Light a Candle in the Window

Teacher-friend, here is my New Year’s offering to you. I’ve got no long lists of self-care or resolutions or easy technology tricks. I just have one thing.
It’s a candle for your window.

By Adrin Fisher

Let me be honest: I’m getting a little tired of living through history. Pandemic teaching. Insurrection. Racism. COVID variants. A magical quick-change school map. The supreme elevation of opinion over truth. Fear and violence and doubling down on hate. 2021 is shaping up to be a lot.

To add insult to injury, just as back in the before-time, there are the losses that come with living on this circling planet. Just before Christmas, my high school art teacher, Russ Neptune, passed away. Mr. Neptune taught for close to forty years in a huge room with fifteen-foot windows, radiators on the brick walls, and big zinc sinks stained with years of paint splatter. My favorite memory of his class is how he would build an incredible hodgepodge structure out of found objects: old bicycles, rocking chairs, chandeliers, terra cotta pots and bricks, American flags and antique mirrors. He put it up on tables in the middle of the room, and we would sit all around it, scouting out sections for our still-life projects—line drawing, colored pencils, water colors.

But that’s not all we did. He taught us things I’d never heard of, like batik, linoleum printing, and etching zinc plates with acid. I paid tribute to artist Andrew Wyeth. I water-colored the doors of our local mansion, built by a coal baron when the Titanic was new. I mashed up my parents’ 1960s album covers. I drew my Converse sneakers. I took Mr. Neptune’s class for three years, and many years later, when I returned home, I became his colleague.

When he passed in the plague time, his family asked that former students post pictures of their artwork with the tag #UncleRuss. It took me almost fifteen minutes to find my work. Fifteen minutes to locate a garbage bag full of art I made almost 30 years ago—after four moves across two states. Fifteen minutes.

Why have I carried my bag of art all these years? It’s because, like any great teacher, Mr. Neptune taught his art students more than techniques or terms. He taught us to trust our eye, to think outside the box, to experiment. He gave us freedom and autonomy and a chance at self-expression.

He made me feel like an ARTIST.

In past times, people would put a candle in their windows. Maybe it was a sign of good news. Maybe it was a beacon to a family member journeying home. Maybe it was a sign of a friendly welcome for a traveler. In all cases, it was a sign of hope. It reminds me of a song by Creedence Clearwater Revival (from one of my parents’ old albums): “But I won’t, won’t / Be losing my way, no, no / Long as I can see the light.”

So, teacher-friend, here is my New Year’s offering to you. I’ve got no lists of self-care ideas or teacher resolutions or easy technology tricks. I just have one thing.

It’s a candle for your window. Make it your goal to make your students feel like a—

Well, whatever it is you’re teaching this year.

I want my students to feel like WRITERS.

I want them to feel like READERS.

Maybe you want your students to feel like ATHELETES or MATHLETES or LINGUISTS or SINGERS.

I want them to feel welcomed and competent and confident. I want to point the direction and then set them free. I want them to find their voices and their motivation. I want to remind them to hope.

This is a hard time for an educator. It’s tough for students and parents, too.

Basically, it’s a challenging time to be a human.

But, in the words of Mikey in the 1985 film The Goonies, “This is our time.”

So, instead of giving up or hunkering down or shutting off, I challenge you to light the candles in your windows. Cultivate the good and open your heart to hope. Remember that your passion and your effort (especially in the plague year) are not lost. Remember that some day, even if it’s thirty years down the road, some former student will remember you fondly—for how you made them feel—for what you taught them they could be.

Take it seriously, because it’s a serious charge.

As my parting gift this month, I invite you to share in the hope offered by British indie-rocker Frank Turner in “The Next Storm.”

“So open the shutters, raise up the mast.
Rejoice, rebuild, the storm has passed!
Cast off the crutches, cut off the cast,
Rejoice, rebuild, the storm has passed,
Rejoice, rebuild, the storm has passed…

“I’m gonna step out, and face the next storm.”

Now, go light some candles in your windows. Courage, dear-heart!

Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. She wishes you light and hope on your journey. She’s a National Board Certified Teacher, an Arch Coal Teacher Achievement Award Winner, and a finalist for WV State Teacher of the Year. She teaches College English, AP Lit & Comp, and English 12 at Fairmont Senior High School. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin

Eyes on the Prize: Growing Student Writers

Correcting student writing got you down? Try some fresh assessment methods for focusing on growth in the high school English classroom.

By Adrin Fisher

Last spring, deep in the futile throes of correcting essays I had collected on March 13 (the day that must not be named), I promised myself that this year would be THE year: the time when I finally figure out a way to do this essay grading thing better. 2020 has been a lot. 2020 is being a lot.

However, in the interest of keeping promises to myself (despite the deep temptation to keep doing the things I can control in the same way I’ve done them for years), I am forging ahead.

Please forgive my naval-gazing. COVID has caused a convulsion in the school system—and for someone with twenty-three years in the classroom, a spouse in his twelfth year as a reading specialist, and two teenagers in school, a convulsion in the school system affects every aspect of life. So I will start by centering my beliefs about myself as a teacher:

  • A growth mindset is my greatest weapon.
  • Proactivity within my circle of influence is my work.
  • What I focus on grows.
  • My profession was and remains my choice.

Next, I will review my teaching-of-writing process. It goes something like this: think of an interesting essay assignment. I usually create my own because I naively believe it discourages cheating. I talk about how to pre-write and organize. I model. We write in class and I do “walking conferences.” Then we peer edit. Then I collect the final copies with all the work attached.  

And then I mark the essays. This takes time. The stack is thick. I procrastinate a bit first, because I know it will take me hours and hours. In fact, my usual rate is 20 minutes per essay. Multiply that out over 110 students, give or take. 

No wonder I hesitate.  

Two or three weeks later, I return essays. Next comes the possibility of bonus points for revising. To get a good revision grade, students have to address my comments and then make changes. Not hard, really. I give points based on the changes—did they develop? did they fix all the awkwardness?  

But, of course, 90% of my students don’t revise.  

Which means that the 20 minutes I spent pointing out issues in logic or grammar, correcting sentence structure, and asking pointed questions are wasted—waste multiplied by 90%.

Disheartening. 

And in a plague year, nearly enough to push me under.

I have specific ideas about myself as a teacher. I confess that the truths I listed above have not been always the truths of my teacher-self.  But now, this year, maybe I can change.  

Maybe I can take back my weekends (once this hybrid-distance double teaching job with no extra remuneration situation I’m in finally ends). Maybe I can adjust my thought patterns to accept that I am not the sole arbiter of teaching writing. Maybe I am not exclusively responsible for the students’ success. 

So, here are some strategies I’ve collected:

Intentional Marking:  Grade only for one thing. Pick something to correct: introduction, thesis, transitional phrases, organization, etc. Force your pink pen to only touch those things. Only.

Code It:  A few years ago, a younger teacher told me about a system of marking that involves coding rather than correcting. The student (and you) has the key to see what the errors are. This reminds me that one of my high school teachers put a checkmark at the end of a line but didn’t reveal the mistake.

Bank Comments: Create a comment bank for your online assignments. This is a feature in Google Classroom that lets you save comments and then choose the appropriate one from your own list. Likewise, you can use a Google add-on called Keep—it’s a post-it note tab—to hold comments you keep using. You can copy and paste from your notes

Whole Class Feedback: After reading (but not marking) essays, create a list of the big issues and write the class a “letter” that shows common mistakes and fixes, and then encourages students to dive into their own writing.

Just Don’t Grade It: Let students practice, and let yourself cheer them on. This approach is beloved by teachers such as Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, and Sarah Zerwin.

These strategies are fine and good, and maybe one or more of them will work for you. I still have a problem, though. It’s my weird obligation, a dire sense of “I’m not doing my job unless I…”

Fortunately, in my diligent search, I have come across something I think I can do. At the start of school, I joined a Facebook group: Teaching Teachers How to Teach Writing created by Kristian Kuhn. Despite my desire to sit on the couch and worry that evening, I joined a live PD session given by a Minnesota teacher named Mara J. Corey. (The hour-long session is still available in the archive of the group.) In the session, she explained how her goal is to make students do the heavy lifting of writing.

