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Mindset, Rigor and Grit: Oh my…

bored student
I am way too cute for this…

I am such a cheater sometimes, such a fraud. My deepest, most humble apologies to @cherylteaches for her amazing article on the Misconceptions about Mindset, Rigor, and Grit.  Please read it. Bookmark it. Read it again. Print it out and highlight it, and then repeat three times, “There’s no place like a jargon-free day!” And then tweet her and thank her for her wise perspectives on how these are misused.

Allow me to translate this article from a teacher’s perspective:


I saw Carol Dweck speak years ago, live, in person, not just a Youtube video, about growth mindset. It was transformative. However, never in my wildest dreams did I think administrations could possibly misinterpret mindset in their opinions/bias of teachers to mean, “Never bring up a lesson that worked in the past, or something you learned or tried while not under my reign.” The word ‘mindset’ may also be used a cudgel on evaluations to mean, “This is your grade – you are an unsatisfactory teacher/basic teacher, and nothing you do or say, no matter how much evidence you provide, will change my mind about this.”

In too many classrooms, an evaluator comes in during choppy times and sums up your 180 days with 60 minutes:


► Is not a now-or-never experience. In too many classrooms, something is taught and assessed once and if a student doesn’t get it, the teacher moves on anyway.

As Mizerny states, “[Mindset]does not thrive in a hostile environment.” When evaluators are looking for the target and criteria (two words I’ve grown to hate), nicely tied up and wrapped with a bow at the end of every class, I sense they are looking for compliance from me and the students. I see what my students need, prune and adjust accordingly, and know that growth requires various conditions for all of us. Instead of “learning TARGET,” (which sounds so aggressive and violent), how about “Learning Spectrum?”

Yes, happy rainbows, spring showers and sunshine. That would be nice.


This infographic could be made into a board game of teaching:


Pretty much sums it up:

Rigor does NOT mean:

So if you’re doing that, stop it, okay? Thanks.


This. THIS.


/lowers voice

I can’t say it any better than Mizerny. “Grit” is applied to teachers more than students from my experience. If we just worked harder, pushed harder, planned more entertaining lessons, hit every mark, 100% for 100% of students.

Misinterpretations of grit:

► If perseverance were all it took to be successful, we would all have the capacity to be Olympic athletes if we just put our minds to it. Not true. Yes, it is always possible to improve, but it is a lot easier to hit a home run if you begin life on third base (through special talent or special circumstances). For the rest of us starting at home plate, we may need a little more support and encouragement to round those bases.

I am not a first year teacher, but this is the first few years of working with new standards and the ever-changing revolving door of administration. It may take me time to learn your style and your values. I am willing to be patient with you, and appreciate reciprocity.

► Sometimes the studentsteachersare working at their peak capacity; the task is just beyond their realm. Meeting the individual where he/she is and working within their zone of proximal development is more likely to yield positive results. It is destructive to tell children anyone that if they only tried harder, they would be successful. Realistically, that may never happen for some.

In other words, I am an amazing Language Arts/Social Studies/Media teacher. I will never be a great math teacher. I am language, words, and beauty. I am esoteric and reflective. 

► Generally, repeated failure does not motivate one to work harder. Usually, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and the childperson believes himself/herself to be a failure. “That’ll teach ‘em to studylesson plan harder next time” doesn’t work.

► Now, if what we mean by grit is the ability to stick with an assignmentchange in curriculum or pay attention in class, a staff meeting, then we must be darn sure we are asking studentsteachers to do work worth doing and making classprofessional development engaging. Students Teachers who have creative, challenging work to do in a positive classroom environment do not need nearly as much “grit.”

► The need for grit is primarily useful when the task involves drudgery. Not every task is worth doing, and we need to be able to let go of the mind-numbing assignments of the past and move into the 21st century. Not that we still can’t teach the required material, we just need to do it in ways that we know engage their brains and work within a modern construct. The kidsteachers are already there and if you are not with them, you are against them.

► What teacherssome think is grit is often merely compliance. Creating an environment where students teachers do what the teacher superiors asks just to achieve a high gradeevaluation or get the work finished is a sure recipe to crush souls.

Ah, what do people want? Do you want teachers who look forward to doing one of the hardest jobs there is each day, or just run through young, new educators and hope they quit around five years so they don’t start costing districts money? And it’s not milk money money, but billions. I guess it costs a lot to buy buzzwords.

And grit is a four-letter word.



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Older than the fridge it's on, this relic list still satisfies and inspires
Older than the fridge it’s on, this relic list still satisfies and inspires

Monday and Tuesday found me and my colleagues in another “studio” style professional development. I can trace the evolution of this professional development to two species: one, where I used to do work off-campus with my mentor on novel units, and two, the desire we teachers expressed to talk to each other more, learn from each other, and visit each others’ classrooms. Somehow the District heard this as, “Let’s hire a consultant to go in and run professional development.” It’s been truly transformative, and I’ve learned so much, but can’t help but feel that once again there is a slight patronizing wash over the whole thing, that veteran and new teachers alike are not capable of learning from each other, or to be trusted with our own professional development.

