Posted in Being a better teacher, Best Practices, Big Questions, burning questions, New News

How to [anything]

“How to” is married to “how come?” They are partners in our curiosity and creativity.

But along with this great beauty comes something much harder to bear. What do you do about the answers that lie beyond your reach?

I have only had one teaching job to date, and this past spring I wondered if the grass might be greener. I’ve been honest with employers and interview committees of why I may be seeking other opportunities, and subsequently why I decided to stop having those conversations for the time being. I am overdue for some professional growth opportunities: those moments have been truncated and stagnant with past administrators (note: this is not a criticism, just a different leadership style and priorities). There has been a lot to learn from sitting on that side of the interview table, and I’ve also been sitting on the interviewer side, too. I can’t and won’t divulge details of what candidates offered, nor where I took missteps. (Okay: I’ll share one: I pointed out a typo on the questions for a high school ELA position, joking that I wondered if it was a test. The unsmiling faces and defensiveness of the teachers interviewing me assured me no, it was not intentional, and their senses of humor, in short supply anyway, quickly evaporated. Is it sour grapes to say it probably wasn’t a good fit if they didn’t get my irreverent sense of humor?)

Sorry for the detour. This is intended to be a discussion about ‘how to teach [fill in the blank]. A colleague and I noticed none of the ELA candidates spoke to reading instruction other than an aside, and all (and I am not being generalizing or global here) spoke about writing instruction and their work in that area. Some spoke about presentation and the listening/speaking standards; however, reading was the afterthought.

I am wondering if maybe the questions themselves lent the respondents to focus on writing, or if there is some message that’s being telegraphed about writing instruction being neglected. I wonder if others believe I’m not a competent teacher of reading because I talked about my work with PSWP/NWP, and my work with reading instruction is quiet and deep. (I would have thought my masters in children’s literature as engaging reading instruction, my National Boards certification, or my multiple novel units/curriculum would have demonstrated adequately my skills, but I am terrible at self-promotion.) This is the only reason I can think some jumped to this Island of Conclusions.

"To be sure," said Canby; "you're on the Island of Conclusions. Make yourself at home. You're apt to be here for some time."
“To be sure,” said Canby; “you’re on the Island of Conclusions. Make yourself at home. You’re apt to be here for some time.”

This not only deeply offends me, but these dangerous assumptions create a climate of defensiveness and undermining. And I am struck by how much I’m not laughing about it now, either. And perhaps those multiple candidates did not speak about reading because teaching reading is about as difficult as it gets. Our responses and biases toward any text are as complex as a dream, and twice as difficult to describe or explain.

Why is reading difficult to teach? While many articles focus on teachers’ actions as the culprit for why reading is a “instructional ghetto,” many voices strive to underscore the inequity of school-readiness. I know whose parents have the luxury of time to read to their children, and those who don’t. I’ve encouraged many students throughout the year to read to younger siblings. I’ve done book talks, librarian discussions, close text and annotating lessons, and a text-rich classroom.

Personally, I’m returning to basics, as well as refreshing some tried and true approaches. I’ve linked this before, but it deserves another read, to think about engaging texts not in terms of difficulty, but in terms of thematic thinking. Close reading need not be the pulling the wings off the butterfly, but expressing the beauty and anguish in language; not being afraid to teach the fundamentals of reading. By the time I get students in eighth grade, there will be a handful in every class who do not know that the vowel sound changes if you had an ‘e’ at the end, or to chunk sound patterns instead of the laborious ‘sounding it out.’ Their prior teachers did nothing wrong: the gaps come from our never-ending push through of students and not knowing their strengths and weaknesses.

One thing I plan on doing intentionally and wholly this year is teaching reading with love. Not the kind of love that is mushy or some kind of Facebook sentimental glop. The kind of love that is dangerous, and full of conflict and struggle, as well as safety and agreement. I’m going to hold that baby multiple ways, but never, ever drop it.

Posted in Being a better teacher, Big Questions, Motivation, New News, PBIS

Internal drive.

run train

What makes us go?

Pernille Ripp from Blogging Through the Fourth Dimension provides some challenging and mindful questions about rewards. I am a skeptic of Alfie Kohn, but after what I’ve seen the past two years with PBIS am experiencing my own ‘growth mindset,’ too.

PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports), according to the mission statement on their website: 

PBIS is a framework or approach for assisting school personnel in adopting and organizing evidence-based behavioral interventions into an integrated continuum that enhances academic and social behavior outcomes for all students. 
PBIS IS NOT a packaged curriculum, scripted intervention, or manualized strategy. 
PBIS IS a prevention-oriented way for school personnel to (a) organize evidence-based practices, (b) improve their implementation of those practices, and (c) maximize academic and social behavior outcomes for students.
PBIS supports the success of ALLstudents.

Here are the four questions asked, and my thoughts:

1.  Will the rewards only go to certain kids?

Currently our system throughout the school means rewards go to certain kids by design.

I am considering doing more class/period competitions, not in terms of grade or score displays (a thousand times NO), but in terms of what students from other classes say/contribute. As it stands, I use class discussions to capture contributions from all classes on the Smartnotebook, but a means to share those contributions in a visual way might be amazing. The expectation is everyone contributes. More exit tickets with thinking. I used e-learning to host forums every week; perhaps I’ll create a cross-class workshop next year. The message in my room stands on valuing contributions: not loudest voices, one reason forums and space to think/write is highly valued in my room.

2.  Have you seen long-term changes as a result of giving extrinsic rewards?

The short answer: no.

The longer answer: yes, but not the kinds of changes I’ve wanted to see.

