It only takes one page

It only takes one page

How do you assess? Do you go by how much time it takes to grade? Do you make your students write an essay because you need a writing sample for data? Do you give them a project you can glance at, use a rubric, and assign a grade?

Full Disclosure

Full disclosure- in my 19 years, I have given assessments that fit all of these. Truthfully, I am still looking for ways to assess that go beyond objective questions but don’t take me hours to grade. One of the best assignments I have come across in my career is The One Pager. See how I capitalized that? It should really be THE One Pager because it’s that amazing. One pagers are a snapshot of what a students knows about a book, but also includes critical thinking, analysis, and visual representation. It’s also graded with a rubric. Sounds pretty awesome, doesn’t it? IT IS.

In the interest of staying with full disclosure, it took a couple of years to tweak my rubric so that it met my expectations and gave the kids a true picture of what they earned in terms of effort, completion, originality, and overall knowledge. The first year, I was having to give kids better grades than I thought they’d earned because I wasn’t specific enough with my rubric. I’m sure that happens a lot when you start using a new assignment.

Examples of Greatness

For the first piece last year, my 8th graders read A Separate Peace. Their culminating assignment was a one pager. Here are a few examples of the work I got from them:

Pretty cool, huh? Basically, the one pager includes the following elements:

On the front they include

  • the title and author
  • the setting
  • a quote they feel was significant to the story
  • an analysis of the quote explaining its significance
  • 5 adjectives describing the story
  • a list of characters
  • one higher-level question (short answer)
  • the answer to the question
  • 3 symbols that represent the story

The front should also be covered in artwork that conveys meaning. It could be a scene, images from the story, representational borders around the elements…they get to use creativity to cover the page, but it should be COVERED.

On the back, they write a one page summary and put their name, the date, and class period.

All the Amazingness

That’s it. Amazing, right? Now, let me tell you, the pictures above are great examples, but I feel like maybe I ought to have also taken and included pictures of the duds. And there were a few, let me tell you. That’s no fun though. Suffice it to say that you never get great work from all your students. You try, but it doesn’t usually work that way.

Next blog post will be about my further tweak of this assignment, a Character One Pager. If you absolutely can’t wait to hear about it, you can find it on my TPT store here.

 

Students don’t need to write

Students don't need to write

Whoa! An English teacher writing a blog post about not writing? What kind of alternate dimension have we entered?

But it’s true. I learned a valuable lesson last year, and I know it’s one that could benefit other teachers, so I thought I’d share my experience. First off, if you don’t know me, I should tell you that I’m super old school, hard core, traditional, and I have extremely high expectations for my students. I do teach outside the box quite often, but I don’t use technology, the kids never have their phones out (ever), and we work our butts off in almost every single class. Since I teach 8th and 9th grade English, my students know that we are probably going to write something every single day. They know that my goal for them is for them to crush any writing that comes at them in the future, and if they can’t, they will know what questions to ask their teachers and professors so that they can learn the skills they might be missing.

When I began planning for our unit over Night by Elie Wiesel, I did what I always do- troll the internet, FB boards, TPT, and my old materials for stuff to use to put together a unit. We don’t have set curriculum, and I have almost complete autonomy in what I teach as long as it addresses the standards, so I’m always reinventing at least some portion of my units throughout the year as I see the need. As I was doing this, I found the link for a 3D art project over the memoir. Hmmmm…that doesn’t sound like me, but it could be cool. It came with a rubric and everything, so I decided to give it a shot. I must have been on cold medicine or something to even consider this because it’s so far outside my teacher comfort zone.

You. Guys. Number one, all but one student turned something in. As all teachers know, that is a major victory (especially in secondary!). Number two, I was BLOWN AWAY by what my kids came up with. They hit it so far out of the park that you couldn’t even see the ball anymore! Number three, it was an awesome way to include some public speaking without a lot of pressure. The kids had to defend their projects in a Socratic seminar format where the other students could ask them questions about their motivation, inspiration, etc.

This was the culminating assessment grade for the unit, and I could not have been more proud of their work. We were able to display their work in my room and in the library, and other teachers and students commented frequently on how amazed they were by the work the students had done. They were rock stars.