To help the guest teacher, I always leave my district-issued laptop in my room, and bring my personal one. My personal one is cool, sleek, and just BUSTING with novel ideas, story starts, haikus, poems, and yes, the ubiquitous to-do list in the form of Stickies. The coach for our professional development noticed the stickies all over my desktop, and said something to the effect she used to have the same, etc. (sic: Perhaps become more organized, or is using a different method.)

Her funny comment made me actually look and read my sticky notes again. (We both mused at my different colors: there was a system at one point, but now it’s just for visual effect.) Everything from who’s in my current PSWP writing group, household projects, project ideas, and all the minutiae of teaching, parenting, and perpetual problem solving. But there are hundreds of things not on any sticky note or to-do list. I have two sons, very different, both brave, creative, and loyal to each other, but each have different paths I have to help clear and guide. My husband’s health and his volatile industry, with the life-span of a typical UX Designer (and he is a genius one) of about two-three years means I respond by taking root in a job so deep, with roots seeking the deepest aquifers to try to stay alive and sustain my soul. Sound over dramatic? Try my job sometime. My dog needs to go to the vet. The mammogram is a year overdue. The teeth haven’t been cleaned. And administrators need everyone to be all above average. Oh, and the legislators are considering pay scale based on test scores. 

Welcome to Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.

Garrison Keillor

Then yesterday, Wednesday, I read John Spencer’s post on his lists. He is one busy man, and I know he’s been through his time of burn-out. And I believe that is what we creative types do: we write our way through it. Even to-do lists or a sticky note can empower.

Lists can buoy us or anchor us. The invisible on the lists drown us. If I actually listed all the nonsense that floats around in my brain, the ocean of mental trash generated by those who pollute my professional and personal life, perhaps I wouldn’t be able to do anything at all. See my list up there? There are some things I can cross off. And to be sure, there are some things I need to add.

It’s on my list.

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Dream Syllabus…

cat dream

Angela Skinner Orr published this on Medium. The blurb stated this was her syllabus she wanted to give before she quit teaching. I have not, nor plan to, quit teaching anytime soon.

If you don’t want to do it, don’t. Don’t waste your time or mine by coming to class if you don’t want to be here. My time is valuable and so is yours. I am not more important than you; we are equals. That said, I have time and I have knowledge. If you want access to either, you’ll have to give up something to get them: you’ll have to give up your apathy. You will have to stop not caring about how you’re wasting your time and money. Get engaged in your learning or get out.

Hack your education. Unless you plan to be a surgeon or some other, carefully-vetted specialist, you don’t absolutely need college. If you can find a debt-free way to learn what you need to know, do it. The statistical probability is that your education will leave you with too much debt for your income and not enough skills to be an attractive candidate for employment in your field. It is highly likely you will look back, ten years from now, and wonder why you chose your current course of studies because you’re doing something completely different than you ever thought you’d do. So I highly encourage you to hack your education. You’re a lot more likely to gain the skills employers are looking for by going outside of academia. (What kinds of skills are employers looking for? See “Skills To Develop A Learning Mindset,” for a start.)

Use your iPhone in class. There is a world full of digital knowledge at your fingertips; use it. Anyone can look up how far Earth is from the sun or what a carbon cycle diagram looks like. Don’t ask a question you can Google. You may use devices in class (laptops, tablets, smart phones, etc.), but know that if you’re reblogging cat pics on Tumblr during a group session, you’re not going to do well. (Try that during a work meeting and you may be fired from your job.) You will also need other kinds of help and mentoring to get you where you want to go. Knowing what to do with your knowledge, how to apply it, share it, or use it to your advantage — those skills are harder to learn and ten times more valuable. This is where I, and others like me, come in handy.

I have no idea what you’ll learn. That is up to you. I can teach until I’m blue in the face, but if you don’t want to learn what I’m trying to get you to know, you won’t. How will you learn new things when you leave college? Start figuring that out now. If you can’t change with the times, the times will move on without you.

You will fail. (Please, please fail.) Take risks. You will learn more from your failures than you will from your triumphs. Make it a positive experience and you will come out stronger for it. I’m not talking about failing because you didn’t try — that’s laziness, or maybe even a fear of success. I’m talking about trying something new and falling flat on your face. Even if you worked hard (or were lucky) and only a stubbed toe, keep moving — and watch your step, next time.

Make something. The world is full of people who talk a good game. Put what you know to work for you and make something tangible: a research paper, a blog, a video, a work of art, an app, a piece of original code, a presentation, a song. Anything. Before he died, Steve Jobs said, “It’s not all about you and your damn passion. You need to get out there and make a dent in the universe.” Do that.

