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.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Today we shared books with each other as a break from the difficult research essay writing we've been doing and as a way to jazz up our independent reading.

We used the format of a book pass, where students all bring a book (I also threw several in from my classroom library and the school library), and we pass them around in small groups, giving kids a chance to have exposure to 50 or more texts in a single class period.

The discouraging thing about teaching is when a couple students in each class go through the motions of looking at a couple books in each basket and then sit with a blank page in front of them.

It gets more encouraging when students with discerning taste walk out with three or four books on their lists.  They will have a book on the back burner, and maybe they will even look forward to it.

My favorite part about a book pass, however, is when students (and this is at least a third in each class) are just hungry for reading material, and they write down 20-30 books.  One student in my last class of the day couldn't wait to check something out from the classroom library: she had to take it home that night.

A hunger for books is what I hope to instill in as many students as I possibly can.

Monday, March 28, 2011


I spent this evening with the delightful Ted Kooser, who reminded me of some tenants of teaching poetry and writing.  I plan to share them with my students tomorrow, and thought I'd share them with you tonight.

On teaching poetry and the experiences he wants kids to have with reading poetry:
"I want them to take pleasure it it.  The minute the poem begins to become a problem to solve, it's over."

On writing:
"I think we all ought to be writing about our families."  He said something about a memory you'd scribble on a piece of paper and stick into a drawer.  Years after the family members are gone, someone finds the piece, and "all of a sudden, back into the light they come."

"I love to write about the most ordinary things there are."

A glorious, refreshing evening.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


At the end of class, I remind my students of tomorrow's change in class location.  "So, where are we meeting tomorrow?"

"Media Center!" most of the students yell in unison.

"Texas Roadhouse!" says one small voice.

"Yeah, and you can buy us all lunch on your HUGE teacher's salary!" one kid chimes in with a devilish grin in his eye.  His smile and his tone make it 100% clear that he's being sarcastic.

The kids are pretty informed.  I can tell many of them have seen the anti-teacher garbage in the news based on the jokes they're making.  "You even get health care!" one kid says.

The laughter reminded me that they don't think I'm milking the system.  They don't question my motives for being there.  They don't question the hours I work when I make it a priority to return their research notes so they can work on their essays during break.

THEY are the reason I teach.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Today weighed heavy.

After reading student writing that broke my heart, a conversation with a student left me unsure how to help, what advice to give.

I told the student this, and said that I would consult outside sources and check back in. 

“It’s okay,” the student assured me.  “I know—this is going to sound like a pamphlet or something—but it really helps to just talk to a ‘trusted adult.’”  Yes, this was in air quotes.

These are the days I feel like all the training in the world couldn’t prepare a person to do this job.  Simultaneously, I know the most important thing I can do—in situations like this—is to listen.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


I've posted before about how sometimes working in a junior high forces me to enforce rules simply because kids have to receive more privileges as they get older.  I buy into this philosophy most of the time, but when my students are so thoughtfully considering their research topics and writing contemplative essays about how their thoughts and opinions have changed, it can be difficult to see them as beings that need to be "controlled."

Don't get me wrong: sometimes they do.  (For example, after school I witnessed two separate groups of seventh-grade boys in track sweats attempting to run down the hallways as fast as they could while carrying high-jump mats in from outside--as a group.  I just spent ten minutes trying to find an image online that can do this madness justice, but apparently people are too terrified to grab a camera in moments like this.)

Anyway, I digress.  Two stories in one today.

I was to review before-school procedures today.  It's rather complicated.  We don't have supervision in the halls, so students are supposed to get a pass to check out of the cafeteria or gym if they want to see a teacher before 8:05.  If they are found in the hallways without a pass, they will be immediately escorted to the morning detention room.  To be honest, the system now is better than the system used to be. Without passes, you couldn't tell if a kid had checked out of the cafeteria or not, so people that generally trusted kids they didn't know didn't do anything to kids who appeared to be on their way to see a teacher, and teachers that don't... well, those kids ended up in morning detention.

The sweet moment of reviewing these expectations came from the vast number of questions my students had when I was done with my speech.  "If we need to drop a band instrument off, should we do it before or after we see a teacher?"

"Can we stop at our lockers before we go see a teacher?"

"What if the teacher isn't in their room?  How do we get back to the cafeteria?"

