GRR to ATL and Back Again

The weekend before Thanksgiving I got on a plane and went to Atlanta for back-to-back English teacher conferences: NCTE (the National Council of Teachers of English) and ALAN (The Assembly on Literature for the Adolescence of NCTE). It was an excellent experience, but man. I am so lame at traveling away from my family!

I left Friday morning. The whole family drove me out to the airport for my 8am flight (which means we left the house around 6am). Eddie–who is just a tad like me–had been worrying over my leaving all week. He kept saying things like, “This is the LAST time you will put us to bed” and “This is the LAST time you will eat dinner with us.” He is a bit melodramatic. I assured him I was going to Atlanta, not Heaven, and that I would be back home Monday night after they were in bed. He clung to me at the airport, not really wanting to let me go or say goodbye. Alice followed his lead and hung onto my leg or wanted to sit on my lap. I think she could sense that they were leaving me behind.

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Charlie, on the other hand, had been counting down the days until “we can bring you to the airport and see the planes and Dad Dad will make brownies while you are gone!” He was not outwardly concerned about my being gone at all.  However when we got to the part where everyone was saying goodbye to me, he wandered off (it’s a small airport, so it’s not like we didn’t know where he was), and avoided me. When I found him and knelt down to his level, he let me hug him. He said, “I love you, Mom Mom” after I told him I loved him. But he would not say “Goodbye.”

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I gave Cortney a long hug…both because it’s hard for me to leave him and because I knew it would be a long four days of parenting by himself. I hugged and kissed my three babies one last time, and I was off through security. This was my third time flying solo for a conference; the first two times were to California for BlogHer ’11 and BlogHer ’14 (I was pregnant both times). Both trips to California involved multiple airports and connections and layovers, so a direct flight that was less than two hours long to Atlanta felt like nothing! Although I will say the Atlanta airport is HUGE. I mean, I took a train inside the airport to get from one end to the other where my bag and the exit was. Crazy.

I must say, I am proud to be getting pretty adept at getting myself a taxi and having great conversations with the driver. I had a remarkable political discussion with my driver who was from Kenya. She was listening to a very conservative talk radio station and must have sensed my tension (I just opened a book and started to read), because she said, “You must wonder why someone like me wants to listen to something such as this.” And then she went on to say she listens to all of it: left, right, and in between. She wants to be informed. She talks to other immigrants who are now citizens–like she is–to hear their perspective.  I dare say it was one of the highlights of my trip!

Well, that and the fact that I tried Chick-fil-a for the first time (and ate there three times in four days…what? It was right across from my hotel!) SO YUM!

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Friday was a whirlwind of travel, hotel, lunch, exhibit hall (where I met authors and got free books!) and going out to eat with my editor and fellow contributor at The Educator’s Room.

Oh, and one of the author’s I met on that very first day was Dav Pilkey–you know—the guy who wrote the Captain Underpants books? Eddie and Charlie about died when I texted Cortney this photo of me getting the first book in his newest series, Dogman, signed. And yes, I am talking too much. I was telling him about how my boys LOVE his books and that we are in the middle of re-reading them RIGHT NOW at bedtime.

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Like I said, my editor at The Educator’s Room was there–she is local to Atlanta–so she picked my fellow contributor Colette and me up for an early dinner. We went to a place called Six Feet Under. It’s across the street from a large cemetery, naturally. She ordered us something called Spicy Rat Toes–jalapeños stuffed with shrimp and wrapped in bacon. Oh my gosh. So good. Then I got the crab cake sliders for dinner.

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I was so exhausted by the time I got back to the hotel room. I flopped into my jammies before 7pm. In fact, since my roomies were still out, I called home to talk to my loves after a long day away. The boys were super excited to talk to me. Charlie asked if I was coming home now with the Dogman book. I could hear Alice in the background being confused about hearing mommy’s voice, but not knowing where I was. It was good to hear everyone, but because I was so tired, it also made me sappy and wish for my own bed. Thankfully the roomies came back shortly after and we chatted and laughed until bedtime.

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Saturday was my big day of sessions. I was part of a round table at 9:30am that included authors Meg Medina and Kekla Magoon (both excellent YA authors. I suggest grabbing everything they’ve written for you To Read Pile). I then attended a session about the narrative of The Other in literature and in our students’ own narratives. After lunch, I joined back up with Educator’s Room co-writers and presented about using blogging and social media to advocate for teachers. I ended the day in a session about making nonfiction more accessible (and exciting) to students.

I ended the day meeting my three roommates (one of which is one of my best friends, The Pastor’s Wife) for the annual Scholastic Dinner. Scholastic invites anyone who wants to attend to have a full-on turkey dinner together. It was pretty sweet. Plus there was lots of laughs and good conversation.

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After dinner we went over and watched an interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates (correspondent for The Atlantic and author of the novel Between Me and The World). While way brief (I blame the interviewer), it was worth hustling out of the Scholastic dinner and down to the auditorium to hear him speak about the presidential election and what is happening in society from his point of view.

