Monday, July 4, 2016

Unveiling the ELAOK PLN Website

In December 2015, I had a conversation with my dear friend and fellow ELA educator Sarah Crichley (@Scrichley).

(She’s one of my favorite people with whom I collaborate. When we discuss ELA, the ideas fly.)

I can’t find our exact text conversation, but it went something like this:
            Sarah: Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a place where teachers could share lesson plans.
            Me: Hmmm, let me think about that. I think we could actually make that happen.

Then I drove from Tulsa to OKC with the wheels of my brain furiously churning. To use another analogy: I kept opening new tabs in my brain as the ideas came and exploring their feasibility. Of course, that’s how my mind works all the time. I am an INTJ—for better and worse.

I decided on a Google Site because I’m familiar with them, and they’re so easy to use. I know Sites has a “filing cabinet” page setting, where you can add text and upload documents. I knew I would need something fast for me and simple to use for all teachers.

So, I started a Site, and immediately created a separate page for each grade, pre-K through 12th. My plan is to have a brief introduction/overview for each grade level. I need to make contact with more elementary and middle school teachers to bring that part of my vision into reality. I reached out to a few, but I’m afraid my email may have gone straight to their junk folders.

Once that took shape, I decided each of those pages needed sub-pages for the virtual filing cabinets. (I love folders and sub-folders and sub-sub-folders…organization gives me a thrill.) I also added a separate sub-page at each grade for pre-AP. AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition have separate pages rather than being sub-pages.

From there, I began gathering a team of ELA educators who could/would help me. Of course, I first pulled from my tweeps. I knew these would be people who felt comfortable with technology and who had a passion for education.

Next, I researched some lesson plan templates to find something we could use for all submissions. After I looked at what others were doing, I decided on key components and sent the template to my team for feedback. I also asked them for feedback on the rough site.

Then, oklaed reached a sitzkrieg with OK’s jack*ss legislators while we impatiently waited for them to approve the standards. Of course they were going to pass the standards, but, tiny baby Jesus, they sure threw up red herrings, pseudo-roadblocks, and beat the dead horse of their fake issues into jerky and glue. I think they focused on every little stupid thing they could to detract from the real issues: the defunding and dismantling of all infrastructures in our state.

Once OAS was finally approved, I could begin putting together “exemplar” lessons. Unfortunately, the craziest part of the school year happens at the end of February till May. I stayed behind on grading and developing the website; however, I did have another brilliant idea (well, I think it’s brilliant): adding pages for Fine Arts. My music teacher friends use analysis and “ELA” techniques in their classes. The marriage made sense.

Over the new few weeks, the ideas continued to hit me: adding Creative Writing, Reading for Pleasure, Journalism, Speech/Debate, and Yearbook. Lastly, I approached a school librarian about adding Media Literacy. So, I guess the marriage turned into an ELA harem.

My final addition came from Lara Searcy (@MrsSearcy112) who works with pre-service ELA teachers at Northeastern State University. We thought it would be helpful for some of her baby teachers to post units they’ve put together for school. It gives them another audience and provides some seriously detailed lessons for career teachers.

Now, I am ready to unveil the website and begin taking submissions: https://sites.google.com/site/elaokpln/

This will obviously be a work in progress. It is tiny right now, but my vision is to have a repository of lesson plans geared toward the Oklahoma Academic Standards. I have already uploaded some lessons for 8th-10th pre-AP. I have also written some intros for 8th-12th.

I have included pages for testing info and test prep ideas for each grade band. I also thought it would be helpful to include links to each grade’s standards. On the “Vertical Alignment” page, I have a link to all the standards and a couple of documents to help if your district is working toward alignment.

The lessons will fall under the Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/. No selling the lessons (even though we all deserve over-time pay for the hours we spend on lessons). This is teachers helping other teachers do what we do best: teach.

I want to publicly thank Claudia Swisher (@ClaudiaSwisher, ELA Mafia Godmother) for her introduction to Reading for Pleasure: https://sites.google.com/site/elaokpln/reading-for-pleasure

Thank you, Jason Stephenson (@teacherman82), for your intro to Creative Writing: https://sites.google.com/site/elaokpln/creative-writing

Thank you, Tara Zimmerman (@Tara_Hixson), for your intro to Media Literacy: https://sites.google.com/site/elaokpln/media-literacy 

Thank you to my team of editors:
            Sarah Crichley
            Kimberly Blodgett (@KimberBlodgett)
            Michelle Waters (@watersenglish)
            Shanna Mellott (@lsmellott)
            Meghan Loyd (@meghanloyd)
            Claudia Swisher

I also need to thank a couple students who took pictures I could use for the website: Camrynn Cooke and Hannah Pitts. Camrynn’s are on the “Home” page and were taken in OKC. Hannah’s is of the lovely Library of Congress and is on the “11th Grade” page.

Ultimately, I hope Oklahoma teachers see this labor of love (and blood, toil, tears, and sweat) and find it to be a helpful resource. I did not have a lot of mentor teachers along my path, but I have always had teachers say I could raid their filing cabinets (virtual and actual). In that spirit of generosity, I give you the ELAOK PLN lesson repository website. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

You're Not Alone, Teacher

Come closer. I want to tell you a secret. Something I don’t share with many people. Something I really only mention casually to a few.

I have depression. Not the pseudo-drama or sadness when people quip, “I’m so depressed.” No, I have clinical depression. An imbalance in my brain.

I know—many people do. Who cares if I do? I think what makes this important is I am a teacher. We are supposed to be superheroes; however, it is imperative we begin talking about our private demons so we can further support each other as a community.

You are not alone.