I had to laugh at our work on figuring out ways to "get back" to the cafeteria as if it were across hot lava.

You might think my kids were dreaming up ridiculous scenarios to waste class time. (Well, maybe just a tiny little bit.  I'm working on convincing them I wasn't born yesterday.)  They were, for the most part, genuinely deeply concerned about how they could not get in trouble, how they could do the right thing.  And that is refreshing.

Monday, March 21, 2011


Things I loved today about returning from Spring Break:

1.  Seeing my students with fresh eyes

2.  Seeing my students with restful, tan faces

3.  Seeing my students compare new orange feet and elbows acquired by their fake tans

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


"Hey, I want you to look at my shirt," Luke says as we're trying to start class.

"Okay," I say.

"It's because English is my favorite class.  I have an entire shirt about it," he says.

His shirt looks like this:

He denies all connections to the Chargers and maintains that he's just trying to support his favorite class.

I wonder at what point in the day he realized he should try this out.

Thursday, March 3, 2011


I was the first person back from lunch today (my 4th period class is split in half by lunch).

I was eating a dark chocolate at my desk when the door peeked open.

"She's in there," I heard someone whisper.

Then, as quietly as possible, the door crept open, and two boys ducked for cover behind the first row of desks.  They proceeded to army crawl to the front of the room and avoid eye contact, holding objects in front of their faces or just staring off into space.

The next line is not a joke.

They were pretending to be invisible.

I teach eighth grade.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


I'll spare you the details of my day looking for trends and information from student test scores.

I missed my kiddos a lot today.  They are hitting their stride in research.  They have awesome questions.  Many of them are working with sources and thinking through ideas.  I didn't want to miss it.

What I received instead was an important thinking opportunity.  As a member of our building leadership team, I had access to five year trends for all student standardized test scores.  Never, never, would I say that our statewide assessment is the best way to tell how well our students read.  But it would be ridiculous for me to completely ignore it as one measure of data--particularly when I'm looking at individual students' trends over time.

I spent a little bit of time looking at the students who I had last year.  We test in October, so that's the most appropriate place for me to look in order to analyze instruction.  It was pretty interesting.  Most of my students stayed pretty much the same, had a 10-15 point jump, or had a 10-15 point decline.  I'm pretty disappointed that so many of my students had such a significant dip.  Those kids were still "proficient" according to No Child Left Behind, but it still doesn't sit well with me.

The thing is, I spend a lot of time on independent reading in my class.  It looks like it may provide great gains for kids who are borderline proficient or on the lower end because they are spending more time reading than they have before. I wonder, though, if I didn't nudge my students who already were pretty strong readers to choose independent reading material that really challenged them.

I had already set helping students choose better reading material as an important goal for next year's independent reading, but these results help me think about how to do it right now, to offer the greatest benefit to my current students.  The beauty is that if I tell my kids the rationale (to make sure you are becoming a better reader, not test taker), and give them a few strategies to apply to choose appropriate books, it will help most of them.  They want to be better readers.

Something I love about teaching is the autonomy.  I see a problem: I try to find a solution.  This is a gift of my profession, and one that is imperative we hang on to if we are to continue reaching students.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


Midterm grades were due a couple weeks ago just as I was preparing to leave town for a long weekend.  I had told the kids if they turned in late work any time after Wednesday, I couldn’t guarantee its presence on their midterm grades. 

At the end of sixth hour Thursday, Joe approaches me with two missing assignments.  The way I grade late work encourages students to turn it in, so I knew these two assignments would easily pull his grade from an “F” to a “C” or maybe even a “B.”  Joe is a sweet kid who is frequently disorganized.

“You know I can’t guarantee these on your midterm, right?”

I have students who would argue with this, who would fail to understand how my leaving town has anything at all to do with their grade, who would fail to see that they’d met the cut-off I’d already said.  Not Joe.  His face fell with disappointment with the reminder, but he said, “Okay.  Thanks.”

Before I took off after school, I entered his grades, partially because of the gracious way he handled disappointment and accepted responsibility.

I forgot about it.

The next week, after midterms came out, he stuck around after class.  “Thanks so much for rushing to put in those grades,” he said.

“You’re very welcome,” I replied.

A little thank you goes a long way.

