Monday, July 7, 2014

Teaching 365

I haven't been a teacher for very long, less than 10 years, to be exact. In that time, I have become gradually more involved in my job through professional advancement and moving into different capacities at the schools where I've worked. As time passes, I realize that being a classroom teacher, or one of many other kinds of education professionals, is really a 365-day-a-year job. Well, all right... Maybe 350 if you count holidays.

When I was a paraeducator, my first job working in schools, I had summers off. This was especially great since I had just finished earning my first teaching license and was starting in earnest on my Master's degree. While still a para, I was hired to be the director of the 21st Century Community Learning Center program at my school; this was a giant, five-year, mega-bucks grant that our school had been awarded. My working hours shifted a bit to include evenings and some weekends, but I got to work from home a bit, which was a nice trade. When I left my paraeducator job and went full-bore into the world of after school and summer learning, I quickly adopted a nights, weekends, and summer schedule: my first taste of the 365-day life of someone who works with kids (parents, you know what I mean!).

Finally, when I got my first consistent work as a classroom teacher just about two years ago, I learned what summers are really for. Yes, they are for barbeques with my family, trying out my new kayak, seeing friends, reading good books, and staying up late, but there is also a whole host of activities that summer brings for a teacher like me.

Here are some of the things I have been working on since school let out on June 16th!

