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.

The Teacher in Me

“Mrs. Sluiter, I have NEVER had an English teacher–or any teacher really–who has been as excited as you get when you teach us grammar or when you talk about books. You’re crazy.”

I am winding down my second year as a middle school teacher (thirteenth year overall in my district) and it happens to also be Teacher Appreciation Week. Of course this means I have been thinking a lot about how I got to this place. A student asked me on Monday why I became a teacher in the first place. I think she was expecting me to say something about wanting to change the world. I always laugh at this question because at the time I made the choice, I thought it came out of nowhere, but it didn’t. Not really.

The story as I tell it is that I decided one day in my senior English class. While reading 1984 and discussing it, I blurted out that that was what I wanted to do with my life: read and talk about books. My teacher put both hands on my desk and said, “that is my job” and the rest is history.

Looking back, though, I see that I was meant to be a teacher from a very young age.

When I was in first grade, I sat my four-year-old brother down and forced him to learn to read. Oh, I set it up to look like we were playing school, but I demanded he learn and I threatened bodily harm if he didn’t do what I said. He learned to read, but I can’t say he was unscathed.

It makes me laugh now that I couldn’t see that I was meant to have a career that centered around words.

My parents like to say I haven’t stopped talking since my first words. I have always been loud and assertive. I have a very real love of books and words and how words fit together. I am lucky that I have mostly had teachers who encouraged my personality rather than try to squash it.

My elementary teachers all encouraged my voracious love of reading. I remember specifically Mrs. Larsen, our school librarian (because they weren’t media specialists back then), always helping me find just what would keep me reading from picture books in Kindergarten to Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, and Marilyn Sachs. I’m definitely the reader I am today because of them.

Middle school is awful for everyone, I think. And now that I am a middle school teacher, I notice it hasn’t really changed much. I remember my 7th grade math teacher, Mrs. Wheeler, who had a biting sense of humor and could make a room full of awkward adolescents feel like super stars in their own right. I never did fall in love with math, but she taught me that even if you’re not good at something, you should still do your best. And then laugh your way through it all.

I had excellent experiences with my high school teachers. I can really only look back and see just a few who I would say weren’t great teachers, the rest loved their subject and love their students and seemed, at least, to love their job. The two that influenced me the most to become a teacher were my British lit teacher senior year, Mr. Torgerson, and my band director, Mr. Walker. Torg helped me realized that I wanted to do his job. Walker helped guide me to the right college to get there. Both recognized my talents and embraced my ridiculous personality and found ways for me to use my loud voice for good rather than trouble.

As an undergrad at Western Michigan University, Dr. Allen Webb was the one who showed me that literature can actually change the world–that teaching isn’t just reading and discussing books, but taking the knowledge and empathy we glean from the characters and doing something about it in our own societies. He helped me see that reading creates empathy.

Since then, there have been many other colleagues and instructors that have shaped the teacher in me. My students have done that too. Even having my own children have changed and shaped who I am as an educator.

Being a teacher is stressful. It’s heartbreaking. But it makes me so very happy. I can’t imagine having any other job.

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I currently have a Donor’s Choice Project up that I am collecting donations for: A Spring Book Drive. These books, if funded, will go onto the shelves of my library for next year’s 8th graders. My current 8th graders helped choose the titles they think next year’s students will want to read. Any dollar amount is welcome!

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.

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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.

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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!

Five Books You (& your teen) Need to Read NOW!

I’ve been doing Reader’s Workshop with my 8th and 9th graders for almost 11 weeks now, and I have noticed that there are certain books I simply can’t keep on my shelves. There is constantly a wait list for these books.

Sometimes I start the craze by doing a book talk that gets the kids interested.

Sometimes they start their own craze–someone reads the book and tells a friend, and he tells a friend, and so on and so forth.  That is my favorite. In fact I was standing outside my classroom door in between classes today when I heard one of my students yell down the hall to another one of my students, “DUDE!  You checked out MY book!  I was going to get it today and you BEAT ME TO IT!  You better read fast!”

I don’t think I noticed anything else that happened today. That one interaction made me so happy.

Anyway, I thought I would share with you the Top 5 books (or series)* that I probably won’t see on my shelves again until I take inventory this summer.

