By Michaela Liebst
As a child, and still as an adult, I would rather write a two-page paper before I attempted to draw anything. Art was never my chosen form of expression in the classroom, and I was always grateful when English teachers provided options that were more linear than creative. When I first started teaching, I made the dangerous assumption that all students had the same educational experience as me, and did not assign artistic work for fear that it would bring frustration and terror to my classroom.
Obviously, this lack of creativity, voice, and choice in the classroom had the exact opposite effect, and I quickly learned that I was the odd woman out when it came to creative projects. No matter the age group, students crave to be given a creative outlet, and as teachers, this is our dream come true. Allowing students to demonstrate mastery of a concept in an artistic or creative format makes our jobs more fun as well as the students’.
Being an elementary gifted facilitator, I see the benefits of incorporating play and creativity into my classroom daily. Engagement is instantly increased when I allow students to draw, paint, or act out their responses to a prompt. And while I used to prescribe to the notion that allowing students a chance to craft and create was “leisurely” or “a break,” I was quickly corrected in my thinking.
As stated by Ben Johnson, in his article “ 4 Ways to Develop Creativity in Students” (2019), “Creativity is the most difficult thinking skill to acquire” with ‘synthesis’ being the highest-order of thinking. Before I was experienced in seeing students interact with creative assignments, I assumed they would be easy for students. I was instantly proven wrong. Over time, opportunities for creative expression have been wrung out of the classroom schedule to make room for much more mundane and rote tasks. This means that students are having to relearn the skills required to think for themselves and generate unique products.
Therefore, I make it my mission to provide students with the opportunity and challenge to exercise their creative muscles and show what they know in creative and exciting ways.
One of my favorite ways of doing this in the 2020 school year has been a themed project that goes with both our nation’s election and the spooky season. To kick off a unit that will require students to learn about our government, identify leadership characteristics, and ultimately nominate their own fictional presidential candidate, I wanted to expose students to our nation’s past leaders. However, I wanted to amp up the typical research project and allow my students to have some fun.
Thankfully, my love for the fall season might be unmatched, and I was inspired by the seasonal décor. I decided to couple “boring” research with the creation of a Presidential Pumpkin Patch! Students chose a president that they wanted to learn more about, and then filled out this Google Slides template to help guide them in their research. Once they had learned the necessary facts, I had them bring in a pumpkin from home, and decorate it to look like their president of choice.
While I’m sure I may have lost some secondary educator’s interest, I would like to make the case that this assignment would be just as successful, entertaining, and rigorous in the middle school/high school setting. Having students use pumpkins (or any other seasonal décor – I’m already thinking about ornaments for a literary Christmas tree?!) to depict their favorite scene or character would be such a fun and effective way for students to show how they are connecting with a text. Not only will the students in your classroom be engaged, but it might also be an opportunity to engage other students, staff, or community members as well!
If you are really wanting to be sure that the assignment is rigorous and standards-based, you can also be sure to supplement the artistic component with a more classroom-typical assignment. For example, in addition to the pumpkin decorating, I also required my students to summarize their research in a paragraph, as well as create a poster with their favorite facts they discovered. I’ve found that my students are great at finding information, but not great at processing the information and summarizing its meaning. However, I know that if we had solely worked on this skill, without the creative activity, their work ethic and willingness to produce high quality summaries would not be as high.
Overall, I am passionate about providing students with opportunities to showcase their knowledge in ways that are exciting and meaningful to them. These types of projects always turn my room into an environment filled with laughter, energy, and engagement. I also know it academically benefits students for a multitude of reasons. When they are synthesizing knowledge in new and unique ways, the information I am wanting them to take away is etching itself into their brain so much more permanently than if I just gave them a multiple-choice quiz. And while these benefits for my students are great, I’m also human and a little selfish – coming up with lesson plans when I know the end result is going to be something as fun as a decorated pumpkin keeps me engaged and pushes my creative muscles. It truly is a win-win!
Share below some of your favorite ways to allow for students to be creative in the classroom. Bonus points if your ideas are seasonal, as I’ve found that seasonal assignments have been my favorite to think up so far!
About the Author
Michaela Liebst is an elementary gifted facilitator in the Derby School district. She has a passion for project-based learning and challenging both her students and through herself through creative projects. Teachers are her favorite people in the world, and she always feels re-energized after collaborating and learning from her colleagues. You can reach her on Instagram (@mliebst) or by e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org).
By KATE Board Members
The KATE blog committee has the latest scoop regarding some of our board members. Warning: if you don’t want to be privy to these scandalous facts, stop reading now. If you want to be in the loop, read on. The choice is yours.
After a whole afternoon of diligent super-sleuthing (AKA sending a group email and collecting responses), the blog committee can report the following: KATE board members read banned books. In fact, they have indulged in the reading of so many banned books that many of them have favorites.
In the interest of transparency, we offer this list to our membership.
Monica Swift and Lis Bauman adore To Kill a Mockingbird. “I LOVE the realness of the characters, especially Atticus,” Swift confesses.
Other brazen board members not only reveal their favorites, but weigh in on their disapproval of banning books altogether.
Consider Keeley Torbet’s rant:
My favorite banned book is The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. There are few writers with such finely turned phrases and vivid imagery writing today. His prose is almost lyric in quality. I become so deeply engrossed in his characters and stories that I feel like I am part of them. How that level of artistry can be banned is beyond pale. He makes his characters come alive and embraces them for who they are which is a trait that we as humans need to be better at adopting.
Never one to ban books in my personal or professional life, I struggle mightily with how people can justify telling someone what they can and cannot read. How can telling stories about people and their identities and actions be bad? How is offering differing viewpoints, new windows to see through, and life experiences we may never have ourselves be dangerous? I cannot answer these questions, but I can ensure that my own children and my kids (students) are given the freedom to explore literature in all its variety and beauty.
Joann McRell defends Lois Lowry’s The Giver as a powerful text for all students, middle school through post-secondary. “Lowry creates a Utopian society free of hunger, poverty, and violence. Unfortunately, it is also void of hope, love, and joy.” If we believe McRell, the story communicates that “choice and the power of the individual provide hope that our society will continue to see value in its diversity.”
Suzanne Porath boldly acknowledges that reading banned books can broaden one’s worldview past one’s immediate circle of family and friends. She states: One of my favorite banned books is Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. It's been banned or challenged because of its mix of science and religion with supernatural spirituality. Some people also think it is too complex for young minds. When I first read it, there were few books that had strong female characters, unless, of course, it was a romance book or about babysitting. I related to Meg in many ways - I didn't feel like I fit in my family, I didn't like the way I looked, and I was told I had an "attitude." When I first read this book, I copied out many impactful quotes, like “Maybe I don’t like being different,” Meg said, “but I don’t want to be like everybody else, either.” This seemed to encapsulate my struggle. Also, "Nothing is hopeless; we must hope for everything." In a time of COVID, this is still so true! This book, and the rest of L'Engle's books, shaped my teenage years and gave me a different perspective on love, family, and memories.