 

Instead of commenting on each paper (because, let’s be real, similar issues come up over and over again in a set of essays), she provides “Big Picture” pre-teaching. Corey anticipates the problem areas and addresses them during the writing period. For example, she might attack passive verbs or weak sentence construction. Or perhaps she’ll review the ICE heuristic (Introduce, Cite, Explain) for building in text evidence.  

Then—and here’s the really new-to-me-thing—she provides students with a Growth Focus. Either she or the student will choose ONE thing to work on, which is graded on a separate rubric. For Corey, this addresses the 90% wasted time issue by demanding that students improve: It’s not good enough to write an essay that scores 4s across the board; you must ALSO demonstrate that you’re getting better. In fact, she makes the Growth Focus rubric worth 50% of the total score. It’s a simple rubric, A through D, based on how the student sought instruction and applied it.

D

Not Proficient
C
Approaching Proficiency
B

Proficiency with Help
A
Independent Proficiency  
No improvement in the growth focus area 

Not yet proficient in the growth focus area
Improvement in the growth focus area

Not yet proficient in the growth focus area
Improvement in the growth focus area

Proficient in the growth focus area with one-on-one teacher help (relearning)
Improvement in the growth focus area on my own  

Mastery in the growth focus area on my own
Corey’s Growth Focus Rubric

I’m anticipating your question: If you have to now track each kid’s Growth Focus over time, and coach the students along the way with mini-lessons, small group sessions, or online materials until they master one GF and choose another, how is this going to save time?

Well, the answer, I think, is in the comments. She gears ALL feedback to the Growth Focus. She relies on her essay rubric to take care of the general feedback, without additional comment, so everything she notes or writes on the student paper is only and ever about the Growth Focus. Sounds sensible, right?

So, today, in the autumn of a plague year, I have decided to adopt Corey’s strategy. To that end, I have created tables listing each student along with a GF they’ve chosen and that GF grade.  

Now, have I really cut my correcting time?

No. I’m still figuring out how to be all things to all learners—some on paper, some in Google Docs, some on Kami with my weird little plug-in tablet and stylus. I’m still so tempted to type comments. I think it maybe is taking longer than ever, but I’m afraid to time myself. So, no, not yet.  

But, there is hope. I think this is something I can get behind. I think I can wean myself off marking each RO and asking for clarification each time. I think I can focus on one thing, one individualized thing. I think I can let myself slide into something that’s just as personal, yet less demanding on my time…once it’s set up. I think so. It’s worth a shot.

Eyes on the prize, teacher-friend. The prize is student growth WHILE you live your life. Let’s have our cake and eat it too.

Go forth, be well, and take courage, dear heart.

 Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. She wishes you light. She’s a National Board Certified Teacher, an Arch Coal Teacher Achievement Award Winner, and a finalist for WV State Teacher of the Year. She teaches College English, AP Lit & Comp, and English 12 at Fairmont Senior High School. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin

Seeing Near and Seeing Far: The Conundrum of Educators

By Adrin Fisher

This fall, I began a rite of passage to familiar to all adults over a certain age: I got bifocals.  Though I am by no means ready to retire to the rocking chair on the porch, I am no longer a spring chicken, technically speaking.  My doctor suggested progressive lenses, which are one benefit of living in a first-world country: they are hidden in plain sight. No one sees the line where your prescription changes, so no one knows that your glasses are magical, allowing you to see much more than nature permits.

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My first set, however, were less than magic.  Turns out, I move my head around a lot and expect my eyes to focus regardless of what section of the lens is in front.  During my four long, angry days with those lenses, my students’ faces rippled before my eyes, I got headaches from squinting, and my default move became shutting my eyes and moving my head in search of a sweet spot of sight. 

It occurs to me that my adjustment to those dual-prescription lenses is a perfect metaphor for teaching: as reflective practitioners, we must teach ourselves to switch seamlessly between the near and the far to find the right vantage point.

