Stop Focusing On The Empty Seats

The past few weeks, I’ve watched educator after educator nearly tear their hair out as they host video conferences with 20% attendance. They spend precious hours brainstorming, crafting, and transforming lessons into digital content. They are putting in more hours than a “normal” teaching week, and pushing themselves to learn new platforms like Kami, Kahoot! and Quizlet. They are fighting hard to find the quiet time and space (amidst other family members and children taking other classes of their own) in order to continue to show up for their students. They have a LOT of themselves invested in their weekly lessons.

Understandably, they then feel extremely bummed out when only a handful of their pupils pop in for the show. They get on Facebook teacher groups and gripe about the lack of students present, complain that only a handful of them are turning in work, and make assumptions about the students themselves.

That mindset? It’s worthless.

Stop focusing on the empty seats. Funneling your brilliant, hard-working and dedicated energy into the students who aren’t showing up, leaves very little for the students who are showing up. Let’s be real – you getting angry isn’t punishment for those students anyways. You only have limited amounts of emotional energy each day – don’t waste it. Instead, give it to:

-The kids who are setting an alarm and logging in to your school platform early, so they’re not late.

-The kids who have triple-checked your weekly agenda to be sure they didn’t miss anything.

-The kids who tucked themselves into a quiet part of their house to be sure they weren’t interrupted.

-The kids who are secretly craving this short time together with you and your class

You could be the one thing those students have to look forward to that day, the one thing that isn’t uncertain or scary. Seeing your face on the screen could be keeping them grounded, giving them small sense of normalcy. We, as educators, don’t know what each students’ home life is like – but we can provide every one of them with the opportunity to join us during the week to stay in contact, share their wins/fears, and to keep moving forward. Whether they choose to join or not is up to them.

We must remember, there is only so much that we have control over right now. We don’t have control over which students have internet at home. We don’t have control over which students are going to be self-motivated. We don’t have control over which students’ parents will have the time to encourage their learning.

All we can do is make our meetings encouraging, consistent and dare I say a little bit fun. We can be flexible and understanding in what we assign, and continue to ride this storm with our students. We can continue to be a safe place for them to land.

There will be kids who haven’t turned in a lick of homework. There will be kids who won’t bother to attend the video conference, even though they DO have internet at home. Those aren’t the kids who should soak up our attention right now. Those are the kids that we send a polite but encouraging email home to remind them of their student responsibilities, and pray that they acquire some semblance of priorities as time wears on.

It’s time for us educators to stop focusing on the empty “seats” in our video conferences, and to start pouring our love and effort into the kids who are showing up. These are the kiddos who are proving they care – let’s reward them for their resilience during this unprecedented time.


Cultural Texts That Expand Student Thinking

What is the purpose of an English teacher?

Some might say, “To teach students about sentence structure and grammar” or “To help them recognize words in a text and comprehend those words.”

True. Yet, dare I say, that is only the tiniest fraction of our work.

The purpose of an English teacher is to get texts in the hands of their students that expand their current patterns of thinking, and make them start questioning the world around them.

As a little girl, I grew up in a very small, rural district. In one building, we housed grade K-12. One of my earliest memories of school, in fact, was walking into our cafeteria and having a pretty senior girl run over and give me a high-five because we had the same first name. We were a close-knit community, everyone knew everyone else’s names (and business), and I soon learned the unspoken game of having to honor families whose roots ran deep in the history of our town.

On the outset, this way of life was peaceful and safe for parents raising a family. Most people were simple in this place, content with knowing about the plot of land their house stood on and not concerning themselves with the world at large. Open-mindedness was often non-existent, and differing beliefs were seen as a threat to the smooth flow of everyday life. What the collective whole believed in our community was accepted as truth.

Yet, without much exposure to other cultures, ideas and ways of thinking, this kind of blind acceptance can be quite dangerous. I left my small-town and headed to college, where I devoured every book I could get my hands on that told stories about other cultures. Once I accepted my position at my current, small-town, rural district, I knew I had a responsibility to my students: to expose them to the idea of other cultures.

While I have several favorites, one author who I cannot recommend enough for high school-aged students is Khaled Hosseini. Born in Kabul, Afghanistan, Hosseini writes beautifully of the conditions of Afghanistan before – and after – the Taliban destroyed their country. Crafted through the lens of fictional characters, students will get a glimpse into Afghani culture, true world-events and have their heartstrings tugged throughout Hosseini’s novels.