Yes, that sounds trite, but too many times in my life, I have felt alone in dealing with my depression (or my auto-immune diseases). Logically, I know I’m not: I have family and have learned to trust a few friends with this. However, mental illnesses do not deal in logic.

If you’ve read any of my blogs, you know I enjoy writing. I don’t really journal, but in 2003 I began writing poetry. I have no illusions (delusions?) I’m a “poet,” but sometimes crafting a poem distracts my brain and gives me solace. These are two of the first poems I wrote about my depression:

Drowning
Depression rolls in
like the tide
Pulling me into its grip

I sink down
feeling the water
close over my head
Blocking out the
sights and sounds
of life
Blotting out the
light of the sun
Bringing only
isolation and darkness
to my drowning soul

I don’t fight to rise
but close my eyes
and let the
current carry
me away

I don’t have the
energy to care
if I swim
or drown
I’m too weary to fight
So, with a gulp
I become one with the water
And welcome the peace
of nothingness

Release
Trapped in
the middle of a
vast space
Treading water
Fighting to keep
my head above
the waves

One…
I go under for a moment
but break the surface,
gasping and desperate
for air

Two…
I’m under again
Long enough to
begin assessing the
new world waiting
to welcome me
My eyes search for
friendliness,
something to
keep me from
going back up
My lungs ache and
reality jerks me
to the top
Wheezing and panting
I drag breath deep into
my soul

I remain on the surface
Searching for life,
for something to rescue me
Tired, I doggedly
cling to the bright water
Fighting for every stroke,
every moment
Knowing my demise is nigh,
I hold tenaciously
to the remaining seconds

Three…
The sparkling water
and dancing sun recede
Dark murkiness
covers my head
Shadows pull me
down,
down,
down
Further from salvation
Wrapping me in
forgetfulness

I bid good-bye
to the world I knew,
Release the last
breath trapped
in my lungs,
and rest on
the spongy bottom

I close my eyes,
breath sharply in,
and welcome
the sleep of
forever

I’ve read some of what other people have written about depression. I keep seeing the drowning metaphor. That’s the closest analogy I have found to help someone who’s never found themselves in the grips of the D-word. Well, maybe it’s more like drowning in slime, thick goo. You feel weighted down, achy, unable too move—or even care about moving. Every breath is a truly heroic act. Simple tasks like showering and dressing become monumental. You have spells where would sell your soul to get some sleep. Lying awake while black little ghouls pluck at your brain, planting bizarre thoughts in your painfully awake mind. Sometimes you sleep with a light on just so you feel like someone is there with you. Then, you don’t want to do anything but sleep; and some days you lie in bed, digging into your depths to find one miniscule reason to even get up. Your spouse and child are not enough. On the most hideous days, you tell yourself they would be better off without you as an albatross around their necks. They love you too much to be honest, but you know their lives would be better without you dragging them down.

So, you do contemplate gulping in that water, releasing that last sweet breath, and finally finding some peace.

Yeah, that’s pretty close. It’s easy to capture this because I’ve been fighting it off and on this school year. Personally, my family is dealing with many issues. Professionally, I’m having the hardest year of my career. I’m ripe for the monster to claim me. But wait, “monster” isn’t quite right. It’s not a loud, snarling beast—something I can easily see, hear, and avoid. No, depression is stealthy. Maybe like a movie serial killer: slips in, tortures you mercilessly and gleefully, makes you beg for mercy before you finally succumb to the gentle kiss of his knife.

In hindsight, I’ve had depression most of my life. According to my grandmother, I was born an adult, and I have carried a lot of my family’s burdens on my shoulders. I had to be strong for everyone. Hell, I still feel that way. At an early age I learned to mask my feelings. I am not placing any blame on anyone (truly I feel no anger anymore), but for most of my life I was taught emotions like anger and sadness were from the devil. Things to be prayed away. If you continued to feel those, your faith must not be strong enough. Rather than ask for help or healthily deal with my pain, I learned to push it down or hide it or question what I was doing wrong. It was all my fault. So, I had insomnia and nightmares and couldn’t figure out why the darkness called to me so often. Why that silky siren’s song refused to leave my brain.

As I became a teen, I grappled with faith because what I’d been taught sure as hell was not working. I began finding solace in self-harm. I rarely ever cut myself because I had a nosey mother (thank you, Mom). I refused to add any more issues to my family. So I flirted with harm but rarely broke the skin. Physical pain is so much simpler than mental pain. Causing myself pain helped me focus on something I could control. There was beauty and release as the nerve endings communicated the exquisite sting to my brain. My mind gratefully latched onto that single breathless moment. For those sweet seconds, I was free.

Yes, it sounds incredibly screwed up, doesn’t it? Again, the mind is not logical when a mental illness takes hold. I’ve even written a poem or two about it:

Control
I drag my nails
across my skin
Just to see the
red welts rise
God, the pain feels good
Releasing something dark inside
Feeding some insatiable beast
Lodged in my breast

He looms in my mind
At times quietly watching
At times ravishing my mind
and soul
At times I control him
At times he has full control

My words seem to come from
another mouth
My tears stream down
another face
My silent screams tear through
another brain
My nails rip down
another body

My life seems surreal
I watch another woman
become a terrified child
hunched in a fetal stance
Eyes closed, blocking out the
overwhelming world
Someone else tries to control
the pain inflicted by careless others
by inflicting pain on herself

Good little girl…
Focus on the beauty
of the physical pain

Sweet little girl…
Forget the emotional pain
ravaging your soul

Innocent little girl…
Pretend you have everything
under control

If you’re still reading this, you’re probably wondering if this is a ploy for attention or sympathy. Isn’t that why anyone posts on the Internet? Truly it’s not. When I share about my mental or physical illnesses, I state info matter-of-factly. I even feel bad when people express sympathy. Yes, I appreciate that kindness, but I know so many others are worse than I. Most days I KNOW I am truly blessed.

