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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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The Write Thing.

We are having a grand conversation about the rigor of texts in our school, looking vertically both to the lower grades and the high school grades, to find appropriate, “rigorous” texts (as some define by high Lexile scores as the sole criteria).

As with many shifts, if I don’t do the reading and thinking on my own, I never can adapt or shift professionally. So, to the experts! Away!

Grant Wiggins defines rigor as being in the task (so therefore, not the teacher, and not the text).

So, what is rigor? Rigor is not established by the teaching. It’s not established by framing teaching against standards, therefore. Rigor is established by our expectations: how we evaluate and score student work. That means that rigor is established by the three different elements of assessment:

  1. The difficulty of the task or questions

  2. The difficulty of the criteria, as established by rubrics

  3. The level of achievement expected, as set by “anchors” or cut scores.

The blog post continues to discuss Webb’s Depth of Knowledge and rubrics for deeper thinking. This is so comfortable to me, and something I can wholly embrace. I feel that in my practice I have been doing this for years, but never had the clear light shining on the rest of the path.

And by now we are all familiar with this triangulation of text complexity:


But in the tug-of-war about rigorous texts, it is my mission to include writing. Deep, rich writing. I have been reading The Writing Thief by Ruth Culham: every so often we read an educational text that both validates and inspires. This is one of those. She masterfully balances the art of reading and writing, not an either/or.

How did I figure out that reading informs writing? Well, there’s a wealth of educational research to back up this thinking, which you’ll find in Chapter 2 . But mostly, experience has taught me that reading makes better writers. When I read poetry, I’m likely to try my hand at a poem or two. And while they may not be as memorable as those I’ve just enjoyed, writing my own provides me with a mental workout and a valuable learning experience. When I read a powerful nonfiction article, it makes me want to read more about that topic and find a way to weave that information into something I’m writing. When I see a campaign slogan, I think about how the candidate is saying a lot with a little. When I hear a song lyric that speaks to me, I find myself singing along, noticing the rhythm of the piece, and trying to replicate it in prose. I hear a powerful verb or phrase and steal it for my own writing. I’m a writing thief. It seems like every writer should be.

Culham, Ruth (2014-04-28). The Writing Thief: Using Mentor Texts to Teach the Craft of Writing (Kindle Locations 185-192). International Reading Association. Kindle Edition.

My question is, is there a triangle of complex writing tasks, and moreover, should there be? Culham blasts the standard, formulaic “five paragraph essay” model, along with other rigid modes of writing. The writing for standardized test she views as just one small mode of writing, not the end-all, be-all.

If you could create a writing model, what would yours include?

Off the top of my head, here are two charts I created that in no way do I feel are complete:

What if writing was shifted or turned depending on the engagement of the writer?
What if writing was shifted or turned depending on the engagement of the writer?
What if the reading complexity triangle were translated to a writing one? What would it look like? How could it be managed?
What if the reading complexity triangle were translated to a writing one? What would it look like? How could it be managed?

Sometimes the simplest means to have students engage in more complex ways is the minimalist approach. Don’t put numbers or word count on the task, but put voice and thinking above all. I have enjoyed adding to my collection on my writing blog Up From the Gutter (my writing blog for students/teachers) and think John Spencer and his team have done a phenomenal job with Write About.

And we need great mentor texts, and refreshing and singular voices to hear with new ears, and old friends to listen to. Here’s a list of high Lexile books I’ll be revisiting and researching. Some I’ve used for years, and others I need to take a look at:

But over-arching, consider the highest level of rigor, and that is evaluative, real-world issues:

So, how would you describe the rigorous integration of writing and reading? Ultimately, we all agree we are guiding our students to find their voices. What say you?


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Entrepreneurship Merit Badge
Entrepreneurship Merit Badge

Students speaks out…

This video of a young man from Tennessee speaking on the topic of Common Core State Standards as been hopping around, and I linked it the other day myself on Facebook. He passionately defends his own education and his beloved teachers, from what, exactly, I am not clear yet, and should make it my business to find out. Was this meeting called to speak out against “merit” pay?  Is the issue the (constant) assessment of students? (This year alone we’ve had seven instructional class periods of testing in my content area, not including the PLC common assessment our department created, adding about three more days to the mix: I hesitate to include this because this pre-and post assessment has been extremely valuable in informing instruction). Perhaps it is to simply protest their thoughts on the means by which the CCSS came to be, and a caution to beware on its proponents and their agendas. I too believed it was a consortium of states banding together in response to NCLB, and according to this young man, that was not the case.

