Thursday, May 26, 2016

Thanks, y'all.

Nearly 5 years ago, my (then) boyfriend and I graduated from our beloved alma mater with no jobs and nowhere to go but our parents' houses. Unfortunately for us, that meant being hundreds of miles apart as his parents had retired to the Mecca better known as Myrtle Beach. We knew teaching jobs were hard to come by in our home state and decided to begin a new adventure in a place where they needed teachers- North Carolina.

We got a lot of flack when we decided to leave the Northeast....
  • "Are you crazy? You don't even know anyone there!"
  • "Is everyone going to be stupider?" (Jokes on you all, stupider isn't even a word)
  • "Now don't start coming home and saying 'y'all' or anything"
  • "You'll love the winters, but aren't the summers the worst?"
But let's face it, when you're 22 and trying to be near someone you love none of that really matters. Not to mention $32K sounds like a TON of money when you've been living off student loan refunds and minimum wage retail jobs. This adventure was going to be great. We knew it. 

We weren't wrong.  We got married, got our first apartment, and adopted the most wonderful dog that's ever lived in our time here. We have made lifelong friends with both people and food groups (pimento cheese is my bffaeaeaeaeae). We've been given the opportunity to grow and lead in supportive environments, surrounded by people who believe in us. 

As I pack up my classroom to begin the next phase of my life-  near family and with the intention of "settling down" a bit- I can't help but reflect on everything my time and the amazing people I've met in North Carolina have taught me. 

Southern charm is a real thing
There is truly something that is unique about being in the South. No one is kidding when they say that life moves at a different pace. I have honed my North Carolina accent, learned the difference between Eastern and Western BBQ (none of which involve hot dogs or hamburgers....learned that one the hard way), and developed a lifelong relationship with pimento cheese. I've seen the value in small communities of people who grew up together and support each other and I've seen the value of living in a city full of transplants where everyone is looking for a new sort of "family." I now understand what it means to "get your picture made," get a "buggy" at the grocery story, or (my personal favorite) ask a student to take a "toboggan" off their head. It has nothing to do with sleds. I know. I've learned the power of "Yes, Ma'am" or "No, Sir" and have seen students who grew up valuing these ideals. And northerners who haven't experienced this- there are school bus races on a dirt track at Charlotte Motor Speedway- #priceless. 

There is nothing more powerful than the people that surround you
I have been blessed to work with some of the most amazing people in my time here. I took my current job to be near my now husband, but I got so much more than that. I think about my coworkers (who became family) like a cast of characters from a great ensemble sitcom. If anyone wants to make a show about us,'d be hilarious. You can't make up the stuff that happens to us. But more than just keeping each other laughing, I met a group of people who challenged me to be better. As a first year middle school teacher, I was all about structure. Inquiry and collaboration were great in the time in my lesson plan that I'd specifically set aside for it. I have learned how to embrace teachable moments, how to have fun with my students, and how to create a culture of collaboration and teamwork in my room. I have seen peers who push themselves constantly to be better, knowing that every small detail of our craft that we hone helps a child. I've had my eyes opened to the connection of my discipline with others and the way which genuine collaboration should work with colleagues. I've been trusted to be part of a team in which everyone knows their role and demonstrates the synergy that comes only from working towards a shared vision. 

Vulnerability makes you a better leader
I'm not someone who loves being wrong. I'm can vividly remember my Grandpa (lovingly and jokingly) saying to me "Why didn't you get a 100%?" when I came home with a 99% on a test. It's just my nature- I strive for perfection. But let's face the one's perfect. And the only way to innovate and to truly lead is to be able to face this head on and grow from your weaknesses. It has been a lesson that's been learned slowly, but I now see it as key to my teaching. 

If I hadn't come here, I'd never have been able to experiment with STEM education while being supported by a huge federal grant, pilot blended learning in math for an entire district, or design and build my own version of an AP Calculus course to support students that needed it. I felt a huge burden of trust placed upon me and knew that the only way to not let my kids down was to make sure they had a voice. I began to tear down the wall when possible to let students know that I was intentionally designing the things we did in class with a purpose in mind and I was open to their suggestions. I now seek their feedback as often as possible and have used it to better my methods in general and in my specific classes. I've grown so much from doing the things I was scared of doing and I hope to never lose that drive. 

