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.