For Anna Drenick, apparently inappropriate language in a book is not a problem. “Although there are quite a few of my favorites that have been on the banned book list, my favorite is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. The book is told from the perspective of a 15 year-old boy on the Autism spectrum who is on a mission to solve a mystery in his neighborhood. It is banned in some schools for ‘profane language and the promotion of atheism.’ I love this book because it offers empathy, understanding, and a little mystery for its readers.
Jennifer Enright’s favorite banned book is Native Son by Richard Wright. “I love the way he tackles the complexity of issues in America and does so with nuance,” she boasts.
Then there’s LuAnn Fox. She appreciates Lolita. “It’s mature, to be sure, but it’s a farce in disguise and showcases the mad genius that is Nabokov as he writes a love letter to the English language wrapped in a taboo subject.”
Our own president Nathan Whitman can’t seem to help himself either. He cherishes Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. He even prefers it over George Orwell’s classroom classic. His claim: While 1984 has its fair share of points and warnings about dictatorships and fascism, I think that this sleeper-hit dystopic utopia fits a lot closer to our present reality, especially when we consider our addictions to feeling good via social media (a soma, if you will). Huxley's thoughts about controlling people through narcissism and self-indulgence were far more prescient and applicable for today.
If you aren’t shocked enough, let us shake you a little more with Erica Shook’s stunning confession. She’s read so many controversial texts, she can’t narrow it to one favorite. In fact, she shamelessly announces that she actually chooses many books “simply because they made the list. For example, the His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman. It is unlikely that I would have picked it up had it not been for all the people at the time screaming for its banning. And I loved it! One thing is for sure: if people want a book banned, there is an astronomically high probability that it is exactly the book we should all be reading.”
Very well, Ms. Shook. If you insist.
Feel free to use this moment to come clean with your own banned book secret delights. Share your favorites in the comments below.
About the KATE Board
Along with advocating for quality literature, the KATE Board is also passionate about advocating for English teachers across the state. The board's main goal is to inspire and support KATE members to include the texts and lessons in their classrooms that will engage students the most. Feel free to read Katherine Cramer's post regarding NCTE Position Statements if you are fearful about including a certain text in your room! Trust your teacher instinct and provide your students with the texts you know that they need.
By Deborah Eades
We’ve all heard the claims and read the reports. Reading is good for you. As English teachers, we witness first-hand the increase in empathy, understanding, perspective, and--oh yes-- test scores that accompany reading. Sadly, however, as students move through from primary to secondary school, many of them stop reading for pleasure. Let’s face it, many of them stop reading even for school.
One of the best ways to learn a foreign language is immersion study. People sign up to live and study in a foreign country, and they learn the language faster. Living in the culture of the language shifts the brain into turbo boost. The scholars begin thinking in a new way that facilitates the acquisition of language. A similar experience can happen when schools create a culture of reading.
I noticed this for the first time when I moved to a new district. From what I could tell, nearly all the staff at my new school were readers. Lunchtime conversation often centered around someone’s latest book haul. A book shelf in the teacher’s lounge invited us to take a book and leave a book. Teachers set their email signatures to note their current reads. Some staff members met every summer for a long-standing book club. Even staff Christmas parties culminated in a gift exchange of books. Reading was everywhere, and because of this, students were exposed to reading as not just a classroom requirement, but as a passion.
When students are immersed in a positive reading culture, it makes a difference. They carry their personal reading material with them and turn to it rather than cell phones during down time. They discuss plot and character and tone like they’re bantering about the latest Tik-Tok craze. They ask teachers and librarians for recommendations and offer recommendations to their peers. When students read for pleasure, they come to those complex texts we force on them with minds that are more open and willing.
Because I believe in the benefits that reading can have on students, I wanted to share some different ways to help engage your students with texts they love. Listed below are three ways to create a culture of reading in your school.
We already do this in class, don’t we? We read the book, and at some time during the unit, we show at least parts of the movie, if not the whole thing. However, sometimes we are guilty of sending mixed messages. We chastise students for watching the movie or teachers from other departments for showing the movie before we study the text in class. If we believe that a movie version can offer insight and clarity, why not fully embrace it? In fact, a colleague and I recently discussed this very idea. You can read our conclusions on the value of movies in the classroom here.
Our librarian, Heather Hawkins (who blogged for KATE about Skype), welcomed students back this year with a giant wall display advertising all the book/movie combos our school library has in stock. Those movies had been hidden away in a back room, accessible only by teachers for years. Why? What’s the point of restricting student access to book-inspired movies? By embracing the book/movie connection, she has offered students an welcoming doorway back to reading for pleasure. The message is if you liked the movie, you’ll love the book. We have both right here waiting just for you.
Show and Tell Shingles
You know how businessmen, lawyers, and barbers hang out a “shingle” to advertise their services? Staff members can utilize this same technique by hanging a shingle to advertise their current reading interests. Imagine the power of students seeing a “Currently Reading” sign on nearly every classroom they enter. The message amplifies when the shingles showcase current reads of office staff and lunch ladies and coaches, too. Students get it pretty quickly. Adults at their school value reading, and not just the English teachers.
Sharing your reads with the student body creates other connections, too. Students know who the avid readers are, but they also know which teachers take forever to read a book. Slow readers start to realize it’s okay to not be a fast and furious reader, as long as they are reading. Additionally, students notice the topic trends. When a sci-fi fan student sees that his/her math teacher voraciously reads Marie Lu books, the door opens for bonding beyond the curriculum.
To get your entire staff on board, make it easy for them. Print and distribute simple “Currently Reading” signs. Tell staff you are trying an experiment, and you want to see how many kids notice the signs. Some teachers might be more willing to help with an experiment than to be told they have to hang a sign. You know how we can be, guys. If a math teacher told me to hang a sign revealing how I use math each day, I might be hesitant about possible judgment. However, sometimes students need to see teachers taking a chance in order to be willing to take a chance, too. So, print the signs, ask for the support, and when Math asks back, return the favor.
Facilitate Reading for Fun
Some of us already do this, but it’s good to remind ourselves how important it is to facilitate reading for fun, especially in times of change. A few years ago, our ELA department decided to start every class period with ten minutes of daily reading. We expected our students to have personal reading material with them, preferably hard copies. The reading material could be a novel, a graphic novel, a magazine, a book of poetry, even a cookbook if that’s what a student liked to read. We stocked our rooms to create easy access and ward off I-forgot-my-book excuses.
Immediately, students were confused. Did they have to take notes? Would there be a test? Should they turn in a reading log? Could they switch out a book if they didn’t like the one they chose? It took a while for them to realize they were reading for fun. Period. That’s it. It wasn’t long before students appreciated this reading time. They protected this time, and reminded teachers when we forgot.
Over time, some of us have tweaked the practice. Some teachers have students read for twenty minutes twice a week instead of ten minutes daily. One switched to using one whole class period once a week. I change it up if we are currently reading a novel as a class. We read that book instead and then go back to fun reading after. Some teachers moved to requiring students to at least share out casually a quick summary and recommendation, which the students loved, by the way. The approach might have morphed, but results were steady. Students appreciated the opportunity to read what they wanted, so they were less resistant to required reading. The positive effect of personal reading time outweighed the instructional minutes sacrificed.