So, I’m sharing this lengthy post to make connections, especially with teachers.

I want you to know it’s okay to have bad days. It’s okay to not grade papers or write lessons or answer parent emails in the evenings or on weekends. It’s okay to take time for yourself. Go take a bath or read a book or go on a hike or watch a movie or simply take a damn nap. If you are struggling, talk to someone. Go find someone right this minute, look that person in the eye, and say, “I need help,” or “Will you listen.” Talk to that person.

Admitting your limitations is not a sign of weakness. Knowing, accepting, and working with those weaknesses is actually a sign of strength. To be able to look yourself, or someone else, in the eye and say, “I am not perfect. I need to lean on someone right now,” shows astonishing strength.

Teaching can feel amazingly solitary. Sure you work with other people, but once that door closes, it’s you and 30-something students in that room. Each of those students needs you to be your best. You have a moral and ethical obligation to be en pointe and educate as many of them as you humanly (or superhumanly) can. I know. I have the same imperative.

But, that doesn’t mean you can’t be a human, with all your strengths and weakness, with all your beauty and ugliness.

So, when you find yourself in those moments—when you’re floundering or drowning or slogging through or trying to find a reason to get out of bed—I hope you remember you are NOT alone.

It is okay to be you…and not THE teacher.

Everyone will understand—and we’ll still love and support you. 

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Intro to Genius Hour

So, my sweet friend Meghan Loyd (@meghanloyd, http://myforthelove.blogspot.com) beat me to blogging about Genius Hour. If it were anyone but her, I might need to beat her up.  Sometimes I’m so competitive. J

Even though it’s old news (thanks, Meghan—that was said with a tone, of course. HAHA!), I want to blog since I’m tackling this with my AP Lang. and Comp. students.

Pre-Genius Hour: I honestly don’t remember where I first heard about Genius Hour. Recently, I was talking to another teacher about this. He had heard about it at a GAFE Summit. I’ve taught GAFE classes, but not attended a Summit. Oh well, I do know it was around last summer. I began teaching at a new school; and as ill prepared as my students were for an AP ELA class, my plate was more than full first semester. Over Winter Break, I spent some time planning my second semester. I was desperately looking for ideas for my sophomores (sigh…) and remembered Genius Hour. Thus began my journey.

I googled “Genius Hour” and found the Genius Hour website (http://www.geniushour.com) and A.J. Juliani’s series of brief videos. The website includes many resources to get started with Genius Hour. I spent much of the break watching videos, reading articles, researching what other teachers had done, and writing my “instructions.”

Day One: (I should be including some links here--I contacted the owners for permission to include their work in my blog.)

I shortened some of the info since my students are older, and I’m diligently training them to be more independent. This is my plan for “Intro Day”:
  1. Has anyone heard of Genius Hour or 20% Time? Each Friday for the next several weeks, we will engage in Genius Hour. I am hoping to put part of your education back into your hands
  2.  Give students about 5 minutes to Google “genius hour” or “20% time.” Discuss what they found.
  3. Go over instructions
  4. Let students brainstorm for rest of hour
  5. At some point early on, discuss how to backwards plan (I ended up not doing this, but I’ve discussed this with some students individually)
  6. Set up blogs/journals (I set a deadline for this—helped as needed on their first “official” day) 
I explained I would take a lot of their time with AP test prep; therefore, I wanted to give them something to eagerly anticipate at the end of each week. Yes, we’ve been prepping all year, but after Spring Break, I start intense training sessions: three essays over three days. We do this for several weeks. It’s exhausting, but gets them ready for the test—and improves their writing…if they take it seriously.

We also talked about America’s lip service about creativity and innovation, but public schools do their best to drain that from students. I told them they needed a reason to get out of bed, other than compulsory attendance. We discussed that sometimes you are lucky enough to enjoy your job, but sometimes a job is a paycheck—they need something to feed their souls. This is where Genius Hour can help: maybe they will find their passion.

Week Before Spring Break: I won’t criticize how the week before Spring Break is handled in my school. Suffice it to say, between the activities all week and the break, I went two weeks without seeing students. That’s not a hyperbole. I did assign work because that’s a lot of time to give up, especially in the spring. Plus, right after the break, I did not see my morning classes for three days due to an ACT cram session. Okay, enough prefacing.

I used that time to help students brainstorm, “sign” their contracts, plan their upcoming Genius time, submit preliminary info through a Google Form, and work on their proposals. I was not able to sacrifice class time for students to present their proposals to their classmates, but they’re already talking to each other and their parents.

Through the early stages, my one restriction has been can their idea be sustained until May? I’ve also brainstormed with students on how to do their weekly updates, how to measure their successes/failures, and how to do a final “project.”

Some are in love.

Some are terrified of the freedom, but with a little handholding, they’re opening up.

Some, definitely the minority, are not taking this seriously. But, they’re the students who should not have been in AP English because they hate to read and write. They’ve spent the year doing the bare minimum. Maybe this will eventually excite them to life’s possibilities. Maybe not. Students reach an age where the more you push, the more they resist; therefore, I’m picking my battles.

