Reading Day: Making Time for Professional Development

The past several weeks have been a blur — two November snow days (oh, Maine!), report cards, and the holiday season have kept me in a perpetual losing battle with my to-do list.

It’s this continuous sense of hustle and bustle that has led me to create an intentional shift in how I think about scheduling my time. In an article that I recently read (the author and title escape me), the author discussed how we spend so much time working on things that are unimportant because they come with a false sense of urgency — email comes to mind as the big one for me in this area — or because they are quick and seem easy to get done and cross off our list. What happens as we chase all of these small, urgent-feeling tasks is that we lose all of the time for the bigger, deeper things that we’re always saying we’d like to find the time to do.

For me, the thing that I’m always copying and pasting from one week’s to-do list to the next is professional reading and creativity time for curriculum and activity development. Because it never feels as urgent as my other to-dos, it’s the first thing I tend to push aside, even though it’s the thing that would actually be most effective in helping me to reach my goal of being a real-life Mz. Frizzle, who makes learning an adventure with interesting and challenging activities.

Over the Thanksgiving Break, while I had a few moments to catch my breath, I decided that I was going to prioritize this time for my own professional development. In creating my month-at-a-glance, I scheduled in one school day a week to be my “Reading Day.” On this day, the only thing I can do during my prep or those little pockets of time that crop up during the day (what typically becomes compulsive email checking time) is read and gather ideas for future activities. The time to do this is never going to magically appear and planning to do it only during the summer isn’t practical, as I’d like to be continually refining my practice while embedded in my daily context, not just creating plans during the summer when I’m not in the rhythm of teaching.

Thus far, keeping all of those to-dos away from my reading day has been HARD. Way harder than I expected. I keep having to remind myself that email can wait just one day, that I can catch up on setting up materials tomorrow — I’m having to retrain myself to more accurately judge urgency.

Today is actually my reading day, so I shouldn’t technically be writing this now, but this an idea that I wanted to ripple forward. Now, it’s back to my read for the day — Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager’s work Invent to Learn. Already, in my reading at breakfast and when I first arrived at school, I’m feeling that rush of inspiration that comes from reading about new, exciting ideas.


Back to the Classroom and an End-of-Summer Trip

After exactly two months out of my classroom, I spent two marathon days in my room at the beginning of the week. It was a little odd to be back after so long away, but I have quickly found my way back into “school mode.” The past two days have been full of sifting through all of the papers that I held onto during the year, organizing materials, and shifting furniture. I will post some pictures of my new classroom layout at some point next week. I am already being much more intentional about making sure that my classroom arrangement and design lines up more smoothly with my personal theory of learning — I’ve put almost nothing on the walls to ensure that the students have plenty of room to display their creations and I’m situating their seating arrangements far differently than I did last year. I am hoping that it will be a learning environment that will grow with us during the year, rather than confining us and our thinking.

We had a school staff meeting on Monday, so I was also able to get all of the scheduling information that I needed to plan my schedule for the year. I’m going to be trying out a few new things in terms of shaping the learning time, including an “Independent Learning Time” in the afternoons, where students will be able to work on any project of their choosing or continue to work on other things that they may have started earlier. I’m also going to be making sure that I do one Spanish lesson a week with my students — my school doesn’t offer foreign language, so I’ve been studying up so that I can teach them myself!

My weekly schedule breakdown looks like this (at the moment, anyway). We actually have a pretty long school day, but I’m already feeling really worried that I won’t have nearly enough time to fit everything in — my units tend to be long, interdisciplinary, and quite involved… We’ll see how it goes!

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I start my official staff requirements at school next week. As a final summer hurrah, I am heading on a trip to Canada this weekend. I haven’t been since I was really young (and have no recollections whatsoever about the trip), so it will be exploring somewhere new for the first time, which I love. I’m going to be visiting Quebec City and Montreal. It should be a great way to wrap up the summer!

Last Classes of Summer Session

This morning I finished teaching my classes here at Upward Bound. It was bittersweet. As a last activity, I had my students reflect and write one thing that they learned in class that they would carry forward with them into their lives in the “real world.” Hearing their responses — which ranged from bringing a more critical view to their encounters with the media, to thinking about whether they are making the most productive use of their time, to spending time looking for the “hidden” messages that are conveyed in the world around them — was tremendously gratifying. Their final writing assignment was to think about how their attitudes toward the media/technology have evolved over the course of the summer, and I am really looking forward to reading them while I work on their evaluations next week.

