What are you doing for others?

   I haven’t posted in a while.  I keep telling myself to participate in flipclass #flashblogs but nothing jumps out on the page.  I’m stuck.  A lot goes on in the classroom and I’m still making loads of mistakes, but I can’t reflect on them.  My head is too full and my heart is too heavy.  Baltimore happened a few weeks ago (or has a month passed by already?). I hesitate to call it a riot or an uprising but IT happened and the anger that has been sitting deep in the belly of my alter ego has surfaced.  I had an interior uprising that sits under my skin on a daily basis.  I have a lot more “reactions” to white ignorance than I’d care to admit.  My reactions are visible in my tone, in my manner and in my facial expressions.  

I knew I needed to talk to someone about it, so I’m choosing to write.  Just to admit that I’m angry.  I’m angry that #blacklivesmatter is a bellringer prompt, a lunch table conversation, a Socratic discussion, an “opportunity” or “teachable moment”, as if to press pause on the lives of our white students and try to get them to understand what’s going on.  I don’t have an answer for what you should do when students ask about #blacklivesmatter, and I’m not saying the discussions shouldn’t be happening, but I’m angry that so many whites are carrying on the discussion as if they understand, when even I don’t fully understand.  I’m angry that these headlines are just another topic for water cooler gossip.

Baltimore happened, Ferguson happened. So many stories being romanticized as if these young men were martyrs.  How many black lives are sitting in your classrooms, scared, confused, angry?  How do we even begin to discuss the gravity and intensity of a movement clinging to the heels of a hashtag?  

The truth is,#blacklivesmatter is not about police brutality.  It’s a bat signal for empathy and empathy begins with listening.  You don’t have to lead the discussion or create  a mini lesson around something that is probably a part of many of your students’ daily lives.  Consider your circles, your reactions, your interactions and your words.  How much of your investigation into these events involves the simple act of listening to others?  What stories have you gathered that aren’t spun by media plot lines?  What authentic primary source research have you gathered in your desire to help students make sense of these events?  What are you doing for others?  

I’m still angry, but I’m hopeful that others are listening.  There is so much more I want to say, but I’m still gathering, culling, curating but most of all reflecting.  

How You Play the Game

I have a quiet competitiveness. Inside I’m often looking at things as either a “win” or a “loss” , a success or failure. I harbor paralyzingly fears of not being good enough and wondering how I stand up to my colleagues. I worry that I’ll be pushed out of my position or benched. In a profession full of so much stress, it’s not a good way to look at ones tenure.

So the question of the night focused on “what does deeper learning look like in your classroom?” My first reaction was, it doesn’t happen. My students and I are still hung up on grades. We’re still looking for the “win”.

What about the journey? I see my students struggle and I pull out the clipboard and rehash my plays. I talk to them about what’s working and what’s not working. We run a different play, and the wheel keeps on spinning. We’re still behind 20 points with very little possibility of making a comeback. But the key is not to focus on the win, but to look at how we are playing the game. Ultimately deeper thinking is not going to happen without intrinsic desire to learn. I’ve got to cultivate that desire and find the middle ground between rigid standards and life skills, responsibilities and passions, grades and flexible learning.

I get 9 months with my students and I can’t be their coach anymore. I can’t continue to treat them like winners vs. losers. I need to be the conduit and not the catalyst. I can help students get to where they want or even need to go, but they’re going to have to ignite their own passions.

About Time We Learn!


This quote pretty much sums up my feelings about late work, but like every teacher we feel pressured to “teach” our students a lesson in promptness. I completely understand the idea that high school students need to be prepared for the “real world” where tardiness can get you fired, however, this lesson should not be at the expense of learning the concepts. A majority of students, especially high school students know “the game.” This game is: show up, sit down, listen, turn in the homework, go home. They have tuned out on their education and school ends up being just another way to fill time until they are 18 and out of their parents’ houses, so they can make their own choices. They’ve learned how to copy each other’s papers, find answers on Google, type math problems into an app that will answer the questions for them, read the cliff notes (or watch the movie), do anything except invest in their own learning.

