School in the Summer?

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ll be working at an Upward Bound program in Maine for the next six weeks. If you want to learn more about Upward Bound, here’s a link to the official government site about it. (http://www2.ed.gov/programs/trioupbound/index.html). And this is my program: http://www2.umf.maine.edu/upwardbound/. Essentially, my summer program is designed to giving rising sophomores, juniors, seniors, and college freshmen an academic boost heading into the next school year and to help connect them to resources and people who can support them in their efforts to become first generation college students.

My role in the program is primarily as an English teacher. I teach four sections of students (the rising sophomores and juniors) three times each week. In addition to my classroom responsibilities, I am also in charge of an “advisory group” — a small group of students that functions as sort of a “family” while we’re here, am involved in evening study sessions and “free time,” get to plan and organize activities for evening events, and live in the dorm on the girls’ floor. The amount of time that I can spend interacting with these adolescents over the next six weeks is truly boundless!

We started our classes on Monday and I was feeling quite nervous about making the transition from teaching second graders to teaching high schoolers. But, so far, things have been wonderful! The depth of our discussions and their engagement in my English class has been unbelievable so far. It is blissful to not have all of the (charming) interruptions of the younger set and to be able get through everything that I have planned without getting sidetracked by behavior or other issues. I’m sort of spoiled, because these students applied to be here and are highly motivated, but it is just so fantastic to work with them. They talk with me about what we’re doing in class in the lunch line (really!) and are thinking hard about the issues that we’re discussing around the media and technology — even outside of class. It’s been really invigorating — even more so than I could have possibly imagined!

While I’m loving the program and feeling great about being part of such a grand vision for supporting these students who will really benefit from the hard work all of the staff is doing, I can’t help thinking from time to time about how there were students who applied to be here who didn’t get accepted. I hate that programs that do such good can’t take on all students. Everyone who wants an opportunity to pursue an education ought to have that chance — it really frustrates me that the deck is stacked against so many students and that for each student who does get to engage with a program like Upward Bound, there are others who get left behind. I’m trying hard to stay upbeat and focus on doing everything that I can for the wonderful students who are here, but I can’t help but think about the other kids at their schools who were not as fortunate as they were in the application process.

Of course, it’s not the job of one program to solve all of the problems relating to inequality of educational opportunity, but I think it’s worth thinking about what we, as educators and citizens, might do to help make sure that no one falls through the cracks, that all students get a chance to feel like they can realize their dreams and live the life that they’ve imagined. It’s something I know that I’ll keep thinking about in the weeks ahead, while I spend time with students that may not appear to be obvious college-material on paper, but who are flourishing in the rich environment here at Upward Bound.

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Dr. Seuss Unit!

This week has been … heavy. Things have seemed chaotic in my classroom, as many of my students have some pretty serious out-of-school stuff going on that is almost completely out of my control. I am spent emotionally and physically. Luckily, because I live in Maine, somehow the first day of spring has brought me a much needed mental-health-snow-day.

With all of my frustration and sadness for my kiddos, I am so grateful that I am teaching a topic that I love right now and not having to trudge along through some required learning about which I’m not completely stoked.

Two weekends ago, I had an army of helpers who brought a Seussian makeover to my classroom.

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So far in our unit, we’ve been learning about poetry and imagination. My students and I did an activity around the book “Not a Box” and they also dreamed up some crazy inventions to help them address a problem in their house for homework. Tomorrow, my school is having an all-school read-a-thon event and in my classroom, we are having a marathon Seuss read aloud. I have friends and parents coming in to share their favorite Seuss books from 10-5. I am really excited about this and my students cannot wait!

Next week we are jumping into exploring Civil Rights with The Sneetches and then we’ll be studying the environment with The Lorax. Stay tuned for future posts — this is the unit that I’ve been planning for and excited about all year long!

Bridging the Gap Between Home and School: Designing a Literacy Intervention

I am really passionate about and interested in home-school relationships. So far in my classroom, I’ve been doing everything that I can think of to get information out to my students’ parents about what we’re doing in class and how they can help out at home. All of my weekly homework assignments require the involvement of a parent to help to build in opportunities for my students and their parents to grapple with academic material at home. I also send home a bi-weekly newsletter and maintain a parent website: https://sites.google.com/site/newsfrommisshewes/.

Yet, despite all of this, I still have students who are struggling to show their understanding of the material they are supposed to be covering at home. We had our first spelling test on Thursday, and even though my students had a month to practice their words at home with their parents (and I sent home reminders), I had over the half of my students spell more than half of the words incorrectly. (The words were taken from the second-grade list, so they were not extraordinarily difficult.)

Late this week and throughout this weekend, I’ve been thinking about what the disconnect might be between the parents saying that they are working hard with their students and the lackluster performance of their students. It occurred to me that just as we don’t hold our students accountable for content that we haven’t taught them, we also should not hold parents accountable for teaching their students things if they have never been instructed on how to effectively work on academic material at home.

To this end, I’ve spent the last few days working on a home literacy packet that I’ll be sending home with each of my students on Monday. I also plan to try to disseminate this information and model these practices with my parents in a workshop format, for those who want to attend. My packet is titled, “A Menu for a Healthy Home-Reading Diet” and emphasizes that just as a healthy diet requires eating from a variety of different food groups, becoming a healthy reader requires having many different experiences with texts.

Here’s a glimpse at what the menu looks like:

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I sent home a notice last week that informed my parents how their student had done on our benchmark assessments and included items that gauged their interest in learning more about how to support their child’s literacy development at home. Unfortunately (but predictably), the greatest interest so far has been shown by the parents of the students that are already thriving in terms of literacy. I’m hoping to reach the parents of the struggling readers with my packet — I hope that it will prove successful!

What strategies do you use for engaging your more reluctant parents? I’d love to hear suggestions and comments!

P.S. If you are interested, my complete literacy packet is available for download on Teacherspayteachers. I am just getting started on this site, but I appreciate the way that it opens the doors of different classrooms and helps to break down teacher isolation and celebrates the great work that teachers are doing every day!