Thursday, March 30, 2017

Simple Things: A to Z

Happy Sunday! I know I skipped last Sunday, but I'm back on track this week. I feel as though this is a survey I have completed before, but I’m sure at least some of my answers have changed (though, I’m sure many of my answers have remained the same, so it would be interesting to compare the two). Anyway, this school week has been chock full of standardized testing, and it tends to be exhausting for all who are involved. And it can be easy to get bogged down in all of the little details, so I figured an A to Z list of the little things that make me happy would make for a fantastic Sunday survey. Enjoy!

The Simple Things: A to Z

A – Anthropologie. Even if I don’t make a purchase, there is something so soothing about strolling through such a classic, beautiful store.

B – Books. And reading underneath a blanket for some extra “B” action. I hate that I don’t have nearly enough time to read during the school year, but I certainly make up for it on holiday breaks.

C – Chacos. There is nothing better than Chaco and shorts weather.

D – Dark chocolate. I can’t remember the last time I went a day without it.

E – Exercise. Running, swimming, biking, walking – you name it, I’m all over it. And I’m grateful every day for the ability to do so.

F – Frozen yogurt. What would a post on fitnessandfroyo be without mention of frozen yogurt? Though I don’t eat it quite as often as I used to (note: every single day after volleyball practice senior year), I look forward to it all the same.

G – Game shows. Call me an old lady, but The Price is Right, Jeopardy, Family Feud, and Chain Reaction are my JAM!

H – Houston. As much as I love traveling, there is no place like home. Humidity and all.

I – Inspiring athletes. Okay, I stole Julie’s letter “I”. I wanted to use Olympics for “O”, but then I found a way to use both the Olympics and other people’s stories. And it gets better. As talented as these athletes are, it’s their stories that really steal my heart.

J – Journals. I live and breathe by the to-do lists I keep in my pink, spiral-bound journal. And when I was younger, I can’t tell you how many different journals I started. Started being the operative word here.

K – Kindness. Because “K” is a tough letter, but also because a kind word or action can go such a long way.

L – Letters in the mail. Is there a daymaker more than opening up your mailbox and seeing a letter in the mail? Something other than boring bills, of course.

M – Mack. It goes without saying that this sweet puppy is the light of my life, and the best greeting a girl could receive upon walking through the front door. He stole my heart from the moment I picked him up in Dimebox, and he has continued to be my single greatest decision.

N – Notes, of the handwritten variety, especially. I’m convinced that they’re my love language, and I cherish every single handwritten note I have ever received.

O – Other people’s stories. Ultimately, I want to become a high school counselor. Maybe not anytime soon (maybe as soon as I can afford grad school!), but there is nothing I enjoy more than sitting down and listening to someone tell his or her story. I love learning what makes up a person, and what has put each person on his or her current journey.

P – Puns. Anytime is the right time for a pun.

Q – Quotes. Guys, I am such a sucker for inspiring quotes. When I was younger, I would type up all of my favorite quotes, getting the font type and color just right before printing them, cutting them into strips, and gluing them into a journal.

R – Running. In case you’re new around here, running is a huge part of my life. It challenges me, it keeps me focused, it humbles me, and most of all, it sets me free.

S – Sunshine. Sunsets, sunrises – I will always choose a sunny day over a gloomy one. That is why, as much as I loved Seattle and Portland, it rained far too much for my liking. By Friday evening, I was 110% over it. But those rainy days made the sunshine-y moments all the more worth it.

T – Traveling. There is so much beauty in this world, and I want to see it all. Traveling allows me to experience the beauty and wonder that is all around me, and it puts me far outside my comfort zone.

U – University of Texas. I will hold my horns high until Gabriel blows his horn. Hook them forever.

V – Volleyball. The sport that gave me so much growing up, and the sport that continues to give me so much as an adult.

W – Writing. One of the reasons I have committed to writing at least one blog post a week is because I have such a passion for writing. I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily the best writer around, but it brings me a whole lot of joy. 

X – Xerox machine? Some mornings, it’s my lifesaver. Teachers, ya feel me?

Y – Yogurt. My go-to breakfast in the mornings. Annnnnd perhaps my late-morning snack? What can I say? When I find something I like, I stick with it. 

Z – Zucchini muffins. I make a batch or two of these muffins every couple of weeks, and after almost a year, I have yet to get sick of them. Healthy, but a little bit indulgent all at the same time. Can’t beat it!

And with that, I'm off to run! And rock the sand volleyball semi-finals. Busy Sunday, but I've got nothing to complain about. Fingers crossed the rain holds off! Have a great one!

Sunday, March 26, 2017

To My Students: You Are More

Tomorrow my ~120 freshmen students will shuffle to their assigned classrooms (hopefully on time, and really hopefully with a pencil) to sit down for five hours and take the English 1 STAAR (State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness) exam. And that makes me a little bit sick to my stomach.