Here are a few examples of their work:

The innovation, symbolism, and creativity that they showed me was inspiring. I think I cried after a couple of classes because I was just so impressed with them. I will definitely be including this project again this year, but I will need to revamp the rubric a bit to better fit my grading categories. Below, I have included a copy of the original project I found, and it includes the name and school of the author of this project, Jeana Link- Bunker Hill High School – Catawba County Schools & Connections NC.

Night 3D Quote Project

I think my experience with this art project has forever changed my thought process on how students show me what they know. As a teacher going into my 20th year in the classroom, this has proven to me that I must never stop learning, investigating, improving, and pushing myself as an educator so that I can be the best facilitator of learning I can be.

I don’t even know why I teach

Teaching Philosophy

This coming school year will be my 20th as a teacher. Wow. I came to education in a very unconventional way. I was a psychology major at A & M, and I had my sites firmly set on a degree in psychology which I would then use to become an FBI profiler (I was heavily influenced by Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs– the book, not the movie). With two years of psych under my belt, I was forced to change my major because of a GPA roadblock called Statistics for Psychology that brought my overall average down to the point where the psych department thought that a degree in psychology wasn’t for me.

What now?

I changed my major to English, and I pretty much haven’t looked back, although I do watch the Discovery ID channel religiously, and I’m convinced I would have been a great profiler.

I didn’t pursue an education degree. I got an English degree, all the while substitute teaching for extra money, and then entered the alternative certification program in my area. So I didn’t student teach or any of that. I’m convinced my years as a sub are the trials by fire that shaped my rock solid classroom management style. 🙂

Since I didn’t go the traditional route, I never had to write that paper outlining my teaching philosophy. I had never even heard of that until I saw it on Pinterest a few years ago. In the interest of self-reflection and evaluation, I decided it was high time that I establish for myself exactly what my philosophy is. I liked this article from Thought Co. the best because it asks you questions, and as you answer, you are defining your philosophy.

Here we go!

What do you see is the grander purpose of education in a society and community?

Hmmm… Well, I think that the purpose of an education is to create a knowledge base that allows students to become productive members of a society. School is a place to discover strengths, weaknesses, and passions that define how a person can best live their lives. It should give students the necessary tools to operate within in society in a manner that benefits both them and their community. For example, if a student realizes in middle school that they enjoy learning more about a subject like civil rights, or geometric principles, or biological discoveries, they can begin to explore those interests and possibly use them to direct their choice of employment. All the while they are learning social interaction and communication skills that can assist them in pursuing their choices. They are also discovering weaknesses and learning to compensate for them in a variety of ways.

What, specifically, is the role of the teacher in the classroom?

I believe that the teacher has a multitude of roles that must be fulfilled in the classroom. They should be the guide, the leader, the counselor, the taskmaster, the encourager, the grace-giver, and the voice of reason. Sometimes all of the these roles are needed within one class period. In short, a teacher should strive to have students leave class every day better than when they arrived. Some days they might leave with more knowledge, others they will have gained self-esteem, empathy, self-discipline, or confidence in their own voice.

How do you believe students learn best?

I firmly believe that every student learns differently, but the best thing that I can give all of them is consistency. I think students need a classroom environment that supports them, but is also a place where they know what the expectations are. I think teachers need to set them, and stick with them faithfully, unless there are extraordinary circumstances. On my end of the year evaluations from students in my first years of teaching, students used to say that I played favorites. I began to examine my classroom behavior and policies because I didn’t think I did that. However, we all know that perception is reality, so I needed to figure out what I was doing that made them feel this way because I knew it could affect their ability to learn from me. I began establishing procedures and expectations very early on, and the students knew that they rules were the rules for everyone all the time. In the past few years, I have not heard this complaint, and I hope that I never do again.

In general, what are your goals for your students?

I think my goals for them align with my expectations for myself- they should leave better than when they arrived. I want them to be more confident learners, more empathetic, with a more worldly view. I want them to be able to approach any new experience with the knowledge that they can figure it out and be successful.

What qualities do you believe an effective teacher should have?

An effective teacher should be knowledgeable, but not a know-it-all. They should be fair, kind, merciful, and have high expectations.

Do you believe that all students can learn?

Yes. Unequivocally, yes. Do I think I have always managed to teach every student? No, unfortunately I don’t. The student’s ability to learn is less in question than my ability to find a way to teach them.

What do teachers owe their students?

They owe them commitment. Every teacher should be committed to reaching and teaching each student in every class.

What is your overall goal as a teacher?