Sunday was more exhibit hall, Chick-fil-a, and then that evening was the Author Reception for the ALAN conference that began the next day. The highlight of the Exhibit Hall for me was a tie between all the free Advanced Reader Copy books I got and meeting Matt de la Peña and having him sign a copy of Last Stop on Market Street for my kids. Let’s not talk about my bad hair, mmkay?

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As I said, the evening brought the Author’s reception and I will fully disclose at this point that I went a little fangirl on my favorite YA authors. I met Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely (All American Boys), A.S. King (Please Ignore Vera Dietz), Laurie Halse Anderson (The Chains trilogy, Speak, and many more), David Levithan (Two Boys Kissing, Every Day, Another Day, and more) and others. It was a crazy two hours of conversation and selfies. I think there were appetizers and drinks too, but I was too distracted to stand in those lines.

After, The Pastor’s Wife and I went out for BBQ with some colleagues from universities around the country. We had fabulous discussions about YA over chicarrónes. I had an American mule while splitting brisket and pulled pork while talking religion and love. It was glorious and a definite favorite part of my trip.

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Monday was my last day, and the day I got to attend the ALAN conference. As you can see, it was a bit overwhelming. They handed me a box and a bag FULL of books. There were 500 people in attendance all sorting through their books deciding what to keep, what to get signed, what to trade. It was the most beautiful chaos I have ever witnessed.

I was privileged to spend the day surrounded by books and listening to YA authors. I am positive that this must be what heaven is like.

After shipping four boxes of books (I counted 88 when I unpacked the ones for my classroom…and there were quite a few picture books and elementary chapter books I kept for my kids on top of that…so probably over 100 books total), we grabbed one more meal of Chick-fil-a before getting an Uber to the airport.

The flight and everything was smooth and on time and I was on my own couch by 11pm. I sneaked into the rooms of my children and gave kisses as I tucked them all back in.

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Tuesday evening after school and running around, these two small people stuck to my side like glue. I think they were afraid I would go away again. I was cool with it; I missed my littles. Cortney an I were in constant text or email the whole weekend. My roomies thought it was funny, but I am just so bad at being away from their lives!

I will say it was a wonderfully awesome trip! I hope to go again next year when it’s in St. Louis!

If you’re interested in more of my professional highlights, I wrote about it at The Educator’s Room.

Six World YA Lit Books You Should Read NOW

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It’s been awhile since I wrote about what I’ve been reading, which is actually funny because I have been reading more than I ever have before. In fact, I am on book 22 for the school year! Crazy!

Anyway, in the last month or so, I read six Young Adult Lit books that fall under the category of “world literature” and “historical fiction” because my 8th grade classes would be choosing between them for their final class book of the school year. Each of my five classes has a “book club” centered around each of these books. So far, it’s a wonderful experience, and I think the fact that the book are so darn good is has a big part of that.

I really love historical fiction, but I admit I hadn’t read much YA historical fiction until now. And of course reading six titles, probably qualifies as binging on it, but I am Ok with that. I highly recommend all of these titles to anyone 13 and over, so let’s get into the books…

My Name is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson 

Based on stories friends and family have told her, Edwardon bases her book in Alaska in the 1960’s when public schools were unavailable to the majority of children who didn’t live in a main city. Before 1976, students who wanted to attend high school had to travel hundreds of miles to boarding schools. In My Name is Not Easy, Luke (whose real name is not really Luke, but something too difficult for white speakers to pronounce) and his brothers–along with other children including Chickie, Amiq, Junior, and Sonny–are sent to Sacred Heart School where they realize that the students–Eskimo like them, Native American (Indian), and white–segregate themselves in the lunch room almost as if some sort of war is going on. The staff at Sacred Heart forbid use of native language and push to assimilate the children to a white, Catholic culture, but the students main goal is just to survive school and get back to their families.

I not only loved all of the characters in this book, but I knew many of my students would identify with having a name and culture that society may not understand. Many of my students may feel that they have to push their own culture behind them at school.

The Surrender Tree by Margarita Engle

Engle tells the story of Cuba’s struggle for independence through poetry through the eyes of characters in the middle of the action, mainly Rosa–known to some as a witch for her knowledge of holistic healing with herbs. The story begins with her childhood learning the different powers of flowers and plants, and it follows her as she becomes a nurse to those injured–from both sides–during Cuba’s fight against the Spanish empire. The setting is mainly near the concentration camps where former Cuban slaves were sent. While the poems are mostly from Rosa’s point of view, some are also from the voice of Lieutenant Death, a slave hunter who has a particular vengeance for capturing Rosa. The character of Rosa is based on Rosa Castellanos, an historical heroine known as “la bayamesa”.

This book was both beautiful and devestating. I had forgotten home much I love to read narrative poetry, and how quickly the actual reading goes. The imagery and  just sensations this book oozes are wonderful and terrifying. I went back and re-read some of my favorites. This book is in English, but a Spanish version is also included. Many of my students are hungry to read in their native tongue and lots have family in Cuba. I knew this would be appealing to those kids.

