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    Distressing, Embarrassing Questions Are Par for the Course

    By Julie Scullen
     | Jan 20, 2016

    shutterstock_210167587_x300He stood near my desk, clearly anxious, and waited for the classroom to empty. This is never a good sign. Seventh-grade boys do not stay after class. Worse, he was staring at my belly. Three weeks left until my maternity leave was scheduled to start, and I sensed this was going to be a disturbing and harrowing conversation.

    “Mrs. Scullen, I need to tell you something. Privately.”

    I braced myself. In middle school, I had to be prepared for anything. He looked deeply into my eyes and gave me a sympathetic head tilt.

    “I need you to know, Mrs. Scullen, it’s going to hurt bad when that baby comes out. Really bad.”

    I was able to keep a straight face, thank him, and let him know I would look into that. Relieved, he bounded out the door to lunch, his duty done.

    This interaction was less horrifying than the one I had with an eighth-grade boy on the day I told my classes I was expecting. This young man snickered in the back of the room, gave me a thumbs up and a wink. Mortifying, and more than a little offensive.

    As this was my third pregnancy as a middle school teacher, I was prepared for the interesting insights provided by my students. They were completely comfortable talking about any topic and rarely thought about boundaries.

    Unfortunately, neither do their parents. For some reason, being a teacher suddenly opens a person up to all kinds of interactions addressing all sorts of personal topics. There are no boundaries.

    I spent much of the last few days of what felt like my eleventh month of pregnancy lifting my belly out of the way so that I didn’t bump into desks or students in my crowded classroom. I had students’ complete attention—they stared at me with big eyes, I assumed they were worried I might burst.

    I was prepared for the impending conference night—that most parents would be interested in the person hired to take over the class, how long I would be on leave, and how their child would do with the new teacher. These questions I was prepared to answer. Yet someone always manages to catch the teacher off guard. A lack of boundaries creates interesting conversation.

    One mom asked if this was my first child.

    “Oh, golly, no. My third, and the way I feel now, our last.”

    Her next question still haunts me—“Really? Which one of you will get fixed?”

    I must have mumbled some kind of response as she left the room, but I remember thinking, “Which one of us is broken?”

    Another parent with boundary issues appeared in my room, took one look at me and announced, “Well! I can see why my son hates your class!” While I was trying to find my voice, she flounced to a student chair and said, “We’ve always taught our son that pregnant women are [tramps].” She used a more embarrassing word, but I do have boundaries, so I will let readers choose their own word. Apparently, this terminology was designed to keep her son away from romantic pursuits. I sometimes wonder exactly how that worked out.

    As teachers, we expect our students to ask uncomfortable questions. It’s always a little awkward when the adults ask the distressing questions. But they do. Teachers are practically family, after all.

    Middle schoolers are honest, open, and on the verge. They are on the verge of moving from preteen to teenager, busily connecting old thoughts to challenging new ones. Teachers don’t live at school! Teachers have babies! Teachers go to the gym and to the grocery store! Teachers are people!

    In middle-school classrooms, boys who need to shave sit next to peers who regularly play with Barbies and Legos. Sometimes, those are even the same kid. I have to admit, though, for all of the embarrassment, these students without boundaries are my favorite students. Their questions make me smile and make me think.

    Julie Scullen is a former president of the Minnesota Reading Association and Minnesota Secondary Reading Interest Council and is a current member of the International Literacy Association Board of Directors. She taught most of her career in Secondary Reading Intervention classrooms and now serves as Teaching and Learning Specialist for Secondary Reading in Anoka-Hennepin schools in Minnesota, working with teachers of all content areas to foster literacy achievement. She teaches graduate courses at Hamline University in St. Paul in literacy leadership and coaching, as well as reading assessment and evaluation.

     
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    If You Give a Teacher a Workday

    By Julie Scullen
     | Nov 18, 2015

    ThinkstockPhotos-155787040_300pxIf you give a teacher a workday, it’s likely because she needs the time to analyze current data she’s been given, as well as to do some grading and planning.

    Now that she has the time, she’ll probably want to use the time and the data to make new seating charts and plan interventions.

    When she’s attempting to download her classroom, department, and grade-level data along with electronic class lists, she’ll realize she needs to update her password to access the lists. The computer will have to send her a confirmation e-mail.

    While waiting for the confirmation, she’ll check e-mail (and voicemail, just to be sure) and she’ll respond to a message from a parent, which will require three more e-mails and a phone call.

    While she is waiting for a return call, she’ll take a moment to delete some old e-mail, and in doing so she’ll notice an article about an interesting intervention strategy she flagged and had planned to read.

    So, being a digital immigrant, she’ll print it out and reach for a highlighter.

    When she’s finished reading, she’ll look over her highlighted notes, be inspired, and want to talk to her team about it, so she’ll make more copies and head to another classroom to share.

    She’ll start sharing ideas, and her team will get excited as well. They might get carried away and pull out chart paper and markers and start brainstorming. They’ll collaborate and create new learning targets in Google Docs. They may even end up changing their lesson plans for the next week!

    When they are done, she’ll probably want to work on updating her classroom webpage, with links to the vocabulary game they just created, to reflect the changes. She’ll need to update that password as well, and wait for confirmation in order to finish.

    She’ll remember that she will have to rearrange student cooperative group assignments and then communicate the changes with the classroom paraprofessional, her SpEd team teacher, the EL specialist, and the instructional coach.

    After visiting their offices and classrooms, she’ll probably ask you to help her rearrange her classroom. So you’ll push furniture around, and as long as she’s already moving the desks, she’ll take the opportunity to spray, scrub, and disinfect them. She’ll ask you if she can thank you with a cup of coffee, bottled water, or an energy drink. When the coffee break is over, she’ll mention how much work she plans to get done today.
    Then she’ll look at the clock, frown, and realize she needs to get busy, which means she’ll need to sit back at her desk.

    Sitting at her desk, looking at the stacks of papers, she’ll be reminded of all the grading she needs to get done. While she’s grading, she’ll spend a few moments crafting some parent communication. She’ll call, e-mail, or text each parent in the communication method he or she prefers. Thinking about these differences will remind her of the varied student needs in her classroom. She’ll wonder if she’s challenging and inspiring her students.

    She’ll remember the instructional strategy change and the collaboration of her colleagues and hope she’ll see increased student learning. While she’s mulling over these changes and her hopes for her students, her principal will stop by to congratulate her and support her efforts in using new strategies. Of course, the principal would love to see the results!

    So….she’ll start brainstorming ways to collect data in order to prove the strategy was effective. And chances are, when she gets new data, she’s going to need another workday to go with it.

    Julie Scullen is a former president of the Minnesota Reading Association and Minnesota Secondary Reading Interest Council and is a current member of the International Literacy Association Board of Directors. She taught most of her career in Secondary Reading Intervention classrooms and now serves as Teaching and Learning Specialist for Secondary Reading in Anoka-Hennepin schools in Minnesota, working with teachers of all content areas to foster literacy achievement. She teaches graduate courses at Hamline University in St. Paul in literacy leadership and coaching, as well as reading assessment and evaluation.

     
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    Fast, Accurate, Useful Assessment—Or Not

    By Julie Scullen
     | Oct 21, 2015

    ThinkstockPhotos-102115I’m exhausted.

    School is a world of pretests, quizzes, chapter tests, unit tests, essay tests, performance tests, and even fitness tests. We’ve now added methods of testing we call formative assessments, interim assessments, summative assessments, performance assessments, common assessments, and diagnostic assessments. We give assessments using rubrics, checklists, and even check-brics. We give paper-pencil and online standardized tests, norm-referenced tests, criterion-referenced tests, and benchmark tests. Students answer using constructed responses, essays, and technology enhanced items.

    I’m developing assessment blindness. Text exhaustion. No. 2 pencil calluses.

    While back to school shopping this fall, I noticed a set of No. 2 pencils on sale labeled, “Perfect for Standardized Tests!” Really? What about, “Perfect for writing poetry!” or “Perfect for jotting down ideas!” or “Perfect for logarithms and algorithms!”?

    I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t taking, giving, researching, or writing assessments of some kind. When I’m not doing these tasks, I’m analyzing test results, disaggregating data, or being developed professionally in the newest test format. Assessment can be invaluable or useless, and the range in between is wide.

    It’s overwhelming.

    Old-timers in my family will tell you there are three ways to get your car fixed: Quickly, cheaply, or well. You can pick only two. If you need your car fixed quickly and cheaply, it won’t be done well. If you need it done cheaply and well, it won’t be quick. You get the idea.

    I’ve found the same to be true of reading assessment. Some assessments are quick to administer; some provide reliable, consistent, and measureable results; and some provide information useful enough to guide classroom instruction. Very rarely can you find assessments that provide all three. Toss in the need to assess students with an authentic task and without the use of a timer, and the number of choices decreases dramatically.

    The car repair analogy works well for assessment. If an assessment is fast and reliable, it is often standardized and less likely to provide results useful to classroom teachers. Any assessment that provides a result of single number (or letter) in a range is unlikely to give a teacher insight into individual instructional needs.

    If an assessment provides useful diagnostic and instruction-altering feedback, it requires a great deal of time to administer. Analysis takes time. Kids are complicated. My questions are, “Would you rather kids were testing or reading? Would you rather spend money on test prep manuals or classroom libraries?”
    Or, this: “How much instructional time are you willing to sacrifice?”

