Why I Love Teaching At-Risk Students

When I was growing up, I was always one of those people who loved school. I loved everything about it. I was very social, and I liked that I got to see my friends almost every day. I liked my teachers, and looking back, I think I had some of the greatest ones there were. I liked the lessons, the lectures, the videos, the activities. I liked all of it. More than anything, though, I just loved to learn. I still do. New knowledge and information are exciting, and one of the wonderful things about life is that there is so much to learn.

I also always knew, at least in the back of my mind, that I wanted to teach. I liked playing school, and I started tutoring at a young age. Even in elementary school, I loved when teachers paired us up with people who needed a little help because I liked helping them understand. By middle school, a lot of people would come to me with questions on their own. And I loved having reading buddies in a lower grade.

I think because of the kind of student I was (and am), anyone who has known me for a while envisions me teaching AP and honors classes to the most advanced students. Those are the ones who are just like me, after all. They see me out in the suburbs where I grew up, in a quiet classroom full of avid readers studying hard to get 4s and 5s on “The Test.” When I started college, I think that’s how I saw myself, too.

Then I worked for a summer at a charter school in Detroit. It was a program for elementary students who were behind in reading and math. I was still in college, and I was a teacher’s assistant. The kids did not look like me, and already by second grade their life experiences had been completely different from mine. But I loved them. I loved the way their eyes would light up when they got the right answer to a problem that they had never been able to solve before. I loved how readily they asked for help, and I loved how big their little hearts were. They wanted and needed to be loved, and they were willing to give it in exchange.

Ever since then, my entire career has been spent with at-risk students. In my first teaching job, I taught at a charter school in Hazel Park that was a lot like the one I worked at in Detroit. In both cases, the standards were very high, and although a lot of the students started the year below grade level, we were determined to help them catch up. We wanted them to be successful, and I think our joy was equal to theirs when they met their goals.

I’ve been at an alternative high school for the past four years. Students come to us for so many reasons. Many of them just never turned in their homework in their traditional schools, so they were failing everything over and over. Quite a few have ADD or ADHD, and a large classroom at a traditional school makes it hard for them to focus, and hard for the teacher to notice when they are not focused. Some have behavioral challenges or problems with the law, but those students are only a small part of it. Our goals at the alternative school have almost as much to do with the students’ social-emotional wellbeing as with academic content. We also work on building academic and life skills alongside teaching the standards.

I think what’s been the most important across all of my experiences working with at-risk students is the need to build a community in the classroom. For me, that involves getting to know the students individually, and helping them get to know one another. Teaching English and history lends itself well to that. Beyond the initial ice breakers, I can craft assignments that help students talk about their personal histories, about who they are and how they see themselves in the world. It’s important to not only connect with the students, but to help them connect with one another so that they can see that we are all in this together. I would say that one of my biggest strengths as a teacher is in developing those connections and helping my classes feel of a sense of unity and loyalty and safety.

The key, I think, is seeing beyond the categories or stereotypes that present themselves at your door on the first day. It’s looking for the best in every student. It’s seeing that the loud, abrasive young man who swears as naturally as he breathes is looking for someone to hear him, to validate his opinions and care about what he has to say. He lives with about ten other people in his house, after all: his mom, his brother, his cousins and an aunt, a niece and a nephew. It’s hard to be heard at home in the midst of all of that noise. It’s helping a teen mom build the confidence to read aloud to her daughter at home, to see herself in a new way, to see that she has opportunities and choices open to her that she never even knew about. It’s hearing the heartfelt apology of a young man you had to ask to leave class for making an inappropriate comment about you, about another student, about the principal, about an entire race or group of people, and listening to the remorse in his voice, and being able to forgive and move on and repair a relationship so that it doesn’t stay broken forever.

This is my gift: building community among individuals who are vastly different from each other and myself. And this is what I love to do: help at-risk students see themselves and each other and me in a different way, to learn and to grow together so that at-risk can become graduated, successful, motivated, driven, so that the world can see how brilliant and gifted they are the way that I do.