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

This is book is a dual narrative about Salva–one of the Sudanese Lost Boys–and Nya. Salva’s true story begins when he is eleven years old in 1985. Salva is separated from his family when fighting comes to his village in Southern Sudan. He has to walk for days in hope to find his family. He struggles to find food and people. He ends up walking for seven years before ending up in a refugee camp. Nya is a fictional character whose story begins in 2008 when she is also eleven years old. She has to walk to a pond that is two hours away twice a day to provide fresh water for her family. Her story emphasizes the lack of clean water in Sudan and the importance of family. In the end, Salva and Nya’s stories cross making a very important push for Salva’s cause of bringing clean water to South Sudan.

This was the first book of the six I read and I remember closing it and thinking, “these books are going to leave me emotionally drained.” I was right. Reading Salva and Nya’s stories was like going on these walks with them. And although I knew Salva survived to create the Water For South Sudan project, I kept thinking, “this is it. He can’t survive this.” I knew this book would appeal to the widest range of students, and since its the shortest, easiest read many of my reluctant readers chose it and are loving it.

Climbing The Stairs by Padma Venkatraman

Vidya is fifteen and dreams of going to college. But she lives in British-occupied India during World War II. Her family is loving and supportive and fairly liberal, encouraging her to be what she wants to be. However tragedy strikes and they are forced to live with ultra-conservative relatives who believe women should remain uneducated, serve men, and wait around to be married to a good family. Vidya is miserable, but she secretly breaks the rules and ventures upstairs to her grandfather’s library to read books she is not supposed to even touch. Here she meets Raman who treats her as an equal. When her brother leaves unexpectedly, Vidya is suddenly forced to think about the political situation in India and what she can do to hold on and make her dreams reality.

This is totally a “girl power” book. Venkatraman bases her characters on family members who have told her stories of growing up in India during this time period, and I was excited to see some of my strongest girls chose this book, and have already commented that they are totally loving it!

Far From Home by Na’ima B Robert

This was the last book I read of the six and I admit to needing to take a break from reading after this one. For one, I had binge-read six historical fictions in less than four weeks. Secondly this one made me think and I just needed the time to reflect before diving into something new.

Part One of Far From Home is Tariro’s story.  She is fourteen years old, lives in Zimbabwe on her ancestral grounds near the baobab tree that she was born under. Her dad is the chief, she is in love with the brave and handsome Nhamo–things couldn’t be better. Then white settlers arrive and violently and tragically drive her and her family out of their home into new areas zoned specifically for the blacks.

Part Two is Katie’s story and takes place twenty-five years later. Katie is also fourteen and lives on a farm in Zimbabwe near the baobab tree. She loves her family, her exclusive boarding school, and her home. Then disaster strikes when the second War for Liberation occurs and natives begin to reclaim their land. She is forced to leave the only hone she has ever known and go back to London with her family.

It was hard for me to feel sorry for Katie at first. Her relatives had been the ones to drive the natives off their land! But as I read, I understood the complexity of it. Katie, herself, had not been involved in the relocation. This home was where she was born and raised. It’s all she knew. Plus as the entire story unfolds she learns about white privilege and humanity.

While it is worlds away from us, there are definite connections with today’s society here in the United States. It’s a more difficult, longer read, so only a few of my higher reading level students are tackling this one, but so far they are enjoying it and I am enjoying the conversations that are coming out of it.

Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick

This one affected me the most out of all the books. This is the true story of Arn, a survivor from the Cambodia Civil War during the 1970’s. He was eleven years old when the Khmer Rouge invaded his village, killing the upper-class and educated and separating the rest of the people into work camps. Arn was sent to a work camp that was also where they took prisoners and slaughtered them. He was forced to work with almost no food or sleep and witness the horrific murder of many people–some of whom he knew. If the kids reacted, they were also killed. Arn eventually volunteers to become a musician for the propaganda-like revolutionary songs the Khmer Rouge has them play. Later, when the Vietnamese invade to help the people of Cambodia, Arn is forced to join the Khmer Rouge as a child soldier.

I had to keep reminding myself that this story is true, and that Arn does survive and make it to the United States because I kept expecting him to die. Reading this from the lens of a mother and teacher was hard. I found myself putting the book down several times because the imagery was so horrifying. I knew my students would be engrossed in a book about a kid close to their own age having to survive experiences that were too terrible to even imagine. I was right.

All six of these books are about real historical events, many of which we don’t learn about in school. And if we do, it is only briefly covered in a textbook which dates and a few facts. These books humanize the wars and struggles so many children had to endure.

Have you read any of these? Do you have any suggestions to add to this list? (because I am always open to adding more to my To Read pile!)

hearts breaking

My second year of teaching, a senior died in a jet-ski accident.

There were suicides.

There was a swimming accident.

There was a drunk driving accident–that one claimed two lives.

I’ve been in those horrible before school emergency staff meetings. The ones where it is horribly quiet and no one is making eye contact with each other.

Grief counselors on site for those who need someone to talk with or to cry with.

I am not down-playing those tragedies. They were awful and they rocked our schools.

