Learning to network

Networking is not my forte. AT. ALL. I go to professional development sessions or conferences on the district and national level and I get so wrapped up in my own head, thinking about how I will take this back to my students or school and I forget to talk to the people around me.

And in this way, teaching can be lonely.

But! I’ve recently gotten more involved in Twitter, especially after all of the time I freed up by giving up Facebook. This was my level of social networking proficiency, a few weeks ago:

And through Twitter I’m moving past this and instead learning to network productively and share thoughts about instructional practices or texts on a daily basis, instead of at the infrequent PD or conference. And tonight I engaged in my first #NCTEchat, about the Teacher as Writer, which was really my first Twitter chat … ever! It was exciting! (Here’s the archive, in case you missed it.) I honestly could have sat all night, communicating with educators across the world (including Mexico!), but my dogs were restless and needed a run to the dog park and the Hubbs needs help drafting a music review for his music appreciation class. Talk about writing! I love writing with my husband for his various classes. This is my favorite way to learn more about the way he thinks and to practice my questioning methods with my student writers (instead of just telling them how I would phrase things).

Before I had to tear myself away from the chat, I scribbled some highlights in my blog journal, that I mentioned here:

And here’s what that journal looks like, along with my messy work desk:


And now I’ll make sense of those highlights:

  1. Writing with students: Writing with students is essential. Sadly, I did not do enough of this last year. I debriefed a lot about their writing, and they wrote together, but only a few times did I engage in writing with my students. This, I will change. There were some great suggestions as to how to do this: revising some of my written work on the overhead with them, using Google Docs to model writing as they write, using Google Docs to write and edit with them, or using Edmodo as a tool for writing collaboration with and among students. I vow to use a little bit of all of these ideas!
  2. Mentor texts: Using mentor texts to teach writing. At one point, I asked about using graphic organizers to teach writing. The resounding response seemed to be that graphic organizers should only be used early in the writing process/learning to write a new genre. I definitely don’t sit down and use graphic organizers when I sit down to write a blog or an article for publication. But how do we find these mentor texts? I say, in EVERYTHING! In grad school, one of my favorite professors brought to class Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit. In is, she describes her methods for collecting inspiration for dance. I don’t use this book as a mentor text in my classroom but instead as a framework for collecting my own inspiration.
  3. Sharing resources: Several teachers shared blogs but from clicking through several of them, I already have one favorite (which I already follow) Two Writing Teachers. I love, love, love Two Writing Teachers. I love the look/feel of their blog (which Catherine and I are trying to manage on our shared blog Not So Common) and their content. The topics are so diverse! And again, I found this resource weeks ago through Twitter and it has inspired many changes to my AP Literature curriculum. MANY CHANGES.

I feel invigorated, inspired and most of all, a part of community among English teachers. Now … how can we organize (or I can find an already existing) chat about Dual Language at the secondary level. What would the hashtag be? #DLHSchat (Dual Language High School chat)? But that looks like Schat. Which, when pronounced phonetically is slightly inappropriate!

In what ways do you network with other educators? Or what are your favorite Twitter chats?


If Tolkien says teaching is “depressing” …

After reading an article posted by a colleague from another content area, deriding the work high school English teachers do to teach writing and prompting me to give up Facebook, I found a pretty little hole in the ground.

In a letter to a friend, which was recently discovered, JRR Tolkien describes teaching as “exhausting and depressing.”

In fact, he was inspired by terrible student papers to write The Hobbit. In another letter to WH Auden, he explains that as he graded a set of student essays,

On the blank leaf I scrawled: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ I did not and do not know why.

How depressing, is right. Student writing as a hole in the ground?

I’ve been there before, a place in which writing teachers ask themselves, “Have you listened to anything I’ve said?”

And this is the question that I’ve been asking myself constantly: how can I ensure students are listening? But moreover, how can I ensure students see the benefit of what I’m saying and work hard to practice these skills in their writing?

How, indeed.