First year tackling the STAAR
Not because it’s a reflection on me, and the work I have done with them in the classroom for the past seven months (though it definitely is those things), but because in a couple of months, my students will be given a score: PASS or FAIL. And many of my students will attach their worth to that score. It will supposedly confirm what they have been told about themselves as students for years: that they aren’t capable. That they aren’t smart. That they shouldn’t even bother trying in their classes because, what’s the point? They aren’t going to pass anyway. This STAAR test has told them so.

And it sounds silly, but unfortunately, it’s true. At the beginning of February, every single student in the freshman class sat for a Mock STAAR exam. And I’m so grateful that we are allowed to give that exam each year, as it allows our students to actually experience what it’s like to sit through a test of this length. It is a test of endurance, and some of them realize they lack the focus to hang on for that long. So, it’s good for them to experience it before they sit for the real thing. But getting back to my point, we gave them this mock exam, and many of my students were disappointed in how they performed. I was a little bit disappointed in how they performed, if I’m being completely honest. Some of my very top students were scoring in the 70’s range, and while that’s not necessarily bad, it was far lower than what I believed them capable.

Until my PLC sat down and analyzed the results. And the questions. And we ended up throwing out FIVE of them because even we couldn’t determine or agree on why the right answer was the right answer. FIVE questions. Out of fifty. And as we continued to look at each question, we found faults with others. Maybe the question was worded poorly, or there wasn’t really a best answer. Or the lexile level of some of the stories given was FAR above a 9th grade reading level. And it further reiterated how totally bogus I think this test is.

A Friday text from a fellow STAAR-testing teacher
This test – designed to see if high school freshmen are on a 9th grade level for reading and writing – is longer in length than the SAT. And during the SAT, there are scheduled breaks! If my students need to use the restroom, it comes out of their testing time.

I wrote my own essay - that box makes it tough!
I’ve hit on this test before, most recently in my post following the seemingly last-minute announcement of the removal of the Short Answer Response questions from the test. And as I have mentioned before, I do not hate the idea of a timed, sit-down, multiple choice and written exam. Because the reality is, no matter what path my students take following high school, each one of them will be facing some sort of entrance exam. It is important that they have experience in this type of environment. What bothers me is that this test drives so much of what we do in the classroom, when there are so many other, cooler, more relevant things we could be doing. The fact that these students are still taking the same exact type of test that I took when I was in high school is a huge problem. Because the world these kids live in today is so incredibly different than it was when I was in high school. And that was only seven years ago!

Their progress with technology has been off the charts
This test, when it comes down to it, gets my students a score dependent on how they perform in one set five-hour period. On a set date. No matter how they’re feeling. No matter what they went home to last night. No matter what fight they got into with their boyfriend or girlfriend during lunch yesterday. As silly as it may have been. No matter what’s on their minds. And while there’s something to be said about being able to put things on hold to focus on the task in front of you, we also have to remember that these kiddos are 14 and 15 years old.

Boston Bound
This quote comes from a book ultimately written about running. This book is a fantastic read, and while it talks about this particular runners’ experience in trying to qualify for the prestigious Boston Marathon, at this book’s core, it’s meant to be applicable to all aspects of life. And it is. And while gaining entry to the Boston Marathon takes months and months of disciplined, focused training, the training isn’t taken into account when applying for entry into the prestigious Boston race. Participation on Marathon Monday takes the months and months of preparation PLUS everything else working in your favor – weather, staying injury-free, good nutrition and hydration, and so on. Sure, you put in the hard work, but if one thing goes wrong on test day, that’s it. It doesn’t take away from the hard work you put in, of course, but ultimately, the results are the only thing that matters.

I sure hope that's what we're doing!
And to miss what you were working so hard for, trust me, I know, feels like it erases all of that hard work. And for many of my students, a missed performance on that set day can seemingly erase what so many of them have worked so hard for. And that kills me. Because this test measures how you perform on one day. But what this test doesn’t measure is the real problem.

