I Will Hold Your Hand and Make You Strong

Most of us know that when we need help in our life, we look to those who are closest to us for strength.  We quite literally and figuratively “hold” the hands of those who desperately need us to help them find whatever answers they may be seeking, and thereby, we offer them solace and comfort.  In the last couple of weeks, I’ve realized that this is also true of teachers, whether it be “holding” a student’s hand through a difficult project to ensure that they have the best possible chance of success, or “holding” the hand of a student who needs emotional comfort.

I have thought countless times that as a teacher I am part educator and part counselor.  We wear many hats as a teacher, not the least of which is helping students to find who they are and who they want to be.  In the last several weeks, I have found myself being counselor almost as often as being educator, and I have found that it is quite cathartic for me in terms of settling issues with which even I have been grappling.  The power of talk is not overrated when it comes to settling the uneasiness in a young person.  However, often the tables are turned, and it is the students who come to our aid.

I was out sick with the flu for two days this week, and when I returned I was treated to many of my students inquiring about my health.  Many students actually said they missed me and were happy to see me return to school.  You know, so often for me it is those small kindnesses from students that touch me more than the big gestures of kindness that are so pervasive in our world today.  Sometimes, it’s the simple “We missed you” that makes even a teacher know that her students are “holding” her hand and making her strong, making her a better teacher, making her a better person.  It simply made me smile.  Now, that’s a good day.

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Don’t grow weary while doing good…

So, my dad passed away a month ago.  It was sudden, completely unexpected, and has introduced an unbelievably painful time in my life.  My father was a champ!  He was the first man in my life who truly believed in my strength as a woman, as an intellect, and as a fierce individual.  His death left me questioning almost every aspect of my life, and I haven’t come to many conclusions or answers to the continued examination of what I know my life to be thus far.

On the day that I returned after my father’s funeral, one of my students gave me spiritual quotes to read each day for one month after my father’s death.  The quotes were given to me in a faux medicine bottle with instructions.  The bottle sat on my desk, untouched, until this morning.  I opened the bottle, pulled out the first quote, and it read, “Let us not grow weary while doing good.”  It struck a chord with me instantly simply because it is so easy to grow weary, not only while doing good, but simply by just trying to get through life.

Sometimes as teachers, we can grow weary of our subject matter, our students, the grind of reading, grading, and being innovative in our classrooms.  Sometimes our students can grow weary of lectures, homework, tests, studying, and the lack of innovation inside the classroom.  How do we stave off weariness?  How do we continue to grow and flourish while doing good?   I’m not sure I have the answers to these questions, but I’m going to reach into that bottle tomorrow morning and pull out the next inspirational quote, and I’m going to hope that the weariness in my heart lessens just a bit.

Every day, when my students leave my classroom, I leave them with this, “Be good.”  Two small words that can have a huge impact.  So, to the weary of heart and soul, be good, do good, and hope that the good will outweigh the weary.

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The Power of Student Blogging

Being in a 1 to 1 environment has enabled me to explore new ways of teaching and helping students to model methods of good writing.  I have struggled every year to engage the students with the beauty of writing by attempting to show how powerful effective writing can be, but also how engrossing it can be to evoke emotions from others via their own, personal contributions.

Every Friday, my Juniors and my Freshmen participate in “Get Your Blog on Friday” on our class blog.  I use the word “our” because ownership of the blog by the students is vital to its success and the success of learning for the students.  I show the students a video prompt as a starting point for their own posts. The students then post (an original piece of writing) and comment (responding to another student’s post).  The experience has been truly a pathway of growth and revelation for me as a teacher, and for the students, it has become a way for them to have a voice in the world.

Last week, I implored my students to break out of the boring, “cookie cutter” way of writing that has been drummed into their heads very often by the same teachers who are asking for creativity.  While it is important to understand good methodology in terms of writing, I have seen students’ trepidation about doing it (writing) wrong, and therefore, they tend to write “small.”  They often find it difficult to share themselves with their audience, and they are often lost when it comes to evoking emotion via their words.