My Top Recommendations from Khaled Hosseini

The Kite Runner

This novel is first on the list for the way it reveals the inner culture of Afghanistan. The main character, Amir, takes the reader on a heart-wrenching journey as he grapples with his own identity and his need to prove himself worthy to his legend of a father, Baba. The conditions of pre-Taliban Afghanistan are wonderfully described, and a childhood friendship painted for our own enjoyment. Our own moral compass is spun on its head as Amir makes contradictory choices, and spends the rest of his life trying to make amends. I would highly recommend The Kite Runner for introducing Afghani culture to your students, as well as creating rich discussion about morality and the power of deep-rooted loyalty.

Disclaimer: This novel has direct reference to a scene of rape with Amir’s boyhood friend, Hassan. High-level juniors and seniors would be an appropriate age for this novel. If you teach at a conservative district, take the necessary steps to get approval from your administration.

A Thousand Splendid Suns

This novel by Hosseini paints the picture of Afghanistan through the eyes of women pre- and post- Taliban era. Switching between a harami and the daughter of a former university professor, the reader can grasp how the freedoms of Afghani women were stripped from them completely during this tumultuous time. American students will grasp how the men of Afghanistan have ultimate power over their wives and daughters, which could open rich discussion about the power of having equal rights for all. The ending of this novel can also open discussion about the morality of Mariam’s choice, and whether it was an acceptable action after the treatment from her husband throughout their marriage.

Disclaimer: One of the main characters experiences miscarriages, which could be a difficult topic for some. Be sure to provide ample discussion about the struggles of fertility with students before encountering these scenes.

Some cultural texts are contradictory. They hold ideas that are so foreign to those our students experience that they may cause abrupt and slightly uncomfortable discussion. Read them anyway.

The point of education is to get our students asking questions, to contemplate the world that surrounds them. Some students are stuck in small-town bubbles, others sheltered from other cultures through sheer lack of exposure. It is our duty to find the best texts and to give them a glimpse of these other worlds, even if it is only for a moment.

What author(s) would you say are tantamount to teaching students about the cultures of the world?


Ideas to Get Your Students Writing During Mandatory Closings

I’m not sure when it happened, but a few days ago we all woke up to a world that mirrored the dystopian novels I, personally, have always loved to teach. Yet, the stark comparison between reality and those fiction-favorites of mine has everyone on edge.

At this time, most school districts have been closed due to the recommendations of their state leadership. Many districts are working tirelessly to try to continue giving students educational opportunities, even in locations where internet access is limited. Educators are taking an understanding approach to the disrupt that this has caused in their students’ lives – yet they also don’t want their students to lose any of the ground they have worked so hard to cover this past year.

If you have students who are able to access Google Classroom or their email, and you want to keep them writing during this hiatus from school, try sending out one of the following writing ideas for your class.

Ideas to Get Students Writing During Mandated Closings

Idea #1: Daily Journal of Coronavirus Experience

This is an unprecedented time in history – never before have we seen the entire nation shut down schools in such unison to prevent the outbreak of disease. Have your students monitor the news daily, and journal about their experience during the mandated shutdown. Encourage them to write about their thoughts, the feelings they’re experiencing, and their opinions on the entire matter.

Idea #2: Coronavirus Narrative

Dystopian novels have exploded in popularity over the last decade or so. Give creative students a chance to blow off steam by asking them to write their own short story based around the Coronavirus event. Allow them to create their own characters, and give them complete creative license to blaze a trail with their stories.

Idea #3: Dystopian Film Comparison

Many students have access to Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and YouTube during the shut down. Ask them to pick a dystopian film of their choice, and write a few paragraphs that compare the fictional world to our current one.

Examples:

  • The Hunger Games
  • Divergent
  • Maze Runner
  • The Giver
  • 1984
  • Matrix

Idea #4: Survival Guide

Ask students to objectively write about their observations of how people handled the Coronavirus closings. Then, ask them to compile a detailed survival guide that, if they went back in time 6 months, would have been extremely useful in preparing for this time.

Idea #5: Coronavirus Perspective Story

Have your students do some preliminary research on the symptoms of the virus. Then, ask them to step into the shoes of a person who is experiencing the Coronavirus. Have them create a short story about how their character reacts to their time with the illness, and how they view the way others treat them.

Idea #6: Student President Press Release

Encouraging students to envision themselves as our nation’s future leaders is a wonderful way to get them writing on this topic. Ask students to envision themselves as the President of the United States. If they had to deal with this epidemic, what exact measures would they take in order to best protect the American people?

