Instructional Innovations

MCHS Newsletter: Week of January 11

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New Year, New Newsletter

To those of you who read my wonky rants weekly, thank you. As we discussed during last Monday's professional development, writing is tough and it's personal--but it's incredibly worthwhile, not only for our students but for us as well. I appreciate the ability to share my thoughts on pedagogy with you, but let's be honest, you probably tire from reading only my writing week after week. That's why I plan on featuring your voices alongside mine in the second semester's editions.

We work with some incredibly smart and talented people. I hope you enjoy reading articles written by some of your peers and that you might find yourself moved to share your own writing here in the next few months. The educational conversation should not be shared by a sole voice, the power comes in the chorus as we stand together.

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Gifting Agency to Our Students

By Angela Dean, 9th ELA/Reading Support Teacher

The lens through which I approach my classroom and my students is the lens of social justice. Before your mind goes to an image of a drum circle and people singing kumbaya, hear me out on this. I want for my students to find voice and agency through the various texts we explore through the year. I want them to delve into inquiry projects that open not only our eyes, but their own. I want them to bring forward the things that matter to them and co-construct a deeper understanding through dialogue-dialogue with each other, with the texts, within themselves. It is intensive work. We do not always walk away happy and fulfilled. We more often than not walk away with more questions than answers.

Adolescents are in that weird wobbly place of almost being adults and still being kids. As all of you know, many of our students face way more adult situations than they should. Yet, they don’t have a voice. They don’t have agency. The question I pose for myself and to each of you is: could we provide them with that space in our classrooms?

Teaching through a social justice lens still takes place within the curriculum and we meet standards. So what does that look like?

For me, it started with a group of 40 technical prep 10th graders who most would label “at-risk” and who were marginalized in the school community. Their history of presenting as challenging students because of their apathy and behavior issues placed them on the outside of the school community. Accustomed to skill and drill, spending time in the AP’s office for discipline, and keeping their heads down in classrooms, they taught me what it meant to build a space for voice and agency. It wasn’t until years later that I came across a quote that validated the work I did with this particular group of students. Daniels writes, “students feel motivated when: they feel some sense of autonomy or control, they feel connected to the class and the school, and they feel as if they possess the skills necessary to meet the challenges of school" (Daniels, 2010, p. 25).

It took some work on all our parts to build the space that would make such a thing possible. Social justice teacher and student advocate Linda Christensen writes that, “Building community begins when students get inside the lives of others in history, literature, or down the hallway, but students also learn by exploring their own lives and coming to terms with people they are 'doing time' with in the classroom..." (Christensen 2000). For us, it meant writing alongside each other, sharing our pieces in open mics on Fridays in the classroom, and journaling about what mattered most to us in response to reading Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes. Christensen quotes the Kenyan poet Micere Mugo, “'Writing can be a lifeline, especially when your existence has been denied, especially when you have been left on the margins, especially when your life and process of growth have been subjected to attempts at strangulation.' Many of our students have been silenced in school, their stories denied or left unheard. Their histories have been marginalized to make room for 'important' people, their interests and worries passed over so we can teach Oregon history or The Scarlet Letter" (Christensen, 2000, 6-7). When the door opened for them to write about what mattered to them and the text we read reflected the very things they valued, feared, and contemplated, they rose to the challenge. Here is one student’s poem about Katrina:

Where I’m From

This poem is for all those Katrina victims who lost their childhood:

I felt the symptoms and I never forget the day

When the storm came in and took my whole hometown away

Everybody was so broken-hearted

Because there was no longer a place where everyone once started

The place that started all four of the Carters

All your hopes and dreams carried away by the water

All my people start dying

No sight of hope and everyone stops trying

Tears on their face when they look up to the sky

got down on their knees screaming out to God, “Why?”

Had the whole city standing right next to me

After the storm all of us became refugees

I’m the next hope that takes the pain away

When they look at my face, I swear they see a new day

And another student’s response to labels she’s faced:

So I Must be Labeled

I have a lot of guy friends,

So I must be a whore.

I wear makeup,

So I must be insecure.

I say what’s on my mind,

So I must be a snob.

I laugh and smile,

So my life must be perfect.

I like staying home on a Friday night sometimes,

So I must not have a life.

I make a lot of mistakes,

So I must be stupid.

I’m blonde,

So I must be dumb.

I’m a teenager,

So I must be misunderstood.

I’m human, so I must be labeled.