If you find that your students aren’t utilizing this time as much as you would like, here is one tip to increase the effectiveness of this practice--read with your students. Resist the urge to answer emails or grade a couple essays. Students need to see you model this behavior.
One thing we all know for sure is that preaching to students that they should read doesn’t work. It amounts to one more adult “shoulding” on them. Modeling a passion and creating a culture of reading does work. It might be slow going at first. Teenagers sometimes equate new ideas with weird ideas. They might associate reading with nerdiness. As much as English teachers don’t mind being nerds, not all students agree. When reading becomes the norm, gradually, a culture of reading will emerge and students who read for pleasure will emerge from it. The bonus effect will be higher reading scores, of course, but more importantly a more curious, understanding, and empathetic generation. In academia, there’s not much else that can change a child’s world more than reading.
While these three suggestions are a great way to initiate a reading culture in your classroom, there are infinite other possibilities as well. Comment below some other ways you encourage reading outside the curriculum. What are some of your favorite reads? Don’t forget to check out KATE Blog Goodreads for great recommendations or join our join or book clubs for KATE members.
About the Author
Deborah McNemee teaches at Andover Central High School where a culture of reading is alive and well. She creates a culture of reading with her students by annually hosting a project based event in partnership with Big Read Wichita. She facilitates a writing culture through encouraging involvement with the NaNowriMo Young Writers Program and submitting student work to Voices of Kansas. Her favorite books to read outside of school are classics. Check out her blog about keeping classics relevant for kids at www.KeepingClassics.com.
By Dr. Vicki Seeger
If you’re reading this, chances are you are an elementary educator who is looking for a state organization that meets your literacy needs as an educator, a professional learner, a literacy leader, and a member of a connected community. If you’re like me, you have missed having an organization dedicated to the literacy needs and interests of elementary educators across the state, in our regional areas, and in our communities. As President of the Kansas Reading Association when it was determined that it was no longer a viable organization, I can assure you that I have missed my literacy colleagues. The Kansas Association of Teachers of English has served to fill the void left since that time.
KATE, an affiliate of the National Council of Teachers of English, provides avenues for attending annual conferences, writing articles for a peer-reviewed journal, honoring new and seasoned educators, and participating in professional learning like book studies and trainings.
The annual conference held in the fall each year holds opportunities to learn, to present, and to mentor. The fall 2019 conference theme was “Growing Empathy and Inspiring Authenticity.” Attendees learned from well-known authors Alan Gratz and Tiffany Jackson. They attended inspiring sessions to inform practice and expand knowledge about theory. I walked away with new ideas for the elementary classroom and was able to apply information from secondary educators to the elementary setting. And, even though the fall 2020 conference will be held virtually, the opportunities are not in any way diminished. Nic Stone will speak about her important novels. This year’s theme is “Teachers as Artists: Reignite Your Creative Voice,” and it is the perfect time for you to submit a proposal to present. You have had to be creative during this time. Think about the challenges every elementary educator has faced during the spring and fall semesters. How are you reaching your students virtually, in a hybrid format, or in person? The literacy methods you are using now are like no other time. Consider submitting a proposal and joining KATE members virtually for the fall conference. Here is a link to details about the fall webinar and proposal submissions.
Another benefit to joining KATE is access to Kansas English, a state journal currently housed at Wichita State University and edited by Dr. Katie Cramer. The quality of the journal is stellar and offers articles on a wide range of topics. It recently won the Affiliate Journal of Excellence Award from the National Council of Teachers of English for 2020. The journal welcomes articles by elementary educators and includes opportunities to be a reviewer for manuscript submissions, as well.
Looking for a way to honor a new or veteran educator? KATE has that, too. At the fall conference, awards are given for outstanding elementary and secondary educators who are members of KATE. You all know what it is like to be an educator right now. Receiving recognition for the work being done in unprecedented times may just mean keeping an educator in the field of teaching. Check out the 2019 awardees here.
Finally, there are important and inspiring opportunities for professional learning through KATE that come at no cost to members. These offerings tackle critical issues in education like racism, equity in the classroom, LGBTQIA topics, and culturally responsive teaching. This summer, I participated in a book study with Michaela Liebst. We read Untamed by Glennon Doyle. Michaela facilitated by sending out weekly email messages where we could discuss the book and ended with a Zoom session for those that participated. While this was a memoir, other book studies have included young adult literature. Safe Zone Training was facilitated by Nathan Whitman in three one-hour sessions this summer. Learning how to meet the needs of LGBTQ students is important no matter what grade level you teach. Nathan, the current president of KATE, is always open to new ideas for professional development opportunities based on the suggestions of members, and he provides leadership based on the interests of the membership.
Elementary educators, consider making KATE your professional educator organization. KATE needs the voices of elementary educators. They already have so much to offer, AND they are looking for ideas to keep you engaged.
About the Author
Vicki Seeger teaches undergraduate courses in literacy and social studies methods and in the graduate reading and curriculum and instruction programs at Northwest Missouri State University. She serves on the Executive Board of KATE and reviews articles for Kansas English.
Facebook: Vicki Seeger
By Jennifer Wolfe
In the midst of my ‘normal’ teacher-in-August anxiety, the idea of traditional teaching is out the window. Nothing about this school year is traditional, or normal, or predictable.
One of my biggest worries about prepping for my 7th grade ELA class is how to engage and entice my reluctant and striving readers when all my ‘traditional’ methods need to adjust - or get tossed out.
I can’t surround them with books to the point that they’re tripping over book shelves and boxes, and pushing away stacks to clear a space on their work tables.
I can’t have a stack of books waiting on their seat, a sly post-it note attached with their name - just because I think they’ll like the titles.
I can’t wander around the room during the first ten minutes of class anymore, clipboard in hand, looking over their shoulders, chatting about their titles and noticing what books are ‘making the rounds’ with my students.
To me, hooking kids into great books is equivalent to winning a Olympic ski race - I’m preparing all season, learning the best path to the bottom of the hill (or book stack), sharpening my equipment and constantly searching for the next great training opportunity to pump up my ‘athletes’.
And in true Olympic fashion, when we cross the reading ‘finish line’ and complete a book, we need to shout it out!
Are you with me? So what CAN we do to get kids excited about books and reading?
I’ve got a few ideas to start the year with - for opening up a world of enticing titles, for capturing thinking and discussions about books, and for sharing books we love.
Opening up a world of books
Read alouds - Global Read Aloud, picture books, and First Chapter Friday
Every year I participate in Pernille Ripp’s Global Read Aloud program. She graciously organizes educators around common books by grade level, and facilitates us to collaborate on curriculum, share teaching ideas, and connect our students across countries. This year I’m reading Linda Sue Park’s newest novel, Prairie Lotus. In a digital space, I like to start class with 5-10 minutes of reading while students settle in. They like the calming effect, the personal connection, and of course, they groan when I end each chapter!
This year I’m trying batch recording - each chapter I’ll read aloud and record ahead of time to have an independent, ‘do-now’ activity. I’m also gathering up lots and lots of picture books for quick engagements into a theme or skill.
