Tuesday, February 16, 2016


Today, I helped some seventh grade boys with their writing after school. All four of these boys struggled to put words on the page in an organized fashion, let alone with the rich details that would have made their interview pieces sing. It was a daunting task, and I flitted about the room sitting with them one at a time for five minutes at a time, trying to answer their questions from across the room so they could keep moving.

It was an exhausting hour. But we made some teeny tiny baby steps. One student figured out that telling the story of his parents’ divorce might be an important element of writing about their marriage. Another finally changed a question into a sentence without my help. The biggest breakthrough was with Lucas, whose draft was singular sentences grouped into random paragraphs at the beginning of the hour. But by the end of the hour, he was moving his details around so they fit into some semblance of groupings. He was writing follow-up questions in his document, carefully placing them so they’d be in the right place in his paragraph.

These little writing conferences were exactly what I needed after a day of grown-up talk about data and policies in our building leadership team (full of individuals whom I respect greatly, by the way). It was just a strange juxtaposition. We spent our day talking about these boys--these children who struggle with writing--and discussing whether and how they should be penalized for showing up to class without their assignments done. They were not in detention; they were in learning lab for help. And they mostly worked away without complaining.

It just makes me think about the vast differences between the children in our classrooms and how daunting it can be to make a drop in the bucket of the differentiation that needs to occur. I’m sure these boys, who struggle to write sentences, sit alongside kids who can churn out blissful, detailed paragraphs in minutes. Yet they are in the same grade, the same class because they can learn from one another. There is no focal point to this story other than to remind myself that the work is with the individual students, every single time. There’s a book I haven’t read by a teacher whom I believe no longer teaches called There Are No Shortcuts, which is true and heartbreaking. It’s a good thing the work--when it’s working--feels so good.

Sunday, February 14, 2016


Friday was a great day. A great, great day.

Fridays, we read. This week, students set goals for the number of books they plan to read this semester, and the date they believed they would finish their current book.  I spent their reading period walking the room, talking to students about these goals, making sure they were both feasible and challenging. These conversations inevitably led to recommendations--”Oh, when you finish this, you HAVE to read _______!”

My favorite conversation of the day:
Student: “I want a story that has deep, real romance.”
Me: “Oh, you have to read Eleanor and Park. You have to read it right now. And maybe Delirium because it questions the idea of love and asks what happens if it’s missing from society. Check them both out and see what you think.”
At the end of the hour, I said, “Which are you going to choose?”
Student: “I’m taking them both.”

Moments like these all day long made me feel like I was doing exactly the right thing for kids as readers. But with every great conversation came a hint of guilt, thinking about why I hadn’t had that conversation sooner. Maybe the aforementioned student could have been hooked into one of these books earlier and she’d spend less time on her Chromebook if I’d made time for these reading conferences earlier in the school year.

The ideal and the reality. The reality is that it’s taken this long into the year for my fourth hour class to be able to read independently while I confer with students. They are a busy bunch, and any amount of whispering breaks the reading magic and sends the message that reading isn’t valuable. So they’ve missed out on reading conferences because they will read if they have the time. Today, though, I decided it was right to take the plunge, to tell them all of my concerns about conferences, to lay the expectation that they would still read in spite of the little whispers, and for the most part they did it. There was more student whispering, but it didn’t break the reading magic.

The confident part of me wants to believe that I knew today was the day--that I could feel it in the room and knew they could handle it. The guilty, insecure part of me fears that I could have done this months ago and now I’ve missed too many teachable moments. The reality probably lies somewhere in the middle.

This is the power and the penance in teaching. Even when things go smashingly, they come with a hint of regret. Because what you’re doing right for this student is something another student didn’t get because you hadn’t figured it out yet, or your timing was off that time, or another sometimes inconclusive factor was different. Most of the time, I do a pretty good job of living the Maya Angelou quote, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.” I know that students have hundreds of teachers over their lives, and I am only one of them. But there are moments when I wallow in the idea that I am their only English teacher this year, concerned that I have harmed them with less-than-ideal pedagogy.

One of my master’s research paper tenants about how to sustain yourself in the classroom was about accepting ambiguity, living comfortably with the questions in this wonderful work. But there are days that questions feel like too much to manage. I want to live in that reading conference with Samantha and enjoy the good that came of it without beating myself up for all that I cannot do. Some days it is easier than others.