Sometimes the biggest strides come from difficult situations
North Carolina's educational system hasn't always been considered a gleaming beacon of light when compared to it's 49 competitors. In September 2015, Forbes rated this fair state the 2nd worst for teachers in the nation. So did WalletHub. Things aren't great. But I've learned that these trying conditions can lead to truly tremendous results. 

First and foremost, every teacher I've met in my time here has truly been "in it for the kids." They may not spend their whole career teaching and they may not have a ton of advanced degrees, but you don't teach here for the money. These are people who give their time day in and day out making the equivalent of what they could make as a manager at a local gas station. People are in education here because they love kids and that can create a powerful environment for our munchkins to learn.

The other advantage of our educational system being labelled "broken" is that people are trying to do things to fix it. I was amazed during my interview process in other states that I have been at the forefront of technology integration, blended and flipped learning, Professional Learning Community implementation, UBD, and more. Things that I just assumed were commonplace were innovative to some districts with whom I spoke. I have had the experience of facilitating a PLC for years, something many places are just beginning to embrace. I have been a part of EdCamps, I've gotten to learn from and facilitate a huge amount of professional development, and I've taught in a school that encouraged us to try new things. I've been blessed with administrators who believe that if you just teach good math, the test scores should follow.  

I teach kids, not math
I remember one of my graduate professors saying that elementary school teachers love kids, middle school teachers love teaching, and high school teachers love their content. The stereotype of a high school teacher is the slightly professorial expert who is more interested in droning on about their subject than the kids in their room. I love math....I really do. But I've learned that you never get back the moments with kids that you let slip away. I've had to reflect on the things I didn't say to a student who died too young. I've collected supplies for a student who lost everything in house fire. I've sat with a student and helped them fill out their FAFSA when they didn't have the support at home to do so. And as great as some of my math activities may or may not have been, they won't be what I remember most. The hardest part about leaving has been saying goodbye to these kids. My kids. I'm so glad I've learned to connect with them in a way I never expected. 

Although family (and better pay and more respect for my profession) beckon me back to where I grew up, I am so fortunate to have spent 5 years here learning and growing. I bring so much of what I've learned here back home with me and I'm so thankful for that. 

So consider this my thank you, North Carolina. Thank you for your beaches, your mountains, your quirky neighborhoods, your sunny Saturdays spent with friends, your Panther's games, and your countless new adventures. Thank you for the 60 degree snow days, the pollen all over my car, and the rainy morning that gave us a whole garden to ourselves as my now hubs proposed. Thank you for my puppy, the happy stray that we couldn't have adopted from any other Humane Society. Thanks for teaching me to use the word "y'all" naturally in a sentence (Northerners, get over it; it's so much more efficient). Thank you for your kiddos, who each day brought me joy, laughs, and the occasional headache. Thank you for people who trusted me enough to encourage me to grow and lead. Thank you for giving me friends who I know will stand the test of time. My time here will never be forgotten and you will be missed (especially the first time in 5 years that I have to shovel snow). 

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Final Countdown: AP Week is Here!

Here's the motto I'm trying to instill in my kiddos this week:

During the middle of last year, a colleague and I were discussing the fact that our school only offered BC Calculus and we wished there was an option for students who were interested in pursuing Calculus but might not be ready for the demand of BC. Heck, my bachelor's is in pure mathematics and I did just fine having only been a product of AB Calculus. We approached our administration about this and luckily for both ourselves and our kids, they allowed us to take on the challenge of designing and implementing a full-year AB course. The course would be an "Honors Calculus" course in the fall, leading directly into an AB course in the spring.  It took some selling to get our enrollment up and I am forever grateful to the 20 kids who took the risk of a brand new Calculus course with me. The enrollment is already more than doubled for next year and that definitely wouldn't have been possible without this pilot group. 

I feel a little like the cast of one of those youth sports movies sometimes when we are in class- despite the fact that Emilio Estevez had consistently better hair than me in any number of those movies.  We are an unlikely mix.....17 boys and 3 girls (I promise our demographics are more evenly split for next year!!) with extraordinary variation in past experience with math, intrinsic motivation, and consistency in completing tasks. But they all showed up every day and tried. Cue the Mighty Duck's-esque montage where everyone learns that "Ducks Fly Together" and learn to skate without falling.  I've gotten to watch this unlikely mix of kiddos turn into a team who can function at a really high level (or more concretely, get about 5 to 9 points on the famous 2007 AB 3 problem).

