In a typical school day, the only time teachers may be alone is when we use the restroom (until someone knocks on the door). Still, teaching can feel quite lonely. Who can understand the joy of a lesson gone well? Who can appreciate when clouds of doubt blow in to rain upon said good lesson? To whom can we confess our tears of joy when a student finishes her first book or tears of regret when we lose our temper? Ethical ELA has been a place for me to work through the most humbling moments of teaching, and I appreciate you being virtually alongside me as I grapple with how to be good enough for the students with whom I am entrusted. So thank you. Thank you.
This is my final post of the school year; it is a year in review essentially, and then I will take some time this summer to just be Sarah (whatever that may be or mean). See you in August.
1.August 2016: Tech is just a tool.
I tend to write about questions and discoveries from our classroom. This year was no different. I started with discussions of technology because our class piloting 1:1 Chromebooks (among other classes across the district) as we transition to a district-wide 1:1 tech initiative. I spent August trying to blend hand-held books and pens with sharing out docs, slides, and forms on screens I had to bend down to see. I taught tech skills alongside reading skills and tried out new apps and extensions. I know some of the tech lessons were necessary, but others sucked up important reading time. After August, the Chromebooks became nothing more than a tool for organizing thinking, gathering resources, and preventing the delays and aggravation of forgot-it-in-my locker, lost-it, dog-ate-it of learning artifacts, and we didn’t need these tools every day. Fridays were tech-free days when we’d look into each other’s eyes and paper pages — not screens.
- Look into My Eyes: 3 Lessons from Week 1 of 1:1 Chromebooks
- Text Me What You’re Reading This Weekend
- #bookaday: My Summer’s Top 20 (Plus 100 More)
- 10 Steps to a Short But Meaningful Welcome Letter
- 4 Steps Toward a More Inclusive Classroom
2.September 2016: Be mindful of how you and your students communicate needs.
I was teaching at DePaul that fall – a course about socio-cultural influences on perceptions and development of middle school students. The Cubs were going to the World Series, and Donald Trump was becoming president. It was an emotionally charged semester within and beyond the classroom. This month was all about getting to know one another, which is the only way I knew we had a chance at a safe space to take risks and grow in junior high or in college classrooms. The “Love Language” post helped me work through many challenging situations with students the first weeks of school; they were testing me, teaching me how to know and relate to them. The love language framework helped me be mindful of the ways we communicate our needs and learn — deliberately– how to treat students and how to teach them to treat me.
3.October 2016: Taking care of yourself is an ethical responsibility.
In a matter of weeks, I was both invigorated by choice reading and fatigued (already) by the hustle and bustle of the schedule. The “honeymoon” phase of the year ended quickly, and I was not only unsure about whether or not to capitalize my blog titles but whether or not I had any business being a teacher. Thirteen years in, and I still had not figured out how to eat and stay hydrated in a school day. My first talk at the Illinois Reading Council made me feel like other people in Illinois actually cared about what I was doing; I had people in my session who came because of Ethical ELA’s work. Still, I had to take personal days to speak at a state and national conference, and I wasn’t so sure I would make it through another seven months with my sanity in tact. Because of this site, I felt like I had to recover from my melancholy, so the “fatigue in teaching” post reminded me to search for (and even fake it till you make it) balance. I bought vitamins and a pretty water bottle, pledging to drink more water in the name of health and sanity. When I fill my water bottle around 8th period, I feel like I am doing something good for me and my students: a hydrated teacher is a happy, rationale, ethical, kind teacher who is more open to choice and conversation.
- 9 “Whole” Weeks of Free Choice Reading
- Uncovering the “Theme” of Reading Instruction in Schools
- Fatigue in teaching: A few tips for getting back to the teacher you want to be
- Illinois Reading Council: Inclusive Literature Reading Workshop
4. November 2016: Love has to be at the heart of what we do and how we do it.
This was the month for the election and for NCTE. It felt so great to be leading a session with Lesley Roessing about how books are mirrors, windows, and maps for our students in a time when I (and my students) were feeling panicked about the future of our country. I met Lesley on Facebook, and we proposed a session about YA lit that enticed a number of teachers looking for new titles and inspiration. I returned to the classroom inspired by the teachers I met at NCTE — determined to read into new places and experiences. My course at DePaul had read Sherman Alexie’s The True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and so did our eighth graders. Still compelled to walk the talk and be the teacher I was asking these thirty pre-service teacher to become, I wrote more about how to transition from choice to whole-class novels. In my #bookaday quest, I read several books that included sex scenes; I recalled my own experiences reading romance lit and considered how and if these book have a place in a middle school classroom library. So many of our junior high students experience love (and, yes, sex), and literature could do what the adults in their lives could not — talk about it. And then, there was the issue of assessment. I struggled with how best to assess learning, so I wrote about the “loving test” and how I try my best to test and grade in ways that help support students in their learning.
- One 9-Week Plan on Choice Reading in the Classroom (Follow-up)
- Mirrors and Windows Book Lists: Literature as Advocacy for Ourselves and Others
- A Loving Test: It Matters How you Assess
- Romance and Sex in YA Novels
5.December 2016: Discomfort can hurt, and apologies can heal.
By December, we had experienced 9-weeks of choice reading and a core text; we were transitioning to book groups. Students were making a lot of choices: books, groups, reading pace, annotating methods, and, of course, snacks for their groups. Some students soared and others acted out, resisting the responsibility overtly or subversively, uncomfortable with choice and autonomy. I was uncomfortable, too. It is so much easier reading one book as a class and using a packet of pre-determined questions to guide everyone to the similar “answers.” Now that we knew one another better, we had to be open to the implications of diverse lives intersecting in a shared reading experience. I made mistakes amidst the discomfort, which I wrote about, and I learned the power of an apology, which I used a lot this year. Discomfort is part of learning, but our reaction to discomfort may hurt others, and when it does, an apology goes a long way.
6. January 2017: It’s essential that you ask yourself this: “What are you doing here?”
After two weeks in Europe including a tour of Auschwitz, I began January with a new student teacher and existential questions. It is natural for teachers, especially student teachers to ponder our purpose, and I was discerning my place in teaching broadly and my position at my school more specifically. The posts this month seem all over the place, but as I look for a common thread, I notice that I wrote about why I am a teacher now. I wrote about my place in the classroom library, my place in the hallways of our school, my place in evaluating students — and the implications of how I use my place. My student teacher(s) helped me grapple with and through this in January because of the many, many conversations we had before, during, and after school. We have to ask questions, do inquiry, and find answers regarding our purpose as teachers.
- Mirror, Mirror, is it time to move on?
- Warning, Triggering, Censoring, Advising: Recommending Books to Teens
- Say My Name (But Not Too Loud)
- 7 Reflections to Quiet the Ghosts of Grading’s Past
7. February 2017: Materials, deadlines, and declarations are provisional.
One of the greatest frustrations of teaching is time, especially when students are working in the realm of the provisional while the teacher (and school) is working with hard and fast deadlines. Learning, however, is so personal and even ethereal at times that one cannot count or plan or grasp just how and when learning will happen. The elusive nature of teaching and learning hit me hard in February that I could only surrender to its provisionality. Ownership (of books) is relative. Deadlines undermine learning. Lies reveal truth. Inasmuch as schools force neat, measurable ways of quantifying learning and categorizing students, students, as human beings, will remind us that learning is beautifully messy and will (almost never) fit into a school’s schedule.
- Catch ‘n’ Release-ing books (and wishing well the ones that got away)
- Deadlines and “Late” Work: The Potential of the Provisional
- True Lies and the Patience to Dialogue Toward Truth
- “Give me your tired, your poor”: 11 Immigration Books Reviewed by Teens
8. March 2017: Remember and honor your roots.
I have had the privilege of working with several special education teachers over the years in a “push-in” almost “co-teaching” model. These women were gifts to me — having a partner — and to the students — having another adult to attend to (and even love) them. So when I had the opportunity to have a student teacher (another adult to teach and love students) both terms this school year, I said “yes” as long as we could use a co-teaching model. By March, their presence had me thinking deeply about how I became a teacher and who had most influenced who I became (and was still becoming) as a teacher, so I drew my teaching tree and invited teachers to share theirs. I noticed the other posts I wrote this month had nuances of comparison. By reflecting on my roots, I recognized and celebrated the traditions that shaped my becoming, which actually made it difficult for me to take ownership or celebrate a perceived accomplishment. “The Pride and Shame of Sharing” post was about me second guessing this webiste and any sharing I do about my teaching. I am who I am because of my roots and branches, so I feel self-indulgent in sharing any accomplishment or pride in my work. So, I guess I have to make clear that anything I say or do in my work is never wholly mine nor new. Ethical ELA exists because of my beautiful teaching tree.
- 30 Poems: A Celebration of Poetry Begins April 1st
- The Pride and Shame of Sharing: Who do I think I am?
- Time to Compare: An Essay of Noticing with YA Lit
- The Coaching Tree for Teachers
9. April 2017: Students should create, should be the curriculum.
This was my third year hosting a site for students to write thirty poems in thirty days in honor of National Poetry Month. For this month, we moved away from daily reading of books toward daily reading of poetry — poetry written by students. As I noticed the quality of the poetry, I knew that their work had to “be” our curriculum: reading response to student poetry, text evidence from student poetry, figurative language analysis from student poetry. In thirty days, Ethical ELA hosted close to five thousand poems and comments written by students: a plethora of powerful content. Students wrote blog posts and created comparison projects (Comparison Blog) for their portfolios using student-written poetry. This was the highlight of my year because I finally got out of the way.
10. May 2017: Transition from your teacher-self to just being your self.
As much as I tried to not be oppressive in my practices this year — more choice, more student-created curriculum, less grading, less teacher-talk — I found myself pulling tight the reigns of instruction in our final month together. In writing “The Countdown,” I realized that I while I help students find closure in our time together with portfolios and letters to their future selves, I do not do enough to help my teacher-self find closure each year. The aesthetic experience of teaching gives me such joy and purpose, that I don’t want it to end and feel lost without it, so this May has been about me trying new hobbies (e.g., swimming, hiking) and seriously pondering how I will spend my two-months off to take care of my heart, mind, and body. As my husband said, “I can’t wait to see who you become this summer.”
Thank you for reading Ethical ELA this year. What are some lessons you’ve learned this school year? What from Ethical ELA has been most helpful to you this school year? What will you do this summer to rejuvenate your heart, mind, and body?