Senior Letters: Saying Farewell and Good Luck

Thus far, I’ve had the pleasure of having seniors every year I’ve taught. And while, at times, this can be stressful and overwhelming, it’s also a grade I really love. There’s nothing more satisfying than sharing in their excitement and nerves for the possibilities of the next chapter in their life.

Perhaps the biggest “challenge” I face with teaching seniors is having to say goodbye to students whom I’ve built a strong connection with all year. So to send them off and ensure they know how special they are, I started a tradition where I write every senior a “letter” to say goodbye. Let me first say, this idea was completely stolen from my good friend and former colleague, Thessalea, who is both a wonderful teacher and human.

It may sound daunting to write every senior a letter, and, truth be told, it can be time consuming, but I’m also not writing long letter. Each student gets a few sentences to a (short) paragraph in which I reflect on happy memories we shared, hopes for their future, and finally, wishes of luck for what’s to come. This year, unlike last year, I also added a special touch to each student’s letter by handwriting their names at the top of their notes in (faux) calligraphy. That little touch, which students knew took time and care, was especially touching to students.

I’ve found that this simple gesture, this small token, makes a tremendous impact on students. It’s my final way of showing students just how important they are.

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The Power of Student Reflection

When it comes to most things in life, I’m my biggest critic, and teaching is no different. There are rarely times when I look back on a lesson or a unit and I’m satisfied. I can always look back and find at least something that I would do differently, some way I feel I failed myself and my students. My self-deprecation is something I’m really working on, but, in some ways, it also fuels my teaching. Because I can always see ways in which I can improve as a teacher, I’m always seeking out new strategies and activities to better engage my students.

Because of my self-deprecation, there are times when I’m overcome with this sense of failure, a sense that I haven’t done enough for my students. But what amazes me is how students very rarely feel the same about my teaching.

Recently, I had a student run discussion in which students reflected on the research paper process we had just gone through (with snow days and breaks, this was an over-a-month-long process); I was expecting students to tear me apart in the same way I’d been doing to myself throughout the process. Before the discussion occurred, I ran through the list in my head of all the things I would do differently for next year, all the things that could have gone better, and I was ready for students to address that and beyond. But I was surprised and, dare I say it, proud to hear students’ reflections.

Nearly all of the students had positive things to say. Sure, there were a few “I wish I had more time on this specific part of the process,” but, in general, they reflected on how they felt really supported along the way and understood why and how the steps we took were necessary and helpful. And, trust me, I kept pushing them to criticize me. “Be honest. Totally honest. Saying something was negative about the process won’t impact your grade; I want to know!” I kept urging them, but the majority of students didn’t have anything negative to say, and the few critiques they had were either things I had already planned on changing for next year or things that reflected their dislike for the type of assignment in general.

As teachers, I think it’s common for us to focus on what we aren’t doing or what we aren’t doing as well as we would like, but my students reminded me that we are doing great work, we are helping our students, and we are making a big impact on them every day.

Restorative Circles: What They Are and Why You Should Use Them

This year, the high school where I work started a new initiative around restorative practices. The idea behind restorative practices is rather than using traditional, punitive discipline with students, we, instead, provide students with ways to learn and grow from their mistakes, meaning the purpose of the consequences students receive is personal growth and responsibility. I can understand why some people might, upon first glance, see this system as rewarding students for bad behavior or, at the very least, not holding them accountable when they break the rules, but I couldn’t disagree with this perspective more. When used correctly, I see restorative practices as not only holding them accountable for the rules, but ensuring that if they do slip up, they will learn from it and (hopefully) not repeat the same mistake again.

As part of the restorative practices initiative, teachers have been asked to run community building circles, or restorative circles, periodically in their classes. A restorative circle is a space in which all students are given the opportunity to speak in a safe, structured environment. These circles can be used simply to get to know each other and check in, or they can be used to resolve classroom issues.

To run a circle, you must first, as one might assume, place the students in a circle. If you’re able to, try to have just chairs and no desks; I think this encourages students to be more open and less guarded. You also want to ensure that there are no gaps in the circle, so you should remove any extra chairs/desks. Additionally, you will need to have a talking piece for the circle; this visually represents when students may speak and when they should be listening. I use a 3D printed octopus that my husband made me, but I’ve also used a pencil when I couldn’t find the octopus; I just wouldn’t use anything fragile.