Travel. Find a way to save up, crowd fund, couch surf, whatever it takes to get you away from home for a while. It will change you. I promise. If you want to start traveling during this semester, go for it. Give yourself an “A” on the way out.

Give back. Think hard about how you fit into the world. Make a lasting impact, even if it’s a small one. Share whatever knowledge you gain. Share your time, your money, your strength, whatever you have. Be an active, responsible citizen. Be kind. The world needs more kindness.

There are no exams. Charles S. Maier, Saltonstall Professor of History at Harvard said, “Life is open book; it’s not closed book.” You will have to show what you can do with what you know. Did you learn something? Prove it. No one will give you a multiple choice test outside of school. (I take that back. Google might.)

Grade yourself. In the work world, you will often have to justify your usefulness to a company, save your job from budget cuts, or explain why you deserve a promotion. I am required to enter a grade for you at the end of the semester; you will tell me what grade you deserve and why. (Want an instant “A”? See “Travel,” above.) How would you grade yourself in Life? Hmm.

Document, document, document. Show the world what you have done, what you can do. Create a trail for others to follow. Set up a digital portfolio and keep adding to it. Try, for a start.

Start now. Do. Or do not. There is no try.” — Yoda

Her content mirrors much of my own beliefs, and it further contrasts how far off the path we’ve gone. We know what works, we know how to engage students (because the best teachers understand themselves), and recognize everyone is engaged in a variety of ways. However, and this is a BIG however: at the root of the conflict and strife between teachers and their supervisors (including politicians, parents, and administration) is that compliance is being confused with engagement.

This is very dangerous.

The Science (and Practice) of Creativity by Diane Cadiergue  breaks down a taxonomy is a new way, the first step being Memorization. Recently I spoke with a colleague about the role of content in her curriculum area, and how we all feel like failures because we don’t cover nearly enough content, nor do we always have the energy to invent new and entertaining ways to present content, have students take ownership, be thoroughly engaged (see compliance v. engagement), and moreover, RETAIN knowledge. Every year, the teacher/educator in the next grade will shake their heads and wonder what the teacher in the year before actually taught. Even now, those who have been in my classroom a few times assume I’m “not teaching reading,” or assuming I’m not doing anything at all I think. My compliance isn’t noted, or something, I suppose. A quiet moment at my desk while two students are talking about a project is seen as me not doing my job. It’s lead to me wondering just what is my job exactly, and how do I continue to have both confidence and reflection work together to increase students’ knowledge and skills. I have been vocal about how none of us can swim ‘in the deep end of the pool all the time.’ It’s exhausting, and metaphorically, if you want to kill the joy of swimming, then fine, make kids be “deeeeeep thinkers” all the time. Like any trope, overused leads to diminishing returns.

This is not to say that compliance doesn’t play an important role. Just being in a frame of mind where we can receive information helps foster deeper thinking, but it isn’t everything. For example, the other day I was doing a very rigorous lesson on thesis development, evaluation, analysis and synthesis. A bit too much for a warm Friday afternoon in sixth period, methinks. One girl, who wants to do well, has a big, beautiful personality, put her head down on her desk. To the outside observer, she was disengaged. She was. And I don’t blame her. That day was not her day for this particular idea. But that’s where the art of teaching enters: I made a note of it, and will follow up with her during small conferences time to get her caught up. That’s why I post lessons, Smartnotebook files, etc. on e-learning, our district’s on line tool. If it’s important to know, it’s important to re-teach and re-introduce. And, say for example I’m in a bad mood, things aren’t going my way, and then someone surprises me and says something unexpected, and pleasant. I’ve gone from non-compliance to compliance, and moreover engagement, in a flash. (I’m thinking when someone offers to run to the store from some Americone Dream…)

Now one key thing I admit is an issue, is:

Passive Compliance – student is willing to expend whatever effort is necessary to avoid negative consequences, even though student sees little meaning or value in the task (Schlechty, 2001).

So many students are just tired, bored, and cheated out of basic knowledge, so when they come to middle school are fatigued from feeling so lost.

I have turned every every rock I see to try to get students engaged and take ownership, and I still feel like a failure. I have them think of what’s important to them, drawn them out as best I can, and offer multiple pathways to thinking, multiple readings, multiple styles and prompts. And still I get “I’m confused,” or worse, shrugs of disinterest. Granted, these are things that are NOT important to me necessarily, so I just don’t get it. Perhaps I’m trying to hard, perhaps students sometimes want the clear, steady beat of a fill-in-the-blank.

Rhetoric and jargon are not the answers.

But what is? What would be on your dream syllabus?