Winger by Andrew Smith

I read this book on the recommendation of my friend, The Preacher’s Wife. She almost had no words for how it affected her.  The book is about a kid named Ryan Dean who everyone calls Winger due to his position on the school rugby team. He is a 14-year old junior at a very prestigious private school, that his parents put him in after he couldn’t stay out of trouble back home. On top of being young and ridiculously smart, Ryan Dean is also in love with his best friend, Annie, a fellow junior (but who is 17). His dorm-mate is the biggest bully on the rugby team and he is constantly fighting the label “kid”. This book is laugh-out-loud hilarious, but will tear you apart and leave you changed. One caveat: it has some pretty raunchy language, but it flows so well with the book, to me it’s forgivable.

The Selection (series) by Kiera Cass

I have not read this series, but I haven’t been able to keep it in my classroom since I got it. I have the first two books in the trilogy plus a special stories book that just came out in paperback. The girls in my classes check in daily to see if I have gotten the third book!  I have a lot of girls who love The Princess Diaries series, and once they finish that they want something similar. This series has some of the same aspects, but is more of a challenging read.

The reviews I read say the trilogy is like The Hunger Games meets The Bachelorette. Thirty-five girls are “selected” to vie for the crown. The main character, America Singer, is bummed to be selected because that means she is now a caste above the boy she loves, but in the process of competition she meets a prince. So there’s romance and royalty and back-stabbing.

The teenage girls love it.

The Maze Runner (series) by James Dashner

Again, I haven’t read this one, but holy cow kids love it. Boys AND girls fight to get their hands on this series. I have all four books now: The Maze Runner, The Scorch Trials, The Death Cure, and most recently added, the prequel to the series, The Kill Order. 

Apparently it’s everything I am not a fan of in books and the masses LOVE it. Most of the kids who pick it up have already worked through The Hunger Games series AND The Divergent Series and are looking for something new.  According to the student I asked today, it’s about a guy who can only remember his name. He has no other memories and all the people around him are guys and the only way out is through this maze that no one has yet made it out of. A girl shows up and says they have to run or die.  The student wouldn’t tell me more other than, “just read the book, Mrs. S. That is what you tell us!”

Fricking kids actually listening to what I say.

13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher

The girls in my classes pretty much keep my “death & dying section” completely empty. As I type this there are zero books on that shelf.  This is another book I haven’t read yet. Not because I don’t want to, but because my students really want it, so I am just waiting until either summer, or when I can check it out of the library over a break (or maternity leave).

The book is about a kid named Clay who gets a package from a classmate (and crush), Hannah, who committed suicide. Inside the package are cassette tapes where Hannah narratives 13 reasons why she killed herself, one of them being Clay.  He has to listen to find out why.

From that alone I can see why my students want to read it. I mean shoot, want to read it.

Why Soccer Matters by Pele

I use this one as an example, but really any soccer books fly off my shelves. I have so many soccer fans. I also have a book by Dr. J that my basketball players keep rotating among themselves. Students who claim to not be readers, tend to get interested in non-fiction about people and sports and activities they love. This is one section of my classroom library I am really trying to beef up. Even though these are not my first choice of book, many of my students gravitate toward these.

When I have a reluctant reader, the first thing I ask is “what do you like to do?” If they are into a sport or a hobby, I direct them to my nonfiction section. It seems that if I can get them hooked there, they are likely to ask for more books.  What is interesting is that nonfiction tends to be more challenging to read than a lot of the fiction I have, yet my reluctant and non-readers would rather read (and be seen with) a book about a soccer champ, than something else.

Have you read any of these books? Do you have any suggestions based on these? What are your teens reading?

*I could include in here The Fault in Our Stars by John Green and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie in this, but I already posted about those and how you need to read them.

My students are HUNGRY for new books! If you are feeling generous, we are always taking donations. Here is a list of student-requested titles.

Living the Reader’s Workshop

Friday I missed school to attend–and present–at the MCTE (Michigan Council of Teachers of English) annual conference in Lansing.

I haven’t been to the conference in years, but this year I was invited to create a presentation proposal with two professors from a local private college about using Reader’s Workshop. Our proposal was accepted and before I knew it, I was on the schedule and registered as a presenter.

The presentation went really well.

My part was first and concentrated on using the Reader’s Workshop with 8th and 9th graders. I also gave my perspective as someone who is very new (only 9 weeks of experience) and what successes and challenges I am seeing so far.

