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My momma said…

First of all, why can’t we just watch Rita Pierson for every professional development session?

Okay, well we did this year, and that’s a far cry from ‘Remember the Titans’ montages from years past. But that’s the past. And while I am clearly a language and history scholar in my own right, I know the power of a fresh start.

We are definitely getting a fresh start this year: new administration, new leadership, and about fifty percent new staff, each with their own background, experience, and yes, anxiety. And each of us also packs some baggage that may have been better off discarded. We’ve outgrown it. I still see and hear some mocking of children, some negativity, and I am fighting it like a cold. I am immunizing myself and my teaching spirit against it. Whomever mocks children and their parents must have his or her own sense of humor, however much I don’t understand it.

We all come to judgment one way or another. Some folks might think I’m emotional: code for “uncontrolled” or “hysterical.” But I am going to reframe this: our school is tough, and it takes an emotional toll. I will ask that folks do not judge me in June: there is some decompression time that must happen in order to stay mentally and physically healthy. There is not a switch I can turn off and on and be completely on solid footing. And I worry that some colleagues don’t recognize that in themselves, and are still mourning, hurt, or angry, and then hold fast to negativity.

I saw this clip today of this little girl in ballet class, and I just love it — please remember she is us, she is our student, she is our child–we are all trying our best:

And I also learned how to handle the momma bears better, being one myself:

And I learned that some colleagues sound like the first role play, and sometimes I have, too. But mostly, feel strong because I have always tried to be patient and consistent, and this is a strong reminder:

Whenever someone asked me to give advice to new teachers I always tell them the same thing: this child is someone’s baby. No matter what, they are in the world and ready to receive the best of what we have to offer.

Have a great September…

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Gluing the wings back on.


Is it still beautiful? Functional? Does it break my heart?
Is it still beautiful? Functional? Does it break my heart?

As an artist and a scholar, I prefer the specific detail to the generalization, images to ideas, obscure facts to clear symbols, and the discovered wild fruit to the synthetic jam.” ~ Vladimir Nabokov

An epiphany, oftentimes, doesn’t form as a flash or explosion, but a slow, forward creeping light. This is mine with close reading.

This overwhelming sensation of pulling the wings off the butterfly, of disassembling the parts and not understanding the whole, blind men trying to describe an elephant…all of this. I have read Falling In Love With Close Reading by Lehman/Roberts, and dug plenty into Notice & Note, and When Kids Can’t Read (Beers), and conducted a study of Kelly Gallagher of nearly fangirl proportions. All of these great minds, and intense professional development with close reading, and still I was left bereft.

It ruined my reading life.

For years, (and I am not being hyperbolic) I found that no novel, no news article, heck, not even a cereal box would cross my path without my examination of every word in close detail of where and what and how and when some text passage would spark my EUREKA! LOOK AT THIS CHARACTER RELATIONSHIP TO SETTING! This happened long before I heard the term ‘close reading.’ Annotating, discussion points, questioning, digging…on and on. The (over) analysis of literature, news, history, politics, religion, movies, poetry– and yes — cereal boxes, no longer came to me with just the need to read [say this in a Top Gun voice of ‘I feel the need for speed’]. I didn’t need to read for myself, I needed to read through every students’ brain that came into my classroom.

My best conversations about narrative are always with my husband. But even now, I sometimes tell him I don’t want to analyze what we’re watching, which probably hurts his feelings. I don’t blame him. We did manage to enjoy this anthology’s selection of True Detective, and if you say one word against Vince Vaughn’s performance we can’t be friends anymore. I did have one scuffle with a friend over her inability to appreciate the sad, sweet frosting that is The Grand Budapest Hotel, but I’m not married to her, so I let it go.

But you see how this goes, right? That what we love and share is as close to our hearts as anything can be? And if we love reading, and then must dissect it, masticate it, and regurgitate for others to find the path…then…(don’t worry: I’m going to get to a good place with this).