Because of the extra time built into our course, I really do feel like I've given the kids all the tools I possibly can at this point in the game. I'm okay with not trying to "cram" any extra information in their brains on the last day....which is a feeling of peace as a teacher that I don't normally feel. With my unlikely group of mathematicians and the mindset that we've prepared with the most gusto we possibly could, I'm taking a very different approach on our last day in class tomorrow. Here's the plan:

1) A sincere "thank you"
Y'all.....I'm so proud of these kids. Because I teach mostly in a STEM program, this is the third straight year I've taught this particular group of 20 and they've been a huge part of my journey as an educator. Beyond all of that, they've been with me through an incredibly difficult year personally. They've accepted me on my bad days and pushed me to be better even on my best days. They've driven me a little crazy, of course. But I am so grateful for the hard work and determination I've seen from each and every one of them. They've made me laugh and learn and grow. I don't know if we ever thank our kids enough. I'm trying to remember to do it more. 
Good Luck Gift Bags (because my inner middle school teacher still hides deep below the surface)
2) A little more shop talk
Because I don't think you can emphasize "DO NOT write 'it' if you mean f'(x)!!!!" enough. I don't mind saying it for the 16,000,001st time if it means they remember. And for Heaven's sake, don't leave off the + C !

3) A real, honest talk about anxiety, nerves, and some brain chemistry
Here's why: I am someone that naturally appears incredibly collected and outgoing. I seem to thrive on being constantly interacting with others. This is a completely intentional choice I make everyday- I am much more of an introvert than anyone would suspect.  It was actually my time as an AP student that started my journey to discovering this. AP US History basically turned me into a robot; it was the highest expectations to which I'd ever been held in a subject area that wasn't my strength. Friends tried to talk some sense into me, but I assumed it was just stress and it would pass. As I got older, I started to become more cognizant of the amount of anxiety I felt on a regular basis (although I'd still fight you if you tried to tell me I was at all abnormal in what I felt). Only this year did my anxiety finally bubble over into something I needed to address and doing so has totally changed my perspective. 

I think a lot of kids feel this kind of anxiety and pressure. Our guidance counselors get crying AP students in their room regularly. We expect to see some mini-breakdowns as exams approach. And let's be real....most 16 and 17 year olds aren't equipped to deal with it. So here's what we're doing:

Activity #1:  Article Reading
I'm going to have the kids read this silently, marking a "?" next to anything they have questions about and a "!" next to anything they want to remember for the test. Then we're just going to talk and see where it goes. 

Activity #2: Journaling Activity
Since my very first standardized testing week as a 1st year teacher, this article has been in my arsenal. I love it. I love the idea that psychologically the symptoms of being "pumped" are the same as being terrified.  I try to get kids to get pumped to show what they know, not fear what they might not know. 
"In a study published last year in the journal Emotion, Dr. Beilock and four co-authors found that with students anxious about math, the more stress hormone they produced, the worse they did on a test; students with low math anxiety did better the more cortisol they produced. “The first group,” she said, “felt the rising anxiety in their bodies and reacted by thinking,I’m really nervous about this test. I’m afraid I’ll fail.’ ” They choked. “The second group told themselves something like, ‘I’m really psyched up for this test! I’m ready to go!’ ” Dr. Beilock recommends consciously adopting positive self-talk. Remind yourself that damp palms and a pounding heart accompany all kinds of enjoyable experiences: riding a roller coaster, winning a sports match, talking to someone you have a crush on."
We are going to end the class by actually doing the journaling activity as an exit ticket. I am encouraging each of them to leave their fears in my classroom by writing them down and putting them into a box. With those left behind, I am going to encourage them to take only their knowledge, skill, and confidence with them into the test. My hope is after the exam we look at some of their fears and see if they were worth "carrying" with us or if in retrospect it was okay to leave them behind. 

I'm incredibly proud of them and am hoping to leave them feeling excited to show all they've learned. Any I will definitely be reflecting with them on how to make the course better. 

Good luck to everyone's AP classes these next 2 weeks! Cheers to all your work to prepare an incredible group of kids for an incredible challenge!