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Go, team!

Creating curriculum, and recreating: satisfying
Creating curriculum, and recreating: satisfying


A former student, one who was in my Anime Club, but in a colleague’s ELA class, posted this on Facebook yesterday. It made my heart soar. He’s a PhD in Chemistry candidate at CalTech. Smart kid. He was going through his middle school assignments, and took the time to give a kind shout-out to his former teachers. My friend was the one who took this idea of mine and adapted it for her own class. She’s shared many great ideas with me, too, and is my guide for starting a Genius Hour. She no longer works for the district, but those relationships remain. I can think of another amazing young teacher I worked with, who would graciously use structures of lessons, (Power Points, Smartnotebooks, etc.) and ask if she could adapt and change to suit her teaching style. Man oh man that is when it WORKS, people! I follow her on Goodreads and look up the teaching books she posts, because she always finds the best. (Links below if you’re interested.)

The fact is, meshing teacher styles is darn near impossible: think big picture.
The fact is, meshing teacher styles is darn near impossible: think big picture in this case, the big goals, the big purpose.

The reason for its creation is reading logs aren’t effective, so I developed multiple ways to get kids to read; this was one. Personally I haven’t used it in years, because every year is different, and has a new set of opportunities for growth. I am not claiming that my one little reading unit paved the way to CalTech. No–the community and collaboration of teachers, and his parents, and his own volition did. And this we cannot lose sight of, ever. Choose your metaphor: ship, team, village: we do this together as a team. How that team functions, and its dynamics, are worth reflection.

Elena Aquilar published a piece about teams in Edutopia recently. I have never believed, for myself, in the writer’s initial sentiment, that she could do everything alone. Sharing and collaboration come naturally for me. Hers is a  refreshing admission that many folks bristle when it comes to teams, like group work:

“I’m going to admit that it’s taken me a while to feel convinced by the power of teams. Until recently, I didn’t have great experiences in teams. I felt that alone I could produce whatever needed to be created better, and quicker, than working with others. I often felt frustrated working in teams — the process felt so slow and cumbersome. I felt like I was usually given (or took) the bulk of the work. I didn’t really know what an effective team looked like, how one worked together, or what the benefits could be.”

Our middle school has gone through varying waves of having cross-content teams and not having cross-content teams. This next year I think we’re heading into a season of not having, but I could be mistaken. We will definitely continue the work of PLCs, which are crucial and empowering, and that may be enough. However, through the work of having a cohort of students, as my sons’ district does, it is much easier to facilitate interventions for children. Without that team of shared students, we will face some challenges, but ones I know we can handle. I have a plan in place for making sure none of my ELA students, no matter what Social Studies, Math, Science, PE, or Elective teacher they have, get my full focus, and create a mini-team individually for them. In each of their composition books, I’ll have them write their parents’ contact information, full schedule, and other notes, and check in with them periodically to see how all their classes are going, emotionally and academically. This will be an integral part of my conferencing with them. The grading system has a great “all teachers” function in emails, but this way it puts the focus on the conversation with the student first, and then bring in the support team. My e-mail output to colleagues may increase this next year, as those informal “Do you have a chance to give me your insight…” talks.

This article on the Emotional Intelligence (EI) of a team is invaluable:


The Key to Effective Teams in Schools: Emotional Intelligence


group project

Ultimately, what Aguilar says is key, no matter the make-up of the team itself (cross-curriculuar, departmental, PLC/cross or PLC/departmental)

  1. A good team knows why it exists. It’s not enough to say, “We’re the sixth grade team of teachers,” that’s simply what defines you (you teach the same grade) but not why you exist. A purpose for being is a team might be: “We come together as a team to support each other, learn from each other, and identify ways we can better meet the needs of our sixth grade students.” Call it a purpose or a mission — doesn’t really matter. What matters is that those who attend never feel like they’re just obligated to attend “another meeting.” The purpose is relevant, meaningful, and clear.

So here are my vows to any team(s) that find me as a player, PLCs, Departments, no matter:

1. I will complete and share my portion of any given task or directive freely.

2. I will adhere and comply to directives.

3. I will honor your time.

Teams come in all shapes and sizes, purposes and collaboration: it can be the formal PLC, or the  continued friendship and collegial collaboration that work over time and space. Just takes a different way of defining ‘team,’ and opening up to ideas.

Teaching Arguments: Rhetorical Comprehension, Critique, and Response Paperback – February 28, 2015


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Shiny Happy

Iced tea, book, good pen and new calendar...
Iced tea, book, good pen and new calendar…

Much is made about how teachers relax over the two months of summer. This summer’s been a blast for me, and the momentum is just getting going.

