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.