Jennifer Ellerman: Sacramento County Teachers of the Year 2013 Interview

Uploaded by sacramentocoe on 17.08.2012

We are back with another
Teacher of the Year profile. We're speaking with Jennifer Ellerman who is one of two Teachers of the Year
for 2013 for the Sacramento City Unified School District. Thanks for joining us.
Thank you for having me. And congratulations.
Tell us about yourself. Tell us what you teach and where.
I'm currently teaching 7th grade language arts at California Middle School in Land Park, Sacramento.
Yeah, I love it. So explain what language arts is.
So language arts is reading and writing. All together in one.
And it's -- actually, the last couple years
we've really started to put an emphasis more on writing typically. And I know a lot
of the language arts instruction of the past is focused on reading.
And we're doing that a lot, but with the new Common Core curriculum that we're
implementing, which is really exciting, we're really starting to put
heavy, heavy emphasis on writing in the classroom. Especially in language
arts. So we do a lot of that. And we're doing a lot of
the creative writing piece.
Which I think they get a little bit more exposure to in the lower grades. We're really putting a heavy emphasis on
expository writing. Argumentative writing,
pursuasive pieces, responding to literature. More academic writing?
Absolutely. Yeah. What kind of change do you see in the students
when you start to really push that academic writing? What kind of changes do you see in them?
It's amazing. It's amazing.
I think the emphasis on writing has been kind of
multifaceted. Because one reason we started to push writing
so much is it gives the teacher amazing feedback as to
really where the learning is taking place and where there's gaps in the learning.
You can get yes or no answers, or multiple choice answers, or
yes or nos. And, you know, if the
students got it right or wrong, but you have no idea
if they got it wrong, why. Or if they got it right, why did they get it right?
Do they really understand what's going on?
So we started, initially, that shift of having every student write every answer on a piece of paper.
Instead of raising hands and sharing out in class, it was, "What do you think
the answer is?" And then, "Justify it. Prove it to me. Tell me why." And that
gave us, not only who's getting it right or wrong, but the reasoning behind.
Maybe some students were getting the answer correct, but the reasoning wasn't quite where it should have been,
either. So it really helps us to gauge where they are and
where we can kind of help them fill in the goals. And then the
second piece of that is, we
know that when we're forced to write, we're forced to think
at a deeper level. And learning takes place at a deeper level.
And it processes in our brain at a different level. And so when you force the students
to write it out, they can't hide behind someone's answer, they can't hide behind a good yes or no.
They are forced to really think and write it out. And it's intimidating at first. We all are intimating at first. We all are intimidated to put our
thoughts on paper. It's like, "Oh my gosh!" But once they really -- once they really -- once it becomes part of the daily
practice and we all are okay with not having the right answer,
they really get into it. And we really are able to see, like I said,
where the holes are. And then we're also able to see the learning go on
at such a deeper level. And you're also preparing them for the next step in their education.
Absolutely. Absolutely. Because one thing we're doing, also, is
in their writing, what they're having to do is
critical analysis and critical response to whatever
they read. And so we're still doing narratives.
Pieces of literature that are high interest.
But increasing the rigor in the classroom through having them not just respond
to "Who is this character and what did this character do?" But, "Evaluate
this character's choices. Evaluate the differences in
how the author used the setting to
develop this character in this piece vs. how the author used, in a completely
different piece, used a setting to develop a different character." And that's a lot more
rigorous. That's a lot higher level thinking. And they don't get to just guess an answer.
They have to write a five paragraph piece about it. So it's exciting. And then we've also implemented
nonfiction texts
that tie into the novel that they have to read and respond to critically.
So it's really, it's been exciting. So you're really pushing the critical thinking? Really pushing the critical thinking.
Because they need to be -- we need to prep them for college and career. And bubbling
in and just remembering what color the car was in the story
or what the character did is not going to prepare them for that. Exactly.
They have to be able to analyze things, they have to be able to pull from multiple sources and understand
and make judgements about it themselves. And when they do that,
the buy-in is so much higher. Because
they really -- There's a connection. Absolutely. And they feel valued because
I'm asking them to write about their critical thinking about this.