The Night Before: I received this tweet

First Work Day: Last Friday, April 1, was our first workday. I spent much of the time encouraging, checking up on, setting up blogs, discussing how to submit weekly updates, acting as a sounding board, and simply listening to my students express joy and excitement. I shan’t update every week, but after school is out, I will have a link to my class website with a page dedicated to some of the projects. In the meantime, let me share the myriad of ideas pouring from my crazy children:
  1. A “Crash Course” (like John Green’s videos) on bees.
  2. Several students learning to code for different reasons (make a video game, to make a program that deals with books/reading, etc.)
  3. Learn Russian
  4. Learn Mandarin Chinese
  5. Improve their Spanish
  6. Tackle a different hobby each week to find one the student actually likes
  7. Try out Pinterest projects and record success/failures
  8. creating a list that will provide students who are about to start college or a new chapter of their lives with activities, routines, or ways to help them relieve any fears they may have about moving forward”
  9. A student is trying techniques to conquer her shyness
  10. Several students are trying to become better photographers
  11. Two are working on a mural
  12. A few are working on their art
  13. One is foraying into a psychological experiment
  14. One is trying to make biofuel at home
  15. One is trying to recreate a smaller version of a (moving) Lego car engine
  16. A few are working with their chemistry teacher to do some more risky experiments (yes, I will need to do something nice for any mentors)
  17. One will be trying family recipes and compiling them, with pictures, into a cookbook
  18. One is testing the how relaxing coloring actually is (legitimate after a week of AP practice!)
  19. A couple are working on conquering levels of video games and tracking their progress
  20. Two are working together to work out and keep scientific track of their progress
  21. One is working on improving his dancing skills
  22. One is working on sewing her own prom dress and making other clothes
  23. One is creating her own travel brochures with hacks she’s picked up
  24. One is working on learning more about forensics
  25. A couple are exploring the world of reality TV by making their own videos (should be hilarious)
  26. One is a future teacher and will be working on lesson plans for her 2nd graders (so adorable)
  27. One is planning his “old folks home” that does NOT look like or feel like a prison (there’s a library named after me—don’t be jealous)
  28. One is planning a park for children with disabilities so they can feel included and safe
  29. One is working on a website to record people’s personal stories. It’s called the Heart Museum.
  30.  One is working on a first-person perspective video on what it’s like to be bullied. She thinks that will have more impact on students. I’m inclined to agree.
Folks, this is only a taste. When given a chance, students can and will again tap into their innate creativity. They’re already discussing continuing this over the summer and want class time again next year. If I’m blessed enough to get at least one section of 12th AP, they will have that chance. Some of these projects are simply stress relievers or ways to relax; some of these could become lifetime passions; some of these could be their life’s work.

I am simply thankful for “discovering” this idea and for the chance (and autonomy) to take this journey with my students.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

It's Time for OAS

I guess it is about time I shared my thoughts on the Oklahoma Academic Standards. I don’t know why—if legislators truly cared what actual educators thought, most of #oklaed’s blogs wouldn’t need to exist. We could all sit down to tea and intelligently discourse on educational issues. Hey, I can dream, can’t I?

I’ll preface by saying I chose not to apply to work on the standards. I’ve spent enough time on English committees. I’ve witnessed heated fights over the minutia of comma placement and managed to alienate an entire department when I dared suggest teaching more YA in traditional classes. Therefore, while I know and esteem many of those on the committees, I steered clear, but I did read every draft (all grade levels), gave some feedback, and compared the standards to PASS and Common Core (because I’m a nerd). I have no vested interest in OAS—they aren’t my babies; I didn’t give birth to any of them or fight for any of them. However, I’m now joining the fray to support my English colleagues as we grapple for continuity for our students.

Let me backtrack a little and give everyone my credentials. It’s sad people can’t simply trust me as a professional, but I don’t mind sharing my resume before I share my opinions.

I finished my degree later in life and entered the teaching profession not as a doe-eyed, idealist, but as someone who had already spent much time reading, researching, reflecting, and pondering my role as a teacher (much of that done outside class). I student-taught with an 11th grade English teacher at Bartlesville, and spent a lot with PASS. Between college, student teaching and my 5-year stint at Bartlesville, I used PASS for about 6 ½ years for lessons and as we wrote (and rewrote and rewrote) benchmark tests and tightened vertical alignment. I saw first-hand how general PASS is, but I knew from the beginning that standards would be my minimum—that I would always aim beyond the standards. Why? Because English, especially high school English, is so much more than a standard, and there is so much more to teach, through English, than any standard or test could measure.

From Bartlesville, I took a job in Sperry. I started their pre-AP English program that year with 8th graders and taught traditional 10th graders, which was also the first year 10th graders HAD to pass their English II EOI (end of instruction) to graduate. Generally, the ones who didn’t pass were the ones who refused to even try in my class. I make it super difficult to fail my class because my class is about more than a grade. To the best of my ability, I want to prepare students for whatever path they choose in life. Again, standards and tests don’t mean much to me. I have a much bigger picture in mind for my students.

During my 5 years at Sperry, I worked with the Curriculum Director to expand their pre-AP English program to encompass 6th-10th grade. I recruited so I had about 25-33% of each grade enrolled in an AP class. Not because I think AP is the shizz, but because I genuinely saw students hungry for something different, something more than worksheets and the status quo. Something more than “learn figurative language” or “write a narrative essay.” I also served as Vertical Team Leader for the English department (covering 4th-12th grade) and Team Leader for 6th-12th pre-AP/AP English. I worked to help Sperry achieve vertical alignment and to transition to Common Core, which I also read on my own time (all grade levels, exemplars, and supplements). I built websites and worked with teachers to help them create lessons and make that move. To me, it was not a big deal. I was already teaching like CC endorsed. So, I gladly helped other teachers.

Additionally, I have been a school board member for Oklahoma Connections Academy (a public online school) and taught 6 semesters at Oklahoma Wesleyan University (Comp I & II, Intro to Lit, Secondary Methods, English Methods), I’ve done AP summer institutes, participated in 3 of the 4 sessions of the OKSDE Summer Convening, presented at conferences, taught PD sessions, and had Levels 1 and 2 Audit Training for Curriculum Managements Systems, Inc. And I’m only in my 11th year of full-time teaching.
Educating is what I do.

