Dear Nic Stone

While standing on the stage in the Cullen Performance Hall, wearing a stunning technicolor outfit, Nic Stone asked the rapt audience to turn to page 152 in her debut novel, Dear Martin. Sitting four rows back from the front, I eagerly turned to the page to see which brilliant line from the novel she wanted us to read. It was this one:

“You can’t change how other people think and act, but you’re in full control of you.”

Dear Martin, Nic Stone

This quote that I already had underlined in my own copy of the novel. This quote that sums up exactly what I try to instill in my 8th grade students every day. This quote that I myself often fail to remember.

This was only a small part of the brilliance that made up the University of Houston College of Education‘s 2019 First Lecture. I am immensely glad that I attended this year.

Nic Stone speaking at the University of Houston College of Education 2019 First Lecture

In the past, I’ve always skipped the First Lecture event. As a masters student previously, and as an adjunct instructor now, I had the opportunity to go in previous years. However, since it coincides with the start of the school year, I’ve always put my career first and attend my school’s back-to-school workshops, meetings, and planning. But when I received an email back in June that informed me that this year’s speaker would be Nic Stone, I knew I couldn’t miss this one, so I used one of my (precious) sick days, leaving my precious kiddos in the capable hands of a substitute on the first Friday of the school year, to attend. #worthit

Within the first few minutes of her lecture, I knew I’d made the right decision. Ms. Stone talked about herself as a student, and it was like a knife to my heart when she said, “I loved reading… until 6th grade” (paraphrased). I am the English department chair on a 6th through 8th grade campus, and I felt the full weight of her words. Students in elementary school read for fun. They read exciting picture books and funny short chapter books, and they love them. And then they come to us in middle school and we cram “literature” down their throats and they read a bunch of stories written by and for old dead white men. And it only gets worse in high school.

Now of course, this is an overgeneralization, but that doesn’t take away the truth of it. I’ve discussed this on this blog before, and I’ll keep discussing it until the day I myself become nothing more than a story. Our curriculum across the country too often turns students who love reading into students who hate reading. And even worse, it keeps students who never loved reading from ever having the chance to discover a love of books.

Ms. Stone talked about how African American people were portrayed in the texts she was reading in class. If there were any characters who looked like her, they were set far in the past. She said that she didn’t believe she could be a writer because she didn’t see anyone like her publishing books. She said that she started to regain her love of reading when she chose to read Divergent by Veronica Roth because, as she said, “Divergent was the first series I read where the black character lived all the way to the end.” She needed contemporary stories about people like her and by people like her. All of our students need contemporary stories about people like them, by people like them.

The State of Texas has taken a huge step toward fixing this, in my opinion (and of course, there will always be people who disagree). With the brand new Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) that are taking effect from kindergarten through 8th grade this year, and 9th through 12th grade next year, a new focus is being put on students reading self-selected texts.

Nic Stone during a Q&A portion of the First Lecture event

For the first two weeks of school (I’m sorry, I need to pause here because holy crap, we’re already two weeks into the school year and it’s still August and this is why I’m writing this post more than a week after the event instead of right after like I meant to and holy crap my lesson plans that I haven’t started are due tomorrow and… deep breath… deep breath… I got this), anyway, for the first two weeks of school, one of our instructional focuses was making personal connections to the texts we read. On Monday, I asked my students to write for ten minutes (thank you, Kelly Gallagher for the 10 minutes per day writing idea; it’s going so well and I’ll probably write another post about it sometime this semester) describing any connection they could make to the three texts we’d read the week before. The first two texts were different but had a similar theme revolving around bullying in middle school. The first was from the textbook and the second from our curriculum guide. But the third text was Ghost by Jason Reynolds. I’ll detail what I’m doing with that novel in a different post, but we’d read the first two chapters at that point.

Honestly, I expected students to make a connection to the accounts of bullying in the first two texts, and I wasn’t wrong. A lot of students, especially my girls, wrote about their own experiences with bullying, whether it was their feelings as the bullying victim or the regret they feel about their own acts of bullying in the past.

But I also had a lot of students write about how they related to Castle Cranshaw, aka Ghost. I was blown away by the connections they made to this young African American boy whose father was in jail because he shot at Ghost and his mom, who has anger issues, who gets in trouble at school, who wants to play basketball, who can’t stand a kid showing off at a track practice and decides to put him in his place.

So many of my students are seeing themselves in that book.

Which bring me back to Nic Stone and Dear Martin. I hope to read Dear Martin with my classes at some point this year, maybe after we finish Ghost. In the meantime, I’ve book talked it to the entire 8th grade when the 8th grade English teachers participated in a rotation of book talks. I watched the faces of the students as they listened to me read from Justyce’s first letter to Martin. I’ve already had students check out my copies of the novel, including the one that Ms. Stone signed for me. There is no feeling like having a kid run up to you, book in hand, before the school day has even started to say, “I’m loving this book. Thank you for letting me read it.”