I always tell my students that they may not like me this year, but my hope is that, in five years, they will look back and be able to say they were glad they had my class because it prepared them for the future they wanted for themselves.

Whew! Self-examination is HARD! Sometimes learning things about yourself is not pleasant, but I’m glad I sat down and did this. I need to hang it on the wall or something so that I can strive to be the teacher I want to be every single day.

Are you in an abusive relationship…with your job?

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Guys, it’s about to get real. I have been sitting on this blog post idea for a while, pretty much terrified of writing it, but knowing that it’s one of the most real things I can talk about- how teachers are treated by other teachers and administration.

Yikes.

DISCLAIMER- my current job is the end all, be all of my teaching career. I’ve pretty much told anyone who will listen how awesome my job is and that I will either die in my classroom or retire from this school. None of these problems exist where I teach now, and that is why I love it so.

Okay, most teachers know that there are several noxious personalities within a school that affect the morale and overall happiness of a staff. We are going to talk about these, and then talk about how to deal and rise above. Or know when it’s time to get out.

The Toxic Team

Let’s start with the toxic team. Whether you collaborate as a grade level or content area team, or both, you know that one bad apple can spoil the bunch. I don’t know about you, but I’m a venter. I need to talk to my teammates, tell them what is bothering me, and then once that pressure has been let out of the teapot, I’m good to go. Basically, I need some adult conversation in my day with people who understand the things that I’m experiencing on a first-hand basis. Now, I know that I am extremely emotional. Heck, anyone who has been around me for more than half an hour knows that. Venting is my way of processing. My husband even makes sure before we start a venting session that I only want him to listen, I don’t want him to fix it. So when I speak to my team, tell them what’s bothering me, and then we talk it out, that’s usually the end of it.

Let me be clear, I’m not being disrespectful to admin or another staff member during these vents. I’m just talking about everyday frustrations that teachers deal with- parent emails, kids not turning in assignments, students with excessive absences, endless meetings during our planning time…you know, run-of-the-mill, educational junk. So when you build a relationship with your team, you know whether or not you can vent to them. Unless they fool you. Maybe they listen and commiserate, and then they go and tell your admin everything you said. That’s a fun one, huh? What about the team member that never bothers to be on time for the meeting holding everyone else hostage until they arrive? How about the one that never contributes information to parent conferences?

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A toxic team member can single-handedly take a well-oiled machine and dump sand in the gears.

Merciless Management

Let’s move on to merciless management. Maybe it’s a team leader, a department head, an instructional coach, or an AP. They want you to do your job and their job, and then they pass it off as their own work. Any of this sounding familiar? Have you ever disaggregated data only to see it pop up on a spreadsheet during a staff meeting? Presented by someone else? Have you ever been told that you need to use your conference time to observe other teachers and write reports on your observations because you didn’t teach curriculum exactly the way another teacher did? For example, you didn’t have your juniors LISTEN to Of Mice and Men ON TAPE?

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Yep. That’s a true story.

Here’s one about a friend of mine: They worked at the admin building and ended up doing the work of three people for the pay of one. So they started job hunting, interviewed, and got the new job. In the interest of trying to avoid an expensive move to another city, and because they had been there so long, they asked if their current district could match or beat the offer.

Nope.

But here’s the kicker- a few days later, they asked my friend to meet. Guess what they said?

“How should we post your job? We’re not sure how to list it because of all the work you did.”

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I wish I were kidding, but again, true story.

The Unprincipled Principal

Moving onto another poisonous presence in schools- the unprincipled principal. Have you ever worked for a bully? Unfortunately I have. A couple of times. Once, I actually had to resign to get this particular individual to back off. I was ready to leave teaching, with no back-up job, just to get out from under this person’s thumb. Luckily, this person backed down, and I actually never had any trouble with them again. I didn’t realize until then that a bully will, many times, make you their target until you stand up to them. I thought that was just something kids had to worry about. Sadly, it applies to adulthood as well.

It’s a horrible feeling to know that you have put everything you have into your job, and it doesn’t really mean anything to some of the people it should. In my former district, they would rather let you leave so they could hire a first year for less money than listen to what you are saying. I didn’t get renewed once because I didn’t want to coach cheerleading anymore due to the time commitments. I taught pre-AP English I, and have a proven track record, and that “educational leader” decided they needed a cheer coach more than a teacher.

