Sunday, September 18, 2016

Awkward Middle School Conversations

Can You Handle It?

Dear Readers,

I was inspired, after reading this book, to blog about the unique challenges we Middle School Educators face on a daily basis. There is no question about it, Middle School is an awkward time for many. Not only are students going through relationship changes, academic changes and social changes, they are also experiencing hormonal changes as well. It is such an honor to work with this age group. They are trying to find themselves and where they fit in their world.

Working in middle school has actually made me a more patient and understanding educator. I have learned so much from this age group about teenagers in general and myself as a teacher. They are such a fun age where they are caught between childhood and adulthood. It has been my experience that sometimes we need to be serious, but they will also come along for the ride and have fun with crazy ideas! 

They will push you away one moment and then come to you in tears the next wanting comfort and support. They will backtalk one day and tell you they love you the next. They will moan and groan about assignments one minute and tell you how much they enjoy your class the next. In one breath they will decide they are not going to be friends with someone and the next they come to your room together for lunch as though nothing happened. I have had students come running into my room in tears and running up to hug me in the hallway. I have had the challenges of good friends having difficulties while both being in my class and then the relief they feel when they make up. We have to be supportive through all of it. They need to feel a safe, secure, supportive learning environment. They need us to teach them skills and strategies for entering a "grown-up" world. We need to be caring, supportive, patient adults who are role models, listen and attempt to understand their worlds. It really is all about relationships.

Just a few of the topics I have found myself in a conversation about in one way or another are (yes, each one is true):

  • Eating Disorders
  • Suicide
  • Cutting
  • Depression
  • Being friends with someone making poor choices
  • How to talk to friends that have hurt their feelings
  • Constipation (what foods to eat, avoid)
  • Menstruation (including what to do in the horrifying event of an accident)
  • Acne
  • Braces
  • Weight
  • Curly Hair
  • Bullying
  • Nobody to sit with at lunch
  • Loss of a loved one
  • Loss of a pet
  • Loss of friendships

These are just to name a few. Our middle schoolers are amazing young people going through tremendous changes in their lives. I have also had conversations about:

  • Leadership
  • College
  • "Boys"
  • Sleepovers
  • Dances/Formals
  • Making good choices
  • Being healthy
  • Organization
  • Time Management (including academic/social/athletic/etc.)
  • Loving yourself for who you are (curly hair and all)
  • Getting ready for High School
  • Music/Movies/TV Shows
  • Snapchat (social media they use)
  • Gaming 

I love every minute of getting to know them. I embrace the awkward teenage years with open arms. I hope they remember me as a supportive adult during their middle school years.

I hope you have a wonderful week!


Saturday, September 17, 2016

Creating Collaborative Communities

Is that a tomato or a sun?

Dear Readers,

I have been back to school for 9 days and am already having a blast! Here are some ways I am helping foster a collaborative learning community.

Employment Opportunities

Students were given the opportunity to apply for the following jobs: librarians, associates and interior designers. They helped to set up our classroom and it has really given them ownership over our space. I am not even sure where everything is at the moment because they chose where to keep our classroom supplies.

Action Figures

We spent some time talking about identity and how we define and see ourselves. They were given the task of creating their own action figure. If a store was going to sell them on a shelf, how would they design their box? I created a model so they could get to know me. After having them reflect on the task, many admitted I pushed them out of their comfort zone and they were "unsure" about the activity, but ended up loving it in the end.


We are fortunate to have 1:1 Chromebooks for all students this year. I had everyone e-mail me and tell me something they like or do not like about our class. I then responded and asked them to set a reading goal for the 1st quarter. My next step is to help them narrow down their goals to be specific and achievable. Part of their "bell work" every day is to check their e-mail.

Interest Surveys

Every year, I hand out interest surveys inquiring about pop culture, extra-curricular activities, family, friends, etc. I also inquire about how they see themselves as learners. They did a fantastic job this year being specific so I have an idea of how they learn best!


We spent a couple of days discussing bullying and did a gallery walk where they responded to questions on post-it notes. The feedback I received was that it was a great activity that taught them a lot about what bullying is and what they can do. In addition, we discussed a fixed vs. growth mindset, as well as, proactive vs. reactive language.


I have also made reflecting a daily task as part of their "bell work". They have a prompt to respond to reflecting on a task, learning or themselves. I am thoroughly enjoying this section of their notebook. I participate as well and always share with them my own reflections.

Read Aloud

In order to introduce our first unit, I am reading an informational picture book so they can begin to gather background knowledge on the subject. I also introduced them to the idea of sketchnoting. While I am reading, they are sketching what they are visualizing since it is a climate and culture very different than ours. 

I shared my example and it sparked some great, fun, light hearted conversation as my drawings usually do. One student thought my airplane looked like a band-aid. Another student thought my sun was a tomato. One final comment was that my cattle were people crawling. I sincerely love those conversations.

Classroom Roles

The students are able to sign up to be tech helpers, librarians, attendance officers and the green and clean crew. They are going to keep their positions for a month and then change. 


On the interest survey, students were given space to write down songs of their choice. We have started to compile a list of songs to play throughout the year.

Independent Reading Books

As my students signed out there independent reading books, I had a short conversation with them. I then impressed them the following day when I could name each book that was check out. We ended the week with some independent reading time.

I hope you are having as much fun as I am!


Sunday, September 4, 2016

How Can Students Communicate Their Social & Emotional State to Teachers?

Are We Listening to Our Students? 

Dear Readers,

One of my biggest passions is the social/emotional well-being of our students. It is essential to build relationships and teach to the whole child. They can be communicating with us in many different ways. The question is, do we know where to look and are we really listening.  As a child, I never really felt like I "fit in" with any particular group. I went through the motions of school, but did not have an authentic connection to peers, adults or even the environment. Now looking back and reflecting as both an adult and educator, I see the missed opportunities for teachers to connect with me.

Looking Beyond Just "Playing the Violin"

The only extra-curricular activity I participated in was the music program. I began playing the violin in 3rd grade and continued through high school and into my freshman year at college. 

There was not one person, academic or personal, who nurtured this musical interest. If anyone had shown interest in me, they would probably have discovered the following:

  • I love rhyming. I have a knack for writing poems, rewriting lyrics to songs and using familiar rhythms of nursery rhymes and stories to create my own.
  • I enjoy analyzing song lyrics. It's fascinating to learn the inspiration that lead to a particular piece of music.
  • Listening to music is like breathing air to me. It is a constant in my life. Whether I am happy, sad, excited, angry, etc. Almost any genre is appealing to me, depending on my mood. (including classical and instrumental versions)
  • As a student who did not much engage with others, this may have been an outlet for me whether it be writing lyrics or analyzing music.  

As an adult, and now teacher myself, I see this as a lost opportunity to teachers to connect with me. They saw an average violin player, who did not like to practice, but never explored other musical interests I may have had.

My Teachers Helped Define "Creative" For Me

Growing up, I never considered myself creative. As a student, I was always led to believe that creative meant artistic and artistic meant drawing well. 

When I was in elementary school, there was a yearly Fire Prevention Poster Contest. I recall drawing a Garfield inspired poster and it was chosen as one of the winning posters to be hung in the community. I vividly remember it being displayed in the entrance to a bank. Again, my ability to create a "visual representation" was never supported or encouraged. If anyone had shown an interest, they may have discovered:

  • I think in words and language. I can transfer that from my head to a blank surface. Nobody was more shocked than I when I started my sketch notes. I sincerely NEVER knew I had that in me until I took a risk and tried. When I am asked what class I took, book I read or app I use, I am truly amazed that I am able to do that just using my imagination. I get more support and encouragement from my PLN than I ever received as a student to tap into my creative side.
  • There is an element of Design-Thinking in my "brain". After reading LAUNCH and looking at the world in a different way, I am truly shocked at the problems I have solved and objects I have created using cardboard (2 book shelves). I never dreamed I had that capability. 

