpful at all.

This is what many would think of when it’s time to discuss data. We do it at the beginning of the year. They ask us to write a goal, and then we don’t really look at it again until next year’s back to school professional development days. So? What does data really mean?

According to Vangie Beal, “Data is distinct pieces of information, usually formatted in a special way.”

So let’s go fishing for some information, and let’s format it in a way that is special to us!

First, any teacher should start the year with a pre-assessment over the standards and skills that are expected in their curriculum. Whether that is playing/singing a scale, conjugating the verb ser, or setting a baseline for fitness, students can provide you will meaningful feedback on prior knowledge they have on day one. That OCCT score was the result of tons of cramming, prompting, and maybe even a little bribing to get them to “Do their best, On the Test!” Maybe you even participated in a Harlem Shake video just to get them pumped! (WelI, I did circa 2014.) We also know there is a little summer regression that takes place, so start with a baseline to start the year.

Give them a pre-test. Then, freak your students out by handing it back with lots of red ink and a self evaluation form. This form should have the list of skills in correlation to the questions. It’s fun-really! Conversation begins with, “Oh, so this year we are here to learn! These are the skills I am paid to teach you! You may want to set your own goal for the next test.” Take a grade on the evaluation NOT the pre-test of course. Then, plan your instruction accordingly.

This is where you are the experts in your domain! You get to go over the areas they are weak and breeze through the stuff they are great at because you have analyzed data that matters to you. This is what should drive instruction. After some time to instruct, practice, and master, give them the summative assessment and compare your results! Voilà! Data analysis!

Step three: ask some questions. How did we do? Are we making improvements? Is it something that I should teach again or were the students slacking off? (Sometimes they forget to study the study guide with the answers! -seriously?! UGH!)

Overall, ask yourself: are we ready to move on or do we need to re-teach?  Then, the cycle begins again!

Pre-test/self-assessAnalyze! Instruct! Assess! Analyze! Repeat!

Don’t forget a pre-assessment can be over big picture semester skills or over a small time unit of study. Just make it your own!

Finally, another school year starts… No state test result are in. No surprise, but this time you don’t need them because you have all the data you need. SMART goals are looking good, and you already have your feet kicked up ready to take on a whole new group of fresh faces. Instead of data analysis at PD, letters to our state legislatures could be written demonstrating the method for data that makes those million dollar tests obsolete!

…Don’t forget to mention that they can send some of that extra savings to Tiffany Walker for a job well done. (Wink wink and an elbow nudge!)
***Note to readers: I am no expert at this yet, and every year it gets easier! Good Luck!***

by Tiffany Walker (see more about Tiffany by reading her bio here)

Now Listen Here

It’s happening right now.  In this very moment.  My freshman son and his friend, desperate for one last bout of freedom before the weekend comes to a close, are eating pizza and watching a ridiculously pointless movie.  My soon-to-be graduating high school daughter is on the computer, trying to master an online government class as she frantically crams one more course into her schedule so she can get that diploma a year early.  My eldest son, a full-fledged senior, is helping his dad put new brake pads on the car, tools crashing on the asphalt.  What am I doing?  Simultaneously writing this blog post, texting, answering my kids’ questions across the room, and thinking about everything that awaits me when I return to our school tomorrow.  It’s happening – right now.  The busyness.  The chatter.  The shaking thunder of the storm outside my window.  The non-stop, multi-sensory, pulsing white noise swirls around me, and I am finding it difficult to hear my own thoughts.

The same will hold true tomorrow when I walk through the doors of my school.  The chatter of the day and the demands of my work will pull me in a million directions, and I am afraid that without careful and intentional moments, I will miss it.  I will hear what the kids are saying, I will speak to parents on the phone, I will meet with my teachers.  But, the noise of the day will drown out what people are really trying to say, and I won’t actually hear them.

Whether it be the role of an administrator, teacher, counselor or support staff, we are in the people business.  Our ability to influence the next generation is dependent upon our ability to not just understand and implement best practices, but also to honestly hear what our students are saying.  The educator who can look into the eyes of a child and hear the beating of his soul is the educator who can change a life.  So, how do we slow down, turn off the noise, and listen to the meaning of what it is our students are shouting when so much is fighting for our attention?  This is my advice.

