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How to [anything]

“How to” is married to “how come?” They are partners in our curiosity and creativity.

But along with this great beauty comes something much harder to bear. What do you do about the answers that lie beyond your reach?

I have only had one teaching job to date, and this past spring I wondered if the grass might be greener. I’ve been honest with employers and interview committees of why I may be seeking other opportunities, and subsequently why I decided to stop having those conversations for the time being. I am overdue for some professional growth opportunities: those moments have been truncated and stagnant with past administrators (note: this is not a criticism, just a different leadership style and priorities). There has been a lot to learn from sitting on that side of the interview table, and I’ve also been sitting on the interviewer side, too. I can’t and won’t divulge details of what candidates offered, nor where I took missteps. (Okay: I’ll share one: I pointed out a typo on the questions for a high school ELA position, joking that I wondered if it was a test. The unsmiling faces and defensiveness of the teachers interviewing me assured me no, it was not intentional, and their senses of humor, in short supply anyway, quickly evaporated. Is it sour grapes to say it probably wasn’t a good fit if they didn’t get my irreverent sense of humor?)

Sorry for the detour. This is intended to be a discussion about ‘how to teach [fill in the blank]. A colleague and I noticed none of the ELA candidates spoke to reading instruction other than an aside, and all (and I am not being generalizing or global here) spoke about writing instruction and their work in that area. Some spoke about presentation and the listening/speaking standards; however, reading was the afterthought.

I am wondering if maybe the questions themselves lent the respondents to focus on writing, or if there is some message that’s being telegraphed about writing instruction being neglected. I wonder if others believe I’m not a competent teacher of reading because I talked about my work with PSWP/NWP, and my work with reading instruction is quiet and deep. (I would have thought my masters in children’s literature as engaging reading instruction, my National Boards certification, or my multiple novel units/curriculum would have demonstrated adequately my skills, but I am terrible at self-promotion.) This is the only reason I can think some jumped to this Island of Conclusions.

"To be sure," said Canby; "you're on the Island of Conclusions. Make yourself at home. You're apt to be here for some time."
“To be sure,” said Canby; “you’re on the Island of Conclusions. Make yourself at home. You’re apt to be here for some time.”

This not only deeply offends me, but these dangerous assumptions create a climate of defensiveness and undermining. And I am struck by how much I’m not laughing about it now, either. And perhaps those multiple candidates did not speak about reading because teaching reading is about as difficult as it gets. Our responses and biases toward any text are as complex as a dream, and twice as difficult to describe or explain.

Why is reading difficult to teach? While many articles focus on teachers’ actions as the culprit for why reading is a “instructional ghetto,” many voices strive to underscore the inequity of school-readiness. I know whose parents have the luxury of time to read to their children, and those who don’t. I’ve encouraged many students throughout the year to read to younger siblings. I’ve done book talks, librarian discussions, close text and annotating lessons, and a text-rich classroom.

Personally, I’m returning to basics, as well as refreshing some tried and true approaches. I’ve linked this before, but it deserves another read, to think about engaging texts not in terms of difficulty, but in terms of thematic thinking. Close reading need not be the pulling the wings off the butterfly, but expressing the beauty and anguish in language; not being afraid to teach the fundamentals of reading. By the time I get students in eighth grade, there will be a handful in every class who do not know that the vowel sound changes if you had an ‘e’ at the end, or to chunk sound patterns instead of the laborious ‘sounding it out.’ Their prior teachers did nothing wrong: the gaps come from our never-ending push through of students and not knowing their strengths and weaknesses.

One thing I plan on doing intentionally and wholly this year is teaching reading with love. Not the kind of love that is mushy or some kind of Facebook sentimental glop. The kind of love that is dangerous, and full of conflict and struggle, as well as safety and agreement. I’m going to hold that baby multiple ways, but never, ever drop it.

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Internal drive.

run train

What makes us go?

Pernille Ripp from Blogging Through the Fourth Dimension provides some challenging and mindful questions about rewards. I am a skeptic of Alfie Kohn, but after what I’ve seen the past two years with PBIS am experiencing my own ‘growth mindset,’ too.

PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports), according to the mission statement on their website: 

PBIS is a framework or approach for assisting school personnel in adopting and organizing evidence-based behavioral interventions into an integrated continuum that enhances academic and social behavior outcomes for all students. 
PBIS IS NOT a packaged curriculum, scripted intervention, or manualized strategy. 
PBIS IS a prevention-oriented way for school personnel to (a) organize evidence-based practices, (b) improve their implementation of those practices, and (c) maximize academic and social behavior outcomes for students.
PBIS supports the success of ALLstudents.

Here are the four questions asked, and my thoughts:

1.  Will the rewards only go to certain kids?

Currently our system throughout the school means rewards go to certain kids by design.

I am considering doing more class/period competitions, not in terms of grade or score displays (a thousand times NO), but in terms of what students from other classes say/contribute. As it stands, I use class discussions to capture contributions from all classes on the Smartnotebook, but a means to share those contributions in a visual way might be amazing. The expectation is everyone contributes. More exit tickets with thinking. I used e-learning to host forums every week; perhaps I’ll create a cross-class workshop next year. The message in my room stands on valuing contributions: not loudest voices, one reason forums and space to think/write is highly valued in my room.

2.  Have you seen long-term changes as a result of giving extrinsic rewards?

The short answer: no.

The longer answer: yes, but not the kinds of changes I’ve wanted to see.

I miss the longer forms, what we used to call “Way to Go” slips, because when I filled one of those out it carried more weight and thought than our current ‘carnival’ ‘Chuck E. Cheese’s’ token economy currently in place. The staff has worked so hard to provide a prize table in the cafeteria, and spent their own money for items. Having spent thousands of dollars myself on books, pencils, snacks, clothing, toiletries, and yes, prizes, this isn’t sustainable. Again, I am not advocating for the abolishment of a prize table, but I wish it was dissociated with the learning environment. When I go to Chuck E. Cheese’s I’m not there for the literature or algorithms. (Well, I don’t need to go at all anymore: that phase is over for me!) Perhaps the students clubs and groups could work at earning those prizes, or some other extra-curricular culture? I’m not sure what the answer is.

And this is squarely my fault: I am not good at this. I never have been. When it comes to keeping track of tickets and tokens, it is not in my nature or style. I have been expected to change my own teaching style, and feel hypocritical and guilty when my name or number isn’t counted among the thousands of tickets when admin checks how many teachers gave away tickets.

Yes, they collect the data on teachers for our compliance. Supposedly this isn’t the case anymore, but the spirit of the tickets is tainted for me.

I have stacks of books, stories, student work to hang up, and adding tickets to the mix was my personal tipping point. I don’t want to burn out. One factor is when others’ agendas and projects  suck the oxygen out of me.

I’ve asked if the tickets can be used to choose kids to participate in assemblies, go first in line at lunch (I believe this has happened, but not sure), and they’ve given the kids with slips an extra treat at lunch. I would be interested to know how many tickets are given because the student worked really hard on a project versus picked up trash in the classroom. I actually wouldn’t object if tickets were given out for cleaning up and helping out, but the tickets should be clearly associated with classroom culture and safety, and NOT learning. Some other academic showcase should be reserved for that: hallway displays, blogs. forums. One of the highlights of my year was when a student from another team complimented me on hanging up student work in the hallways–she wanted to be part of it, too.

Perhaps my own failure to hand out tickets is because I don’t do this for my own sons: there is a standard ‘chore list’ with the understanding that for the good of the family they’ll help. And they have. Not once have I received back-talk or non-compliance for asking a son to take out the trash, and most times I don’t even have to remind them. I have been honest, kind of that ‘if momma ain’t happy, no one is’ thing – let’s all do what we can so we can get to the ‘fun’ stuff: watching a movie, reading, stargazing, etc.

3.  Will the rewards increase or devalue the learning?

The rewards in place clearly devalue learning. The rise of ‘grade grubbing,’ questions such as, “How many points is this worth?” and “What will I get?” is as frequent as students asking for pencils or using proxy servers to download games and music. I am considering creating a poster/chart of the banned phrases in my room, such as “How long does it have to be?” and “How many points is it worth?” It’s gotten out of hand. No longer does any learning have value to most students because of the increase in extrinsic motivation. They (students) are connecting compliance with engagement, and are going to be in sad shape when they can’t think of anything to engage their minds with on their own, or haven’t meditated on metacognitive thinking.

