So long, farewell…

Today was the last “real” day of class. Tomorrow final exams start, and my students, mostly seniors, will fly away like dandelion seeds after that. Today they signed yearbooks and turned in their final projects. During exams, they will present their projects. Then it’s graduation. Then they’re gone.

It’s the beginning of the end, and it’s bittersweet. This is the last group of kids I coached on the soccer team, the last class that I taught for freshman biology, and then taught many of them a second time in AP Biology. I have lots of special memories with them, and so I’m a little weepier than usual.

At the same time, I’m already planning for next year. Rewriting study guides, reorganizing topics, tweaking the syllabus. While I had a great year this year, there is plenty of room for improvement. Next year’s kids deserve the best out of me, and I need to start planning for them.

But the warm fuzzies I had today, the last real day of school for the class of 2015, I’m not sure I’ll have those again.

I love my job.

I read the news today, oh boy…

A dear friend shared this article today on Facebook: 10 Words Every Girl Should Know. It hit me on many levels, because not only am I a woman, I am a mother to two girls, as well as a teacher to dozens of girls each year. I have a responsibility to teach them how to become productive adults just as much as I have a responsibility to model the behavior I teach.

We all read all sorts of things on the internet: real news, fake news, gossip, fluff, humor, intellectual bits, and so on. Most of this “stuff” gets forgotten, or filed away in the dark annals of our brains. But sometimes, we read a piece of writing that screams to you – SOAK THIS IN – and you know that the author is speaking to you for a reason, and that the ten minutes you spend staring at the computer screen, interpreting the letters, words, and sentences will leave a lasting impression, and will change how you approach relationships and interact with people in the future.

My practices aren’t designed for your enjoyment.

A handful of people who read this blog might know that I used to coach high school soccer (assuming more than a handful of people read this blog). I coached for 13 years, including 5 years as the women’s head coach at my current school. I didn’t become a teacher so I could coach, but it was about the best perk I could ask for.

While I was coaching, I rarely talked about soccer during class. It was important to me that we stayed focused on the course. I also didn’t want my student-athletes to confuse the field and the classroom. The dynamics of teaching a class and coaching a sport are different. My classes are boys and girls, my teams were only girls. I am also a lot louder on the field than I am in the classroom. Soccer is competitive, and we were a (very) good team, but I wouldn’t necessarily want my students to compete against each other, or against students in another class.

In the end, teaching made me a better coach, just as much as coaching made me a better teacher. Indeed, there are several lessons from the field that I apply in my classroom on an almost daily basis.

1. Talk to every player every day. The starters as well as the bench warmers need affirmation and acknowledgment. Sometimes this can be tough to do in the hustle and bustle of a fifty minute class, but it is essential in building trust between the players and coach.

2. There is a classic anecdote from famed UNC coach Anson Dorrance that after being frustrated with his players during practice, he made them warm up for their next game in silence. He later admitted that it was one of the worst games those girls had ever played. He had imposed an unnatural behavior onto his players, and the results were awful. The point is, don’t force your students to behave in ways contrary to who they are. Let them chat while they work, stand at their desks, talk about their day.

3. Remember the purpose of the drill. A typical drill I would have my players practice was 3v2 to goal. There are three possible “winners” in this drill; the attackers could score, the defenders could successfully clear the ball, or the goalie could make a great save. In any given trial, two teams lose.  Who do I correct? Remember the purpose of the drill.  If the day’s focus was on defense, then correct defensive slip ups.  If the focus was on the goalie, then correct her. You can’t nag everyone about everything every time there is a mistake. Stick to the day’s focus, or learning objective, and practice doing that well.

4 Just let them play. Nothing builds confidence and comraderie like a good intrasquad scrimmage. However, a scrimmage is also a good way to identify weaknesses in team play. You’ll never know unless you just let them play. In the classroom, stand back as you let your kids wrestle with a problem. Listen to them as they share ideas. Let go of some control. You will hear their strengths in understanding the content, but you will also hear misconceptions that you can address later. 

5. Always end on a good note. A great shot, a great save, fast and sweaty sprints.  End class in a way that leaves kids looking forward to the next day. I use meta-moments to give kids time to reflect on their learning that day. They will recognize that they’ve learned something new, or that they have a question to tackle tomorrow. Similarly, if a student has had a particularly tough  day or week  in your class, find some common ground with him or her so they leave class knowing that you truly care about them.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, just a few suggestions that have translated from the field to the classroom well for me. Nothing like a little kick around.

Do You Have Any Winnie the Pooh?

This year I taught a book. A whole, entire book. It was very English-teachery of me. My students read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. It is such a great book, and an important book, that I felt all my AP Biology students needed to read it this year. With a generous classroom grant from our local Public School Foundation, I was able to purchase 50 copies of the book, enough to distribute to each of my students.

Here is yet another example of my discomfort this year. I know my kids should read this book. I know this book is important. I know they will learn a lot about biology. I know they will learn about what racism in the field of medicine looked like not too long ago. I know it is a valuable use of class time.

The problem is, I don’t know how to teach a book.

It takes a village…

I reached out to a couple of English teachers in my building, both of whom were very enthusiastic and very helpful in developing my lesson plan. I made a timeline for reading chapter, discussion questions, and designed a culminating project.

Two weeks off of school because of snow and ice put a kink in my time frame, but overall the small group discussions were fruitful, and the culminating projects were eye-opening, for both me and the kids. You can check out a couple of them out here and here.

Another self-imposed challenge checked off my to-do list. Did it go perfectly? Heck no. I need to include more accountability to make sure the students are keeping up with the reading. I need to improve how I facilitate literary circles.

Was this a worthwhile exercise for both my students and me? Absolutely.

Do you have an idea that is a little overwhelming to implement? Reach out to a colleague, even one that is outside your department. Reach out to your wider network of colleagues. Just do something. Do it for the kids.

Sometimes we have to be uncomfortable temporarily to impact our students for the long term.

I’m starting to feel uncomfortable…

I’ve been exploring lots of adjustments to my teaching this year. Student-centered learning, new topic sequence, standards-based grading, more writing, less lecturing, the list goes on.

Some of these changes are going well, but others need some tweaking, or even an overhaul this summer. I have some great students this year, and they’re pretty easy-going when things don’t go as planned. I’m thankful for that.

I am a lady who appreciates predictability. I like to KNOW that a lesson or strategy will work. But how will I know something new will work unless I try it? How can I improve my class if I just keep do the same old things?

As my friend said the other day, “You can only expand your comfort zone if you’re willing to be uncomfortable.”

I’m just going to trust that being uncomfortable will lead to better experiences and more learning for my students.

Being uncomfortable? – It’s growing on me.