Great Books for At-Risk Teens: The In the Margins Book Award

My students come to alternative education for a variety of reasons. Some of them struggle in large classrooms with 30 or more students and only one teacher. They get lost in the shuffle, and fall behind. They appreciate our school for the smaller class sizes and increased attention from the teacher. This particular story is a common one, and the students who live it often do well with us. They find a lot of success in our school, and they generally like to read and learn, or at least they don’t mind it.

There are other stories, though, that are true for just a few of our students. There are students who are homeless or living in poverty. They have run away from home, or been kicked out by their parents. There are those who have been to jail or juvenile detention, and many who are on probation. They struggle with drug addiction, or are recovering from it. These students still want to learn, and they understand how important it is to graduate from high school, and that’s why they come to us.

At the same, many of them continue to have a hard time in school. They have trouble connecting to the curriculum, which can seem irrelevant to their harsh realities, and the challenges they face outside of school can make it difficult to focus.

When it comes to reading, the kids from these backgrounds don’t see much of themselves in the characters we read about. They are marginalized in popular literature for teens, and in the traditional high school canon.

In one of my classes, the students have an independent reading project coming up. I’d like to give them the chance to see themselves in the books they read. The In the Margins Book Award is going to help me do that. It is a top ten list released by the Library Services for Youth in Custody, and it aims to recognize the stories of young people in poverty, on the streets, or in custody, both in fiction and nonfiction.

I made this bulletin board to introduce my students to the award:

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I don’t have all of these books in my classroom library at this time. However, if my students express an interest, I will check them out of the local library for them. I might even order some of them off of Amazon if possible, or ask my friends and family for them as Christmas gifts.

I want my students to be able to relate to what they read. I want them to see that their stories matter, that they are being recognized in a public way. I want them to have high-interest reading materials that they can relate to. I even want to inspire them to tell their own stories. The In the Margins Book Award is a good place to start.


An Ode to Interactive Whiteboards

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I used to teach with an interactive whiteboard. Then, I went two years without. I learned that I didn’t need it to teach. Chalk and a chalkboard will do the job in a pinch. The students still learned. I still had a projector, too. It was just on a cart. Kids liked to touch it during passing time when I was at my post in the hallway, to mess with the color or language. I tripped over the cord more than a few times. It was more annoying than my former fancy ceiling mounted one, but it was doable for sure. It was more than many other teachers have.

This year, the technology bond in our district rolled into our building. I have a beautiful ceiling-mounted projector once again. Not only that, but it has built in interactive capabilities. I have special stylus type things that will work with it. I can capture what’s on the screen to save for later. Actually, I don’t even know all of the things that it can do yet. We don’t have the HDMI cables yet, so I haven’t had a chance to play around with it. I’m bringing one from home for tomorrow, though.

This interactive projector is the one piece of technology that I am most looking forward to trying this year. I want to use it to write with my students. I can type up a draft while they watch and think-aloud for them to show them that writing isn’t always easy and painless even for an expert. I can annotate what I’m working on or an article that they are reading as they work on it. They can see my annotations as a model for the various Reading Apprenticeship strategies that I teach. I can do all sorts of cool things with Google Earth, which will be especially awesome in my history class. We could use it to revise and edit the school newsletter in my journalism class. I have so many ideas!

Absenteeism is a huge problem in our alternative high school, so I’m even wondering if I can use this to capture lessons in some way. Then, I could post them on my website so that absent students have access to the lesson they missed as well as any handouts they worked on. It still isn’t as good as being there, and there’s no guarantee they would watch it, but some might. It would be like flipping my class, but only for those few who don’t attend regularly. (I’d love to try a whole flipped lesson at some point, but our students are not typically required to do any homework, so I don’t think a flipped lesson would work)

Anyone have any other good uses for an interactive whiteboard in English or history?


Some Goals for 2014-2015

I am overwhelmed with how many goals I have for myself and my students this year. It’s hard to narrow it down to a few. Some of them are in an earlier post, so I’m not going to go terribly in depth here. How about a list?