  • Networking: 
Sure, it may look like I'm sitting in my PJs enjoying countless cups of coffee on my sunny front porch or curled up in my favorite chair with my iPad, but guess what? I'm participating in my digital professional learning network (PLN). As @KateGagner, I am part of five tweet chats every week and a few more groups have recently invited me. On Saturday mornings, I have back-to-back sessions starting at 7:30am; both are moderated but they allow for me to freely talk and share ideas with teachers all over the world. There is a similar chat on Sunday mornings, which mercifully starts at 9am, and one on Thursday nights at 9pm. On Monday nights, I am honored to be a part of a book chat with education illuminatus Grant Wiggins, who wrote the seminal tome Understanding By Design (it was among the first books I bought for my licensure coursework). This chat takes the book apart chapter by chapter and the educators in the group share all kinds of ideas about lesson and unit design, classroom management, engagement and motivation, and having fun with teaching and learning, among other things. Thursdays, I am part of a Next Generation Science Standards chat. Hurricane Arthur wrecked that one for us last week, so I will begin meeting with that group for the first time in just a couple of days. In addition to my regularly-scheduled chats, there is an educational technology group that I bop in and out of and a bunch of hashtags that I follow to stay up to date and engage in fun, useful conversations with other educators.
  • Planning
Thankfully, I was a project manager in my previous career and I'm pretty open about being Type-A, so planning isn't as bad as mucking the stalls or, say, jogging. So far, I have created The Gagner Gang's weekly schedule for the 2014-2015 school year and have a rough outline of the units and topics we will engage with during Humanities (Science/S.S.) times. I have also plotted our year's worth of Themes, Dreams, & Schemes, our master "year-at-a-glance" that covers everything from what Math units we're doing to what read aloud books we'll enjoy together. It is broken into months and pairs of months at this point and later I will get more specific. It's kind of like building any model: start with the bones and then build up until you're ready to decorate the outermost layers. It's pretty magical to see a year start to take shape! Once I am done with the macro-level things, I get down to the first few weeks of school, making sure that we get all of the requisite social, emotional, and academic scaffolds in place to send us all off on a year of discovery and hard, but fun and rewarding, work together.
  • Collaborating: 
Because most teachers are busy outside of school for chunks of the summer, I try to capitalize on my colleagues' time when they are available to chat about certain things that we need to decide for the coming year. This means a LOT of emailing to start and eventually face-to-face meetings, especially as the first days of school draw closer. My teaching partner, Kelly Pierpont, and I will discuss schedules so that our classrooms can collaborate as often as possible and are working on similar themes. I will also be working with our special educators, Literacy teacher, and Math coordinator to make sure that my students and I have the resources we need for the coming year, be it supplies or time working with other teachers. We are fortunate to have a new principal this year who is a dear colleague of mine from my time at Hinesburg Community School, so I have been in contact with Mrs. Knox a bunch as well to help her get to know Monkton Central School. All of this communicating is really inspiring and gives me a sense of moving forward and accomplishing so much before we even have boots on the ground. Hurrah!
  • Developing Professionally:
In addition to tweet chats and meetings, the summer brings some time to try out new things. I have been perusing a bunch of books and magazines that I purchased over the course of the last few months and revisiting classics from my Master's program to make sure that my teaching practice is full of life and up-to-date. Right now, I am really keyed in to Reading In The Wild by Donalyn Miller as well as a bunch of books on Vocabulary instruction so that I can improve the efficiency of our daily Word Study time. I also take time to try out new technologies (apps, websites, etc.) that I read about or hear about from people in my PLN. There is always something new to try! Next week, I will be co-presenting the keynote address at the Create Make Learn technology education conference, so I have been gearing up for that with the conference organizer as well as one of my students and her mom, who are part of the keynote team. We will be sharing our story of implementing personalized learning plans in my classroom last year. Sound fun? Well you're in luck; we'll be going whole-hog with PLPs this year too! Toward the end of July, I am taking part in a maker education conference in Vermont. If you haven't heard of the makerspace movement in education, check out the two previous blog posts for some ideas about what Science time will look like in Room 110 this year (and don't forget to check out our Donors Choose to help us get more supplies!). You can also follow me on Twitter for all kinds of reading material about the maker movement and other musings.
  • Cleaning & Organizing: 
What inspired me to write this post was actually this particular item on my Teacher's To Do list! Today, I have been reorganizing the hundreds of apps on our class's three iPad minis--can you imagine a more detail-oriented task? Last year, we were lucky to get three iPad minis for our classroom; two were donated by a group of wonderful parents and one was purchased with money our class raised by having a very successful school dance. We tried to organize the apps and iPads as best we could last year, but this year I am taking a new approach and organizing the iPads by task. We will have one dedicated to STEAM applications, including many apps linked to our district's "Digital Backpack" IT education program as well as apps for coding, makerfaire, design, engineering, art... you name it! A second iPad will be dedicated to resources to support learning in the core content areas, and the third mini will be for me to use when I facilitate whole group instruction and for classroom management and data collection. In addition to digital cleaning, there is also a ton of work that has to happen to get Room 110 in tip-top shape for the new year. This involves all kinds of collaboration with Mrs. Knox and with Mr. Raymond and Mr. LaRock, our building managers, so that painting and furniture moving can happen without issue. Once I settle on a schematic to start the year, it'll mean a couple hot days moving everything around in the classroom until I get it just right.
  • Ordering: 
A purchase order is about as much fun as rugburn, but they are a necessary evil when it comes to stocking up for the new year. Right now, I have three going at once and one ready to send to Ms. Castle, our administrative assistant. Our budget is pretty small (aren't they always?!), so it means looking at multiple vendors to make sure I am getting the best price on the supplies we need. Much of my ordering is to satisfy our upcoming Science program, so at least it's fun looking through all of those cool catalogues and deciding which gadgets and tinker tools we'll need for our class makerspace.
  • Did I say "Planning" already?
Oh, I did? Okay. Well, it comes up a lot.
  • Dreaming:
Now this is the fun part! In addition to thinking a lot about what worked and what didn't last year and what I will need to adjust for this year, I love thinking about the systems I want to put in place for students as well as field trips, activities, and the all around good times that we're going to have in the year to come. I am excited at meeting my new students and glad to have half of my class returning to get to know them even better. One of the ideas I'm working through right now is a Common Core merit badge system, a lot like the one I used in Girl Scouts. Students will earn badges for mastering core skills in English/Language Arts and Math. It's a giant project, but one that's fun to mull over in my mind. Being in a constantly-evolving job like teaching means that I'm always living in the realm of possibility and the lazy days of summer, with long walks and quiet hours in the sun, are the perfect time to think about what's to come!

I do take time off here and there, like I said earlier, to walk the dogs, garden, kayak, do chores, and just relax but what I'm noticing about teaching at this stage of my career is that it's hard to turn off. And I'm very okay with that!


  1. Kate I couldn't agree more. When you love what you do it's fun to stay engaged all year long. I spent the day drinking coffee and planning myself. My only wish is that we had more time to reflect and plan throughout the year. Anyone else think 9'weeks on 3 weeks off would be beneficial?

  2. Gillian, I have been in my classroom almost every day since our dream team of building managers finished waxing the floors about two weeks ago. I think it is one of my favorite places to be in the world; during the summer, you can almost feel the potential and I feel as though if the space can inspire me, imagine what it will do for my students! The thoughtfulness that the summer break provides is so great and I wholeheartedly agree that more of this type of time during the year to help us reflect would really strengthen our practices. I had heard that the nine on/three off schedule would also provide intervention and enrichment time for students. If we could get that right, it could really add a lot to how we teach and learn. Thanks for starting the conversation!