“If little else, the brain is an educational toy.”

― Tom RobbinsEven Cowgirls Get the Blues

Now, perhaps the learning is happening invisibly. But in terms of the current system of rewards, it’s been a huge distraction. Any small favor, any helpful contribution is often followed by, “Can I have a Pride Slip?”

I am not against extrinsic motivation. The other morning someone said a kind word to me, and like drought-ridden Texas, when I was showered with a modicum of kindness I started crying. (Yes, the climate at my school as been really negative.) We all need to have a kind word or acknowledgment.

4.  Will students actually care?

The prize is a thing, not value. Giving a blank journal to a girl who loves to write, or a book to a boy who loves to read snarky, sarcastic writers has value. I offer my time and counsel to those even after they leave my classroom. The personal gestures hold weight, the chotskies or novelty items are ephemeral. Students greedily grab up tokens in the moment, and then when they don’t ‘have enough’ are discouraged. Students have stolen tickets, bartered, traded, etc. in order to get the big prizes at the prize table (soccer balls, etc.). Like hustling for cigarettes and contraband in prison, much of the ‘ticket culture’ has lead to some unsavory behaviors.

harry bored

And I wonder if the token economy decreases curiosity, which increases boredom, which then may increase process addictive behaviors (those twitchy, compulsive behaviors: checking our phones, etc.


Last year, when our school implemented PBIS, the students were hoarding the ‘pride slips.’ The teachers’ names were printed on them, and then because of an outcry, the tickets then had anonymous numbers printed on them correlating to teachers, so administration could collect data on how many teachers were in compliance with the program. No one addressed the equity issue, or the hoarding at that time. No one provided any debate or counter-discussion to the token economy implemented by the PBIS committee. (To be fair, the committee members are some of the hardest working, responsive colleagues and professionals I know: they offered the times and dates of their meetings. And perhaps I am misremembering the staff meetings: little motion for debate or questioning was truly encouraged at staff meetings in the past. I am hoping that changes.) I did pop my head into one meeting, and offered my insight as to why hoarding occurred. Most of our students are raised by twitchy games: coins, blinking jewels, cartoon noises when achieved a temporal goal. Micro-transactions (small purchases to get to the next level of a game) induce process addictive behaviors. Oh wow: did I just suggest that a prize ticket at school may lead to a gambling addiction? That’s hyperbolic, and I apologize. I’ll try to focus more (after this level!)


Here’s where I am: 

Students want to be seen. The ones who aren’t rewarded merely for turning in an assignment, or rewarded because “Johnny didn’t dance on the tables today” are the ones who respectfully, and courageously, just want my time and insight, as I theirs. When I ask them if I may share their story or poem with the staff, when we invite others to hear their performances, when we help them carry their legacy and give them the academic portfolio to honor their work, those students not only thrive, learn, and grow, but carry that enduring love of learning with them.

So, what were my results by not handing out little blue tickets? Actually, pretty great. Yesterday I went to the high school with my 8th grade students for ‘move up day.’ One of my sweet students was in my group, and she remarked at how many high school students came up and hugged me, worked to catch my attention, and in general were happy to see me, as I them. That motivates me as I pack up a tough year. And I don’t need a ticket to prove it.

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Ants and Grasshoppers

While the ant works hard all summer preparing, because you know, winter is coming and all that, the grasshopper plays music and has fun…until, you know, winter came.

Oh that mountain of TBR: To Be Read books, the books we put off all year and then try to binge over the short summer weeks. Perhaps if I capture my list on this blog, it’ll somehow self-curate my reading and curriculum planning time.

Maybe? Sure. Sure it will.

Ant Books

These are my professional books on my list:

Jim Burke: The English Teacher’s Companion – I have a marked up copy, and realized it’s time to implement some of those highlighted gems.

Jennifer Fletcher: Teaching Arguments

I’ve been thumbing through this, and its heavy emphasis on traditional rhetoric seem counter-intuitively refreshing.

Jim Burke and Barry Gilmore: Academic Moves for College and Career Readiness, Grades 6-12: 15 Must-Have Skills Every Student Needs to Achieve

This tome is the latest shared reading from my district. Since I trust Jim Burke I’m looking forward to it. I tried to get my team to read Burke’s The Common Core Companion, (which I have) but alas, it didn’t make it to our PLC agendas. Onward!