I miss the longer forms, what we used to call “Way to Go” slips, because when I filled one of those out it carried more weight and thought than our current ‘carnival’ ‘Chuck E. Cheese’s’ token economy currently in place. The staff has worked so hard to provide a prize table in the cafeteria, and spent their own money for items. Having spent thousands of dollars myself on books, pencils, snacks, clothing, toiletries, and yes, prizes, this isn’t sustainable. Again, I am not advocating for the abolishment of a prize table, but I wish it was dissociated with the learning environment. When I go to Chuck E. Cheese’s I’m not there for the literature or algorithms. (Well, I don’t need to go at all anymore: that phase is over for me!) Perhaps the students clubs and groups could work at earning those prizes, or some other extra-curricular culture? I’m not sure what the answer is.

And this is squarely my fault: I am not good at this. I never have been. When it comes to keeping track of tickets and tokens, it is not in my nature or style. I have been expected to change my own teaching style, and feel hypocritical and guilty when my name or number isn’t counted among the thousands of tickets when admin checks how many teachers gave away tickets.

Yes, they collect the data on teachers for our compliance. Supposedly this isn’t the case anymore, but the spirit of the tickets is tainted for me.

I have stacks of books, stories, student work to hang up, and adding tickets to the mix was my personal tipping point. I don’t want to burn out. One factor is when others’ agendas and projects  suck the oxygen out of me.

I’ve asked if the tickets can be used to choose kids to participate in assemblies, go first in line at lunch (I believe this has happened, but not sure), and they’ve given the kids with slips an extra treat at lunch. I would be interested to know how many tickets are given because the student worked really hard on a project versus picked up trash in the classroom. I actually wouldn’t object if tickets were given out for cleaning up and helping out, but the tickets should be clearly associated with classroom culture and safety, and NOT learning. Some other academic showcase should be reserved for that: hallway displays, blogs. forums. One of the highlights of my year was when a student from another team complimented me on hanging up student work in the hallways–she wanted to be part of it, too.

Perhaps my own failure to hand out tickets is because I don’t do this for my own sons: there is a standard ‘chore list’ with the understanding that for the good of the family they’ll help. And they have. Not once have I received back-talk or non-compliance for asking a son to take out the trash, and most times I don’t even have to remind them. I have been honest, kind of that ‘if momma ain’t happy, no one is’ thing – let’s all do what we can so we can get to the ‘fun’ stuff: watching a movie, reading, stargazing, etc.

3.  Will the rewards increase or devalue the learning?

The rewards in place clearly devalue learning. The rise of ‘grade grubbing,’ questions such as, “How many points is this worth?” and “What will I get?” is as frequent as students asking for pencils or using proxy servers to download games and music. I am considering creating a poster/chart of the banned phrases in my room, such as “How long does it have to be?” and “How many points is it worth?” It’s gotten out of hand. No longer does any learning have value to most students because of the increase in extrinsic motivation. They (students) are connecting compliance with engagement, and are going to be in sad shape when they can’t think of anything to engage their minds with on their own, or haven’t meditated on metacognitive thinking.

“If little else, the brain is an educational toy.”

― Tom RobbinsEven Cowgirls Get the Blues

Now, perhaps the learning is happening invisibly. But in terms of the current system of rewards, it’s been a huge distraction. Any small favor, any helpful contribution is often followed by, “Can I have a Pride Slip?”

I am not against extrinsic motivation. The other morning someone said a kind word to me, and like drought-ridden Texas, when I was showered with a modicum of kindness I started crying. (Yes, the climate at my school as been really negative.) We all need to have a kind word or acknowledgment.

4.  Will students actually care?

The prize is a thing, not value. Giving a blank journal to a girl who loves to write, or a book to a boy who loves to read snarky, sarcastic writers has value. I offer my time and counsel to those even after they leave my classroom. The personal gestures hold weight, the chotskies or novelty items are ephemeral. Students greedily grab up tokens in the moment, and then when they don’t ‘have enough’ are discouraged. Students have stolen tickets, bartered, traded, etc. in order to get the big prizes at the prize table (soccer balls, etc.). Like hustling for cigarettes and contraband in prison, much of the ‘ticket culture’ has lead to some unsavory behaviors.

harry bored

And I wonder if the token economy decreases curiosity, which increases boredom, which then may increase process addictive behaviors (those twitchy, compulsive behaviors: checking our phones, etc.


Last year, when our school implemented PBIS, the students were hoarding the ‘pride slips.’ The teachers’ names were printed on them, and then because of an outcry, the tickets then had anonymous numbers printed on them correlating to teachers, so administration could collect data on how many teachers were in compliance with the program. No one addressed the equity issue, or the hoarding at that time. No one provided any debate or counter-discussion to the token economy implemented by the PBIS committee. (To be fair, the committee members are some of the hardest working, responsive colleagues and professionals I know: they offered the times and dates of their meetings. And perhaps I am misremembering the staff meetings: little motion for debate or questioning was truly encouraged at staff meetings in the past. I am hoping that changes.) I did pop my head into one meeting, and offered my insight as to why hoarding occurred. Most of our students are raised by twitchy games: coins, blinking jewels, cartoon noises when achieved a temporal goal. Micro-transactions (small purchases to get to the next level of a game) induce process addictive behaviors. Oh wow: did I just suggest that a prize ticket at school may lead to a gambling addiction? That’s hyperbolic, and I apologize. I’ll try to focus more (after this level!)


Here’s where I am: 

Students want to be seen. The ones who aren’t rewarded merely for turning in an assignment, or rewarded because “Johnny didn’t dance on the tables today” are the ones who respectfully, and courageously, just want my time and insight, as I theirs. When I ask them if I may share their story or poem with the staff, when we invite others to hear their performances, when we help them carry their legacy and give them the academic portfolio to honor their work, those students not only thrive, learn, and grow, but carry that enduring love of learning with them.

