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Form follows function…

label stuff


This past week, and current week, I’m elbow-deep in crafting lessons, mini-units, and all good things in the PSWP ELA/SS CCSS course. Though much of it is a review for me, it’s how I learn–by relearning, adapting, and modifying instruction.

In May, I was reflecting on all that is required of me and instruction in any given moment, and the quality professional development I’ve sought and been offered. I do not turn down opportunities to learn and grow, and it’s hard for me to turn off my brain. I created a lesson plan template largely based on meeting those challenges: gradual release, learning targets, success criteria, performance tasks, the new teacher evaluation cycle (TPEP), and adding assessment and assessment reflection so I can have precise, informed conversations about learning. Next, I plan on creating a document to help track student information on specific standards. Yes, this is the stuff I dream about.

Now, the question will be, will I use it to its full capacity, or become so busy much gets lost in the flood? I’ve promised myself for some of the big concepts, yes–use it as a teacher reflection tool. I am a believer in strong prep work.

Question for my colleagues: what are must-haves on your lesson plan formats?

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Data driven into the ditch. (And calling a tow-truck.)


About two years ago, I and my colleagues tallied eight weeks of instructional time that went directly to summative assessments provided by the school, district, and state/Federal. We asked, and then begged, for a reasonable conversation and dialogue, but it fell on deaf ears. One test cost $8 per student, and I’m not sure we ever saw the results. Imagine you’re a doctor, you treat a patient, and then never know whether the treatment was effective. It’s kind of like the Schrödinger’s cat of education. Is the test alive, or dead? If you open the box and confirm it, you just killed the cat, jerk.

Well here in Washington State, we’re kind of in a cat box right now. (Not THAT kind of cat box, gross!) So many juniors did not take the SBA test, the data is invalid for those who did. Education writers around the country are discussing our state:

NEWSFLASH: Washington State on 2015 SBAC results: Never mind.

Our local NPR affiliate, KUOW, recently reported High Stakes Testing Efforts Hampered by Opt-Out Movement.

Going to pause right here: I, and many educators, experience fatigue when trying to explain the differences between the Common Core State Standards and their second cousins once removed assessments, SBAC and PARCC. And I’m not even sure how much of an emotional investment I feel about the SBAC: this isn’t about me. It never has been. It’s about students and their parents. What I am proposing is not a slog through the Swamp of Standardized Testing. As my son told me, it’s like Obi-Wan cautioning about Sand People:

Standardized Assessments: they always come back in greater numbers...
Standardized Assessments: they always come back in greater numbers…

So here we are. We can’t ‘inform instruction’ based on opaque and sullied samples. The data are corrupted and invalid. I propose a deep consideration and intentional conversation about portfolio assessments: no matter the grade, content area, or material/method of delivery, we create a meaningful assessment collection system* to truly see where children/students are, and where they need help. This will require concrete and focused PLC meetings, and time for teachers (hopefully in student cohort/cadre teams) to support student growth.

But you already knew that.

Much has been written about the worth of professional development: these news stories begin to hit the teacher media sites about this time of year, naturally. Seasonally this is the time when teachers go back to their buildings prior to school’s openings, and participate in a variety of ice-breakers, agenda items, and yes, some professional development. It’s a time to get to know new staff members, and introduce staff resources and reinforce bonds and make new allegiances. This summer I’ve been fortunate to participate in PD with two long-time colleagues, and am looking forward to a follow up PD this next week through the focus of close reading. The best PD always springs from two fields: it’s high-quality, and that usually means it costs money, or it’s from other teachers. Times when I’ve had coaches in my room have been best when the coach is well-trained, and asks me how my students are doing, and has honest conversations about my instructional choices, listens to my reflections and seeks understanding. The time when coaches came in my room and took over the lesson confused the students, (and me), and the conversation veered from my request to look over a close reading strategy to this taking over of the materials for that class. Enthusiasm sometimes gets the better of all of us, and we step on toes. I know my big size 10 feet have misstepped more than once while I’m learning the dance steps.

So if you’re in a position to provide leadership, or an educator in the classroom, two articles for your consideration:

Reimagining Classroom Walkthroughs


Ten Tips for Delivering Awesome Professional Development

This one is challenging for new administration teams, because they don’t know who knows what when –perhaps a survey before the in-service days is warranted?

