Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Quick Question

Who likes back to School Night? I mean really?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Coming Out

Back in August, I wrote about the cautious reaction I received from my colleagues to the sexual minority material in my part of the online Adolescent Development course that we were developing for teachers in our district. Last Monday, we met in person, after working remotely all summer, to finalize the details of the course. The other three teachers again expressed some reservations about that piece. They also said that we should be careful how we present the information so that "we don't offend anyone."

I pointed to the statistics about the difficulties that many gay and bisexual kids face in school, and the lack of support we currently offer them in middle school-- we act as if it's not an issue for kids so young. After some gentle debate, the group decided to send the course forward, as it was, for the assistant superintendent for instruction's approval.

Imagine how pleased I was to read the cover story of the NY Times Magazine this week, Coming Out in Middle School. It raises many of the same concerns and issues that we're only now tip-toeing up to in our school system. I'm hopeful that such broad exposure will push the conversation further out into the open.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Nice to See You Again

Today was one of my favorite homeroom activities of the year. At our school, all the students create an IB Binder: a two inch record of their time in middle school. It has sections for reflecting on exemplary work, service and the community they are part of, and character, also a scrapbook, and some nuts and bolts information about the IB Middle Years Programme.

As sixth grade teachers, we work with the students to set their binders up and guide them as they begin to use these notebooks as portfolios. When the kids leave at the end of the year, we hold on to their binders over the summer until that designated day when all seventh graders come back to their sixth grade homeroom for a few minutes to collect their work and move it to their current homeroom.

After three weeks with my new homeroom students, we've begun to establish our own rhythm and pace. The kids I have this year are easy to get along with, and I'm already enjoying them a lot. As teachers, it is our job to look forward, and after sixteen years on the job, I've learned to let go of one group and throw all my energy into the next. But... today, when those dozen kids that I spent every morning with last year came back to collect their portfolios, I knew how much I missed them by how happy I was to see them and how sorry I was when they grabbed their binders, and, with a cheerful wave, went off to their new homerooms.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

One Highpoint of the Weekend:

Singing Sugar Mountain with Treat on our road trip up to Hershey for Josh's birthday... who could resist such an awesome song as we drove past Sugarloaf Mountain? Plus, I liked the way our voices sounded together.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Thirty-five Thursdays

The other night my writing group had our monthly meeting. The four of us have been writing together for three years. We're all teachers, and the start of the school year has been supper-hectic for all of us. Rather than crank out something for the sake of the meeting, we agreed to re-visit the first pieces we wrote for the group.

I was really interested to take a look at our early work and compare it to what we've been writing lately. Sure enough, there were some significant details and differences. Two of us wrote about events and people that would be fictionalized to become major parts of the novels we're playing with. Three of us wrote much longer and more detailed pieces than we've written in over a year. There wasn't any noticeable growth; in fact we laughed about how our increasing comfort with each other has allowed us to become kind of slackers.

I remember working on that piece for our first meeting; I was coming off my Writing Project summer, and my writing fluency was good. I was also really into the self-examination and discovery that the personal narrative genre can provide. I wanted to bring a piece I could share with confidence, too. All of those things added up to a thousand pretty well-crafted words, and I was pleased to find that the writing held up three years later but sorry that I haven't written anything quite like that lately.

And so, our meeting gave me some things to think about in respect to myself as a writer, just as I knew it would. Thanks you guys.

Friday, September 25, 2009


Who knows why I'm still thinking about school on a Friday night. The lessons that I have planned for next week are new for me, and that could be part of it. I usually try to complete any assignment before the students to do myself, just so I have a sense for the challenges or pitfalls. I have to be honest, though, most of the time students find ways around my road blocks, but then they are stumped by some task I took for granted, so it all usually works out. I think it's best to be open about that-- it builds community when the teacher is willing to admit that she or he doesn't know it all. Well, let's be clear, it's the admission, not the lack of knowledge that the kids respect; credibility relies on you knowing your subject most of the time.

But I guess that brings us back to my thoughts tonight. I want to know what I'm doing next week when I introduce the lesson. It's the found poetry thing that I've mentioned in previous posts. There are many variations of this activity made available on the internet by generous teachers, and basically, students select a powerful prose passage, and cut it to a free verse poem. I gave it a go before I left school this afternoon, and it was kind of challenging the way I have it planned.

Most lessons of this type start with a model prose passage, then show a model of a poem that has been "found" there. They ask students to focus on which words, phrases and images have been selected for the poem. My idea tonight was to have the kids start instead by identifying what they took out to get the poem and then to develop a theory about poetry from that. It just seems a little more concrete to do it that way, but I'm sure they'll let me know.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Group Dynamic

I've known a lot of kids over my teaching career, both individually and collectively. It's funny how a group takes on a personality of its own; any teacher will tell you it's true. At the end of last school year, rumor had it that we had a good group coming up-- the fifth grade teachers reported that these were the nicest kids they'd ever taught.