I’m also saving each Friday for ‘First Chapter Friday’ read aloud - I’m hoping to build up the anticipation all week for the book I’ll select to read aloud. I’m curating a list for kids and parents to have as a reference, and I’ll be asking for student suggestions, too!
I challenge my students to read 25 books during the school year. We talk about setting personal goals, and what ‘counts’ as a complete book. If 25 isn’t enough, I encourage students to go higher - and even to compete with my goal (last year I set it at 75)!
I think the trick with this challenge is that it is NOT restrictive or punitive. Kids choose EVERY book they read. They can read ANY genre, and I don’t require a certain amount of anything. And it DOESN’T count towards their grade. Yes, I check their progress and help make suggestions if they get stuck, but I want them to read because they LIKE it, not because they have to.
Capturing thinking and discussions
Digital Reader’s Notebooks are my plan for curating student thinking and discussion about what they’re reading. Last year my students thought it would be neat to have a list of all the books they are reading, so I’m going to add a link to a digital form they can fill out when they finish a book. This is one template from Amy, who writes at Charmed by Challenge.
I also love to get kids blogging about books - we use Kid Blog. I set up class accounts and teach students how to write to a prompt, how to give feedback, and how to make the post appealing to readers. They love feeling like published writers!
Book Bento Boxes are another fun way to get kids engaged and talking about books. The idea is to use Google slides to create a bento box that represents the characters, plot and theme of their book. Lisa Highfill created this Book Bento Box HyperDoc - it’s perfect!
One of the most popular projects with my 7th graders is creating Instagram profiles for their book characters. I use this template, and encourage students to think deeply about who their character is, what they value, and how they would communicate that in their profile and images. Kids can’t believe they get to create this in school! This version was made by Cynthia Nixon and makes it super simple for kids to create really authentic looking pages!
Sharing books we love
Creating podcasts is one of my most favorite ways to get kids talking about books they love. Using this template, they can work individually or with a small group to script, practice, record and produce their podcast. I like to use WeVideo for this project - but even just doing a simple audio recording on a phone would work, too. Creating book soundtracks with WeVideo is another way to broaden thinking about characters and plot by curating songs.
Video book reviews are simple, engaging projects to help kids share their reading. I share this Book Review HyperDoc and have students record on Flipgrid. It could be adapted for creating a book trailer or filming a scene as well.
Finally, a project with a simple set up yet complex thinking are one pagers. These can be done on paper or digitally, with any type of reading - short stories, articles, novels, poems...and teachers can change the expectations every time. I used a Google doc to package all my One-Pager for Lit Circle directions and students created fabulous representations of their thinking! This is a great project for independent or group work.
Whatever teaching scenario you find yourself in this year, I hope that thinking about bringing the joy of reading, books, and authors into your classroom is a bit less overwhelming with some of these ideas. I’d love to hear what you do - visit my website, http://jenniferwolfe.net for more teaching and learning ideas!
About the Author
Jennifer Wolfe, a writer, middle school teacher, and digital teaching and learning trainer and coach, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously.
Jennifer publishes regularly on her blog, mamawolfe, at jenniferwolfe.net, and has also been published in Real Simple magazine as well as the anthology, I Am Here: The Untold Stories of Everyday People, The Huffington Post, The Educator’s Room, Mamapedia, Mamalode, and BlogHer websites. She was a cast member of Listen To Your Mother in 2014. When not teaching or writing, Jennifer enjoys cooking, traveling, hiking, reading, and adventuring with her two young adult children. You can connect with Jennifer on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Goodreads.
By Cheryl Poage
As an educator, I have always encouraged my students to go out of their comfort zone and challenge themselves—to reach out and stretch just enough to feel a little discomfort. Over the past 17 years, I became comfortable with my content, my school family and my students—quite honestly, I was perfectly happy in this comfort zone. So when my husband proposed moving back to his home state of Kansas, I heard myself telling my students to “challenge themselves and stretch a little”—and decided it was now my time to stretch!
As I began my job search, one position that stood out to me was a Blended Learning position teaching high school English at Andover eCademy. I had never taught high school English, I had never taught online, and seeing the faces of my students every day was extremely important to me! So why choose this? Because it made me stretch…it was a limb I had never reached out to before. What type of educator would I be if I challenged my students to explore the unknown, but wasn’t willing to do that myself?
I secured a position with eCademy and anxiously awaited my August 2019 start date. I knew there would be a learning curve on my end, but the challenge intrigued me; this opportunity would allow me to look at education through a new lens. I had so many questions about the Blended Learning Model and it seemed my list grow longer each day: How will I build solid relationships with students? How will I develop a learning community that will allow students to engage in discussion and share learning experiences? How will I give proper feedback when each student is working at his/her own pace?
As the year progressed, I was able to eliminate many of the questions I started the year with; however, each brainstorming session with colleagues posed a new challenge—adding to my evolving list. eCademy is fortunate to have an administrator who encourages his staff to be innovative and allots time for collaborative brainstorming sessions. This practice inspired me to refine my craft and become more flexible and open to a new way of teaching and reaching students.
The first day of school is always exciting! It is when I am able to put a face to each name on my roster and begin to build relationships. However, this isn’t necessarily the case when teaching virtually. Not every student begins class on the same day and many do not feel comfortable showing their face, so it is important to become creative with lessons and build trust. One modicication I made in order to “see” students in my reading class was to ask students to submit a “selfie” that incorporated a portion of their face with the cover of a novel they were reading. An adjustment I made in a writing lesson was to have students use audio to give a verbal reflection—allowing me to at least hear my students, if I could not see them. These were very small changes, but it allowed me a quick glimpse—it was a starting place.
As the year continued, relationships grew through daily feedback, emails and phone calls; however, the most significant difference I saw was when CoVid-19 changed our world! I used the time for reflection and self-growth and revised my teaching even further. I took trainings that were offered, solicited the help of colleagues a bit more and found ways to personalize my lessons to allow student’s choice, time to reflect, and share more of themselves with me through “Motivational Monday” lessons. I scheduled individual and group Zoom sessions for students to work on assignments with me or with peers. I held daily Zoom check-ins with students who were struggling with motivation during the Stay At Home order. I began to see more faces and the trust began to build! CoVid-19 may have taken some opportunities away from us, but it allowed me the time to grow as an educator and it brought many of my students out from behind the computer screen and into a Zoom session!
Although the road to building bonds looked different than it did in my previous years of teaching, I do believe the gradual growth was critical to form the foundation needed for solid relationships.
At eCademy homeroom is taken to a new level. Each teacher has his/her own group of approximately 20 students to support. Teachers contact their students on a weekly basis to discuss grades, celebrate successes, and discuss a plan of action for those who may be struggling. In addition to working with our homeroom students one on one, we also have bi-weekly meetings with administration and guidance counselors built into our schedules. During this time we discuss each student’s progress and prepare a personalized plan of action for any student who may be struggling. Our roundtable discussions allow us develop a clear understanding of the overall student. During these meetings, It was inspiring to see how well the teachers, administrators, and counselors knew ALL students—both academically and emotionally. So often, in a Brick and Mortar it is difficult to allot time to engage in these valuable whole group discussions due to scheduling, teaching, non-teaching duties, etc.
