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.