Do you have writing ideas surrounding the Coronovirus that you’d like to share? Comment your ideas, and I may add them to a later post!

“Layering” Technique for Analysis

I remember it like it was yesterday – entering that poetry course in college on Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens. The desks were in a U-shape, and the professor sat in a comfy chair leaned all the way back with his hands clasped in his lap. I was a little shy then.

I sat at the back of the room (farthest from the professor) and got out my notebook, textbook and my favorite pen. Class began, and we dug into analysis of “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost first. I smiled – I had read and prepped for this poem! It was SO easy. Right?

Approximately two minutes later, I had cold chills running down my back as I forced myself to breathe normally. Every single person in the room was making really, REALLY deep comments about a poem I had seen as basic. They had covered my “analysis” of the poem in the first fifteen seconds, and moved onto elements of it that my brain hadn’t even registered.

Did I dash from the room at the end of class? Honestly, I can’t remember. I just remember feeling totally, and utterly, worthless. Stupid. Incapable. And I had been the valedictorian of my class in high school.

After that day, I went on a mission to figure out techniques for analyzing poetry in a way that actually brought every aspect of it to light for me. So, I will share with you my technique that I dubbed, “Layering”. I hope it provides enough insight into analysis to aid you in your own journey through any poem you choose.

Layering

This analysis technique is performed much like its name implies – reading through a poem multiple times to find each “layer” of meaning. Each read through is deliberate, with a different focus each time. At the top of the page, make a KEY for each color marker used when layering.

Layer 1 – Gut Reaction

Print out your poem with room in the margins and between stanzas. I personally print my poems so that it is centered on the page, and I write my “Layer 1” notes on the left hand side of the paper.

This is the most relaxed layer. Taking a black fine point marker, I read through the poem (including the title) once.

As I read, any thoughts that pop into my head, any at all, I jot down in the margins near the line that incited the thought.

When teaching this to my students, I tell them that this is them writing down their gut reaction to the words. It is important not to “judge” our thoughts in this layer, but to get them out of our system. This clears the way for deeper analysis later, since we have acknowledged out brains initial connections.

Layer 2 – Author Angst

Layer 2 requires some brief research on the poem itself, as well as the poet.

I dig into Google and look up when the poem was written/published. Then, I do some research on trustworthy website that reveal the life of the poet. I especially pay attention to what was occurring in the poet’s life during the time the poem was published.

Oftentimes, any anxieties or personal issues the poet is grappling with can become apparent through their poems. By researching their life story, the meaning behind the poem can become more clear.

It is also crucial to find out what was happening globally during that time. For example, if a poem was published in 1950, the reader must know that World War II had ended merely years before. This may affect the analysis of the poem.

Then, read the poem again with this new understanding. Write notes about what surfaces in the left margin, but with a colored fine-point marker.

Layer 3 – Literary Whispers

At this point, you’ve read the poem twice. You will have noticed certain literary elements are present throughout. Choose one significant literary element, and read the poem again searching for the meaning behind its inclusion.

This layer can (and probably should) be repeated multiple times for different literary elements. Each poem is unique in its use of literary elements, and so it is difficult to make a concrete number for how many times this layer should be repeated.

For this layer, I choose a different-colored, fine-point marker and write on the right-side margin.

When teaching “layering” to students, I offer them this comprehensive list of poetry terms. They can scour the list and choose a literary element to use for this layer, or choose one that stood out to them while reading.

Layer 4 – Rhyme Shenanigans

With poetry, it is important to pay attention to the rhyme scheme that the poet chose when composing their literary work. With a new color marker, I go line-by-line and mark a, b, c, d and so forth for each rhyme. For example:

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

BY ROBERT FROST

Whose woods these are I think I know.  (a) 
His house is in the village though;   (a)
He will not see me stopping here   (b)
To watch his woods fill up with snow. (a)  

My little horse must think it queer   (b)
To stop without a farmhouse near   (b)
Between the woods and frozen lake   (c)
The darkest evening of the year.   (b)

He gives his harness bells a shake   (c)
To ask if there is some mistake.   (c)
The only other sound’s the sweep   (d)
Of easy wind and downy flake.   (c)

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   (d)
But I have promises to keep,   (d)
And miles to go before I sleep,   (d)
And miles to go before I sleep. (d)

Frost’s rhyme scheme follows a very strict a, a, b, a scheme throughout the first few stanzas. It isn’t until the last stanza that all of the lines rhyme with each other.