As a result of these meetings, we are able to focus on students who have consistent missing assignments and a lower than average GPA and create an engagement plan to help them succeed. Students, parents, and the homeroom teacher work together to develop this plan for success.
I saw the impact of these meetings firsthand as I worked with several students, via Zoom, during second semester. Not only did these students go from failing grades to passing all subjects, but they also developed a more positive mindset and sense of confidence as they watched their GPA and comprehension of each subject improve.
What sets eCademy apart from many other online schools is that we follow a Blended Learning model. This is what truly interested me about eCademy and what, I believe, brings in such interest from families across the state. Blended Learning allows students the opportunity to be a part of a school community, while learning at his/her own pace.
Andover eCademy offers students numerous opportunities to be a part of a learning community at all grade levels. Students participate in Live Lessons with their teachers and classmates, attend field trips, and participate in clubs or in-house days offered at our Andover campus. In-house days may include group activities, team building, study sessions, guest speakers, or collaborative work. This time allows for students to build community and gain a sense of belonging.
High school students have their own special spot nestled inside the eCademy building called the eCafe. The eCafe is situated similar to a coffee shop where students are able to study, collaborate, socialize, and develop friendships. It is monitored by a different high school teacher each hour, allowing students to work personally with the teacher on call. High school students also have the opportunity to plan socials, participate in Science Labs, attend field trips, and a select group also serve as mentors to our middle school students.
In an effort to give out of town students the opportunity to build community, we also offer a Mobile eCafe. Once a week a teacher travels to a different library in the surrounding areas and students are invite to come in for a study session. This allows us to meet students who might not be able to travel to Andover, but would like to build relationships with their teachers and peers.
Giving student feedback is a big portion of each day at eCademy. All lessons are loaded at the beginning of the semester and the courses are self-paced, so we receive various assignments from numerous students in several different classes at any given time. Although the amount of assignments coming in can sometimes seem overwhelming, there are a variety of assignments being turned in which keeps the grading fresh and interesting.
Detailed feedback is critical when teaching in an online environment. Since we do not hold daily face to face lessons, feedback is a dedicated time to give each student the guidance needed to master a concept and communicate clear guidelines for students to reference when revising assignments. We offer feedback in several formats: verbal, written and face to face.
I have found that since students in a Blended Learning environment are self-paced, they do not experience time constraints that are sometimes found in the classroom. This results in resubmissions and revisions that demonstrate improved execution, comprehension and overall grades.
As year two begins, I feel reignited as an educator. The past year allowed me to experience one of the greatest learning adventures of my career. I learned it is okay to start small and grow gradually. I learned that even if a student isn’t right by your side, remarkable relationships can still develop. Most importantly, I learned that education isn’t about being comfortable…it is about change, challenge, and having the confidence to climb out of our comfort zone and STRETCH!
About the Author
Cheryl is beginning her 19th year of teaching. In addition to English, Cheryl has taught AVID and served as an AVID Coordinator for eight years in Florida. She is currently a College and Career Elective teacher at Andover eCademy. Her passion is building relationships with her students and changing “I can’t” mindsets into “I can.”
By Michaela Liebst
While reading Randy Watson’s comments last week regarding the new ELA competencies found in Navigating Change, I felt an emotion that I hadn’t felt in a long time. After a summer filled with anxiety over the looming school year, I finally had a jolt of…excitement.
Now I don’t pretend to claim that this excitement cured all of my angst about what educators are about to embark upon, but I do know that the competencies resemble an outline. And an outline can lead to a plan. And a plan is exactly the thing that my type-A brain wants more than anything in this world.
I don’t have plans for a lot of what will be coming up in the months ahead, but by being handed the ELA competencies, I can now start to visualize what my students will be expected to learn, regardless of being in-person, on-line, or a little bit of both. I can also start to understand that if the world reverts back to how it was in March, and I can only hold my students and myself accountable for a few key standards, I know exactly which standards those are going to be.
While gaining this structure and ability to place some guide posts in lesson plans is comforting, I also love that the competencies provide room for creativity and grace. Not once do the competencies come coupled with a script and mandatory way of teaching them. They may come with suggestions and sample lesson plans, but teachers are free to practice their creative freedoms to make the competencies come alive as they see fit. In my opinion, this document will be helpful, not just for the upcoming school year, but for years to come.
Because our emphasis this year will be on a few, condensed competencies, I wanted to take the time to emphasize that with the freedom surrounding implementation of these competencies also comes the freedom of assessment. With this being a year where less is more, it may be helpful to incorporate a Standards-Referenced Grading approach when evaluating student work. However, instead of calling it Standards-Referenced Grading, we can call it “Competency Based.” To make this type of grading even more appealing, Navigating Change has already provided you with the rubrics and “I Can…” statements necessary to utilize this type of grading system!
Below is a blog-post I wrote a year ago for my personal blog, highlighting Mary Harrison, a Wichita high school teacher, and her execution of Standards-Based Grading in her class. Mary has presented at KATE conferences several times regarding Standards-Based Grading and provides much expertise on the topic. Her experience can offer a lot of insight into a way of grading that may lessen the already heavy workload of teachers this year. Overall, combining the ELA competencies and Standards-Referenced Grading can come to the rescue this year by ensuring that our assignments are meaningful and that we are measuring the mastery of a student, not their effort.
Last year, Mary began using Standards-Referenced Grading as a way to fix the struggles and moral issues she was having with her grade book.
She was inspired to do this by two different types of students: The "Good-Citizen" Student and the "Absent-Minded Professor."
The Good Citizen is the student who always follows the rules and turns assignments in. He/she tends to get A’s and B’s even if they have a shallow understanding of the standards and content, but get rewarded because they play school.
On the flip side, the Absent-Minded Professor is the student who is a disorganized, hot mess. He/she never turns anything in, but they actually know their stuff and can carry out a conversation, making their intelligence obvious. However, they don’t turn assignments in, so they fail.
"I was so disillusioned by my grade book – what does what I’m doing as a teacher even mean if this kid with a deep knowledge of content is failing, but this one with a shallow understanding is not," Mary stated. In addition to fairness of students, Mary also realized that her grade book was random. She found herself asking "What do I feel like grading? If I didn't feel like grading it, it became a participation grade." Thankfully, her colleague stumbled across Standards - Referenced Grading which seemed to resolve a lot of Mary's grade book issues, and they decided to pursue its implementation together.
At first, both teachers had reservations about tackling such a task. A lot of colleagues at their school were against the idea and would frequently question their motives. In addition to the nay-sayers from co-workers, Mary and her teaching partner also had to find the courage to work their way up the chain of command within their district in order to receive permission to implement the initiative, due to it's novelty to both parents and administration. However, despite the work and the risks, they both felt that they "knew too much and there was no turning back."
One of my favorite quotes from Sal Khan, creator of Khan Academy, is that currently in education, the amount of time given to learn a skill is fixed, while the level of mastery for each student varies, when really, it should be the other way around. As teachers we should demand mastery from every student, but allow them the varied amount of time they need in order to demonstrate complete understanding. Thankfully, Standards-Referenced Grading is slowly guiding us in that direction. As stated by Mary, "Grades tend to ebb and flow especially when they are first learning a skill, but because they can re-try the grades tend to go up."