  1. Stay organized and keep the classroom free of clutter
  2. Engage students in more critical thinking and inquiry to help them be active learners
  3. Give students feedback on their work in a timely manner
  4. Involve students in creating and maintaining the classroom community
  5. Take Saturdays off to spend time with my friends and family
  6. Keep talk about students focused on a growth model instead of a deficit model
  7. Avoid or turn-around negativity in my building as much as possible
  8. Build a better relationship with my principal by trying to see her point of view
  9. Use Google Classroom to increase student and parent access to assignments and coursework
  10. Have fun!


My Classroom Set-Up

I put a lot of work into my classroom this year. All of the work is not readily visible in the pictures to follow, though. I moved into a new classroom, and the previous two or three teachers had left the cupboards full of their stuff. The room has abundant storage space, and it was all just full.

I had to wade through stacks of old graded papers, binders of units for classes I don’t teach, dried up markers, and other odds and ends before I could even start to get myself situated. An entire awesome filing cabinet was full of folded up, wrinkled science posters. I went through it all. I either found another teacher who could use it, put it in the school’s storage room, or threw it out. That alone took an entire day.

Here is the entrance to my classroom:

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The reading life door was one idea that my principal loved. A few other teachers have commented that they like it, too. So far, I’m the only one with my door decorated, but we’ll see how long that lasts.

I couldn’t do as much to build student-centered learning spaces as I would like. There are expectations at my school that students will sit at desks in rows. I have done a horseshoe before, and seating in pairs, but my principal specifically suggested at the end of last school year that I stick to straight rows. I think it’s a good idea to heed her suggestion for the beginning of the year, at least.2014-08-29 12.40.31


I tried not to put too many posters in the front of the classroom. I don’t want to distract from content. During the first week, though, each of my classes is going to do some different collaborative activities to create classroom community guidelines. Those will go on a poster to the left of the whiteboard when they are done.

I decided to do a word wall for each class this year:

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I went with light blue and brown for my classroom colors. Those are our school colors, but that was actually unintentional. I did some research into color before making a decision. The light blue is meant to have sort of a calming effect, I hope, and the brown should be very warm and comforting. I hope these colors help make my classroom a calm, comfortable place to be.

Also, as you can see, I still need more books for my classroom library. I’m going to a book sale next Sunday, so hopefully I can pick up some more cheap books then.

Here’s more of my classroom library:

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I also have another small bookshelf in the back in my “history corner” with the history and historical fiction books. Another teacher called me an overachiever for arranging my books by genre. I just smiled.

Here’s the rest of that wall:

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The back wall is set up to display student work as they create it:

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The only wall that really has a lot of posters is the one by the windows. I figure there won’t be too much glare that way, and I tried to pick just a few key posters.

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There are still some more changes coming in the future. I want to get some floor lamps to minimize the need for the overhead lights. I’ll also rearrange the desks after a couple of weeks to foster more conversation and collaboration.

Otherwise, that’s it for my classroom home this year. I hope we have a great year in there!






How I Want to Use Technology in my Classroom

I will update my previous post about setting up my new classroom once it’s finished. I just got started today, and I have a lot left to do still. Instead of talking about that, today I want to talk technology.

My school has Google Apps for Education, and I just set up Google Classroom pages for each of my classes. I haven’t figured out everything it does yet, or all of the ways that I can use it, but it seems like it could greatly simplify and streamline many things for me. I am bad at keeping track of paper. It ends up in terrible, messy stacks all over my room between extra copies, no-name papers, work left on the floor half-completed, and papers that were passed back when kids were absent. Ideally, I would go completely paperless. However, as my principal would say, I need to start somewhere and start small.

Almost all of my students have smartphones, tablets, iPod touches, or laptops that they bring with them. Actually, out of about 80 kids last year, I can only think of one student who did not bring any of the aforementioned technology with him daily. Access to technology is not a problem for my students.

One thing I’m thinking of doing is moving my warm-up questions and activities to announcements on Google Classroom. Unless I’m mistaken, students should be able to type in their answers as comments. I would also give them the option of doing it on lined paper if they don’t have their devices or if they prefer pen and paper in order to be as inclusive as possible. I’m thinking the same could go for writer’s notebooks, metacognitive reading logs, and other writing assignments throughout the year.