For a long time my policy was grade deduction based on number of days late but it became hard for me to keep tabs on late work. So I switched to no late work accepted and pretty soon the strugglers stopped trying at all. Why bother if you knew you weren’t going to get credit for it? Last year I started a no homework policy–if you didn’t finish,it got tabled to the next day. My class work felt like a revolving door. I still couldn’t stay ahead of all the work. This year, class work is done in class, period. If you don’t finish, you sign up for lunch tutoring or see me during advisory period and if you don’t see me then the work earns 50% or less. I have two weekly assignments: reading logs and an article of the week. Students still struggle with this. So many other classes have the NO LATE WORK policy that my work gets put off for the very end, if done at all. This means that students are not reading. It makes me very sad. However, I’m now able to plan class lessons more efficiently as I know I have to leave time for them to actually work. It helps me keep lessons simple to ensure they are learning. Students pay attention in class because they don’t want to waste valuable time.

I want students to feel accomplished when they leave my classroom. What they and how they learn is more important than when they learn it.

Perpetual Pick Up Sticks

I’m technically doing the work of two jobs. I teach a 10th grade English class and am also the high school literacy coach. I’m currently (ok perpetually) struggling between finding enough prep time and helping teachers locate literacy resources, coaching teachers, and developing our new sustained silent reading program.

As for the teaching aspect, I constantly struggle with creation. I know the more tools I create for students, the more independent my students become. This means creating anywhere near 2-4 different “tools” for one single task. For example, students have access to paper worksheets as well as digital copies (and digital copies in at least 2 different formats–pdf/google doc/pages). Students can find daily agenda/assignments in 3 different places (PowerSchool, canvas, as well as google slides). I do all of this to prevent the constant iPad issues (I swear this is the closest I’ve come to going back to paper and pencil assignments) and to provide differentiation to students with varying needs.

You see, teaching isn’t a mud-race. It’s playing pick up sticks with a toddler that never wants to end the game, ever. Just when I start to get a handle on all of these tools, my other job throws the “sticks” back all over the floor, under the table, and behind that shelf that is too heavy to move and requires a rigged hanger to fetch lost items from the clutches of dust bunnies. I find that on days where I haven’t prepared the extra tools due to lack of creation time, class feels like whack-a-mole trying to get students on track. If I have a wider variety of tools prepped, I find class runs smoothly and I only need to respond with simple direction.

Every year I say it will get easier, as I have already created content, but to be honest each year is different, and I find I need to tweak or recreate content to meet the various needs of my new students. In other words, another canister of sticks.

I got so swamped at work today, I nearly forgot a heart-tickling positive from a student who showed up in my class this fall with a self-deprecating lament that he will never EVER pass the English EOC. He quietly announced today that he passed!

So when the sticks get tossed on the floor for the millionth time, I just have to remember not to take myself too seriously. After all, it’s supposed to be fun.

Originally written for #flipclass flash blog on 1/12/15 and then revised an hour later. On a side note, I’ve actually written on this topic before nearly 2 years ago and much better I might add.

Writing in the Digital Age

Last year our high school started a series of workshops called writing in the discipline. The goal of the workshop series was to help teachers find ways of including frequent (ideally daily) low stakes writing in their classrooms regardless of the content area they taught. All staff members and students received a composition notebook (my idea). Staff were expected to model writing and students were expected to bring their composition books to each class. The momentum at the beginning of the year quickly died out by second semester once students got the hang of using laptops and iPads 1:1. Not only that, the writing was missing an authentic audience.

We assumed that students would feel more comfortable with low stakes writing that was private and given less feedback. However, the Age of the Diary is long past. We now live in an insta-blogged world where students are used to viewing Instagram or Tumblr pictures, reading the minute statuses of hundred of “friends”, visiting blogs/vLogs about current issues and commenting on random posts all in hopes of increasing interaction and garnering 1,000+ likes. Today’s students are a lot more open to public exchange than students in the past.

Teachers, parents, administrators are right to be afraid of this increase in students’ public interactions but instead of blocking applications and writing stricter policy geared toward monitoring and reigning in student access to the internet, we should be providing them appropriate interactions that allow them to learn digital citizenship and engage in educational activities without making them digital hermits.

Students should be allowed to view and interact with a variety of content that can serve as models for writing. They should be allowed to blog/vLog on topics that interest them and share their posts with students from other states or countries. They should be allowed to share visual stories that highlight their unique take on current events. They should be allowed to create digital content that can be viewed all over the world. Having this freedom is a great way to motivate reluctant writers. It is also a great way to improve reading skills.

For those still concerned about the general public accessing student content, there are a variety of platforms (Edmodo, Versoapp, kidblog, Boom Writer, etc.) that allow you to create closed communities within a single classroom or throughout the entire school in which to share and respond to writing without risking student exposure to the general public. We need to prepare students for an increasingly digital future. We also need to continue to find ways to engage our insta-minded students in the sometimes arduous yet always useful writing process.

photo credit: Will Lion via photopin cc


Engaging the Writer


I made a promise to myself to blog more this summer and haven’t made good on that promise primarily because I didn’t have anything to write about. This fits exactly into what I want to discuss in this post. I am about to embark on a new journey in a new position at my school. I was chosen to become the new literacy coach for the high school and I’m both nervous and excited about the job.