I always have a difficult time when classes come to an end, especially those that I am facilitating. Inevitably, I always feel like I have so much more that I want to say and that there is so much more that we could have done. But, I am really happy with how our work together went this summer — I think everyone involved got something valuable out of our discussions and time together. I am feeling sad to see my time with these wonderful students come to an end, but I am tremendously invigorated about returning to teach second grade in the fall!

Loving Learning in an Online Class

In between my work on teaching here at Upward Bound and prepping things for the start of another year in second grade, I have been taking an online course offered through the HarvardX online platform. HarvardX is this awesome project that allows people from anywhere in the world to access online course content from Harvard professors. (There is also a site called Coursera, which is based out of Stanford, that offers a similar learning experience but draws from a number of different institutions.) These programs are highly flexible, as you can either browse course materials and do what interests you (like an audit of a course) or you can complete all task assignments to get a certificate of completion.

I haven’t taken a course that was entirely online before, but I am thoroughly enjoying the experience. It is wonderful to be able to work at my own pace through the material and to not worry if I am feeling stressed one afternoon — I can just make up the work later. The content has been released one week at a time, which helps to keep me on pace, but there are no hard deadlines until the very end of the course, so there’s a lot of flexibility in terms of time.

Anyway, the course that I am taking is called “Leaders of Learning” and it’s offered by Dr. Richard Elmore at the Ed School at Harvard. The content in this course has been perfect for me at this juncture — because it is about exploring and articulating your own personal theory of learning and thinking about what types of roles you might be able to fill in the rapidly exploding landscape of the education sector. The introspective nature of the course has been eye-opening for me, because I’ve now seen explicitly that my personal orientation toward learning as well as my leadership style do not jive smoothly with the structures of traditional schools (hence one of the key reasons why I think that I was so often frustrated in my job during my first year teaching).

This is terrifying to me, because I am a product of public schools and am so passionate about the equal opportunities that public schooling can theoretically provide — but it’s also invigorating, as I start to think about what kinds of roles there might be around schools that might allow me to circumvent some of the things I find frustrating about the structure of traditional schooling while still reaching the underserved populations that I am so drawn to teaching and working with. In sum, it has been a really exciting journey thus far and I am really excited to see where it takes me as I continue through the course. It has been so glorious to be back in the student role, too — I think I am always going to be one of those people who misses school, so it is thrilling to me that online courses that are high quality are becoming much more commonplace.

The End of One Adventure…The Start of Another

Well, it’s official — I’ve survived my first year as a classroom teacher. And, boy, did I have a lot of reasons to be glad that the year was finally coming to an end. This year has truly been a “trial by fire” and I’ve been assured numerous times that the class and chaos that I inherited this year was incredibly abnormal.

Yet, despite everything, I was still really struck yesterday by the fact that the year was truly coming to an end. It really upset me that all of my students wouldn’t be there for our last moments together today. Before yesterday, I had sort of shoved our farewells out of mind, assuring myself that I would see them all in the fall as they move onto third grade, but then I realized that it really will never be the same, that I’ll never say, “Okay, Curious Questioners…” and have it be this group of students who responds. As they were leaving today, I felt like I still had so much to say to them, so much more to teach them. But alas, we’ve really reached the end.

And I really don’t have much time to process those departures, because tomorrow I am driving directly from my staff in-service day to my summer position at Upward Bound. Upward Bound is a program for high school students who are either low-income or will be the first in their family to attend college (or both). I’m going to be teaching junior English and I am feeling invigorated by the challenge of transitioning from teaching fourteen 8-year-olds to teaching four sections of eight 14-year-olds. My course is framed around the book “Feed” by M.T. Anderson. Here’s a look at the questions that we’ll be exploring during our six weeks together.

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In addition to teaching, I’ll also be working closely with an advisory group and living in a dorm with the students. I’m really excited to get to have a teaching experience that will feel refreshing and and be rejuvenating (at least I hope so!) I asked my second graders for advice on working with high schoolers and they recommended “giving more homework” and “teaching them division.”