Another place that’s mine to share when discussing books is a book club one of my dearest friends started. There are several members, mostly NOT teachers, which provides a refreshing place to discuss books. My friend’s turn to choose came up, and she thought a classic would be in order, so she shared her love, Pride and Prejudice. I went through a “Jane Austen” phase in my late 30s, having not read any of her work in high school. I loved them. I got them. And I saw connection after connection between her genuis of writing about social foibles in her time and the relevancy to today. Now, one of my friend’s friends asked her if it was okay to just watch the movie. I don’t blame her. The text was written in 1813, for Elizabeth Bennet’s sake, and it’s hard to make heads or tails out of it.

Take this passage:

“Pride, observed Mary, who who piqued herself upon the solidity of her reflections, “is…

Austen, Jane (2008-02-11). Pride and Prejudice (Kindle Location 216). Dolphin Books. Kindle Edition.

Translation: This girl likes her own opinions. 

We all know this girl. The one who interjects into every conversation her personal wisdom and sage advice.

Am I sure that’s what it means? No. I didn’t look up Sparknotes, or talk about it, or have a scholarly discussion about Jane Austen. I JUST KNOW.

*deep breath*

I promised someplace good with this. Some kind of wake for my loss of my reading life. A fête, perhaps.


But here is that slow-burn epiphany: I signed up for this. It doesn’t matter that my inner reading life is no more: I am a teacher now, and all that matters is that I help ease the path for reading, and making meaning, for students. Just like parenting responsibilities, teaching is a biggie. It’s not an avocation or hobby. But unless I get back my own engagement in the conversation with students, it’s going to feel like work. (It did last year, but last year was fraught with a dearth of imagination and abundance of negativity, lack of scope, lack of growth mindset, and just plain bad manners. I can’t abide bad manners.)

But that was last year. This is now. I still love to discuss ideas: ideas from books, movies, graphic novels, politics, media, and world events, past, present and future. As long as I show students that close reading is just a tool to help make reading easier–easier to access the ideas–then it’ll be okay. Close reading, and my internal dialogue and connections with writers’ craft, still delights and engages me, and makes me feel smart and confident. I want my students to share in the same gift.



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…the unbearable lightness of knowledge…

My dining room table will be spotless by day's end. This is phase three of the GREAT BINDERING of '15
My dining room table will be spotless by day’s end. This is phase three of the GREAT BINDERING of ’15

There is a popular how-to book going around the ‘net now titled The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo. Since I have invested a lot of time and energy in breeding and care of dust bunnies, this topic doesn’t interest me. When the dust bunny farm goes south, perhaps I’ll give it another look. I kid, I kid. A synopsis spiraled around, and the one thing that stood out for me is the concept is don’t clean by area, clean by topic. For teachers, this is huge, and something I’ve always practiced: when moving or cleaning out a classroom, things go in categories: book genres to supplies, etc. It tends to work. Only when cleaning out the BOOK ROOM (this is a big deal) over my years as curriculum leader (aka department head in some academic circles) did I ever trash a few titles that were truly pulp, and not worth the paper they were printed on. I would have like to have gotten ride of Jackie’s Wild Seattle (ugh), but kept it in case it was anyone’s pet book. So far it has about as much charm as a dust bunny with fleas.

But here is something I did not expect: a debate about a classic title such as Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.

And do NOT comment on this full disclosure: I haven’t read the book (yet). Bet I’ve read a few books you haven’t. This one missed me because of my age and place in school–and that is the moral of this post.

This isn’t about my life as a reader, but our students’ lives.

I know this book meant a lot to a colleague of mine, and shaped her thinking about science. She is one of the exemplary science teachers I know. She introduced me to Ray Bradbury’s story, The Veldt, one of my new favorites to use with students.