I could also post links to images for students to write about, or to historical documents, or to all kinds of things that I have been printing in poor quality in the past, making them easier to view while also saving the district money on color printing.

I will do a lot more with it in my yearbook and newsletter class. In fact, I think that class will be completely paperless by the second trimester this year, once I’ve got a good handle on how everything works.

I have one question/concern that I would love for people to respond to, though. How do you get administrators on board with the purposeful use of student devices in the classroom?

All in all, this sounds like a teacher research project in the making to me.


My New Classroom: A Blank Canvas

I got a look at my new classroom today. It is new in a couple of ways. I’m moving from one hallway to another, so it actually will be my first year in that room. It’s also new in that the chalkboard and two bulletin boards have been replaced by a wonderful, expansive whiteboard. I’m supposed to be getting a ceiling-mounted projector sometime in the next week as well. I’m pretty excited about all of the changes! Here is my room today:

My Classroom on 8/18/2014

My Classroom on 8/18/2014

It’s a panoramic picture. I’m really not very good at those, but I think you can get the idea. I have lots of empty shelves and blank spaces to work with.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about creating student-centered learning spaces on Classroom Cribs and elsewhere. There are so many truly transformative things that I would like to do, but I must also work within the expectations of my administration, and I have to keep in mind the limitations of my budget as well.

My students are all at risk, and many have diagnosed attention difficulties, whether those are ADD or ADHD. Many are also EI or have been diagnosed with mood or behavior disorders. I want to use calming colors for the bulletin boards and accents in my classroom to try to make it a place where these students can focus and feel safe and comfortable.

For the first time this trimester, I am going to try out a word wall. The bulletin board by the bookshelves should be a good place for that. I’m going to divide it up for three of my 4 classes. The 4th class is yearbook/newsletter, which actually takes place in the computer lab. Perhaps I will make them a word wall down there. The bookshelves themselves, of course, will be loaded up with my ever-growing classroom library. I have a few awesome spaces that are meant to showcase magazines, but I am going to use those to show off new or cool books that I want students to try out.

I am also going to try to use more student work on the walls rather than posters. I will still hang a few of my favorites, but I want most of the open space to be available for what the students create.

My other big challenge this year is staying organized and reducing clutter. Honestly, for me, the most difficult part of teaching 4 different classes is keeping paperwork for 4 different classes from piling up on my desk and around the room. Last year, I was a cluttered mess. I need two more hanging file bins for absent/make up work. Three of those will go on the top of the cabinets by the windows. The fourth will go down in the computer lab.

As far as seating goes, the expectations for my school are that students will sit in their chairs at their desks facing the front of the room most of the time. I am not at a point where I want to challenge this, although it is not the most comfortable set up for me personally, nor is it the most student-centered, learning-friendly arrangement. Going back to my first post on this blog, I have to start with what I can do, and what I can control. I’ll do the best that I can for my students!

Here are some more normal pictures of the space as it is now:


Planning a New Class

I said that I was going to give myself a week off from thinking about school, but I only made it five days. And I still thought about school, anyway. I just didn’t act on my thoughts. I’m feeling excited again, and that’s what’s really important.

The week of telling myself to let it all go helped, but the excitement is also partly due to a call I got from my administrator this week. She called to ask what I want to teach this fall. We hired a new full-time social studies teacher, and she wanted to know if I had any ideas for English electives I could teach instead of some of the history I’ve been doing. She suggested creative writing, and I jumped at the chance to teach that again.

Depending on how she sets things up, that still left me available for one more elective. Our school is almost entirely at-risk students, so I suggested a basic composition sort of course that would partner with our Reading Apprenticeship and Academic Literacy. That class is meant to help struggling students become better, more enthusiastic and active readers; I could do the same sort of thing, but with writing. She said, “Composition doesn’t sound interesting. What if we call it ‘Writing in the Real World?'” How perfect! I’m envisioning a course where students learn about, discuss, and write about topics and issues that interest them. I’ll put Get it Done! to good use. I’ll badger @ShariHales for some of her argument writing resources. Maybe we can make websites, or at least a class blog, or we could write to politicians or local businesses. Maybe we could even do an ethnography. I have so many ideas!

