Category Archives: Being a better teacher

The Work in Workshop…

Throwing this out there: I need a writing group. I need the accountability and presence of other ideas. I am wondering if my lack of writing with any regularity, except for this blog, is a result of no structure, the end of PSWP, and not finding another NWP. Writing Workshop works. It is an exceptional means to help students grow as readers and writers. I’ve tried to sell colleagues on it, and because they haven’t been to the mountaintop and met with gurus of enlightenment like my friends Holly Stein and Kim Norton, they don’t believe me.

So I just have to make sure it fits with my students, and keep proving it, time and again.

Our school is trying to do many things in a hurry to get students at grade level: PLC work is the big focus, and for math and ELA, the district provides rough ‘frameworks’ but at least for the ELA group, they’re never done, or if they are, there is a conflict or confusion between the PLC created Common Formative Assessments and the district created ones. These are not mutually exclusive, but nor does this jive with the spirit of a PLC, and that is to be agile and responsive to student needs in an intentional means. Assessments that might be best for students at one middle school in the district may not be what’s most needed for ours.

Along with the PLC work, the administration wants us to focus on our grading practices, and the discussion is open and collaborative. It has always been my personal policy not to mark things down for being ‘late.’ Convoluted systems and make-up work tangles up the process, so I make it simple: there is a due date, and the assignment will ‘close’ a week afterward. It’s marked zero and missing to affect grades because if it’s not, the student isn’t aware it’s missing. These are middle school kids, remember. Once it’s done, I give it full credit. If it’s an assignment that is rubric based, they have time to redo it for a better grade. Assessments for our PLC and district are scored accordingly, but marked as “no count.”

Recently Ethical ELA posted an article about flexibility and student learning:

Deadlines and “Late” Work: The Potential of the Provisional

The writer used my favorite quote that I use as my tagline, and this–this is a fantastic idea:

What will you do with your one precious life? They reflected on their values, dreamed about what, who, and where they wanted to be, took a career quiz, read biographies, explored opportunities in high school, looked into part-time jobs, explored colleges, searched apartments, created a budget, read about philanthropic options, developed mottos, wrote a speech to synthesize the research in the voice of their future self (see an example below), and created a slideshow with images to support the content (e.g., Slides, A Life as an Artist, also see below). I set up a schedule for three students to be “guest speakers” each Friday through January, February, and March.

I may start off with my ‘ambassador of the table’ and then move to the guest speaker idea.

Before the break, the well-laid plans included a quick version of Greek mythology, then onto Box of Destiny! Ah, well. Add three snow days, a studio teacher workshop for the ELA department, the ‘no immigrants’ protest day, things did not go as planned. Do they ever? So, instead of the full-blown BoD presentations, I asked them to focus on just the story of their character from first-person perspective. Developmentally, this shift is very difficult for some students, and that makes it all the more valuable. Many had their stories done, many had them started, and many couldn’t get out of the starting gate, with all the scaffolds available. We did a modified writing workshop protocol on Friday, and I took the papers home to write feedback for one and all. Between my hand-written and typed feedback in Canvas, I hope to see some growth for the next project.

Life is not linear, that’s for sure. Maybe that’s why whenever I watch a Marzano or other expert they always use a math example, not an ELA or social studies one, because reading, writing, and history are messy indeed. But that’s okay: I know other experts to draw from, including my own knowledge and experience. If you want to come to the mountaintop with me, I’ll take you there.

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Looking for trouble.


As a follow up to What Seems to be the Trouble, Lady? post, the question arises concerning teacher/educator power versus “other” power, and what possible damage can Devos do?

Well, let’s take one possible walk through the Woods of Broken Pencils:

Lest you think that I was a complete fan-girl of the Obama administration’s choice for Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, nope. He was a poster-boy for privilege and ed-reform, and not only didn’t change or destroy NCLB, he gave us Race to the Top, which made matters worse.

What matters, you ask?

As usual, those who want to gut the Federal government’s role in our basic human rights: education, health, freedom of speech, religion, press, clean air/water, energy, etc. use sweeping, uninformative phrases. They say nothing and a lot of it.

But there is so much hope: teachers, parents, and administrators are speaking up, loudly and clearly. Many have had the scales fall from their eyes.

DeVos Survives Confirmation Battle But Her Agenda May Not:

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What seems to be the trouble, lady?

Look out!

Like most benign institutions, I assumed the Department of Education would always be there, doing its most important job: keeping the playing field field-y and the standards standard-y. But since education is under DEFCON 1 level attack, along with many of our Constitutional laws under the new, inexperienced and dangerous administration, the question was posed, “So what would be so bad if the DoE was abolished? What is the problem with state and local control of schools?” Good questions! And, since I didn’t immediately know the answers, but am always suspect of everything the Republicans do or say– because if it looks good on paper, it’ll probably burn everything down–I decided to dig a bit. Here are my findings (so far).


Please forgive me. With many sites disappearing like dodos and buffalos, I copied and pasted this entire page:

The Federal Role in Education


Education is primarily a State and local responsibility in the United States. It is States and communities, as well as public and private organizations of all kinds, that establish schools and colleges, develop curricula, and determine requirements for enrollment and graduation. The structure of education finance in America reflects this predominant State and local role. Of an estimated $1.15 trillion being spent nationwide on education at all levels for school year 2012-2013, a substantial majority will come from State, local, and private sources. This is especially true at the elementary and secondary level, where about 92 percent of the funds will come from non-Federal sources.

That means the Federal contribution to elementary and secondary education is about 8 percent, which includes funds not only from the Department of Education (ED) but also from other Federal agencies, such as the Department of Health and Human Services’ Head Start program and the Department of Agriculture’s School Lunch program.

