Tuesday, February 16, 2016


Today, I helped some seventh grade boys with their writing after school. All four of these boys struggled to put words on the page in an organized fashion, let alone with the rich details that would have made their interview pieces sing. It was a daunting task, and I flitted about the room sitting with them one at a time for five minutes at a time, trying to answer their questions from across the room so they could keep moving.

It was an exhausting hour. But we made some teeny tiny baby steps. One student figured out that telling the story of his parents’ divorce might be an important element of writing about their marriage. Another finally changed a question into a sentence without my help. The biggest breakthrough was with Lucas, whose draft was singular sentences grouped into random paragraphs at the beginning of the hour. But by the end of the hour, he was moving his details around so they fit into some semblance of groupings. He was writing follow-up questions in his document, carefully placing them so they’d be in the right place in his paragraph.

These little writing conferences were exactly what I needed after a day of grown-up talk about data and policies in our building leadership team (full of individuals whom I respect greatly, by the way). It was just a strange juxtaposition. We spent our day talking about these boys--these children who struggle with writing--and discussing whether and how they should be penalized for showing up to class without their assignments done. They were not in detention; they were in learning lab for help. And they mostly worked away without complaining.

It just makes me think about the vast differences between the children in our classrooms and how daunting it can be to make a drop in the bucket of the differentiation that needs to occur. I’m sure these boys, who struggle to write sentences, sit alongside kids who can churn out blissful, detailed paragraphs in minutes. Yet they are in the same grade, the same class because they can learn from one another. There is no focal point to this story other than to remind myself that the work is with the individual students, every single time. There’s a book I haven’t read by a teacher whom I believe no longer teaches called There Are No Shortcuts, which is true and heartbreaking. It’s a good thing the work--when it’s working--feels so good.

Sunday, February 14, 2016


Friday was a great day. A great, great day.

Fridays, we read. This week, students set goals for the number of books they plan to read this semester, and the date they believed they would finish their current book.  I spent their reading period walking the room, talking to students about these goals, making sure they were both feasible and challenging. These conversations inevitably led to recommendations--”Oh, when you finish this, you HAVE to read _______!”

My favorite conversation of the day:
Student: “I want a story that has deep, real romance.”
Me: “Oh, you have to read Eleanor and Park. You have to read it right now. And maybe Delirium because it questions the idea of love and asks what happens if it’s missing from society. Check them both out and see what you think.”
At the end of the hour, I said, “Which are you going to choose?”
Student: “I’m taking them both.”

Moments like these all day long made me feel like I was doing exactly the right thing for kids as readers. But with every great conversation came a hint of guilt, thinking about why I hadn’t had that conversation sooner. Maybe the aforementioned student could have been hooked into one of these books earlier and she’d spend less time on her Chromebook if I’d made time for these reading conferences earlier in the school year.

The ideal and the reality. The reality is that it’s taken this long into the year for my fourth hour class to be able to read independently while I confer with students. They are a busy bunch, and any amount of whispering breaks the reading magic and sends the message that reading isn’t valuable. So they’ve missed out on reading conferences because they will read if they have the time. Today, though, I decided it was right to take the plunge, to tell them all of my concerns about conferences, to lay the expectation that they would still read in spite of the little whispers, and for the most part they did it. There was more student whispering, but it didn’t break the reading magic.

The confident part of me wants to believe that I knew today was the day--that I could feel it in the room and knew they could handle it. The guilty, insecure part of me fears that I could have done this months ago and now I’ve missed too many teachable moments. The reality probably lies somewhere in the middle.

This is the power and the penance in teaching. Even when things go smashingly, they come with a hint of regret. Because what you’re doing right for this student is something another student didn’t get because you hadn’t figured it out yet, or your timing was off that time, or another sometimes inconclusive factor was different. Most of the time, I do a pretty good job of living the Maya Angelou quote, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.” I know that students have hundreds of teachers over their lives, and I am only one of them. But there are moments when I wallow in the idea that I am their only English teacher this year, concerned that I have harmed them with less-than-ideal pedagogy.

One of my master’s research paper tenants about how to sustain yourself in the classroom was about accepting ambiguity, living comfortably with the questions in this wonderful work. But there are days that questions feel like too much to manage. I want to live in that reading conference with Samantha and enjoy the good that came of it without beating myself up for all that I cannot do. Some days it is easier than others.

Friday, January 29, 2016


I learned today that I develop a crease near my chin before I start to cry. I learned this because my friend Abby saw it in my face at our GSA meeting.

It was a relatively simple activity. Students took 3 minutes to brainstorm on each of four prompts (this idea is picked up from somewhere--can’t attribute it correctly, but it’s not mine, just to be clear): what I wish my parents knew, what I wish my teachers knew, what I wish my peers knew, and what I wish I knew. After students listed, quickwrote, whatever… they chose one sentence to anonymously dump into a collective bucket, which our student leaders read aloud. Kids (and teachers) in the circle raised their hands if they could identify with the statement or they had ever felt that way.

I am sitting next to Louis, a student I adore in class. His wit sparkles; he has his own mind. But I often wonder if he respects me as a teacher, if he puts me in the category of people who are trying to ruin his life and who don’t understand him. He’s painfully bright, aware of everything around him, a harsh critic. But he’s the kind of critic who you want to impress. Sylvia reads the next one aloud: “I wish my teachers knew how much they mean to me and how much I appreciate them.”

We are sitting cross-legged on the floor. He kicks my knee with his foot and turns his head to make eye contact, smirking. This is the loudest thank you I have received this year. My husband asked if it could have been an accident. It was not.