    I have a strong memory of a test I would consider fast and reliable: the yearly trek to the gym for fitness testing. (I can still smell the sweat, tension, and embarrassment hanging in the air.) The gym teacher would assess our strength; boys did pull-ups on one side of the gym while girls performed the flexed arm hang on the other. While the boys were grunting, gasping, and counting the number of times they could pull their chins up over the bar, the female gym teacher held her stopwatch and counted how many seconds each girl could keep her chin hovering above the bar while her feet dangled below. (At the time, I never thought to question why boys needed to have enough strength to pull themselves up into the boat or over an obstacle, while girls merely needed the ability to dangle there until help arrived.)

    I think we could now label that test a “moderately authentic performance task with a differentiation component.”

    Did that test inspire me to get stronger? Was I suitably inspired to sprint out to the playground monkey bars and build my arm-hanging stamina? Not one bit.

    I can’t help but wonder, if I, myself, am exhausted and overwhelmed with testing, how do our students feel? “Test fatigue” has become a commonly heard phrase in our schools.

    Does the testing inspire our students to work harder, become smarter, read more, or build their skills?  Not very often.   

    So here’s my final question: Is it worth it?

    Julie Scullen is a former president of the Minnesota Reading Association and Minnesota Secondary Reading Interest Council and is a current member of the International Literacy Association Board of Directors. She taught most of her career in Secondary Reading Intervention classrooms and now serves as Teaching and Learning Specialist for Secondary Reading in Anoka-Hennepin schools in Minnesota, working with teachers of all content areas to foster literacy achievement. She teaches graduate courses at Hamline University in St. Paul in literacy leadership and coaching, as well as reading assessment and evaluation.

     
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    There's a Lot to Learn Before Classes Begin

    by Julie Scullen
     | Sep 16, 2015

    ThinkstockPhotos-178710954_x600We’re baaaack. Back to school and meeting our students, but what precedes getting your students in their seats can be even more intense.

    That time of year when we gather our courage, take one last look at our backyard in the daylight, and head back to school for Teacher Workshop Week. Veteran teachers come prepared, steeling themselves for the onslaught, but new teachers may have a vastly different experience—one that’s both unsettling and panic inducing.

    For a new teacher, Workshop Week is a little like a sorority or fraternity rush: overwhelming, intimidating, and thrilling all at the same time. You’ve heard a great deal about what to expect, but actually being there is much different. You’ll be exhausted, but have difficulty sleeping. You’ll know both too much and not enough.

    Likely, most new teachers have a similar rush of emotions as they begin their first classroom teaching role. They’re finally getting to be the teacher—something they’ve wanted and dreamed about for four years of college (or longer). Plus, these people are going to pay you! With benefits! For doing what you love!

    And with excitement, anticipation, and a little fanfare, you are thrust into the actual world of teaching.

    Maybe you’ve been able to get into your classroom already, hang a few posters, create a bulletin board, arrange your desk, make seating charts. You’re thinking about the 26 (or 35, or 142) students you’ll have an opportunity to guide, teach, and inspire.

    When Workshop Week begins, your delight of being a teacher deflates a bit under the actual reality of the work ahead.

    In addition to lesson planning and teaching, you’ll be told you need to be perform required assessments (common assessments, progress monitoring assessments, formative assessments, summative assessments, standardized tests) and complete an analysis of the resulting data.

    You’ll need to be on top of culturally responsive teaching practices, differentiation for all learners, intervention practices, extension practices, due process, special education requirements, 504 requirements, brain research, technology, data analysis, data privacy, copyright law, mandatory reporting, mental health screening, lunch duty, playground duty, hall duty, fire drill procedures, tornado procedures, school lockdown procedures, school evacuation procedures, media center procedures, lunchroom procedures, and professional development requirements.
    You’ll need to be trained in technology designed to streamline your work and make communicating easier. The technology requires you to remember passwords for your e-mail, voicemail, classroom website, attendance technology, curriculum tool technology, data storage technology, behavior tracking technology, and of course those detailed online curriculum documents. All these will have different Web addresses, login processes, and passwords.

    You’ll be given district goals, building goals, grade-level or department goals, and be asked to write goals for yourself and your students. There will be new district initiatives, building initiatives, and grade-level and department initiatives.

    You’ll be reintroduced to your principal, the school counselor, your department or grade-level leader, your instructional coach, your paraprofessional, and your collaborative team members. All of these people will have roles you basically understand, however you’ll have little idea what they actually do. You will invariably go to the wrong person with your question.