Here are three basic ways I hope to elevate my students’ writing this year:

  1. incorporating figurative language to describe concepts in their essays
  2. elevating the level of vocabulary in their writing
  3. varying sentence and paragraph structure (as to avoid this opening sentence: “In JRR Tolkien’s novel …”

Here are three new ways I might tackle these issues:

  1. Use bell ringers and quick writes to practice using figurative language, by giving them a metaphor triangle including only two sides: maybe the characteristics of a character, setting, action, etc. in what we have read, and the author’s meaning, requiring the student to fill in the characteristics of something to be compared, in order to achieve that meaning.
  2. Create a word wall with “Words we Love” and ask students to add their new words to the wall, as they encounter them (I haven’t quite decided another way to hold students accountable without stripping the joy of learning and experimenting with new words).
  3. Use bell ringers to revise previous student essays. I kept several student essays from last year, which I intend to use as opportunities to discuss what writers do well and what they should improve upon, in a non-threatening way before asking students to share their own writing.

Why I gave up Facebook

One day, it all became too much.

I think on the continuum of Facebook users, I’m closer to the “I-only-look-at-Facebook-when-I-need-toilet-reading,” instead of the “This-is-what-I-ate-for-breakfast” user.

But one day, even my infrequent Facebook use became too much.

All I saw on my news feed were stories about how the state of education is irreparable, infighting among educators who are split along party lines, and all-around complaining. I’m sure I contributed my fair share to these negative voices.

In fact, only months earlier I spoke to my educator-mentor, a former professor, who asked me if I even liked teaching, after she saw my posts for the past year or so. I was absolutely floored. I defended myself by explaining that I loved my students but I hated the system. But then I realized that maybe those two things became inextricable, as I sometimes struggled to maintain a positive attitude in my classroom because of my involvement and worry over issues in the system.

But after a colleague from a different content area posted an article which ridiculed the work high school English teachers do, which was written by a young college professor, I decided enough was enough. My feelings were hurt and I already struggle with confidence in my teaching (and in all things, really). And I decided enough is enough. I knew that if I didn’t quit Facebook, at least for the summer, that I may not make it back to school in May. I knew that I needed a way to energize myself, instead of weighing myself down.

So on June 20th, I quit Facebook. Which, of course, I announced on Facebook. And then after a couple weeks hiatus, I checked to see what people had to say about my announcement. But I’ve only been on a total of three times since then. And my life is all the better for it. I deleted the app from my phone and now I find myself using my phone much less.

I’m now engaged in much more productive and inspiring networking with teachers around the world, on Twitter.  I find myself cataloging new things to try in my class next year and asking more questions.

Twitter is inspiring me to get back to what I love most about teaching, asking questions. And maybe that’s why I felt so burdened by the system. I felt like my questions about teaching and student growth no longer mattered, in a system that prizes one-dimensional test data. And now that I’ve chosen to silence voices via Facebook, those things don’t matter as much anymore. And I feel myself getting excited about returning to school again.

But as a leader in my school, I feel as if I am walking a fine line. I still need to be informed about these issues, in order to properly educate the teachers in my department, but I don’t want to become entrenched in the negativity anymore.

How can we, as teacher-leaders, walk this line without falling?

Twitter, #ASCA14, and #FLOTUS

The ASCA conference was amazing! In my short time there (only 30 total hours spent traveling, in Florida, and the conference), I was entirely inspired!

I saw school counselors moved to tears as the First Lady #FLOTUS addressed us all in the morning’s general session. I saw my good friend and colleague, Catherine Allen in an entirely new setting, among her school counselor peers. I saw school counselors connect with one another via Twitter and Tweet Ups. I heard all of the amazing ways that school counselors make a difference daily. All of this made me entirely proud, not only of my friend, but also to work with this community of educators.

My favorite take-away from the weekend is the importance of collaboration. Of course, I was there to present with Catherine about the collaboration that we do but it’s more than that. I saw school counselors working together from across the country, world, and within schools. Catherine and I made relationships with people we wouldn’t have otherwise met. I follow twice as many people on Twitter than before and I’ve started searching out others to follow in my own discipline, to discuss/share with, and to hopefully collaborate with.

