Louder Than a Bomb

Whenever something scores 100% on rotten tomatoes, it has my attention.  When that thing scoring 100% is a documentary on an urban poetry competition and secondary education, it pretty quickly acquires my passionate and unwavering love.

Louder Than a Bomb follows the lives of Chicago high schoolers who participate in their  schools’ poetry teams.  The teams are all preparing to compete in the upcoming annual slam poetry contest, Louder Than a Bomb.  Throughout the documentary, we are invited to witness the incredible effects of teaching students to access and share deep emotions and intense experiences via spoken word poetry.  The students featured in the documentary for the most part did not claim “poet,” “writer,” or “reader” as one of their identities prior to joining these clubs.  They are generally not the students whose personal interests and identity choices naturally align themselves with verbal and artistic expression.  And yet, under the influence of dedicated and skilled teachers, they come to lay claim to a form of expression that is beautiful, powerful, and entirely their own.  The poetry they create is genuinely stunning.  The way that poetry informs and shapes their paths as students is even more so.

I can’t imagine anyone from any walk of life watching this film without taking something away.  That being said, this film is full to the brim of wisdom for educators in particular.  It’s a powerful reminder that even the most unlikely of students can create beautiful works of art and achieve great things, but they need the faith of their educators.  We need to believe they can achieve and we need to gently and loving push them to do so.

Below is a preview for the documentary, but my advice would be to just go right ahead and watch the whole thing.  It packs a punch.

You can watch the full film on Netflix, Amazon, and what I’m sure are a wide variety of other locations.  Trust me on this one; it’s a good use of your time.

Boston actually has their own LTAB competition that has been going on for 3 years now!  They have yet to set a 2015 date, but, when they do, they have all kinds of different ways to get involved and support the event.  You can also check out Boston’s 2014 LTAB Facebook page for footage of last year’s finals, which were truly impressive.  At the very least, it’s an event that every teacher in the greater Boston area can and should stay informed on and aware of!

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The Cool Kids

Every school has them as far as I can tell.  They are the super popular, sharply dressed social butterflies who stroll down the school halls like they own them.  And, in a way, they kind of do.

I go back and forth on my feelings about the cool kids.  Sometimes they can use their power for good.  Sometimes they’re a real pain.  It’s just a mixed bag when it comes to adolescents endowed with an unmediated ability to influence the lives of their surrounding adolescents.  What I can say, though, is that I have my own, internal list of cool kids.

These are the kids that I get to know over time, during the quiet moments of the school day.  They are smart, funny, mature, and just really cool.  We can talk about books, movies, life, school, politics etc.  They understand things.  In a deeply ridiculous classroom moment of chaos or disorder, I can often meet their gaze across a room and share a “this is absurd” eye roll.  They are cool.

The crazy thing about these very cool kids from my internal list is that, more often than not, they fly well below the radar.  You probably won’t find them center-stage.  I often see them reading alone at lunch or sitting quietly in the back of the classroom.  They aren’t usually candidates for homecoming king or queen.  In fact, unless you seek them out or allow yourself to be available in a quiet moment, you probably won’t even really get a chance to connect with them.  I don’t know why this is.  I have some ideas, but I don’t know.

What I do know is that the kind of cool that they have is made of something strong and rare.  High school is bizarre, but they have somehow found a way to carve out honest, creative, and unapologetic identities for themselves.  They just rock who they are and they mean business.  They pursue their interests and they don’t try to change anything about themselves in order to fit societal or peer expectations.  They take school seriously, engaging in real learning, asking challenging questions, and pushing themselves intellectually.  They are kind, bold, and courageous.  They are also easy to overlook sometimes in the disorienting squall that is the high school social system.  In an environment where their brand of coolness isn’t necessarily a high-value commodity, they are often lost in the shuffle, silently looking around for some reassurance of their coolness from someone outside the system.  I’m learning that I have to keep my eyes open for the quiet opportunities to pull up a chair, ask a question, and spend some time getting to know the cool kids.

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These boots belong to myself and to a very cool kid. We are stealing some quiet moments in the corner of the class to talk books.

The Vocabulary Binary: Silent Killer of Word Knowledge

I have loved learning and experimenting with new vocabulary from a very young age.  My home videos pretty frequently depict me awkwardly and intentionally fitting one of my newfound words into a somewhat contextually irrelevant sentence; I pretty much just wanted to be on film using my new word.  Because of my general interest in words, my love of varied reading, good instruction, and what I’m sure are a host of other factors, building a flexible and diverse vocabulary was never something that I intentionally focused on.  It just sort of happened.  In my experience, when something happens easily for you, you rarely know how or why it happened.  You just know it happened.

For this reason, I don’t have many explicit strategies for teaching or learning vocabulary.  I don’t have a list of tried and true activities or ideas that students can try to strengthen and develop a meaningful vocabulary.  I was never explicit or intentional about my vocabulary acquisition, so I don’t know how to teach others to be.  I do remember being in school and having worksheets that required me to look up definitions in a dictionary, copy them down, and then use them in a sentence.  I would memorize those things and then take a quiz, where I was required to fit the vocabulary word into a second, different sentence.  If I could do this, then the word was categorized as one that I knew and I could move on to a new vocabulary list.  I remember liking the vocabulary lists, because I liked new words, but I don’t ever remember any of those worksheet activities helping me to lay hold of the ability to use those vocabulary words in my day to day.  I actually remember being a little frustrated at one point, thinking, “I’m good at vocabulary!  Why am I not remembering these words?  I have the definition.  I have a sentence it goes in.  I should remember this!”  Learning vocabulary came naturally to me, except when it was framed in the very formulaic vocabulary tradition of the classroom.

Research found in the book Adolescent Literacy in the Era of the Common Core by Jacy Ippolito et. al. made some top notch points that are particularly relevant for classroom vocabulary curriculum.  The insight explored in this chapter of the book is essentially that “word knowledge is not a bimodal outcome – words are not ‘known’ or ‘unknown’.” (64)  There are several levels and intensities of knowing or not knowing a particular word.  These levels and intensities shift as we accumulate more experience with seeing, using, and understanding the word.  We need to see the word in different contexts or disciplines and use it in different ways in order to understand the nuances and subtle connotations it carries and brings to the text. Being able to regurgitate an academic definition of a vocabulary word is not really going to help anyone.  And being able to fit that single vocabulary word into an arbitrary sentence is definitely not going to result in very high levels of knowing the word.  “Only after multiple exposures and opportunities to discuss the word may we come to a semantically precise understanding of a word” (65).  In short, knowledge of vocabulary words accumulates over time as the learner builds understanding.

Expanding on the idea that vocabulary knowledge is cumulative and not bimodal, Ippolito’s book makes a related, potentially even more valuable point.  Vocabulary knowledge is not always explicit.  “Powerful vocabulary teaching does not just teach words explicitly” (81).  Knowing a word doesn’t always mean that a student can immediately spit out a dictionary definition or use it in a sentence.  Sometimes knowing a word for a student means that they understand the connotations and mood it brings to the text, they understand the sentence the word is used in, but they cannot define the word explicitly.  This type of understanding shouldn’t be undermined by labeling the word with the binary “unknown” and discounting all the knowledge that the student has acquired up to this point.

Ippolito’s book recommends fostering an awareness for this accumulated understanding of vocabulary by implementing a word scale.

“1-I’ve never heard the word before.

2-I’ve heard that word before, but I don’t know what it means.

3-I think I know it, and it has to do with…

4-I know what it means and can use it in this context.

5-I know lots about this word, including other meanings.” (80-81)

A word scale like this not only helps students pinpoint their level of knowledge and where they need to strengthen understanding, but it also values the amount of understanding they have accumulated around the word up to this point.

This attitude towards vocabulary acquisition is particularly helpful for ELL students. Instead of having them memorize definitions and sentences in an unfamiliar language, this ideology allows students to draw on contextual clues, possible cognates in their own language, and inexplicit understanding. This can be very empowering and can help endow ELL students with the courage to grapple with unfamiliar words.

Recognizing the value and importance of inexplicit knowledge of a word as well as varied levels of knowing that word has the potential to empower students to explore vocabulary, synthesize their accumulated knowledge, and make educated analyses of the words they encounter.  It situates vocabulary knowledge in the real world, as opposed to some awkward, parallel universe in which you will have to fit unfamiliar words into awkward, random sentences.  It has the potential to shift a classroom’s attitude towards vocabulary from rote, decontextualized memory exercises to complex, intellectual deciphering and learning.  It seems like an attitude one would take towards vocabulary if you wanted to look back over your vocabulary acquisition timeline and say, “I don’t actually remember how I learned all these words.  I just know them.”

