Reflecting on EduCon

On Sunday evening I put my feet up and sat, vegetative, on my bed for a long time before mobilizing to get on the outside of a cheeseburger at Rembrandt's.

Earned that.

I was on the other side of EduCon 2.8, and it was a terrific success.

This year I co-chaired the conference held in our little school, where SLA hosted over 500 visitors from all over who wanted to share in the teaching and learning with us.

It's pretty dang cool. Classroom doors are open and everyone is excited to talk about how we do what we do. Like-minded educators are reinvigorated and sharing ideas and inspired to continue to create and grow and effect change. Throughout the weekend sessions take place in the form of conversations, and yet again I walked away from all of them ready to grapple with the biggest ideas of this gig.

The conversation that struck the most chords with me this weekend was led by Philadelphia English teacher Cait Miner about using creative writing to foster a culture of care in the classroom. We talked about how creativity and skill-building exist in a false dichotomy and are not actually mutually exclusive at all. I knew that, somewhere in my brain, and needed to have it reinforced. Those ideas are still marinating this week. They inform so much of what I strive for in the classroom.

My very favorite thing about EduCon: students.

On Friday, I saw my 9th graders speak about their learning with adults and complete strangers. With total enthusiasm, they shared their projects, explained their classes, and invited everyone into their community.

The conference is almost entirely run by students; they're everywhere throughout the weekend. From the EduConcierge fielding tweets, to the film crew holding down the livestream, to the student co-chairs who honestly organized and oversaw the entire conference and a staff of their own, to the Coffee Czar who made sure every attendee was well-fueled and happy ... they run a tight ship.

It's the most awesome example of what young people can do when given a voice and a stake.

I led a conversation (though if we're being honest, the students definitely led it) about the Student Assistant Teaching Program at our school. I mostly sat back as 12th graders shared what they love about the program, how invested they are not only in their own learning, but in the experiences of the younger students they work with, and how much they value the growth of this community.

I didn't get to attend the session about cultivating student voice, but was delighted to discover via Twitter that one of my advisees had partnered with members of #EduColor and was down the hall, speaking about what matters most to her. That a conversation about cultivating student voice prominently featured -- you know -- student voice.

I've acted on multiple nap-portunities and remain wiped-out-tired, but I am still riding the positive vibes of the weekend. It's uplifting to be surrounded by so much care and joy for learning, and to be reminded of what we all love about this work. It's just what January needs.

Mark your calendars: EduCon X will take place January 27-29, 2017!

Approach the Abstract

One of my tangible goals for 2016 is to make a painting. I've never really painted before, yet I am finding myself quite attracted to a form I know so little about. I've been pinning some works that inspire me, and I'm so intrigued by the depth and nuance of pieces that might appear kind of simple at first glance.

Apparently I also like the color pink a lot more than I thought! Good to know.

Robert Roth

Sydney Licht

Michael Lyozin

Mark Rothko (duh)

Michelle Armas

Helen Frankenthaler

Heather Chontos

2015, just like that?

I realize I'm nearly a month late to the party where everyone reflected on 2015 and felt all of the feelings. I'm choosing to forgive myself for that.

The year was so, so full. 

In 2015 I felt the relief of having survived my first year at SLA, coupled with the excitement of knowing that I am thriving there. 

I saw the seasons change in Philadelphia and decided I love them all. 

I got back into running after an extended period of being decidedly not into it. I trained with my students and colleagues from the first mile to the finish line at 26.2, and it was worth every minute. 

I traveled to be with my favorite people on Earth and to celebrate these moments in our lives, from Miami to Palm Springs to Lake Tahoe, and many stops in between.

I officiated the wedding ceremony of one of my best friends, and realized how hard it is to put regular words to the most important relationships in our lives. 

We hosted so many friends and family members in our Littlehouse, and got to share with them our favorite things about life in our new city.