When I was in college, (the BFA time around), I was a waitress at a place called The Deer Park in Newark, Delaware. After a hectic shift, I always found myself wound up, and unable to turn off the switch from my shift, and on more than one occasion staring up at the ceiling well past midnight stewing about an 8AM class. (Yes, even Art/Art Historians have to take an 8AM class once in awhile.) I think a lot of teachers feel that way, too, as they slide into summer. We’ve just been on a 180 day shift, where can’t go to the restroom on our body’s schedule, or eat at a leisurely pace, and the sheer energy of absorbing 130-150 emotional demands takes up mental and emotional space. When the school year ended this year especially I just went around somewhat dazed and bewildered, like seeing a bright light after months of darkness (Note to self: that was the sun.). Now I’ve got the groove of summer, and I’m sure by the time the end of August rolls around the transition may have a little grit involved, like stepping into a sandy flip-flop. It’ll be fine though, I am sure, because I’m doing what I love, including thinking about cool things to do for students. There’s a shiny new calendar, too, beckoning: Write in me! Plan! Prep!  I’m Purple!

The Just Write class via Puget Sound Writing Project has brought me around many folks who are not teachers first, but writers first. We have a morning benediction of sorts, reminding us all not to plan or prepare, but to, you guessed it, just write. We’ve enjoyed the ‘life as writer’ insights of Jennifer Bradbury, a real honest-to-goodness working and publishing author. It’s like having an artist-in-residence as a friend/guide. (And she’s dang nice too, as well as incredibly smart and talented.)

And: secret’s out. I am having a summer romance this year. (It’s okay, you can tell my husband.) This year I’ve fallen back in love with cultivating my creative life, my teacher life, and have a somewhat grown-up family: as much as I loved when my sons were small, I am really enjoying this phase, now too: before wives and their children, just enjoying the young men they are. What a good place to be. But it didn’t just begin this summer. Last year I decided to continue a new tradition in our family of actually looking events up, buying tickets, getting in a real car, and driving to see performances and lectures by writers. So far we’ve seen Ira Glass,  David Sedaris, Patton OswaltNeil Gaiman, the Moth Radio Hour, and have plans to see Sarah Vowell,  Anthony Doerr, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and any others we can. Hearing stories live is like being read to again: just as endearing and enchanting. Music to my ears.

So I have a date to continue growing this creative life: it’s the best thing I could do. And it’s relaxing. The planning is like canning fruits and vegetables, the reading of all kinds of novels is like planting wildflower seeds and tenacious daisies and other perennials, and this blog–a Farmer’s Almanac I guess, to guide where the wind changes, and plan for the rains.

Time to go see that big yellow thing again.




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Traditional gifts.


This fall I’ll begin my 10th year as a teacher. There seems something monumental, with a dash of stoicism, and a hefty side of time-warp vertigo about that. Not sure what to think.

For traditional wedding anniversaries, the tenth year is celebrated with something of tin or aluminum. (I’m a sucker for recreating traditions.) First year is paper, sixth candy, etc. I played around in my mind what would we give teachers for their anniversaries? Paper, of course, in the form of books and craft stock. Cotton: comfortable socks, shirts, clothing, cotton handkerchiefs to wipe away tears and blow noses; leather satchels and book bags; fruit and flowers, naturally, to brighten and create health. Wood? Pencils. And lots of them. Candy –yes please. (Although I’ll take mine in the form of cashews and crisps.) Iron? Iron to stay strong, when our blood depletes, becoming anemic, because we don’t have time to take care of ourselves. Wool: mittens, hats, scarves, hobbies–yes! Knitting as a hobby to relieve stress. (That may have been the year I made the World’s Longest Scarf.) Pottery? Replacing cracked classroom objects–the baskets, the desk lamps, the pencil holders? Freshen up desk items, replace tape dispensers and red Swingline staplers? And now we’re back to willow/pottery: willow? Maybe a bamboo plant or something green to work its freshness and vibrancy, a little corner of zen and hopeful feng shui? But tin and aluminum–I’m stumped. All I can think about are cans of Diet Coke or tin-can telephones. I don’t drink pop anymore, really, and tin reminds me of rhythmic, dull, thudding sounds.

Anniversary Traditional Modern
1st Paper Clocks
2nd Cotton China
3rd Leather Crystal/Glass
4th Fruit/Flowers Appliances
5th Wood Silverware
6th Candy/Iron Wood
7th Wool/Copper Desk Sets
8th Pottery/Bronze Linens/Lace
9th Willow/Pottery Leather
10th Tin/Aluminum Diamond Jewelry

But maybe I am not thinking about this correctly: tin is the Tin Man, of course! Sometimes, due to his own misguided notions about what’s important, loses his way, and loses his heart. It takes courage and honesty to get it back, and cannot be done without friends. I had a draft of this post: its timeline bored me. Counting the number of principals, achievements, classes, contributions and connections is a valuable exercise, however that historical record is a little dry. (And no one cares about when I was curriculum leader, or on what committee, or consistent contributions I’ve made: everyone wants results, and to be acknowledged for their heroism. Personal histories are dull and rusting.)

