Why (and How) I’m Planning to Use Contests in My Class this Year

7/1/18 Last week I attended the Advanced Placement Summer Institute about English Language and Composition (a.k.a. Lang) in Norman, Oklahoma. Miss Phyllis was the consultant for my class, and she was amazing! It felt like she knew everything I have done and taught in my Lang classes and was able to add just one little thing or one tweak to each assignment or lesson that makes it feel like it will be ten times more effective. I am really excited and ready to go back – and yet there are six or seven more weeks of summer during which I’ll misplace bits and pieces of that zest for the altered assignments.

But there is one profound thing that was brought up repeatedly and that I realized a year ago when a friend, Michelle Waters, started Invisible Young Voices, yet I haven’t managed to integrate into my classes – the power (necessity even) of an authentic audience. On, I have found groups to score my English 3 students’ research papers and presented prompts that list a supposed audience, but those do not inspire students to do a great job of changing their tone or diction because they know their final grades are based on whether they fulfill my instructions.

Phyllis argues that is not enough, and I agree. Writing contests abound, just waiting for teachers to find them and submit their students’ work. Each contest has an authentic audience and a real competition. Published prizes range from free food from a local restaurant to publication to cash to trips, but imagine the authentic learning that can occur when a class isn’t given an assignment to “tell me about your summer vacation” or “who is your hero?” but is instead told to “write a personal letter to an author, living or dead, from any genre—fiction or nonfiction, contemporary or classic, explaining how that author’s work changed the student’s way of thinking about the world or themselves” for a specific audience that they can research?

Let’s look at how I hope to change in my class next year. I usually have my students write a narrative about a time they got in trouble and learned a lesson. We talk about what narratives look like and how to use dialogue, but I usually get mostly lame stories about kids’ phones being taken away for a day or two with no real lesson learned – and not very engaging stories. But I think this fall we will study narratives and then students will have an opportunity to submit a narrative to a contest. I’ll provide several that are available, but I’ll allow students to find a different one if none of them I find fit their interests.

Here is an example: Oklahoma Station Chapter Safari Club International has an annual writing contest for high school students. Their prompt provides two possible themes:

  • Hunting:  Sharing the Heritage
  • Archery:  What I like about Archery in the Schools and Bowhunting

The invitation asks students to “develop an expository essay or short story” about one of the topics, then it provides the instructions and details (double-spaced on white, 8 1/2 x 11 paper, with 1 1/2 inch margins on top, bottom and sides, should not exceed 1,000 words (four typewritten pages) for short stories, or 500 words (two typewritten pages) for essays, be carefully proofed for spelling, punctuation, capitalization and grammar, completed entry form must be used as a cover sheet and stapled to the essay or short story).

Although my guidelines would probably be a little more stringent, the benefits of teaching students to follow the guidelines will outweigh writing another blah page of text. Indeed, the hunters in my classes (of which there are always several) might be inspired enough by the potential prize – a hunting trip at a private lodge or an antelope tag and trip – to consider making in-depth changes between drafts! But there is a more important lesson here – one that I can’t stress enough, yet students do not truly comprehend until they have a real audience: authors must always consider their audience to be rhetorically effective.

For this contest, there are two possible themes, and the best written essay will lose by a landslide if the essay or short story is not on topic or does not speak the language of the audience: a specific group of people with shared beliefs, educational backgrounds, political ideals, and core values. A student who researches the club can figure out what type of words to use, topics of interest to the selection committee, and faux pas to avoid.

My favorite benefit of using contests in class is that it will help with a lesson I’ve been struggling for years to teach effectively: following instructions is crucial and exceptions must be exceptional. Students often feel they should be the exception to the guidelines for any given assignment: but I was sick the day it was due, but my writing is so concise that two pages should be good enough for a five page paper, etc. With contests, I don’t have to be the bad guy! Instead, the assignment can be to submit to a verified contest following their guidelines. Students either do it or not.

I have not figured out at what point grading will come in, but it seems a large part of each grade should be following instructions and researching the audience. At this point, I’m open to suggestions…


Oklahoma Teacher Strike – Update

14 April 2018

For the past two weeks, Oklahoma teachers have been striking for sustainable education funding. The Thursday before, an education bill was passed that caused many school districts to celebrate not having to strike. But the next day, $50 million of the new funding was repealed. Then it became clear that there was a deeper problem – two of the other funding sources would be diverted to other state agencies after the first year. (To clarify, the cigarette tax would rightfully go to health services and the gas tax would rightfully go to roads and infrastructure.) At this point, districts across the state allowed teachers to call school off to rally at the Capitol in Oklahoma City.

Many people questioned why the teachers still decided to leave the classroom since pay raises and a bit of general education are now law. The answer is simple: we do not want to get a pay raise or increased education funding at a cost to other state functions. Period. We have tens of thousands more students (40,000-60,000 depending on the source) than in 2008, yet that is where our funding amount came from. Without a new dedicated revenue stream, the allocated money could result in decreased funding for mental health services, rural hospitals, corrections efforts, state parks, infrastructure projects and maintenance, and/or other core state services, any of which would turn right around and harm the students and families we are fighting for. Should the state minimum pay schedule for teachers be updated for the first time since I moved to Oklahoma? Absolutely! Should it be at the cost of other agencies? Absolutely not!

At this point, I need to remind you that this is a personal blog and my opinions do not reflect the opinions of anyone else. I say that because this whole episode has been frustrating and having a blog gives me an opportunity to vent a little. See, I’m neither a Democrat nor a Republican because I see strengths and weaknesses in both parties as a whole. However, I’ve always admired the Republican idea of fiscal responsibility and that illusion has been wiped out. To me, financial responsibility does NOT mean cutting taxes no matter the cost. Instead, I would consider it taxing only what needs to be taxed to provide the services necessary and then making sure all revenue collected is used appropriately. What I heard in the Capitol and from others who have visited with our state Representatives and Senators is that a few of our elected officials thing we should blindly trust them to “find” the funding (it’s not lost: it needs to be created) and that some “representatives” believe it is more important to “vote my conscience” that vote how constituents are asking (or, well, demanding!). To add insult to injury, our governor thinks we’re acting like spoiled teenagers.

Since the beginning of this referendum on education funding, I have voted most days to return to school, with the argument that any legislative body that bickers so much they didn’t pass last year’s budget until this legislative term probably will not listen to reason. I was really, REALLY hoping to be proven wrong, but that didn’t quite happen. Instead, we have our funding for the first year in place and teachers realized that our current Oklahoma Congress have dug in their heels. My district went back Wednesday because the majority of our teachers don’t want to play chicken with our kids’ futures. But that doesn’t mean we’ve given up – it means we move on to Plan B. We will now send delegates down to talk to those who might be willing to follow the will of the people instead of their “conscience” (which I read to mean “donors”).

But we have a more powerful tool that has gone underutilized to this point: voting. There is a program called Chalk the Vote – Oklahoma, and I am totally in. It’s an initiative by the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy (OICA) that will aim to find a “block captain” in each school, then “The block captains will receive and share policy updates regarding legislation, relevant state agency rules, nonpartisan electoral information regarding voter engagement and advocacy tools to help teachers engage with lawmakers. The goal is to maximize information, voting and political participation in Oklahoma’s education community.” So a day or two into the Walkout, I signed up to be a block captain. I’d encourage other educators who are frustrated to do the same. If we can vote in people who would rather support, advocate for, and properly fund our constitutional free public schools that steal tax dollars for private schools, we can make a huge difference.

Whew! After all that, I have to admit that the discussions in the Capitol were not all frustrating and noncommittal. There were several representatives and senators who had great plans, hope, and words of encouragement. With just a few more like that, I think Oklahoma schools could be properly funded without making my husband or brother-in-law (both state employees) lose their job. There is hope for a change after November! In the meantime, there is adoptaclassroom.org, donorschoose.org, and other sources where we can enlist help from others to pay for desks, books, art supplies, etc. The general public really does support public education, and they are willing to help when they learn there is a need.

Oklahoma Teachers’ Strike – Coming Soon

Today is Sunday, so I just got off the #oklaed Twitter chat. We discussed digital literacy and how to make it better, but throughout the discussion, there were little reminders about the upcoming teachers strike, set to begin April 2, 2018. After more than a decade of no pay raises and a series of cuts to per-pupil spending, teachers are unionizing (not so much as in a union as just working together) to close down public education until the Oklahoma Legislature decides to do something.

I’m torn. On the one hand, I agree with all that has been proven and argued about how much our education system needs an influx of cash to keep teachers in the state, to get new textbooks or e-books, to replace leaky toilets and outdated lighting. I know single parents who are trying to raise their kids on a teaching salary – they are surviving but not thriving. Knowing that I could drive just a few miles north to Kansas and make a LOT more is tempting, except I like my school and my coworkers and students enough to stay. Something has got to be done to make Oklahoma’s education less of an afterthought and more something we (educators, parents, students, community members) can be proud of.