She hasn’t sent out the final schedule yet, so I am not even sure that I will get to teach those classes. That would probably stress some people out–not knowing what they’re teaching in 3 weeks. I’ve also been working on redesigning my American History class all summer, and now, that might all be for nothing. I should, perhaps, feel disappointed. Designing two new courses should also feel a little overwhelming.

Instead, I think this is just what I needed to get excited. It has reminded me of one of the things that I love about my school: the freedom to teach something that I want to teach. I also enjoy unit planning. I like getting to create my own curriculum. I can’t wait to get started!


Hopes for September

Summer school just ended on Friday. Today is the first day of my shortened summer, yet all I can think about is September 2nd. My mind is racing with fears and hopes and nerves and plans.

I keep finding myself focused on the bad parts, on the fears and the nerves and the things I don’t want to happen. I’m not going to write about that, though. I am going to make myself focus on the hopes and plans instead. Starting with the good couldn’t hurt.

I hope that I will find more ways to be a guide to learning instead of a dispenser of knowledge. I hope that I will be able to get my students to be active learners. I’ve got three weeks to work on plans to make this happen.

I am planning to be more organized this year. I need to set up a better system for students to be able to access missing work and absent work without needing me. What I tried last year did not work, and I found myself scrambling during valuable instructional time to get work together for them. I’m going to need a few more hanging file boxes for this, I think.

I hope that I will keep up with the paperwork end of teaching better. I know that I need to give better, more timely feedback, and I will try to this year.

I am planning to do a better job of involving students in creating the kind of classroom that they need to be able to learn. I have usually been the maker of the rules, the enforcer of punishments, and the giver of rewards for good behavior in the past. I’ve done a lot of reading this summer that has me convinced that a more democratic, student-centered, less coercive classroom would be more aligned with my beliefs and principles, along with being more effective.

I have a lot of anxiety about this new school year. I am trying to focus on the things I can control, the things I can do myself to make it better than last year, but I’m still worrying a lot. I’m going to try give myself the next week off from thinking about school. Maybe some rest will be good for me.


Learning Targets, Standards, and Assessment

I attended a two day training this week on the book Classroom Assessment for Student Learning (or CASL for short). There is an initiative across Livingston and Washtenaw Counties to implement the kind of assessment and structures that this book describes, including a ten year plan to make it basically county-wide.

I would not say that this training revolutionized how I think about teaching. I would not say that CASL is perfect by any means. It did make me think about a lot of things I have been doing in my classroom, though. It did make me want to do some things differently.

The end-goal of CASL is to align grade books to the skills and standards that students should master. It involves motivating students to learn what they should be learning instead of to simply complete the work. At its heart is the idea that teachers should have clear learning targets based on the standards, and that teachers and students should use formative assessments to constantly track how students are doing on those learning targets.

I am not totally sold on the idea. The CASL book and the first presenter were very focused on preparing for standardized tests, and that turned me off to begin with. I think there are things students should learn that aren’t included in any standards, and things that are not tested on any test. Actually, the presenter yesterday, Ken Mattingly, agreed with that. He talked about his kids as his kids, and about how he teaches more than science. He helps teach human beings. He seemed to be a very engaging and compassionate person. He made me realize that there are some things I do like about CASL, and even some things that I already try to do.

One of those things is making learning targets clear to students. I think it helps them know what they should be learning about. I remember a unit I taught on the Industrial Revolution in the U.S. At the end of it, even though we’d been talking about it for two weeks, no one knew what industrialization was. I hadn’t made it clear to them what we were learning.

Another is the importance of re-teaching and opportunities for revision. Ken asked us a question: “When was the last time it mattered that you used to not know something, that you do know now?” Teachers who use CASL give students the chance to learn what they missed, and to retry or revise their work based on new learning. I agree that learning should not end with the second draft or with the test.

I could say a lot more about the good I found in CASL. I could also say a lot more about the things I found problematic. I think that is probably true with any teaching and assessment model. Alas, my time is limited this morning. I will be thinking about how to explain learning targets and give better feedback for revision as the new school year starts.