But today was a category all it’s own.

This morning I stood in front of my first hour and had to deliver the news that one of the teachers had died suddenly the night before.

Because it is only my second year teaching in the school, and she and I teach different grades, I’ve only chatted with her a couple times, but I knew she was a student-favorite. I knew she was extremely close with much of the staff.

I stood in front of the class thinking I could read the script clearly, but I started to tremble. I knew the words after I said, “I am so sorry to have to inform you…” were going to absolute wreck my students.

And they did.

It was a short paragraph, but the sobs and sniffling started immediately.

They are just children, and someone they loved has been taken from them. Stolen.

Immediately I wanted to shelter my students. I wanted to not read the words. I wanted them to be protected from the pain for just a bit longer.

But I couldn’t. I had to break their hearts.

Those hearts were not alone, though. Immediately we brought kids to the ears and shoulders and arms they needed. Teachers postponed plans. We listened. We shared, but mostly we listened.

Between classes, the halls were quiet for the first few hours. Students found friends and fell into each other’s arms.

Administrators from all the other buildings stopped in.

Past staff were in the halls for faculty and students.

Teachers experienced grief hand-in-hand and side-by-side with their students.

At the end of the day, we were “debriefed”.

Exhausted, tear-stained faces gathered. Those who knew her best shared –and I was once again overcome with the wonderful person she was and how I wished I had gotten to know her better.

We were encouraged to take care of ourselves this weekend because today, we took care of our students first.

It’s what Abbey would have done.

************

Please pray for the students and staff of Wyoming Public Schools and for the family and friends of Abbey Czarniecki.

Oh Yeah, I Teach Too.

The first thing people ask me when they see me is, “So. How is the school year going?”

I realized today that I am constantly answering that question in real life, but have been weirdly quiet about it here.   Today was the last day of the first marking period. One quarter of the school year is already over.  That is sort of crazy to me. I mean, it feels like we just started.

So how is it going?

In a word: Great.

Last year was Ok. It was better than I thought it would be, but I told myself I wouldn’t make a judgement based on my first year–one where I was overly tired and emotional due to being pregnant. And one I didn’t finish because of said pregnancy.

This year is already a million times better if only because I have much more energy. I mean, I don’t have to waddle my way to the copy room only to need a nap when I get back. So you know, bonus!

My Reader’s Workshop is off to a really good start. There are still parts I need to tweak, but the kids are responding well to it. They are enjoying reading what they want to read, and I’ve gotten positive feedback from them on the amount of time I give them to silent read.

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This year I also added the Reader’s Notebook portion where I give them 4-5 minutes to respond to their reading.  This part may need some adjusting. I showed the students the notebook that I am keeping, and I share it with them every week so they can get some ideas for their own. Some kids are doing a ridiculously awesome job; others are trying to just get by with a one-or-two-sentence summary each time. My goal is to get kids to think deeper about what they read, but I don’t want it to turn into busy work. It needs to feel like an authentic way to put their own voice into what they are experiencing via the written word.

 

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We’ve also been writing. I find that with some of the curricular requirements I have (reading a full-class novel each quarter and doing vocab lists), I don’t have the time to set up workshops the way I would like. I think if it were up to me, our entire class would be set up as a workshop. We would always be in either Reader’s Workshop or Writer’s Workshop mode. I haven’t found a way to do that with us reading a whole class novel and doing sixty vocabulary words a marking period, but I do feel like I am making progress.

This quarter we wrote personal narratives using the This I Believe essay format (from NPR). We did each of the steps together: I modeled it, then they did it. I wish we had had about one more week for them to do some peer-work with them. They didn’t turn out exactly as I had hoped. Some kids did fantastic, of course, but overall I felt I could do a better job.

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The last thing I have incorporated this year is the anchor chart. I have full-on-embraced those things and the kids love them! I have been making them for everything! We have character charts, plot maps, grammar charts, critical reading charts, writing charts…they are EVERYWHERE! All the research I have done supports the use of visual cues as a way to help students absorb what they learn, so I do it.

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I’ve been working hard to write about what I’m doing and what is best practice over at The Educator’s Room as well as sites like Nerdy Book Club, Writers Who Care, and others. I also presented again at the Michigan Council of Teachers of English (MCTE) conference.

While I feel good about what I am doing and where I am going and my level of involvement in my own professional development, I guess I haven’t written about it because I don’t want to toot my own horn too much. I mean, as I typed up each of the above things, my head was swimming with the kids I’m still not reaching, what we still need to work on, and how I could do it better and more efficiently than I am now.

I’m reluctant to yell, LOOK AT ALL MY AWESOME, when I feel like it’s not the level of awesome it could be. I mean, the ideas are awesome. The practice COULD be awesome, but it still needs work.

So yes, the school year is going great…but I am also still working on it.

March Book Shower

March is when Alice is coming (the 6th).  March is Charlie’s third birthday (the 13th).  March is my thirty-seventh birthday (the 27th).  March is also READING MONTH.