6. Build on Existing Expertise

As a facilitator of learning, you don’t know everything and you don’t need to. When you’re planning, consider how to surface the expertise in the room and build on it. All of your participants, even brand new teachers, know something. Your job when delivering PD is figuring out how to connect new learning and content with what already exists, how to build on what people are bringing with them and already doing. Isn’t that a relief? You don’t need to know everything!

Yes: this began as a look at the data driven into a ditch, and turned into a call for solid professional development and instructional dialogue. This my attempt to wrap my head around what to do about it. It is going to take team-work, and sharing know-how. It’s clear to me that the ‘not knowing’ how to help students is our greatest concern, and we are reluctant to admit we’re not always experts. The best conversations I have are when we’re allowed to identify  an issue and be frank about its possible resolutions. Argue the issue, not the personality.

And like Sand People, we startle easily, but we always come back.

*Postscript: my plan is to recreate and refine my data collection systems using portfolios, student reflection, and guidance–allow students to see the meaning of the work, and assess their skills and acuity.

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Media Festival: Perspectives from young history

Immersing my mind in close reading, analytical writing, and new content, there are a few more novels to mention. Not making any promises that I’m done, because we know a teacher’s work is never done. I am working on documents of lesson plans, frosted with CCSS goodness and fortified with with enduring understanding vitamins and minerals. (Yes, it’s past lunch time and I’m chugging Diet Coke–it shows.) In any case, if you would like the lessons as they progress, please send me an e-mail:


Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson


If an entire nation could seek its freedom, why not a girl? 
As the Revolutionary War begins, thirteen-year-old Isabel wages her own fight…for freedom. Promised freedom upon the death of their owner, she and her sister, Ruth, in a cruel twist of fate become the property of a malicious New York City couple, the Locktons, who have no sympathy for the American Revolution and even less for Ruth and Isabel. When Isabel meets Curzon, a slave with ties to the Patriots, he encourages her to spy on her owners, who know details of British plans for invasion. She is reluctant at first, but when the unthinkable happens to Ruth, Isabel realizes her loyalty is available to the bidder who can provide her with freedom. 

From acclaimed author Laurie Halse Anderson comes this compelling, impeccably researched novel that shows the lengths we can go to cast off our chains, both physical and spiritual.


Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson



Blistering winds. Bitter cold. And the hope of a new future. In this compelling sequel to Chains, a National Book Award Finalist and winner of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, acclaimed author Laurie Halse Anderson shifts perspective from Isabel to Curzon and brings to the page the tale of what it takes for runaway slaves to forge their own paths in a world of obstacles—and in the midst of the American Revolution.

The Patriot Army was shaped and strengthened by the desperate circumstances of the Valley Forge winter. This is where Curzon the boy becomes Curzon the young man. In addition to the hardships of soldiering, he lives with the fear of discovery, for he is an escaped slave passing for free. And then there is Isabel, who is also at Valley Forge—against her will. She and Curzon have to sort out the tangled threads of their friendship while figuring out what stands between the two of them and true freedom.

Sophia’s War by Avi

sophias war

In 1776, young Sophia Calderwood witnesses the execution of Nathan Hale in New York City, which is newly occupied by the British army. Sophia is horrified by the event and resolves to do all she can to help the American cause. Recruited as a spy, she becomes a maid in the home of General Clinton, the supreme commander of the British forces in America. Through her work she becomes aware that someone in the American army might be switching sides, and she uncovers a plot that will grievously damage the Americans if it succeeds. But the identity of the would-be traitor is so shocking that no one believes her, and so Sophia decides to stop the treacherous plot herself, at great personal peril: She’s young, she’s a girl, and she’s running out of time. And if she fails, she’s facing an execution of her own.

Master storyteller Avi shows exactly how personal politics can be in this “nail-biting thriller” (Publishers Weekly) that is rich in historical detail and rife with action.


Spies and Scouts, Secret Writing, and Sympathetic Citizens


The Loyalists

Links to my other resources:

Media Festival: Yellow Fever

Media Festival: Part 1

Media Festival: Part 2

There are more books through diverse lenses I have in my arsenal, so believe me when I promise point of view and perspectives on history are at my core.

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Media Festival: Yellow Fever.