Me with the amazing Nic Stone

If I’m being honest, I wish my students didn’t relate to this book. I wish a book that starts with an intelligent young man trying to do a good deed and consequently being thrown to the ground in handcuffs wasn’t a book that my students could see themselves in. But as Justyce says, “If I can be forced to sit on the concrete in too-tight handcuffs when I’ve done nothing wrong, it’s clear… things aren’t as equal as folks say they are.” As long as my students need these books, I’ll provide them.

Me barely keeping my cool while Nic Stone signed my book

When I had the opportunity to meet Nic Stone and get my copy of Dear Martin signed after her lecture, I freaked out. I am not cool in the face of meeting people that I consider in any way famous (I lost the entire English language upon meeting one of my favorite Alley Theatre actors after a performance a few weeks ago – I am not cool). But I held it together, and I thanked her for writing the books that my students need. And she signed my book with “Hell yes, 8th grade!”

Nic Stone signed my book and wrote “Hell yes, 8th grade!”

I have to give a shoutout here to my district. As we were adopting these new TEKS and the new textbooks to go along with them, I was able to collaborate on a novel selection committee to choose a set of 140-160 new novels for every teacher’s classroom library. At our first meeting, the first thing we did was discuss what types of books we needed, and that entire discussion focused on all types of diversity. We all thought about the minds in our classrooms and what they needed to read, and we worked hard to make sure that there were books that students could truly relate to in each of our classrooms. As a result, Dear Martin is one of the books now in every 8th grade English classroom in the district. I am proud to work for a district that put so much emphasis on this.

When I started writing this, I truly intended to talk about more. I took notes on my phone throughout the whole lecture, silently hoping it wouldn’t look like I was texting, and what I’ve discussed here is only a small portion of what she said. As an aspiring writer, I hung on her every word about writing, about ICU storytelling – Inform, Connect, Uplift. She talked about how first drafts are supposed to suck, and her own process for writing that includes detailed planning and outlining before a single word is written. Every word she said was magic and she was funny on top it, but I just don’t have the time or space here to get into it all. Just know that if you ever get the opportunity to see or hear Nic Stone speak, jump on that opportunity. It’s not one to pass up.

Technology: It’s Not Just for the Students

In case you were not aware, today was #DigitalLearningDay. As far as I’m concerned, just about every day in my classroom is a digital learning day, but I am not one to pass up an opportunity to show off my EdTech prowess and design something extra special for the occasion.

For the past week, I worked with one of my favorite teacher besties who is also my across the hall classroom neighbor to build out an Escape Room activity. It was pretty rockin’ if I do say so myself. Even our admin team thought that it was a great learning experience for our kiddos.

Me and my across the hall teacher bestie with our Digital All-Star stickers and rocking our AVID shirts! ❤
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#ThisIsTeaching

My feet hurt, the underwire in my bra has come free and is stabbing me, I have a papercut on my finger from making copies, half of my lipstick is gone, there are no less than three different hair clips holding together this hairstyle that one of my students described as looking like broccoli (uncooked, not covered in cheese).

Today I had a really good lesson with a mixture of silent choice reading in the library and reviewing a big test they took last week to prepare for the upcoming STAAR. I used non-technology notecards for silent reading trackers. I used technology with Pear Deck for test review and in-depth, very animated discussions.

This is teaching.

Sometimes, well often, I struggle in this profession. I struggle with balancing what I know my students need and teaching to the test, with whether or not I’m doing a good enough job, with how much work I have to take home with me, with how much emotional baggage I take home with me, with how exhausted I always am.

And then sometimes I have a good lesson. Not even an awesome lesson or amazing lesson, and it wasn’t a perfect day. I still had deal with discipline and students who won’t listen or don’t get it. But it was a good lesson.

And when I left work today and thought about how my general appearance started out looking pretty snazzy with the makeup and styled hair and a dress and ended up with the description above, I realized how great this job can be.

If that even makes sense.

This is teaching.

Reflecting on Experiences

“We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.”

John Dewey

Sitting in a session about the effect of teacher education on teacher attrition and retention, I heard this quote from John Dewey, and it struck me deeply. I have been sadly lacking in this reflection since I completed my masters this past August. Of course, I knew this would happen. Many of my reflections in this blog centered around my masters coursework; in fact, the original creation of this blog was an assignment. However, having earned my degree certainly does not mean I am done learning or done reflecting.

I am, of course, proud of having completed my degree and of my several subsequent accomplishments. I’ve started drafts of posts about those accomplishments, but without a deadline or a requirement, I haven’t completed them. Even this post is coming a solid month after I attended the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) annual convention and heard this quote. Continue reading

The Promise and Hope of Our Students

I haven’t had much of a chance yet this semester to sit down and talk about the two classes I’m taking in this last spring semester of my masters education (just one or two classes this summer and I’ll be done!). I think it’s time to remedy that.

This semester I’m taking another professional seminar class that is split into three mini-courses taught by three different professors, just like the one I took last semester. This time, the three topics are Best Practices, Leadership, and Social Justice, but I’m going to focus on Social Justice here. Continue reading

“Miss, I think you turned me into a reader.”

I am a teacher. I love my students fiercely. I do everything in my power to ensure that they are successful, not just on state assessments, but in life.

I am also human. And I get discouraged. And tired. And many days I question how long I can continue in such a mentally demanding and draining profession. This STAAR overloaded time of  year is always hard for me. I get hung up on the feeling that no matter how much I help my students, it’s never good enough. There’s never enough I can do. I let myself get overwhelmingly upset about students who I know are growing and learning and doing their best but still can’t pass.

During these times, it’s easy to get lost in the negativity and it can be hard to find the positive. I know that it is so important to focus on and celebrate the positives. My advisory class this morning watched Shawn Achor’s Ted Talk about the happy secret to better work. We discussed what he said about happiness coming before success, not the other way around. If you have a free 15 minutes, I suggest watching it. I watch it at least once a year to remind myself to calm down and look at the good.

I have had a lot of successes recently in my classroom that I need to celebrate (and maybe brag a little), starting with the Outside Reading Project. Continue reading

Enhance Learning with Pear Deck

As an educator and a student of educational technology, I’m always on the lookout for new tools that increase student learning and student engagement. I strive to authentically teach my curriculum in ways that students have fun at least some of the time and that students will remember after they leave my classroom. It’s not always an easy task to accomplish, but I like to think I work hard at it.

A couple of months ago, I stumbled on a tweet from Alice Keeler that linked to her blog, Teacher Tech with Alice Keeler, specifically a post about a new Google Slides add-on that purports to increase student engagement and give every single student a voice. A common theme in this blog, and in my teaching, is making lessons more student-centered and engaging all students in learning. So, I was understandably intrigued. I spent an afternoon exploring the add-on, which led me to the full resource, called Pear Deck.

I am now 100% a Pear Deck supporter for the following reasons:

  1. It’s simple.
  2. It projects onto the student’s devices.
  3. Every student answers every question.
  4. The dashboard shows me all responses and gives me control from anywhere.

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Fall2017 Part 3: Let the Kids be Creative!

After spending the two weeks of winter break mostly on the couch with a nasty cold (that still hasn’t let up!), I’ve realized that I never completed my Fall 2017 reflection series, and Spring 2018 is creeping up on me!

My third, and final, class of Fall 2017 was called Educational Uses of Digital Storytelling, in which I learned about what is (and is not) a digital story, and I created a couple of my own.  Continue reading

Fall2017 Part 2: Technology, Research, and Community Education

Ah, hello again, friends and followers.

If any of you made it through the monster reflection post from last week about my LDT seminar class this semester, I’m sure you are just dying to hear how my other two classes went. Well, I live to please.

I can now officially say that I have finally submitted all of the assignments for all of my classes, and boy was that a huge sigh of relief. I will also say that in that three days since I submitted my last assignment, I created instructions for the math and English teachers on my campus to access their universal screener data and enter into Eduphoria (the system we use to manage data), wrote lesson plans, entered quiz grades from Schoology (my LMS BFF) into the gradebook, entered my own screener data and a coworker’s, put together an amazing lesson using Pear Deck to go over a test that my students bombed, acted as the middle man between a Pear Deck representative and my principal to get Pear Deck for my campus, and my Sim family just had triplet girls. So, in summary, being finished with my classes in no way means that I’m not busy anymore. I am very ready for winter break.

But, I digress. Continue reading

Fall2017 Part 1: Kicking Butt in LDT

Well hello there, friends and followers. It’s nice to see you all again.

This semester has been a challenge, to say the least. Between starting a new job with very different hours and taking three graduate classes, I’ve been a bit stressed out and just a smidge busy. I am looking forward to reviving my ailing social life and adding some material to this blog. However, it has also been one of the most rewarding semesters. I’ve learned and accomplished a lot and I am grateful for the lessons I’ve learned. I have a lot I want to post regarding the new job and my current classroom shenanigans, but before I do that, I want to reflect on my graduate classes.

Like I said, I took three classes this semester for the first time: a Learning, Design, and Technology Seminar, a Professional Seminar, and a class on Educational Uses of Digital Storytelling. Today’s post will focus on the LDT seminar. Continue reading