Pros and Cons

I work in a public school district, making this my February break.  I don’t have to go to work this week!  This is a pro.

I am a grad student taking 3 classes while working full time.  My vacations are spent entirely on homework.  This is a con.
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I get to work on my homework in this coziest of spots with the most delicious of chai teas.  This is a pro.  Possibly two pros if you count the chai as its own pro.

Overall, the situation nets at least one pro.  Life is good 🙂

What’s In My Bag: The Teacher Edition

This is my teacher/tutor/paraprofessional/grad student bag.

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It’s seen some things.  It also doubles as a pillow in dire circumstances.

I was reading Blu Chicken Ninja‘s ‘What’s In My Bag’ post and I thought it looked like fun.  So I went ahead and emptied out the contents of my own bag before leaving for work on a standard school day last week:

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I confess that the daffodil in the glass bottle is not something I store in my bag.  It’s just there for aesthetic purposes. 

Tazo Tea Mug: because a day without tea is most likely going to be the worst and this mug is one of the few that I own that can be trusted not to leak all over my things.

Apple: because I love apples and stereotypes of teachers who like apples.  Also because our lunch period isn’t until 1:10pm, so I am generally in mighty need of a snack by the time noon rolls around.

Eos Lip Balm: I am a lip balm addict.  I will use this at least 15 times before the school day ends.

Pencil and Pen: I like the old fashioned, yellow school pencil.  It does the job.  Same goes for my plain old black Bic pen.

Moleskine: because I have a terrible memory and this is where I store my lists, schedules, and spontaneous thoughts.

Wallet: because my teacher bag is my surrogate purse.

Library Passes and Schedules: I always have a small stack of papers relating to that particular school day.  They are usually sub plans, passes to the library, or my schedule for tutoring that day.  This bag has a small file pocket that I can slide papers in for safe keeping.

Chocolate Bar: because you never know when you’re going to need a solid bribe.

Post-its: of different colors and sizes.  I won’t even bother telling you what I use these for because there isn’t enough time in the world to compile that list.

Multi-colored Tiny Highlighters Shaped Like Pill Capsules: this is a throwback to my days in the pharmaceutical industry.  A vendor handed these out at one of their training session lunches and I think they are probably one of the more valuable things I took away from my time in the biopharma sphere.

USB: Most of my students email me their work for correction or feedback, so I store most of it on this USB for when I get small stretches of free time to sneak in some review.  This keeps me from having to tote around huge binders full of work.

Books: my Robert Frost poems for short down times, my super soft leather Bible, and a textbook for my Salem State methods class.  You never know when you’ll get a free period 🙂

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Overall, I’d say this is a pretty representative sampling of my bag contents on any given school day.  I’m sure that when I become a real live teacher with my own classroom and classes, this teacher bag will need to prepare itself to be carrying much more in the way of binders and lesson plans, but, until then, this little buddy does the trick just fine.

Gems and Winners

It would be an absolute travesty to have a blog about my journey from engineering to teaching without dedicating at least one post to the battalion of supportive individuals who march and have marched alongside me.  So much of who, what, and where I am is a product of the love, support, and friendship I have been blessed to receive from the lovely people around me. The good news is that today is Valentine’s Day, so let’s do this!

As a grad student, I have found myself in a cohort of the smartest, most dedicated scholars, professors, and teachers I think I have ever had the honor of working with. They love what they do and they pursue knowledge in their disciplines with focus and commitment.  In the throes of their hectic, academic lives, they always have time for an encouraging word, challenging feedback on work, or a beer. I can’t think of a better group of people to grow and learn with.  They keep me sane.

As a teacher, I have been consistently floored by the community that educators seem to form. In my experience, people who teach tend to have the kindest of hearts. They give of their energy, time, and love to serve and support the students in their lives.  Their daily goals include the betterment of others; those others are often kids who have a very real need for friendship or just some extra love. These teachers carry their beautiful calling out in every aspect of their lives. This has been hugely challenging and encouraging to me. The mentoring wisdom and advice I’ve received from veteran teachers is gold. The amused commiseration and positive feedback I am able to share with fellow new teachers has been a source of joy, laughter, and stamina for me.  I’m humbled by the kinds of people the teachers in my life prove themselves to be.

