The Family Legacy

Thanksgiving week I received the following text from my cousin, Katie:

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My grandmother, Betty Wall, was an amazing woman. She lived a life of servitude. People often remark how my grandmother made them feel like they were the most important person when they were with her. That’s because, to my grandmother, they were. She knew little things matter.

So my cousin’s comment is true. All of Betty Wall’s children and grandchildren find that there are ways in which we are our grandmother. She lives on through her family, through the things we do.

23c049c900000578-2861606-the_finish_this_is_a_team_this_is_a_family_this_is_target_he_con-m-1_1417744063359Recently Omeleto posted this video of a manager who clearly understands motivation is important–especially right before your retail doors open on Black Friday. As I was showing this video to a group of teachers, this manager’s use of the word family stuck with me. While this clip is the only glimpse into his leadership style I have, I would guess he has instilled a sense of family with his workers, and his enthusiasm and sense of purpose–we are doing something important–lives on in the way his employees treat customers and each other.

fullsizeoutput_42caThis is our first week back to school since NCTE. In the three days I’ve been at work, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve referenced something from the conference—a quote from a presentation, an author who shared, a text that was mentioned, a challenge that issued, Kwame Alexander’s amazing library scarf… My extended NCTE family lives on through my work in my small part of the world because of how so many of them let me in their lives through their writings, presentations, tweets, videos and more.

And my small part of the world is where I can make a difference.

So I wonder: What of me is living on through my professional family? I say a lot of things are important (and I’m sure they are), but what do I do that will be passed on to others?

This is my first year as a system literacy coach and out of the classroom. I wonder what do the students who sat in my classroom do that if they thought about it would say, “That is Ms. Wall to the max.” Would it be something that makes me smile from pride? Would it be anything at all? What about my newly inherited family of teachers I work with now?

img_2842What am I passing on?

My grandmother didn’t get to leave a list of the things she would like for us to do so her legacy would live on, but I’m pretty sure she would be proud of my cousin, Katie, and the other things our family does that is grandmother to the max. I want the same to be true of my life and my educator legacy.

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The Essential Struggle

This weekend I 14224960_1129373007131241_6981254197435218770_ngot to hang out with my 10-day old, most awesome nephew, Maddux. When he was born, the doctor realized Maddux was having trouble breathing. Immediately, a plan of action was devised and over the next 7 days, Maddux was cared for by an amazing team and then released to come home—tube and wire free, breathing just fine.

Something that struck me through all this was the systematic way the medical staff worked a plan based on constant data and then used new data to inform every decision they made.  They also let Maddux struggle.

As it turns out, the struggle was good for him. It helped him learn and grow, and eventually, he became an independent breather, who no longer needed the help of the machines. Even so, it was hard to watch, particularly for my sister and brother-in-law.

There are some parallels to my nephew’s first days and my days in the classroom. I, too, used data to inform my plan of action to help students. I, too, had a goal for students to learn and grow14322325_1227557657265008_2558212819383732400_n and eventually become independent. I, too, watched students struggle—just not always very well.

When students couldn’t quite figure out how to organize their essays, or the importance of a writer’s word choice, or the theme of the text, I had a hard time letting struggle for longer than a few minutes (or even less than that). It was painful at times, to be honest, to see their scrunched up faces (or blank stares). I could tell by the clenched teeth and furrowed brows, they needed me!

Students do need their teacher, just like Maddux needed the doctor and nurses. They needed me to see what they could do on their own, provide a scaffold or give them a tool or teach a skill, and then let them try again. What they didn’t need is for me to do it for them.

Also, just like medical field, we have an obligation to do no harm. When the medical staff allowed Maddux to struggle to test his lungs, they were right there to step in when needed. We can’t let students struggle alone, while we sit behind our desks. They have to know the we are here if it 14310518_1134203783314830_4838295706442931632_obecomes too overwhelming, too hard, to the point no learning is happening. We have to be responsive to the needs of our students.

Students need to struggle so they can grow towards Independence. We, as teachers, need to be purposeful and intentional in allowing students to struggle. We need to be responsive to students needs and give students tools needed when the struggle is too much.

It was a matter of life for Maddux. And it’s a matter of living that life independently for our students. We can’t always be with our students—on the high-stakes test or in life outside our classroom.