So, for the next few weeks, my posts will revolve around my experiences jumping into this very different teaching situation. Who needs summer vacation?

Busy as a Bee!

I have been way too busy for my own good these past couple of weeks. We are down to just 18 days of school left and I have no idea how I will fit everything in! I have a lot that I want to do to bring closure to this year with my first class, but things keep popping up and cutting into the little bit of time that I have left. I really can’t believe that my students are almost ready to go on their way to the third grade!

Tomorrow I have a meeting with my supervisor for my summer position at Upward Bound. I am going to start that job the same day that I wrap up my own school year, so there’s no break in sight for me. I am really excited about this summer job, though, so I think it will be worth it. I’ll write more about this position when I find the time for a real blog post!

District Committees and Teacher Input

Being a first year teacher who is interested in getting a sense of the big picture of what is going on in my district and education in general, I was eager to join a district committee. When I received an email about the formation of a teacher evaluation committee it sounded like a perfect one for me to join, as I spent a significant chunk of time learning about the theory and implementation of teacher evaluation in a teacher leadership course that I took during my Master’s year. I was eager to discuss these issues in a real-life setting and to debate the pros and cons of various approaches with my colleagues.

We’ve had two meetings now and I would describe them as strained, awkward, and somewhat tokenistic. The participants include school board members, our school superintendent, principals, and union and non-union teachers and there is huge variation in knowledge about teacher evaluation in general and in levels of enthusiasm about serving on the committee. There seems to be a “we need to get this done” mentality that is trumping the “we need to do this right — even if it takes longer” mindset.

During our first meeting we had our work laid out for us. Our job is to create a new system for teacher evaluation that will align with new requirements from the state Department of Education and serve as an update to our existing method. Unfortunately, a previous committee already did the work of reviewing our current method and making recommendations about what a new model should look like, so our group did not have the opportunity to delve into this important work by examining where we’ve been and how we’re currently doing things. We did a sort of gloss over the recommendations of the previous group but no one seemed to want to really delve into them — my sense that I need to be timid as a new teacher held me back, too.

At our last meeting I was really off-put because it felt like a tokenistic enterprise. Our mission at the meeting was to review different sets of standards for teaching practice and choose the one that we felt best met our needs. For one of the models, we had a live webchat with a representative of that model and spent over 50 minutes discussing it. A second model (equally regarded in education circles) was glossed over in under 30 minutes. It was disheartening to feel as though the decision has already been clearly laid out in front of us and will likely be the one that the committee winds up selecting. While this set of standards is fine, sense of the democratic nature of the group is rapidly eroding. I don’t think that this is the fault of the leader of the committee, but rather the narrow mandates that are passed down that definitely privilege some forms of standards over others and make choosing another option a laborious and difficult process.

I do think that we will get a greater degree of dialogue going when we have conversations around VAM and actual implementation plans, but the foreclosed nature of the early stages of the committee really left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Again, I feel like the degree of latitude and agency that we all have is limited — I’ve never run up against restrictive mandates in this way before.

I feel as though committees that bring multiple stakeholders together are an integral part of running a successful institution — whether it is a school or an entire district. However, it is problematic when these experiences are not authentically democratic and the representatives have just been brought together to nod their heads at something that has largely been predetermined for them.

Often, I think that teachers are uncomfortable in these types of settings because they don’t want to be controversial — many participants on the committee say different things on the sidelines than they do in our conversations. (This of course includes me.) I wonder what it is about how these committees are structured that produces these outcomes — perhaps it has to do with trust and faith that what is said will be taken seriously. Unfortunately, even when something is said, the mandates can be so limiting that it almost doesn’t matter, because nothing can be done about it.

It would also be very interesting to map out the discourse pattern of these meetings — it seems like every comment is really made to the superintendent instead of to the group, which is an odd dynamic in a committee where it is clear that everyone has one equal vote. I feel I can sense my superintendent trying to steer but not direct and I wonder what it is that still makes everyone look to her as the director when I feel she has tried to level the playing field at our meetings.

I’m not sure how to make committees function more effectively, but I do think that their cohesion and willingness to delve into controversy definitely impacts both the culture of schools and districts, but also outcomes for teachers and students alike. I wish that the scope of agency that districts were given was far greater than it is — oversight is important, but not when it usurps genuine innovation or conversation.