On the other hand, I have to question “Why now?” Oklahoma’s Constitution does not allow the state to go into debt, so our current legislators just didn’t approve a budget until next year’s budget was supposed to be well into the works. Instead, they just bickered and argued through last spring’s legislative session – and then through two special sessions at $30,000/day. (Yes, you read that right: a new teacher’s annual salary per day is what it costs for our state to have a special session.) During that time, my husband’s job (he works for the State) has been on the hypothetical chopping block and could end up there again.

Weighing these contributing factors, I find it difficult to believe that our Legislature will work collectively to fund pay raises for teachers who they see to be “akin to extortionists“. Rumor has it (I have heard from numerous sources yet have not found any actual proof) that legislators have already said they can outlast teachers – and I believe them! We are the ones that work with students every day, who have their best interest at heart, who know the statistics about education AND which students they actually apply to. But not every district has the community support of Bartlesville, where $20,000 has been raised to pay for childcare and feeding during the strike. Some districts have recently stopped getting state aid, so they are not participating, either.

Don’t get me wrong, though! There are several Oklahoma Legislators who have been trying to get some kind of funding bill passed to help raise education expenditures, but that now takes a 75% majority, which is pretty hard to attain in a Republican state where tax cuts are the most popular thing to vote for. In order for the Walk-Out (sorry, I forgot that we’re not supposed to use the word strike) to succeed, we have to believe that those who refused to budge on their fiscal policies for nearly a year would be willing to do so now, but I’m not yet convinced.

My Summer “Off” So Far

7/9/17 Summer is about half over, yet I haven’t accomplished any of my long list of personal tasks I wanted to get done on my summer “off.” However, I have been to a week of Advanced Placement Summer Institute. Then there is the special team I’m on to create a curriculum for some character building activities my school is going to implement. And I’ve been to Norman twice so far to work with state Curriculum Framework Writers for our new ELA standards. Then there is the homework that comes with that job. Whew! We’re helping create tools for teachers to implement the new standards seamlessly, which is exciting, but it’s not really conducive to a summer “off,” which people keep telling me I’m having.

Am I complaining? Nope. I love feeling like I am bettering myself and preparing for a successful upcoming year. I look forward to learning new tools and techniques to educate my students better. I hope everything done this summer makes a difference in the lives of my students.

And yes. When people find out I’m a teacher, I can depend on a couple of comments:

  1. Wow, that’s brave of you.
  2. Isn’t it great to have summers off?

I don’t mind the misconception too much, except when I look at my unfulfilled personal goals and realize I could be what so many people expect of teachers. I could refuse to do anything educational over the summer. I could take the whole summer to do my own thing. I could even take off and pretend I have nothing better to do than swim and be lazy all summer.

Except I can’t.  I’m a teacher. And I can’t take that much time off or I might lose my edge!

(I’d like to note, however, that my family does take priority over the summer! We have been swimming and even traveled a bit. And we do have the second half of the summer to try to get more done around the house…)

Why Teachers Dislike Cell Phones (It’s not what you probably think.)

My students are mostly juniors in high school. To them (like most people today), their cell phones are like an extension of themselves and being separated can nearly cause withdrawal symptoms. However, my reasons for obeying and enforcing my District’s no-phone-in-class rules do not actually stem from a fear of students taking horrible footage of my rare lapses in decorum nor from some latent streak of Schadenfreude in my personality. Instead, I enforce the District rules to 1) be a professional who follows the rules of the “Company” for whom I work, 2) follow our District’s Mission Statement that declares we are to provide each student “…the opportunity to acquire the needed skills for successful living and lifelong learning,” and 3) teach in an environment intentionally without distractive technology (more on the term “distractive” later).

The first reason to ban the use of cell phones during class is, quite simply, a matter of professionalism. Anyone who wants to be treated as a professional have to earn that respect by following the rules of the profession – and of their employers. Ergo, phones may not be used in class. The district thought out the reasons behind the cell phone ban before putting it in place – and it makes sense! Cyber bullying, cheating, and being distracted are just a few of the myriad negatives that occur when students have free reign of their phones in class.

The second reason to enforce a rule already in place is to provide real world experience for students. The school year is not quite over, yet I have heard of several students this year who have already lost their jobs because they either didn’t show up on time, couldn’t understand why someone else (their boss!) could deny them time off, or didn’t believe that the no-phone policy applied to them. I consider these issues a bad sign for our future, so I’m doing my part to help students realize that there are times when they cannot do whatever they want  – and when they’ll have to remember the tidbit of gossip they just learned for a whole 50 minutes before they SnapChat it for the rest of their world.