To my students – You have put in months and months of hard work. Seven of them, in fact. And we will continue to work after you take the STAAR test, despite your inevitable pleas to just watch movies, because we’re done with the STAAR test and that’s all that matters. Except that it doesn’t. Okay, it does matter. But your scores on the STAAR test is not my main focus anymore. The score you guys receive on this test does not reflect the growth you have made from day one to day 133. It doesn’t reflect the digital portfolios that you guys have started. It doesn’t reflect your willingness to go along with my attempts to meet you where you’re at in terms of technology. It doesn’t reflect the discussions we have had over real world issues facing you guys and your families today. It doesn’t reflect the way you have learned to respectfully disagree with your classmates, while still holding onto your beliefs. It doesn’t reflect the way some of you have hung onto the words of the book I’m reading aloud to you, some of you for the first time in your lives. It doesn’t reflect the laughs we’ve shared in class, the cool tidbits I’ve learned about each one of you, and this test certainly doesn’t determine your worth as a student or a human being. You groan when you walk into my room and see that lined paper waiting to be picked up, and quite frankly, I don’t blame you. Because it’s one less day that we get to tackle something more important than a 26-line essay. It’s one less day that we get to feed off of one another’s thoughts and questions and have stimulating discussions. It’s one less day that we can explore all that this World Wide Web has to offer you guys. And no matter what this test holds for you tomorrow, know that you are so much more than this test. You have a teacher who could not be more proud of the work you have put in this year, and despite the fact that she doesn’t really believe in the validity of this particular test, she has all the confidence in the world in each one of you.

I don’t have the answer as to what should be used to measure whether our students are 9th, 10th, 11th, or 12th grade ready. Because I recognize that we have to have something. But perhaps that something looks different from the way it looks right now. Perhaps it focuses more on growth rather than on a score. Perhaps it focuses more on what ignites each students’ passion, rather than on a cheesy prompt asking them to define friendship.

Tomorrow, as I count my steps walking up and down the rows of students, actively monitoring, if you will, I hope that each one of my students knows that this test does not define them. That they have done work this year that has blown my expectations out of the water. And that no matter their score on this silly standardized test, I will always be proud of them. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

Solo Travel: My Thoughts

Hello from Houston! I am back from a most marvelous vacation. A much-needed escape from reality. A trip to a part of the country I had never before experienced. And it was absolutely beautiful. Cold and rainy much of the time, but absolutely jaw-dropping. And it reminded me, as every trip I take reminds me, that there is so much beauty in this world if we only take the time to get out there to explore and appreciate it. I am always so grateful for the opportunity to travel, and I will never regret money the money I spend to see other parts of the country and world. Even if it means I’m never shopping at Anthropologie again. But there is nothing I love more than sitting down on my couch and scrolling through photos from a past trip, remembering how I felt in that moment, reflecting on everything that I learned (though I still don’t know what was in that lotion that I was allergic to … ), and appreciating the fact that I put myself outside of my comfort zone.

And nothing puts me more outside my comfort zone than traveling solo. Actually, my trip to Argentina this past summer was my first TRUE solo travel experience. I had traveled with friends, I had vacationed with family, but this was my first time having to plan out everything on my own. And then execute it. And I shocked quite a few people with the announcement that I would be traveling to South America 100% by myself. I have friends who still don’t really understand why I did that. And in the days leading up to my departure, I wasn’t really so sure myself. But once I got over there, and I experienced the freedom that comes with traveling solo, I vowed that I would do it again. So, I did. I stayed in the country this time around, but it was an adventure nonetheless. And for those of you who remain skeptical about the benefits of traveling solo, I’ve put together a list of reasons why I think everyone should do it – at least once.

1. You’re forced to spend time with yourself
It sounds silly, but how often do you spend time with just yourself? As a high school teacher, I don’t have a ton of moments to myself. I’m either teaching English or coaching volleyball, and when I’m not, I’m talking to a student or colleague before school. I’m helping a student with test corrections on a recent exam. I’m talking to an assistant principal about a student. And I love everything about my job. But traveling solo forces me to learn how to be alone with my own thoughts. It forces me to make my own decisions. It forces me to reflect on the day and my relationships and what is truly important to me. The things I sometimes miss when I’m constantly surrounded by others.

2. You meet and converse with new people
When you travel by yourself, you don’t have the ease of turning to your friend or family member and tuning out or ignoring everyone around you. But when you’re by yourself, you don’t have that option. Sure, you can talk to yourself, and have people think you’re crazy, or you can keep to yourself, which I definitely do much of the time, but you can also engage in conversation with those around you. People are so interesting if you just take the time to listen and talk to them. And as someone who loves hearing other people’s stories, this is such a gift of traveling solo. I fifth wheeled (literally, on a biking wine tour) with two of the most fascinating couples when I was in Mendoza. They weren’t much older than I am, but they have been ALL over the world and have experienced so much. It left me hungry for more! And on the bus back to my place in Seattle, I had the most lively bus driver, and I overheard a conversation he was having with a fellow passenger about college basketball teams and March Madness. When that passenger got off the bus, I chatted with him about my beloved Longhorns, and he had much to say about Mack Brown, Charlie Strong, and the recent hiring of Tom Herman. I got off the bus with an unexpected smile on my face due to an unexpected conversation with a stranger.