Sometimes teaching can be extremely isolating, especially in a school environment in which teachers are derisive of one another, and I find that Twitter is that safe place to reach out and explore. I’m beginning to think of how to incorporate Twitter in our department this year, as a networking tool.

Especially since I’ve given up Facebook.

Getting Grittier

Recently, I’ve heard and read a lot of discussion about “Grit.” How to teach it, grit as a predictor of academic and personal success, and that grit just still isn’t enough.

And while I largely agree with Angela Lee Duckworth’s research, I still see how it might be shortsighted.


I agree that we need to teach grit but maybe not to all students.  Maybe only to those who haven’t needed grit to survive.

I have often heard the phrase “Learned Helplessness,” as it seems to plague this generation of students.  And I remember a couple of years ago, my Professional Learning Community often discussed how students must learn to persevere through texts, questions, and problems they cannot easily understand or answer.  Instead, my colleagues suggested that they look to teachers to give them the answer, to tell them what it means.  And this behavior, they argued, applied to all students.

In this way, I agree with Duckworth. Students must have grit to persevere.  But coming from an educational background that pushed Critical Race Theory, as an important component of teacher education, I cannot wholly agree with what she suggests.

Grit will get you far.  But perhaps only so far, in a system that calls for standardization and does not account for the socio-cultural background of students.  Or of students with special needs.

In my state, there are essentially two different requirements for graduation at this point.  Graduating requires that students persevere through  coursework, 25 required graduation credits in core and elective classes (last I checked) and take an AP, online, dual enrollment class at a local college, or distance learning course at our Continuing Education campus.  This also precludes many students from fulfilling this graduation requirement: students with limited or no access to the internet, students who do not have a car or whose family does not have a single car between them, students must work during the day to support themselves or their families, and the list seems to go on and on.

However, it’s easy to say that if these kids had “grit” they would be successful in school.  They would pass the required classes and graduate.

I argue that these kids already HAVE grit!  They already “live grittily,” as  EdWeekly suggests we should teach our students in this article.  They show up at school, hungry or not, maybe even after sleeping under an overpass that night.

And regardless of the students’ circumstances, the second graduation requirement, which is seemingly more insidious, is being hotly debated in the NM Legislature session, as we speak.  And that is the gauntlet of standardized tests that students must pass before graduating. They must take and pass the Standards Based Assessment in Math, Reading, and Science.  They must also pass an End of Course Exam in Social Studies and Writing.  There now exists an alternate demonstration of competency, which I can barely follow.  And it looks something like this:


It’s just insane, the use of these one-shot exams to determine competency. Although, according to that complex matrix, in some subjects, students can simply “exhaust” all attempts to take the test and then can use their passing grades in the content course to fulfill the testing requirements.


I’m scratching my head too.  And this is exactly my point.  Graduation is limited to passing a set of tests that are culturally and linguistically biased against students of color, students learning English as a second language, and students with developmental and cognitive disabilities.  How can “grit” help them pass.  Help them to be the first in their families to graduate.

This is where I believe “grit” will only get you so far, in a system seemingly stacked against certain students.

And this is the truth.  And the kids get it.  This, I think, is why some kids play the system, asking for answers instead of working for them.  They don’t see themselves in the system.  And some students believe that no amount of “grit” will get them there.

The option to opt-out, until it happens to you.

After months of waiting to be heard, the New Mexico legislature is back in session and (we) teachers are ready to exercise our voices!

There are many topics up for debate in this session, some of which were discussed in a recent NY Times article, and least of all include the confirmation of our Secretary of Education Designate (Hanna Skandera), increased “under the line” spending, and merit pay for teachers.

It’s a scary time to be an educator in New Mexico.

But the suggested bill that I am most interested in is the opt-out bill: SB34, proposed by Senator Keller.

For the first time this year, 50% of teacher evaluations in my district are determined by student standardized test scores, according to the Value Added Model.

My eye literally started twitching as I typed that phrase: Value Added Model.

The VAM has been hotly debated across the country, which Diane Ravitch has dubbed the “Value Added Nonsense,”  as early as September of 2012!

