Night's Watch of Black Sheep


Oh, it is all so clear now.

My brother-in-law (my husband’s brother) possesses a skill that fascinates me: he understands personality assessments better than anyone I know, and how to apply his knowledge adroitly. He is not some flash-in-the-pan self-titled self-help guru, nor does he pontificate unless the audience (me) is a willing listener and learner. He came out to visit recently, and over breakfast I shared some of my reflections about my past year of teaching, and some issues that were still causing me anxiety. After careful listening, he summed it up this way:

“You’re the black sheep.”

But not nearly as cute in a PLC meeting...
But not nearly as cute in a PLC meeting…

His findings derive from Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, but I’ll be darned if I can find any reference to the black sheep personae in the work place. (I’ll read it for myself, because there is always something to learn.) In any case, the black sheep is the one who stands out, stands up, puts their neck on the block, cries wolf, (but real ones) and instead of the intentional help and support, merely ends up losing trust of those they love and respect most. I thought I was a crusader, a paladin/protector, but turns out I am just annoying people.

How to turn back to grace? My brother-in-law mentioned there’s a formula of sorts: 8:1 ratio of positive things to one negative, and the voila! Trust is regained. What about the wolf?! No one cares: his advice was to get a witness. Don’t go after it alone.wolf sheep

Well, crud. My words and advice are heard as the bleating of sheep. (He mentioned unsolicited advice is never, ever listened to. There goes my mom talent.) Great. My anthropomorphic glory resides in stinky fleece, not lions’  manes or peacock struts. Last fall he said I was a ‘traditionalist’ and now I’m a ‘black sheep.’ (After reading a description about traditionalists, however, I am not too comfortable with this label, as I slouch toward speaking in generalizations while my guard is down.)

But our professional lives have to be more than just archetypes and personification, right? Maybe? The question I asked my husband this morning hit at the heart of what is on my mind now: in his years of of being a digital pioneer, teaching himself every conceivable programming and computer design nuance, code, application, and creating original games and apps, how does he sift through what’s most important to mentally keep, and what’s not? He is going to get back to me.

I wish there was another word for ‘overwhelmed’ right now, because to say I feel overwhelmed is an understatement. I am desperate for a deep conversation about what is MOST important to pull from the flotsam and jetsam from my nine years of teaching, over 1,215 students, 1620 days, three different state tests, two Federally mandated programs, six administrators, racing to the top while leaving no child behind, and one new teacher evaluation system to rule them all. Is it hot in here or did I just see two Hobbits run by?

Well, dang–time to visit the wizard, Kelly Gallagher. I just started reading his new book, In the Best Interest of Students, Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom, and I feel a huge sense of relief. Already his clear, honest organization of what has transpired, and what is positive and negative about the current state of affairs in education provided true clarity and validation. Here are my first impressions:

All Good Things Come to Holistic ELA Instruction.

Writing and reading in the curriculum remains interconnected, co-dependent, and in harmony. He says it, he restates it, and underscores it in ways that others will listen to. (I haven’t built up my 8:1 ratio yet.) He remarks that many teachers (when writing was not being tested), didn’t teach it, and now students are paying the price.

Writing instruction should be a nonnegotiable, core value in any classroom, and teachers should not have to be concerned with fitting it in. The question “How do you fit in writing instruction around the new standards?” is the wrong question. The correct question should be, “How do you fit in all of the standards around your writing instruction?”

Gallagher, Kelly (2015-02-28). In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom (Kindle Locations 243-245). Stenhouse Publishers. Kindle Edition.

All Good Things Come in A Continuum

I am reminded of my Costa’s Levels of Questions work, and where I’ve always said no one should expect students to swim in the deep end of the pool all the time, to please respect all the levels of thinking, to show a continuum, the ‘not yet,’ and please don’t put obstacles in good teachers’ ways.

This is a great lesson idea, one I can easily adopt in practice:

Deeper reading starts with a literal understanding of the text. If students cannot figure out what the text is saying— if they cannot retell what is happening— then moving into closer reading and deeper understanding will be impossible. You have to recognize who is a Capulet and who is a Montague before any rich understanding of Romeo and Juliet can take place. When it comes to making sure my students know what the text says, I start by introducing a series of summary activities. The ability to write summaries is an often overlooked and underrated skill. They are hard to fake, and they give me a quick, formative assessment of what my students understand (and what they are missing in their initial reading). When introducing the skill of summarizing, I start very simply and scaffold my students up from there. Here are some activities I have my students do to sharpen their summary skills: 17-Word Summaries My students were just beginning to read Lord of the Flies (Golding 1962). I walked them into Chapter 1 by reading the first few pages of the chapter to them and then asked them to complete the reading of the chapter on their own. Before we really dove into the later chapters of the novel, I wanted to see if they understood what was happening in Chapter 1, so I chose a student at random and asked her to pick a number between ten and twenty. She chose seventeen, so I asked my students to write seventeen-word summaries of the chapter. Not eighteen words. Not sixteen words. Seventeen, and exactly seventeen words. Here are some of their responses: Ralph and Piggy are stranded, but with the help of a conch shell, they discover more kids. —Alicia

Gallagher, Kelly (2015-02-28). In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom (Kindle Locations 427-440). Stenhouse Publishers. Kindle Edition.

All Good Things Come to Those Who Read. Books.

Do not feel once moment of guilt, hesitation, or concern if someone comes in your room and observes a teacher read-aloud or students silently reading. Not every thing needs to be a ‘close reading’ lesson. Don’t buy into the hype. Close reading is a skill for students to employ in order to enjoy texts more, not less, to give them the independent a-ha moments and connections, both literature and non-fiction. But that’s it.

Because close reading of short passages is valued by the tests, some teachers are overdoing having students analyze short passages. Conversely, the tests do not measure a student’s ability to hold his or her thinking across 300 pages, so less emphasis is placed on having students analyze longer works.

Gallagher, Kelly (2015-02-28). In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom (Kindle Locations 338-340). Stenhouse Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Ba Ram Ewe.

The thing is, as my husband says, no one really knows what they’re doing, and no one’s in charge. Truly. This isn’t a fatalistic sentiment, it’s actually quite liberating. I am in as much control, or lack thereof, as anyone else. This is the essence of growth mindset: ask good questions, listen for good answers, and don’t be afraid to share your own expertise.

And read a Kelly Gallagher book.

To my esteemed colleagues: how do you keep from getting overwhelmed with change, and focusing on what’s meaningful and critical for your best practices?