Yes, a Thursday night in August, not many days until I start back, though I haven’t really stopped. One week of a writing workshop class, and in the middle of two weeks of a Common Core ELA/SS exploration course, both at University of Washington through PSWP. This involves waking up at 5AM, meeting two colleagues in our work parking lot by 7AM, and spending many hours in a stuffy, fluorescent-lit room–but wouldn’t trade it for anything. Well, okay maybe a sandy beach and swimming-pool sized adult beverages, but other than that…meeting new colleagues and refining work and pedagogical know-how–pretty cool stuff.

So in an effort to refocus my energies to 7th grade US History, I am thinking about the role of disease in our history. When asked what things affect the course of events, most folks would answer war, religion, change of power, etc. To me, disease may not be a direct conflict, but it is a formidable catalyst. Our own nation’s relationship with disease and health/medical access, treatment, and prevention is essential to analyze and seek to understand.

Some essential questions may include:

What role does disease play in how America grew as a nation? What effects or consequences had a larger impact?

What is the role of medicine and health care in American’s growth as a nation? Who has access to medical treatment, and how does that create differences or similarities among its people?

Who takes care of the sick and dying? What misconceptions about health do continued harm? Are we past those misconceptions today with healthcare? 

If you think of something that piques your interest, my esteemed colleagues, please comment.

Historical Fiction:


An epidemic of fever sweeps through the streets of 1793 Philadelphia in this novel from Laurie Halse Anderson where “the plot rages like the epidemic itself” (The New York Times Book Review).

During the summer of 1793, Mattie Cook lives above the family coffee shop with her widowed mother and grandfather. Mattie spends her days avoiding chores and making plans to turn the family business into the finest Philadelphia has ever seen. But then the fever breaks out.

Disease sweeps the streets, destroying everything in its path and turning Mattie’s world upside down. At her feverish mother’s insistence, Mattie flees the city with her grandfather. But she soon discovers that the sickness is everywhere, and Mattie must learn quickly how to survive in a city turned frantic with disease.


Non-Fictional Media and Texts:

american plague

1793, Philadelphia. The nation’s capital and the largest city in North America is devastated by an apparently incurable disease, cause unknown . . .

In a powerful, dramatic narrative, critically acclaimed author Jim Murphy describes the illness known as yellow fever and the toll it took on the city’s residents, relating the epidemic to the major social and political events of the day and to 18th-century medical beliefs and practices. Drawing on first-hand accounts, Murphy spotlights the heroic role of Philadelphia’s free blacks in combating the disease, and the Constitutional crisis that President Washington faced when he was forced to leave the city–and all his papers–while escaping the deadly contagion. The search for the fever’s causes and cure, not found for more than a century afterward, provides a suspenseful counterpoint to this riveting true story of a city under siege.

An American Plague‘s numerous awards include a Sibert Medal, a Newbery Honor, and designation as a National Book Award Finalist. Thoroughly researched, generously illustrated with fascinating archival prints, and unflinching in its discussion of medical details, this book offers a glimpse into the conditions of American cities at the time of our nation’s birth while drawing timely parallels to modern-day epidemics. Bibliography, map, index.


1793: Yellow Fever Breaks Out in Philadelphia–History Channel

Fever 1793 Philadelphia: The Great Experiment

Could Yellow Fever Return to the United States? from the Public Library of Science

Now, which to read first, the non-fiction or historical fiction? Of course this brings up other major epidemics we have feared, faced, or flee from: small pox, polio, ebola–and the questions about the ‘anti vaccers’ in our nation’s dialogue – what would they have thought if they lived in Philadelphia in 1793? How does historical presence affect one’s opinion? 

Also: Add Outbreak! by Bryn Barnard — Yellow Fever changed the shape of slavery–more to follow.

Did yellow fever help to end slavery?


Immersive Gaming:






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To the letter…

This is a gift of writing from an exemplary educator, Kristin Storey, who allowed me to share this letter to new and veteran teachers alike.

Thank you, Kristin.