Grasshopper Books

The only ‘must reads’ for the summer are Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov because my older son told me to, and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr because my book club told me to.

Young Adult books to read and refresh my classroom library: (links to lists)

And Book Riot is pretty fun, too.

What’s on your reading list this summer, your ant book, and your grasshopper book?

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Drawn to the light…

The Moth
The Moth

Last night I dragged my family to see The Moth–the theme of the night was “Fish Out of Water.” The host for the evening was Ophira Eisenberg, and she was sparkling funny.So hearing stories: that’s what we want. All of us,  no matter our age, want this connection.

That is what is so tough when I am being observed and don’t point to a learning target in the middle of a conceptual anecdote that connects to a bigger idea. Students love stories. Observers often misconstrue the art of the story as “teacher talking too much.”

Ever notice how often students want us to continue with the story? They think that they are flattering us, and that they don’t have to do any real “work” if we’re talking, but in actuality that is often when the real learning is planted.

Cybele Abbett, Pam Flowers, Cole Kazdin, Adam Mansbach, and Vin Shambry were the storytellers. A violinist Luke Fitzpatrick played in between presenters. The stories we heard will stay with us. Pam Flowers spoke – a little 5′ woman who is as big as a mountain of spirit.  The audience gasped when she said she had to pull out her rifle to (possibly) shoot a polar bear. She clearly stated it was the polar bear or her dogs. The crowd in Seattle had a hard time understanding such a choice. To many of them, choosing between the organic brownies or the free-range fudge is the toughest thing they do. Okay that was snarky. Apologies. I fell in love with this woman. My husband said he would have been just as satisfied if he didn’t have to drive downtown and listened to the podcast. I disagree. Seeing her tiny frame and tell her story in her pragmatic, sweet voice, I felt the expanse of the tundra, felt the crunch of the shattering ice, and felt her love of her dogs.

There were five storytellers that night. They told stories of love, motorcycles, camp, homelessness, babies, and transgender children.

And the sound a polar bear makes when it’s about to attack.

Stories stay in our minds because they come through our soul: I learned more about dog sledding in ten minutes than I ever could have by simply reading the ‘instructions.’

The current recommendation of texts is 30% fiction and 70% non-fiction. What someone didn’t mention is that’s for 12th grade:

Distribution of Literary and Informational Passages by Grade in the 2009 NAEP Reading Framework

Grade Literary Information
4 50% 50%
8 45% 55%
12 30% 70%

(2008). Reading framework for the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Well that night at the even we had a full serving of personal, “informational” narrative. Does memoir-esque storytelling have a genre? Does personal truth and factual supports count as informative text? Was it 100% informational since everyone’s story was true to them? I suppose so. Personally, I love personal narratives/informational text in all forms. But I also love a great ‘once upon a time’ moment too.

Well, regardless of the recommended daily dose of what a 12th grade student should or should not be reading, I am going to keep striving for purpose and integrity, and not worry whether or not it’s ‘good’ for me. Stories are inherently good.

 Update: This article relates to the topic of narrative and information synthesizing to make greater meaning: ‘Could Storytelling Be the Secret Sauce to STEM Education?’

“I’m a narrative learner,” said Fruchter. “I nail down concepts by aligning them to stories or making up stories about them,” he said.

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Got your back…

I keep saying this in a Indigo Montoya voice from Princess Bride in my head: “You keep saying this word “support”…I do not think you know what it means…” I crack myself up. This time of year: no taking self seriously. Over my career(s), ‘support’ is an ubiquitous word that lost its meaning. When one is in a support position or role, they do not need to meet any rubric, metric, criteria or measurement, so we are all allowed to use this word in any way we choose. I believe anyone who wants to provide support though, while easy to say, is extremely difficult to master. I have looked long and hard, especially this past quarter, about what a flawed and fearful human I am: how the ravages of stress do not bolster or create a more robust and engaged creative me/teacher, but do much harm. Ultimately, I am using this post as a time to reflect upon moments when I have truly provided support for a colleague, and when I have received it with sincerity and accuracy.

Just how does one measure “support?”