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Top Ten Teacher Tomes


It’s Spring Break in my district right now, and I cannot help but contrast it to many other spring breaks from teaching years past. And though my sentiments are squarely shaded by nostalgia’s obfuscating pen strokes, this spring is different because of some missteps with the TPEP (Teacher-Principal Evaluation Project) new teacher evaluation systems, and how it’s causing me hyperventilating levels of stress. When I attended the full two week training two summers ago, I left the professional development days full of hope and renewed energy. The rubrics! The heights! The “I-got-this-can-do” belief in myself! Well, that’s not how it’s played out, and I’ll leave that for a post for another day.

But one thing spring does bring (hey, it’s National Poetry Month after all), is the zing of clean: I dust off bookshelves, and reorganize a few hot spots around the house. There are some books that demand revisiting in times such as these, these times of confidence splintering and self-doubt. What did I read, and what did I put into practice, so I know I’m growing and responding as a teacher? These are my top ten:

10. The Well-Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer

9. The Annotated Series published by W.W. Norton & Company

8. The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury

7. I Read It, But I Don’t Get It by Cris Tovani

6. Guys Write for Guys Read, edited by Jon Scieszka

5. Readacide by Kelly Gallagher (or anything by Kelly Gallagher)

4. The Writing Thief by Ruth Culham

3. Notice and Note, Strategies for Close Reading by Kylene Beers, et al

2. Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe

1. How to Be An Explorer of the World by Keri Smith

This brief curated list doesn’t begin to illustrate the influence of particular books on my teaching practices, but it’s a solid start, kind of ‘if I was on a deserted island and had to teach the coconuts’ kind of thing. But they each are weighed under the recurring teaching points for middle and high school students:

*Do they help teach/model essays?

*Do they address a love for reading?

*Do they address a yearning for creativity?

*Do they provide a clear pathway for my practice?

If I can answer 3/4 to any of that criteria it made the list.

What books do you repeatedly return to when you’re feeling shaky? 

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Dear First Year Teacher: A love letter from the Puget Sound Writing Project, 2015

Note: I asked the participants of the PSWP (Puget Sound Writing Project) to provide a letter to a new teacher – well, we teachers are busy folks. I know there’s one I can’t find in my e-mails, and others are well, teaching. I’ll nudge again, and see what happens. Here are two for the time being.

An autumn morning in Seattle, Washington at the University of Washington with the Puget Sound Writing Project — discussing my love and passion for blogging, its benefits to self and soul, and how to use the Internet for good, and not evil, I asked my colleagues to write a love letter to a new teacher. I will post these as they come in.

My love letter is simple: remember, always, this child in front of you is someone’s baby. This child was created and is here, now. Their creation and their story is their own, and singular. No matter what you judge, or runs counter to your beliefs, this is someone’s baby. And they trust you to hold that sacred, even if they seem incapable of the same.


Dear First Year Teacher,

By now you have found that working at Woodward requires an amazing amount of attention, an ability to juggle 17 balls at once, and a talent for keeping in mind each student’s needs and interests. As an old crone who has watch you as a child grow into a colleague, I would like to pass on a bit of wisdom for this first year, and beyond. That is, “You do not have to be good.” This is the first line of Mary Oliver’s poem, Wild Geese, which has become wildly over-used of late, so I will address only the two most useful lines for me. The whole poem is included at the end.

“You do not have to be good…” I found this particular line supremely comforting during these last 14 years of teaching because it allows that, while none of us – student, teacher, or parent – are perfect and will, in fact, make many mistakes in our roles, we are still trying to do our best. It is okay to make mistakes, to try new and innovative paths (even if they are dead ends), to say NO to ways of teaching if they don’t fit who you are. In your first year, you do not have to be “the best” teacher. You only have to strive to be a very good first year teacher. Do you see how that opens you up to so many possibilities? Have compassion with yourself, as you would to any of your students who are practicing Algebra for the first time.

Oliver goes onto say, “…You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves…” In the past few years, this line has supported me in recommitting myself to the reasons I went into teaching in the first place. Take a little time right now to write down WHY you have chosen to teach, and what you love about the profession. Write down what you hope to learn and accomplish through teaching; then post this writing somewhere you can revisit it from time to time, or set it up on your calendar so that it appears monthly as a meting you have. In other words, keep an eye on what you know feeds you. If your purpose changes, go back and take the time to edit it. There is no right or wrong answer here, as long as it is your own.

Teachers are notorious worriers, particularly about being exposed as frauds. This is because there is always more to learn, always answers we do not know. Perhaps this has not been your experience as you are so soon out of training and education yourself. Still, in the longest days if correcting a zillion papers, and then staying up later yet to plan the next day’s lessons, remember Oliver’s last lines: “like the wild geese over and I’ve announcing your place in the family if things.” You belong here, dear teacher, stick with it, hang on tightly to your self, your soul.



“We are like lutes 

once held by God.

Being away from his 

warm body

fully explains

this constant 

yearning.”                                           Hafiz