    You’ll meet the secretary when you get your key, your schedule, and your emergency contact information sheet. You’ll meet the custodian when you find your classroom doesn’t have enough desks, the shelves on your bookshelf are tilted, and the clock doesn’t keep correct time. These people will eventually be your best friends.

    My advice as a veteran?

    Close your eyes and take a deep breath. There are people to help you.

    Write things down. You can’t possibly remember every detail.

    Be kind to yourself. Sleep. Eat. Turn off your computer and take time with loved ones.

    Remember why you are here. To guide. To teach. To inspire.

    All your anxious anticipation, your hard work, and your hopes of making a difference are finally coming true. New teachers, be proud! You’ve made it. You’re here. This is your classroom. This is your new world. Make it the brilliant and confident beginning of your dazzling teaching career.

    Julie Scullen is a former president of the Minnesota Reading Association and Minnesota Secondary Reading Interest Council and is a current member of the International Literacy Association Board of Directors. She taught most of her career in secondary reading intervention classrooms and now serves as teaching and learning specialist for secondary reading in Anoka-Hennepin schools in Minnesota, working with teachers of all content areas to foster literacy achievement. She teaches graduate courses at Hamline University in St. Paul in literacy leadership and coaching, as well as reading assessment and evaluation.

     
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    Just One Book Is Not Enough

    by Julie Scullen
     | Aug 19, 2015

    ThinkstockPhotos-184808270_x300Want to stop a room in its tracks?

    When the conversation slows, say this: “When I was in middle school, I read one entire wall of our library. The fiction wall. A to Z.”

    Mouths will drop open. Faces will register both suspicion and respectful awe. Skeptical voices will ask, “But how big was the library?”

    I always think, “Does it matter?”

    There were eight fiction bookcases, floor to ceiling. I remember the exact position of the green bindings of the Nancy Drew books—about halfway across the wall, filling the bottom three shelves. Beverly Cleary’s books were near the door; one entire shelf was devoted to her work, and sometimes it spilled over onto the next. I remember convincing our librarian that I needed to check out more than my allotted three books at a time on the weekends. (She agreed to bend the rules.)

    I brought a book with me everywhere. Family gatherings, car rides, dinners out. My parents were alternately annoyed and proud.

    Yet, inexplicably, when my seventh-grade English teacher asked us to write a book report each quarter, I was annoyed. One lousy book report? Only one? My biggest problem was how to choose my favorite. It was like trying to choose between my children. How could I possible pick just one?

    So, unable to choose, I did what I knew was the right thing to do. I invented a book. I wrote two pages in response to my imaginary book, front and back, entirely in the required and proper format. Title. Author. Plot summary. Main character descriptions. Theme.

    When the day came to turn them in, I passed my work—neatly stapled, with the fuzzy notebook edges cut off —forward in the stack with the others. I held my breath.

    Then I waited.

    I dreamed of two scenarios:

    One, the teacher wouldn’t notice at all, proving I was a genius at writing fiction. She would ask me to bring her this book so she could read it herself, without even knowing she had been duped. When I explained, she would gasp, clutch her heart and tell me I needed to write this book. I owed it to readers everywhere.

    Two, she would immediately recognize the book as a fake, but encourage me to take my place among the great fiction writers of the day. Surely this book, once finished, belonged on the shelf next to Blume and Cleary.

    Ah, but my work went unnoticed. I’m sure it was placed in the “completed and formatted correctly” pile, graded accordingly, and passed back with a scratch-and-sniff sticker attached.

    Meanwhile, we completed grammar workbook pages and diagrammed sentences. We memorized the list of prepositions.

    But never once did we talk in class about what we read. Reading was a quiet, isolated activity.

    That was then, this is now. (Yes, that reference is intentional.)

    I’m so thankful that my own middle-schooler now lives in the world of real reading. The authentic reading world we learn of from the likes of Donalyn Miller, Kelly Gallagher, Doug Fisher, and Teri Lesesne. Talking about what we read is expected, especially during class. Nonfiction reading is encouraged and celebrated. Reading is meant to inspire. 

    Although my students and my own children may not ever read an entire wall of a library, I know they read widely and voraciously. They compare and contrast book characters and genres. They debate authors’ plot choices.

    Authors have become their heroes—and rightly so.

    Julie Scullen is a former president of the Minnesota Reading Association and Minnesota Secondary Reading Interest Council and is a current member of the International Literacy Association Board of Directors. She taught most of her career in Secondary Reading Intervention classrooms and now serves as Teaching and Learning Specialist for Secondary Reading in Anoka-Hennepin schools in Minnesota, working with teachers of all content areas to foster literacy achievement. She teaches graduate courses at Hamline University in St. Paul in literacy leadership and coaching, as well as reading assessment and evaluation.

     
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