I see these as lost opportunities as well to make a connection with me. Upon the request of a friend, I joined Art Club when I entered High School. At the first meeting, we made plans to paint the local firehouse windows for Christmas. I loved that task. However, I do not recall attending any further meetings and I was never approached by an adult as to why I lost interest. (I sincerely cannot even remember why now, but my guess would be lack of connection to the club and participants).

It makes me wonder, if my teachers had looked past their own beliefs about what made students creative or musical or artistic, how that might have changed my lack of engagement and interest in school. 

  • What if someone approached me about quitting Art Club? 
  • What if someone had a conversation about music with me? 
  • What if an adult had actually taken an interest in something I was doing/did? 
  • Would it have changed my experience with school?
  • On the other side, would I be as good of a teacher had school been easy for me? 
  • Did they do me a favor by showing me what it is like to not be invested in a student and how that can make school feel like a foreign place?

Pictures from My Childhood

I spent most of my free time with my maternal grandparents.  They had a desk in the backroom where I spent quite a bit of time drawing and writing.  Luckily, I was able to keep some of these masterpieces. As I was looking at them and thinking about them, I changed my perspective. I looked through my "teacher lens" instead of the "artist's lens".

What could I learn, as a teacher, from this sequence of pictures?

Drawings and writing tell us so much about a child's language development and their ability to communicate in different ways. Based on these pictures I would probably make the following inferences.

  • This student likes to be outside, swings are a preferred activity.
  • She tends to draw the same objects repeatedly (perhaps fear of reaching outside her comfort zone to try new things?).
  • She has a good relationship with her grandparents (maybe she lives with them or spends a lot of time with them?).
  • There is no mention of her parents or any siblings (just an inference that a sibling may have written the word "dumb").
  • The word "dumb" causes me to wonder if it is a sibling, what is that relationship like? Is the sibling older or younger? Is it a brother or sister?
  • There is recognition that drawing and writing (including labeling the pictures) is a form of communication.
  • There is recognition of the conventions of the English Language (capitalizing proper nouns, using a colon after "to" and "from".)

What could I, as a teacher, learn from this drawing?

As children develop literacy skills, they begin to add what I would refer to as "universal signs". Based on this photo, I would make the following inferences.

  • Possibly it is Red Ribbon Week at school.
  • She seems to be learning cursive and practicing it here.
  • Continued use of English Language conventions (apostrophe in a contraction, an exclamation point as punctuation).
  • Recognition that the red circle with the "band" across means "no" or "danger".
  • Writing is a form of communicating warnings to people.
  • A question I would have is, why did she write you could die from drugs? Something she learned in school or a personal connection? 

What would you do with this information gathered from a student's drawings?

  • She clearly likes to write and sees that as an opportunity for communication. As a result, she incorporates what she learns and knows about the English language. I would nurture this by providing her with different opportunities to communicate.
  • Being outside and swinging seems to be a preferred activity for her. I only see her in the pictures, no friends on the swings or ice rink. I would wonder if she has connections to people, particularly her own age. I would ask her to tell me about the pictures and listen to her interpretation. It would provide me an opportunity for follow-up questions.
  • Seeing the mention of her grandparents, I would inquire about her relationship with them. Hopefully this would lead to further discussions about her family.

Strategies for the Classroom

How can we bring out the "creative speak" in all of our students? Here are a few examples of how students can reveal themselves to you in a non-threatening way.

  • Do not define creativity for them. Instead, nurture their imaginations and let them develop their own meaning of creative.

  • Allow students to decorate their own notebooks and/or folders. I do this as an adult, this year I included two quotes and my favorite words.

  • Model for students creative ways to solve problems. For example, creating bookshelves out of cardboard boxes. Provide them with the materials and time to explore Design Thinking.

I hope everyone has a fantastic school year!