Office Space Boss

Just so you don’t think I’m some degenerate that probably deserved what I got, I’ll give you a few high points from my pedigree. I piloted a multi-level GT program that a former district still uses to this day. I was named teacher of the year for my district. I have served as an NJHS sponsor, student council sponsor, Key Club sponsor, campus technology rep, team leader, and cheer coach because I loved being a part of the schools I was teaching at in a bigger capacity than just a classroom teacher. Basically, I was an “all-in” kind of educator.

I’m proud to say that, with the help of my gratitude journal, my friends, my family, and my new teaching community, I feel like the teacher I once aspired to be is slowly coming back. I realized that the harm that adults in the school had caused me didn’t mean that the students didn’t deserve the best me I could give them. After almost losing the love for what I know is my true calling, I appreciate my current school even more for helping me recover my love for the profession I was meant to have.

I wish I could tell you I was strong enough to remedy all these situations on my own. Nope. I was moved from one campus to another in one district (basically demoted) and non-renewed in the other. The only time I actually did anything was when I stood up to the bully. I was so sure I could make it work that I let myself be treated poorly. I loved the job itself, so I was willing to endure the treatment from my school leadership. If that doesn’t sound like an abusive relationship at its core, I don’t know what does.

How do we fix this? In the current educational climate, we have teachers striking and using their voices to speak out about their mistreatment. That is huge because teachers have, historically, been a grin-and-bear-it bunch. I think that’s because we know that, if we leave or fight back, it’s the students who will lose. At least until the tide turns in our favor. I hope that this movement of awareness that teachers have started becomes a strong force for educators to take back the respect for our profession that should never have been lost.

Hygge and Harry Potter

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For several years, I had been wanting to change up the furnishings in my classroom. I kept seeing these cool “cafe/coffee shop” rooms that seemed to be a much nicer environment to learn in, never mind the hours I spend in my room as well. So I started collecting pieces from parent donations, garage sales, Facebook Marketplace, and my parents’ houses.

Last year, my principal was extremely gracious, and when we moved buildings, he gave me one of the biggest classrooms because he wanted to support my implementation of flexible seating. I was over the moon to move out of a portable and into an actual building. When he gave me my new room, I was about to burst with joy.

If you have ever moved into a new house, you know that you have to live in the space for a while before you can arrange the furniture in the most user-friendly way. Last year I must have rearranged the furniture 57 times, and I still feel that there are times when I simply need to move furniture to better fit that day’s activities. I brought in ambient lighting, wood furniture, and natural light (through my new windows) to help further create a less institutional environment for me and my students.

About mid-October, I ran across an article that introduced me to the Danish concept of hygge and how it lends itself to creating a better classroom environment. It’s pronounced HUE-gah, and the Oxford Dictionary defines hygge as “A quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being (regarded as a defining characteristic of Danish culture)”. The article went on to say that the Danish people have long, dark, rainy winters, and they use their furnishings and decorations to bring warmth and light into their spaces. They employ lamps, fire, windows, wood furnishings, and plants to bring the outdoors in when they can’t go outside to enjoy nature. These natural elements help keep them from getting cabin fever when they are stuck inside. If you want to know more about adding hygge to your life, visit this article. You can also just Google “what is hygge” and find plenty of information.

After I read a couple of articles about hygge I thought- Hey! That’s what I’m trying to do! And I finally had a name for the goal atmosphere I’m trying to create.

Pictures of my room from this past year

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In addition to my excitement about creating a more student-friendly classroom, I have a SERIOUS addiction to/obsession with Harry Potter. I realized that I could marry the two and come up with something akin to the Ravenclaw common room if I worked hard enough. I began adding HP elements like a flying keys mobile, Hogwarts and Ravenclaw banners, Snape quotes, Dumbledore quotes, and Cornish pixie silhouettes in the lamps as an extra-special touch. I also used YouTube to find different ambience loops that included a fireplace and elements of Harry Potter. You can find a couple of those here and here.

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One of my Cornish Pixie lamps

This year there will be an owlery, a brick feature somewhere, Harry Potter product vignettes (think Chocolate Frogs, Amortentia, and Puking Pastils), a Tri-Wizard Cup, and more ambient lighting/less or no fluorescent. Oh, and I need some plants. That’s one element of hygge that I haven’t added yet.

Basically, it will be my ultimate happy place. 🙂 Wouldn’t the Danes be proud?