One of the needs expressed by teachers this past spring was a desire to focus more on writing instruction. We have noticed that our students struggle quite a bit with writing. Even students who appear to have very little delay in reading. Students show an ability to understand what they are reading but struggle to pose their own thoughts in writing. What is missing in writing instruction that will help students make gains?

I recently read a fabulous article on Linking Genre to Standards. The premise of the article being that students need exigency in order to exact good form. It is a habit of writing programs to teach formulaic writing–especially when working with students who are performing several levels below Enrolled Grade Level. The problem with formulaic writing is that it may give students a “purpose” for writing, but it doesn’t make that purpose authentic and it doesn’t help students understand why the form is used. It also does not put the choice of form in the hands of the student.

Why do people write? It’s more than just PIE (persuade, inform, entertain). I like the following quote from the article:

As teachers, before we direct our students toward ways to engage the interest of the reader and state a clear purpose, we have to engage the interest of the writer in a real purpose.

When working on instructional planning, we have to do more than just make sure we check off the standard’s list of genres (making sure that students write at least one engaging short story, literary analysis essay, persuasive essay, research paper, etc.). We need to impress upon students that writing is an organic meaningful action. Students shouldn’t just write to receive a passing grade. Writing isn’t about playing “school”. It is about sharing a message. It is about expressing one’s thoughts and feelings. It is about engaging and interacting with an audience.  But, as the quote above stated, we cannot get our students to engage an audience without first making sure students are engaged in the topic. Their writing should have authentic purpose; it should be a meaningful, purposeful act.

The article stresses that we need to teach them “WHY” we write, not just “HOW” to write. So when looking at the standards we need to carefully consider our instructional approach. Suppose we look at the following TEKS standard:

(14) Writing/Literary Texts. Students write literary texts to express their ideas and feelings about real or imagined people, events, and ideas….Students are expected to:

(A) write an engaging story with a well-developed conflict and resolution, interesting and believable characters, a range of literary strategies (e.g., dialogue, suspense) and devices to enhance the plot, and sensory details that define the mood or tone;

We need to ask ourselves, what situation would students need to be in that would engage them as authentic writers? Why would/should they write this story?

One could argue that standardized testing does not engage readers or writers and I would agree, which is why I would encourage administrators not to put so much stock in standardized test scores. Should writing instruction be designed around testing parameters? or should we work to develop meaningful writing skills and hope for transfer? Teaching form as formula may have short-term benefits that help prepare students for immediate writing tasks. However, it also creates limited writing competencies and disconnected learners. Skills don’t “stick” and writing loses voice.  In developing an effective writing program, we cannot continue to go the route of formulaic instruction in order to meet the demands of a singular assessment. We must help students find meaning in writing and write with their own purpose in mind. We must consider the “why” along with the “how” when designing lessons. We must create meaningful learning situations that prompt specific genres or forms of writing. We don’t just want students to do well in school or on tests, we want them to do well in their respective communities. We want them to be able to see writing as a meaningful tool for participating in social action.

I write this blog because I have something to say. Having something to say motivates me to write well. Having something to say and a desire to share it with an audience encourages me to carefully select my words and consider how my writing might be received by others. This is what we want our students to do. They must be reflective readers and writers, but first, they must find something to say. Rather than give them something to say, give them a reason to say it. Incite them, move them to action–show them that writing is more than just structure, grammar and words on a page. Writing is power.

End of Year Reflections

During #txed chat Wednesday night (June 4th), participants were asked to blog their end of the year reflections and share them with the group. The following quote came to mind when I began this reflection:

“These are the times that try men’s souls.” –Thomas Paine

This has definitely been one of the most trying years I’ve had in all my 7 years of teaching. I felt like a failure in about 75% of what I did this past year. I also watched myself commit several teaching misdemeanors and knew deep in my heart for a majority of my actions that I should be doing something different, but I continued to convince myself that what I was doing was somehow necessary. To go back to my parent analogy, what I did was equivalent to spanking.

I told myself before I had children that I would never spank because I had experienced it as a child and it scarred my relationship with my parents. However, there have been moments where I spanked my daughter and knew it was the wrong thing to do but I always invented a reason why it had to be done–most of the time my actions were reactive stemming from extreme frustration, maybe even a place of anger and most definitely feeling pressed for time.

The same goes for my reactions to my students. I was extremely frustrated and more than once angry. Also, I was overwhelmed trying to complete a mountain of tasks. So I resorted to lecturing (on video or in person), or assigning books I knew my students couldn’t read simply because I had lots of resources on the book and then assigned chapter quizzes hoping to cattle prod my students into reading by dangling carrot grades or I continued with a certain unit even though it was clear my students were not understanding. I graded based on behavior and spent very little time giving constructive feedback. I assigned busy work and worksheets just to catch my breath. I went home at the end of the day rather than stay to contact parents and update them on student progress and I became lax in my documentation (a worksheet is evidence isn’t it?). I ended the school year extremely exhausted, stressed and positive that had lost my will to teach. None of this was the fault of my students and yet, they were punished. I was not angry with them but with a system that has such unrealistic expectations for teachers. No, I did not spank my students, but they also did not get the best teacher I know that I can be. They did not receive the exemplary education they deserve and they did not receive the attention they needed.

Now, I am not the worst teacher in the world, but I also know better and am capable of BEING better. My students will go on and hopefully have a better teacher next year. I’m also sure other teachers have similar stories and that many have gone on to do wonderful things. We live, we learn.

It’s time for a Year of Magical Thinking, time to repurpose myself and recollect my dreams. It’s time to put my own mastery to the forefront and approach the year with an abundance of positivity. I’m taking my summer to relax and enjoy my family. I’ve purchased some professional books that have reinvigorated my thinking and I’m ready for a fall of new possibilities. I will not make lofty goals for the new year as I do not know what to expect but I will continue to hope for the best.

To Grade or Not to Grade…Is that the Question?

I recently read a fabulous article by a middle school principal who is asking very important questions about what grading should look like.  Make sure you read the entire article!  I had originally planned to write my own two cents, but then the title of this post popped into my head.  I started to think, could I actually take Hamlet’s soliloquy and create a monologue of my own about grading?  So without further ado….

“To Grade Or Not To Grade”: Based on Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 1

To grade, or not to grade: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous assignments,
Or to take arms against a sea of percentages,
And by opposing end them? To grade: to rank;
No more; and by a rank to say we favor
The brown-nosing and the thousand plagiarized words
That students are heir to, ’tis not a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To grade, to quantify;
To measure: perchance to learn: ay, there’s the rub;
For in the quantification of grades what learning can be measured
When we have marked the book with but a single letter,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long an education;
For who would bear the scorns of measuring mastery,
The staggering standards, the proud parents’ aspirations,
The pangs of planning differentiated instruction, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and standardized testing
That overturns our plot for individualized pacing,
When teacher might find it easier to mark
With a simple letter grade? who would bear the risk,
To grunt and sweat under weary planning,
But that the dread of no quantifiable data,
The undiscover’d country from which it is believed that
No student passes, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear what makes us comfortable
Than to risk a change of which we have no guarantee?
Thus holding fast to gradebooks makes cowards of us all;
And thus our natural desire to do what’s best for children
becomes weak with over thinking
Mastery should be considered but gets misdirected

and stops being the purpose of a grade at all.

Why We Blog too


Blogging has become a popular topic in twitter edu-chats. There is often the debate about whether student blogging is authentic or not. This particular post is not about student blogging, but an effort to take a look at why teachers are beginning to blog.

Those of us who are English teachers know the importance of writing frequently as a means of improving literacy. It stands to reason that teachers who write frequently will have a better understanding of how to teach writing or at least incorporate writing into their lessons. If we want our students to become digital citizens and blog with an authentic audience, then we need to get a sense of what that entails and what it feels like to have an audience of our own.

Teachers are often encouraged to reflect on teaching practices as a way to improve and develop best practices. Blogging can be away to openly reflect and interact with an audience. Blogging helps me delve deeper into a personal discourse with myself about my teaching methods or about educational policy and best practices. At the same time, blogging creates a platform that forces me to consider how my thoughts will be received by others and mandates special attention and revision as I compose posts.

The nature of a blog does not guarantee an audience, your writing does. The better you write and more aware you are of what connections you make with potential readers, the more likely you are to produce work that gets followed. It is a brave endeavor to put yourself out their, but it is the first step to better writing instruction. If you are not able to compose works that you assign to your students, how can you be sure that your instruction will meet with success? Also, writing becomes more enjoyable when someone interacts with you and let’s you know you are on the right track.

I encourage all teachers to start a blog. It doesn’t have to be an educational blog. Find something you want to say or choose a topic you feel knowledgable and share your knowledge with others. At the very least,if you ask your students to blog, you should blog with them. Let them see you plan and revise a post. Discuss with them the type of audience you wish to reach. Share your writing goals and how you plan to accomplish them. Your experience as a writer will frame their experiences and make the writing process authentic for your students.

Re-Framing the Teacher

horrible-mothersI remember becoming pregnant with my daughter and the absolute mix of excitement and trepidation I felt at the very idea of becoming a parent.  When she was born, I promised myself I would learn as much as I could and work my absolute hardest at becoming the best parent I could be.  I read TONS of books, watched all the baby shows and joined several discussion boards.  The information overload often stressed me out to the point that I was constantly worrying about whether or not I was making the best choices for my daughter.  There were the never-ending debates on breastfeeding vs. bottle feeding, cloth vs disposable, cry it out or co-sleep, to vaccinate or not. Then there was the incessant comparison of so and so’s son/daughter already potty trained at 12 months while another mother’s kid was still in pull-ups at 4; one kid walking at 9 months while another kid didn’t start walking until nearly 2; worrying because someone’s kid got a rash that turned out to be the bubonic plague (ok, I’m exaggerating this one but you know what I mean).  I remember feeling excited to chat with other parents going through similar issues at the same time, I was overwhelmed and more often than not, felt as if I was doing everything wrong.  What do you do as a new parent when another parent tells you that any mother that lets her infant cry it out should be considered a child abuser?  Or that using disposable diapers is “lazy parenting”?  At one point, I just stopped reading, stopped checking the mommy boards, and I looked at my daughter.  She smiled at me, hugged me, and said, “Mommy, you’re my best friend.”  That’s my feedback, she’s the only one I need to listen to as far as what I do as a parent.  Every child is different, and I couldn’t mimic another parent’s results with 100% success even if I tried.  I now know that my husband and I will always do what’s best for our children.  Why? Because we love and care about them.  We wish to see them grow into spectacular adults.  We will make mistakes along the way, but constant criticism paralyzes.  It does nothing to move the dialogue forward.

So, how does this apply to teaching?  I read a wonderful post by David Theriault.  He has been encouraging his students to blog using topics that students “re-frame” to match their own understanding.  I love this idea, and decided to try it on my own.

So, here I am, re-framing teachers.  We all know that teaching is like parenting, but the constant criticism we receive as teachers –not just from politicians, media and the like–but from each other parallels the criticism parents receive.  It is tough to hear comments like “Any teacher who hands out worksheets is damaging student learning!”  or “Teachers who aren’t constantly asking students what they want to learn should not be teaching!” or “Stressed out teachers are pathetic!”  It takes a lot not to let the criticism paralyze you.

I conjecture that most of us are trying to do what is best for our students.  I pose that we all make mistakes and that no one method is the magic elixir that will suddenly make students LOVE school.  We all have DIFFERENT students with very different needs.  For myself, I need to stop thinking that everyone else knows what is best for my students.  I see them every day, I work with them every day.  I care about each one of them and no one feels it more than I do when they fail (except maybe the parents).  No one on those message boards carries that guilt heavier that maybe something I did made the student fall through the cracks.  However, I also know it is my job to continue to learn.

Unlike parents, we aren’t stuck in our roles.  We are teachers by choice.  Some great teachers are leaving the field because of the “out with the old, in with the new” mentality that has been infecting our dialogue.  Suddenly things these teacher won accolades for have become cliché and inappropriate for the “21st century learner”.  There has to be a way to connect with teachers who have over 30 years of experience, find out how to take their knowledge and skills, and apply it to the new demands of our ever-changing student body.  Experienced teachers also have to be open-minded about innovative practices and allow the new teachers to share knowledge.  In the end, teachers must meet the needs of their individual students.  As all teachers know, what works one year may not work the next.  We ALL make mistakes.  No one is an exemplary human being all of the time.  You have to trust the decisions you make and hope that your young ones will turn into phenomenal adults.

I always consider at least two things when I post comments on twitter:

1. Does my comment reflect a desire to build connections?

2. Am I being honest about my own practices as an educator?

I have to be careful not to make Twitter a sound board for my complaints but demonstrate a desire to learn from them.  I also want to make sure that new teachers know, just like new parents, that whether or not you are a good teacher (parent) depends largely on the relationship you share with your students (children).  Don’t let others decide what kind of teacher you will be.