I celebrated my first wedding anniversary where favorite person and I made a list not unlike this one while doing our favorite things: brunch, bike rides, and thrift stores.

I learned a lot about taking better care of myself and being a better partner and a more positive presence. 

I continued to discern what matters and to chase those things with all I've got.

I'd call it a pretty good year.

- - - - - - - -

During a memoir-writing unit, I lead students through an activity where I ask them to think of "indelible moments" from their lives. They try to remember the moments that stand out to them -- the people, the faces, the feelings, the sounds, the images. They might be significant life episodes or trivial minutia, but the moments, for whatever reason, are indelible. They're the ones that are still in their brains.

First, I give them a lot of time to brainstorm lists of these memories. I ask them to just jot down the memory, in an incomplete sentence, or in a phrase that might make sense to only them. It might say "toaster on fire" or "Justin's smile" or "Christmas in St. Louis."

Some students inevitably have very long lists, and others very short ones.

They then read their lists to their partners, and from the feedback they receive writers choose which story to tell. They extrapolate the details and tell the story around that indelible moment. And sometimes, that story is the jumping-off point to their final memoir project.

It's a good one, that. Thanks, NWP :)

And so, I did it myself. Here is my list of Indelible Moments.

  • Whole 30 Day One
  • Palm Springs Flea Market
  • Kristin rides a bike
  • Mario Kart
  • The avocado tool
  • Baltimore tandemonium
  • Amtoo's lemons
  • Pinecone
  • Calvin and Brie blooper reel
  • Half-priced lobsters
  • Who knew: Reno is awesome
  • Mat cutter math
  • The PSC locker room

In a dream world I'd write out all of these stories. Maybe someday I will. Let's not rule anything out for 2016.

In My Brain // 10

This Thanksgiving has been a quiet one at home, spent tying up loose ends and getting caught up on work projects. Here are some of the things that have been in occupying my brain space lately:

Fargo // We don't watch a lot of TV, so we're pretty selective about what we get into. The writing, the acting, and the cinematography for Fargo are all incredible. Like proper English teachers, we watch an episode and then read the AV Club review afterward. We're finishing up the first season this weekend, and can't wait to start the second. 

On Pandering // Claire Vaye Watkins' essay really resonated with me. Maybe I'll finagle a way to bring it into a class discussion one of these days.

Limetown // I've convinced enough students and staff to join me on this podcast adventure. It's like the X-Files meets Serial.

Linda Holmes' Interview with Trevor Noah // The Daily Show continues to evolve, and I remain excited to be along for the ride. This interview is excellent.

Crying At Work When Work Is a Room Full Of Teenagers

I was this close to simply calling it in. I needed to stay at home and getting through some of the things, to make sure I was taking care of myself.

What I really needed was a mental health day.

Instead I did the thing where in the morning I told myself:

OKAY. It's happening. Just go.

I wore black pants and a black sweater and black shoes because that's the level of coordination my brain could summon. I wore a big necklace to pretend that I tried.

I dropped the coffee maker and spilled mushy wet grounds all over the floor. The crash awoke my husband, and I shouted up the stairs, "It's fine! I'm sorry! Go back to sleep!" Just this had me fighting back tears.

I moved throughout the first few hours at school, hoping nothing would trigger a meltdown today. And hoping nobody could tell that any. little. thing. might put me right on the other side.

I tried to make my eyes smile, like Tyra taught me.

It's a big whopping performance, a few times a day, this gig. The audience walks in and you're on. The whole time, regardless of the lesson. You're the teacher. You're the grown-up.

Days like this one are rare for me, thankfully.
But still. I'm right on the edge of mental and emotional chaos at all moments. Something trivial will happen and boom, it'll be over.

For me it was, "What are we doing today?"

Tears. I just couldn't.

In front of the tough-kid 12th graders, who most days let me know: Ummyeahwe'regoodthanks, and now they all looked me while I stood there and lost it a little bit.