Returning to Christensen, students need:

  • to see themselves in the [curriculum]

  • to be able to tell their stories and personal experiences in various ways (poetry, drama, essay, etc)

  • to be pushed not only to hear from "other" but to be exposed to lives they might not be exposed to otherwise and see themselves

  • to be able to act on the power of their stories-momentum has built around telling

One of the other powerful things that this group of 40 marginalized students showed me was the power of taking their stories and poetry to a larger audience. We did open mic poetry in our classroom on Fridays, but there was a need to share with more people. We invited parents, family, and a few classes to join us in the media center for a reading of our poems. The following year, this grew to a need to help others. The earthquake hit Haiti and students wanted to act. We decided to use the theater and have an open mic poetry night to raise money. This idea came from students who were on the outside of the school community. Once allowed a space to have voice and to tell their stories, they saw that they could use their voices to make change in their world. In the years that followed, we would use different causes for the focus of the school-wide open mic night.

I realize that literature lends itself to this type of exploration and many of you are thinking about the curriculum and standards you have to cover. We know that we have to teach the standards and we must teach the curriculum, but there are opportunities to allow for students to use their voice and find agency within the curriculum and the standards. How can we look for those opportunities rather than see the curriculum in terms of limitations or finite boundaries that keep our classrooms too narrow? How can we take the curriculum and what we can supplement it with to open a space for students to insert their voices and their stories?

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ACE Wins All: Incorporating It Into Your Classroom

As we work to integrate ACE into all of our classrooms, I will be sharing some resources with you weekly to help with implementation. Don't hesitate to email me with questions; I would love to help you out.

Check out ACES Writing Strategy website (we dropped the S in our version) and find exemplars using ACE along with other ideas for helping our students become better writers.

Caught in the Act...

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This week's "Caught in the Act" teacher is Ms. Va'Quasha Dean, a first year Geometry and Geometry Support teacher here at MCHS. Ms. Dean hails from Elberton where she worked as a papapro for 4 years. She also spent time helping kids at Mountain Ed in Bowman before she joined our staff. She has a vivacious seven-year-old, Mya, who attends 2nd grade at Danielsville Elementary.

One of the characteristics I love most about Va'Quasha is her energy; she constantly remains upbeat and positive while working on ways to help her students understand Geometry. She teaches two classes of Support where she tries to help struggling Geometry students master the curriculum. She's doing a great job--the proof is in the achievement of our Geometry students: many of them are passing Geometry and finding success in the math classroom (for the first time for some of them).

Va'Quasha used a tic-tac-toe menu last week to help her Support students review circles (content they had learned before the break). Kids had to work problems to make a tic-tac-toe twice. This lesson helped to differentiate the content for students and gave students some choice in their learning. Take a look at her tic-tac-toe game board below.

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Hip Happenings Around MCHS

Another new feature I'd like to include in weekly publications is a "What's Happening Around MCHS" article. Please send me any awesome happenings in your classroom or in the classrooms around you--I'm not always hip to the groove in regards to all that is going on.

Christmas Book Exchange

Many of you volunteered to purchase a book for one of the students in Mrs. Dean's Read 180 classes. Because of your generosity (and the generosity of others outside of our school), each student received at least two books to take home and read over the break. Each student requested titles and will keep the books they received. Literacy lives at MCHS!

The Algebra Experience

The ninth grade Algebra teachers put their heads together to develop an intervention reaching some of our students who had put themselves in a position where they would not receive credit for Algebra--it had become statistically impossible. They selected 24 students to place in a class first period which utilizes GradPoint and teachers to help students master algebraic standards. Students work individually on GradPoint, are pulled into small groups for mini-lessons on areas of struggle, and are given individual attention from Ms. Kerr and her two student teachers: Ms. Warren and Ms. Guillard. This class is a testament to the mantra that it takes a village.... I wish I could take thousands of pictures of the smiles I saw last week and bottle up some of the enthusiasm in students who before felt hopeless but now are working hard (sometimes even at home). I hope that this becomes the small spark that lights the flame for some of them.

We've Been Invaded

MCHS is lucky to have a strong cohort of student teachers investing in our kids this semester. Some were with us last semester while some have just joined us for spring semester. I have this theory that student teachers often help us improve even more than we do them--the conversations about practice alone are often so rewarding. Take the time to say hi and make them feel at home. We're glad they're here.

Just For Fun...

You can thank Lari Scarborough for this video. I laughed until my cheeks hurt.
Adele - Hello Parody (Hella Cravings)

Melissa Conway, ISL

Want to nominate someone for the "Caught in the Act" teacher of the week? Email me. I'd love to hear from you!