Category: Guest Posts

From Homelessness to the Classroom

From Homelessness to the Classroom

An attentive, compassionate, and understanding teacher can be a powerful advocate for homeless students. For a homeless student, school is a safe space, but beyond that, a caring teacher provides security, stability, and hope.  It may seem impossible to provide a homeless child with all they need; however a teacher’s support and guidance can positively impact the child’s future.

Identifying a homeless student may not always be simple. Homelessness can mean living on the streets, in a vehicle, abandoned building, in a shelter, a family member’s house, a friend’s house, motel, or hotel. A family that is homeless lacks permanent living conditions.  They could become displaced at any time due to different circumstances.  A homeless student may exhibit noteworthy characteristics such as absenteeism, tardiness, lack of hygiene, or lethargy.  Alternately, students that are homeless may show no signs at all.  Homelessness interventions are usually confidential, and unless the teacher or school is informed, the homeless child may not be easily identified.

Teachers can become a beacon of support for homeless students. Differentiation in the classroom means to integrate a variety of teaching strategies, learning styles, and groupings. For children that are homeless, differentiation and flexibility are vital to their success.  Homeless students may lack the space to complete homework assignments. Teachers that notice a child with difficulty returning assignments may choose to allow the student to complete tasks in class, section the work into smaller quantities, or provide alternative assignments.  Handwritten assignments need to be allowed unless the time is provided in class to research and type.  Referring students to centers that provide computer use and internet access are not always an option if the student’s family lacks transportation or the time to get to the centers.

A homeless family may not always inform the school about their situation; therefore by having a well structured classroom, students can feel a sense of stability and reassurance. This begins by creating a welcoming classroom atmosphere.  Create classroom norms that show respect and dignity for all. Allow students to be an essential part of classroom procedures.  Provide choice in assignments that allow students’ products to represent their academic understanding.  Integrate opportunities in instruction for students to present their aptitudes.  Spelling contests, literacy festivals, and art shows are great opportunities for students to become involved and feel accomplished.  Best teaching practices not only improve academic understanding, but may be an integral and life changing part of a homeless student’s future.

Homelessness is a topic I speak of from personal experience.  Throughout the initial years of elementary school, I found refuge in a family friend’s house, a family member’s house, a motel, and a family shelter. This was a blessing compared to staying at a stranger’s house or a park, which we had done as well.

Last year, I had the opportunity to share my story. My story was shared in response to the popular question, “What inspired you to become a teacher?” My journey through homelessness came about as it does for many families.  Due to lack of employment for my mother, we were forced to move from the city of El Paso, Texas. When I was five years old, we made our first move to Pueblo, Colorado, with the help of an acquaintance. Arriving to this new place provided little reassurance. It became dangerous, and soon we found ourselves in a public park with nowhere to go. My mother was afraid to ask for help, fearing we would be taken from her due to her immigration status. We spent the night at the park.

God-sent strangers provided us a place to stay, and after a few weeks, I was registered to attend school. Meeting my very first teacher had a profound impact on me. I still remember the respect she demonstrated toward my mother and me.  She was attentive and allowed me to speak Spanish in a class of predominately English speaking students. She also took the time to work with me individually.  This is when I decided I wanted to become a teacher.  I would have a job and place to live.  I thought teachers lived at school.

Unfortunately, employment for my mother continued to be a problem. My teacher was the one to give me the news that my mother had gone to the school to report we were moving. At the end of the school day, she personally walked me home. Our family was soon off to Dallas, Texas where one of my aunts lived and could help out. A couple of months went by and my mother was laid off from work, and once again, we were on our way back to El Paso, Texas.

Needless to say, the return was no comfort. We stayed at a family friend’s house, but the situation at that home was no place for children. Due to these circumstances we ended up living at the Salvation Army for three months. My childhood dream of becoming a teacher was solidified; I could not allow these short lived years to represent the rest of my life.

Throughout my elementary school years, we continued moving and finally arrived in the town of Anthony, New Mexico. This became a safe haven thanks to the innovative 6th grade teacher that I was lucky enough to have. This teacher was ahead of her time. She provided guided instruction, learning opportunities, considered students’ learning styles, and differentiated to meet student needs. Seeing her, and being in her class emphasized in me once again the need to become a teacher. She took notice, and would often ask me what I wanted to be in the future. I loved going into her class and having support, stability, and understanding. At the end of the school year she wrote her students a note.  I continue to hold on to mine as a reminder of what a difference one teacher can make.