To share the conversation, consider your own practices of purging through the mindset of “decluttering” —

book discussion 1 book discussion 2


I found one commenter’s remark curious, about ‘supporting’ my friend’s decision to purge this title. It ignited so many thoughts:

  • I’ve had six new administration teams and this will be my tenth year of teaching. Each admin team has a vision and new ideas, and we as a staff have had to adjust to the new ‘house rules’ every time, layered with change of guards in professional development focuses, and all the other changes inherent in modern teaching practices. This is my clutter I purge every year. Not books. Yours may be books, or dried up markers, etc. 
  • I have my own ideas about ‘reading lives,’ and considering a time-line of my own reading life. Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, Blubber, and Forever by Judy Blume were transformative texts for me; their relevance to students now may seem laughable. But that’s not the point: when I share Harriet the Spy to students, explaining what happened to me, more than one student would ask if I had a copy of it.
  • We all worry about stamina, that students do not pick up books. If we don’t open them for them, they never will. They will see them as traps. How do we break this notion that time spent with a book is wasted, that they have something ‘better to do?’ 
  • Do you know that movies now have a different frame rate than in years past? So much digital and media noise comes at our students constantly, no wonder they can’t sit and read a book. By the time many of my students are in 8th grade, they are not embarrassed at all by stating they do NOT want to read a ‘chapter book’ –and where are the pictures.

What went wrong?!

Nothing, really. Many students DO read, ask me about books, will not only finish a novel, but read it again (talk to me about Ready Player One by Ernest Cline). The trick is not to purge all the reading from all the students: like the Japanese decluttering books, look at readers as topics -help them craft their reading life, and recognize not every reader will be a reader of novels. Offer interest surveys, genre options, and let the book fit the reader, not force the reader to the book. Those are ideas that are timeless and sustaining.

And thank God for Judy Blume.

Postscript: I’m moving classrooms this year. More floor space, but no cupboard space, and there are no existing whiteboards. I’m going to have to change a lot to make it work.

*no whiteboards*



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I am about to try to explain magic.

Doug Selwyn is our professor for an ELA/SS course via PSWP (Puget Sound Writing Project). He is the real deal.

Let me show you the hat trick he shared:

Room of ten adults. Fluorescent lighting. Stuffy room. Lack of sleep, coffee, and August is ending. We each get a piece of notebook paper and pen. Nothing else. He asks us a question each of us, through our age and experience might have some familiarity with: “Tell me everything you know about the 2008 financial crisis.” We write. Some more or less. He takes our papers, and puts them aside.

magic box

Then he asks a seemingly unrelated question. All the while, the number 2254 is written, small. He asks us to imagine it’s the year 2254, and what might our world be like? We mention a variety of scenarios. What’s interesting is to see who’s read a ton of dystopian literature (me) and who is more optimistic.

Then: (by the way, that in the magic business would be called a ‘misdirection’)

he picks up our papers, and one by one, softly drops one to the ground, stating– this one was lost in the earthquake (being North-westerners we are thinking about earthquakes), this one lost….and this one….and then there are two left. As we watched “our” paper, our ideas, fall to the floor, (we shared later how distraught we felt).

Once the board is fairly full, pick up the student- written stories and start dropping them on the floor, one or a few at time, linking each to something on the board, narrating as you drop. These were lost when the seas flooded the West Coast. This one was used as packing material when a ship left earth to colonize the moon. These were deemed politically untenable. These were used to start a fire in a woodstove when the wood ran out, and so on. Drop stories until there is only one left. Announce that this is the official, surviving history of the event that you have all experienced. Since no one from that shared experience is still alive, those future scholars will only know what is on this one piece of paper.

He chose one, and then read it out loud. Granted, our handwriting is not as careful as it used to be, so plodding through our text proved dodgy at times. When finished, he asked us to share some of the facts and opinions we heard.

Doug Selwyn and Kim Norton
Doug Selwyn and Kim Norton

After we dissected one, miraculously the teleporter worked and another piece of history stepped through: this time is was a much closer personal experience with the 2008 crisis, and shared a completely different point of view. More information! More context! More voices heard!