We need to let them struggle in the safety of our classes, so they can be confident in their independence outside of it.

When we fail. . .

2016-02-09 09.53.18I took a hiatus from my blog during January to work on my dissertation. My chair told me I needed to have a complete draft by the end of January to graduate in May. I didn’t make the deadline. (I am now shooting for completion by April to graduate in July.)

This is the season for college applications, which means the season of writing lots of recommendations and editing lots of admission essays. A question I see that keeps popping up for college applicants as well as job applicants—in some manner or another—is name a time you’ve failed and how you overcame.

In my English 10 classes, we are working on our Shakespeare themed units. I wanted to do something different with this unit, and I wanted to provide choice. I planned what I thought was a great structure to do that. I would be lying if I said this unit had been a success. There was something lacking in the unit.

Failure has been on my mind.

What do you do when you are a teacher and you feel like you didn’t succeed, or more 2016-02-09 10.58.18bluntly put, failed at a lesson or unit? Reflect, self-assess, make notes and adjustments, learn, and do better.

But also, be okay…no be more than okay, be proud that you took a risk, you tried something new, you learned, you grew as an educator (and probably as a person) and your students will benefit from this. Celebrate that!

We have a responsibility to our students, to our profession, and to our future to reflect on our practice. We have a responsibility to make sure that we are reading current research, engaging in proven professional development, and learning from a community of leaders in our field.  We have a responsibility to make sure that we are growing as educators and we are putting that into practice so that our students are growing as learners and citizens.  But if we are doing that, if we are measuring ourselves by the best education has to offer, if we are stepping out of our comfort zone to do what is right, then we also have a responsibility to let ourselves fail, reflect on our learning from the failure, and go back the next day ready to try (with tweaks) again.

I was quite bummed about my unit. I had been so excited about it, and I was frustrated that it didn’t come to fruition as I had envisioned. I was talking with a colleague about my frustrations with the unit. She asked me why I thought it didn’t go like I had envisioned. I responded with something like, “I don’t know. Something just isn’t right.”

The question haunted me. I needed to really reflect: What was it that specifically that went wrong? What was I not happy with? Why did it not go like I wanted? How could it have gone different? AND what did go right?

I realized timing was a bit of an issue with this unit. Since timing became an issue, I didn’t focus as much on reading and writing skills to make up for loss of time. Choice was another issue. Although I didn’t dictate how students wrote in this unit, I felt I forced them into the box of one particular lens for too long. I should have started with the teacher-directed lens and then let them explore others on their own.

Now that I named the failure, I know what to do differently, what to do better next unit.

But I also had to think about what went right. Students’ final tasks as well as their online discussion about the texts showed a real sense of understanding—way beyond the surface level. Students weren’t just reading a Shakespeare play because we always teach a Shakespeare play. They had purpose and direction. Students were able to discuss themes across texts—they talked about the impact of the theme of deception not only in the play they studied for this unit, but also in their independent novels, informational texts, and other Shak2016-02-10 11.14.40.jpgespearean plays.

[Side note: One thing I did make sure we did was have 10 minutes of class reading time for independent novels three to four and sometimes five days a week. After I commented on how I loved seeing a particular student with two books in hand, she said, “It’s because of you. You made us read, and now I can’t stop.” That’s a success.]

Mary Ehrenworth once said something to the effect of it is worse to keep teaching as we’ve always taught than to try to do right by students and not be perfect. I was far from perfect in this unit, but I know I tried to do right by my kids, and in doing so, the failure unit helped my kids grow more as readers and writers than by not doing anything different.

If you want to see some of the end results from this unit, look at these examples and this student created music video.  The final project (which accompanied a paper, a online Socratic discussion, and reading journals) was a creative piece on how a character they studied viewed deception presented from the character’s point of view.  This part of the unit was successful.  Many of them also discussed other themes in their interpretation.

Bonus Read:  Pernille Rip seems to continually challenge me with her thoughtful posts.  And she always seems to know what I’ve been discussing with my colleagues.  I love her openness to conversation about hot topics and her fearlessness in tackling them head-on.  If you have found yourself in a discussion on whole class novels, I suggest you read her post, “So You Teach a Whole Class Novel – A Small Idea to Help.