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My talking piece: a 3D printed octopus

Below is a restorative circle I ran with all of my classes on the second day:

The rules or guidelines for the restorative circle can be found in section 4 of this outline. It’s important to go over these and ensure that students understand them before you continue with the circle.

I’ve used circles mainly as a tool for students to get to know each other and get more comfortable with each other. However, recently, when conflict arose in one of my classes, I had two of our school’s adjustment counselors run a circle around respect in the classroom. Because I had already run circles in the class, this restorative circle, around a more sensitive issue, ran smoothly, and students said they felt like they gained important insight from this circle. This circle also gave students who are quieter (and had felt disrespected by some students) the opportunity to share their thoughts and experiences.

Whether using circles for building community, addressing conflict, or checking in, I’ve found restorative circles are incredibly beneficial for students, and I can’t recommend them enough!

TodaysMeet: An Online Discussion Board

I’m sure that many teachers have already spoken/written about the online platform, TodaysMeet; however, because I’ve finally had the chance to use it (twice), I wanted to share my thoughts on this digital medium and its uses in the classroom.

So what is TodaysMeet?

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Screenshot of a sample discussion board on TodaysMeet.

TodaysMeet is an online discussion board that enables people to create a “room” in which multiple people can have an online discussion. The person who creates the room is then able to determine how long it can be open, and, in addition, they can download a transcript of the conversation before it closes. (With the paid version a transcript can be created even after the room is closed, which might be useful for some teachers.)

I decided to use TodaysMeet for two different discussions in two different classes. The first class was having a discussion on an emotionally-charged topic, feminism, so I decided to make the discussion online in hopes that it would prevent some potential emotional outbursts and encourage quiet students to participate more. The second class is an incredibly quiet class, and I was hoping that an online discussion would encourage my especially quiet students to share their thoughts. While the first class was told they could only discuss online (despite us all being in class), the second class was allowed to discuss online and in-person.

To be frank, neither experience with TodaysMeet was ideal. The first class (a large class of 30) found it difficult to follow the discussion, and the second class had the same students discussing (online and in-person) rather than others joining in. I also found that, perhaps because students were looking at a screen and not each other, students became less aware of their body language. A rolling of the eyes, which might not have happened in a spoken discussion, happened more during the online discussion.

S what’s good and what’s not-so-great about TodaysMeet?

Pros:

  • A transcript is created of the conversation, which can be used as evidence of “speaking” and “listening” skills. Additionally, this transcript can be used as a way to look back and brainstorm strategies for improving student skills, both independently as a teacher and together with the class.
  • It allows teachers to see some of the struggles students may have digitally, so we can address what successful and appropriate online communication looks like with our students.
  • The creator of the room can delete comments. Although I only had to utilize this a few times, it can be an important tool to have if a student posts something offensive or inappropriate (or in the cases I experienced, something completely irrelevant and derailing).
  • For students who are hearing impaired, it can be easier to follow and partake in than a traditional, oral discussion.

Cons:

  • Students are limited to 140 characters, which makes citing the text difficult.
    • When students broke up their thoughts to fit the character-maximum, they were often cut off by other students, which led to a difficult-to-follow conversation.
  • The conversation lagged at times (perhaps because the school’s internet can be slow), and when the platform caught up, it sometimes seemed like things were out of ordered.
  • If you forget to download the transcript before you close the room, it’s gone forever (unless you pay for a subscription).
  • Because it’s all typed, and therefore all written language-based, it can be more challenging for ELL students.

Although my experiences weren’t ideal, I’m not giving up on the platform just yet. In the future, I may either do smaller groups for online discussions or have the outer circle of my fishbowl have an online discussion on TodaysMeet based on the inner circle’s spoken discussion. Additionally, I think online discussions, whether supplemental to in-person discussions or not, require some different rules and norms than the more traditional, verbal student-run discussions. Before my next discussion with TodaysMeet, I will definitely more thoroughly discuss digitally-focused discussion norms and rules with my students.

Revisiting my Teaching Manifesto in 2018

In lieu of making teaching resolutions for the new year, and following the lead of my good friend and colleague, Danah Hashem, I wanted to revisit the goals I made at the beginning of this teaching year in my Teaching Manifesto.