This is where I wish my dumb blog would allow me to add pictures.  In just nine weeks I had an enormous reaction to Reader’s Workshop.

On the day that I was out presenting, I had my students fill out a personal reflection sheet about how it’s been going. Almost unanimously, students agreed that the time we read in class is important and they wish we could do it more often. With the exception of only 5 or less students, everyone said the wish we could read LONGER than 20 minutes and more OFTEN than 3 times a week.

I wholeheartedly agree!

Kids also asked for more books. More from series that I already have, more biographies and memoirs of athletes, more titles like (fill in the blank), more, more, MORE!

Do you know how fantastic it is to hear kids who ten weeks ago claimed, “I don’t really like to read. It’s not my thing,” ask for MORE BOOKS??? It’s amazing!

Kids are also recommending books to each other and telling their parents about their books. At parent teacher conferences tonight I lost track  of how many parents said, “S/he said the other night s/he was going to go read. I couldn’t believe it!” This made me smile SO DANG BIG! And it backed up my claim that if you don’t think you like to read, you haven’t found the right book yet.

The presentation on Friday also gave me ideas of what else to slowly add. One presenter had a good chart for having the kids fill out each day what book they are reading and what page they are on. It’s more organized than my pieces of notebook paper I have been passing around and losing. Oops. I’m hoping that this will be better for data collection.

The other presenter had a cool quote analysis sheet I am going to do with students once a week where they choose a quote from their book to talk about what it means and what connections they can make to it.  This is also a good jumping point for some discussion and takes us beyond mere summarizing–our focus in the first quarter.

I do still have some challenges. Finding something that will get EVERY kid reading is still a struggle. There are a couple kids in each class that are either “book hoppers”–they “read” from a different book every time we have silent reading which really means they are not reading anything at all. Or they are “Media Center Denizens”–every time we are going to read they need to go look for a book in the media center because I just don’t have what they want in my classroom.

I also have a hard time with time. I have full novels I have to read each quarter with my classes as well as grammar, vocabulary, and writing that is mandatory. Being able to fully commit to the Reader’s Workshop model has been almost impossible, but I think I’m working it the best I can.

Next week I am going to share with you some of the books my students love best in case you are looking for gift ideas for the 13-15 year olds in your life!

If you are feeling like giving to students this season, you can find my Amazon Wish List for my Classroom Library here. We are ALWAYS taking donations (and the titles there are all student-generated).

an identity change

In December of 2000, I walked into a ninth grade English classroom to meet some of the students I would have the privilege of student teaching after Christmas break.

Since that moment I have been a high school teacher.

Oh, I have taught lots of subjects: English 9, Honors English 10, English 11, Honors English 11, English 12, Mass Media, Drama, Speech, Humanities, Applied Writing, Study Skills, Spanish 1, and Spanish 2.

I have been in two different high school buildings in the same district and even traveled to teach 9th graders when they were moved to the junior high.

I went through the combining of the two high schools.

I was an adviser for Student Council, headed the 11th grade state testing, was senior class adviser, and ran the Students of the Month program.

I have chaperoned proms and homecomings and swirl dances. I have been to countless sports games, band and choir concerts, and theater productions.

I’ve spoken at award ceremonies and been given awards by students.

I’ve been to 13 graduations, helped with the ceremony in at least half of those, and gone to numerous graduation open houses.

I’ve hugged and cried with students as they succeed or fail.

I am a high school teacher.

Actually, I was a high school teacher.

For thirteen years.

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As of last week, I am now a middle school teacher.

I got the email/call from my principal and from central office that an ELA position (and three other high school positions, actually)  had to be eliminated at the high school due to budget cuts, but because of retirements and resignations, there were not going to be any job losses, but people would have to be shuffled around.  I was chosen to be one of those people.

This summer I will pack up my classroom that I have only been in for two years (because of the high schools combining, I moved to the high school building two years ago) and move to the junior high.

This fall I will be an 8th grade ELA teacher (unless the schedule changes, which it might. I could be teaching anything from 7-9 ELA or Spanish. But the chances are zero that I will stay at the high school).