March also means my last day of teaching until fall. While it is exciting to think of being done for six months, it also stressful for me getting ready to leave my students–and my classroom library–with someone else for 12 weeks.  Will the sub love and care for my books the way I do?  Will my students continue to be responsible about checking out and returning books without stealing or losing them?

What I know for sure is that I have students who are definitely reading those books. I would say that over 75% of my classes are doing more than required one independent book per marking period, and of the remaining 25% of students, less than 10% are just not reading or doing their required work.

With only 4 days left of work for this year, I would say my biggest success has been Reading Workshop. I have many things I would like to add or adjust for next year, but as my first year trying Reader’s Workshop AND being in a new grade-level and building, I would say it’s been more successful than I could have hoped.

That said, I always, always need more books. So rather than having a baby shower, I was told I should throw a book shower!

If you want to participate in my March Book Shower to celebrate the birth of Alice, mine and Charlie’s birthdays, Reading Month and the success of my first year of Reader’s Workshop just click the imagine below and it will take you to my classroom wishlist.

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This wishlist has been compiled by my students as they read and request books. There are over 300 titles, so if you click through, you can find something you would love to add to our library.

It would only take a gift of ONE book per blog reader and my students would be able to have the books that will keep them reading!

I would love it if you would share this post with others too! You can either click on the share buttons below, or you can use this when you share via twitter or Facebook:

Join me in throwing @ksluiter a Book Shower in honor of March being Reading month, her new baby girl, and her students’ love of reading! http://wp.me/p1qChn-2yS

It’s about to get crazy in Sluiter Nation…help us celebrate!

Close and Critical Reading

Because one of my district’s School Improvement Goals is literacy-based, we developed an assessment called Close and Critical Reading (CCR). I know what you’re thinking…aw jeez, another assessment.

Hear me out.

Teaching CCR skills helps students not just understand what they read better, but it helps them to intelligently talk about the features of the text, the inferences they can make, and the connections they see. Students are given a text appropriate to the content of the class they are in (we do this across the curriculum so students can build their skills in all sorts of texts, not just fiction in the English class). Then they are given four questions:

  1. What does the text say? (summarize)
  2. How does the text say it? (discuss genre, features, and language)
  3. Why does the text say it? (inference of theme, lesson, or slice of life)
  4. So what? (making connections both with self and society)

We give the test as a summative assessment four times a year (once per marking period), but we do formative assessments of these skills almost daily–at least in the English Language Arts classes.

I have been doing CCR-type lessons with my high school students for year, but now that I am a junior high teacher, I need to remember that these students need the basics before they can refine the skills.

This led me to create my very first anchor charts!
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You can see that I do not have the neatness and creativity of a seasoned anchor chart maker, but I did my best.
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and as we move on, you can tell I lost my patience with trying to write neatly…
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and instead of starting over when there were boo boos, I just fudged it.

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In order to teach these skills, we also teach active reading, but that is another post.

It’s funny because if you tell the students they are learning CCR skills, they get all groany. But if you just have them do the skills without labeling, they do it with {almost} no whining.

Couple this with all the “free” silent reading we do in class in our own books means we are building much better readers…and kids who actually like to read!

Blame the Common Core!

 

Since school has started, I have seen all the usual complaints on Facebook about the evils of the Common Core.

I don’t get the math!  Blame the Common Core!

My kid takes test every other minute!  Blame the Common Core!

My kid has too much homework! Blame the Common Core!

I heard that cursive no longer needs to be taught! Blame the Common Core!

Teachers are given scripts to read; they aren’t teaching anymore! Blame the Common Core!

It snowed in November causing a snow day! Blame the Common Core!

Ok, maybe I didn’t hear that last one, but at this point I wouldn’t be surprised if I did. Lately all the ails of education are being firmly blamed on the Common Core State Standards. As a teacher, this gets tiring to hear/read.

First of all, I didn’t create the Common Core, I just follow the standards. Secondly, I am not opposed to the Common Core. In fact, I sort of like them. I have enjoyed creating projects and lessons more in the past couple years than I have in the decade before. I personally feel more freedom to just be a GOOD teacher.  Let me break it down for you:

Math is hard.

I’m not a math teacher, so it’s hard for me to explain this part to you. I wrote about the math standards last year. Now that I have a son in Kindergarten, I have been following the math standards more closely. I am pleased that not only is he meeting each standard, but I see evidence of how he is learning it through the work that comes home in his folder. The math, so far, seems like it is doing a better job teaching students what numbers mean and how math actually works rather than having them do rote memorization. I think this video explains the math better than I can.

So many tests!

I’m not sure if this is a state thing or a district thing, but I am not seeing it in my district in Michigan. When parents (and even teachers) complain that assessments are taking over their instruction time, I’m not entirely sure if they mean mandated testing (by the state, district, etc) or if they mean assessments their department has put into place.

I give assessments, but they have nothing to do with the fact that I am following common core and everything to do with it being an end of a unit (in vocab or grammar). Papers and projects also count as assessments. And technically I am assessing my students’ understanding daily whether I put it in the gradebook as an official summative assessment or not.