While Standards-Referenced Grading may feel impossible and confusing, it revolves around a pretty simplistic framework. Standards-Referenced Grading identifies specific learning targets for each grade level and within in each content. Learning targets are written as "I can..." statements for the students, so that it is clear to students what "mastery" of a skill should allow them to do. For examples of some of Mary's learning targets, see the files below.
Each learning target is then paired with a proficiency scale (see the files below). A proficiency scale is a continuum to show the progression of learning, and is what is used to assign student's their level of mastery for the learning target. Wichita's proficiency scales will range from the scores 0-4: 0 means student did nothing at all; 1 – even with teacher assistance student does not show any of the fundamental skills being measured; 2 – shows some mastery of fundamental skills that support the learning target; 3 - student is the meeting the learning target; and 4 - student is exceeding the learning target. The beauty of Standards-Referenced Grading is that if a student is earning a 1 or 2 on the proficiency scale for a specific learning target, they are able to retry as many times as they would like in order to improve their score. Therefore, mastery can happen at any time, allowing true learning and understanding to happen at the rate most suitable for the child. (See the files below to investigate the proficiency scales and “I Can…” Statements provided by Navigating Change).
Some readers may have read up to this point and thought to themselves, "Oh heck no. That sounds way too complex, and there's no way that this would work for my class."
To that, I would like to mention that Mary feels like this method of grading is more simple - it takes out all of the subjectivity and allows students to know before they ever start learning exactly how she’s going to grade them. "Since the proficiency scale says it all, I just have to say “you’re here and this is why” when providing students with feedback," Mary shared.
That's not to say that Mary hasn't had her fair share of struggles while trying to get students on board. Several students who are used to playing the game of school and getting compensated through good grades sometimes struggle with the adjustment.
"I had one student become very frustrated on her first grade for a learning target. She felt that since she worked hard, she deserved a good grade. My response was 'I’m not measuring how hard you worked, I’m measuring your understanding'. Because that student was able to try again and continue to improve her performance on that particular skill, I have seen so much growth in that student and her mindset. She now understands that this grade is just a communication of what I know at this moment in time, and if I keep at it I can raise the grade and my understanding."
Thankfully, Mary's courageous effort to integrate Standards-Referenced Grading into her classroom has paid off nicely. She is now a much more intentional teacher who feels as if her teaching and grades are connected and cohesive. "I am always thinking back to the learning target and am using that to guide my lessons," Mary states.
In addition, she feels like students have learned to take ownership of their learning. Because they are able to re-do assessments as many times as they would like, students are starting to see that they are in control of their learning and how they perform. Thus, student buy-in is increasing, which also leads to parent buy-in. "When I sit down with parents at conferences and explain my system, they all say 'This makes sense to me.'”
I asked Mary if she had any advice for someone who was apprehensive or skeptical.
The first thing she shared was that you have to be very intentional about which learning targets and standards you emphasize throughout the course of a school year. Mary's motto is "Depth over breadth." You can't have too many learning targets clumped together because "mastery is a strong word and so we're really going to have to dig deep and work on the learning targets that I've chosen." She shares that in schools with a transient population, this is especially important. If you have a student who has moved in half-way through a quarter/semester, you really have to narrow down what it is you want that student to focus on.
Second, Mary shared that she understands there is a lot of apprehension surrounding Standards-Referenced Grading and how it will impact Special Education students. While she does use the same proficiency scale for both her SpEd students and honors students, she assured me that there is still an element of subjectivity when it comes to using the scales to assign grades. "I sometimes use other considerations to evaluate – equity vs. equality is how I account for different skill levels, and I'm always taking into consideration what I know a student is capable of before I assign them their final rating."
It is my hope that by reading about Mary's journey with Standards-Referenced Grading, you will see how it could be worthwhile to incorporate this into your teaching practices this year. “Depth over Breadth” is truly the mentality to have as we begin the upcoming school year. With Dr. Watson’s urging to dig deep within the ELA standards, I would encourage you to ensure that your assessments are assessing mastery of these competencies. Whether it be utilizing proficiency scales, student “I Can…” statements, or more rubric-based feedback, this hyperfocus on the competencies will lead to a simplified grading system.
I want to wish everyone good luck with the year ahead, and I hope that this post provided you with some guidance for how to structure a school year that may feel a little unstructured at the moment! Finally, see the files below for examples of learning targets and proficiency scales from Mary Harrison, as well as “I Can…” statements provided by Navigating Change.
About the Author
Michaela Liebst is a K-5 Gifted Facilitator who has a passion for education and a soft-spot for English teachers. She believes that Standards-Referenced Grading is an exciting concept and hopes that grading for mastery instead of effort becomes the norm. She is also exceptionally excited about the Navigating Change document and where it may lead in the future. Finally, she is the editor of this blog and would love for other people to submit posts about their educational passions. You can find her on Instagram (@mliebst) and on Twitter (@michaela_liebst).
By Randy Watson, Kansas Commissioner of Education
I’ve had the good fortune of working with and knowing some outstanding language arts teachers over the many years I have been involved in Kansas education. To just name a few there were Sharon Nelson - Tescott High School, Carol Williams - Andover High School, Barb Wentz – Concordia High School, Bev Nigh – McPherson Middle School, and Carole Ferguson – McPherson High School. These are just a few whom I had the pleasure of working with over the years. In addition, I have had the good fortune of getting to know another outstanding language arts teacher, Jeff Baxter. When I first met Jeff, he was teaching at Leavenworth High School, but now graces the halls of Blue Valley West. Jeff was not only a Kansas Teacher of the Year in 2014, but was inducted into the National Teacher Hall of Fame in 2018.
What these outstanding language arts teachers all have in common is a combination of a love for their content and craft. They love literature, the written English language, the flow of prose that speaks in wonderful ways and analysis of great works of story. However, love of their content alone would not have made any of them wonderful teachers. Each coupled his or her outstanding knowledge and passion of language arts with a deep commitment and dedication to the students they taught daily.
Each of these world-class educators embodies a special gift – to help their students love and see the value of literature, language, poetry and moving oration. As one of their students told me, “You have to love that piece of literature because she loves it so much. She wills you to love it and soon I fell in love with it also.”
During this school year, the challenges of COVID-19 will stretch any educator, even the outstanding, seasoned ones I have mentioned. Challenges of hybrid schedules, of on-site learning coupled with remote learning, possibly changing every day to meet the needs of students and families convey the ever-changing nature of the virus that impacts our state.
This year will challenge the way all great language arts teachers go about teaching and learning. The need to establish deep relationships will be deeply contested as they will have to navigate teaching students who may not physically be present in the classroom.
