3 Ways to Make This Year Your Best Teaching Yet

 I know it's only July, but I can't help it, I'm excited about the new school year.  Not the busyness, the exhaustion, or the hectic schedule of having three kids and a full time job. It's the possibilities that come with a new school year that excite me (and maybe new school supplies, but mostly the possibilities).  If I were going back to school next month to do the same thing in the same way all over again (for the 23rd time), I would not be excited.  But that's not how I do it.  Not once in my 22 years of teaching have I planned my instruction or my routines in just the same way.  Every year I want to improve, refine, or completely change structures that did not work.  Every year my teaching needs to be relevant and timely, and so it must grow.

As I thought about where my energy comes from, three things came to mind.  Try these and you just might make the upcoming school year your best one yet:

1.  Go to a Conference...or, Better Yet, Present at a Conference!

I just got home today from the ILA (International Literacy Association) Conference in Orlando.  I went because I submitted a proposal for a session on how to engage high school readers, and it got accepted.  It was my first time presenting at a national conference and it was amazing (or cool beans with awesome sauce on top, as the first keynote said)!  Conferences are so important because they pump us full of energy and ideas.  At this conference, not only did I attend invigorating sessions with speakers like Precious Symonette (Florida's teacher of the year); Peter Johnston (author of Choice Words and Opening Minds); and Shawna Coppola (author of Renew! Become a Better - and More Authentic - Writing Teacher), but I got to chat with authors like  Kwame Alexander.  The learning in each session pushed me to think about aspects of my own classroom and small (or sometimes large) changes I can make to help my students be more engaged and become stronger readers and writers.

Outside the sessions I also had rich conversations.  My friend Anna, who teaches at a middle school in my districtalso came to the conference.  She and I processed what we learned in sessions, tweeted our learning, and talked about ideas we can bring back to our classrooms.  Because Anna is a Heinemann fellow, I was lucky enough to meet and have conversations with other educators from across the country.  I met Anna's friend, Tiana Silvas, a Heinemann fellow from New York City, and Courtney Kinney, founding director of The Journey Project (http://thejourneyproject.us/), who I follow on Twitter.  I also met Kara Pranikoff, who's just published her first book, Teaching Talk:  A Practical Guide to Fostering Student Thinking and Conversation.  While I was at first just in awe of meeting these women, we were soon engaged in conversations about teaching that transcended our grade levels or geographic locations.  We talked about bigger issues like student choice, growing our students' independence, and how to create inclusive classrooms where everyone feels valued.  When you feel connected and part of a group of people who are all working on a common goal, it is inspiring, energizing and it makes teaching bigger than just my classroom in my school. 

2.  Join Twitter
When you feel isolated in your classroom and the ideas that you were so excited about at that conference aren't going quite as planned, it's easy to give up, thinking maybe the ideas just don't work with these kids, or maybe the ideas just weren't right for your teaching style.  That's where Twitter comes in.  By following teachers, authors, literacy coaches, writers, and other people in education, you are surrounded by a support system. You can read individual tweets that others post, follow threads of ideas by reading around a hashtag.  You can also follow or join in a Twitter Chat led by an organization like NCTE (#NCTEchat) or by an author, like Joy Kerr's #ShiftThis chat .  Since Twitter is available every day, there is no shortage of motivation, inspiration, or even debates and causes to follow. 

3.  Read YA Literature
When you get to know and understand your students as individual human beings, you care more about them and your classroom becomes a place you want to be.  When you know students' stories, their behavior makes sense.  Reading YA literature during the summer (and all year long) is a great way to put ourselves into the shoes of the students we teach.  

I think about Eleanor and Park, and how I felt when Eleanor left her backpack at home, as the moment I realized how powerful reading YA lit is for teachers.  But what about why Joseph walked to school in Gary Schmidt's Orbiting Jupiter, or why Daniel got in a fight in Nicola Yoon's The Sun Is Also a Star?  What about how Starr negotiates two different worlds like in Angie Thomas' The Hate U Give, or how Jade is treated by the sales woman in Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson?  When I sink into the lives of these characters, I realize how much could be happening in the lives of my own students.  What is the impact of living with your grandmother because your mother is in jail? What are the effects of not knowing where you're sleeping each night? Books remind us that there are things kids will never tell us.  It's not that we have to know every detail of our students' lives; we just have to be open to the possibility that something more than laziness, disrespect, or just plain "I don't want to" is driving our kids' behavior.  It helps us choose to be kind  again and again, as we realize that all of us are carrying burdens we're not ready to share with the world . 

4.  Write a Blog!
I know, I said 3, but #4 is a bonus!  I'm serious about this - YOU should write a blog.  You don't have to write it for anyone but yourself.  It's a great place to reflect on your ideas, to live as a writer on a regular basis, and to see what you're thinking about and what you'd like to learn more about. It doesn't have to be fancy or stressful - just think of it like a journal online that maybe a couple other people read. If it helps someone else, great! But remember, the real benefit of blogging is for the writer. 

There is nothing that helps you untangle the thoughts in your head, to see them objectively, and then to take action, like the act of writing.  A teacher I worked with when I taught middle school (who was an amazing writing teacher and still teaches me things today) had a quote (supposedly said by E.M. Forster - you can read the story about discovery writing here - clearly my belief!) on his white board that I read as I walked by his open classroom.  "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" it challenged. Blogging, like journals, is a way to figure life out, and in teaching, there is a lot to figure out.

Did I mention Kwame Alexander?!  Ah...
I'd love to hear from you, readers!  How do you pump yourself up, reflect on what worked and what didn't, and re-invigorate yourself for the new school year?  Leave a comment below and help us all to grow.


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