The crease near my chin develops. I am reminded by the most important stakeholder in this whole public education business that my work matters and I am doing something right.

It occurs to me that we teachers are a pretty easy bunch to please.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015


Maybe you’re a teacher who values independent reading but is rubbish at assessing it. You don’t know if and how it should be graded, so you go back and forth and try different things each year but never arrive on anything you like. As a result, you’re not sure half of your students are reading outside of class, but you keep plugging away, placing authentic value on it: giving book talks, talking with students about books they might like and definitely should read. You keep setting aside class time to read.

Maybe you have a first hour that is a bunch of tired squirrels. They are beautiful people with rich, full lives, but these lives are frequently just going through the motions of English. During independent reading time, you sometimes have to shush them; every few weeks you sentence them to their desks instead of the freedom of the floor or the couch just to remind them that READING is the point. Sitting on a pillow is not the point.

Today is the first reading time since Thanksgiving break, and today is their first chance to move around the room in a while. They follow the two-feet-from-a-peer rule. You walk around the room, logging their titles and pages on your trusty clipboard, hoping that you looking over their shoulder twice a week will push them to put down that Chromebook and read in study hall if they weren’t doing so already.

When you finish, there are still five minutes left in the short reading period. You grab a book, perch on a stool, reading and breathing with them, noticing the quiet in the room. You look around. Eyes are locked in books. They are learning that reading matters, reading holds joy. This is the room you wish the other teachers could experience--the silent sense of everyone in their own little world, somehow together.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015


Today we read “Choose to Be Grateful. It will Make You Happier.” as a lead in to the students’ Thanksgiving break. We’ve been working on Reading Nonfiction stance questions and Signposts, and I wanted to get in another practice opportunity before break. But I mostly wanted to plan the seed of gratitude in the hearts and minds of my students.

The article indicates that behaviors can trick us into feeling positively. There’s an example in the piece referring to a 1993 experiment in which “human subjects smile[d] forcibly for 20 seconds while tensing facial muscles,” so my students and I decided to give it a try. I watch the clock while grimace/smiling, calling out time intervals. Some students did not participate. Many did. Some had to turn away from the rest of the room, so they could maintain their clenched faces without busting into laughter.

And when we released, we laughed together. The general consensus was that it worked, overall. We could not determine, though, if it was due to the silliness of having to stare across the room at someone smile/grimacing, the feeling of pent-up laughter, or the giggles that came with the release. While I’m not sure we were all convinced, it did feel good to just be silly together.

After reading the article, we added to a gratitude list, and then of course ran out of time before the narrowing and revision of writing part of the lesson, in which our gratitude snippets would be specific and original. I gave them time to write on the board anyway, and asked them to list their most “useless” or everyday item on their lists. In the spirit of sharing, here are some of the everyday elements of my work I take for granted: all the supplies/resources I need to teach well; reflective, professional colleagues; students who want to learn; a warm classroom; a perfect daily schedule; autonomy, autonomy, autonomy.

Here is a sample of the collective gratitude list from my ninth graders. Happy Thanksgiving, indeed.


Wednesday, November 18, 2015


Today I worked with our wonderful teacher librarian (and friend) on teaching students how to read nonfiction critically (using the language in this wonderful book).

We are working on a poster activity, where students annotate an article in groups.

It’s first hour, and kids are sleepy. The annotations are primarily surface-level at first, and it’s easy to see that this is still work for school: not for the pleasure of thinking deeply, not for life.

And then, we get to the last paragraph of the article. It’s about how social media addiction can lead to the same dangerous psychological issues as drinking, skipping school, and other high-risk behaviors for teens. I read this sentence, and the energy in the room shifts. Students who were a foot away from the article, waiting for the bell to ring, now step forward, lean in, put their pencils to the paper. They have something to say.

This was a small victory. There is still work to do. But we must continue putting students in positions where they have something to say.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


(After a three year hiatus, I’m back. No more than five minutes a day, just a quick sample of what’s going right in Room 9. I may do a longer reflective post about why I’m picking this back up later, but now, I’m just trying to redevelop the habit.)

Yesterday students submitted literary essays in my English 9 classes. It’s been an arduous process: four weeks of rereading, trying to think of something smart to say, supporting it with evidence, and THEN organizing it in a way that makes sense. And revising. And revising, And editing. I think it’s easy to forget how difficult all of this thinking work is--and that’s before we try to put words on the page in a cohesive manner.

Literary analysis feels like school writing (which I’m working on improving, by the way, but I’m not there yet). This is the kind of writing that students are not going to choose to read on their own. However, I wanted them to see the deep ideas they and their peers had come up with and celebrate the growth they made in their writing. So we did a symphony share. I asked each student to choose his/her favorite sentence from his/her essay (for craft or thinking or whatever they wanted), and we spent five minutes sharing them aloud in class before moving on to the next unit.

Here is a sampling of what I heard:

“We may try to hide it, but in the end we all have a little bit of Zaroff in us.” (From an essay about “The Most Dangerous Game”)
“Overcoming peer pressure can be difficult and people may give you a hard time about it, but would you rather feel the pride of helping someone out or feel the guilt of being responsible for a walking dead man?” (from an essay about “A Kind of Murder”)
“The beauty we find in others is blocked by what we want others to see in ourselves.” (From an essay about “The Scarlet Ibis”)

As we went around the room and students listened to one another, I was so impressed with the thinking their work showed. They were quiet, they saw their work had depth, and they drew out important reminders for us all to carry out into the world. Teenagers can be wise when we give them a chance.