Which leads me to the Oklahoma Academic Standards…Standards are important to help give teachers a framework of goals. Standards also help unify teachers and aid in vertical/horizontal alignment. Standards support new teachers when they don’t know where to start or end up. Standards assist teachers in discussing the important questions about curriculum: Why are we doing this? Is this the best way to teach this standard? How do we get from point A to point B?

PASS did not provide this as much because they were too general. CC sought to do this, but it became politically incorrect to seek to unify students as Americans instead of by individual state. CC was also not perfect, and their standards for lower grades were not completely developmentally appropriate, but they were an improvement over PASS.

On a side note, I remember heading to the second year of OKSDE Convening a few days after the legislature screwed us by repealing and outlawing Common Core. I will never forget sitting in a room of passionate, dedicated educators and realizing all our hard work (from the past year of Convening and within our own districts) was now illegal. Seriously, it was that ludicrous. We sat silent and stunned for part of that first day. What we had done was work on curriculum and lesson plans, but much of that had to be scrapped lest it bear the “taint” of Common Core. Figurative language and punctuation are not copyrighted by Common Core, but our legislators were so freaked out, we almost didn’t dare use any of our original work. Asinine.

Now I feel as though I’m experiencing some bad déjà vu. Once again, our legislators are playing around with education: by threatening the standards—standards written by Oklahomans for Oklahomans, using Oklahoma values (whatever the hell that means) because Oklahoma legislators like to play god whenever they can.

Enough! Stop swinging your private parts around and pissing on things to prove what big, bad lawmakers you are. This is not about you. This is not about me. This is about creating continuity and stability for our students. This is about unifying all of our children under a common set of standards to prepare them to take their places as working, productive, and VOTING members of Oklahoma’s community.

Please do not tell me that is who you are thinking about, and you’re protesting because you want “what’s best” for Oklahoma students. This ceased being about our kids when you let outside forces and your political party dictate adopting CC then reject CC.

You want standards because you don’t trust me as a professional to aim for the highest I can with my students. Well, I want you to stop wielding your power like a homicidal maniac in a bad horror movie and listen to your consciences. No, don’t listen to your political party that has insidiously wormed its way into your mind and is passing as your conscience. Don’t listen to the power and ambition blinding you to common sense and the voices of people who know better—we, the educators. Stop letting ALEC and ACHIEVE seduce you like sirens. Remember what happened to those who answered the Sirens’ calls. Stop punishing our children with ROPE’s agenda. They have given up on public schools and public education. They would b*tch no matter what as they tried to hang us with their ROPE.

I know you have bad feelings since we, as educators, fought viciously over ESA’s. We are incredibly passionate when it comes to our students and our work as professionals. We get incredibly angry when anyone threatens those students. But, please, do not let your hard feelings blind you from doing something so easy and so obviously right: approve the standards.

I won’t speculate on what outsiders have promised you: ALEC or the Waltons. I won’t foray into conspiracy theories about alleged goals of privatization of education. I know you would never sell your fellow Okies and their children for 30 pieces of silver. I will not deign to imagine you have political aspirations outside of the state you say you love—and are hoping to impress future contributors and supporters. I know you wouldn’t grease your pockets using Oklahoma students and educators. I know these must be the musings of my cynical side.

Many educators have written about and recorded videos about OAS. Letters of support have been written. I am simply adding my voice to those in a show of support. If you want lessons and exemplars, approve the standards, and I can promise you both. Exemplars will take some time as teachers have obviously not yet utilized the standards with their students, but we can and will do it. If parts need to be modified/revised, that can also be done. But it’s much easier (and faster) to fix mistakes or edit existing work than to start fresh.

It is time to stop fooling around with public education. It is time to approve the standards so teachers can spend the summer writing lessons and working with their districts to implement them. It is time to help education rather than hinder it. A “YES!” to the standards wouldn’t cost you any money, but it would boost morale and help unify our state in a time when we are dispirited and splintered.

For once, be an advocate for the students and educators in your state. You say you care about us, but your words are cheaply given and easily taken back. If you want your constituents to ever trust you again, now is the time to hear the majority and approve the Oklahoma Academic Standards. To do otherwise simply shows us more of your true colors—those of lawmakers bent on dismantling public education and profiting off the destruction. 

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Needing a Connection

I constantly look for ways to make my lessons more applicable or more understandable for my students, especially my AP students. (Honestly, right now, I’m just trying to get my 10th graders to write more than 5 sentences in a paragraph—we spend a lot of time discussing why they could/would possibly need more than the bare minimum. Sigh. I’m not going to tell them they might also need less than that “magic” 5.)

I adore teaching literature, but I’ll save it for another post; rather, I want to discuss my evolution from a teacher who teaches writing to a writer who encourages (and attempts to teach and make time for) a deeper, more meaningful connection to the process.

I recently began thinking more deeply about why we write and how we communicate as humans. Why do we make movies and write books and design buildings and sculpt and SnapChat and tweet and write songs and tell stories? What is the purpose of all this? To torture students by making them analyze and write essays? Well, that’s only part of the fun.

The entire purpose of everything we do is to communicate and make connections with others. A popular textbook claims, “Everything’s an Argument.” I don’t think that’s true. Just because you can argue anything does not make everything an argument. Rather, everything is an attempt to connect with other humans in the hope someone, somewhere understands and lets you know you are not alone.

All our movies and essays and novels and tweets and pictures and art and architecture and fashion and experiments are simply, sometimes, clumsy attempts at connecting to the human race. We desperately want others to look us in the eyes (not always literally), touch our hand or shoulder, and assert, “I hear you. Yes, I get it. No, you’re not a freak. I feel/think/say that too.” Those three words, “I hear you,” seem to be the most important. We need to be heard—not listened to, but actively, truly, deeply heard. To connect minds and emotions.