I went through a lot of emotions last week. The strongest were rage and sadness.  I was also confused.  I don’t think I reacted as well as I could have and I said a lot of things without thinking them through.  As with many things, I reacted strongly and quickly. It didn’t help that I was already staring down at the hole that is depression. This pushed me into the hole.

But after a week of talking things through with Cortney and one of my most trusted professional friends, I have come to the conclusion that I am not mad that I am going to teach 8th grade ELA. I am not unhappy about working at the Junior High.  Our district is amazing. Working in any of our buildings means a chance to influence and help kids.

No, I am grieving a change in my identity.

After 13 years, I am no longer a high school teacher. That is what is hardest about all this.

It’s not moving buildings or teaching a different class.  I’ve done those things before with no problem.

It’s not working with new staff or a new department. I’ve done that too.

Being a high school teacher was who I was. It was part of my identity. In the blink of an eye, my identity has been changed.  And because of that I am grieving.

I know everything will work out and that my  new position will be fine. I look forward to the people I get to work with in my “new” department, and the administration at the Junior High is awesome. It will be fine.

But it’s still hard, ya know?

I loved my seniors this past year. They rekindled my love of teaching. Perhaps that is exactly what I needed before this new adventure.  I thought that the great year meant that I was finally in the place I needed to be. But maybe it was preparing me for the place I needed to be.

seniors14It will be fine…great even.

In time.

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For all who donated books, fear not! They will come with me while I build my library at the Junior High. Some may be stored due to being too adult for 13 year olds, but I am still planning to do Reading Workshop with my 8th graders. In fact, I added some more age-appropriate titles to my Class Library Wish List if you are still thinking of donating.  Thank you all for your support. You are my village.

 

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)

A Letter to the Depressed

It’s a fragile thing, this life we lead.
If I think too much I can get overwhelmed by the grace
By which we live our lives with death over our shoulders*

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

I am currently in the process of watching you spiral down. Again.

It’s hard and it sucks and it’s not the first time you have been down this road, but just like every time I hope it’s the last.

Depression sucks.

Depression tricks you into thinking you don’t matter and that nothing you say or do will work to get rid of it anyway. So you try things that make you feel good in the moment, make you forget that your brains sucks at being a brain.

You take risks because, why not? When you’re not risk-taking you feel like garbage, so you may as well try all the things that will make you fee–at least for a little while–like none of the trash in your head matters.

Depression is heaps and heaps of bags of rotting trash leaking all over your brain. Leaking into your thoughts and memories. Tainting every day activities and routines and making them unbearable.

You can’t get through even mundane tasks because it feels like such a heavy burden.

Depression dupes you into thinking that making the same old bad choices will somehow have a different outcome and that things will be better this time.

Instead you barrel towards the pit again, and you are surprised to find that all those things you did to try to hide the rubbish piles in your brain didn’t help…again.

You cycle.

You get just far enough out of the pit to tell yourself that this time will be different.

But you don’t follow through with finding a permanent solution to the trash removal.  You think, because depression tells you so, that you can handle all that refuse on your own because you feel better. You’ll haul it all out by yourself with your new-found energy.

Slowly you’re overwhelmed. You’ve gotten rid of a few of the bits of litter only to find that Depression has piled on a whole new truck load.

You cycle.

Depression tells you to do the things that felt good before.  The ones that put up the curtain, the screen. You can’t see the depression when you do those things…but that doesn’t mean it’s gone.

It’s never gone.

Life is fragile.

But you know that because, well, you just know. Depression even told you a few times that life was worthless. And you believe that.

You want it to go away…you want it all to go away.

But you don’t want to change.

Change is hard. It’s scary. You don’t know what you look like without all this.

What if…what if it’s not better?

But what if it is?

You can’t keep living life in a constant state of “barely” forever.

You can’t keep living life staring at the ground in front of you wishing it would change.

You need to look up–despite what Depression tells you about there being nothing there. There is. Something there, I mean. It’s a light.

But you need to look up to see it.  And probably squint really hard.

Ok so maybe from where you are, with all the garbage bags piling up, you can’t see it. But it’s there.

You can’t see the air, but you know it’s there because you are breathing it, and you are alive.

The light is there too.

You know because you are alive.

You can go to that light. You can be warmed by it’s energy-giving light.

But you have to want to.

You have to want to make a change. You have to decide to go against everything Depression is telling you.