First, remember your calling.  What influence do you want to have on this generation?  What impact can you make?  Why are you a teacher?  What do you believe about children?  About learning?  About helping others grow to their fullest potential?  It is when we take stock of why it is we do what we do that we can remember our purpose – and purpose changes everything.  It helps us slow down long enough to have a real conversation with our students, and it reminds us that even more than mastering the newest state standard, our students need to be heard.

Once you’ve remembered your purpose, work diligently to hear what your students are actually saying.  Strip away the attitude, the mumbling, the apathy, the anger, and the accusation that so often accompanies the middle schooler’s response.  Dig deep.  Be intentional about finding the root of the problem.  Don’t take what they say so personally.  Instead, step out in the hallway with them.  Stand shoulder to shoulder and remind them that you are their advocate.  Find out what’s really bothering your student.  Care.  The pre-adolescent child you’ve been tasked with teaching needs to know they have a voice.  Often, their tone is misplaced and they are lashing out at you because they don’t know how to properly express their hurt, anxiety, disappointment, embarrassment, or self-doubt.  Find the meaning in their tone-of-voice and then help them find success.

Finally, stop what you’re doing.  For real.  When your students approach you at your desk, stop.  When they see you in the hallway, stop.  When they pull at you and tug on your patience, stop.  Stop what you’re doing.  Stop typing your lesson plans, stop grading your papers, stop looking for the next instructional video on YouTube.  Stop.  Look up – look them square in the face, and listen.  F. Scott Fitzgerald knew when he wrote the Great Gatsby that the eyes are the window to the soul.  So do you.   Don’t you love it when someone stops everything they’re doing to pay attention to what it is you have to say?  It makes you feel – important, valued, essential, heard.  Your students need to feel heard.  If you’re going to really listen, you have to stop what you’re doing and engage their minds and their hearts.  It will make all the difference.  I promise.

As you approach these final weeks of our school calendar and state testing, I urge you to take a step back and remember that you have been given the greatest task of all time.  You have been tasked, not just with educating America’s future, but with investing in their lives.  What you do matters.  What our students say matters.  Their answers, their questions, their burdens, their hopes, their dreams, their sorrows, and their joys are being brought to you, laid down at the threshold of your classroom.  Will you listen?

This was a guest post by Laura McGee.  See more about Laura by reading her bio here.

Coming to Terms

In all things that one wishes to improve, one must practice.  If that means hours at a piano, 100 free throws before you leave the court, or cooking a practice meal before you have company, you are working to improve your skill set.  Homework is no different.  Homework is practice for school.  But does all practice yield the same growth?  The simple answer is no.

11 years ago when I began teaching, I followed the curriculum calendar handed to me.  I knew I was covering the required material.  I would select problems from the textbook for the students to complete and then we would move from one topic to the next with the occasional test.  Those students learned the required materials, but reflecting on those first years, I am sure I required too much homework and not always the right kind.

So what makes the right kind of homework? The answer is probably different for students and teachers, but I think that both groups would agree that homework should have meaning.  There should be creativity and variety so that both teachers and students stay engaged.  When students ask, and they always do, “When am I ever going to use this in real life?” teachers need to have a legitimate answer.  If you cannot give them actual examples, then the homework isn’t as meaningful as you thought.  Creating connections to real life is an exemplary way to grab the students and help them understand why they are being asked to do a particular assignment.

As I try to become a better teacher, with the help of my partner teachers and math minded administrators, the motto of “work smarter not harder” has come to play an important role in how I select assignments.   When picking out assignments, I consider what is it that I am really trying to get the students to learn.  It sounds simple but it can be an elusive goal.  I try to construct assignments that strike a balance between questions that are challenging but doable.  I model how to do the work in class so the students have an example to follow when attempting their assignments.  Also, I give credit when students attempt but fail.  As adults, we all know that quite often we learn a lot from our mistakes.  I encourage students to rework assignments until they earn a grade with which they are happy.   