And it is in this environment of challenges, that I am excited to see what teachers of language arts do this year to inspire their students. It is in that background that another group of fantastic language arts teachers helped craft a document, titled Navigating Change, for all Kansas’ teachers. Those teachers include: Monica Diaz - Garden City USD 457, Whitney Linenberger - Dighton USD 482, Amanda Buethe - Ness City USD 303, Daniel Dawson - Lyons USD 405, Wayne Greenlee - Caldwell USD 360, Megan Kohlman - Hesston USD 460, Peggy Neufeld - Buhler USD 313, Angie Powers - Olathe USD 233, Kendra Preston - DeSoto USD 232, Lori Stratton - Gardner-Edgerton USD 231, and Heather Sazama - Buhler USD 313.
The document they helped produce encapsulated nearly 30 years of work from the Kansas Language Arts Standards and within 60 days they transformed the standards into a competency-based model by grade bands. They also organized these new competencies into a broader theme of Humanities. The work this amazing group of language arts teachers produced has the potential to dramatically change the way we meet student needs this year and well into the future. This work will enable students to demonstrate mastery of language arts competencies in a variety of methods.
In a competency-based model, students move through the curriculum in a personalized way, at their own pace. This pace is aligned to their individual plan of study. Students earn credit and grades based on demonstrating mastery, not based on simply sitting in a class for a defined period of time.
In examining the work completed this summer by these phenomenal teachers, I can only imagine being back in the classroom. I would have been excited to have walked down the hall at Andover High School and begged Carol Williams to co-teach Humanities with me. She would have pushed me to be a far better teacher than I had been in the past. We could have taken Navigating Change and crafted new project-based lessons that brought her love of literature and my love of history into focus for our students. We could have experienced the joy of planning and learning together, instead of teaching far across the school from each other. I’m sure that we would have recruited some other teachers – teachers of music, art, drama -- to help us in this new venture. It not only could have been some of our best time teaching, it would have transformed learning for our students.
This is the opportunity presented to every language arts teacher this school term. The resource language arts teachers created took the work of those great educators I have known over the years and brought teaching and learning forward into a new era. We will see a heightened focus on rigor, accountability and an unwavering commitment to personalizing learning for students.
This year, we have the opportunity to experience what Carol Williams and I never grew to realize – an opportunity to craft new learning experiences for our students. I look forward to what new opportunities language arts teachers will bring to their school and classrooms this fall.
Navigating Change Competencies by Grade Levels
About the Author
Known for his visionary leadership, Dr. Randy Watson’s roots run deep in public education. As a former history teacher, school principal and superintendent, Dr. Watson has dedicated more than 35 years of his life working in public education settings across the state and ensuring every child receives a world class education. That dedication continues in his current role as Kansas Commissioner of Education.
The Kansas State Board of Education named Watson Kansas Education Commissioner in November 2014. In his role as the state’s chief education officer, Dr. Watson provides leadership to the Kansas State Department of Education in carrying out the policies and programs set by the State Board of Education. Currently, Commissioner Watson is leading the agency in the redesign of Kansas public education. Fueled by the state board’s vision for education crafted in partnership with the citizens of Kansas, Watson is leading statewide initiatives designed to achieve this new vision that Kansas leads the world in the success of each student.
A native of Coffeyville Kansas, Dr. Watson attended Kansas State University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in science in secondary administration, staff supervision and staff development, building level certification. Additionally, he received his doctorate of education in secondary administration, school law, curriculum development and instructional leadership, and district level certification.
The recipient of many awards, Dr. Watson was named an Alumni Fellow at Kansas State and in 2015, was honored by being named the Kansas Superintendent of the Year.
By Melissa Buteyn
Grace. Patience. Maslow. Pivot. These words were on repeat in my head as I stared at my principal’s presentation explaining changes that will take place at school this year due to COVID-19. The only thing anyone seems to know for sure is this year is shaping up to be a lot of stress for everyone.
No one has answers that will quell my anxiety about facing 100 kids per day. No one has answers that will allow my students to learn in an equitable way. No one has answers about how parents can work and deal with the changing needs of the school situation. No one has answers that will ensure I’ll be able to do simple things like take a restroom break between classes, either. The potential solutions and potential scenarios seem to bring up more questions. I just want to scream into the universe, “It’s just so complicated and my brain is so tired!” I keep scheduling therapy appointments with Dr. Pasta and Dr. Cookies, and sometimes Dr. Chardonnay if I watch the news, but much to my chagrin, they do not seem to be helping. Now, I need new pants. (Thanks, @erinhmoon for the therapist recs!)
USD 259’s superintendent, Dr. Alicia Thompson, made a comment that really resonates with me. She said, “This is a time to be agile, flexible, practice patience, and have grace.” Despite my internal turmoil, after the virtual conversations today with my colleagues, I’ve started to see a way forward by keeping Dr. Thompson’s words in mind.
I can offer grace to all of the people who are making difficult decisions about school, but especially those who are using medical science to guide them. I can be patient as I wait for the district to struggle through all of the aspects of addressing the complex needs of our educational community. I can remember that Maslow has much to say about how we behave and respond during times of crisis. And Maslow’s ideas apply to far more than just my students. They apply to my bosses, my coworkers, the cafeteria workers, the bus drivers, and my students’ parents.
Dr. Thompson’s words remind me that while I am afraid of horrible consequences from in-person school, I am allowed to find a way forward while facing that fear. I can be brave. I can be creative. I can be patient. I can be kind. I can be strong.
Truthfully, though, I’m really tired of being strong. Actually, it’s not just me. Teachers are tired of being strong. We already carry the weight of the world on our shoulders. How can we possibly do this, too?
I am exhausted from living in the tension of unanswered, complex questions. But I can keep going. I don’t have to like it, but I can do it.
Here’s where pivoting comes in. Honestly, I’m not great at pivoting. I love the routine of school. It’s so comforting to know that the bell will ring and then I start over. Repeat for 180 days. So to hear that I need to be ready to pivot to online or remote teaching at a moment’s notice is unnerving, yet it’s possible. After all, during the KATE summer book club for Untamed Glennon Doyle taught me that I can do hard things.
Here at the KATE Blog, we’ve realized we need to pivot, too. Best laid plans for 2020 are pretty much out the window. And that’s ok. Because we can do hard things. So, we want to hear from YOU! What can we do to support you through this year?
The purpose of the KATE blog is to provide a forum for dialogue and collegiality among Kansas teachers of English Language Arts, pre-kindergarten through post-secondary. Help us make sure we are effectively fulfilling our promise to you.
What do you want or need? Resource lists? Lesson plan ideas? Celebrations of good things happening in Kansas education? More narratives that help us cope with the tension of being a teacher in this crazy world? Let us know.
You can give us feedback in the comments below, on the Kansas Association of Teachers of English Facebook Group, the Kansas English Blog Instagram, or by emailing us at email@example.com.
About the Author
Melissa Buteyn teaches English 1, AP Literature, and Early College Academy English at Wichita Northwest High School. This will be her 21st year teaching in USD 259. She uses the KATE blog committee to justify her addiction to Instagram. Melissa has been on the KATE Executive board for four years and she loves, loves, loves KATE because of the amazing teachers she’s met. She is the 2019-20 KATE Outstanding High School English Educator. You can find her on Twitter @MelB_reads.