It’s a lot of work. It’s hard. It’s scary.

Change seems way less secure than the dangerous things you’re doing now.

It’s scary to open your mouth and tell those around you, “I need to stop and change because I’m broken, and if I keep this up I will be dead.”

It’s hard to believe you matter, but you do. You are important. The hard work will be worth it.

I know. I’ve done it.

I am doing it.

Every day.

I hope this time you will join me.

We can do hard things…together.

We can claim the light for you too.

light

*lyrics from “Sirens” by Pearl Jam

Why I Don’t Assign Homework

Homework: The eternal struggle of student, parent, and teacher.

I see it all over my Facebook feed and Twitter feed. The lament of parents bemoaning the amount, the complexity, or the sheer ridiculousness of their children’s homework.

Homework seems to be the bane of everyone’s existence, doesn’t it? Teachers hate grading it; students hate doing it; and parents hate begging their kids to do it. So why is it a thing? What good does homework do?

I will admit up front that as a high school teacher I give very VERY little homework.  I never had a theory grounded in research other than my own, but what I saw was that students who did the homework were the “good” students and those who didn’t do the homework were the “bad” students. After about two weeks of school I could pick out who would always do the homework and who would never do the homework.

I started asking myself questions starting with “If a vast majority of my students are not doing the homework, what is that homework for?”

And if the homework isn’t necessary to passing the class, why am I assigning it?

And if it is what makes a child FAIL my class, is their grade really reflective of their ability to meet the standards of my class or is it reflecting their irresponsibility/lack of resources?

Which lead me to wonder what a grade in my class was really communicating vs what it should be communicating.

Why I Don't Assign Homework

The past couple months I have spent much of my free time devoted to reading about homework practices and wondering if I was off-base with my beliefs. Many teachers give me the side-eye when they find out I give next to zero homework to my high school seniors. It seems that the idea is if you don’t give homework, you must be “too easy” of a teacher, and if you pile on the reading and writing you must be a “hard” teacher and therefore “good”.

In the book, Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs by Cathy Vatterott, I read about the culture of homework and how these ideas of “more is smarter and better” have become ingrained in our society’s theory of a quality education.

Most parents who bemoan the endless hours of homework their kids have, also question a teacher who gives less (or no) homework. What is that teacher doing? Why is there no homework? The teacher’s credibility as an expert in her field or in his profession get seriously questioned.

The idea that doing homework  makes students better or smarter, and not doing homework hurts students is a false dichotomy.

Homework is only as beneficial as the assignment given and the purpose behind it. Homework for the sake of homework is actually doing more harm than good.

Why I Don't Give Homework

When I am deciding whether or not to put something in the gradebook, I ask myself, “Is this task showing that the student has mastered (or not mastered) a standard for this unit?” If the answer is “no”, I don’t grade it.

This has resulted in my gradebook having WAY fewer assignments than most teachers, and it has gotten me emails about what else will be going in the gradebook toward student grades.

Just because there are fewer graded assignments and virtually zero homework, does not mean we are doing nothing in my class, which seems to be the popular conclusion.

Each day when my students walk in there are goals (which align with my standards) on the board next to their bell ringer assignment (what they work on as soon as they enter the room). My classes are busy from bell to bell. Lately, we have been reading Macbeth. 

Yes, I could assign the reading for homework, but where does that leave slow readers, students who are still learning the English language, and/or students who do not have the time due to family/personal obligations? What happens when only one student “gets it” when reading on his own?

School is not supposed to be full of traps to try to fail students.  School is supposed to be a tool to help students learn and learn TO learn. We read literature like Macbeth together because the stopping and explaining helps students know when to do stop and question on their own. While reading, I teach students to write in the margins of their copy of the play. I teach them to re-read sections and make meaning.

The homework I give falls under the categories of “practice” or “pre-learning.” Practice means I KNOW the students understand the concept and they just need to put forth some practice. I might ask students to choose a passage from something we already read in Macbeth and look at the figurative language of it. When they bring it to class, we would discuss what they brought back, but I might not grade it. I’m looking to see if they “get it” so it can be formally assessed later or if I should re-teach it.

The “pre-learning” homework is like having students read something that I know they can handle.  Maybe I will have a chapter due for discussion. I don’t give points for having it done, but I do informally assess whether the reading is going Ok and if they are “getting” the concept we are working on.