 My Teaching Manifesto: Revisited

My students

  • I will get to know each of my students on a personal level, enabling me to meet not only their academic needs but also their mental-emotional ones. Although I’ve gotten to know most of my students on a personal basis, there are still some whom I haven’t connected with as deeply as I’d like. The students with whom I’ve struggled to connect also happen to be students who likely need it the most, so it’s something I need to continue to work. My goal for this next quarter is to check in with students who are struggling before I need to remind them about makeup work.
  • I will go to school activities in order to see my students partaking in activities that make them feel proud. Because I’ve been struggling to keep up with all the work I have, I haven’t prioritized the social part of school as much as I should. I spent most of first and much of second quarter frantically trying to get through all of my grading, and that didn’t leave much time for other things. I’ve started to feel like I have a better balance between planning, grading, and personal-life, so hopefully I can improve on this for the next two quarters. 
  • I will be mindful that students have more than my class to worry about, and, therefore, I won’t ever give them busywork. This is something I think I’ve done a good job sticking to. However, something I now need to do is balance the amount of (non-busywork) work I give; because quarter two seemed to go by so quickly, students had a lot of assignments to do back to back. I’m hoping to provide more balance for them in the next few quarters. 
  • I will worry less about how many texts we get through and more about how deeply we get into each text. I still worry about this; however, my curriculum is not determined by this worry. Although we aren’t getting through as much as I might have hoped by this point, I truly believe my students are connecting deeply with what we have done thus far. 
  • I will have my students do various kinds of writing, frequently. Although students are doing some different kinds of writing, and doing it fairly frequently, I hope to increase the kinds of writing they’re doing in the next two quarters. 

My colleagues

  • I will ask questions and ask my colleagues for help. I’m fortunate to not only have an incredible mentor but also have colleagues who enjoy helping me. I’ve definitely been more apt to ask for help this year, and I think that is largely due to the incredible experience I have when I’ve requested support. I’m beyond grateful for my colleagues!
  • I will utilize my colleagues’ areas of expertise. As I mentioned earlier, planning has taken up a lot more time than I imagined. I’m fortunate to have colleagues who share their units with me, and this has made my planning more manageable, and it’s also allowed me to come at material in a way that I may not have originally thought to, which, pedagogically, has been invaluable. 
  • I will share areas in which I feel confident. I haven’t yet shared a ton of my own materials with colleagues. I’ve let my own insecurities (being the youngest and one of the least experienced in my department) prevent me from sharing a ton; however, my department is encouraging, and I’m hoping to be able to share some materials soon!

My personal life

  • I will prioritize time with my husband and dog. I haven’t done a good job with this. My time management hasn’t been ideal this year, which has led to more time planning and grading (or catching up on sleep) and less time with these two important beings. 
  • I will take my dog for a walk at least once a day (even when it’s cold, and I just want to cuddle under a pile of blankets). With wind chills of -20, I’ve completely failed with this. I’ve been a pretty rubbish dog mom recently. 
  • I will make time to see friends, and I’ll try not to spend that time just talking about work. Although I don’t do this as often as I probably should, I have tried to make time to do this, and we’ve mostly kept the work talk to a minimum…mostly. 
  • I will (try) to keep my home life organized throughout the week rather than having a massive organization/ cleaning day during the weekend. This is… well… time management again.

My self

  • I will make time for me at least once a month (whether it’s getting a manicure, a massage, or just reading by myself), and I’ll try not to feel guilty about it. I haven’t made this a priority, and I think it’s really taken a toll on me. 
  • I will prioritize my physical, emotional, and mental health, starting with being more physically active. Because I’ve been pushing myself too far, I’ve been exhausted, so any free time I have is usually spent sleeping or half asleep. I bought a Groupon for a gym, so that’s something, right?
  • I will forgive myself. When I, inevitably, fall short in one of these areas, I will forgive myself, and I’ll try not spend so much time beating myself up about it. I will understand that I’m only human, and I make mistakes, and I will try to learn from them. This is probably the hardest one, and it’s also probably the one I’ve done the worst with. I’m incredibly hard on myself, and I’ve definitely beat myself up more than I should this year. I can at least say that I’m trying to improve this, and since this goal is all about forgiving myself, I’m going to say trying is good enough.

Although I haven’t made as much progress towards my goals as I’d like, I’m hopeful that I can make vast improvements in the following quarters.

My Experience with the Single-Point Rubric

After talking with my good friend Danah Hashem, reading her excellent NCTE article, and reading Jennifer Gonzalez‘s blog post, I decided to give the single-point rubric a try.

If you’ve never heard of the rubric, don’t worry; I hadn’t heard of it until this summer! The two posts I linked above give excellent explanations of them, so I would highly recommend checking them out. For a very brief description, however, the single-point rubric explains the expectations for an assessment and provides spaces for teacher comments on areas in which students need work and areas in which students excel.

My school has pre-made rubrics for most of our assessments; however, creative writing is one assessment for which teachers can create their own. With this freedom, I decided the short story creative assignments for my senior classes were the perfect opportunity to try the single-point rubric!

My Single-Point Rubrics

(Inspired by rubrics Jennifer Gonzalez created on her blog)

You can scroll through each embedded document; if you’re on a mobile device, please feel free to click on the link below to view the Google Doc.

To view the Google Doc, please click here.

To view the Google Doc, please click here.

If you’d like an explanation of why I included each category, I’m happy to write a post about that as well!

When I first started thinking about using the single-point rubric, I had to determine how I would translate my feedback into grades. To make it easier to understand for myself and my students, I explained that the column labeled “criteria” would be in the B range, “advanced” A range, and so on. For a more detailed description of this, check the bottom of the rubric.

My Experience

Spoiler alert: I thoroughly enjoyed using the single-point rubric!

What I found was that the marginal feedback and the end “letters” I would normally give students were easily integrated into the spaces provided in the rubric. Not only did I not feel like I was doing any extra work, but I also felt like the work I was doing was better organized and better focused. Moreover, I felt like writing in the category boxes made it easier for students to understand how my feedback translates to their grade, so instead of seeing a marginal comment of “check date format” or an end not reading “plot structure wasn’t clear,” students saw it in the categories and the grade breakdown in the rubric. This made it easier for students to clearly see the areas my feedback suggested they need the most practice in.

Freeing up the marginal space of assessment feedback, I was able to use marginal comments to respond as a reader. Because these were creative short stories, I wanted to give students feedback on how I, as their audience, experienced their creative piece. Rather than my experience being overshadowed by marginal feedback, it was the central focus. I found myself commenting things like “Glad the character said this because I was thinking it!” and “I DID NOT SEE THAT COMING” and “haha! This character’s amazing.” I was able to comment on their short story like I might in person or how I might with a friend. This was incredibly freeing for me, and I think comments like this can only help to improve students’ confidence in their writing!

I’d love to hear your thoughts about or experiences with the single-point rubric in the comments!

Why Everyone Should Attend an Edcamp

This weekend, I had the pleasure of attending Edcamp North Shore at Lynnfield High School.

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Source: Edcamp North Shore’s website

If you’ve never been to an edcamp, first of all, why?! They’re amazing, and I can’t recommend them enough. But second of all, here’s what it is: an edcamp is formatted in the style of an “unconference” in which participants make the schedule that day and all in attendance are encouraged to participate as experts in the field. For anyone who hasn’t attended an edcamp, this format may seem scary, but I can assure you, the atmosphere at edcamps is nothing but encouraging and welcoming.

Something that I love about edcamps (and there’s a lot) is that moving between topics during a session is encouraged, so if you feel like you’ve gone to a topic that either doesn’t really meet your needs or you’ve gotten as much as you feel you needed from, you can head to another topic. This was particularly useful for me because there were some sessions during which several topics that were interesting to me were happening, so I was able to move in and out of the topics as needed in order to get as much out of the day as possible. In addition, for this particular edcamp, there were Google Docs created for each session and topic, so now I can go back and read through the notes for each session (ones I attended and ones I didn’t) in order to use all the incredible resource suggestions from the teacher-attendees.

A few topics that I found particularly useful were: movement in the class, students as teachers, and going gradeless. But even the conversations that happened during breakfast and lunch were invaluable. If you’re interested in reading more about the things I learned, check out my Twitter feed and/or #edcampnorthshore.

I can’t recommend edcamps enough, so the next time you see one being offered in your area, register, invite friends, make new friends, share your experiences, and learn from others!