So, what were my results by not handing out little blue tickets? Actually, pretty great. Yesterday I went to the high school with my 8th grade students for ‘move up day.’ One of my sweet students was in my group, and she remarked at how many high school students came up and hugged me, worked to catch my attention, and in general were happy to see me, as I them. That motivates me as I pack up a tough year. And I don’t need a ticket to prove it.

Posted in book recommendations, New News

Ants and Grasshoppers

While the ant works hard all summer preparing, because you know, winter is coming and all that, the grasshopper plays music and has fun…until, you know, winter came.

Oh that mountain of TBR: To Be Read books, the books we put off all year and then try to binge over the short summer weeks. Perhaps if I capture my list on this blog, it’ll somehow self-curate my reading and curriculum planning time.

Maybe? Sure. Sure it will.

Ant Books

These are my professional books on my list:

Jim Burke: The English Teacher’s Companion – I have a marked up copy, and realized it’s time to implement some of those highlighted gems.

Jennifer Fletcher: Teaching Arguments

I’ve been thumbing through this, and its heavy emphasis on traditional rhetoric seem counter-intuitively refreshing.

Jim Burke and Barry Gilmore: Academic Moves for College and Career Readiness, Grades 6-12: 15 Must-Have Skills Every Student Needs to Achieve

This tome is the latest shared reading from my district. Since I trust Jim Burke I’m looking forward to it. I tried to get my team to read Burke’s The Common Core Companion, (which I have) but alas, it didn’t make it to our PLC agendas. Onward!

Grasshopper Books

The only ‘must reads’ for the summer are Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov because my older son told me to, and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr because my book club told me to.

Young Adult books to read and refresh my classroom library: (links to lists)

And Book Riot is pretty fun, too.

What’s on your reading list this summer, your ant book, and your grasshopper book?

Posted in Being a better teacher, Big Questions, New News, Story Telling

Drawn to the light…

The Moth
The Moth

Last night I dragged my family to see The Moth–the theme of the night was “Fish Out of Water.” The host for the evening was Ophira Eisenberg, and she was sparkling funny.

So hearing stories: that’s what we want. All of us,  no matter our age, want this connection.

That is what is so tough when I am being observed and don’t point to a learning target in the middle of a conceptual anecdote that connects to a bigger idea. Students love stories. Observers often misconstrue the art of the story as “teacher talking too much.”

Ever notice how often students want us to continue with the story? They think that they are flattering us, and that they don’t have to do any real “work” if we’re talking, but in actuality that is often when the real learning is planted.

Cybele Abbett, Pam Flowers, Cole Kazdin, Adam Mansbach, and Vin Shambry were the storytellers. A violinist Luke Fitzpatrick played in between presenters. The stories we heard will stay with us. Pam Flowers spoke – a little 5′ woman who is as big as a mountain of spirit.  The audience gasped when she said she had to pull out her rifle to (possibly) shoot a polar bear. She clearly stated it was the polar bear or her dogs. The crowd in Seattle had a hard time understanding such a choice. To many of them, choosing between the organic brownies or the free-range fudge is the toughest thing they do. Okay that was snarky. Apologies. I fell in love with this woman. My husband said he would have been just as satisfied if he didn’t have to drive downtown and listened to the podcast. I disagree. Seeing her tiny frame and tell her story in her pragmatic, sweet voice, I felt the expanse of the tundra, felt the crunch of the shattering ice, and felt her love of her dogs.

There were five storytellers that night. They told stories of love, motorcycles, camp, homelessness, babies, and transgender children.

And the sound a polar bear makes when it’s about to attack.

Stories stay in our minds because they come through our soul: I learned more about dog sledding in ten minutes than I ever could have by simply reading the ‘instructions.’

The current recommendation of texts is 30% fiction and 70% non-fiction. What someone didn’t mention is that’s for 12th grade:

Distribution of Literary and Informational Passages by Grade in the 2009 NAEP Reading Framework

Grade Literary Information
4 50% 50%
8 45% 55%
12 30% 70%

(2008). Reading framework for the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Well that night at the even we had a full serving of personal, “informational” narrative. Does memoir-esque storytelling have a genre? Does personal truth and factual supports count as informative text? Was it 100% informational since everyone’s story was true to them? I suppose so. Personally, I love personal narratives/informational text in all forms. But I also love a great ‘once upon a time’ moment too.

Well, regardless of the recommended daily dose of what a 12th grade student should or should not be reading, I am going to keep striving for purpose and integrity, and not worry whether or not it’s ‘good’ for me. Stories are inherently good.

 Update: This article relates to the topic of narrative and information synthesizing to make greater meaning: ‘Could Storytelling Be the Secret Sauce to STEM Education?’

“I’m a narrative learner,” said Fruchter. “I nail down concepts by aligning them to stories or making up stories about them,” he said.

Posted in Being a better teacher, Big Questions, New News

Got your back…

I keep saying this in a Indigo Montoya voice from Princess Bride in my head: “You keep saying this word “support”…I do not think you know what it means…” I crack myself up. This time of year: no taking self seriously. Over my career(s), ‘support’ is an ubiquitous word that lost its meaning. When one is in a support position or role, they do not need to meet any rubric, metric, criteria or measurement, so we are all allowed to use this word in any way we choose. I believe anyone who wants to provide support though, while easy to say, is extremely difficult to master. I have looked long and hard, especially this past quarter, about what a flawed and fearful human I am: how the ravages of stress do not bolster or create a more robust and engaged creative me/teacher, but do much harm. Ultimately, I am using this post as a time to reflect upon moments when I have truly provided support for a colleague, and when I have received it with sincerity and accuracy.

Just how does one measure “support?”

Like its twin, “leadership,” there are many ways to approach the conversation and context of educational support; it’s a topic, a creed, which when carefully analyzed and understood, may have broad implications for moving forward with instructional and emotional lives for all educators. We all know when we have a strong/good leader. Strong does not mean hostile, just as good does not mean saintly. We know when an effective leader is nearby, our concerns will be acknowledged, triaged, and we are given autonomy to move forward safely. When we are offered support, we know that the person helping us is also being helped by us in return. No one likes to feel like they are a ‘charity case.’ No one responds positively to pity. No one gains support from mandates, top-down thumping, or thieves of thought.

Thieves of thought?

“Thieves of Thought” are those who listen to others ideas and make them their own. Your signature is off the canvas. Erased. Suddenly I want credit for something I shared openly, gave freely, and now resentment creeps in, and resentment is the death of collaboration.

First and foremost: if we have established a growth model for all educators and administrators, we agree on growth, but we disagree on how or what to make grow. We disagree on best practices, on manner and biases of style, student engagement (one might see a child doodling while reading, another might see the child having an inner dialogue about the text), and our human natures that establish bonds and trust with one another can be destroyed with ill-intentioned exchanges and the fragility of egos.

We want to shut our doors, be left alone, and focus on our students. And we should be allowed to do so, and called forward to lead when we will be treated as equals:

When you walk into this world of reality, the greater or cosmic world, you will find the way to rule your world—but, at the same time, you will also find a deep sense of aloneness. It is possible that this world could become a palace or a kingdom to you, but as its king or queen, you will be a monarch with a broken heart. It is not a bad thing to be, by any means. In fact, it is the way to be a decent human being—and beyond that a glorious human being who can help others.

This kind of aloneness is painful, but at the same time, it is beautiful and real. Out of such painful sadness, a longing and a willingness to work with others will come naturally. You realize that you are unique. You see that there is something good about being you as yourself. Because you care for yourself, you begin to care for others who have nurtured your existence or have made their own journey of warriorship, paving the way for you to travel this path. Therefore, you feel dedication and devotion to the lineage of warriors, brave people, whoever they have been, who have made this same journey. And at the same time, you begin to care for all those who have yet to take this path. Because you have seen that it is possible for you, you realize that you can help others to do the same. –From The Sacred Path of the Warrior by Chögum Trungpa

NPR did a wonderful series recently about great teachers. I caught the one about Dudley P. Whitney, a woodshop teacher from New Hampshire:

As a student at Dartmouth, I spent oodles of time in his shop. It’s a place with no curriculum and no grades. The studio is open to anyone.

Students and professors can just swing by with an idea of something they want to make, and then they work one-on-one with Whitney or another instructor to learn how to make it.

This part stood out for me:

Mueller says you have to get rid of this stereotype that creativity is unleashed.

“There is this impression that: Give students freedom and they’ll be creative. And what we know is that they need some structure upfront,” says Mueller.

They need a well-defined problem — like building a piece of furniture — and they need to know the constraints and the range of possibilities.

Structure upfront and well-defined problem: So I tried that the other week. I changed my style, mixed things up: I told the students they had a problem to solve together, and that was how to get from Point A to Point B on writing a short answer response to the poem, “Facing It” by Yusef Komunyakka. Overall, it worked, and overall it didn’t. But that’s the beauty of this: I have colleagues I trust to discuss the process, and go back to the drawing board. My students, all of them, whether or not they completed the task, learned a great deal about themselves, and I about them. I saw who needs more structure, and who thrived with the authentic problem (how does one find theme in a poem and dig deeper?).

Ultimately, I am grateful to my mentors: those enlightened beings, so few and far between, who truly know how to listen, share openly, and give: the more they give, the more they receive. I shall endeavor to be lighter of spirit, and more generous, than I have been. I am seeking grace and calmness of soul, so I too can help assuage new teachers’ fears. I may not be in a ‘leadership position’ but then again that means the temptation to be corrupted by power is negated.

A beloved band teacher is retiring after forty-four years. He is a man of God, faith, and love. He has always given me the time, the one word, the small moment that has bolstered me in times of fear and stress. He has never lectured me, nor pushed his ego or agenda. He is mindful, thoughtful, and insightful. I strive to be as good and kind. The next time you hear the word ‘support’ remember the bridge needs both sides of the river.


Posted in Being a better teacher, Big Questions, burning questions, New News

How Campbell Brown Made Me Cry.

These are the composition books that went into recycling.
These are the composition books that went into recycling. They didn’t change any students’ lives. Am I a bad teacher because these students didn’t see the value in their work and knowledge?

There is a Blizzard Entertainment computer card game I have played a lot this summer. Why? I don’t know. Why do you play Candy Crush sometimes? We are chickens pecking for grain, all I suppose. The game is called Hearthstone(TM), and it’s a lot of fun. Kind of. It reminds me of something Harry Potter might play, a magical card game. And, it’s just challenging enough to engage me in small doses, and simple enough to have a few “wins.” Players can choose to build decks from the standard World of Warcraft classes: hunter, mage, warrior, etc.But there is one deck that I hate to come up against, and that’s the Priest deck. I have been most successful with mages and paladins. But priests: priests are what gamers dub “OP” – over powered. They have several cards that destroy low cards, obilterate high cards, card spells that double the health of a card, steal cards from your deck in several ways, and take control of a minion. Every time I put down my  Ragnaros card (Duh! Ragnaros is an evil fire lord!) that deals 8 damage at the end of every turn, I hold my breath that it doesn’t get taken by the priest player. And inevitably it does. As much I have lost to priests so often that many times I’ll just hit the ‘concede’ button and go down a rank versus go through the protracted dance of failure. I know it will only end in tears.

This begs the question: why don’t I play a priest deck? I have, on occasion, but it’s not all that interesting. It’s predictable bullying, and not a fair fight. Give me a spicy round with a warlock using murlocs and imps any time with my frost bolts and polymorphing spells, and win or lose, game time was much more fun.

I’ve lost you, I know–there is a point here.

So, summer time. My summer break. Yup. Yup. Yup. I haven’t felt like reading, haven’t felt like doing much of anything, really. I didn’t want a list, didn’t want to accomplish anything, do anything, or think about anything. I’m not sure what’s wrong with me, but my usual busman’s holiday of creating hours of lessons and teaching materials went on ice for the month of July. I did some things, sure, things I wanted to do, like start a new blog, and purchases my annual stacks of composition books. I paid for those composition books out of my own pocket, instead of taking my sons out for some burgers or buying new cute shoes. Small issue. No big deal. We’re happy. It makes me glad to hand those composition books to students, and then years later have one wonderful student she still has hers. Worth every penny.

Toward the end of last school year, my principal wasn’t sure where she was going to place me. Since so many highly qualified teachers left our building (and many the profession altogether) I was one of the few who had double highly-qualified capacity to teach both social studies and language arts (ye old humanities, folks) but the stipulation would be I would go back to 7th grade. I sobbed at the end of last year, sitting in the young, new counselor’s office, expressing how I felt I was being ‘punished for being good.’ All I wanted, for my upcoming 9th year, was just two years in a row of not just consistency, but crafting and honing lessons. JUST ONCE, to see what’s it’s like to take reflections, copious notes, plans, ideas, and make it really start to click and work. I’m a ‘good’ teacher, and good teachers always want to be better. There is no raise, no bump in pay, so monetary rewards are non-exisistent. My principal told me when I stopped in her office that she (jokingly) didn’t want to hear me whine for another year, so I was staying in my 8th grade position.

Haha. Not quite feeling respected, but respect doesn’t come from anyone else in our fair profession.

So many teachers left our building, many because of health issues. One young man left after one year because he, well, just wanted to teach at an “easier” school. Can’t blame him. These teachers are not retiring, they are not middle-aged, they are not going off into the wild blue yonder–primarily they are young women who are being thrashed, harassed, and undermined at every turn. I myself just had two years of ‘mysterious’ ailments, both resulted in minor surgeries. (We’ll leave it at that.) There is buzz that there’s going to be a teacher shortage, that many who would have gone into the profession simply won’t, or leave after five to seven years. If not for the genuine admiration I have for my students and colleagues, and the collegial interactions I’ve offered, and gained, I’m not sure how much personal professional stamina I could maintain.

Teachers leaving or not entering the profession in the first place may have many other factors, too – changes in demographics, women are trending to be better educated than men (even though paid less) but the traditional female teacher is a thing of the past. What I fear is that teachers are going to be a thing of the past, period. Programs such as Teach for America are not all horrible, but they are a corporate avenue to get teachers in classes fast.  This has potential for high turn-over rate, which if Campbell gets her way, will be what happens when veteran teachers lose and have no voice. A high turn-over rate for teachers is harmful for students (and I thought she was doing this ‘for the children’). It’s harmful for adults, too. I and my colleagues have often joked that we felt like children of divorce we’ve had so many principals: six in eight years. As they climb up the educational career ladder, we dig their heels out of our skulls.

From Ingersoll’s paper, “Is there really a teacher shortage?”:

The data also show that the revolving door varies greatly among different kinds of schools, as illustrated in Figure 6.8 For example, high-poverty public schools have far higher turnover rates than do more affluent public schools. Urban public schools have slightly more turnover than do suburban and rural public schools. Private schools have higher turnover rates than public schools, but there are also large differences among private schools. On one end of the continuum lie larger private schools with among the lowest average turnover rate—about 13.5%. On the other end of the continuum lie smaller private schools with among the highest average levels—about 22%. -(Ingersoll)

Note that the highest turn-over rates are in private schools, so I dug a little deeper. Brown wants to abolish unions so that tenure is gone. All right. It is difficult to dismiss a ‘bad’ teacher, and thank goodness. It takes years of education, training, and continually investing in one’s career. My student loans are the tip of the ice berg. The pencils, paper, supplies, fees to take my boards, fees for multiple tests, thousands of dollars I’ve invested in myself as a professional, not to mention thousands of dollars of novels in my classroom library. I am not exaggerating. If I didn’t have a strong union behind me to back me up in case I get a vengeful administrator or sniping parent, I would have left a long time ago, have no doubt. The low salary vs. security is the trade off for many of us. In other words, I don’t mind being paid low for my level of education and investment as long as I know when I set up my classroom this fall my expertise and skills will be valued, and not having to stress about being capriciously fired. I’m too busy trying to emotionally disarm a student who jokes he has a gun in his locker. That’s stressful enough.


I felt this despondency the other day– my husband makes exactly three times what I make, and thank heavens. We are striving to maintain middle-class amenities. We don’t have new cars. We are trying to pay for our eldest son’s college so he won’t be burdened with student loans. I have the student loans in our family, upwards of $40,000. I keep having to defer them because of other financial crisis that pop up. I have three times the education my husband does, and make three times less. I knew this going in, I did. But knowing something and living something are two very different things. And it was fine for many years. There is the ‘profession’ of teaching, and there is the ‘job’ of teaching. I still love the profession, it’s the job that’s wearing me down. I’m doing my middle-class job and being told I stink. 

We teach so many lost children, and it’s my mission this year to make full-on concerted efforts to reach to parents more than ever. I will do whatever I can to support them, ‘have their backs’ as it were. Because no one else seems too, least of all Campbell Brown. Where is my team of lawyers to back me up? How can this group continue to tout itself as ‘for the children’ yet they are spending so much money that will more than likely further to marginalize children?

