Monday, August 20, 2012


Here's a short and simple reminder with the start of a new school year.

I have a student, we'll call him Craig, whose name has come up constantly since he was a seventh grader. I can tell only three days in that he's full of energy, mischievous, and that the writing in my English class is not going to be his favorite thing.

I try to make a point to greet students at the door, especially early in the year when I am trying to learn names. Today, I asked him about his weekend on the way in, and he began telling me about an injury he received from one of his dangerous activities. I asked him a couple questions about another somewhat dangerous activity I thought he might be involved in, and he stood there and talked with me until the bell rang.

Obviously this was good for our rapport, which will make everything about instruction easier in the days to come. But there's something else. Today students generated their own ideas for writing. Craig is a kid who might sit there, claiming he has nothing to write about. But he immediately started working with ideas about one of his dangerous activities, and he did an awesome job. 

It's important to remember that some kids have to talk before they can write. And in order to talk, they might need someone to listen.

Saturday, February 25, 2012


I know, I've been gone a while. And I'm about to go on maternity leave, so it's doubtful there will be many teaching stories until next August. But this one kid has been on my mind, and I've been wanting to write about him, so I am giving in and just writing one post (that will make 2 this year?). Hopefully I'll be better next school year about logging these moments.

Anyway, let's talk about Charlie. Charlie has major work completion problems. He fails classes without thinking about it. He draws these amazing pictures during class, and I know that even though the game of school doesn't work for him, he could do great things someday if he could just figure out that some deadlines are important. I've been reading his fiction and poetry and talking about books with him for two years. But he's still failing my class.

We are writing character analyses about Romeo and Juliet right now. (Well, most of us are finished. Not Charlie.) I know that literary analysis is not the type of writing that moves and inspires people, but I can justify its worth for the thought process kids must undergo and the way it prepares them for so much of the "school writing" they will have to do. It is also a formula that once students learn, they continue to grow in confidence that they can put cohesive, supportive ideas on the page. So I acknowledge that kids should write MORE than literary analysis, but I think it has its place in the ninth grade English classroom.

Charlie sees no value in this type of school writing. But he has to pass my class. I keep him after school only to discover that he has not even started coming up with evidence to support any idea. I curse myself for not seeing this at any point during our three days of in-class work time (God forbid I was helping kids with their hands in the air), but then I lay into him about his work habits and how scared I am for his future.

"You can't keep doing this, Charlie. You can't just sit and do nothing for three days and keep expecting people to help you pick up the pieces after the fact. It is not okay. And I know that this type of writing is not ever going to to excite you the way that fiction does, but part of growing up is just doing things you don't want to do." There was probably more, but that was the gist of it. My frustration is palpable. (I am usually pretty good about giving kids infinite chances--for better or for worse--so when I am seriously irritated, I think kids notice.)

Charlie asked to work in the other ninth grade teacher's room. And I was actually grateful, even though I knew it was probably because I had hurt his feelings.

He came in to see me before he left, and we went over his outline and plan for the weekend. I pretended to believe him when he said he would get it done. I reiterated the points of my earlier soapbox speech, but I adjusted it to value him. "You are such a perfectionist. And you have writing in your life that you DO value, so much, that this type of school writing might always be a bore. You might not be able to sit around and get inspired. You might just have to pick a topic that you don't care about that much, but you can finish the assignment about, and just do the work. As your writing teacher, I hate to tell you to just settle for a topic, but it may be the only way that you can even get started."

He smiled. "I know that you think that's like the worst thing to say as a writing teacher. But you know me so well as a writer. And a person."

And just like that, Charlie can have a million more chances. And I will keep thinking about how I can make literary analysis a bit more applicable to his life.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


I'm back in the classroom after a six-week stint of primarily mentoring a student teacher, and it feels great.  Kids are wonderful.

Today, we kicked off our poetry unit by discussing Bob Hicok's "In the Loop," a haunting piece about the Virginia Tech shootings.  The first time discussing a poem in my class is important to me because I want to emphasize that we talk about poems because it's a good thing to do: it helps us understand ourselves and each other better.  We don't just do it because we're trying to understand a rhyme scheme.  Approaching poetry this way makes it less intimidating, too.  In fact, I introduced the poem by saying that it was one I read this summer and couldn't stop thinking about.  I brought it to class because I wanted to see what they thought and see if they could help me answer some of my questions.

(If you haven't read the linked poem, go do it now.  It's worth a minute of your time, and you need it to participate in the next section.)

The simile that makes everyone think is the scarf on the train.  I got my wish that I would have more clarity after discussing this with my students because they had so many great ideas.

"Maybe the scarf is the shooter, and it's like, how no one really sees a scarf left behind even though the train is going.  Like life is moving all around him and no one sees him."

"I think the train is like how life just has to keep moving forward, like a train going to its stops.  But when you leave a scarf on a train, you're really sad at first, but then you just get over it.  Like most people in the country were really sad at first about the shootings, but then they just got over it and moved on."

After our discussion, we walked to the library to renew books.  Two (not particularly studious) boys in one of my classes whispered all the way down the hall about lines they were thinking about in the poem, lines they thought they had "figured out."  To see them so excited, thinking so hard about words: that is why I teach.  Kids make poetry fresh.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


In my writing elective class, we are beginning a poetry workshop.  I'm also trying to help the kids build a writing community and play together, so they'll feel comfortable sharing their work with one another.  Take a few minutes here and there to play now can make a huge difference in our productivity later on in a class like this.

The students are in four teams, writing examples of poetry terms on small white boards.  One team, which named themselves "Dumbledore's Army," has instantly bonded over Harry Potter, and every example they write down has something to do with Harry Potter. The current term: metaphor.  (If your figurative language terms are rusty, it's a comparison without using "like" or "as.")  The white board reads as follows:
Dumbledore is a pillar.
Umbridge is a toad.
Snape is a greasy frying pan.
Voldemort is a snake.
Nagini is actually a snake.

They could hardly get through the last one without busting up laughing.  While I agreed that it was a very clever addition to their board, they did not earn a point for metaphor.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


I know I never really signed off for the summer, but I'm back with stories from a new school year.  I'll try to post a wee bit more consistently than at the end of last year.  :)

Today, in an afternoon section of English 9, barriers came down.  I know it sounds dramatic, but it was dramatic.  It is scenes like this one that I live for in the classroom.  This class has a high proportion of kids that struggle with English and kids that lack confidence in writing as a result.  Students brought "Where I'm From" poems today, and I asked them to read them aloud in groups of four.  "Be brave!" I said, and each group member was to note at least one strong word choice in each poem read aloud.  After they'd had time to read and respond to each other's poems, each group had to choose one poem to share with the large group.  This poem could be read by the poet or by another group member.  

In one group, Chris, a student who has been a bit disruptive and surly for the last week shared his poem, which had great imagery and dark undertones that weren't present in some of the other poems.  The group agreed that Chris's poem should be shared, but Chris didn't want to read it.  Another boy, Dane, volunteered to read it for him. (Dane and Chris couldn't be further apart in terms of social circles and attitudes toward school.) Chris's face lit up and he agreed immediately. 

As the class applauded for the anonymous poet, Chris beamed.  

There were two other poems shared, written by students who lack confidence in writing, and they responded in the same way. I felt like they had a moment of thinking that maybe they could be successful in this class, in school.

As the students filed out of the classroom, Chris made his way to Dane.  "Thanks again for reading my poem," he said.  They had a genuine, unscripted moment of human interaction.  I was lucky enough to be there.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


So, I took a long break... and I'm about to take another long break from kids (4 days to go!), but I had a moment today worth sharing.  Not that I don't have moments worth sharing other days, but I haven't felt like writing them all down the last couple months.  My dear friend Donna has been trying to take the word "should" out of her vocabulary.  I suppose I followed suit a little and waited for the desire to come back.  I'm sorry I'm a lazy blogger.  Anyway, here's a story.

Yesterday we were reviewing for a test over our final short story.  I try to write broad questions about stories when I'm checking for understanding because I was always a kid who did the reading and who forgot the details when it came to reading quizzes.  We almost never have reading quizzes, so yesterday I read my students a question so they had an idea of how specific the questions on the test would be.  It was actual #5 on the test today, and they knew this.  I told them none of them better miss it.

Today, during the last class of the day, a student raised his hand.  I approached him and looked over his shoulder.

"I'm having a problem with one of the questions.  I'm not sure about it," he said.

"Okay," I said.  "What's your question?"

"I'm just really confused on number five."

He waited.

I read the words on his test, and as my eyes scanned over number five, he broke into a grin.  He couldn't hold his poker face any longer.

This humor, the end of the year connection, when every person is the building is counting down the days until summer, is the gift of working with teenagers in an environment you help create.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


It is conference week, friends, so it's very busy.  I have a quick story to share.

I always say that I am about building life-long readers, not life-long test takers, and I design my reading instruction that way.  I try to make reading a privilege and invite kids to try new books they might like.  I try to make close-reading a good experience to have so we can learn something about ourselves through literature--not so we can guess someone else's interpretation.   Students ask questions instead of answering them.  This is not always the best type of reading instruction for test preparation, and this year's political climate has make me second-guess what I'm doing--not a lot, but certainly enough to lose a little sleep over.

So I really needed this parent last night.

I needed her to sit down at my table and say, "I don't know what you did, but Luke is a reader now.  He asked for books for Christmas--full of small print and historical facts.  When we asked him if he was sure, he said, 'Yes.  I want to read about it because I want to learn about it.' He goes to his room at night to read for a half hour.  He never did these things before.  So thank you."

Luke would not be doing these things if my reading instruction were made of multiple choice questions to answer.