"Oh, you care about what I think about it?" Yeah, I do.
That helps. Well, how did you get into teaching? Tell us a little about yourself.
I just always wanted to do it. I had teachers that I loved. I had
several teachers that I felt, like, were really ineffective.
And I saw some kids not do well. Just several. And I'm thinking,
"Oh. You know, these students need
a better experience than this. This is really causing problems." But, more than that,
I just remember seeing in my class so many teachers
inspire students and people. People that were
having difficulties at home, including myself. I had some challenges growing up.
And the teachers really -- one thing that I really
appreciated is when they could have lowered their expectations for me because of
some challenges we were having, they didn't. They increased, almost
expectations. Mrs. Woodcock. She was great. And Mrs. Herring.
Elementary school. But they saw potential and they just increased the expectations.
And it kind of helped me rise above different challenges.
And kind of become my best. And it was that ability for
a teacher to impart a belief.
A model to that child. I believe in you. And then the children
can pick that up and start to believe in themselves and do all kinds of fabulous things.
So, you're saying if you raise the expectation, you can raise the results? Absolutely.
Every time. Every time because what you're saying to them, when you raise
the expectation is what you're saying is not, "I want you to work harder because I'm
mean." What you're saying is, "I think that you're this, not just this.
But I think this is how amazing you are." And they respond?
Love it. They love it, yeah. What are some of the biggest challenges you've seen?
Oh, how long have you been teaching? I will be starting my 14th year.
And so, what are some of the biggest challenges that you see
working with students now? Is it that a lot of students come in with
baggage? Or is it kind of economic times? What would you say?
Uhuh. I would say yes and yes.
The students, definitely -- any time you bring in a piece about economy,
or financial stability, there's always
this perk up. Because you know it's relevant to what's going on in their lives.
But, there's also a lot of children from, you know,
broken homes or people because of the economy are struggling.
People were struggling even before the economy and they come in with
a lot of heavy, heavy things going on. And I know, I could
relate to that because I had a similar experience. And it's
challenge, but it's so rewarding.
And it's such an honor to be able to create a safe place for them.
And that's always the goal is for them to love to be there.
Even though you're asking them to work hard and challenging them. You still want them to love to be there.
And you want to create a safe place where they can be
even if, when they go home, it's not quite a safe place. It's kind of
a relief. And it's always the goal is to show them
if they come from a really difficult situation that whatever's going on right now
doesn't have to dictate what their future is like.
They get to kind of choose their own path. And so, to be able to impart that to them is amazing.
You referred to the fact that you grew up with a difficult background. Does that kind of
give you extra insight with today's students? It does. Yeah.
I really think it does. Because I think -- I know that
sometimes when you're sitting there, completely spaced out and disengaged,
it's not because you're being disrespectful or intentionally
or because you don't care. It's because you're weighed down by other
things that are happening. And I also know that
providing that
that belief and that positivism and that structure
and that expectation can really help pull the student out of that
to where they're not so bogged down with what's going on.
To where they're, "Okay, what can I do and how can I achieve?"
And so, yeah, I think it's been helpful for me to be able to relate.
And so, by being able to relate, you feel you have
good insight with these kids so you kind of, maybe know what their next thought
might be. Not just what they're thinking, but where they're going next.
Yes, and not because I struggled, but because -- and that's why I love language arts --
I take the time, through different avenues, a lot of times through writing,
sometimes conferencing one-on-one, I can connect
in that, it's like, "Okay, let's go sit down and just talk to me. What's going on?"
And that's amazing, too, because sometimes kids come in with
this major chip on their shoulder and then you pull them aside
or during library, the library
is a good time to sit and chat with kids one-on-one, and during lunch, after school
and you just hear their voice and you let them just share.
And then, all of a sudden, they got it out, they got it off their chest and then they come in
and they're ready to learn. And that's why you're a Teacher of the Year for the Sac City Unified School District.
We appreciate your time. We've been speaking with Jennifer Ellerman, one of two
Teachers of the Year from the Sacramento City Unified School District. Thanks for joining us. Thank you
for having me.