So when Campbell Brown gets on the Colbert Report and begins her opaque and condescending agenda about teachers’ unions, I cried. I startled my younger son, because we were all just hanging out and having fun, watching Colbert, laughing, and then she comes on. It made me sick with anger. It was what she didn’t say that upset me. In all of her dart-throwing, where were her answers? Tearfully dismantling unions, and then what? What next? Okay, kids! No more school to be hurt by all those bad teachers!! Her misguided agenda is dangerous. My flash point saw red, and that’s all there is to it. She drained my mojo.

Are there bad teachers? Of course. There are bad parents. Bad doctors. Bad principals. Bad people everywhere. People who run the gamut of simple incompetency to outright criminal acts. I had those bad teachers: the geometry teacher who drank gin and read the newspaper. The pot-smoking social studies teacher. My husband had one who sold hand-made jewelry.

Many of my conservatives friends say I’m too emotional. They start throwing rhetorical words at me like that shields everyone from the conversation. Here is who I am: I am an emotional person, and I am fair, too. I am do not draw my opinions along party lines, far from it. I draw my opinions from my own life experience, observations, research, and a uncanny sense of spotting someone’s shenanigans. Please do not think this has anything to do with plastic politics or labels. I know a dangerous person when I see her. And you should, too.

To be fair, maybe there are issues in New York state I don’t see. Maybe their unions are thuggish and slow to respond. However, the national trend of Common Core and (over-testing) national testing standards, and revamped teacher evaluations allow for scrutiny of teachers more than ever before. Meaning, Brown’s fighting ghosts. There are pay scales, equal benefits, and requirements, no matter whether we are at a ‘tough’ school or an ‘easy’ one. (Like children, I am not sure I believe in tough versus easy: all teaching is challenging.) We are held to the same standards. The new teaching evaluation system is crippling thorough.  I can’t share the materials, but I’m sure I can share a link –it is the Internet after all. The rubric for teachers’ evaluation is over 35+ metrics long with five categories. Is that what you have for your evaluations at your job? Or is it more simplified? Do you get a cost of living increase? I haven’t.

Ms. Brown: unions are not your enemy. But you are mine. However, I’m not going to worry about you. You can side-step where the money’s coming from, I get it. That’s what all over-powered people do – lie about funding, agendas, and stand behind prattle “it’s for the kids.” I’m going to put my energy to positive use – all I can do. And turns out, it’s pretty powerful. When it comes to effective teaching, like parenting, consistency, security, and maintaining continuity of culture. They will never meet another person like Mrs. Love.




Posted in Language News, New News, Writing

26 Love Letters

patience, practice, and persistence...
patience, practice, and persistence…









A few weeks ago, an NPR report discussed the disappearance and resulting anxiety of the lost art of cursive handwriting from elementary school curriculum. Years ago, when I was working at Starbucks many of my younger co-workers could not read my handwriting, and while this made me feel “old,” it really made me feel sad. There must have been some valid reason why I learned cursive handwriting other than ‘tradition’ or rote direct instruction. There had to be something there, some pedagogical reason besides just having good penmanship. While I strongly disagree with the philosophy, “watch closely and wipe any mistakes out immediately and correct the writing before bad habits or confusion is set”,(*)which completely misses some instinct, some notion about the importance of cursive, I do think the craft of cursive handwriting is fundamental to our beings.

When I learned that cursive was no longer being taught, naturally I thought about my own experiences with hand-crafted typography. It’s so much more than a rap on the knuckles or disappointed home-schooling mother: it’s art, it’s our voice in lines, it’s our signature. We use our chubby fingers to grasp a pencil correctly (to this day I don’t hold a pencil ‘correctly” and have clear memories of my frustrated second-grade teacher gently re-positioning my fingers, and my waiting until her back was turned to do it ‘my way’). The thin newsprint with pale red and blue lines proved sturdy structures while developing “favorites.” To this day I wish my name was Queen Kelly. (I really like the letter K.)

While many feel that it’s near treason American school children can’t read the Declaration of Independence, while some believe it really doesn’t matter if they print or script, as long as students are writing, or that it’s important to do things the ‘old fashioned way,’ but there simply isn’t enough time in a school day.

Regardless of external ideas, I sense there is something deeply important and internal at work at the brain-development level, and I may be right. Studies have been done that find that young children’s literacy capacities are enriched:

When she put the kids back into the brain scanner, the two groups showed very different results: The scans for the group that was simply shown letters didn’t look that different. But in the scans for the group that learned to write the letters, James saw a huge spike in activity in their brains’ reading network.

Okay, I confess; that token scientific research article, as well as this one, serve to sway those who think cursive writing is frivolous.  I can’t help but think to the craft of writing truly being a ‘craft.’ My art background has always supported my teaching instruction: I see the art and creation of ‘making meaning’ and workshop/studio deeply embedded in language arts. My memories of struggling to practice perfect cursive letters, and then embarking on my own signature, then to the signature I have today, is as closely connected to my identity as any portrait: the change from my maiden name to including my married one, my “pretend” writer’s signature, and there must be a journal somewhere with my practicing future romantic roles, “Mrs. Blahblahblah.” As I dabbled in graphic art, not just the fine arts of printmaking/painting, I fell in love with grand typography. I always loved practicing calligraphy, and I adore a former student’s Facebook posts on his attempts with practicing Chinese characters with brush and ink, keeping his Chinese heritage alive.

Beautiful Typography
Beautiful Typography

Yes, generating typography/computer graphics is using technology and not hand-written, but I have often thought before we hand over technology to a child there should be some measure of foundational lessons. I am not talking about the “back in my day” kinds of things, but why do we always seem to need a “movement” to re-purpose or repackage traditional skills? We have the “maker movement,” going back to ‘real’ food, and life experiences that are authentic. I am not discounting the maker movement, only curious about our collective mania for re-branding our lives. My older son didn’t know how to sew on a button the other day, and I had no interest in teaching him. You know who did? My husband. I have a much more bourgeois attitude about the whole thing. Maybe I’m guilty of this — these hand-written cursive signatures seem too precious in our current state of “college and career readiness.” Just not sure how losing our identities further, our signatures, our marks, enable us to do that.