I’ll explain, using my personal experience.  The majority of the classes I teach are AP Literature and Composition and each year I teach a section or two of Regular English 11.  I have some of the most amazing and brilliant students in these classes.  (I know all teachers say this BUT I really mean it!)

The state VAM formula requires that we only use scores from the classes in which we teach 90% of our students.  Great for me! Right?  Those are the high-performing AP students.


50% of my evaluation will be determined by their growth on our (newly developed and un-vetted) English 12 End of Course exam—which, by the way, means absolutely nothing to them for graduation.  They must show growth from the previous year’s (newly developed and un-vetted) English 11 End of Course exam—which was required for graduation.

Here’s the catch.  What if these kids did their absolute best on last year’s exam?  Which I know they did, as it was required for graduation!  And now how are they supposed to show growth from last year to this year?

Beats me.

Furthermore, the state has made it clear that while students may use their AP scores (of a 3 or better) to fulfill the standardized testing requirement for their graduation, I may not use their test data as part of my VAM score.

I’m still waiting for someone to explain that to me.

And when my colleagues and I attended a town hall meeting last November, we asked for clarification as to what would happen if all of our students opted out of the test, at our urging.  And our Secretary of Education Designate’s response was that it would be “unethical.”


To suggest that students opt out of tests that are administered solely for my supposed benefit—to prove my worth as an educator.

 To prove that I have ADDED VALUE to their education.  

It makes me absolutely sick.

And now for the KO punch.  A student told me that he was opting out of the English 12 EOC in my class, a decision with which I whole-heartedly agree.  As he told me this, a colleague standing nearby piped up proudly, “That’s thanks to me!”  She had already explained to him how to opt-out of testing this year, as he had already fulfilled the  graduation testing requirements (which have quadrupled in the last two years).

And here’s the conflict that I cannot reconcile.  How can I urge my students to opt out (as I so badly want to) when I need their data to prove my “worth” as an educator?

And my eye is twitching again.

But I don’t think there is an easy answer, other than maybe to go to the doctor to have my eye looked at and to pray the rosary that the NM legislators gets their heads on straight and give the boot to Skandera. Oh, and to exercise my teacher voice!

So I Googled “Instagram for Educators”

I was considering adding an Instagram to my new social network repertoire, as Catherine reported having just downloaded it when I showed up at her house for our last work session.

So I Googled “Instagram for Educators” and all I saw were blog entries about how to use instagram in the classroom.  Like this oneAnd this one.

But what happens at a low-income, public high school, such as mine, where we have families who can barely keep one phone in the family, let alone a smart phone for every child.

This is extremely disconcerting and I am reminded how so many of New Mexico’s brightest students will be left behind as technology, to varying degrees, becomes an integral part of our society.

In fact, in Gallup, NM (where I went to middle school) there are students who don’t have internet access at all.  Not because they simply can’t afford it (probably that too) but because it simply isn’t available to them!  It is well documented that much of the Native American the reservations are without internet access and to require students to drive miles of unpaved roads to the nearest library is just ridiculous.

And then what of my original search?

I changed my search phrase a little, to include “Educators Using Instagram to Network” and I did find this interesting article about how Universities are using Instagram.

The State Department of Ed even has an Instagram.

Then I felt inspired.  Maybe we can use Instagram to promote nostalgia, as the article suggests.  Maybe all we need in this overgrown (but by no means overblown) debate about education, as a little reminder of what it was like all those years ago to be in school. A reminder that who we serve is students, not what we serve is corporations and special interests.

Or maybe these images can even by used as a wake up call about what it is like to be in school today. Limited access to text books or novels (especially in Spanish), gloomy classrooms with no windows, libraries with no librarian, the list goes on and on.

Things have certainly changed (especially access to technology and the internet) but there is a feeling that remains true in high school.  I feel it every day when I’m around squirrely teenagers trying to find their way in the world.  I see it in my seniors who are on the cusp of something they can only imagine. And I remember being there myself, not so long ago.

But can this feeling be captured on Instagram?