Guest Post: Summertime Reflections That Will Make This Year Easier

Guest Post: Summertime Reflections That Will Make This Year Easier

Have you seen any of the teacher memes on Pinterest emphasizing the differences between teachers in August and Teachers in May? I find them to be hilarious but completely accurate. The end of May equals exhaustion.

Every. Single. Year.

I have come to realize that running out of energy just as the school year ends is OK. That the natural consequence of ten months of hard work is fatigue. However, I have also learned that there are things I can do during the summer that will greatly lighten my load during the following year. Taking a break from all things school related is essential. The time available to “just do nothing” varies from teacher to teacher and from year to year. Read books that have nothing to do with education. Sleep late. Watch a movie. Go for a walk or a run. There is no wrong way to rest, relax, and recharge.

Taking time to reflect on the previous school year is also important. What did you do well? What were your greatest challenges? Make a list of the things you would like to do differently, and then prioritize that list. If you don’t do so already, creating a pacing guide for each subject you teach is the most significant thing you can do to begin lightening next year’s load. Start by printing a blank calendar for each month of the school year. Note holidays, testing dates, and early dismissal days. Record when progress reports are scheduled, when grades close each quarter, and when final exams will be given. After making a list of required units, determine both the start date and the test date of each. This step is harder than it looks which is why I use a pencil with a good eraser! If school starts the middle of August, the first unit will probably be complete around Labor Day. Do you give that first test the Friday before the three day weekend? If not, will you need to review on the following Tuesday before testing on Wednesday? How many units need to be completed by the end of the first semester? How much time do you need to review for EoC’s in the spring? The first time I sat down and gave serious thought to the pacing of units, I was shocked to realize that there were only two teaching days available the week of Thanksgiving; there was NO way to complete a chapter’s worth of work that time frame. There is also a surprisingly small window of teaching time between Thanksgiving and semester exams. Continue this process until your calendar is complete. Remember to leave a few days open for things that will come up unexpectedly and throw you off track. The next step is to tackle your unit plans.

It seems that once the school year starts, I have very little time to think about what and how I want to teach. To me, this is much more easily done when school is not in session. I go through each unit, updating note packets, modifying quizzes and tests, and improving activities and labs. I also eliminate material that is no longer useful. Taking time during the summer to improve the content of my lessons greatly lowers my anxiety throughout the year. The old adage, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” applies to the way I use summertime reflections to improve my health and happiness throughout the school year. While it may be impossible to eliminate the weariness that accompanies those final weeks of school, the days leading up to that point are certainly less stressful.

Melissa Burnett is a science teacher at Artesia High School and serves as an Ambassador for the New Mexico Teacher Leader Network.

Guest Post: My Evolution

Guest Post: My Evolution

“You’re a sellout.”

“I thought you represented kids, not politics.”

As I was riding the wave of elation and optimism from this year’s New Mexico Teacher Summit, I discovered these disheartening messages in my inbox. It has been my experience that choosing to embark on a journey of great change will often be met with great opposition. I too was a skeptic. In fact, I vocally opposed any educational policy reform former Secretary Hanna Skandera proposed. As I looked inward to reflect on those feelings, I found that my frustrations were based solely on the projections of others’ reactions. Not one to be complacent, I knew I had to become involved.

I had reservations about applying for the New Mexico Teacher Leader Network. I have since experienced an evolutionary process that has unfolded in transitional phases. When I received notification that I had been selected among a pool of hundreds of applicants across New Mexico, I knew then that this fellowship might actually be something special as the standards for the selection process were high. I made a commitment to myself and my colleagues that I’d enter this new journey with an open mind and heart to allow myself to be fully immersed in whatever this experience might generate.

Our first cohort meeting in Santa Fe was a revelation for me. After listening intently to the testimonials of our Teacher Liaison, Alicia Duran, and fellow members Hope Morales and Ashley Randall, I was sold. Yes, in less than two hours I was sold. Elements of their stories mirrored my own. They encountered the same frustrations that I had felt, but they were putting action behind their discontent. The two-day session was jam packed with information regarding our evaluation system. I was astounded, and a bit ashamed, by how little I knew. Astounded because I knew very little about how much control I had over my own evaluation process. Ashamed because I had developed strong opinions based on very little information. Upon conversing with several members of our fellowship, I found this to be a commonality we shared. We’ve since held our second cohort meeting. I’ve attended webinars and listened in on conference calls to further equip ourselves to empower our colleagues. I made a shift within to begin listening to understand rather than listening to react or respond.