The only assessments that my students HAVE to take outside of my class curriculum are the SRI (Scholastic Reading Inventory) Test (4 times a year) and the SMI (scholastic math inventory) Test (4 times a year). They also take the state test once a year (in April).

Too much homework!

I don’t know what to tell you here. Homework is not anywhere in the Common Core Standards. In fact, I assign almost no homework.

Homework is an implementation thing. So if you feel your child has too much, you should be talking with the teacher and/or administration.

No more cursive???

Ok, it’s true. Cursive is not included in the Common Core State Standards. But neither is Tuesdays with Morrie and I’m teaching that to my 8th graders. The Common Core are standards that every child in that grade should achieve. That doesn’t mean teachers can’t go beyond the standards. Just because cursive isn’t required in the standards, doesn’t mean teachers aren’t teaching it.

Teacher Scripts.

I’ve heard of this happening. Or at least I’ve heard of districts telling teachers what and how to teach. That is not happening in my district. In fact, I think it’s happening in districts that are panicked about the Common Core and how they can “teach to the test” given in their state.

The teachers in our district (and others across Michigan) have worked hours and hours to actually make learning more student-centered; to create project-based, inquiry-based, and authentic learning for their students.  Since adopting the Common Core in our district years ago (when it was first mentioned in the state), we have actually made more room for good teachers to do good teaching.

If you feel the teachers in your district are being told how to teach–and it’s not good teaching–speak up! No where in the Common Core does it say HOW to teach, only what standards to teach.

Snow Day in November??

This happened here because of a foot of snow. Not the fault of the common core.

Are there issues with the Common Core? Yes. They have become very political, money has ruled (the way it does everything else in this country), and it’s being implemented poorly in some areas.

However, as a teacher in the trenches of it all, dealing with matching what I do with these “new” standards, I like it. I block out much of the politics and bickering about testing and I just do what I do: teach the best I can.

I really believe that is what the majority of teachers are doing. I know my son’s Kindergarten teacher is doing a fabulous job…not because of the common core nor in spite of them, but because he is an amazing teacher.

*************

I am a part of the Michigan Education Association’s (MEA) Common Core Cadre that works to inform and aid districts across Michigan on best practice of implementing the Common Core State Standards. I’ve also been published in the Language Arts Journal of Michigan on the subject.

*************

The best way to be a great student no matter what the standards is to be a great reader!  Don’t forget to enter my giveaway for the children’s book Stand Up!

some parting words

Dear seniors of Sluiter Nation,

Or should I say, “Ok guys, a few things…” since that is how I start every single class, every single day for the past nine months with you.

Tomorrow (Friday) is your last day. I’ve been back and forth and kept awake at night about these last couple days with you. I want our year to end just right. I want to say just the right things to you.  But here is the deal, I can’t.

I can’t do it.

For one, if I say the things in my heart out loud, it will come out all wrong. I will make one of my faces because I will feel uncomfortable and you will all laugh. Or, and this is my bigger fear, I will cry.

Plus I would have to say all this four times since there are four classes of you guys.

So I am going to write my parting words for you (and the rest of the interwebs, I guess) to read. So here it goes…

I’m going to miss you weirdos.

I am not exaggerating when I say this has been my best year of teaching in at LEAST five years.  I have never not liked my job, but this year I loved it again.  That was because of you guys.

I can’t remember the last time I was so exhausted at the end of the school year…but in a good way. In a way that felt like I was tired because I had put forth so much of my heart and soul into good things. You guys are those good things.

And I will miss you.

First hour, I will miss the way we eased into our mornings together. School started at 7:30am, but we were never a full class until at BEST 7:45 (Ok, I won’t miss that, ya slackers!), but I do appreciate that you guys could hang out on those days of terrible weather that  made me late. I never had to worry about you guys acting like fools while I wasn’t there. I could concentrate on getting to school safely.

I’ll miss the way that even though you seemed sort of asleep, you were consistently the class who heard all the directions–even if you were always the last to get every single assignment in from each person.

I’ll miss the guys, and I’ll miss all the ladies who tolerated the guys and joined me in the eye-rolling about the guys.

Petey and Tyler, may you continue to always find a funny on a Friday even after you’re not in room 47 anymore. And Logan, I’m sorry I almost got you fired for getting you addicted to hashtags. #sorrynotsorry

Fourth hour, I will miss your great greetings.  Each of you were so good at saying, “Hey Mrs. Sluiter!” or “Good morning, Mrs. Sluiter!”  You all came in so happy each day.

And you kicked ACE at English.  You did. You amazed me on the daily. This class consistently blew me out of the water with the level of awesome that you achieved on stuff I assigned.

Whether we were talking about Beowulf, Macbeth, or you were talking in your book clubs, the stuff you came up with was awesome and so uniquely YOU.

Oh and Cody? #merica

Sixth hour, Thank you for being my after lunch class. You guys won as the class who, hands down, had the best class discussions.  You also laughed the hardest at my stories and jokes, which means you win.