Like its twin, “leadership,” there are many ways to approach the conversation and context of educational support; it’s a topic, a creed, which when carefully analyzed and understood, may have broad implications for moving forward with instructional and emotional lives for all educators. We all know when we have a strong/good leader. Strong does not mean hostile, just as good does not mean saintly. We know when an effective leader is nearby, our concerns will be acknowledged, triaged, and we are given autonomy to move forward safely. When we are offered support, we know that the person helping us is also being helped by us in return. No one likes to feel like they are a ‘charity case.’ No one responds positively to pity. No one gains support from mandates, top-down thumping, or thieves of thought.

Thieves of thought?

“Thieves of Thought” are those who listen to others ideas and make them their own. Your signature is off the canvas. Erased. Suddenly I want credit for something I shared openly, gave freely, and now resentment creeps in, and resentment is the death of collaboration.

First and foremost: if we have established a growth model for all educators and administrators, we agree on growth, but we disagree on how or what to make grow. We disagree on best practices, on manner and biases of style, student engagement (one might see a child doodling while reading, another might see the child having an inner dialogue about the text), and our human natures that establish bonds and trust with one another can be destroyed with ill-intentioned exchanges and the fragility of egos.

We want to shut our doors, be left alone, and focus on our students. And we should be allowed to do so, and called forward to lead when we will be treated as equals:

When you walk into this world of reality, the greater or cosmic world, you will find the way to rule your world—but, at the same time, you will also find a deep sense of aloneness. It is possible that this world could become a palace or a kingdom to you, but as its king or queen, you will be a monarch with a broken heart. It is not a bad thing to be, by any means. In fact, it is the way to be a decent human being—and beyond that a glorious human being who can help others.

This kind of aloneness is painful, but at the same time, it is beautiful and real. Out of such painful sadness, a longing and a willingness to work with others will come naturally. You realize that you are unique. You see that there is something good about being you as yourself. Because you care for yourself, you begin to care for others who have nurtured your existence or have made their own journey of warriorship, paving the way for you to travel this path. Therefore, you feel dedication and devotion to the lineage of warriors, brave people, whoever they have been, who have made this same journey. And at the same time, you begin to care for all those who have yet to take this path. Because you have seen that it is possible for you, you realize that you can help others to do the same. –From The Sacred Path of the Warrior by Chögum Trungpa

NPR did a wonderful series recently about great teachers. I caught the one about Dudley P. Whitney, a woodshop teacher from New Hampshire:

As a student at Dartmouth, I spent oodles of time in his shop. It’s a place with no curriculum and no grades. The studio is open to anyone.

Students and professors can just swing by with an idea of something they want to make, and then they work one-on-one with Whitney or another instructor to learn how to make it.

This part stood out for me:

Mueller says you have to get rid of this stereotype that creativity is unleashed.

“There is this impression that: Give students freedom and they’ll be creative. And what we know is that they need some structure upfront,” says Mueller.

They need a well-defined problem — like building a piece of furniture — and they need to know the constraints and the range of possibilities.

Structure upfront and well-defined problem: So I tried that the other week. I changed my style, mixed things up: I told the students they had a problem to solve together, and that was how to get from Point A to Point B on writing a short answer response to the poem, “Facing It” by Yusef Komunyakka. Overall, it worked, and overall it didn’t. But that’s the beauty of this: I have colleagues I trust to discuss the process, and go back to the drawing board. My students, all of them, whether or not they completed the task, learned a great deal about themselves, and I about them. I saw who needs more structure, and who thrived with the authentic problem (how does one find theme in a poem and dig deeper?).

Ultimately, I am grateful to my mentors: those enlightened beings, so few and far between, who truly know how to listen, share openly, and give: the more they give, the more they receive. I shall endeavor to be lighter of spirit, and more generous, than I have been. I am seeking grace and calmness of soul, so I too can help assuage new teachers’ fears. I may not be in a ‘leadership position’ but then again that means the temptation to be corrupted by power is negated.

A beloved band teacher is retiring after forty-four years. He is a man of God, faith, and love. He has always given me the time, the one word, the small moment that has bolstered me in times of fear and stress. He has never lectured me, nor pushed his ego or agenda. He is mindful, thoughtful, and insightful. I strive to be as good and kind. The next time you hear the word ‘support’ remember the bridge needs both sides of the river.


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