Although ED’s share of total education funding in the U.S. is relatively small, ED works hard to get a big bang for its taxpayer-provided bucks by targeting its funds where they can do the most good. This targeting reflects the historical development of the Federal role in education as a kind of “emergency response system,” a means of filling gaps in State and local support for education when critical national needs arise.

Google Doc

It’s all about the money, and access to money.

This page says what I assumed: the locus of control for schools is contained in state and local governments.

The Department of Education’s missions include: (this is my paraphrasing)

  1. Give out Federal loans and aid
  2. Collects data and provides information to Congress
  3. Identifies and seeks to rectify major problems or issues in American schools
  4. Enforces Federal statutes regarding discrimination, etc.

So when Betsy Devos had no answer or experience for #1, didn’t know proficiency versus growth for #2, doesn’t know that teachers buy their own pencils (among a hundred other things) for #3, and wants to privatize schools so those schools can legally discriminate on race, special needs, religion, etc. #4, well, we have a BIG CRISIS.


State and local governments spending on students range widely. The graph on this site is interactive and shows the largest percentage of the budget is on educator salaries, and then benefits. This site is fairly consistent the Washington Post’s article, “The states that spend the most (and the least) on education, in one map”


U.S. states’ education spending averaged $10,700 per pupil in 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, but that average masked a wide variation, ranging from $6,555 per pupil in Utah to $19,818 in New York.

There’s an even larger range separating the lowest- and highest-spending of the nation’s largest 100 school districts: At the low end is Jordan, Utah, at $5,708 per student; at the high end is Boston, Mass., at $20,502.

Part of the variation is due to the huge differences in costs of living nationwide, which influence everything from teacher salaries to the cost of building and maintaining school facilities. Part is also due to economic realities — many states’ education spending remains lower than it was before the recession.

And part of the variation is due to political decisions to invest more or less in schools, or to do more or less to equalize education spending across low- and high-income areas.

Federal data show that there is a growing gap in education spending by the nation’s poorest and most affluent school districts.

And that is where it matters.

It’s about access and opportunity. It’s about upholding our values. It’s about free and accessible public education TO ALL. There is no one government agency that’s not important — not health,  not the environment, housing, and certainly education. If you climb up Maslow’s hierarchy the government agencies were doing a pretty damn good job, until the man with the orange pucker stepped into office.

But even with the Dept. of Ed, states still struggle, for a variety of reasons. From this site, Louisiana ranks the lowest, while Massachusetts the highest. When we talk about mission numbers 3 and 4 this is where it will hit home for every American family that isn’t part of the 1%: we want standards, just not bought and paid for standardized testing. We want free access for all children. We want inclusion. I want to teach refugees, immigrants, all religions, all neighborhoods. I want the children of our nation to get to know one another. To learn how to play and work together. I don’t want false science taught in schools. I want separation of church and state. I want a Muslim student to feel as welcome as a Jewish, Christian, Buddist, Hindu, Sikh, atheist or agnostic. I want children to say the pledge and mean it. I want children to be able to move from Idaho to Florida and know that they are receiving an equal, high-quality education that is consistent with rigorous standards and cognitive demands. I want learning outcomes to be transparent, objective, and based on research, not whims.

This is what we have to lose, and nothing to gain. If the house needs repair, you fix and mend, not burn it to the ground. And if children are once again segregated and isolated, no one will hear them call for help, because there will be no department who will be unified and dedicated to answer the call.

Source: WalletHub

I want the states to be united on this issue especially.

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Love for all.

We’re on SnowDay 3: our district may have been overly cautious for today because the roads are fine. No matter, today it’s time for some titanic-sized focus, clearing and cleaning up, and I’m all for it. Started posting on the Poetry Club site for students, and next, thinking about how to confer with all students on what they need most: feedback.

Once again, Three Teachers Talk come up with a comprehensive list of how to give feedback in a timely and accurate way. The value of using Canvas cannot be overstated. Being able to communicate with each student with feedback makes this important practice easier and in real-time. One drawback is, however, that big, visible space that students are doing things–if evaluators can’t see it, they often don’t recognize or realize, or even respect, that it is happening.

Just things I’m thinking about today…so I don’t think about other things. 

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Finding the exits.

Through the door…

Did you ever hear a buzzword or jargon from an evaluator or someone in an evaluative role and while you’re nodding your head, you have the realization that it’s meaningless without context? (That’s a nice way of saying baloney.) Recently the idea of ‘students not having a sense of urgency’ was attributed to my practice, and this made my hackles rise. I’ve been reflecting on what part is defensiveness, irritation, etc. for a few days now. The notion of ‘urgency’ connotes panic. Fortunately, I had read Andrew Miller’s article, The Tyranny of Being On Task before this jargon was laid out there, so I felt prepared to counter with research. But it also is about processing and allowing for confusion.

In any case, reflection is a two-way viewpoint. There are times we all want our students to feel, well, maybe urgent is too potent of a word but compelled to find out something new or talk about things that affect them, their families and world. Sometimes I wonder if I provide too much high cognitive demand–is there such a thing?  With Burning Questions and other rigorous thinking tasks, if one only sees a slice of a room during the process, no fair or accurate evaluation is possible.

In any case, here are some curated questions. Some of them were time-bound, and the topics aren’t relevant any longer. (I am not sure anyone cares if Mitt Romney was a bully in high school. Or maybe they do. *shrug*).

From the New York Times Learning Network:

163 Questions to Write or Talk About

55 Questions for Students

183 Questions for Writing or Discussion

Urgency, or passion, shifts and changes for us all. For example, by the end of this lesson, a reluctant writer wrote a delightful story. Many stepped up, took risks, and tried something new. When I see them again, they will all hear positive feedback on their growth in the process. And with that, I do have a sense of urgency.

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