I will miss your ridiculous randomness, your tireless effort to get out of work, and how shocked you all were when you realized that you could do amazing things (like write really well and read a whole book and love it).

I will miss how great you could make me feel even though it was the afternoon and I wanted to be tired.

I do give side-eye to all of you who brought in delicious-looking snacks and never shared with me. #justsayin’

Although thanks for not leaving a mess because messes = mice and bugs. Mice and bugs = GROSS.

Seventh hour, Thanks for being, by far, the chillest last hour of the day I have ever had in thirteen years in the teaching business. I know anyone who walked in my room did a double take because they couldn’t believe you all were working so hard and so quietly. I like to say I am such a BA teacher that I made you that way, but you are all just that cool.

Instead of being wild banshees at the end of the day, you guys knew to get your shiz done and get on with it. I like that.

Well, except you, Nick. You were totally out of control. #sarcasmfont

All of you…

I know you’re giggling as I get sappy here because you know there were times you did nothing in my class. I know that too. I mean, it wasn’t perfect.

There were things that I could have done differently to make you all more successful, and there were definitely things some of you could have done differently to have a better ending to this school year.

But what it came down to was this: you guys made me want to be a better teacher each day. You made me want to try new things that would help more students. And you LET me try those things–like the book clubs–without too much complaint, and even with a whole lot of encouragement.

You were honest with me.

You were fun.

You were serious.

You were ridiculous.

You were totally weird.

You were random.

You were you.

And I am going to miss each and every one of you (yes, even you).

Because I know you think teachers taking selfies is hilarious.

Because I know you think teachers taking selfies is hilarious.

I want you to know I am proud of each of you. EACH OF YOU has something from my class to be proud of. I have been praying for each of you this entire school year.

I am so happy to have been a tiny part of each of your lives.

Thank you.

~Mrs. Sluiter

“You’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting,
So… get on your way!” 

(Oh, The Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss)

way leading on to way

I’ve been listening to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ album, The Heist, a lot lately.

I’m not sure if that is either here nor there or if it has to do with anything. It’s just been my thinking music lately.

Anyway, I’m feeling…I don’t know what. Frustrated? Disappointed?  Sad. I’m feeling sad.

Last week I wrote about why the Common Core Standards are not evil. Of course, after that, I ended up seeing about fifty posts about why they are basically the anti-Christ.

I lost sleep over those posts.

I cried.

Why can’t they understand? Why can’t *I* make them understand?

Friday night, after midnight, I finally closed my Chromebook, and took my upset, worry-filled tummy to bed.  And tossed and turned all night.  I fretted all day Saturday.

I was encouraged to write another piece.

I don’t know.

Lately I feel like I am standing next to a huge…giant…ENORMOUS mountain.  If I squint, I can see the top through the fog and clouds. At the top I see a spot that I would totally look good on. I would be comfortable there. And I know, I KNOW I would rock that spot on the top of the mountain.

But then I let me eyes travel down from that spot on the top. Down the side, over the cliffs and crags, over and under the dangers and perils, until I get to my own two feet at the bottom of the mountain.

I look around me a the rather large hills that I climb each day. Some times I run up them and stand at the top with my arms raised.  Other times I pull myself up by sheer will power.

Other days I don’t quite make it to any of the tops of those hills.

And then I look back up that mountain.

I am so small.

I am just one person.

The internet is not my job. It’s not even my full-time hobby or passion.

Over the past six+ years, I have accumulated a small audience. A community I love. People out there who support my writing and push me forward in this thing called life with love and words.

But we are a small speck of the internet.

I’ve always been Ok with that because it’s never been my intent to leave teaching for writing. It’s never been my dream or goal to write a book. I have no intention of leaving this space behind, but I don’t have any plans to make a drastic life change either. I love to teach.

Let me say it again: I love to teach.

The Common Core is not my passion; teaching students is my passion.

I have a lot…a LOT…I could say in response to the outrage and rants out there on the internet by people who are not currently in education and who are basing their opinion of the Common Core on implementation strategies and procedures they are seeing in their schools or have “heard about”.

But the internet–and all those looking for a scandal and another reason to hate public schools–are not going to listen to me, a small blogger who happens to be a teacher.

No one cares about my credentials (over a decade of teaching experience, BA in English, MA with an emphasis on teaching English, member of the National Writing Project via the Third Coast Writing Project, member of the National Council of Teachers of English, high school English teacher, and adjunct English instructor at our local community college).

The fact is I am not going to write the next viral post on education.

Because posts that tell people about the good stuff that is going on due to a government-mandated change rarely go viral. Those posts get ten or so pat-on-the-back comments from people who already read that blog (which I love, by the way) and then the internet moves on to what it can be outraged about next.

If I could, I would take the internet into my district, into my school, and into my classroom. I would show you my students and their writing. I would introduce you to the families and the community.  I would let you see our brutal reality, but show you how we do such SUCH positive things every single day while following the Common Core. I would invite you to a department meeting, a staff meeting, a student meeting.

Shoot, forget about the Common Core. I don’t even care about it. What I care about is public education. I care about changing the perspective. I care about fixing the system.