The final phase of my evolution took place at this year’s New Mexico Teacher Summit. Acting Secretary Christopher Ruszkowksi’s address to attendees was a pivotal moment for me. He stressed the importance of bipartisanship in education reform. My head shook vigorously in agreement throughout the duration of his speech. I knew then, I was in the right place with the right people. Through this fellowship, I have developed profound friendships and connections that I know will last a lifetime. I believe in these people. I believe in our work. I believe in the foundation and the legacy that former Secretary Skandera laid for us. I believe in continuing and honoring that legacy.

The final part of one of those messages in my inbox accused me of drinking the “proverbial Kool-Aid.” If by drinking the Kool-Aid they mean reaching a state of enlightenment to adequately empower and advocate for kids and teachers in our beautiful state of New Mexico, then kindly serve me up another glass because I’m all in! 

Issac Rivas-Savell is an elementary teacher at Mettie Jordan Elementary in Eunice, NM and serves as a New Mexico Teacher Leader Network State Ambassador. 

ICYMI: Ruszkowski Is A Game-Changer

ICYMI: Ruszkowski Is A Game-Changer

Mr. R was my seventh-grade civics teacher, and then my eighth-grade U.S. history teacher.

We called (New Mexico’s acting Secretary of Education Christopher Ruszkowski) Mr. R because, you know, Ruszkowski was too difficult for most of us to pronounce. Most of us were first-generation kids born in north Miami to Caribbean immigrants, so needless to say his last name wasn’t too common. Neither was his teaching style: He was a well-versed, well-prepared teacher who taught us to think critically by both embracing and challenging the traditional middle-school social studies curriculum. Sure, he made sure that we mastered the basics – but he also introduced us to Bruce Springsteen, Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” and the Roots television mini-series of 1977, which was quite the revelation for many of us. He delivered his lesson plans for his seventh- and eighth-graders using literature, music, art, culture and media.

It was a learning experience unlike anything before. I learned about American political campaigns by running in a mock class election and losing to this popular kid, Victor, who was weak on policy but got the “mock media” to smear me. I dissected songs on the radio for political meaning. I learned that there were two sides, at minimum, to every social and economic issue – and was always frustrated that Mr. R would never tell us his opinion on any political issue! Later, in eighth grade, I ushered my family down the Oregon Trail – and learned what it was like for those who ventured west for a better life, and empathized with them.

Mr. R imparted in us a special appreciation for different kinds of culture and perspectives on the country and the world – cultural lessons that were outside of my “traditional” Jamaican and Lebanese home-grown roots.

With his guidance and letter of recommendation, I was one of a few kids from north Miami accepted to MAST Academy. At the time, MAST Academy was one of the top 50 high schools in the United States and situated in one of the most expensive ZIP codes, Key Biscayne, Fla. Now I was surrounded by some of the sharpest kids in the district, and I raised my game – just like Mr. R said I would. And right after high school, I interned with him at Miami Teaching Fellows, where I saw what it looked like to be an entrepreneur who fights inside the system for better outcomes for kids like me. Later on, with his mentorship and yet another letter of recommendation, I went on to study Economics and Government at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. I raised my game again – and graduated with honors in a little over three years.

Today, I’m a junior executive at a Fortune 200 company.

It is an honor and a blessing to have been one of Mr. R’s students. He is more than my former middle school teacher – he is now a lifelong mentor and someone I can call about big life decisions. And I now recognize more than ever that opportunities for upward mobility are not readily available to the students of minorities and low-income families without great teachers and access to great schools. He taught me to write persuasively, recommended great books to read by Caribbean authors, and gave me the confidence to go after something bigger than the standards society often imposed on me and other students like me.

These opportunities might not have existed without Mr. R. His expectations for me were higher than my expectations were for myself – I can’t wait to see what that means for the kids of New Mexico.

This opinion piece originally appeared in the Albuquerque Journal on Sunday, July 2nd. 

GUEST POST: How the NM Teacher Summit Changed My Summer Plans

GUEST POST: How the NM Teacher Summit Changed My Summer Plans

I can’t seem to come down from the past few days. This is a strange feeling for me because June is usually a month characterized by lounging on the couch, starting (and hopefully finishing) house projects that have gone undone since Christmas break, and consciously releasing the stressful moments and memories of my teaching year.  No matter how wonderful the school year has been for me, I invariably need this complete break from it and from almost everything educational. At least that is how I have managed to get through the last ten years.