But I can count my friends and colleagues: babies born, death, loss, joy, marriages, excitement and trepidation about change and transitions (I’ve friends whose children went to college before my older son, and some who have children about to go this fall: it’s not a road we’re traveling together, but crossing a bridge). I think I’ll go buy myself some WD-40 an put it on my desk, just as a metaphor of keeping the flow going. These friends of mine: they keep my heart beating.

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In my backyard…

10365_66cm_ 008

The Common Core-aligned Smarter Balanced exams, Elijah was told, were grueling — but Washington state didn’t require this year’s juniors to pass them to graduate from high school. In fact, the only thing compelling Elijah to take the tests this past spring was No Child Left Behind, the federal law. And, by federal standards, Elijah’s school was all but certain to be labeled “failing” whether he passed the tests or not.

When something doesn’t matter, why bother?

Testing Revolt in Washington State Brings Feds Into Unchartered Waters: this headline hit home. Last year my younger son was a junior, and many of his friends opted-out. We sat on the fence too long, mostly due to the fact I felt conflicted and indecisive–and at that time I wish I was ‘just a mom’ and not a teacher, too. I envied other parents who could boldly make this choice and help their students children take a stand about their lives. This is not the first time my teacher-life and my parent-life were at odds.

The thing is: those kids did not sign up for that. It was a broken promise in a way. They started kindergarten in 2003,(?) and will be the graduating class of 2016. They were raised on EALRs/GLEs, and then cut to CCSS late in the game. They were not left behind while racing to the top, and now they’re going to achieve. It’s all about the money, always has been, and our children are the commodity. And I am not being idealistic or capricious when I speak of money: money is important. Getting adequate funding for our students is the only political job we have. But please: can we remember that it’s our tax dollars, our public trust that our children are entitlement (wow, is that a loaded word) to a free, public, and excellent education. If the test serves no purpose to help them achieve their goals in the world, it serves no purpose at all. It needs to go. If it doesn’t inform a child in his or her path for their strength and weaknesses, and help them clarify their path, again, it’s a waste of time and money. To be clear, I am not against CCSS, nor the SBA: the two are not working in concert, however. The CCSS are flexible, but in the wrong interpretation can be too ambiguous for some educators; the SBA is too new, and not as transparent as it should be.

And in saying this what will happen is the powers that be will ‘make it count,’ and the only narrow way to get out of high school into something else is by passing this test. Scylla and Charybdis must be cracking up. These words are used as a curse, as a ‘be careful what you wish for,’ because we are not going to let you go that easily. So what looks like safe passage may be an illusion. I’m not sure how the new mandate is going to help. There are these dire warnings:

Democratic lawmakers in both chambers are sure to continue pushing for stronger accountability provisions before sending the legislation to the White House. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said that the Obama administration would not support the legislation unless it strengthens the federal role in school accountability. But he stopped short of saying whether the president would veto it.

So is this the calm before another storm?

“After we were clear of the river Oceanus, and had got out into the open sea, we went on till we reached the Aeaean island where there is dawn and sun-rise as in other places. We then drew our ship on to the sands and got out of her on to the shore, where we went to sleep and waited till day should break.”

My younger son’s odyssey with public education tells as many tales as Odysseus, including cyclops (there’s always that “one” teacher), sirens (Minecraft, Kerbal Space Program), eating of the lotus (Diet Coke and gummy bears), and even respite and relaxation (drum line, robotics, and geology next year).

He’ll graduate next year; maybe without the best GPA, and his HSPE and SBA won’t “count” for colleges. What a waste of time. Only his GPA and perhaps his higher-than-average SAT.

What angers me is how many things “don’t count” for him or hundreds, maybe thousands of other students. He’ll have to move mountains and boulders to find his young adulthood path, and after years of being told what he was good at, where he excelled “didn’t count” no wonder he feels fatigued. I imagine he is not alone. Where are those creative and grand ideas that others speak of, and do? Why can’t his and every other school in our nation offer the very best in excellent, authentic curriculum and opportunities to show mastery?

dan ariely

Maybe we need to make a new pact, a new covenant: we need to value our children, and not allow politicians misuse their hard work. If we value work, independence, intrinsic motivation and creativity how do we collectively show and prove these values?

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The Write Stuff


Writing to visual prompts is one of students’ favorite and most engaging things to do. It generates fruitful opportunities for a variety of perspectives, questions, mode (genre)  and forms (delivery system)  of writing.

To that end, I’ve been collecting visual prompts for years, and have fallen in love with Pinterest (late to the party, I know) as a means of collecting ideas:

If you’re looking for a student interactive site, check out Write About and Writing Prompts. And I still add prompts connected to CCSS on my other writing blog, too: Up From the Gutter.