I care about teaching kids. I care about making their future better.

I could climb that mountain and I could get to the top and I could be loud and proud up there.

But it’s just a big mountain.

And I’m so small.

So I will turn away from that mountain and leave it for another day.  Although, as my man Robert Frost said in a poem that is sort of famous, I know how “way leads on to way” and that I will probably  never come back.

I’d look good on top of that mountain.  I would.

But I can’t abandon the hills for the cause–or pride- of climbing a mountain.

*************

On a totally different note, my friend Jennifer P. Williams is at the tail end of her 31 days of cookies series and yesterday she posted a recipe I sent her for Chocolate Chip Meringue Cookies.

crippling expectations

A few weeks ago I bought a beautiful purple mum. I placed it on our stoop next to our front door under a fall wreath that I had created a couple years ago. Every time I pulled into our driveway, I smiled at the pretty pop of color it gave the house as all the rest of the plants had started to wither and brown.

Yesterday as I turned into our driveway, I noticed that my mums were all dried up and brown.

I had forgotten to water them.

Something was bound to give, I suppose. This is the paradox of this school year for me, and I was feeling it on Sunday.  The brown mums were the last straw, I guess you could say.

I love each and every opportunity and responsibility I have taken on this fall.

Having four sections of twelfth grade English has been so fun and such a great challenge. I love the immense responsibility of helping our school get it’s graduation rate up because it’s not just a number to me, it’s the 100 faces that show up in my classroom each day. For some of these kids it means they will be the first in their family to graduate.  That isn’t a statistic to me, it’s personal.

Last year I took on the volunteer task of doing Students of the Month at my school.  Each month I send out a survey to staff gathering nominations. Then I get to announce the winning students in each grade (one boy and one girl, so a total of six kids each month). But I don’t have it end there. I track down each student, have each fill out a profile questionnaire, and then pose for a photo. Then I ask their teachers to give me a sentence or two about the student. I take all that, combine it with their photos and post it on a bulletin board in the hall. I also submit it for the monthly school newsletter.

It’s a lot of work for no pay, but I adore it. The kids get such a proud smile when they find out they are chosen. And reading what their teachers say about them almost make me tear up. But my favorite part is watching students look at the bulletin board. It’s such a huge affirmation to our kids here.

Being back in the Community College classroom has been positive for me too.  I absolutely love teaching a class that is focused on writing. I love the discussion and the higher level of maturity I get with college students. I feel like I am able to stretch my teaching muscles in new ways through teaching this class.

On top of all that I am trying to keep up with freelance writing. I love the challenge of expository writing and researching content that I may not otherwise read about. I like practicing what I preach. I spend so much time teaching students to do good informational writing, but recently I haven’t done much of it myself. Unfortunately, when things get busy, this is the first thing I have to say no too.  And of course it’s the only one bringing me in some spending money for Christmas gifts, but I would rather give that up than give up time with my family.

This past weekend things caught up with me.

I have been diligently sticking to my time management plan, but  when 130 essays get turned in at once, things get squished.

Sunday I felt like I was failing everyone. I couldn’t grade fast enough. It consumed my entire day and evening. I wasn’t seeing my family, I wasn’t going fast enough to get the papers back to my students in a timely way.

I texted Cortney from where I sat in Starbucks armpit-deep in essays. I was crying and I told him I felt useless and horrible. He assured me I was neither and to just work through it one essay at a time.

Later when I complained that I was such a slow reader and commenter, he said, “no, you’re just really thorough. You want to give your students the tools to succeed. That is not a bad thing.”

He is right, but it makes me feel so awful.

I never feel good enough.

I have such high expectations of myself. I have such lofty goals.

I want 100% of my seniors to graduate this year.

I want 100% of my college students to get better at writing and start to like it a little bit.

I want to have a quick turn back rate so students (and parents) can understand where they are in terms of mastering my content.

I hate that it takes me weeks to get essays back.

I hate that it I can’t keep up with calling/meeting with students who are in danger of not graduating–that I run out of time to check on ALL their grades and touch base.

I wish I could give up sleep…or have an extra 12 hours added to each day just for sleeping, so the other 24 can be for other stuff. I don’t want to give up on my family or my students.

But sometimes it feels like I am failing people if I let myself sleep or watch TV or stare at Pinterest. Like I should be grading or writing or planning or doing something for someone else.  If there are items on my To Do List it seems that I am a waste if I am not working on them.

I know I have to put myself first or no one will get the best of me. I know this.

And yet…when I let myself go to bed after grading only one paper or I let myself play Words With Friends on my phone or I write this blog post instead of filing writing samples…I feel guilt.

Stupid guilt.

I take my jobs–all of them–very seriously. Very personally.

When I don’t meet my own expectations that I place on myself, I feel like I let everyone down.

pile-of-paperAm I putting too much pressure on myself? Should my expectations of myself be lower? Am I crippling myself with my expectations?

This is what I know: I can’t have high expectations of my kids–both my own and my students–if I don’t also have high expectations of myself…right?

 

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