WHY TEACH?                                                                                                           

[The backstory: My 25 year old nephew is going through what his mom refers to as a “quarter-life crises” and has been hiking the Appalachian Trail since April considering what he wants to be when he grows up. Earlier this year his mom and dad asked me if I would talk with him about teaching (considering I currently teach high school Language Arts). As you will see from the letter, I had done so before and backed off, and yet I figured one more shot couldn’t hurt. However, once I tried writing it last spring I found myself surprisingly challenged to encourage anyone to become a teacher. I simply couldn’t write a convincing letter in the midst of teaching fulltime. Thanks to eight days at Writing Camp (the amazing Puget Sound Writing Project’s “Just Write” class) I progressed from meta-blathering about why I teach and rambling-musings on what I like and dislike about my chosen profession to this streamlined, hopefully compelling and sincerely honest letter to my nephew.]

Dear Nephew,

As you probably remember, for many years I played the role of the seemingly single-minded, teacher-recruitment aunt. At some point, your demeanor indicated that my persistent cajoling had become tiresome needling and I promised that I would not talk with you about becoming a teacher again. Since then, I’ve held my tongue. However, circumstances have changed and considering yours right now (somewhere on the Appalachian Trail) and the fact that some loving adults in your life recently approached me about this subject, I feel compelled to bend my promise and write this letter about teaching and your future.

I framed this as an answer to the question “Why teach?” and struggled as I sought to answer this seemingly simple question. Truth be told, I could as easily talk you out of this profession as I could talk you into it. And so, what follows is my attempt at a fair and balanced assessment of this profession as you consider your future options.

As I approached this task in earnest I first faced the cliché answers that automatically sprang forth. Why teach?…because teachers make a difference. Why teach?… because teachers help young people grow into their best selves. Why teach?… because teachers touch the future. While there is truth in all of these, how compelling are such broad generalizations? The hard reality: teaching is hard work. Most teachers I know work 20+ hours beyond the standard 40 hour work week in a system that fails to recognize and compensate the breadth of work expected.  The current system imposes heavy-handed, data-driven outcomes that often miss the true nature of authentic teaching and learning and teachers often feel overwhelmed, exhausted and sometimes discouraged. Stress disrupts my sleep, my patience wears thin and tears have been shed. My work as a teacher impacts my social life and my family; my search for a healthy work-life balance never ends. And yet, I happily signed my contract and look forward to new classes in the fall. What tips the balance for me? Why do I teach?

I teach because I love learning. I love sharing ideas. Thinking new thoughts. Wondering. Questioning. Whether through reading, writing, or discussing I like exploring the world and how my ideas and the ideas of others make it meaningful. And above all, I love the opportunity to help young adults grow in their quest for understanding, meaning and purpose in the world.

Starting fresh each fall is another reason. A veteran of 50 years told me that she loved teaching because every year she was given the chance to do it better. Teaching constantly changes – no two years are the same, no two classes are the same, no two students are the same. It is constantly in motion and constantly challenges me to improve and grow and learn – an exciting and rewarding way to live.

And what exactly do I try to do better each year? As a teacher I help teenagers learn how to express themselves and learn how to think for themselves while considering the views of others. I share my excitement about reading with a teenage boy who when given The Things They Carried comes back excited and proud that this was the first book he’d read, and liked, since elementary school. I model my curiosity about language and share in a student’s pleasure when they report that “President Obama used the word painstaking in his speech last night!” I experience joy as a student recognizes how efficiently and precisely she is able to identify a writer’s strategies and apply these traits as a writer herself. I guide students to believe in themselves as intelligent, unique and important individuals in community. And constantly I learn with and from my amazing students who strive to succeed and care deeply about their world. I feel privileged and honored to try and do a better job for them year after year.

In reality, teaching happens in many different ways and in many different settings, school being just one method and setting, but you should be mindful that the classic school-teacher model has advantages. The standard school year schedule includes summer break which allows for time to rest, rejuvenate and reconnect. My summers are spent reading and writing, hiking and traveling, taking classes, being with family, being alone, etc. Not a perk to be dismissed lightly and something that definitely makes the 60+ hour September-June work week more bearable.

You demonstrate many traits that would serve you well as a teacher. Creative, clever and curious, you connect with others in an open, authentic and joyful way. You have a positive outlook and a caring heart. Traits such as these will lead to success in any number of future career paths. This letter is intended to give you something to think about as your walk the remainder your current path. Feel free to write me back, to talk to me when we meet again or to use this as fire-starter. The choice is yours. Whatever path you choose, know that I love you and will support you wholeheartedly.


Your Loving Aunt