An editorial side note:  These are rough times in the media for public school teachers.  Some days it is hard to not take it all personally.  It is a great time to go out of your way to thank a teacher.

Friday, February 25, 2011


Scenes from a field trip to the public library:

**Students in small groups, crowded in shelves, whispering over open books, shhing each other when they get too loud.

**Wide eyes after students leave a session about the revolution in Egypt: synapses firing, connections being made.

**A grandmother convincing her two-year old to "share" the vacuum toy with one of our students as a ploy to get him to leave without crying, and as a result, showering our kids with praises.

**A community member glaring and glaring at our students doing research, which were apparently interrupting her games of computer solitaire.

**Open faces, real dialogue, our kids acting like adults because they are being treated like them.

Thursday, February 24, 2011


"I'm tired," Luke says as the bell rings at the beginning of fourth hour.

"Me too," I say.

"Oh, you look really tired," Michael pipes up from the front of the room.

I do look really tired.  When I was putting on my makeup, I noticed that it looked like I had either been crying the night before or had very little sleep.  Neither was true, but my eyes were puffy and red nonetheless.

"I know," I say.  "I'm not sure why I look so tired today.  But you know you should never tell anyone they look tired, right?"

"Why not?" Michael says.

"Well, because you know what you're really saying is...who knows what you're really saying?" I ask the class.

Craig raises his hand.  "You look terrible!" he says.

"That's right!" I say.

Michael protests, but it eventually clicks.  And another life lesson is had by all.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


I haven't stopped writing.  Last week just got utterly swamped.  Life is good.

My seventh hour and I are sometimes at odds.  Most middle school teachers are sometimes at odds with their last class of the day, I gather. It has been a particularly chaotic week with the preliminary stages of research, and I had rushed down the hall to discuss something with a colleague between sixth and seventh period.

At the beginning of the period, my students are to immediately read or write when the bell rings without prompting from me.  Seventh hour does not usually do so well with this, so I expected to walk in the door, thirty seconds after the bell, to a flurry of activity and noise.

I walked into dead silence, kids (pretending, at least) to be intent on their reading.  Except for the kids whose book was upside down, of course.  My jaw dropped in grateful surprise, a silent “Awwww!”

They held it together for a moment, when Mike blurted out from across the room, “I bet you weren’t expecting that!”

“Shhh!” I said, and I may have stomped a foot.  “Don’t ruin it…”

As I settled down into my own reading, I heard a slight wheezing from the back of the room.  Noah was doubled over, red in the face, trying not to laugh audibly. Something about the whole scenario had struck him funny.

Because class started smoothly, it went smoothly.  We were all warm toward one another.  It was sweet.

Monday, February 14, 2011


I was talking to a group of ninth grade girls this Valentine's Day morning when the conversation drifted to what else--Justin Bieber.  I asked, "Did anyone see Never Say Never this weekend?"

Shrieks and whole-hearted yeses ensued.  "Omigod.  I almost cried.  I cried when I saw him in concert," one girl said.

Another girl turned to me, looked me dead in the eye, and said with a completely straight face, "It is a movie that will change a person."

Happy Valentine's Day!

Thursday, February 10, 2011


Trevor has been to the library the past two days during independent reading time.  He approaches me, book in hand, and says, "I don't like this one.  It's too ________."  Trevor is a kid who loves a book once he gets into it.  He's waiting for the third book of his trilogy to come in.

I'm a little irritated when he walks toward me with his planner to leave for the library for the third day in a row.  But I try to see him as a kid who's struggling to choose a book rather than a kid who wants to beat the system and leave class.  I say, "Would you like a book recommendation from the classroom library instead?"

He nods.  I hand him Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (which everyone, young and old, should read) and he trots back to his seat.

Today I circulate to check pages, trying to figure out who read last night and who didn't, and I peek over his shoulder.  Page 34.  "Do you like it?" I whisper.

"Yeah," he says, and he's a kid with the most sincere voice, "Thanks so much for helping me find it."

I'm not proud to note that I teared up when he thanked me.  I was in awe of my students all day long, so I was sort of on cloud nine, but his sincere gratitude just put me over the top.  I walked away to check the next kid's page, looking up at the fluorescent lights to make sure the tear didn't escape.

It just reminds me that our job is to help kids open doors.  To educate. I know that sounds ridiculously simple.  But it's easy to forget in the daily busyness.  If a kid can't find a book, don't get angry.  Help him find a book.  If a kid doesn't realize that their word choice is disrespectful, talk her through it and help her understand why, instead of saying "That's inappropriate," and sending her to the office.  It gets a lot easier to point out what kids are doing wrong than it does to try and understand where the disconnect is happening.

His "thank you" today is another reminder that the little things--and the ways we handle them--matter.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


We are working on social action research projects.  Beginning major research units with students is so exciting.  It's some of the easiest planning I do all year and some of the most exhausting teaching.  Teachers make lots of decisions in a day--I've read some estimates between 800 and 1500, and it seems like that figure must double when we embark on research.  Students began narrowing topics in small groups today, and already some students have a good resource or two and others are completely unsure what they want to do.  My days are full of thinking on my feet and trying to connect students with resources they need in that moment.

One group struggled to figure out how to approach poverty as an umbrella topic.  Which direction did they want to go? Which community did they want to try and help?  At the end of the class they were still stuck. I said, "You are not doing this wrong. This is just hard work. Keep thinking.  Keep talking."  Eventually, they divided into two groups: one was interested in looking at hunger in a faraway place, and the other pair was struggling with the idea of wealth distribution.  Really struggling.

Isaac said as he looked at his group, "I mean, I just don't get it.  We have people who are starving and we have people in huge fancy houses that just keep buying more stuff.  It doesn't make any sense.  You learn it in kindergarten.  Share."

There was something very powerful in what he said.  I don't know how this pair will go about their process.  I don't know if they will decide the government should look at our tax structure or if people should just give more away to each other.  I'm not sure where their research will take them.  I do know that his comment made me think about how my dad used to call me his little socialist because I used to make comments like that.

I know there are things about "the system" that teenagers don't know and don't fully understand.  I also love it when they call on our best human ideals because that it what seems right to them.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


I am currently teaching an overage.  Five classes is considered full-time.  I am teaching five and a half (a writing elective that meets every other day) in exchange for an additional planning period every other day instead of every day study hall.  As an English teacher, it isn't worth it most days.

"Worth" it is a funny thing to think about it.  It's not worth anything monetarily.  The time difference is nominal.  Study hall is really the luck of the draw.  You might get 10 awesome kids who will let you use your study hall as an extra planning period anyway.  You might get 25 rowdy seventh graders who need to be taught study skills as they work.

At the beginning of the year, I didn't think I could do it.  I was burning out.  I couldn't read everything.  I had no idea how I was going to get anything published.

And then I realized I didn't have to do everything.  The kids LOVE my response on their work, so I try to give them that as much as I can.  But they can respond to each other.  They can be responsible for publishing.  Which is what I told them.  If you want to publish anything, you are in charge.  I will answer your questions.  I will help you.  But you have to design the layout.  You have to edit each other's work.  It is YOUR publication.

It is February 8th, and we haven't published anything this year.  To be honest, I've lost sleep over it.  I feel like it reflects poorly on me as the instructor.  I wonder if some of the kids are disappointed that we aren't publishing more.

But... today I sent it to the printer's.  I helped with compiling the final pages, putting it all together, filling out the order.  They did the rest.

And as I looked at it and prepared to send it away, I thought, This is worth it. I can see their faces as the look at the crisp color cover and open it.  I imagine their parents, finally open to a glimpse of their teenagers' worlds.  I am so proud of them.

It is worth the pride they will feel when they see it.  And next year, maybe I'll be able to do it in a way that I won't lose sleep.

Friday, February 4, 2011


"Why'd you put that sweater on over your dress?" Gina asks as she comes into class.  I see her earlier in the day for a different class.  The temperature fluctuates in my room.  I layer.

"I was cold," I say.  

"You're always changing clothes," someone pipes up from the back.  The way he says it, it sounds like I jump into the closet like Superman, emerging in a new costume once an hour.  

"I regulate my temperature with layers," I say.  "It's not like I'm changing my clothes all day long."

"Well, I like it better without the sweater," Gina says.  "We were talking about it earlier.  You looked like a wolf."  I raise my eyebrow.  "In a good way," she continues.

I wonder if my bewilderment shows on my face.  "A wolf?" I ask.

"Yeah.  You know, you're wearing all gray and black.  Your hair's down and long around your face.  Kind of wolf-like."

I'm thinking about how lions are the ones with hair around their faces, but I don't say anything about it.  I'm thinking about the randomness of the eighth grade mind.  I decide that wolves are beautiful, after all, and I'll take it as a compliment.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


Eric is writing a pirate fiction story for his independent writing goal, and I was talking it through with him after school.  He didn't know where to start.  He's a creative kid who gets sucked into details and sometimes gets stuck in the minutiae, unable to pull himself out and finish the story.  I know this about him because he's also able to talk through his process.

"Well, if I were you, I'd probably make a list of scenes I want to include, and then pick one to start with," I say.

A few minutes later he comes back up to my desk.  "Okay, I know where I'm starting.  I'm going to write a scene where the family receives their invitations to go on the cruise."

This worries me a little because he's got this great idea about pirates taking over the cruise ship and the parents getting killed and the kids having to solve the problem themselves.  I don't want them to get stuck in the living room, double-checking their suitcases.  This is a common problem with kids learning how to incorporate detail into their writing: they want to incorporate ALL details.  I've learned to talk about the balance of showing and telling, not just showing instead of telling.

I consider how to address this with Eric.  And then I decide to be honest with him about my concerns, just as I would with an adult peer writer asking for help.  I wouldn't do this with all writers because they might let me in to unintentionally take over their pieces.  But Eric won't do that, and my speaking to him directly could save him hours in the long run.

"I think that's a fine place to start," I say.  "But remember that your action takes place on the ship.  And that's going to be an awesome story.  And I want you to get to it," I say with a smile.  He knows what I'm thinking.

"Yeah.  I promise I won't get stuck with them packing," he says, and starts typing.  It's a really good feeling to know what a kid needs and do your best to meet it.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


On my second snow day, a blast from the past.  This is one of my favorite memories from teaching at my old school.

The primary goal of the field trip was to connect kids with resources.  This was an equity issue.  It was a city, and our population was hugely diverse in economic resources, race, and languages spoken.  There were small branch libraries.  Students could use public transportation to get there.  If they had access to a library, they had access to a computer, books, after-school homework help.  This was huge.

After helping students map routes using public transportation to their local branch, we all took public transit to the library that day.  It was everything you might imagine: thirteen year old girls huddled around poles and squealing at every turn, me constantly reminding students that we weren't the only ones on the bus, eventually giving up.  For those fifteen minutes, my kids reinforced every stereotype the three elderly passengers had about teenage students.

But they couldn't see my kids once we got inside.  They didn't see their footsteps suddenly soften when we entered the modern atrium.  They didn't see their eyes widen at the computers upstairs, the vast shelves of material they could take home for free, the absolute kindness in the librarians' eyes (I'm convinced that most librarians are actually saints).  They didn't see smirks turn to grins as library cards were passed out.  They didn't see my rowdiest boys fight the temptation to play in the fountain as they ate sack lunches because we were at the library, and you acted civilized.  

They didn't see the long-term impact, months down the road when I asked kids if they could work on this assignment at home.  "Do you have a computer?" I'd say.

"No, but I'll go to the library."


We waited at the bus stop for our public transportation to take us home.  We had to make this bus in order to get the kids back to school in time to catch their own buses.  There were sixty of us.  It was going to be packed.  The bus approached, the driver looked at us standing there, and kept right on driving.  He was not interested in giving us a ride.  I made a split second decision and took off after it.  We had to get on that bus.

A block later, the bus stopped, the driver glared at me, and we took deep breaths as we poured up the stairs.  The kids packed themselves in, buzzing with the energy of the day. As we rounded the first corner and the girls at the back screamed, I made eye contact with a man sitting across from me.  He was about sixty, wearing a dirty jacket, sporting a weathered face.  The girls' screams were loud, and I always forget how loud in general the kids can seem for people who don't live and breathe that environment.

He rolled his eyes.  One at a time, slowly, the words came out of his mouth: "There....is...no...god...today."  I couldn't restrain my smirk, and I didn't try that hard.

But I thought of Juan's arms lugging a huge pile of graphic novels sprinkled with a biography and James' carefully selected novel.  I saw Karen's face at the rows of computers: "These are ours... to use?"

I wished that man could see the light in my students that I did.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


I'm feeling the doldrums of winter and sometimes finding it hard to share a great story every day.  You've probably noticed, if you're reading.  :)  In some ways, I find it important to find something great about my job (almost) every day.  It makes me see the kids in a different way.  On the rough days, it makes me consider the growth I'm making.  These are really good things for me.  I wonder if they are interesting to read, however.  It might be better for me to choose just the best stories to share.  This is where you, gentle readers (all five of you), come in.  Give me some feedback if you are so inclined.  Would you prefer fewer posts of only the best stories or more frequent posts that provide a snapshot of a teaching day, even when it isn't very exciting?  Let me know.

Today's post isn't about students because I am home on a snow day.  For me, snow days as a teacher are just as wonderful as they were when I was a kid. It's funny because it's common for some teachers to complain about snow days: "We're already in school until June 3rd!" I found myself doing that some until my husband pointed out to me that it was just plain silly as most people work all year round.  Now I try just to enjoy them as a pleasant and unexpected break.

I did my homework last night just like I did as a kid so I wouldn't have any school responsibilities today.

I slept in a little (not so much that I won't be able to sleep tonight).

I will enjoy a slow breakfast of steel-cut oats and berries.

I will read: reread Frankenstein for my master's comps and something else from the shelf for fun.

I will write my 750 words (I'm participating in the February challenge).

I will refresh myself so I can be a better teacher tomorrow.

Friday, January 28, 2011


There is a school dance tonight.  Dance days are notoriously crazy.  Here, they only come about three times a year, so the kids get really excited.

When I was student-teaching eighth graders six years ago (yikes, has it really been that long?), I used to remind myself that when I was in eighth grade all I wanted to do was socialize.  And I was a compliant, good student.  So when the kids crane their necks to (from their perspectives) inconspicuously mouth words about their plans for this evening, I try to take it in stride.

We read on Fridays for most of the period as I take independent reading very seriously.  I read too.  This morning in my writing elective when I remembered it was a dance day, I worried a little about how productive the students would be.

As the day developed, I realized I had no cause for concern.  This post is nothing but a sort of wonder at how a whole mess of eighth graders can burst in from the activity of the hallway, take two minutes to find a quiet place on the carpet (I have at least four boys who love to lie under tables), and willingly enter the world of a book.  This is not a few kids in each class.  This is all but (maybe) five of my 105 students.

I am grateful that I get to watch them like this.  I don't think many adults ever get to experience teenagers this way.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


I didn't teach today as I was in a building leadership meeting.  I will instead share with you this awesome poem.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


I am so lucky to do what I do--to be able to see my students' thinking developing on a daily basis.

We just set independent writing goals for the quarter.  Each student selected a genre and one or more areas of his/her craft and mechanics s/he wanted to improve.  They will also design their own rubrics (of course, I have to approve them) to think about what quality work in each of the areas means to them.

I have a really strong writer (we'll call her Emily) and I was so grateful to read her goals and rubric.  She plans to write fiction.  She wants to work on showing not telling and creative sequencing.  The thing that got me, though, was specific, straightforward, and insightful her rubric was.

For example, her "A" for showing not telling is "Perfect amount of sensory details but not too many.  Same with showing not telling" and her "B" is "Too much showing not telling so story becomes confusing."

For a struggling writer, her rubric would need to be more specific.  But she doesn't need it.  And she totally gets that you have to have showing AND telling to move a story along. 

That is pretty sophisticated stuff.

Monday, January 24, 2011


You should really listen to this song in the background while you read this post.  If you read slowly, the timing might work out perfectly!

Several weeks ago, I moved into my newly renovated classroom.  I'm naturally disorganized, so I enlisted the help of some of my students during their study halls.  Two girls unpacked all of my school supplies into drawers and carefully labelled the contents of each.

My classroom hammer (which fondly reminds me of my Grandma's philosophy that every kitchen needs a hammer) received a special place in its own drawer, labeled exuberantly, "HAMMER!"

Fast forward to a day last week. I'm on the side of the room with all of said drawers, bent down at a desk, helping a student.  In my peripheral vision, I see movement toward the drawers.  Michael is "sneaking" with an exaggerated tip-toe. I turn around.  You never know what can happen.

I nearly miss it.  My eyes pan back and forth, eventually finding the yellow sticky note next to the "HAMMER!" label.  It now reads "HAMMER!"  "TIME!"

My friend Nancy used to say that she never belly laughed as much when she wasn't teaching middle school.  There is truth in this.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


With the start of a new semester, I asked the kids to look over their work from first semester and reflect about the growth they'd made, as well as set goals for the new semester in their reading and writing.

Last week, I wasn't feeling like a great teacher.  I was second-guessing some of the choices I'd made.  For me, teaching is constant reflection and revision, which is a blessing and a curse.

The first several questions are about their work and goals as students.  There is so much good stuff here.  Examples:
"As a writer, I've really improved at putting scenes and details in my narratives.  The evidence for this is my _____ narrative."
"I've already read more books this year than I did for all of last year.  I actually want to read now."
"I need to make reading more of a priority.  I should read instead of watching TV."
"I have to work on making my thesis statements clear because right now they are too long and confusing."

One after another, they amaze me.  These are kids who have grown as readers and writers and know a lot about what they can do and where they need help.

For the first time in my teaching career, I ask for mid-year input.  I asked them to be kind but let me know if there were things they really liked, were confused about, or wanted me to change.  I was nervous.  It reminds me how they feel getting graded all the time.

Some of my favorites:
"I've never had a class that was run, graded, and taught like this before and I really like it."
"I would love for you to give us even more reading time, but I don't think it's going to happen."
"Maybe you could print instead of writing in cursive because sometimes I can't read your handwriting."

I fear this post might not be very interesting to read, but today rejuvenated and reinforced so many of my choices.  The students were so wise, productive, and kind.  Sometimes I wish the general public could see the teenagers I do.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


I got married in June.  I thought I wanted to take my husband's name.  It turns out that professionally, it's not working for me.

This week, at the beginning of a new semester, I declared my intention to return to Ms. MyName.

The kids reacted in lots of funny ways.  Many were concerned about my husband's feelings.  Some thought I had problems with my in-laws.  Overall, though, their desire to honor my request has been really sweet.

The best reaction: "This changing-your-name-stuff is going to come in really handy for your next crime spree."

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Because my students have Martin Luther King, Jr. Day off, we took today to honor and recognize the difference one person can make.

We read four paragraphs from "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."  I asked kids to mark lines that stuck out to them, and the we shared them.  I use a response technique in which students take turns (sometimes organized, sometimes not) just reading individual lines they marked.  If someone "steals" your line, read it anyway.  There is power in repetition.

The lines that I heard over and over again today:

"Justice too long delayed is justice denied."

(split into parts) "When you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people..and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of 'nobodiness' then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait."

"I would agree with St. Augustine that 'an unjust law is no law at all.'"

Powerful words.  I hope they stick.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Chad is a kid who frequently disengages from school.  He’s failing two classes. In September, we met with his dad, who shared how much Chad used to care about school.  He won the spelling bee in fifth grade. “I just want you to be a happy boy and enjoy school again,” his father said. 

Now, I have won him over with Nebraska football commentary (he was born in Lincoln when his dad was in school).  At some point in his back-to-back fifteen minute detentions for tardies, he decided to open up and laugh with me.  He still has late assignments; he still has detention once in a while, but sometimes, he is with me.

One of the options for student writing in the last couple weeks was a This I Believe essay.  Chad is in my room after school to finish his essay (never mind that I made him because it was late).  When he declares it complete, I look over his shoulder at a heartfelt, detailed, well-worded essay—about the virtues of Cornhusker football.  He is trying to print two copies but the printer won’t work.  I tell him he can email me my copy, but I know they weren’t both intended for me.

“Would you like me to print you a copy from my computer?” I ask.

Chad grins.  “I want to show it to my dad.”

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Kyle asks for response today on his "This I Believe" essay.  It's about his belief that most adults do not remember how difficult it is to be a teenager.

One of his teachers called his dad because Kyle put his head down on his desk in class.  At home, Kyle's dad said, "It's not that hard to keep your head up.  It's not that hard."

Kyle's next paragraph heads into a tirade about that sentence, listing all the things about being a teenager that make it difficult, especially when everyone around him is telling him that it's easy.

It's a rant-filled, angst-driven, completely teenage piece.  

And it is 100% his reality. 

I respond to him as a writer, pointing out sentences where his ranting detracts from the solid points he is making.  He listens.  

Monday, January 10, 2011


"Hey, did you know that 'butt' is blocked from the images search here at school?" a kid asks in my writing elective.  He's in charge of putting together the cover for our print publication.

"Well, no, but I'm not surprised," I say.

"I'm just looking for a tiger butt.  You know, for the back.  What could go wrong?" he says, genuinely puzzled.

Friday, January 7, 2011


Rob is holding out his pencil toward me as he walks into class.  The tip has been mauled by his trip through the gauntlet of a locker hallway plus construction zone.  "My pencil just broke--on my way here!" he cries.

"Bummer," I say, "there's no longer a pencil sharpener in here either."  Our library is also a construction zone.

He looks at me with a glimmer in his eye.  He's trying to think of something clever to say.  Ten seconds pass.

"And that's why... I shouldn't have come to Hogwarts!" he says, shaking his head as he walks away.

Just to be clear, I do teach in a normal public school.  I also teach eighth graders.

Thursday, January 6, 2011


I had about five different things going on in my room today because students are working on culminating projects for the Diary of Anne Frank.  Things can get a little crazy, particularly when I have to give my undivided attention to 2/3 of the class and give the other 1/3 a pep talk about independent learning so they will push themselves to work when I am unavailable to help them.

I'm sitting with the large group.  Four kids are in a fishbowl in the middle, leading their own discussion, talking about whether they would kick someone out of the secret annex for stealing food and whether it is required of us as humans to forgive people for personality traits like selfishness.  It is good stuff.  I am proud of them.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see two students who are working together on their found poems approach the "I NEED HELP!" emergency list on the white board and sign their names.  They have asked me for help four or five times.  I keep trying to help them get started, but they're still struggling.  They aren't willing to jump off the cliff and take a risk.  I have complete confidence they can do it.

So I sit and continue my participation in the discussion.  I believe they can help themselves.

Five minutes later, their names are gone.  They are working.  I check in with them as they leave.  They think they can do it.

This is why I teach.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


Nathan sneaks in about fifteen seconds after the bell.  He's never been tardy before.

I start class, then walk over to him and whisper, "Did you have a pass?  Why were you late?"

He looks up at me--huge brown eyes shining--and says, "30 seconds.  I had to go to the bathroom."

"Oh!" I whispered.  "I forgot!"

When a building is under construction, choices have to be made.  I have always been a teacher that trusts kids until they give me a reason not to, and construction has sealed this in my philosophy.  It is hard to live and work and learn in a dusty, loud space.  Our kids have handled it remarkably.

They shut down the restrooms in our hall this week, which means the nearest restrooms are a crowded locker bank and at least a minute away.  Our students have four minutes to pass to the next class.  Nathan's class falls at a notorious time of day--just enough time after lunch--when at least six kids have to use the restroom at the beginning of class.  Of course, our rules dictate that they may only leave class two times per quarter in order to use the restroom, so they must check in at the beginning of class and rush away.

I told this group of students yesterday there was no way that we could keep up the check-in system.  I said, "I'll give you thirty seconds after the bell, but use the restroom on your way. No more check in and run to the bathroom." 

 Of course a bunch of silly questions ensued: "What if we don't go the bathroom?  How will you know?"

I responded the best way I knew.  "I trust you.  I trust that you won't take advantage of my kindness and you will do the right thing, only being tardy if you need to go."

All but one of my students were in class, on time, when the bell rang.  I am glad I choose humanity.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


A new student, Sam, arrives the first day after school reconvenes from winter break.

She's sweet, smiley, and I immediately sympathize with the balance she's trying to strike between "please notice me" and "please don't notice me too much."

She's in my class that is split by lunch.

Usually, I try to be really good about inviting students to help new students get through lunch.  I never want the new kid to be wandering alone about the cafeteria, confused about how to eat and where to sit.

I forgot.

I am only reminded when Lucy, a friendly, talkative girl, approaches Sam. All the other students have left the room. "Do you want to go eat with me?" Lucy asks.

Yes, kids can be cruel. And they can be kind.

Sunday, January 2, 2011


With the excitement of a new year, the gratitude for being alive, and the mindfulness that I do what I love:

"Knowledge is not only power; it is happiness, and being taught is the intellectual analog of being loved."  --Isaac Asimov

Student stories return tomorrow.