I need to continue conveying this to my students. We discuss author’s/creator’s purpose and how authors/creators then make conscious choices to convey a message and achieve that purpose. Authors/creators pick one word over another, they decide on setting and characters, they use imagery and symbols, they create sentences and paragraphs and dialogue—all to convey a message and create a connection between the audience and the medium. I call this the “Hows, Whys, and So whats or Who cares.” How does the author use language? Why does the author use the device? So what or who cares if this was used? How does it help convey the message to the audience? How does it help the audience connect to the work?

I drill this into my students until they begin asking these questions themselves. However, to take our thoughts and work deeper, I need to paint the picture of one human trying to communicate thoughts and emotions to another human.
Let’s focus again on written communication. “Know your audience” continues to be the #1 rule of writing. Once you know your audience, you can tailor your communication for them. Sometimes the simple word is best; sometimes the slang or curse word is the right word; sometimes passive voice is acceptable. Sometimes you can use a fragment. This year, I began explaining the burden of written communication falls on the communicator. The communicator needs to make the message as clear as possible with setting, characters, figurative language, necessary punctuation, diction, etc.

Do not expect your audience to read your mind.

This is when miscommunication happens: we get slothful and sloppily toss out words and images, expecting the audience to chase after and gather up the haphazard fragments and piece together an imperfect and incomplete picture. Then we get angry when our audience can’t interpret our lazy style and misconstrues our incoherent message. We complain about being “misunderstood,” but did we work to make ourselves understood? Probably not, it’s much easier to place blame than to accept responsibility.

Writing and speaking are gifts. Other animals communicate in various ways, but humans have the capacity to create words, give them meaning and nuance, to attach inflection and punctuation, to utilize body language and facial expressions—we have so much at our fingertips; however, we must and should be good stewards with our gifts. The world is chaotic, but words, especially written words, can bring order to that chaos. An essay or novel or tweet is NOT creating something from nothing; they are attempts to bring structure and infuse meaning into the disorder.

I want my students to learn the rules of format and Standard English so they can more effectively communicate with others. Then, I want them to learn how and when to break those rules. I did not truly understand this until I sat down and worked on honing my own skills, which is a never-ending process.

In the beginning of my career, I focused so much on simply getting students to write a “proper” essay, with a thesis and the other requisite pieces. I still must do this because of the restrictions of standardized testing, the AP test, and college expectations; however, in the last 4-5 years (years in which my own writing blossomed and flourished in the form of poetry and example “essays” for students), I found myself entering into discourse of the hows and whys of effective writing. Why do we do what we do? Yes, we need commas, but when and why? Dashes are so lovely—here’s why. Using more than one exclamation point at the end of a sentence doesn’t make your words more exciting; those extraneous marks just make your words louder. How do we make this more interesting, without relying on 20 exclamation points? When should you start a new paragraph? Generally when you start a new topic, but sometimes your reader needs a break…that’s when you can start a new paragraph. Traditionally, teachers/professors like the thesis to be the last sentence of your intro, so when you are writing for them, do that. Now, let’s look at where some other authors placed their thesis statements.

Increasingly more, I quickly review/teach the rules, then I eagerly anticipate conversations with those students ready to spread their wings and try breaking the rules. (This is yet another reason I wish my classes were no larger than about 20-25 students. Sigh….) I even sit in desks next to students or force myself onto the floor beside them so we can discourse on a more equal plane (see those non-verbal cues?) and so I am less of the “expert.”

My next step is maybe for my students to actually watch me struggle through a prompt or a blog post. I’ve done this before with various levels of success. Right now, many of them simply want a formula for how to get an “A.” My dream is to throw out grades for any and all writing assignments. Rather, I would love the time to have conferences with my students and help them wrestle with and fine-tune their work. Unfortunately, I have restrictions to which I must conform…as do my students.


In the mean time, I will try to balance the “bad” writing they must do for the AP and end-of-instruction tests with lessons in revising and editing. I will do my damnedest to help students understand that while writing is a much needed and desired skill, it is also an art form. Writing takes lifeless words, cautiously examines them, then reaches in and chooses that special word. Writing pairs that particular word with other carefully selected gems and strings them together to form sentences, which then form paragraphs. Eventually, when we take the time to judiciously craft our words, we just might reach out and touch someone, thus creating that most beautiful of connections: humans in understanding and harmony.  

Monday, February 22, 2016

I'm Angry

I’m angry.

No, I am blindingly furious right now. I usually do not allow myself to get truly angry (no one can make you angry; it’s a choice). Instead, I get irritated, I rant, I let off steam—then I like to get to work solving problems; however, when I finally get incensed, I do not blaze; I become cold and calculating. I aim for the heart and the deathblow.

I’m not the first #oklaed blogger to attempt to capture the rage many of us currently feel. Recently, other educators like Rick Cobb, Rob Miller, and Blue Cereal dared express their outrage at the people and circumstances responsible for the travesties in Oklahoma. A publication I’ve never heard of before (The MiddleGround) responded with pablum, telling the three bloggers, and #oklaed in general, to be polite and use language inoffensive to the morons who caused our state’s myriad issues.