Up close, we see a student as an individual person, a human being with the potential for self-actualization. Maslow teaches that the development of our “true self” is the goal of life. We see students as joys or as conundrums—as collections of abilities and not-quite-abilities and school-appropriate (or not) behaviors. We know their allergies, their WISC-IV results, their reputations from classrooms past, their avoidance strategies. We know whether someone at home is checking their grades or helping them study. We know whether they can spell or which type of sentence error they’re most likely to make. We see them up close. And sometimes, familiarity breeds contempt—or at least, exhaustion.

Likewise, we have to focus on the small things of our content. Though I’m fond of saying that literature is not like math in that there are many right answers, there are still right answers. There are perfect paragraphs and logical inferences and expressive reading. All these things are the near view.

On the other hand, teachers are tasked to see students from a distance. Elementary teachers in our state are tasked with far-seeing too frequently: benchmarks on the cores three times a year through purchased assessments and scripted programs promise far-seeing results.  While the idea is not completely abhorrent, the reality is that the network goes down, the passwords are unavailable, strep throat rages through the school on your computer day—and the teacher’s time is spent managing assessments that are designed to use a snapshot predict the future. The results my sons have gotten predict their Lexile and quartile levels in college: provided their lives remain smooth and predictable and their Hierarchies of Needs continue to be met, provided they are engaged in high-quality learning activities with a qualified teacher in a classroom with limited behavior problems and disruptions, provided they put in the effort needed to master even difficult topics, and provided their parents remain motivators interested in their success as students. That’s quite a tall order for one test to predict. However, we can’t reasonably eliminate all the testing either.

Likewise, in the long view, we predict the future for our students. That tendency to chat during whole group instruction? That bossiness in small group activities? Those behaviors lead to success in the marketplace. That divergent thinking (marked by questioning the teacher aggressively) shows creative leadership skills—the kind needed for an entrepreneur. We, teacher-friends, can work with all those up-close behaviors if we remember the long view. We can try to teach students the connection between success on the SAT writing rubric in November and success on the SAT in March, and the connection between a high school diploma and a real working wage. And to some degree, we can cross our fingers that the long view will be correct. 

The other evening, I took my sons for haircuts. I was paying the bill when a man called out, “Mrs. Fisher!  I thought that was you!” I turned around and recognized him immediately. This man was a kid—Dusty—who was in my class both in seventh grade and in twelfth grade.  He graduated a few years ago and now has a good job, an apartment, and a son.  We talked a minute and then I left just ahead of him.

As my kids and I were walking through the parking lot, Dusty came running out of the shop. “My baby’s in the truck!” he called to me. “Come see him!”

So I went over to his truck to see the baby and his mom.  I complimented the lovely child and his proud parents. Then Dusty said, “Do you have any kids this year that are as bad as I was?”

“Yes, actually,” I laughed. “I have a couple of challenges this year.”

“Well, I hope they get better for you,” he said as he and his family headed into the grocery store.

Dusty was a challenging student—for sure. At age twelve, he bounced off the walls and into detention and though he got older, he wasn’t exactly mature when I had him again as a senior.

I wish, though, that I could have seen his competent adult self when I was his harried middle-school English teacher or when I shook him awake in the midst of that co-teach senior class. It would have given me peace to know that—in the long term—he would turn out ok.

Teaching is in large part the struggle for the right vantage point, near or far—or somewhere in between. And so, teacher-friend, here is our challenge: to find the sweet spot as we look at each of our students both near and far. 

And just in case you were wondering, I went back to the eye doctor and had my lenses remade. I’m still getting used to them, but I’m grateful for the healthcare and the life lesson. Sometimes we have to be patient, because it’s just a bit blurry in the middle.

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WVCTE wants you to contribute to the conversation. How do you balance the near-and-far of teaching? Leave us a question or comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. She’s a National Board Certified Teacher smack in the middle of her twenty-second year of teaching and currently working with seniors in co-teaches and dual-credit classes, and honors-level sophomores. When she’s not surrounded with her prep calendars and a pile of books, encouraging and supporting her colleagues, or conferencing with budding writers, you can find her reading with her kids, tree bathing in the park, or taking notes on life in her current composition book. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin

The Top Five Reasons Why Back-to-School is the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Teaching is a profession to be proud of, and you do work worthy of song.