I recently bought a new i-Pad for myself. I’m pretty excited about it. My Kindle kind of stinks with its Silk browser (yes, I wrote a strongly worded review on Amazon about it: power to the consumer!). Last night my husband turned to me to show me this very cool pencil and app especially designed for i-Pads. I can’t wait to try it out, in my older, but still chubby fingers, and draw and write “real” things. Maybe there’s hope after all.

*That’s not even correct grammar. The sentence should read: “…before any bad habits are set.”


Good stuff:

and even Steve Jobs gives a nod to typography:

Posted in Being a better teacher, New News

Sweet home test scores…

Oh, this post started off so well so many times in my head, and now that I am faced with big, bad computer screen, the beginning feels dicey.

Should I begin with how I know this person, whom I greatly respect and appreciate being allowed to be part of grand discussions? Should I begin with a short anecdote? Or, perhaps, I’ll begin with an ending:

Strike Over, Chicago Students Go Back to Classes

So, my friend Jason sent me this email recently:

Ok, so here’s my problem.  I generally like teachers.  In general terms I think they are overworked, under-appreciated, and underpaid.  But the more I read about this Chicago strike the harder I find it to come down on the teachers’ side.

First off, there’s pay.  According to the Union, the average teacher salary is $71,000 ($76,000 according to the city… which if these folks can’t even agree on how to calculate an average, maybe we should be spending more time talking about the math curriculum, but I digress.)  I know that 71k a year isn’t exactly get fat rich and retire early money but it’s not pauper money either.  My point here being, I’d love to be able to pay every teacher in America a 6-figure salary but at the same time, I’m surviving in San Francisco on 17k a year, so it’s hard for me be sympathetic to a the notion that only getting 71k is worth striking for.  Of far greater concern is that the contentious item in the salary debate is the amount of the automatic raise the teachers get every year.  As far as I can tell, every teacher in Chicago gets this raise without question.  This bit really rankles me, I have encountered plenty of teachers who have simply checked out and are phoning it in.  The teachers who are working their asses off and doing a good job are getting smaller raises to pay for the ones who have checked out.  I simply can’t imagine that there isn’t a better way to distribute these pay increases.
Another item of contention is the plan to lengthen the school day.  I saw a debate once on the inclusion of Intelligent Design into the science curriculum (which, by the by, I am vehemently against) in which the teachers lamented how little time they had to devote to complex subjects, such as evolution.  This makes perfect sense to me, everything has an opportunity cost and we live in a very complex world.  The teachers who I admire and respect are always trying to cram just a little bit more into their lectures and never seem to have the time to get everything they want in.  I cannot understand how teachers are not jumping for joy at the opportunity to expand their curriculum.  Obviously it means being “at the office” a longer but it seems like the benefits to the good teachers who want more time with the kids would vastly outweigh the costs to the bad teachers who can’t wait for the bell to escape.
The next concern I have is with regards to the “job security” clause.  The Union is demanding the kind of guarantees that no one else in any industry gets.  Of course everyone wants to have job security but I cannot understand why this sort of guarantee is justified, particularly when everyone else in the job market is facing such wicked unemployment.
Lastly, there seem to be a variety of clauses intended to increase accountability.   If these measures are reasonably accurate, it seems like the only people who would be opposed to them would be the bad teachers.  Of course, there’s the argument that the measures aren’t accurate but I don’t hear that argument nearly as often as the claim that “X number of teachers won’t be able to pass the exam.”  It seems to me that that argument is not an argument against having the evaluation.  That means one of two things, the evaluation system is flawed, in which case we should be arguing for a better evaluation rather than no evaluation.  Alternatively, the evaluation is a reasonable approximation of performance and those teachers who can’t pass need to do something about that issue.
The other thing that isn’t an issue directly relating to the strike but making it hard for me to come down on the teachers’ side is the nature of the two campaigns.  From Mayor Emanual and his supporters, I see a number of what appear to be very reasonable, specific proposals backed by concrete numbers.  From the teachers and their supporters I see primarily vague values statements, e.g. “We have to protect education for our kids and our futures.”  (Or something to the effect of “Rahm Emanuel is a jackbooted thug pushing the Evil Corporate Overlords’ Plan to Destroy the World.”)  I think it is clear that most Chicago (or American) schools are not adapting to our information age or adequately preparing a scientifically literate population.  If they’re against Mayor Emanual and for us, where is there alternate proposal?  I’m always hesitant to assign motive but if you wanted to resist change purely because it was easier to just keep doing what you’ve always done, it seems like you’d behave exactly the way the teachers are behaving.  To put it another way, President Franklin Roosevelt once said, “There are many ways to move forward but only one way to stand still.”  No matter how much I want to be on the teachers side, everything I observe seems put Mayor Emanuel on the moving forward side of that quote and the teachers on the standing still side.
So, at the end of the day, I still want to be on the teachers side.  What am I missing?  Where am I wrong?
Jason, Serious Economic Smarty-Pants Esquire
P.S. I’m adopting that as my official job title.  Also, sorry if this is a bit haphazard, I’ve got a lecture in a minute and don’t have time for my usual editing.
 Jason is a friend whom I’ve genuinely enjoyed getting to know through social Azeroth connections. I have a handful of those whom I now consider actual friends. This is not uncommon, nor unusual. Consider it like a weekly bridge or book club–some of your friends bring along others they know, and your circle of friends grows. (True, you may want to throw your glass of Chardonnay in the face of the woman who takes a bold stance on why Twilight is greater fiction than Harry Potter, but I digress…) I know of many couples who have even met, and married, from their social gaming, but that is a post for another day. This is about having new arenas for the grand conversations, the debates, the “Smarty-pants” talk that I do not get to enjoy with my colleagues.
Wait, what?!
What did I just say? I don’t get to enjoy these types of conversations wit my colleagues? No, as a matter of fact I don’t. In our meetings, though we have established ‘norms,’ the norms get tossed aside by those who do not follow ‘norms’ as a general personality rule. We don’t get to collaborate or discuss because the focus are data, data, data, including this morning’s 7:35AM meeting, on the same day as Open House, so I will be part of my job literally for over 12 hours with a 25 minute lunch break. Yes, there is a break between the end of school and tonight, but I will be spending that trying to get my room ready. Why isn’t it ready? Because I went to Texas to see my mom who had just had surgery, and I love my mom, and my dad, and would see them anyway, and I had to move classrooms, and I have to drive sons to activities before and after my contract day, and my classroom still needs organizing, and and and ….I asked to come in on weekends but alas, I can’t. None of us can. I know our new principal has solid reasons, but my three hour window before Open House will be spent preparing my room so I can give parents a good impression. (The NBCT sticker on my classroom door window should signal to them I am bonafide!)
Wow, were you as tired reading that as I was writing it?
So, back to Jason’s question. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. Wait. No. Wrong question.
The Chicago thing. I still haven’t had time to really read anything about it. Sure, I listened to the NPR story yesterday after work while I was frantically driving to the bank and grocery store to pick up dinner. This is after another long day because we had a union meeting in the morning (we had another 7:35 am meeting on Tuesday morning, too). Our building representative touched on the Chicago story briefly saying it was about “test scores.”
I am sure it was more than that–BUT — if that is all it was about, that’s all it needs to be about.
I asked my students last year if they thought it would be fair if I got paid based on how well they did on the MSP (Measurement of Student Progress). They immediately, and resoundly, said “NO!” These astute seventh grade kiddoes knew immediatley how much their ultimate performance was not in my control: many of them are truant, many come from families whose first language is not English, many of them have not enjoyed early childhood experiences, such as reading a story every night, or going to the library, or talking about their day with an (intrusive) parent (from the perspective of an adolescent anyway). My esteemed ELL teacher/colleague was near shaking when she reminded us about the twenty African refugees who literally had to take the MSP the week they arrived in the country. So–her salary should be based on their performance?
I promise I will do everything I can to get your child to read because it’s the right thing to do.
Wait, that’s not enough? What about those teachers who don’t make that promise? How can we weed them out?
First, I am not sure. I’m not even sure what is a “bad” teacher, except for the obvious egregious lack of moral character. Second, I do know that using an arbitrary test that may have deep flaws as the guillotine blade is not the answer. Last year, our district purchased a testing service that was so faulty, so flawed, so full of typos and confusion, that I am deeply horrified to imagine if this assessment was used as a means to judge my teaching credentials. And, I have suspicions that it was, considering the morass of red ink on my students’ data. And yet– my students went up to 57% passing. I believe it should be more, and no, I don’t want to be paid more for it.
If districts need data for teachers’ worth, perhaps the classroom work in itself can be used? Those best practices can somehow be managed and reviewed? Oh wait, they are in bi-annual reviews.
Now – let’s talk money.
I know there are teachers who make twice what I do. All I have ever wished for, and this is morbid, scary, and sad, is a salary that if something happens to my husband, I could still make a yearly salary so I can pay for our mortgage, a car for me and my sons, and college. But that is not my current reality, so yes, I am kind of freaked out. Romney would say I’m acting all entitlted and stuff, I know. I  am crazy like that, wanting to educate my children and have a roof over our heads.
I wish my master’s student loans weren’t hanging over my head. I wish I didn’t owe more for those loans than the sum total of all cars I have ever owned. I wish there was a savings account and a retirement fund and a hefty college savings for my sons. And I also wish all of my students could read at grade level and beyond. I am so overwhelmed by the next five minutes, I can’t carve out time to think about the big picture.
So do I stand with or against the teachers in Chicago?
I wish it wasn’t the question.
Posted in Being a better teacher, Genre Studies, New News

Genre Lessons

 Yes, a wall of books. It took most students’ breath away, and teachers, too, who peeked in my room. I was inspired to try this real-life sorting activity and authentic book-talks because of pragmatic realities: having moved classrooms nearly every single year, I had had enough of putting books back on shelves by myself, never to have them handled again by students. So they were left in their boxes (we had school on August 30th and 31st) until that Friday afternoon, when I put boxes on every table, and then had students dump them out.

The sorting process started with background knowledge building of what a genre was, and then the over-arching ones. Already from student responses I could assess who came into the room more book savvy, and who is going to need some convincing. It was also interesting to note who stopped working because they were reading, and who stopped working because well, they stopped working. I didn’t call out the ones who were reading, but I did single out those who weren’t, saying that in my class, their brains were going to get tired from all that thinking they were going to be doing, so buck up, spunkies!

The lesson didn’t go totally as intended: class to class kept resorting what others had accomplished, and many just ended shifting one piles to the next. But, I will say overall, it was successful in that once we sifted out genres by table groups, it provided many opportunities to discuss why a book would be considered ‘mystery’ versus ‘realistic fiction’ and so forth. I would say historical and realistic were the trickiest overall. This was a week-long activity, with many stops along the way for further sifting and instruction, including a half-decent Power Point I found on the Internet, and no, John, it didn’t use Comic Sans!

Our students receive their laptops today, and so we begin our digital instruction–much more to say on this, but it’ll have to wait. I’ll leave this link in the meantime: