Category: Guest Posts

Whole Brain Teaching: Roxanne Mitchell

Whole Brain Teaching: Roxanne Mitchell

Walk into any room at Sandia Elementary or an assembly including the entire student body, say, “Class”, and then be prepared to be amazed as every student immediately responds, “Yes”. This is just one of the exceptional engagement strategies utilized with Whole Brain Teaching.  The implementation of Whole Brain Teaching in our school has increased student engagement and excitement for learning in every classroom.  In upbeat, highly interactive classrooms, teachers have 100% participation from students at all levels and behavioral types.  Whole Brain Teaching can be used for excellent classroom management, character education, and exemplary lesson design. In nineteen years of teaching, I have never seen strategies so effective that can be adapted to any teacher and grade level.  Whole Brain Teaching is the game changer we have all been searching for in education today.

So here is the real deal. I attended a conference in Las Vegas this summer on Whole Brain Teaching.  From the first moments, I knew it was different.  Twenty minutes into the conference, I was texting my principal asking if we could be a pilot Whole Brain Teaching school.  All the while, I was trying to figure out how to use what I knew worked and incorporate what I was learning. I knew how to teach.  I had a lot of success. I am not saying this to brag in anyway, but I felt confident in my ability as a teacher and I knew great teaching.  I had scored exemplary for several years on my evaluation and was a 2017 Teacher of the Year finalist.  Boy, I was in for a wake up call.  All of the teachers attending the conference knew there were changes to make.  We returned to school and started our K-3 Plus program within a few weeks.  I was the administrator for the summer program. I wanted to use Whole Brain Teaching in my classroom to some extent until I saw it in action.  I walked in classrooms the first day of K-3 Plus using Whole Brain Teaching, and I was JEALOUS. As a teacher at heart, I wanted KIDS.  I wanted to teach the way the young teachers on our staff were impacting kids!  I remember that feeling, and I have been striving to achieve it from that day forward.  I cannot express how much I love my profession.  I have high standards for my students and I demand participation in class.  The difference now is the love of learning in our school and my classroom.  I asked the kids this afternoon what was better about Whole Brain Teaching than a traditional classroom. They surprised me as they so often do.  Their responses were varied, but included things like:

  • “The Golden Gritty game makes me realize I can do things that I did not think I could do.”
  • “Mirror Words lets me be physical, teach my partner, and totally focus on my learning.”
  • “Zowies and Triple Whammies took me from spending forever writing a paragraph to do it in minutes.”
  • “I can see a difference in the character of my classmates thanks to daily use of our Character Virtues.”

I know many of these terms sound foreign to individuals without experience with Whole Brain Teaching. Some days it still feels that way to me. But if you have taken time to read these words, please know it has changed me forever as a teacher, and more importantly, it has changed my students for the better.  That is something that can never be undone.  I have poured out my heart for the Whole Brain Teaching movement.  Please take time to look at it carefully.  You never know, your students may never be the same!

Check out for more information or contact Sandia Elementary, New Mexico’s own Whole Brain Teaching Pilot School. (575-769-4480)



How to Bring Socratic Seminar to Your Classroom

People sometimes ask me what Socratic seminar is, whether it would work for any grade or subject area, and most of all: is it worth the effort?

Socratic seminar is named for the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, one of the most famous teachers of the Western world. Socrates did not teach by lecturing. He taught by questioning.  And his questioning sometimes seemed to draw wisdom out of his students that they did not know they had. Socrates still embodies what we mean when we call someone a philosopher, a name that the ancient Greeks coined from two root words: philos and sophos.  Philos meant love, as in philanthropy, the love of mankind.  Sophos meant wisdom. Philosophers are therefore lovers of wisdom, and this is exactly why you should bring the Socratic Method into your classroom.

So what does the Socratic Method look like in your classroom? Picture students sitting in a circle, or around a large table, or if that’s not possible, sitting around the edges of the room looking towards the center so that they can make eye contact with one another.  A student or a teacher asks an “opening question.”  This does not have to be the only question discussed, but begins a discussion.  You have classroom discussions all the time, but this is a formalized discussion, and one that takes the time to reach a much deeper level of understanding.