3. You realize that there are still kind people in the world
Going along with the meeting and conversing with new people, you realize that there are still kind people in the world. When I travel, my faith in humanity is restored. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely some goonies out there, but more often than not, you realize how wonderful other people truly are. When I was in Argentina, people were more than willing to point me in the direction I wanted to go. Most recently, I was cutting it extremely close to make my flight back home to Houston from Portland. The airport shuttle was running late, and a man, who happened to be standing in the lobby when all of this was going down, so graciously offered to take me to the airport so as to not miss my flight. He expected nothing in return, rather he offered the parting words that he had experienced the ordeal of missing a flight, and was glad to be able to help to make sure that I did not have to go through that.

4. You feel a sense of freedom and independence
One of the best things about traveling solo is being on your own schedule. I can wake up when I want, I can eat what I want, when I want (dessert before dinner? Sure thing!), and I can spend as much or as little time as I want at each of my destinations. One of my biggest regrets (annoyances?) is that I didn’t get to spend as much time as I would have liked roaming Shakespeare & Company while in Paris, but my cousin wanted to move onto a museum. But being on my own allows me to spend hours in a bookstore, and enough time in a museum to appreciate the artwork, but not so much that my eyes glaze over. I prefer to walk everywhere, as that’s often when you discover the most hidden gems, but not everyone is down to walk a mile or two in the cold rain. And while I typically like to pack my days full of activity, I can also slow it down if I want to, and not worry about messing up anybody else’s schedule. I can march to the beat of my own drum – the true sense of being an “independent woman”.

5. You learn how to handle bumps in the road
It wouldn’t be a vacation if you didn’t hit some sort of mishap. And I’ve managed to have a couple of them with each trip that I take. And while I can call my dad and moan to him about my problems, ultimately, he’s in Houston, and I’m wherever I am, so it’s up to me to get it figured out. If I’m lost, I better figure out how to read a map and get myself going in the right direction. If I’m having an allergic reaction, I better get myself to the closet medic. And the best part is – you do adapt, and you do figure it out. You may have to ask for a little help along the way, but you get done what you need to get done. I’m so used to calling my parents whenever something doesn’t go my way, but traveling solo forces me to make the decisions that I’m more than capable of making.

6. You step outside your comfort zone and experience new things
I’m an introvert to my core. And I’m also Type A to my core. Which means I love having a routine. I live and breathe by my schedule. I wake up at the same time each day, eat very similar meals at pretty much the same time each day – it’s what’s comfortable for me. But as much as I love having a routine, it’s also so necessary to get out of that routine every once in a while and experience something new. Growth happens outside your comfort zone – trying new food, trying new methods of transportation (side note: I absolutely LOVE figuring out public transportation systems when in a new city or country!), walking with no direction, and being okay with things not going according to your plan. My days spent traveling are never anything like my days in Houston, and I’m pretty okay with that.

7. You read a lot of books
You’re traveling alone, but you still have to eat. And for whatever reason, the very thought of eating alone terrifies some people. And while I love a shared meal, I love dining solo, with just a book to keep me company. It’s crazy to me how, when I’m eating at home, I tend to reach for my phone to keep me company. But when I’m traveling, I always reach for a book over my phone. Maybe it’s because I feel as though I’ve taken a step away from my typically fast-paced lifestyle, and I can put the phone away for more than 45 minutes. That whatever book I’m engrossed in is more important than what was posted on Instagram. While I’m definitely posting pictures of my trip as I go, I also feel less pressured to keep up with the social media scene, and instead escape into the world of the characters in my book.

8. You learn what’s important to you
I learned that I am the type of girl who spends all of 20 minutes getting ready in the morning. I throw on athletic clothes, brush my teeth, and pull my curly mane back into a braid. I don’t have to have every hair in place before I leave, nor do I spend any time putting on make-up. I get up early, and I’m quickly out the door ready to begin a jam-packed day. I learned that I’m the type of person who values outdoor adventures over spending hours in a museum. There is definitely a time and a place for museum exploration, but I cap off at about an hour. I learned that I’m a planner. Okay, I already knew that, but I like to start my day with some sort of plan. I may add and subtract from there, but I like to have a sense of direction to my day. Otherwise, I often feel as though I’m wandering around aimlessly. I do some of my best wandering when on vacation, but I like to have a purpose to my wanders.

And most of all, you learn. Traveling – be it solo, with family, or with friends, is such a learning experience that I hope I never take for granted. I will never feel guilty about the money I spend to travel because what I learn while traveling is not at all possible to learn from a book. In fact, as my uncle was driving me home from the airport last night, we were talking about that very thing. I may continue to get shocked responses when I tell people that I explored a new place alone, but I will continue to be thankful for each experience. Even a weekend alone in a city just hours away from where you live is a solo travel experience, and I promise it’s one you’ll look back on and remember forever.