Once upon a time, teachers complained that students talked too much. Sadly, I try to convince my students to chat with the student(s) next them (yes, real talking) instead of texting their classmates the same thing from a desk or two away. Taking away the device forces students to choose between working on their own or collaborating with their classmates – and productivity (or at least understanding of the topic) often goes up.

The final reason to make everyone follow the District rules is to keep my students focused.  Phones are inherently distracting. If someone calls (ha ha, who would use a phone for that these days?), texts, or posts something, my students immediately feel the need to respond. Like any obsession or habit, this constant use of a cell phone is dangerous, perhaps not to the physical well being, but to the educational pursuits of the student. These students often have a hard time focusing because they have a constant worry that they might be missing something, which means their focus is anywhere other than their school work.

So, why am I aboard the no-phones-in-class train? Because I want my students to learn the real world skills of putting their phone down and concentrating on topics outside of their “social” world. Please join me in ushering in an era of phone-free classrooms where students can learn to concentrate on the lessons at hand.

Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3

So, apparently, today is it. The day I start blogging. After hearing pleas from other educators on the weekly #OklaEd Twitter Chat (almost every Sunday at 8:00 pm CST – open to all teachers, administrators, parents, legislators, concerned citizens, students… okay, anyone who is interested!), a few of us agreed that we’d be willing to blog – occasionally. We don’t want the pressure of keeping up a full-time blog, but we’d like to collaborate (a key phrase in all things educational these days) on a blog about education in Oklahoma.

In order to participate, you have to sign up for a WordPress account, so viola, I have an account. Might as well ramble a bit, right? So here is my story to the frequent question: Why’d you become a teacher?

I blame it on my mom. She encouraged me to volunteer throughout junior high and high school. That led to me becoming a tutor in high school, first for other high schoolers and then for illiterate adults in the next town over (I’m not from Oklahoma, so I won’t drop names of towns). Then in college I took a class so I could get a paid job in our Writing Center. There I loved working with students who were struggling to write, which became a passion for working with ESL (English as a Second Language) students, which led to me pursuing my Masters in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (MA-TESOL), which led to me teaching college composition classes, which led me to graduation.

Somewhere in there, though, I got married to a young man from Oklahoma. We thought it would be easy to get a job teaching ESL in Oklahoma, but we didn’t anticipate the cost of the tests and getting alternatively certified (since my degrees weren’t from Oklahoma). So two broke college graduates did the only thing that made sense – we got jobs that didn’t initially cost us anything. My husband became a parts sales manager at an automotive retailer and I worked at a clothing store. Soon I got a job working for the State as an Administrative Assistant (hello health insurance!). Soon after, my husband got his dream job working in a State Park.

We moved away from the Oklahoma City area to the Northeastern part of the state – and I had to get another job. We still didn’t have money for tests and applications (paying more for student loans than most people pay for their rent or mortgage will do that!), so I found a job at a local oil field inspection company. By the time I made enough money to become a teacher, I was making too much to give it up!

That is, I was until I got the Itch. Yep, it’s like a disease, this desire to make a difference somewhere other than the pocket of an international conglomerate; this hope that time and attention helping others learn to become productive and caring citizens might make our world a better place; this set of ideals that make me think helping young sub-adults learn to focus, to listen, to organize and clarify their own (not their parents’, not their neighbors’, nor their friends’) ideas might someday help us change our world for the better. I got it bad and finally had the means to get back to what I was meant to do.

I’m now in my third year of teaching. I teach English 3 (aka Junior English or American Literature) and alternate between AP Language and AP Literature. I’ve been attending the #oklaed chats for a little over a year and find it’s empowering to talk about  education issues with people who get it and care – and even more amazing to attend a conference in Tulsa, Norman, or OKC and meet people whose handle I know from Twitter (although they don’t always look like I have envisioned).

Now I’m beginning the whole blog thing. I doubt I’ll blog often because I think a bit differently than some vocal people and I’m still new enough to the “game” of education that I know there is a lot I don’t know. But maybe if someone reads my thoughts and can provide some alternative views, I can learn more – and at a faster rate than I am now. Perhaps my thoughts can inspire others to see things in a new light, too, which could be enlightening for us both.

It’s possible, even, that someone might be able to link more of us together and we can fight for Oklahoma’s children effectively with research and real-life stories that could be the finishing touch to convince someone our children deserve effective teachers in every classroom, classes small enough for a teacher to be effective, and the supplies they need to finish they assignments they’d rather text than complete.

And, even if none of that happens, perhaps it will be cathartic.