One student was having issues trying to get started on his blog post.  “Ms. Allen, I heard want you want us to do, but I’m still confused about how to respond to the video prompt.”  I told him to go to the first page of our blog and gave him the names of three students whose posts were not only well written, but revealed something special in terms of the person who wrote them.  He read the three posts, and looked up at me with watery eyes, and said, “I get it.”  I have to admit that I was moved by his reaction. He was then able to write his finest blog post since we started blogging in October because he modeled good examples from his fellow classmates.

Student blogging is about reaching out to the world and reaching back to your past.  Student blogging is about learning about your classmates and learning about yourself.  Student blogging is about revelation, collaboration, and the power of teenagers and their voices in the writing universe.

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Retelling Beowulf–The Comic Book Way

Recently, my Juniors completed a project in which they had to choose one of the battles from Beowulf, and using a comic book site that I found, create a comic book to retell the legacy of the battle.

The students had to choose backgrounds, hero figures, write the dialogue, and put it all together to tell their story.  I added a twist into the project.  The groups had to add either another hero or another villain into the original story, as well as the burying of a time capsule filled with significant articles relating to the story and the Anglo-Saxon period.The students were then asked to present to the class their comic book and the contents of their time capsule, as well as their reasoning for their decisions.

Here is just one of the many fantastic comic books my students created.

Beowulf vs dragon-2

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What is a classroom?

Over the last several weeks the question of what really makes a classroom has been popping into my mind.  As someone who learned in a very traditional classroom from 1st through 12th grade, having the opportunity to have netbooks in my classroom has really been an adventure.  I say adventure in the best possible way, and I say adventure because my students and I have explored, learned, and pushed ourselves out of our comfort zones in terms of integrating the use of the computers into our every day classroom culture.

As an adult who did not grow up with technology, I quickly embraced it when it became available in my personal life.  As a teacher, I can now see its benefits in my classroom.

As an English teacher who moved to a project-based classroom approximately three years ago, the addition of netbooks into my curriculum did not necessarily make me nervous.  I had had students working collaboratively for the last several years, I had minimized the number of tests and quizzes in order to phase in multiple projects each quarter, and I had begun to use “cloud” computing sites such as turnitin and animoto.  So, when the decision was made that I would be one of the very lucky teachers to co-initiate this one-to-one program, I was thrilled and honored.

Here are some of my observations thus far:

  • Every day I learn from my students, and they learn from me.
  • Computers are a tool to initiate a new way of learning where students can collaborate, inquire, and be impassioned about learning.
  • One-to-one has altered the look, feel, and rhythm of my classroom.
  • Students have begun to seek knowledge and answers on their own.  They are becoming a learning community with and for each other.

There are probably a dozen more that I could list, but I’d rather leave you with this.  Technology has broken down the walls of my classroom, and I like it!

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Anytime, Anywhere Collaboration

My Freshman students are working on a group project, and as the quarter is quickly coming to an end, it always comes to pass that one absent member of a group can really blindside the group as a whole.

Today, one member of a group is out sick; however, she knew she wasn’t feeling well yesterday, and so her group decided that if she were out, they would communicate via google docs and the chat feature.  As I write this, I am looking at two 15-year-old girls in my classroom who are creating, collaborating, discussing, and learning with another 15-year-old girl who is home sick.

Learning really does happen anywhere and anytime!

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Blogging–The Authentic Writing

So, I have been blogging with my students for four weeks now.  I have had some profound insights into the effectiveness of blogging, as well as the trappings associated with asking students to engage their audience.

I would say that my Juniors hit the ground running with our class blog.  They have been keenly aware that they are writing for an audience larger than simply the teacher, and therefore have continued to improve their posts in terms of grammar and mechanics.  However, the area in which my Juniors have really reached great heights is in the department of effective, focused, and impassioned writing.  They have told me that they feel they are becoming not only better writers, but that they enjoy writing far more because the voice is authentic.  It is them speaking to the world.

My Freshmen have had more issues than what I had expected.  They are still writing “safe.”  Not willing to make mistakes, their writing is rarely peppered with great insight.  Their posts are short and do not have the depth in them that is necessary to engage their audience.  When they comment on other posts, it is a brief “I really liked your post. . .” rather than what spoke to them about the post.  I have had my Freshmen read the Junior’s blog, and can only hope that this will help the younger students with modeling good writing.

All of my students have seen a shift in their writing, and I would say that the knowledge that the whole world is watching, and that writing is not about getting it done but rather it is about doing it well, has changed the vibe in the classroom. The authenticity that is blogging has begun to shape the students’ views about themselves, each other, and certainly about topics that affect the world.  With comments from fellow classmates, teachers, and random strangers who pop into the blog, my students have begun to see the richness of their own words. Now if that isn’t powerful, I don’t know what is!

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Aha Moments–My Students–Priceless

I remember reading a piece of short fiction by Julia Alvarez entitled “Aha Moment.”  Alvarez recounts a harrowing moment on a plane when it looked as if the plane might crash.  Alvarez, holding the hand of the woman next to her (a complete stranger), is submerged into her “aha” moment when she realizes that it is human kindness that will always see us through the darkness.  That simple gesture of taking someone’s hand when they are fearful is as comforting as hot chocolate on a cold winter day.

I have had so many “aha” moments this school year; however, the most profound ones have been the realization that my students can be far more eloquent than a great poet, more determined than a man fighting to live, and kinder than the innate goodness of a child.  Let me tell you about just one moment.

Last week, I showed my students a video clip of Taylor Mali, former teacher turned poet, who speaks about our society’s lack of conviction when speaking.  He is funny, creative, and downright on point.  My students loved the video.  On our class blog, I had them post their responses to the clip, and that was when my moment hit.  The beauty, tenacity, and articulation with which they wrote was astounding.  I was literally moved to tears by some of the responses, as many of the students shared their desires to speak their beliefs with certainty, no matter what the consequence.  It was a day that showed me yet again why I became a teacher.

Maybe my “aha” moment was that I should be looking for the big wave in the pond because I didn’t realize I could gain so much from what seemed like such a simple assignment.   Maybe it was being reminded that as they learn from me, so too I learn from them.  Maybe it was realizing that I gave my students the gift to speak and be heard–because I heard them, my fellow teachers heard them, and now the world can hear them.  Take a look.

And the Journey Begins. . .

Live, Learn, Blog

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Different Strokes for Different Folks

One way we can begin to support our kids to be happy, motivated, and creative is to model all three of those for our students. I think so often we let the day-to-day grind overtake our own enthusiasm for teaching and learning. We have all stood in front of a room of kids, and on our really good days, we have them learning (really learning) with a mixture of laughter and creativity. We need to be the standard for what we want out of our students.

We, as teachers, need to be empowered to figure it out for ourselves what works best in our classrooms in order to have students succeed according to varying standards. Not all students learn the same, and therefore not all teachers should be made to teach the same way.

Recently, I sat in a room with well over 100 teachers from grade schools and high schools who are excited about new possibilities for themselves and for their students. I was motivated, I felt appreciated for the work I do, and I know that these teachers are now a part of my learning community. I can only hope that away from this glowing haze of connected learning, I will be supported for the teacher and learner I am.

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Technology: Fear or Resistance?

I love the school in which I teach; however, I am struck by the number of teachers and students who hold technology in a space of fear, or worse yet, in a space of resistance.  As someone who did not graduate from high school or college in a time when technology was ever-present, I knew that it was up to me to learn, to challenge myself, and to venture out of my comfort zone when it came to just about any technology: cell phones, ipods, computers, heck even learning how to use On Demand on my TV.

So, considering I was once crawling through technology (I’m not sure if I’m beyond walking now), I have found myself gently challenging teachers and students to embrace all that is good about technology.  I have met with fear and resistance from both teachers and students.  Fear that they will “mess up” the computer, or lose a document on which they have been working; fear of technology they have never used before.  Resistance over technology because “doing” school the way we’ve been doing it for the past 50 years is okay and effective.  The attitude very often is: If it isn’t broke, why change it?  It is precisely because education is breaking that we must embrace technology as a tool.  It is not the total answer, but it is part of the equation.

Don’t fear what can make you a better teacher and/or student; technology will never replace a great teacher who embraces learning for his/her students and for him/herself.  Don’t resist change, because without it, no one would be reading this right now.

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