*I’m not including a link because I don’t want their hand wringing, prissy nonsense to have more traffic

As a woman, I’ve been told to be kind, to not be aggressive, to watch my mouth. You might as well wave a red flag in my face. Generally, intelligent people choose expletives and diatribe when our honey won’t even catch flies—or legislators. People raise their voices when others refuse to hear polite conversation or when others refuse to enter into healthy discourse. Then, we begin shouting and swearing, hoping something will filter through the deliberate deafness and obtuseness. Curse words are not my default setting. Knowing the three men, I doubt they simply cuss for fun (well, maybe BCE… J). They are writers and revisers who pick their words with care. They know the value of words, the power words can carry. Profanity shouldn’t be (and so far hasn’t been) tossed around lightly when addressing a profoundly serious topic like the complete defunding of our schools.

That is only one reason I’m angry. So, for those with sensitive sensibilities, let me warn you: I’m not pulling any punches.

I’m as angry as a wounded animal and as vengeful as a scorned woman; however, I am not the one wounded. Instead, I’m forced to stand politely and quietly by while people I love suffer: my students. I’m expected to sit silently while my elected leaders strip the rags hanging from the emaciated body of public education and cast lots for those rags. If you aren’t familiar with that allusion, try picturing our illustrious leaders as vultures circling the dying, wasted body of public education, greedily eyeing the flesh. The body determinedly crawls forward, crying for a drop of funding while the vultures avidly wait for the last gasp so they can swoop in and rip what is left of the corpse to shreds.

Now, imagine that corpse is your child. Oklahoma’s government is slowly strangling the educational life from YOUR CHILD. This is not a hyperbole. Our leaders actively refuse to tax those who can afford to be taxed. They cheerfully and blindly continue digging Oklahoma’s grave--and stubbornly and willfully refuse to make changes. We will all soon lie in that grave, including your child and the state’s future.

As a writer and sometimes poet, I like to rely on imagery and synesthesia to tell my story. To further this horror story, picture our personified state lying on the operating table, hemorrhaging, yet Fallin and our leaders think the state still has enough blood to donate it. They opened the artery and have turned sightless eyes as the crimson flood pours from the state’s body.

Our leaders have become vampires. Not the sweet sparkly kinds with perfect hair who make you feel all tingly inside. No, they are Dracula incarnate or Lucy Westenra who joyfully and greedily sucked the blood from children to satisfy her own needs. We see this in the form of ESA (voucher) bills, school consolidation bills, bills discriminating against some of our students…basically our leaders are attempting to do anything and everything EXCEPT help create, fund, and nurture healthy public schools. Rather, they’re sucking the life from our schools—and then blaming the victim for shriveling up and dying.

I’m thoroughly sick of making do, of keeping a stiff upper lip, of pulling myself up by my bootstraps, or smiling through the pain…and all the other inane things a**holes say when they fake sympathy. Why should I have to continue drawing a salary that falls below the poverty line—after a decade of teaching? Why should I then continue buying supplies and classroom sets of books with that same laughable salary? Why should I work a full day, then work in the evenings and weekends—for free? Why should I continue being the state’s, and nation’s, whipping boy every time America doesn’t measure up to other countries on something as ludicrous as a standardized test? 

At this point, platitudes and promises are nothing. Do not beg for money to fix the Capitol so tourists can be impressed with a building. Do not even go there when schools are dimming lights and trying to scrape the bottom of nearly-empty barrels. I guess tourists will be the only ones coming to this backward state—no businesses are stupid enough to settle in a state “training” an illiterate workforce…no matter how many tax cuts you pimp to them.

Also, Don’t tell me you’re planning on raises for teachers because you understand how important we are. I have teacher friends working second and third jobs and/or on welfare. The thought alone does not count when we’re talking a living wage. I spit on your pretty words. I wipe my feet on the trash pouring from your lying mouth. Yes, words can have power. Your words do not; they are lumps of banality and vanity, designed to help allay your conscience so you can sleep at night.

Sleep. Hmmm, that’s another thing I’m missing as I worry about my students and their lives and how to prepare them for tests no one cares about and how to try to make the rigidity of school actually apply to their lives…but that’s a topic for another post.

Let me wrap this up by asking a few questions and leaving you, dear reader, with a few ideas to ponder….

What good are the “best standards in the nation” when there are no teachers to teach them or if the schools are empty? Of course, they won’t be empty once Oklahoma’s leaders sell our schools and children to the Waltons or Bill Gates or some other money grubbing Ed reformer for thirty pieces of silver.  

Education is the backbone of society. Without educated citizens, Oklahoma’s future looks desolate, bleak, depressing, foreboding...fill in your own appropriate synonym….  

I’ll end with a lovely pithy saying for your next meme: Public schools aren’t failing. Oklahoma’s leaders are failing the schools, your children, and their future.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Alice's Adventures in Public Ed

I’ve taught Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland three different times. We focused on the topic of identity and Alice’s journey. I used surrealistic art with the book. I don’t know every nuance of the novel, but I do understand it rather well. However, it’s amazing how one can read a book over (even teach it) and yet discover something new or make a new connection.

Recently, a casual thought led me to re-read Alice and was floored by how much of Alice’s experience pertains to modern education: too many of our students experience much of what Alice does. Let’s pretend Alice represents our struggling students—students having problems with the current public educational system.

Now, are you ready to jump?

Imagine Alice falling down the rabbit hole and landing in Wonderland’s hall of doors. The only way out is through one of the doors, yet they are all locked. Suddenly, Alice spots a key, but either the locks are too large, or the key is too small.

How many students feel this way: they’ve been given the key of an education, but because of budget cuts or inherent racism/discrimination or too standardized a curriculum, they feel ill equipped to unlock any of the doors. Why hand them a key that doesn’t even work? We continually tell students we are preparing them for college and life, but how many educators are truly trying to do that? I guess if we want to prepare our students for the reality of systemic discrimination, then, yes, maybe school does prepare them.
 