I vented-slash-apologized. I told them I was embarrassed but that I knew this was coming today. That I'm totally okay, big-picture-wise, I'm just wiped-out and a large series of small failures have culminated in this moment. This tiny pressure-explosion is, I'm sorry, happening now.

I owned it. I had to.
I said to them, I'd way rather reach this point in the privacy of my own bathroom, but hey. I guess our class is called Being Human, and some days, this is what that looks like.

Not optimal.

But. It's okay to not be okay.

Our health teacher shared that wisdom with me once, and it stuck.
It's okay to not be okay. I'm glad she's around to tell that to our students, too.

I'm awkwardly standing there. What now?

And they own it, too.
They all said something like: Dude, we so get that.
And: Here, do you want this brownie?

Also: Your waterproof eyeliner is great.

I got their eyes and ears. And a hug.

And after a pause and a deep breath and a lingering uncertainty.
One student said, I want to talk about this passage on page 147. At which point everyone opened up their books and discussed and discussed and forgave my minimal input.

And later, I saw multiple emails saying, Seriously, I feel like that basically every day.
And before lunch, some flowers:

And this pumpkin with my face drawn on it:

Pretty accurate.

It says a lot about a community when your most vulnerable self is met with support.
When at your worst, you feel totally safe.
When a room full of teenagers is the least intimidating space.

When everyone cares about, yes, but also cares for, one another.

When a day like this leaves me with gratitude.
Above all the other feelings.

The Feedback Loop

Schools are closed on Veterans' Day. Still, I set an alarm, packed my bag, and rode my bike across town to meet a few awesome colleagues. It's the end of the first quarter, and a massive grading session was in order.

Armed with an almond croissant and the wifi password, I opened my laptop to a single window with only the necessary tabs. I spent a few (too many -- ironic) minutes selecting an appropriate focus/concentration/study Spotify playlist. I kept my phone mostly away. I buckled all the way down.

It wasn't long before I opened a few more tabs.

The original assignment description.
The rubric.
The unit plan.

But I wasn't distracted. It's just that I thought of so many new things as I read their work.
Hmm, this part of the instructions needs tweaking.
Yikes, that needs to be added to the rubric.
Let me add that to the unit notes.
Oh hey, these students executed this thing better than I even intended. I'll make that part of the project description in the first place.

The grading. The reflections. The adjustments. The planning.
It happens all at once because it has to.

It's a feedback loop. The output feeds the input feeds the output feeds everything.

I assign a Reflection for major assignments.
For this project, I asked students about their outcomes, their process, what worked, what they would do differently, how they feel about all of the things.

I also asked this question:

This is my first time teaching [this] unit and assigning [this] project. What advice do you have for me if I decide to teach it again? (I promise I do not take this personally, and truly value your opinions.)

And I do.
Their experience with this thing I made for them. It matters a lot to me.

The pair who had the best time, loves their project, and basically wants to do it again?  I'm overjoyed.
A terrific student who had a miserable time and suggests I never assign this again? Kills me.

The Reflection is about agency.
In writing it, students take ownership of the things they controlled.
How they worked. What they made. What happened.

And then. When asked.
Agency becomes affecting change for the things they could not control.
What I assigned. What the expectations were.

And it feeds back.

Reading their Reflections gives me agency, too.
In asking students how things could be done differently to improve their learning experience, I am tasking myself with taking that advice.
I am believing that their input is the most valuable feedback I can receive.

The learning is, after all, theirs.

I'm also learning how to be more attuned to indirect feedback.
When students aren't asked. Or don't tell.

When parts of an assignment are misunderstood, and the outcome is convoluted: I should have cleared things up.
When quiz grades are low but class discussions are informed and engaging: something's wrong with the questions I'm asking.
When the connections I thought were obvious are mostly absent: I should have been more explicit.

Teaching is a special gig. You get as many do-overs as you want.

And the learning is yours, too.

Photos from Chapterhouse Cafe, a wonderful coffee shop and grading space