By Adrin Fisher

Well, it’s that time again.  The summer has slipped by like seawater through a sieve, and teachers are back at school shaking off the dust covers and jockeying for position in the Xerox room—or sitting in mind-numbing professional development meetings under florescent lights—or maybe even standing in front of a class of bleary-eyed high school kids with a bright smile plastered on.

Wherever you are in the back-to-school process, teacher-friend, I want to take a few minutes to remind you of the reasons for the season.

Number Five

Mornings. 

Getting up early is a gift.  You hear those birds singing what my dad calls the “morning chorus,” or the early-morning commuters and the rumble of heavy trucks—or both, depending on your neighborhood, which reminds you that, even though you may feel like it, you’re not the first one up.  Your positive mindset allows you to see an early morning as a reward.  The sun starts rising through the fog and clarity comes.  A hot beverage, a couple of yoga stretches, a few minutes with your novel or in quiet meditation, and you are invincible.

Number Four

Routine. 

“Normal” workers around the world probably get sick of routine, but teachers are a special breed.  It’s great to have a few weeks of summer with a different set of expectations because we can appreciate the return of normalcy.  I enjoy getting my clothes ready on Sunday evenings, hanging them up by outfit, ironed and ready to be grabbed on a weekday morning.  We pack lunches before bed. We return to kids’ bedtimes and homework at the dining room table.  This fall we have some big changes in our schedule as our older son is moving to high school, but we’ve started practicing earlier wake-up times and we have a morning schedule in place…sort of.  Wish us luck!

Number Three

Newness. 

There is nothing like a new pen fresh from the package, or a smooth, new academic calendar, or a new box of crayons.  But even more exciting, teachers get the privilege of looking at a room full of fresh faces.  We all start off in the “honeymoon” stage, where we’re just getting to know our students, and whether we have 17 or 140, the classroom is full of possibility.  It’s our chance to meet these humans in our charge and make them feel seen and heard. What an honor!

Number Two

Challenge.

I’ll be the first to admit that starting a new school year is hard.  The mornings, the routine, and the newness all contribute to the challenge, but the challenge is also the work.  The back-to-school nightmares—dreams of classrooms out of control, missing photocopies, inexplicable requests from the office—started for me in July this year.  You? 

There are the personal challenges that arise from regular life, family life, being a child and being a parent.  There is the personal challenge of simply dealing with many, many vivid personalities all day.  Making 1,000,000 decisions during a work day is exhausting, and often leaves me too tired to have an opinion about anything in the evenings.

And beyond that, there are the professional challenges: maintaining a positive outlook in the face of ever-increasing demands to your daily job; working well with difficult colleagues; taking classes or doing professional reading to maintain your certification or stay current in your field; and then, for an English teacher at least, the incessant demands of planning, photocopying, organizing, communicating and correcting-correcting-correcting that writing.

This is not a job for the faint-of-heart, or the lazy.  Meet it head-on, teacher-friend.  Find your balance. You can do it!

Number One

Pride. 

When someone asks you what you do, you say—without hesitation—“I am a teacher.”  You use the verb form “to be,” because teaching is more than what you do—it is who you are. Teaching is a calling. 

Teaching is an art and a science.  It’s a labor of love, a passion. 

Teaching is activism. Teachers spark change. It’s in the job description.

Teaching is a response to a real, sincere, measurable need. Students need you.  Colleagues need you, especially the newer ones. Teaching is a daily opportunity to serve others with a generous spirit. 

It is—as in the days of the warrior-poets of Beowulf—a path to immortality.

Teaching is a profession to be proud of, and you do work worthy of song.

I want to leave you with the words of teacher-poet Taylor Mali, who performed “What Teachers Make” on HBO’s Def Poetry.  But rather than quoting him, I’ll let you hear him say it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8I_JK6tTGKo

Have a wonder-filled, awe-inspiring school year, teacher-friend.  Go out there and make a difference, wherever you are and whatever your reason!

WVCTE wants you to contribute to the conversation.  What is your reason for the season?  Leave us a question or comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not surrounded with her prep calendars and a pile of books, encouraging and supporting her colleagues, or conferencing with budding writers, you can find her reading with her kids, tree bathing in the park, or taking notes on life in her current composition book. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin