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Saving Summer: Amygdala and The Brain

Teaching is stressful, there is no doubt or debate. And it’s also joyous, satisfying, and filled with discovery and success.

But let’s get back to the stress for a moment so we can move forward with more moments of joy, satisfaction, and discovery.

My buddy Sharon and her Brainiacs are developing a PD session for SEL/Teachers/Students. Tangentially, I’m developing the digital curriculum, along with her and other colleague’s input. When we talk about preparing students for their futures, not our pasts, we must have a deep understanding or exploration of what is happening to our brains in the digital world. We must share this knowledge, so students can adequately reflect, practice mindfulness, and know when to take on that “big view.” Elena Aquilar’s post, “5 Simple Lessons for Social and Emotional Learning for Adults” was a deja-vu moment–my husband was just advising me of these ideas yesterday while we had street tacos at the local lunch truck. Take the big view:

“Lesson 4: Observe Your Emotions”

We are not our emotions. If we can practice observing them — seeing ourselves experience emotions from 10,000 feet above earth — we are more likely to make decisions that don’t emerge from them. We might notice that sometimes they’re powerful and gripping, and sometimes they’re lighter and less sticky. It helps to practice non-attachment to emotions. They’re just emotional states and they come and go — and remember that we have some control over these states. Sometimes I visualize my emotions as weather patterns: There are storms and calm skies, heavy rain, and light winds. They always change. I visualize myself as a tree experiencing these emotions that come and go.

An article posted in the New York Time’s by Lisa Feldman Barrett, “When Is Speech Violence?” walks through the key points of amygdala hijacking and the effects of chronic stress.

“What’s bad for your nervous system, in contrast, are long stretches of simmering stress. If you spend a lot of time in a harsh environment worrying about your safety, that’s the kind of stress that brings on illness and remodels your brain. That’s also true of a political climate in which groups of people endlessly hurl hateful words at one another, and of rampant bullying in school or on social media. A culture of constant, casual brutality is toxic to the body, and we suffer for it.”

A school year is a long stretch of ‘simmering stress.’ Whose job is it to maintain the physical and emotional safety of a building? In truth, everyone is a stakeholder. Building trust and relationships that can find strength in discourse and dialogue, strong respect and cordial working relationships are the desired culture of any building. And as the Stoics believed, it is not what happens to us that affect us, but how we view and control our thinking about events. What if we all pledged to think about the school stress as a means to practice our own care and mindfulness?

In the meantime, I’m reading a book my husband recommended to me a few months back, The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker, first published in 1973. Yeah, not exactly a little light summer reading, but it’s what I need right now: hefty intellectual grips by which to grab onto the rocky surface, and climb up. Getting a new perspective or two is a great way to get that higher view.

And though I can’t control others behaviors, I will strive to speak the truth, ask questions, seek answers and common ground.




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These are to re-read, read, and organize: the binders need to be gutted and reorganized. Oh, sticky tabs and Sharpies: how I love thee.

I always have this summer break lag–it takes me a bit to realize it actually is break time, and not only relax, but reflect. And just not think at all.

Last summer I had everything planned out, and offered my time and expertise to go over the CCSS and come up with a menu of critical ones I knew our PLC should take a look at and consider for the common/formative/assessments. Well, that didn’t work, and that’s okay: the team decided to focus on one skill through the lens of one or two standards. Am I going to stop coming up with ideas? Did I learn my lesson? Nah. I can’t help myself. I love designing good curriculum.

Next year I’ve been tapped to construct Computer Essentials for 7th grade, and will be teaching only one class of 8th ELA. (Just can’t quit you, Humanities….). To say our students need the computer skills is an understatement. (I’ll post my ideas on that later.) In the meantime, this post serves as a pledge to myself to read: I have the trifecta of my summer: a hammock, sometimes blue sky, and time. My focus is to create a curriculum map that is more reflective of what ELA students are truly expected to know. The horizontal, silo-approach doesn’t work. I’m actually envisioning a circle map, updated, and global: a way to teach units that are connective and authentic, with a heavy dash of choice and design. Give me a week or two, and I’ll have something figured out.


Oh, and I need to add some new videos to the list:

What is one thing you taught more than one year, and feel it is a “must?”

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“Fear less, build more.”

This post is dedicated to my crazy teacher friends who try everything they can to help our students, even at the expense of their colleagues’ goodwill. Based on a recent email thread, we’re all trying so hard, but we’re trying too hard alone.

That has to change.

Do you have departmental/content issues? Does the history department turn up their noses at the math teachers or is the elective crew treated like a tertiary annoyance? Supporting our colleagues is more than bringing in a few shoeboxes and glue sticks. It requires deep, drilled-down communication and understanding, and allows for every department to support and connect with one another. Of course, an administration is an integral part of an overall vision: communicating to staff may require multiple messages, reminders, little check-ins of how the vision is progressing once the vision has been shared. It doesn’t mean lockstep. It doesn’t mean one size fits all. It doesn’t mean one ring to rule them all, either. Throw that garbage in the fires of Mordor and carry on, Samwise.

It does mean that departments are talking to one another, and know an overall vision of the school Like other PBL projects before, the Zombie unit was the 8th grade ELA department’s attempt, and we learned a lot. We have some refinement to do, and it was clear based on all of us whose students had more time to dig in, whose students had someone helping with hands-on skills, and whose had lipstick “infection” marks on their faces and played tag (cough).

When everything is important, everything becomes jammed up: think of a school day more like well-run traffic and flow engineering, or flocking science: when kids can move with a flexible, responsive schedule, or when a big PBL project is being conducted, perhaps that is the day when there is a shift in time; better yet, they can go to each class and work and consider through that lens.

(Students are trying to avoid predators, after all–aka going to class.)

It’s going to require some brave teachers and administration to put aside egos and come to solutions that are best for students. We have the skill sets and the drive to do something like what Emily Pilloton does with her girls. We need to include all, however. I am wondering if we have the will. 

Can we build this together?

Girls’ Garage’s slogan, “Fear Less, Build More” is an appropriate anthem for our times.



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Know better: Do better.

There are three concepts to juggle, and with any dexterity and caffeine, allow me to attempt this hat-trick:

We are not doing a great job, and we need to do better. 

  1. We’re not showing students what rigor and high expectations really mean, and moreover, what it means to them.
  2. We’re not working as leadership teams.
  3. We’re running through the standards in concrete lock-steps and not understanding nuances and complexity. (See #1, and then refer to #2).

This year, as best as I can say, seemed like being lost in the woods and someone stepped on my compass. The good news is next year I’m leading and designing curriculum, and I know it’ll be great: sharing ideas and asking others, collaborating, and teaming on what our students need is my jam. I can’t get over, though, the haunting dread that we are not really doing what we need to for our students. Our current practices lack for consistent connections, and it is unacceptable. We have master teachers in our building, trained at the highest levels of PBL, science, math, social sciences, humanities, and language arts. The elective teachers are experienced and hold our students to the highest standards, too. But what is happening? My theory is we’re still working in too much isolation and silos. Our PLCs improve every year, even through administration shifts, but our cross-content and staff heterogony are lacking. We’re too homogenous. We must do better at being allowed the time to share knowledge and information.

Article #1: Make It Meaningful (not lock-step)

Revolutionizing Inquiry in Urban English Classrooms: Pursuing Voice and Justice through Youth Participatory Action Research

If I bring up my ‘burning questions’ unit with new leadership/staff, and or if they bring up something that they’ve tried, where is the reciprocal curiosity? Where is the time to say, “How did you do that? What resources do you have? Will you share that with me?” Right now we do this by the seat of our pants.

Agency represents the power that derives from the pursuit of those questions that matter most to students. It is what fuels action, a central component of YPAR that allows young people to attend to and explore firsthand the nuances of issues that have a direct bearing on their lives. It is contextually bound, always in negotiation, and mediated by the histories, social interactions, and cultures that young people’s identities are entangled within. We argue that agency cannot be framed as a competency then, but as a capacity to imagine and act upon the world. Central to this is the opening of spaces for students in their plurality, spaces where they can examine their relationships with each other, with texts, and with the world.”

I would love a resource guide of the staffs’ individual areas of expertise. My work with the National Writing Project precludes my inclination and bias toward their research, and I make no apologies for it.

Article #2: Scientific American (high standards/rigor)

Is the U.S. Education System Producing a Society of “Smart Fools”?

It is not enough to teach knowledge but constantly strive for the highest levels the taxonomy, creativity.

As the writer Claudia Wallis says, teaching ethics in decision making combined with knowledge is the goal:

“Basically, ethical reasoning involves eight steps: seeing that there’s a problem to deal with (say, you see your roommate cheat on an assignment); identifying it as an ethical problem; seeing it as a large enough problem to be worth your attention (it’s not like he’s just one mile over the speed limit); seeing it as personally relevant; thinking about what ethical rules apply; thinking about how to apply them; thinking what are the consequences of acting ethically—because people who act ethically usually don’t get rewarded; and, finally, acting. What I’ve argued is ethical reasoning is really hard. Most people don’t make it through all eight steps.”

Think about that for a moment: doing the right thing means there may be no reward. No tchotchke, no token: just the idea that doing the right thing is doing the right thing. A beloved colleague said to me the other day how frustrated she feels when she sees students throw away our offering of an excellent, free (to them) public education. Do they have the ethical right to do so? What if it was framed that way–would it flip their thinking about their lives and connections?

“If ethical reasoning is inherently hard, is there really less of it and less wisdom now than in the past?
We have a guy [representative-elect Greg Gianforte of Montana] who allegedly assaulted a reporter and just got elected to the U.S. House of Representatives—and that’s after a 30-point average increase in IQ. We had violence in campaign rallies. Not only do we not encourage creativity, common sense and wisdom, I think a lot of us don’t even value them anymore. They’re so distant from what’s being taught in schools. Even in a lot of religious institutions we’ve seen a lot of ethical and legal problems arise. So if you’re not learning these skills in school or through religion or your parents, where are you going to learn them? We get people who view the world as being about people like themselves. We get this kind of tribalism.”

Article #3: No one else: You. Me. We.

7 Qualities That Promote Teacher Leadership in Schools

  1. New types of assessment are gaining ground. Several states are piloting performance-based assessments to replace standardized testing.
  2. Exemplars in the business community are now promoting flat organizational structures, where employees work in smaller teams and have more voice and power over how they work.
  3. Teachers are more networked than ever before, providing a unique opportunity to share and spread good teaching practice.*

*#3 makes me a little blue: I am more connected to my PLN in many ways than I am to my PLC. With my PLN, we can share ideas, no one counts or keeps score on how often I share, no one gets frustrated, and we simply share and collaborate. I want to be more connected with teachers in my building and this needs to be facilitated, without excuses.

If my friend and I go to a National Consortium for Teaching About Asia graphic novel seminar on a Saturday, how do we invite interested staff members to share in what we bring back? For staff members who send out an all-staff email about information from University of Washington opportunities to their upcoming roller derby match, how does a culture of a school encourage this knowledge and communication? I would love to know how other staffs communicate with one another: I understand the flat organizational structure, but I would rather see a web-shaped structure: interconnected and sensitive to the students’ needs: a roundtable, rather. We are a long way away from Finland’s shift to move to broader-based, connected learning? (No, they are not getting rid of topics.) How can we create more broad-based understanding and connections OPPORTUNITIES for students, that not only is of value but constructive?

“Classes are not taught in silos, but rather teachers collaborate on interdisciplinary approaches so students can see connections between things they learn.”

My wish is as the current admin returns to teams (hallelujah!) my enthusiasm doesn’t get the better of me.

This is a lot to process: teachers are feeling exhausted, that they must be all things to all students, and to themselves and their families. But I would caution all of us when we’re encouraged to say “no,” and to scoff or scorn, to look past that, and try to say yes, yes to each other at least. Yes to the idea people, the organized people, the curators, and collaborators. Do what we ask students to do:

  • Show curiosity in others’ ideas and knowledge
  • Ask a lot of questions
  • Be open minded

And go to the roller derby match.

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Shine a light…


One of my favorite colleagues had this great idea. It’s all hers. I asked her if I could post it, but didn’t ask permission to share her name. Let’s just call her “Abazening Person” for now. The idea was to ask the staff (after two weeks’ of testing, more days of testing, and yeah…we’re tired) about their silly and serious advice for new teachers and/or teachers new to our school.

But you know why she is one of my favorite people? The person who can listen, hold their own, be gentle, strong, and wise is rare. I hope I have reciprocated the love and friendship because I don’t have a lot of friends, but the ones I do have I hold dear.

She asked the staff to write on slips of paper she provided, organized, etc., one silly and one serious piece of advice. What a great activity for the staff, and something to try with students, too! This is the list she compiled from the hand-written notes:

Thanks for sharing, everyone!

If you have anything to add for our 2017-2018 New to MC/New to Teaching “Words of Wisdom” as the year finishes up, please let me know. J

  • New to MC:
  • Jump in with both feet. There is no “halfway” at MC.
  • You have to be mentally tough to work here. Do something for yourself on the weekends.
  • Grab a $0.25 cup of coffee in the Work Room to start your day! Start a fresh pot and its free. 😉
  • Buy & wear a fit-bit.
  • Be the change you want to see…and LEAD that change.
  • Learn to juggle. You will make all the right friends.
  • Spread LOVE <3
  • Get to know the teachers. Building relationships is a big deal here.
  • P* gives the best hugs.*
  • A turkey dinner is served Thanksgiving week. Consider eating with kids in the lunchroom.
  • Don’t park under the lampposts unless you want a plethora of bird droppings!
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously. Laugh with the kids!
  • First lunch is the BEST! 😉
  • Read the daily/weekly bulletins!
  • Avoid parking near the portables, unless you LIKE walking through large puddles on a rainy day.
  • Feel free to collect “floor pencils”. Even if they have bite marks, your kids will need them. J
  • Admin. feeds us well; if it’s a meeting or celebratory day, there is food…somewhere!
  • The staff bathroom in the C Building near the art room has a lock that works selectively. Use with caution. 😉
  • Leave the windows closed. The HVAC works better.
  • Participate in staff activities as often as possible. Parties, dancing, contests, movies; bonding time is never wasted time.
  • The parking lot floods. Bring boots!
  • Be nice to Mr. Gordon Dorsey(head custodian). He can be a huge help!
  • Be prepared for schedule changes. Make extra packets for new students.
  • Search for coffee around the building. It’s there…you just gotta find it!
  • If you see something that needs to be done, just do it.
  • The alarm will go off if you enter C Building before 6am…but you won’t hear it or know it until they come looking for you.
  • Find a teaching partner if you want to start/run a club.
  • First come, first served in the side parking lot along the field and C building.
  • La Huerta is awesome!
  • Never piss off the office staff. 😉
  • Spiders or flys in the classroom may derail your lesson for up to 15 minutes.
  • When cleaning out lockers, kids will trash books. Be on the lookout!
  • Enjoy the company of staff; great group!
  • Keep letting your light shine and you will glow for others to see.
  • New to Teaching:
  • Growth mindset is a must in this building.
  • Students – “What you put into your education determines your success in learning.”
  • Senior staff is very supportive. Talk to them for assistance and advice.
  • Always get their names right…or work hard on it. They care and it matters.
  • Be flexible with student students, schedules, etc.
  • Take the time in September to really get to know your students. The payoff for the rest of the year is immeasurable!
  • But the Mama Stortini’s special gift card in September.
  • Stand by the door. Don’t allow students to stand by the door before the bell rings. They love to slip out.
  • The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving ways.
  • Rather than focus on the problem, try to be part of the solution.
  • Document everything.
  • Talk to our Student Success Team about options for discipline. Don’t always go for punishment. Discipline is about teaching.
  • Remember that our students are someone’s baby. Honor that bond and don’t judge.
  • Get ready to hear the “F” word. 😉
  • Get a second opinion…or three. Different perspectives help you to come up with your own, authentic “way”.
  • Don’t be shy about saying “no food or drinks” in the classroom.
  • Make sure students know you care about them. You can get them to do almost anything if they believe that you believe.
  • There are a lot of ELL(English Language Learners). Strategies to help them will be necessary to know.
  • Call home. Then try again. Our parents care…they just aren’t easy to reach all the time.
  • Do not be a “friend”. Be an adult with clear expectations. It’s what they need!
  • Learning can be good fun if you make it.
  • Teach students not to laugh at disrespectful/disruptive behavior. This will be super helpful.
  • Don’t be afraid of technology. It makes things easier.
  • Work on setting your classroom systems into place at the start of the year. Do it well and you will reap the rewards
  • Don’t take students’ negative attitudes personally. Stay calm!
  • Rule your classroom with an iron fist.
  • Actually TALK to your students, one to one. It goes a long way.
  • Make sure students know they are not allowed to have their laptops out without permission.
  • Don’t listen to or ask for advice from the crazy ones. 😉
  • It can be easy to become involved with everything so remember to schedule time for yourself.
  • Say everything like you mean it!
  • Don’t take the negative things kids say personally. It never really is personal.
  • Be a storyteller. Our kids like to know your life.
  • Collaborate and be open-minded in your PLC. It is all in the best interest of our students.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff.
You may not be able to guess the ones I contributed, and it doesn’t matter: what matters is we all said and felt a big collective hug toward each other and our students. She opens her heart and home and welcomes one and all, and if we all learned how to be a little more open, everything would just be…abazing. 🙂
*One of our admin, and it’s true.
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