Why teach your students to participate in this kind of formal discussion? Socratic seminar:

  • Is enjoyed by students
  • Teaches the art of questioning
  • Teaches higher-level thought, which is a skill
  • Allows students to speak to each other, rather than to the teacher, in a formal setting
  • Can unite the class as a team looking for the truth or truths
  • Engages students with a topic in a new way
  • Appeals to students who struggle with academics
  • Is a kind of “writing aloud” activity, so is a great lead-in to writing on a following day
  • Can be modified for nearly all ages
  • Can be modified for all levels of shyness
  • Leaves students asking for more.

Whether it is a high school or an elementary classroom, and whether it is an English class, science, art, or history, this method of discussion and teamwork resonates with students, and will engage them at a higher level.

But how to teach this? Questioning is a skill in itself and an exercise in higher level thought.   Ideally, have the students write their own questions for their seminar, either individually or in a group. They will require instruction on what an “essential universal question” is; it is not a yes or no question, but one that opens up a deeper discussion.  For example, if the student suggests the question, “Is Naomi’s mother nice?” other students (or you, the facilitator) can deepen that question by asking, “Was Naomi’s mother a good mother?”  To make the question universal, it becomes, “What is a good mother?” and even, “What makes a good person?”

I sometimes project everyone’s questions on a screen; this allows students to reflect on just how much there is to discuss. If you use Google Classroom, students can post their questions to a public forum or list that you can then project.

Don’t be afraid to delve into the impossible. Students are just as equipped as we are to explore the deepest questions of humanity; what they lack in experience, they make up for in directness, curiosity, and simplicity.

Allow students (and yourself) to luxuriate in those questions that so often do not get asked:   Why are we here?   What is morality?  What are good and evil?  Is there a right and a wrong?  What are the problems with saying that there is not a right and a wrong?  What makes a hero?  Is love important?  Where does prejudice come from?  Is it possible to achieve peace?  My ninth graders this year repeatedly asked to discuss the meaning of life, and though there was some humor and irreverence in the discussion, there was also a real discussion taking place, surprising them, I think, though they may have thought they were surprising me.

The day before the seminar, go over the rules.

1. Students should speak to each other instead of to the teacher. Since this will take them some time to get used to, you as the facilitator can give them gentle reminders.

2. Students must react to what is said rather than ignoring it and jumping in with an unrelated statement.  Teach them how this sounds in practice: “I agree with Maya, but I think that….”  Or, “I think both Cyrus and Juan are right, and I want to add….”   Or, “I think so far we are missing the point, because…”

3.  Students do not need to raise hands as long as they take turns.

4.  While everyone should participate for an A, no one should dominate.  This is their chance to learn to have a balanced role.

5. Disagreements are normal and expected, even encouraged.  But no one should insult or disrespect another person for their opinion, and certainly not for a belief system.

6.  Remind students that if they can learn to discuss difficult issues and ideas with their peers, they can become leaders, and just possibly save the world, or at least their own community.

7.  Encourage students to act as a team.  In the middle of the circle or table are ideas, and the team is grappling with them together.

What about the shy? You as facilitator can sometimes stop the seminar to allow those who have not spoken to get a word in edgewise.  You can even call on the shyest members of the class directly, explaining that you can raise their grade if they can express an opinion on the current question, and more importantly, that their voice matters.

Too many kids in the classroom? There are various tricks you can try, such as outer circle and inner circle, where the outer circle takes notes on the inner circle’s seminar.  You can also use Popsicle sticks or paper clips if you feel you need to monitor how many times students speak.  More mature students can run their own seminars so that you can have several in one classroom.

Finally, let your students know that silence is an accepted part of Socratic seminar. There is a tendency to panic when there is silence, but people need time to process and think.   Try to avoid jumping in to give them answers.  They will likely leave the class inspired with a new “love of wisdom”

Animas is “A” Strong

Animas is “A” Strong

Animas is “A” Strong

                For the past six years, under the new school grading system, Animas High School has received an A for all but one year, receiving a B just once. The Straight “A” Express made its stop in the small town of Animas on Wednesday, November 29th to celebrate their continued success and to learn just what is working in Animas.  This rural, agricultural area features the school as the hub of the community surrounded by only one café, a small convenience store, a feed/hardware store and three necessary utility companies. Animas Public Schools draws students from several surrounding towns, traveling up to 75 miles one-way to school.  The total K-12 population at Animas Public Schools is 179 students.  The high school is a 7-12th grade setting and teachers teach all grade levels and cover generally 6 different preps each day. However, the teachers and staff at Animas feel blessed to work with such polite, hard-working and spirited students.

My name is Alysha Wagley. I am a 14-year teacher at Animas High School, member of the Secretary’s Advisory team, and Animas alumnus.  I would like to share the following as to what I believe is driving our continued “A” status:

  • High Expectations from teachers, staff and the community of students and staff
  • Busy Students: they must be involved in multiple extra-curricular in order for all programs to be successful. Even the average student is in sports, drama, mock trial, STUCO, and often FFA all at once. Most work to help support themselves and their families. Students have no choice but to learn to multi-task and have confidence in themselves and each other.
  • Highly discourage the “teach to the test” mentality. Instead, we do rigorous reading and writing preparation. English, Science and history all give timed 5-parapgrah essays periodically as regular classroom assessments and generally in the computer-lab.
  • Teacher voice and trying to keep all our arrows going in the same directions
    • DASH Team includes core teachers, and DASH goals are truly aligned to student and teacher needs for improvement
    • Aligning a portion of our PDP to student needs per data analysis
    • Analyzing Data as a staff through PLC’s
    • Communication among teachers about shared students
    • Setting Staff goals in a certain area and all working together, for example: 5-paragraph essay, academic testing vocabulary, information text and currently short-essay response.
    • Concentrating as a staff on collaboration, bell-to-bell instruction and DOK
  • Extensive SAT Plans and IEPs that are team driven
  • All students who score 2 or below on PARCC are looked at more closely for a possible SAT plan
  • Anyone who reads below grade-level is looked at more closely for a possible SAT plan and letters are sent to parents regarding below grade-level scores.
  • Use of Math and Language Lab classes as RTI for students below grade-level
  • Taking Advantage of REC Resources, especially for new teacher training
  • Teacher mentorship for all new teachers


    • Below 70% grade list to teachers every two weeks and regular communication with parents for those who fall below a 70%.
  • ACT a priority and encourage all students to take it from 2nd Semester Sophomores to 1st semester Seniors (generally 4 times throughout high school)
  • All sophomores take PSAT and ASVAB for career readiness


  • Respect and support for academics from coaches and sponsors
  • Unfortunately no AP courses, but we do have honors, duel-credit and online opportunities for students to excel, be challenged and have access to classes of choice that our small staff can’t accommodate.
  • Support from administration and school board with a one-team mentality
  • A school spirit that has the students, teachers, staff, administration and community truly caring about the reputation and success of Animas Schools.

Of course, the list can go on and on, but most importantly dedication and respect from students, teachers, staff and community make Animas an excellent school to attend, work at and support. Go Panthers!

Classroom Management – Building Relationships with Teens as a Tool for Better Classroom Management

Classroom Management – Building Relationships with Teens as a Tool for Better Classroom Management

Classroom Management-

Building Relationships with Teens as a Tool for Better Classroom Management

I was walking towards a classroom to sub for another teacher who had to leave unexpectedly, and I could hear screaming. I knew that this could be interesting, since I knew this teacher’s style…and sometimes struggle… to manage the classroom. When I reached the glass door, there was a young man with his face pressed firmly on the glass as he was pounding it with his fist. We stood there looking at one another for a moment until I said, “Can I help you?”

He opened the door and returned to his seat immediately.

It always surprises me that teachers are thrown into this profession with so little instruction on classroom management. It is not something that is taught, and so many new teachers — and some not so new — struggle to make sense of student behavior and how to relate with them and still manage to get the curriculum covered in time for testing. I have seen some really terrific teachers suffer at the hands of an unruly mob, usually at the end of the day, when everyone is exhausted and it is a struggle to get teens focused on the task at hand. I call it “the slog” — that end of the day class.  You know the one.  It was the slog that took a really excellent third year teacher and sent her back to graduate school for a new profession. She said it was that last class that did it for her; she was so stressed and felt like a failure for not being a better teacher.

It would be interesting to see how many teachers are lost to the profession due to improper training in classroom management.  How can you teach if you cannot get the students focused and engaged? If a teacher cannot manage the crowd, then no dissemination of information occurs — or it is greatly hindered — and children learn less. I have seen it myself in some of my most challenging classes over the years. Statistically, those classes performed lower than my others, simply because I was spending more time managing their behavior and less time teaching them the academic skills they needed.

So what is the secret to excellent classroom management? If you ask ten teachers, you may get ten different answers. It is personal and greatly dependent on the teacher’s style and personality. But what I do know is this:  If kids know you care, they will do their best for you. Showing how you care is also individual, but I believe there are some common strategies that every teacher could implement regardless of personal style.

  1. The Greeting. Greet them each day, at the door, as they arrive. I shake their hands at the door, although if you are worried about germs, simply greeting them as they walk in is good enough. The purpose of this is two-fold: (1) students learn how to interact in a professional way with handshake/eye contact/greeting; and (2) I get to assess how their day is going.  Are they ill, upset, or happy?
  2. Good Things– Doing “Good Things” at the beginning of every class is a way to teach teens how to reframe and learn to look for the good in life. Often, teenagers have a hard time looking at all the goodness that is going on around them. “Good Things” starts the class off in a positive way, and I get to learn about their lives outside of my classroom. It is a way for us to interact in a non-academic sense, and it lets them know I am interested in what is going on in their world. I usually allocate the first five minutes of class for this activity, and start with, “Tell me something good.”
  3. Authenticity- Be your authentic self. Teachers are humans too, so if you are having a bad day, say so. Or if you said something that you later regretted, apologize. OWN YOUR STUFF. Let them know how you feel. The kids will appreciate it, and you will be modeling appropriate adult behavior.
  4. Push, Pull and Drag- You know that time of year — usually right after winter break — when all of a sudden your students quit doing ANYthing? Don’t give up on them even when they give up on themselves. Explain to them that you believe in them and know they can do it. It may not change their behavior in the end, but they will remember what you said.
  5. Social Contract– Every year, the first week of school, every class creates a “social contract.” This contract is comprised of student designed rules based on how we all want to be treated. It also addresses how we handle conflict and violations of the agreed contract. I have used this strategy for more than a decade, and it works because the students have buy-in.
  6. Compassion– This seems intuitive, but it is worth saying: have compassion for others and yourself. Remember what it was like being a teenager, a thousand years ago? If you do, then tap into that self and find some compassion for your students…then show it now and again. They will appreciate it.
  7. Be fair and consistent – This one’s a biggie for me. I strive to be fair because I have felt the sting of what felt like “unfair,” and it wasn’t pleasant. Try not to have favorite students. . .or not so favorite students. Teenagers will loudly proclaim one another as the teacher’s pet. We are human, and there is always that one kid, but try to practice fairness and consistency.

I am sure there are a million other ways to build healthy relationships with teenagers. This is what works for me. If you asked around you’d probably hear that I am a tough teacher, and that would be true. I have high standards and high expectations, but I also have a relationship with my students.  I contend that it is a major factor in how well they perform academically.

One of my students wrote a note to me during teacher appreciation week this year. It read, “You are one of the best teachers I’ve ever had…You don’t take crap from anyone and you genuinely care about all us (sic) kids…” I think this embodies my classroom management style. It makes me smile that they know what I’m doing, even if they don’t like it sometimes.

I have students return to my classroom every year from college to tell me how they are doing. It is gratifying to know we have such an impact on these young people and that they love us enough to come back and say hello. I honestly think that building relationships with young people is the key to great classroom management and to great teaching. You have to win them.

Engaging Families Through APTT

Engaging Families Through APTT

Have you ever been faced with the challenge of increasing parent engagement in student learning? Have you ever thought “If I could only make parents understand how important their support in learning is”?  Well, then APTT is something well-worth learning about.

APTT is an acronym for the Academic Parent Teacher Team program developed by WestEd. The purpose of APTT is to increase student learning support at home.  Don’t let the “parent” in Academic Parent Teacher Team fool you, the goal of APTT is to build support for the student from the whole family.

The New Mexico Public Education Department sponsored the pilot program in six schools in the state in the second semester of the 2016-17 school year. The APTT model consists of 4 meetings throughout the year: team meeting 1 in early fall, an individual meeting in late fall, team meeting 2 in winter, and team meeting 3 in spring.  Each team meeting follows an agenda of team building, teaching foundational grade level skills, sharing data, model and practice activities, and goal setting.  The individual meeting is a chance to discuss student progress, much like a traditional conference.  The PowerPoint presentations for all of the team meetings are provided for you by WestEd.

My elementary school was selected as one of the six schools to pilot the program.  There were five people on the school leadership team: the principal, counselor, a kindergarten teacher, a fifth-grade teacher, and a Title 1 district coach.  We attended a two-day kick-off meeting, along with the other 5 schools in the pilot program, in Albuquerque.  There we were able to prepare and plan for the implementation of the program.

Since we were starting the meetings later in the year, we held an initial team meeting and a final team meeting, skipping the individual meeting and the second team meeting. At my school, participation in the initial roll-out of the program was voluntary.  Three kindergarten classes, a first-grade class, a second-grade class, and the departmentalized 5th grade participated in the program.  Each teacher decided on a learning goal that could be assessed and tracked from the first meeting to the last meeting.  Teachers also had to decide on supporting activities for the learning goal.  Teachers had the option to choose one or two goals and a total of two activities. At the meetings, parents participated in an ice-breaker or team building activity, they were provided with class data along with a confidential student number for individual student data, given materials for the activities modeled and practiced in the meeting, they made a commitment to working with their student at home, and they set goals for their students.

I had 58% of parents attend the first meeting and 63% of parents attend the second meeting. I had some parents not attend the second meeting that attend the first, and some parents who were unable to attend the first meeting who attended the second meeting. My decided learning goal was high frequency words. Those students whose parents attended both meetings showed increases of no less than double the number of words from the first meeting to the second meeting. Students from every ability group were represented. Some students had over three times the number of words growth.

Feedback from parents was overwhelmingly positive. They enjoyed talking to the other parents, valued the information they received, especially the ability to see how their student compared to the rest of the class, and they appreciated having the materials to take home, ready to use. Many reported that their students looked forward to playing the games and activities at home and kept the parents committed to practicing the skills.

Feedback from teachers who participated in the initial roll-out has also been positive. Teachers felt that they were able to communicate with families on a much deeper level than traditional conferences. They also liked the fact that they were giving the parents the tools they needed to support their students at home. My school plans on continuing APTT for the 17-18 school year, with the expectation of school-wide participation. We will be able to implement the program in its entirety, all three team meetings and the individual meeting.

When I started writing this post, I had to decide what I was going to include. There is so much to write about: the process, the outstanding support, the meetings, student achievement, parent feedback, and it’s all so positive! This post only begins to break the surface. In my teaching career, there have only been two systems, programs, methods, what have you, that I have supported this strongly. I am excited to see what next year holds for APTT and my school. If you are looking for a way to engage families, create a partnership with parents/families, and increase student learning, APTT should be at the top of your list. Academic Parent Teacher Teams give the parents the data, the knowledge, and the tools to successfully bridge the distance between school and home, and support student learning.

Please see the APTT_Brochure for additional information.  You can also reach out to our Family Outreach Coordinator  Gloria Ruiz at with any further inquiries.

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.