When I do assign outside work, I remind my students of their options for getting it done.

Our school offers extended library hours for students, so those who don’t have a good place at home to do it, can do it with teacher guidance at school.

I make myself available after school almost every day to help students or to just give them a place to do homework.

We also have something called Third Period Extension. This is a half-hour block between 2nd period and 4th period for students to do everything from ACT practice to homework time. At least once a week students get their grades checked by their extension teacher.

In the end, I am not going to assign students homework just for them to not do it. I am also not going to punish students with zeros for assignments that are not showing mastery of a standard.

When a parent looks at their child’s grade in my class, I want them to know that the grade shows what level of mastery the student is currently at in English 12. Not that they are good at getting work turned in. Not that they struggle with finding time between basketball practice, taking care of their little sister while mom works 2nd shift. Not that they are still learning English.

I still manage to make my class rigorous and challenging; I just don’t do it by assigning loads of meaningless homework.

**read more about the studies on the effectiveness of assigning homework**

being the change

I didn’t get into teaching to “save the world.”

I know that is what every idealistic young teacher seems to be doing, but I wasn’t.  I really decided on teaching because I wanted to get paid to read and talk about books. I also wanted to maintain a life that was divided neatly into semesters.

I saw the movie Dangerous Minds as a senior. I wanted nothing to do with being that teacher. That looked hard. Inspiring, but hard.

The education courses I took on “classroom management” and “social & political issues in education” did nothing to prepare me for kids who fall asleep in class because he was up all night working to help support his family or the lack of support state governments actually give to local districts.  In fact, the policy that I had to read about my junior year of college was outdated and obsolete by the time I found myself with my own classroom less than five years later.

That stuff just didn’t matter to me.  I also didn’t care about getting students to write or learn grammar or vocabulary.

I just wanted to read books and plays and poetry and talk about it.  I wanted students to get as excited about Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech as I do.

I figured I would go to college, student teach in my old high school, and get a job in my old high school.

Yeah, that’s not how things worked for me.

The university I graduated from has a policy that all student teachers much do their placement in a district that fits urban/diversity requirements.  No one ever got placed in an “affluent” district.

This scared the crap out of me because I was from an affluent district. I was afraid of students who were not “easy.” Surely this white chick who has suffered a total of ZERO in her life and was from Whitetown, USA would never survive among kids with real issues.

But no matter how many excuses I came up with, I was placed in the school district where I currently teach.  That was thirteen years ago last month.

Now when students and others ask me if I ever tried to get a job closer to home (I have a 35-45 minute commute twice a day) and to a “better” district I say, “nope. Not ever. I already work in the best district! Why would I want to leave?”

I’m telling the truth.

The district for whom I work is amazing. The personal relationships and bonds the teachers form with our students is unparalleled anywhere else.  We are like a huge family.

That is why when I have students who are suffering, it weighs really heavily on me.

Often I find myself crying on my way home from school telling God, “I wanted to talk about books,  not change lives. Not save anyone!”

But this is what he gave me.

I do get to read books and talk about them. Today we read the scene in Macbeth where Lady Macbeth tries to repeatedly wash non-existent blood from her hands. The conversation was great. We will finish the play tomorrow and I have students who don’t want it to end.

But I also get students who tell me (verbally and in writing) about the struggles in their lives.

I spend a lot of time listening. I also share my personal struggles.

I give so much of myself and the only thing I hope for in return is for them to not treat me like dirt…to not throw my kindness back at me and trample on my heart.

To not let me down.

But it happens. More frequently than I care to admit.

I work with teenagers, not saints.  They aren’t doing it out of meanness (most of the time), but out of teenagerness. And troubled teenagerness.

You know, not developed brains and such.

I try not to take it personally, and most of the time I don’t.

But those kids.  Man, if I don’t love ’em.

I find myself praying for them.  And asking others to pray for them.

Man, I didn’t set out to save the world, and I still don’t think that is within my grasp, but something in me has changed.

Instead of just coming to work, reading and discussing, I am there for so much more.

I’m not just the person who assigns readings and papers and vocab.

I’m there to change a little something in each student.

I’m there to be changed a little by each student.

It’s not the world, but to some of those students it might feel like it.

I hope.

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