Now those of you who are socially conscious can already see all the possibilities for teaching, and all the ways this can be used to discuss voices in history, whose stories are told, and whose are silenced, what comes through, and how we interpret mysteries from our pasts. And– you also see how valuable it would be to talk about the passing along of knowledge (education) and information. This led into a rich discussion on even now, with the Internet, social media, and an explosion of information and shared ideas, we have loss in not being able to access the digital media as well as many inhabitants of our planet who do not have access or are censored, and even punished, by trying to share in the conversation, by their oppressive governments.

Now: walking back to the parking lot I contemplated on how to bring this to students under our new dictum of learning targets, success criteria, and performance tasks. If those three things are not visible, we are ‘marked down’ on evaluations.

magic trick

Can you imagine going to see Houdini and he tells you how, why, and what he’s about to do? 

I have no issue with students seeing a purpose for their learning, and understanding when they’ve achieved that purpose. But sometimes…

…wouldn’t it be more powerful to let them feel the breathless moment, to ride the emotions, and then reconstruct what just happened? The “How did she DO that?!” moment? I can just see my students protesting when their papers are dropped to the floor, and how they grapple when all the information isn’t provided. Doug made a time machine appear in our minds, and we hung on every word.

Well, at least ‘student engagement’ was covered.



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It’s personal.

Some sentence starters that lend themselves to bridging personal connections to text, or not.
Some sentence starters that lend themselves to bridging personal connections to text, or not. *Not my sticky-note, but provided by a superlative consultant my district hired to guide us in close reading strategies.

Wanted to share a great discussion about how students can use personal connection to interact with text more deeply. I cannot remember which educational scholar suggested never to use personal connections when discussing text, but it doesn’t sit right. Every text is personal at some level: it’s the getting beyond the personal that creates critical thinking.


The Common Core State Standards: Misunderstandings about Response and Close Reading

by Kathy G. Short, University of Arizona

Teaching something from a text should come after personal response and dialogue, after readers have a chance to see that text as significant. That teaching should focus on one aspect of a text or one reading strategy. Beating a text to death with skill after skill is counterproductive—the reader walks away determined never to return to the text again and with little retention of the skills. By choosing one text structure or reading strategy, teachers provide a focus for students to explore and come to understand without destroying the text. It’s much more useful for students to examine one or two significant metaphors in a particular work of Shakespeare, for example, than to identify every metaphor in that work.


And this NPR story, Common Core Reading: The Struggle Over Struggle — I have used that swimming in both ends of the pool analogy myself! 

This is also where leveled reading comes in. No matter how good the teacher is, reading complex stuff can be exhausting. Kids need variety, says Willingham, and lots of books that they can read on their own, without much struggle.

The hope, says Willingham, is for these easier texts to build a reader’s confidence and create “a virtuous cycle where, the more you read the more you see yourself as a reader. You’re also picking up more background knowledge. You’re picking up more vocabulary. All of these things sort of feed on one another.” And help when it’s time for the next complex text.

Let’s go back to that reading-as-swimming analogy. It turns out, learning to swim requires both ends of the pool. And, ideally, kids reach a point where they can simply glide under the divider and choose for themselves.

Move to pairings of stories, the many tales we share and hear every day, from the most innocuous, mundane questions, to the powerful stories of perseverance and stamina.

Storycorp: “I will do four, five, ten, a hundred jobs for your education.”


You can take these stories any where you want — with your own thinking, and with students’. If they are not allowed to experience the majesty of human spirit in themselves and in others, what’s the point?

So here it is — every story is personal. If you are a human, you have parents. In class the other day, a colleague shared this story book:

father and daughter talesShe is quiet and kind: I could ask her why she shared this book, what it means to her, but perhaps her own personal story is just that — personal. We cannot disconnect ourselves from our connected, collective consciousness, and I will challenge anyone who suggests otherwise. The trick is to not allow students’ thinking to be truncated by stopping right at the text nor ending the conversation with a personal anecdote or connection: circle back around. That’s how it’s done.