Granted, when I was a new teacher I had that eager, overachiever thirst for new knowledge. Over the past 26 years that “newness” has worn off and I have learned to pace myself, never teach summer school, and stay in my robe until noon. I am one of those teachers who needs the full 10 weeks of summer vacation to rejuvenate. Come Labor Day, I am back in full force and signing up for everything extra-curricular and then some. I push myself non-stop, just not in June. Let’s face it: I’ve been doing this a long time, and I only have so much energy to go around.

So imagine how surprised I was to return from the Second Annual NM Teacher Summit last night with an energy usually reserved for September. I literally couldn’t subdue the enthusiasm and joy I felt as I drove back from Albuquerque to Taos. The landscape looked crisper and the sunset brighter. What just happened to me?

I now realize how I have isolated myself professionally over the last decade. I admit, I have a good thing going. I love my school, my director, my colleagues, and my students. I have a fabulous view of Taos Mountain from my window, and my commute is 1-1/2 miles. Life is good….and easy. Online professional development and collaboration with brilliant coworkers is all I need. Or so I thought.

It’s easy to self-isolate in a large landmass state such as New Mexico. When I taught in New England states and even in coastal Virginia, there was always a district or city nearby where teachers shared information, conferenced, and supported each other. I didn’t remember until this week in Albuquerque how much I had missed that. To be in a convention center ballroom with 1,000 of my peers was exhilarating. To hear our New Mexico Public Education Department thank us for our work and inspire us to push ourselves to greater heights was nothing short of awe-inspiring.

I attended break-out sessions where I learned how PED is working to improve education in New Mexico, met old and new teacher friends, and celebrated accomplishments in New Mexico schools. I gained a better appreciation for the vision and efforts of former Secretary Skandera to effect change for New Mexico students, and for the energy of the new Acting Secretary Christopher Ruszkowski to continue to work to equip and empower teachers in order to make that happen. It wasn’t long before I remembered why I chose this great profession and how much I still love teaching. In my self-imposed isolation, I sometimes forget that truth.

The best part for me: seeing a friend and former colleague who I mentored when she was a new teacher. She was able to attend just part of the Summit because she attends MBA classes to  become an educational leader in her home city of Albuquerque. Oh, and one of my former third grade students performed for the teachers in an incredible display of her drama skills developed at New Mexico School for the Arts where she will be a high school senior. The rewards of being a teacher always come back to the kids!

So I’m back to my problem of figuring out how to come down from this unexpected high. While I honor my physical and emotional need to stay away from the classroom during the summer, I might sneak in some educational reading from one of the many titles shared at the Summit. My boss and I agreed to read Simon Sinek’s Start with Why next month, and I’m excited to reread Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck. The Summit not only connected me to friends and specific strategies for furthering my practice, but it made me want to expand my big picture of education while I have the time to start and finish a book. This is the first June in YEARS where I actually look forward to thinking about educational topics and themes. Forgive me if I do it in my robe on the couch.

This guest post was written by Leslie Baker, a teacher at Taos Charter School in Taos, NM and member of the New Mexico Teacher Leader Network.

Goodbye from Secretary Skandera

Goodbye from Secretary Skandera

Dear Teachers of New Mexico’s Kids,

It’s been nearly seven years since we first started this journey together in New Mexico. And it’s been a joy and the utmost privilege to serve under Governor Susana Martinez and serve our great state. During this time, we’ve accomplished and fundamentally changed public education in New Mexico.  Together, we now have systems for providing great information for families, communities and educators—and there are unprecedented supports for students and educators to close gaps and provide access and opportunity for all.  Most importantly, we’ve established a new trajectory for success for every child regardless of zip code or circumstance.

While there are always lessons learned looking back, and while recognizing the work for our kids is never done looking forward, I am truly grateful to each one of you who has championed your kids and communities, managed and embraced change for kids in a relatively short amount of time, and continue to fight for all that is possible for your students. Please know that I will continue to support this work and cheer you on and whole-heartedly wish the best for you and the students and families you serve.  Thank you for your commitment, your partnership, and your willingness to put our kids first.

As leaders you know that you are only as good as your team. I am humbled by the team at the PED. It has been a privilege to serve alongside them in doing this work. They have given their hearts and lives with passion and purpose. I am proud of them and proud of what they will continue to do. Specifically, I am excited about passing the baton to Christopher Ruszkowski, my successor. He is as committed to kids and their success as anyone I have ever known. He will not only keep fighting the good fight, he will build on the strong foundation New Mexico has and make it even stronger. If you do not already know CR and the amazing team here at the PED, please know just how deeply they are committed to serving our state and our kids.

It has been an honor. Thank you for the opportunity to serve alongside of you. I wish you the very best going forward and know without a shadow of a doubt that you will continue to do great things!

With gratitude,
Hanna

This letter was originally shared with New Mexico teachers via email from Secretary Skandera on June 20, 2017.

GUEST POST: Teachers as Leaders, Yes We Can!

GUEST POST: Teachers as Leaders, Yes We Can!

When I first heard the modern iteration of the term ‘Teacher Leadership’ at the National Board’s annual Teaching and Learning Conference, my first cynical thought was, “Here They go again… trying to get us to do more work for less money.”   Three years later, I’ve come to believe strongly that teacher leadership is the key to creating a modern, effective American educational system.

Like many experienced teachers, I was a teacher leader before that became a catch phrase.  Almost 20 years ago, I was lucky enough to be a part of a cadre of ‘Literacy Leaders’ in my district.  There were 12 of us.  Our mission was to disseminate the research on how to teach reading.  It was exciting to be a part of this cohort and it was exciting to bring the teachers at my school together for the first time to discuss our practice and how to make it better.  The week-long summer training I led changed the culture at our school from one of isolation to one of collaboration.

Teachers volunteer at their schools because they want to help their peers be the best they can be for the good of their students.  Often these leaders move on into administrative positions because that is the only opportunity they see to extend their reach.  Many feel the need to expand their impact by formalizing their authority. Unfortunately, too many of these teacher leaders are unhappy in their roles as administrators.  They miss the life of the classroom.  They don’t feel their new roles give them the access they hoped for.  And they are right.  Teachers are more often influenced to improve their practice by other teachers whom they trust and respect.

This is where the true power of teacher leadership lies. Great teachers who improve collaborative practices within schools impact instruction far more than the conventional professional development.  The support that is most needed to improve their teaching is much more involved and intimate than the typical teacher training session.  Strong teachers, who receive training in coaching and adult learning theory, as well as, leading collaborative teams, can help build a culture of ongoing collaborative learning and professional practice in schools.  In this way highly effective teachers can lead courageous change leading to remarkable improvement in student learning.

Since ‘teacher leadership’ has become a movement, there are now a variety of models of teacher leadership around the country.  One is the hybrid role, where teachers teach part of the day and mentor or coach the other part.  In Albuquerque Public Schools, some teacher leaders are full time school-based Instructional Coaches.  Recently, organizations such as Teach Plus and Educators for Excellence have recruited exceptional educators and supported them in influencing policy and school reform in their states.  Teach Plus Fellows recently and successfully advocated for changes to our evaluation system.  The Secretary of Education’s Teacher Advisory is another such advocacy group that the PED started last year.  Both programs will be seeking applicants for new cohorts this summer. Other teachers seek advanced training or National Board Certification and work to help others achieve the same.  Perhaps the most powerful example of teacher leadership has been in the ‘Teacher Led Schools’ movement that has so far been stunningly successful.

New Mexico started its own innovative teacher leadership initiative with the Teacher Leader Network. This network began with 50 high performing teachers who went through a rigorous selection process.  They are brought together in person for 5 full day leadership trainings.  They take part in monthly webinars so they are kept abreast of current information from the the Public Education Department so that they can share it directly with their peers.  The state Public Education Department plans to expand this program so that every school in New Mexico has a designated teacher leader as part of the network.  As a tool for communication, this could yield powerful dividends, especially if the people who lead the Public Education Department make it a venue for not only dispersing information but also as a way to find out what teachers really need and want from our education leaders.  As a way to improve instruction among the rank and file, this network could have profound impact if the teacher leaders are able build trust, and establish collaborative processes in their schools.

If you are a teacher who wants to see some changes in our system, get involved!  Stay on the lookout for opportunities to apply for fellowships and leadership positions.  These opportunities are becoming increasingly more common.  Become National Board Certified, our state is one of the few in which you can receive a healthy stipend for this important achievement.  National Board Certification can open other doors as a leader in our profession.  If you are already National Board Certified consider attending our spring Leadership and advocacy training that will take place in Albuquerque in early June.

My own journey as a teacher leader taught me that teachers in New Mexico still need way more support than they generally receive. They feel powerless to change some of the circumstances within which they work, which leads to increased stress and a too high attrition rate.  In the fall, I will be working towards a Master’s Degree in Educational Policy so I can increase the capacity of teacher leaders in New Mexico. Investing in teacher leaders who create more support for teachers is money well spent.  As teacher leaders we can and must raise our voices to influence public policy in support of our teachers and our schools.

Guest Post: What You Can Expect From the 2nd Annual New Mexico Teacher Summit

Guest Post: What You Can Expect From the 2nd Annual New Mexico Teacher Summit

Looking back on the 1st Annual Teacher Summit and anticipating this second summit surfaces feelings of excitement and exhaustion.  I have taught in public education for twenty years, and this last year has shifted my perspective on education immensely, in large part due to last year’s teacher summit.  I really had no expectations last July, I did know I had a chance to spend some time at a nice hotel in ABQ during my summer break, and it was almost an accident that I applied to attend.  Typically, in the summer I do not check my school email regularly, so by chance I happened to see the invitation from Alicia Duran to this event and gave it a try.

I distinctly remember heading down to lunch the first morning and seeing a man at an information booth for a group called Teach Plus.  We exchanged eye contact and I continued to walk on by as it was time for lunch and the opening presentation.  During the opening session the conference layout and break-out sessions were introduced, and I learned that Teach Plus was a program for teachers who were interested in becoming involved in education policy decisions.  I then had to ask myself “Do teachers even do that kind of stuff?”  Yes, as a member of the first Teach Plus cohort in New Mexico, I now know teachers can and need to be involved in policy decisions that are made because they affect our classrooms. After the opening session, I returned to that booth and started asking more questions about Teach Plus.  I learned at that time that the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was going to replace NCLB and teachers had the opportunity under this new federal law to participate in making decisions that would affect the future of New Mexico education policy.

Learning about education policy has led to policy related conversations with staff from the Public Education Department, members of the New Mexico legislature and the teachers unions. There have been training sessions provided by experts on ESSA, and great opportunities to network and work with teachers that have similar interests in education policy.  It  has also allowed more contact with Alicia Duran who in December extended an invitation for me to meet the U. S. Secretary of Education, John King, for a round table discussion regarding education policy.

This Summit also led me to apply for the New Mexico Teacher Leader Network, which has 50 teachers from around the state that network and communicate directly with the PED. The vision for this network is to eventually have a teacher leader in every school in every district in the state of New Mexico.  This will provide a contact person to communicate information directly to teachers, which is always a struggle in this state.

What opportunities will be presented to teachers this year?

That is what you get to find out this summer at the 2nd Annual New Mexico Teacher Summit. We hope to see you there!

This guest post was written by Joel Hutchinson, a teacher at Centennial High School in Las Cruces and member of the New Mexico Teacher Leader Network.

GUEST POST: My Experience on the 2017 New Mexico Dream Team

GUEST POST: My Experience on the 2017 New Mexico Dream Team

On most days I leave my school to make an hour drive home and reflect on my day in my classroom.  I ask myself if I could have done something better and I usually beat myself up the entire drive home.  Sometimes, I feel I’m not teaching like I should even though I’m doing the best job I can and pouring my heart into my students.  Although I am labeled as an exemplary teacher, I doubt my ability and at times, think I should walk away from teaching.

This school year (2016-2017) I was chosen to be a part of the 2017 New Mexico Dream Team.  I can honestly say that it changed my thinking and rejuvenated my love for teaching. The experience reminded me why I’m a teacher.  Serving on the Dream Team allowed me to discover valuable tools to improve literacy and design rigorous lessons to improve the learning levels of my students in the classroom. Most importantly, being on the Dream Team introduced me to a group of elite teachers that have the same thoughts and feelings I was having.  Coming together with other teachers and sharing ideas and formulating strategies to improve literacy for our students has been an amazing experience. The doubts that I had in my ability as a teacher were removed and I feel that I am making a difference in the classroom.   I feel better equipped to teach close reading and design lessons with rigor to help students gain a deeper understanding of the text. I became a more confident teacher through the Dream Team training and the feedback from my colleagues.

At the beginning of this school year I had decided this would be my last year of teaching.  I no longer feel that way.  Talking to other teachers I realized that we all have self-doubt about out teaching ability and that we only have these doubts because we care so much about being great teachers.  I have since changed my mind about leaving the teaching profession and rediscovered why I’m a teaching… Not because I have to, but because I want to!

This guest post was written by Deanna Walker, a teacher in Maxwell Municipal Schools and a member of the 2017 New Mexico Literacy Dream Team.

GUEST POST: Kids (and Teachers) Just Wanna Have Fun

GUEST POST: Kids (and Teachers) Just Wanna Have Fun

“In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun.”

                                           Mary Poppins

Do you ever wish you could be more like that fun and effective nanny, Mary Poppins? She knew that the secret to helping her young charges succeed was injecting a little fun into their chores and lives.

When we think about the increasing demands on us as teachers, we may ask “where is the fun?” After all, we are tasked with the seemingly impossible. We must cover all the standards, increase depth of knowledge through questioning, incorporate formative assessment into each lesson, prepare all students to pass standardized tests, provide and track interventions in the classroom, differentiate instruction for all learners, meet weekly with colleagues to analyze data, communicate with parents though online platforms……Whew! The list is endless. New expectations for accountability, rigor, and communication make teaching an even more challenging profession. Rookie and veteran teachers alike can feel overwhelmed.

Of all the questions we ask of our teaching, the most important one is, “how can we incorporate joy into the classroom – for ourselves and for our students?” Why is this an essential question? Because if we aren’t having fun, our students certainly aren’t having fun. As adult learners, we know that being relaxed opens us up to new ideas and improved learning. Anyone who has observed a group of children at play knows that this is even more important for our young learners.

When I left the business world to become a teacher, I tapped into my creative side for perhaps the first time in my life. I witnessed the innate creativity of my fifth-grade students and worked to develop lessons that brought that out. Over the years, I have built on this and found a few strategies to infuse fun into the “work” of school. Whenever I feel like I am not having fun, I remember my early years in the classroom and how happy and privileged I felt to work with young people. Now, in our new landscape of high-stakes testing, I find it extremely important to add some fun every day. Here are seven of my tips for having fun:

  1. Start the day with a smile.
    I like to greet each student at the door with a smile and a handshake to start the day. This can create a joyful tone for the day and help me check in with each child. Students can also check in with their buddy before class starts. High fives, turn-and-talk pep talks, and secret handshakes can bring out a smile and put everyone in a happy state.
  2. Use games to teach.
    Learning games are an easy way to lighten the mood in the classroom. Students are engaged, communicative, and they don’t always know they are “working.”
  3. Be a little dramatic.
    Someone once told me that every teacher should take a drama class, and I agree. Even if you are on the quiet side, find ways to surprise your class with unexpected entrances or actions. I have stood on a desk to teach math, cracked eggs over my head when demonstrating how to give directions, and worn a picture frame around my neck to silently remind students to “frame” their sentences.
  4. Use music to direct the day.
    I can’t teach without music – big, loud music. I attribute this to my training from Eric Jensen in the importance of changing our students’ states in order to keep them alert and able to learn. This strategy for brain-based learning comes with a built-in element: FUN! Pick a theme for the day (Disco Day is my favorite) and turn on the music while students walk around the room and touch five gold things before returning to their seats. Everyone is smiling and dancing and ready for the next activity.
  5. Play with your students.
    Tap into your inner child and join your students in their games. Get in line for 4-square, jump in to the jump rope game, pick up a basketball in the pick-up game. Show off your hula hoop skills (if you still have them). Your students will appreciate that you know how to have fun, and it will carry back into the classroom.
  6. Designate a fun, role-playing day.
    Give everyone a chance to have some fun by transforming the classroom into a historical period. For example, I used to have a Colonial Day every year in second grade where we would all come in costume and re-enact colonial school practices. Then we would participate in craft stations and deepen our understanding of the time period.
  7. Give students choice – and breaks.
    Find ways to let students choose their activities. During Writing Workshop, allow them to illustrate and embellish their stories at a publishing center. Build in short breaks in the classroom so they can extend their learning by using the materials available.

Remember that our goal is to develop thinking skills, not to cram information into our students. The more fun we are having, the more we are open to new learning. This is true for our students and for us. To channel Mary Poppins, we want to learn “in the most delightful way!”

This guest post was submitted by New Mexico Teacher Leader Ambassador, Leslie Baker. Leslie is a literacy teacher at Taos Charter School in Taos, NM.