By Ayeisha Colligan
The 2019-2020 school-year promised to be an optimistic and exciting year. It marked the beginning of my senior year, more time spent in classrooms, and overall more dedication to doing what I love: teaching. Of course I was excited to finally get out into the field and begin my observations, and try to absorb as much information as possible. Naturally, I had a multitude of questions for my mentor teacher, which he was more than willing to answer; the nature of them being relatively tedious, or related to the general workings of his classroom. How fitting is it that we have now entered a world in which there are no answers to questions I’d dismissed as being too basic, or common knowledge. Questions I thought I’d have more time to answer: “What kind of seating layout should we employ? When does the building open? How many students are in our classes?” Instead, I’m left wondering IF the building will open, how many students I can accommodate, and all whilst also adhering to social distancing guidelines.
I can’t help but make a comparison of my practicum hours logged in Fall 2019 to this up and coming semester. This time last year, I was gearing up to begin teaching; contemplating how high school students were going to perceive me, and how I would begin to start planning my classes. Now, each of those thoughts are running through my mind and more. Before, there was a safety blanket of knowledge and past experiences from multiple other teachers enveloping me like a cocoon. If I ran into an issue, or couldn’t answer a question, I could always get advice from a colleague who had been in a similar situation. Now I seem to be surrounded by an overwhelming feeling of uncertainty and fear.
I’m beginning to see students and teachers alike finding new and innovative ways to make connections, and continue to maintain relationships with one another. Creating a relationship with students is still my number one priority to begin the 2020-2021 school year. In “normal” circumstances, this would not be a difficult task. Since there is only a four or five year age difference between the students and myself, I often find it easy to interact and relate to them. With the introduction of COVID-19, my ability to relate to the average “high school experience” has been eliminated. Instead, I find myself trying to find ways to compare my “lockdown experience” with that of my students, or the hobbies that they discovered while in quarantine.
From a student perspective, Spring Break and the weeks that followed was like living in a dream. Classes were shut down, and teachers began to scramble to revise their curricula to continue to meet the needs of students. As a college student with a full-time job, I’m no stranger to the occasional online course - their flexible schedule is unparalleled. For some of my own teachers, however, this was their first excursion into the online realm. I experienced a wide variety of successes - and failures - with a number of teachers attempting to maintain a regular class schedule online. Some tried to maintain regular class hours, and upload videos of their teaching while others opted for discussion boards. While I recognize that this rapid change was unexpected, there are several aspects of their teaching that I would hope to improve upon.
For one, many students (myself included) learn best in a face-to-face classroom - ESPECIALLY since two of my classes included English Grammar and Linguistics, and Literary Criticism and Theory. Choosing to continue the class through online discussion boards did not aid my learning - rather, this medium of teaching hindered it. Instead of embarking on thought-provoking and organic verbal discussions with my fellow classmates, we began to create forced, and alienated discussion posts. With no active guidance, each of us were left to post our feelings about a given text, but unable to ask specific questions arising from discussion. The same can be said for classes that include uploaded videos of teaching; a disassociation between student and teacher that greatly hinders student motivation and desire to learn. Like many other aspects of teaching, sometimes trial and error is the only way to fully understand which practices work, and eliminate those that are least effective. With the addition of Zoom in the classroom, I can at least hope for some face-to-face interactions with my students this semester. Since I have first-hand experience with the distance that online-only classes can create, I hope to try to find ways to maintain constant communication with my students, that limits their feelings of isolation, and brings some sense of normalcy back to the classroom. Since teaching is an effective master class in trial and error, there is plenty of room for me to explore my options. Inevitably, mistakes will be made. Perhaps while making these mistakes, my teaching style will emerge. I’ve found that students find a certain kind of comfort in knowing that their teacher is not perfect. In fact, I tend to relate more to those that show their mistakes, and model how to learn from them. Therefore, I intend to eliminate some of the alienation that can be felt whilst distance-learning by navigating the vast abyss that is online learning right alongside my students.
As this pandemic continues to wreak havoc on all aspects of everyday life, I’m left wondering how this will impact me, and my future as a student teacher. I’m worried about the connections that should be made between myself, other staff members, students, and their parents. Should my district choose to continue the school-year online, I will lose the hands-on experience that comes with being in the classroom. I fear that this will have a ripple effect on my disciplinary skills, along with the ability to be an effective leader in the classroom. Any experience that I would have gained during a “regular” semester will be erased. I’m enrolled in a Classroom Management class, yet I don’t know if I’ll have a classroom to manage. Though distance-learning will mean losing face-to-face contact with students, staff and parents, I hope to use this opportunity to find new ways to connect. At the very least, this pandemic will give me a chance to explore different kinds of communicative technology, and find ways to implement it into my teaching that I would not have had the chance to do otherwise. In addition to this (and perhaps more importantly), this will allow me to learn how to adapt to difficult circumstances. Since adaptation is an important part of effective teaching, learning how to adapt in an uncertain environment will allow me to succeed throughout my career.
Uncertainty and fears for this semester are not my only worries with the continuous spread of COVID-19. Not only do I have my student teaching semester to worry about, a large part of me wonders about my future - much like my students. I see a decline of high school graduates applying for colleges, and the ones that do are applying closer to home. It’s almost as if our horizons have been cut off at the knees. So what does this mean for me as a prospective teacher? Perhaps the biggest impact that COVID-19 has had concerns the futures of millions just like me. With the unemployment rate rising, and many businesses declaring bankruptcy, even my current situation as a part-time retail worker is in jeopardy. This has only been amplified due to my current graduation date this fall. Most schools do not hire midway through the school year, resting my future on an even more unstable precipice. I continue to worry if future employers will dismiss this semester as irrelevant, or commend me for continuing through the pandemic. Either way, I am woefully unprepared for the world of professional education.
While I will continue to carry a multitude of fears with me, I remain hopeful. Many of these fears are things that are completely out of my control, so instead of putting my energy toward these anxieties, I have to focus on the aspects that I can control. I have to remain a strong leader and a positive role model for myself and for all of my students: present and future. The future will always be an uncertain time, and when left to contemplate this upcoming semester, I can’t help but be reminded of this quote:
“You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” - Martin Luther King.
Thankfully, I can say with complete certainty that I’m excited (and more than a little scared) to begin taking this first step with my fellow Kansas educators, parents, and students. The road ahead may be difficult, but with time and effort, I will continue to provide opportunities for my students to learn, grow, and be happy. I intend to begin and end my student teaching semester with one worry (and one step) at a time. For each fear that I have, I think of what this fear must feel like to one of my students. They’ve been displaced from their schools, distanced from their friends and families, and deprived of some of the most impactful moments of their lives so far. They don’t need to be met on their first day back with fear and uncertainty. Instead they need a positive role model - one that I sincerely hope I can be.
About the Author
Ayeisha is a senior at Washburn University and will be completing her student teaching semester in Fall 2020. She is a relatively new member to KATE, but intends to continue to be an active member after graduation.
Facebook: Ayeisha Colligan
Message from the Editor
Hello! My name is Michaela West, and I am the editor of the KATE Blog. I am very excited to see the connection and inspiration that take place here. If you are interested in being published on our blog, or have any comments or questions for me, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org