But wait! What is behind that curtain? It’s the perfect door! Success! Somehow the key is a perfect fit. Despite the odds, Alice finds the door she wants to walk through. It opens and she beholds the loveliest garden and longs to escape the dark hall. “Dark hall.” What an apt description for too many of our public schools—institutional, prison-like buildings furnished with uncomfortable desks and fluorescent lights. And that’s the better schools. My mind keeps playing the recent pictures from Detroit schools: the mold, roaches, rats, and deplorable conditions. (In case you’re unfamiliar with the issue: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/education/wp/2016/01/28/detroit-teachers-union-sues-over-poor-school-conditions/)

Alice wishes she could fold up like a telescope and be small enough to fit through the door. She wants to do whatever it takes to conform. She so strongly wishes to break out of that hall, she wishes for the impossible. 

Alice spends much time trying to get through the door. She drinks something and shrinks; she eats something and grows. Nothing works. But, Alice does react with anger to her situation. She even cries and rails and questions her own identity because she isn’t the perfect size. She compares herself to children she knows as she grapples with who she is and tries to force herself to fit through the tiny door. Alice even turns to a memorized piece of literature to find comfort and answers; however, not even what she learns in school helps because it isn’t an accurate reflection of her current situation. How does this math lesson apply to her life? Where are the literary characters like her? Will science or art or music standards help Alice? Maybe a multiple-choice test will equip her with the skills she needs to escape her dark prison.

Poor Alice doesn’t know to question the weird door or the small key or the odd cake and drink. She doesn’t ponder why these weird systems are in place or wonder if they are the problem—no, she sadly blames herself and her “disabilities.”

Alice does finally makes it through the door on an ocean of tears she cried, but she still doesn’t reach the garden. Instead, she encounters many bedraggled creatures that also swam through the “ocean.” The next scene eerily resembles a typical classroom: one person (the Mouse) takes charge and tells everyone, “Sit down, all of you, and listen to me!” They sit and listen to the Mouse’s solution to their problem: a boring history lecture. Of course, what the Mouse presents doesn’t help at all. The “students” remain in the same state as before the Mouse’s pontification. Maybe if the Mouse’s speech had come in the form of a Kahoot quiz or gamification…that would at least make it less boring and more applicable, right?

Alice continues her adventures, encountering many anthropomorphisms and general confusion and silliness. Eventually, she meets the Caterpillar, who asks, “Who are you?” Poor Alice doesn’t know because “…being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing” Any student would feel this way as s/he spends time shrinking and growing and twisting and contorting to try to please each teacher and meet expectations for each class. In this class, the student is expected to sit down and shut up. In that class, s/he is allowed to move and discuss. In this class, grades and tests matter more than learning. In that class, s/he hears discriminatory words or ideas from other students—or from the teacher. Anyone would question his/her identity after all the nonsense. “’How puzzling all these changes are! I’m never sure what I’m going to be, from one minute to another! …the next thing is, to get into that beautiful garden—how is that to be done, I wonder?’” Still Alice lacks the proper guidance and direction to find that garden. If school doesn’t do that, what is its purpose?

Poor Alice forges ahead on her confusing journey through the public school system. The Cheshire Cat tells her if she doesn’t care where she ends up then it doesn’t matter which way she goes (come on, we all know people/educators like this). Then Alice encounters some lovely elitism at the Mad Hatter’s. They emphatically tell her there’s no room at their table—even though there clearly is. I don’t interpret this literally (as in schools actually not having room—even though many don’t); rather, I see this symbolically. The privileged don’t have room for whom they don’t want at their table: generally white, wealthy, cisgender, binary, “Christian” students. There’s no room for Alice. She doesn’t fit in…even though there is plenty of room for everyone.

Alice forces her way to the table, where she is subjected to personal criticism and ludicrous riddles. They even call her stupid and tell her not to talk. She leaves in disgusted frustration and discovers another door. By now, Alice has learned a little how to manipulate the system and finally makes it to the garden.

 

As Alice finds out, the garden is not a paradise, but another place fraught with dangers, where she neither knows nor understands the quicksilver rules and people. The Duchess even tells Alice, “’The more there is of mine, the less there is of yours.’”

Our best summation of the unequal nature of public education comes in the Mock Turtle’s story. He and Alice argue about the importance of their courses. Mock Turtle remarks his school had “’French, music, and washing,’” but he couldn’t afford washing. I think of all our students who can’t afford the necessities, much less the “extras.” We expect them to aim for self-actualization when they simply worry about shelter, food, clean water, and safety. Thanks to Flint, Michigan, we even see how some students can’t afford washing—they can’t afford the monetary cost for clean, safe water, and they can’t afford the cost to their health.

I don’t have the energy to analyze the travesty of a trial in Wonderland, but I know you, dear reader, can easily draw parallels with too many current events. Instead, I shall wrap up my strange tale…

Sadly, Alice (and too many other students) will realize the world is not made for her; instead, the world will do whatever it can to keep Alice in the subjugated place carved out for her by the strange world. That world will even threaten Alice’s life (“Off with her head!” as the Queen of Hearts shrieks) to keep her in her place.

How can we, as educators, continue to support this kind of systemic inequity? When we will elect people who understand education is the basis of a strong society—and without all of our citizens educated, we will only weaken society. When will American citizens wake the f*ck up and stop growing stronger on the oppression and subjugation of a large part of its citizenry?

Will we bellow and threaten and distract ourselves with silly entertainments (like playing croquet with flamingos)? Will we continue painting over our mistakes and history to make it fit of vision of perfection (painting the roses red)? Will we all continue to wallow in our selfishness, greed, hypocrisy, pride, and ignorance? Will we continue to sacrifice some of our children so others can retain their power, wealth, privilege, and status?

Curiouser and curiouser, isn’t it?