Looking at this, I would dig deeper and try to make some meaning from this choice. The poem itself is talking about a man travelling at night through snow. The rhyme scheme may suggest the piling up of snow, and the last stanza is the culmination of the snow piles.

Layer 5 – Metaphorical Magic

After you have “layered” the poem enough times that you feel you have a deep grasp of the content, you must read the poem a final time.

Search for a metaphorical meaning to the poem, one that goes far beyond the “gut reaction” summary, and ties in elements of each of the previous layers.

This is where the true analysis is happening. The previous layers were the footwork, while this is the end result. You will find that your mind no longer entertains the simple ideas from layer one, and instead can form intricate and thoughtful responses to the meaning of the poem itself.

Did you find this useful? Please let me know! I enjoy hearing about your success stories.


I Am Your Teacher First, Your Cheerleader Second.

It took me nearly five years of immersed teaching to understand who I am as an educator. At first, I was rocked by the diverse opinions of my co-workers on how to handle student situations. I tried (and often failed at) new methods of instruction, classroom management, policies and time management.

Throughout those years, I would spend my hour commute absorbing the wisdom of motivational speakers such as Rachel Hollis (my spirit animal), Tony Robbins, Brenden Burchard, and Mel Robbins. I grew so much in those first years as a person and found myself able to weather any sort of situation thrown my way in the classroom. Though those years were often PAINFUL – it is evident now how crucial those growing pains were to my overall success as a shaper of young minds.

The one ideal that I have zero apologies for adopting? I am your coach, your mentor, your teacher FIRST. I will be your cheerleader SECOND.

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Rachel Hollis famously speaks on this and adopts this attitude (which is most definitely why I love listening to her podcasts). She iterates that a cheerleader is there shouting for you no matter what – even when you’re not doing what will make you successful. A coach is there to tell it to you straight and keep you on the right path.

This year especially, I have trained my brain to stop autopiloting to cheerleader mode when a student makes a mistake. It was my general nature to pat them on the back, even when they weren’t performing their best writing, and to gently encourage them to “try better next time”!

Ya’ll, it wasn’t working.

Kids will be kids, and if they think they can get away with turning in sub-par work for decent credit – that’s what they’re going to do. This doesn’t make them “bad kids” – it makes them adolescents who, if given the chance, will prioritize their social life or hobbies over perfecting a school assignment.

Look, I GET IT. Teaching gets tiring. Nagging them to do better, spell better, write better, read more, care more, show more of an effort gets OLD. Sometimes, it’s just easier to accept the crappy work and put a grade into the book. But that, “At least they turned in something” attitude is TOXIC. It permeates off of you like a vile stench that will, if you allow it, affect the remaining students in your class.

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If the teacher isn’t requiring effort, then why would any of the students work hard? If Susie can turn in a paragraph that only has three sentences, then why should Billy write six sentences and include a quote for evidence? The fact of the matter is, Billy won’t continue to push harder since the expectation isn’t there. As Tony Robbins says, RAISE YOUR STANDARDS, CHANGE YOUR LIFE (or classroom, in this case). If you raise the expectation, the students will rise with you.

Taking on a coaching mindset as a teacher does not mean that you are rude, intolerant, or sarcastic with your students. Let’s be real – you do that, you will lose the respect of your students REAL quick. Taking on a coaching mindset doesn’t mean you don’t offer encouragement as they work through tough assignments.

Instilling a coaching mindset means:

You place achievable, but challenging, standards for all of your students.

If your students are really on a role, have them HELP YOU create these standards for your classroom. Whatever you decide, the expectation for nearly everything you do in your room needs to be expressed – CLEARLY.

It is my solemn vow to spend the first two weeks of classes creating simple exercises that teach and reteach procedures for everything we do. I have FAR surpassed the mistake of “assuming” students know the correct way to do ANYTHING. We have no prior knowledge of their upbringing – thus, to avoid common behavior pitfalls, just make your expectations clear for everything. Place them in a syllabus or display them on your wall. Make them a part of the structure of your class.

You don’t accept sub-par performance or work. Period.

A piece of work gets turned in and it is clearly not that student’s best work? Create time during class to meet one-on-one with that student and calmly point out where they did well and where they fell short. Then send them back to their seat to revise. This is not optional. Even if the student is having a bad day, normally doesn’t turn in ANY work, etc. Be diligent in the pursuit of quality.