And before I go any further, let me be clear: I have no issue with the CCSS. Truly. For Language Arts, the verbage gets a little messy and paradoxically esoteric, but that’s okay, because Language Arts can be messy (and paradoxically esoteric): teaching students how to engage in dialogue, discourse, and “accountable” talk is an imperfect and sometimes painful process. There is no data point for a student who vehemently disagrees with something and is trying to get her point across. Creating a rubric for passionate beliefs doesn’t always work so well.

The “framing effect” may be in play here: the framing effect is how a situation is presented to manipulate choice and decision making. Let’s think about the term “merit” pay. By definition, merit is a positive trait or ability desired. When the CCSS, assessments, and merit pay are framed by those powers who benefit and profit, it takes on this tone of “If you were a good teacher and doing nothing wrong then you wouldn’t be bothered by this.” We feel guilty, and dangerously doubtful when, put to us that way, just what the heck is our beef with CCSS and assessing students? Don’t we want them to do well? Don’t we want all students to achieve and go to college? We meekly answer of course! We all want what’s best for students! What I continue to have an issue with, and will continue to fight against, is the mountains of money that line the pockets of ‘educational carpet baggers’ if you will. Those folks who profit from an $8 per students test, or sell a district millions of dollars of program after program that are all supposedly ‘research based and aligned.’ This alignment seems to go off the rails pretty darn quickly.

American teachers and students are constantly being compared to other nations, and the other nations’ children are saying it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. When trying to synthesize my own self-doubt, of ‘just what is my problem?!” I am desperately trying to synthesize all the pieces so I ensure I am advocating appropriately and correctly. It is reasonable and logical to expect students to show growth in their knowledge. It s reasonable and logical to expect teachers to continue to hone their professional mastery. What I don’t want to happen is continued waste of time and money without clear vision. That is one data point I can stand behind. The PLC work is simple: what do we want kids to know, how are we going to teach it, and what are we prepared to do when they don’t?

I’d like to also add, what are we going to do when they do get it?

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Old dog.

I have a question for you: How do you keep up to date on new things, learn to keep what is old but works, and learn to let go of past bad teaching habits?

These questions were sparked by an anecdote, an epiphany, one of those, “So this is when it happens…” moments. The other day a young woman I am acquainted with is expecting her first baby any day now. He may even be in the world as I type. She was sharing that she was going out to buy some swaddling blankets, and emphasized they would be made of muslin. Some folks asked what swaddling was, and then muslin. “Swaddling” is when you wrap a newborn up like a burrito. It comforts many babies, although mine were so large at birth, swaddling was not really their gig. I chimed in and said swaddling blankets  could be made of flannel, too, and then she exclaimed that no, flannel swaddling has been linked to SIDS. Of course, I looked this up later, because this seemed like “let’s terrify new parents” meme versus actual scientific data. But anything that may keep a baby safe is usually a really good thing to know. Now, three thoughts: 1. I think this is a bunch of baloney, but would never question a woman about to have her first baby. New moms are a skittish lot, having been one myself. 2. I am now “of that age” when the expertise I gained as a new parent from reading books, information, and hands-on experience (nothing like on-the-job training!) has now become passe and irrelevant; 3. Old people don’t know anything according to young people. In this moment, this horrible moment, I imagined myself years hence, talking to one of my sons and fill-in-the-blank daughters-in-law when I become a grandma, and how I will be of no value to them. I will know nothing. I will be one of those women who says, “Well, my boys survived!” while pointing a bony, claw-like finger at them while holding a basket of apples and wearing a hooded cloak.

Deep breath. Okay. Not there yet.

But this led me to think of late I’ve been wondering if my teaching has stayed fresh. We get new programs, acronyms, and philosophies thrown at us constantly. We are told metaphorically that flannel blankets are bad, and muslin is the savior, in other words. And yet, with all this new new new–there are still so many parents who are not getting the fundamental message: Read to Your Child. If I could do one thing for new parents it would be to have them buy-in to the one thing that helps children grow and think. Yes, of course make sure they have well-fed and nourished tummies. Yes, make sure they have a clean, safe place to sleep. Keep them in routines. Don’t let them watch too much TV or stay no the computer. And read to them. But I cannot control what new parents do. I can only reflect upon my own best practices and try to keep them sharp: in this, I am fortunate to have an amazing mentor. Not only is she one of my dearest friends, but has such gentle insight into how to get all students to learn and think–she has a cache of teachers, too, who have thirty or more years of experience. These ladies know a thing or two about true, authentic, education.

Teaching is similar to medical practices in that we first want to do no harm. And yet, I also encounter teachers who have demeaned or bullied students, said a few things that bruise and pinch. I am not perfect, either. I have misinterpreted situations or actions, and encountered some broken children I have not been able to help. So I guess I am asking two questions: how do you first keep on top of your moral and ethical best practices, and then your pedagogical ones? Not an easy one to wrap up.

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