When I told my friends about my decision that engineering was not the right fit for me and that I was going to leave my well-paying, stable job to go back to school in order to teach high school English, I was greeted with nothing but heartfelt support, hugs, and high fives.  No words of doubt, discouragement, or incredulity even entered the conversation.  My magnificent friends immediately responded with excitement and prayers for success in my new path.  I’ll love them forever and will never be able to repay that gift of confidence in an unsure time.

My family is small, but it packs a punch.  One of the many awesome things about my family is that they think I am the best at everything.  To be fair, the feeling is pretty mutual.  What this means for me is that, in every decision, struggle, or success, I have a little group of cheerleaders who are sharing the ride with me and who don’t bother to entertain the slightest shadow of a doubt in my ability to succeed and make a difference.

Ultimately, my faith is my core.  Valentine’s day is a day about love and I love believing in a God that loves love as much as I do.  I’m thankful for the things I learn about love through my faith and how those things inform and shape my role as an educator.

At the end of the day, I just hope I’m known by the company I keep, because I run with a crowd of gems and winners.

10 Teaching Facts I Learned From My Dog

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I don’t mean to say that my students are animals.  That would be disrespectful, demeaning, and completely untrue.  What I definitely will say, though, is that there are certain things about having a dog that prepare you for working with large groups of hormonally unstable adolescents.  Forgive me if my list blurs the distinctions between canine and teenager.

 

1) Almost everyone will work much harder when incentivized with snacks.  This might seem trivial at first, but snacks make things exciting, fun, and delicious.

2) Sometimes you need to pause the teaching to give a little love.  Obviously high standards are important and we want to push our students outside their comfort zones to optimize learning.  But there comes a point where everybody needs a pat on the head and to hear that you think they are awesome and like hanging out with them.  Learning can resume with much more success after this.

3) If the skill or material you are trying to teach seems irrational, disconnected from reality, or totally pointless, no one is going to be very motivated to do it.  However, if you can explain or demonstrate how this skill or material is relevant and how it might be used in day-to-day life, interest levels skyrocket.

4) If you can make learning a game, everyone learns approximately 10,367 times faster.  This is a scientific fact.

5) Real learning does not happen overnight.  It is a slow, painstaking process with lots of mini successes, failures, and relapses.  If my dog miraculously excels at a particular task I just showed her, I should not be disappointed or surprised when she struggles with it the next day.  I should just be grateful for the positive learning opportunity we started out on.

6)  Sometimes you have a student that will always struggle with a particular behavior or skill.  This does not mean that they cannot have great success in related tasks.  99.2% of the time, if I drop a piece of food on the floor in front of my dog, she will not eat it without permission.  That number will never be 100% and it does not mean that she can’t be trusted to hang out in the kitchen with me while I make dinner.  Perfection is a fool’s errand.

7) You will undoubtedly be cleaning up crap at some point.  Learning is hard and students are messy, both literally and figuratively.  These are the facts.  At some point, someone is going to have an accident on the living room rug and we are just going to have to clean that up and move on.  Be ready for the crap.

8) You have to know your students.  I can read my dog’s expressions and moods like an open book.  I know when she’s distracted, hungry, focused, or excited.  I know what things make her nervous, what environments jazz her up beyond recognition, and what snacks she will jump through flames for.  I use this information to design a teaching plan that is effective for her.  I am much less effective when teaching a dog that I am unfamiliar with.

9)  It is important to set everyone up for success.  Don’t assess or test a new skill in a scenario where you think failure is likely.  Practice and challenges are great, but I don’t take my dog out to a new place she has never been and try out a command that she doesn’t know particularly well just to see what happens.  I don’t want her to get used to failure or feeling overwhelmed.  I only test a skill when I know that, given appropriate focus on her part, she can absolutely succeed in the task I set.

10) A good teacher is clear, fair, and consistent.  Don’t be confusing or unpredictable.  Show up as the teacher they know and trust every time, every day.

 

In conclusion, if I love my students as much as I love my dog, we’re all in a good place.