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A student acts inappropriately after you have set clear expectations? Ask them to step into the hallway (or an equally appropriate place). Coach them that WE don’t accept that behavior here. If you choose to act that way, you will have to leave so the rest of us can learn. We will try again tomorrow. The student will still be required to complete the work they missed, which in my classroom translates to staying after school (even if I have to mandate it). This will get old for the student, who will learn that this teacher means BUSINESS.

What you accept, will continue.

You hold students accountable for their actions and quality of work. Consistently.

This ties in nicely with the first two mentioned. If you set clear expectations, and never allow a student to “get away” with sub-par work or performance, this makes logical sense. The student must be made accountable for their actions. This is where the coaching part of teaching gets interesting. Often, students who turn in poor work (or none at all) will try to blame their actions on someone/something else. “My parents don’t come home until 1:00 AM, so I don’t have anyone to make me do my homework.” or “I didn’t sleep very much last night, so I don’t feel like doing the class activity.”

This are two reasons for sub-par work that I have heard in my classroom. The first one can be heartbreaking to me. Not having a parent at home to provide support really puts that students at a disadvantage. However, if we allow our students to use this excuse to “get away” with not doing their work, they start to believe that this excuse will get them out of doing the hard work forever. We must teach them to be responsible on their own, as one day they will be moving out of the house. Who will they blame their lack of work on then? Holding students accountable themselves will build a young adult who can rely on their own internal drive to get things done.

The second excuse mentioned is just a fact of life they will need to learn. It happens. At some point or another, sleep schedules get disrupted. That does not mean it is a free pass to float through life or their responsibilities for the day. Taking a coaching mindset in this moment will build stronger resolve in your students for later in life when things get tough outside of their high school halls.

You embody the qualities you expect in your students.

Lead through example.

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You want students to show up and be attentive? Dress sharp and take pride in yourself as a professional. Message to the students: this teacher cares a LOT about this content and this job – I should take them seriously.

You want students to read fluently and with inflection? Take time during class to read out loud certain sections of their class novel. BE CREATIVE with your voices, and fearless in your delivery. Message to the students: this teacher is CRAZY, but reading aloud with voices makes this SO much more fun. Maybe I can be brave one day, too.

You want your students to write using better vocabulary? Start using better vocabulary in your everyday journal prompts, notes on their papers, and in your lectures. Take time during the reading of a text to pretend you don’t know a large word, and show students your “out loud thinking” as you Google search it! Message to the students: Words freaking matter, and even my teacher has to look them up sometimes! 

You want your students to write passionately for their daily journal prompts? Set a timer and ask for quiet, then sit down with them and write your own! Share your own prompt with them, using varying vocabulary and sentence structure. Be vulnerable in your stories. Message to the students: Even the teacher has a hard time with some things! They admitted it to the whole class! I can do that, too!

You provide examples of quality work to shape their thinking.

I saved this for last because it is SO important for teaching writing. If your students are struggling to write thesis statements, paragraphs and essays beyond basic levels, the ONLY way they are going to improve is to show them multiple examples of writing done extraordinarily.

Period.

The human brain learns through seeing examples. Simply assign a writing task to your students. Take them home, sift through them and assign each one a tentative “level”. Level 6 writing is EXTRAORINDARY with hardly any mistakes. Level 1 writing was entirely off task or missing. We Only Do (2).jpg

I remove student names and if handwritten, I type up the shorter responses. Compiling one sample of each level, I print off enough for my students. As a class, we read each sample out loud, starting with Level 6. The students take about five minutes per paper to jot down what that student did excellently and to make three comments about what they could improve.

By the time we made it to the Level 1 papers, the students are all professionals at pointing out what is missing! Then, I hand back their papers and ask them to dig through their own assignment. We spend that class with red pens, rewriting their original. The next day, they get a fresh piece of paper, and try again. I cannot STRESS ENOUGH how effective this is. It does require a firm coaching mindset – no cheerleading allowed here. Students must be told what they did well, and what needs some serious rework.

 


 

If you’ve had a cheerleading mindset (or your student’s previous teachers did), you will experience some push-back at first. Stay the course, be fair as well as consistent, and I promise you that students will rise to the bar that you set. The annoying dance of “Teacher, is this good enough?” will slowly die away.

Remember – we are here to guide our students towards success. Do not be afraid to create firm expectations. Watch your students’ confidence in themselves rise as they push to reach goals. Then, make sure you CELEBRATE!