Another issue is “How much work does a student need to produce to grasp the topic?”  If the students feel that they are being given busy work or assignments that duplicate what they have already mastered, the work loses it meaningfulness.  Do I really need the students to answer 30 questions on a topic or would 10 serve the same purpose?  And for those kids who struggle with a particular subject, sometimes 10 questions might as well be 100 if they don’t understand how to accomplish the work.  They don’t attempt the assignment and then both the teacher and student are frustrated because no learning happened.  Assigning work has to be about balance and meeting the needs of the students.

In conclusion, practice is necessary for growth and mastery of skills.  But it is important to be sure you are utilizing the time spent on practice in the most efficient and effective ways.  Strive to create situations and learning experiences where these goals are obvious.

by Mignion Taylor (see more about Mignion by reading her bio here)

Academic Allergies

Spring has sprung, how do I know?  Well it could be that I’m popping allergy pills like Tic-Tacs.  Spring Break is over, testing season has started, and the middle school hormones are so thick you can almost see them…I know for sure I can smell them.  That reminds me, have the deodorant talk with your kids.

At Cimarron and middle schools across our great land, the testing season can be a stressful time.  Testing throughout the nation has begun; your students received OCCT (Oklahoma Core Curriculum Test) prep books this week.  I’m sure they have sat you down with unbridled enthusiasm, and together you have created a plan, including a flow chart, of how you are going to make the most of the practice materials.  Another option is it’s still in their locker and will be tossed out on locker clean out day in May.  Regardless of the approach, tests will be taken.  

Testing has been getting some pretty bad press lately, some deserved, some used as a political maneuver.  I can say with confidence that testing is a good thing, kind of, almost most of the time…maybe not with tons of confidence.  Seriously, we do use the data we get from testing, not just OCCTs, but benchmarks, section tests, quizzes and others.  We use this data as one of our tools in our educational toolbox.  This data can help us indicate students who are struggling as well as excelling.  We can use this to get them help or push them into more challenging classes whereas before we may have missed them.  In years past, standardized testing for some was really just used as our report card, which nobody saw, and little emphasis was given.  These past years, the results from these tests have identified students struggling with reading, which impacts their success in all of their subjects.  We can place these students in reading retention classes with a curriculum that will help increase their reading fluency and comprehension.  

When I started in this profession nineteen years ago, one of the frustrations teachers had were students who struggled with reading or math, but didn’t “qualify” for special education. Those students seemed to slip through the proverbial crack.  We didn’t have a class that met them where they were and guided them to where they needed to be in order to navigate their grade level classes.  Testing data has helped us get those additional resources to the students who need them.  Not everything associated with testing is all rainbows and unicorns, and I have opinions on different areas of testing, but to lump all testing as negative is a bit much.

Testing can be overwhelming for some students; I’ve noticed over the years it isn’t nearly as prevalent.  This is mainly due to the fact that students have become acclimated to testing; they’ve taken tests and benchmark for years.  They also need to appreciate the value of being able to step up and perform on tests.  Outside of my K-12 public schooling, I’ve had to take a multitude of tests.  I took my driver’s test, the SAT, tests for teaching and administrative certifications.  I had to take a state test for my CDL (Commercial Driver’s License), to spray yard chemicals (one of my many side jobs) as well as numerous other test that showed competency in different areas.  I don’t hear a copious amount of outcry for accountants, doctors, truck drivers, inspectors, insurance agents, welders and many others who take tests to show they are proficient.  With that being said, visit with your student about how they feel about the testing, help them see the big picture and relieve some of that anxiety.  Sometimes just having a relaxed conversation can alleviate much of the stress.  

Enjoy spring, one has innumerable opportunities to enjoy the outdoors, anticipate the summer, and provide an opportunity for students to show what they know.  It may get a bit stressful, take a deep breath in and let it out, stimulate the vagus nerve and focus.  Remember that though testing does have value, it doesn’t tell your student’s entire story.  Students, teachers, parents, administrators, and counselors are in this testing season together.  Wanting students to navigate the testing seasons with confidence is always a goal we aim to achieve.

by Ryan Trenary (see more about Ryan by reading his bio here)

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