And they ARE nice. I sat in the theater this afternoon as 200 sixth graders listened and asked questions about the IB Middle Years Programme that we have at our school. They were very polite and eager to participate; they asked terrific questions that showed they were listening and engaged. Before that, we had our first class meetings of the year in my English classes. We use Glasser's model, and the counselor comes in to facilitate a student-directed agenda. The first session is usually taken up by guiding the students to set rules for the group, but every meeting includes compliments and the chance to identify topics to discuss.

In each class, I looked around the circle and listened carefully to each of the comments, not just its content, but also the spirit in which it was offered by the individual student. I tried to observe how the comments were received by the group as well. These kids were super-positive-- it was great to hear how happy they are with the school, and their teachers, and each other, too.

I'm curious though: how does that happen? How does one group develop characteristics different than another, even though the members of each are very similar? Where does a group dynamic come from? Not that I'm complaining, mind you.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

ISO Poetry

We read Knoxville, Tennessee, by Nikki Giovanni, as our common text today. The poem turned out to be a good bridge between the Writers Read focus of this week, "How do writers use sensory details to create an experience for the reader?" and the question that we use to help us find subjects for free verse poems, "Where does poetry hide?".

After we read it together, the students highlighted one detail from Knoxville for each of their five senses, and we also talked about where Giovanni "found" her poem. I shared my own list next, and then the kids got a good start on theirs, too, before taking them home to continue with.

For our next Writers Read, the students will choose a descriptive passage from their independent reading and do a found poetry activity with it. After that, they'll do some free-writing on one of their poetry topics, taking care to include sensory details, and then we'll work to cut the free-writes into poems using the same strategies, as well as some mini-lessons on free verse poetry.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Where Does Poetry Hide? the scruff of my dog's neck, right between her ears and her shoulder blades the way the charcoal burns red hot in the chimney before I dump out the coals

...on the cool side of my pillow at 3 am my mother's handwriting the window of my classroom when I drive by in the summer Halloween the stack of waxed cardboard cartons of vegetables at my CSA pick up the chain-link pattern of sunlight on the pool bottom my fireplace potatoes my sister-in-law's eyes-- what color are they anyway? playdoh getting up early on Sunday morning and cooking

...on my bike reading the newspaper Adirondack chairs my grandmother's diamond ring cold tap water Russian tea cakes (or are they Mexican wedding cakes?) Scooby Doo: this time the monsters are real La la

Monday, September 21, 2009


We've been in school two weeks tomorrow, and my students haven't had a chance to write anything "good"... yet. My friend who was in the Writing Project Summer Institute posted on her fb status that she has written with her students every day! Ya. And then a bunch of her SI friends commented back that they had, too. ARGHHH. This year has been super-frustrating in that, for numerous reasons, I have spent the last couple of weeks on procedure instead of substance. Oh, I know the argument: my students and I will be grateful later when we are totally immersed in a fully-functional, well-organized and totally authentic writing workshop. Mm hmm. As I looked around the room today, I could sense a definite, is-this-all-there-is? vibe, even though they were very busy with their second Writers Read assignment.

Bottom line? These kids need to get to writing, and so do I.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Allow Me to Introduce Myself

On Friday, my students had an assignment where they were asked to introduce themselves in writing to a couple of hundred other sixth graders.

Our school system subscribes to Blackboard, a web-based instructional platform, and every teacher has access to an internet course that we can adapt for our students. For the last four school years, my teacher friend and I have used Blackboard to create an online community of sixth grade readers and writers called Write Here, Write Now. Even though we work in different schools, every couple of weeks, our students communicate and collaborate on common assignments, posting their work on WHWN. In between times, they have access to an unstructured (but not unsupervised) discussion board where they use writing to connect with the other kids about common interests.

I'm always amazed at the insight that reading what students write to an audience of their peers can provide. We always start with the "Introduce Yourself" assignment, and I spent some time this weekend looking over what my students posted. I was pleased that many kids wrote how much they enjoyed middle school so far, liked our English class, and loved reading and writing. Then there were the funny, surprising, and moving things that some kids felt compelled to share:

My favorite subject is science because you can make things blow up.

I laugh really easily.

I moved to [another school] because a bad principal moved in.

We had our fights but I still like my sister.

English is my favorite class. I'm a bad liar.

I used to write a few books, I was never very good.

New York is an amazing city. It is filled with music and life.

My dream is to start a sporting goods company. I will only sell quality goods to my customers.

Hey Weirdical,

I am also in love with my boyfriend, except he doesn't know we're dating. His name is Ron Weasley.

The front of my house has an American flag out front with white steps and a concrete porch and a see-through door.

I'm an only child and it's SO boring.

My favourite Earthling foods are a brown substance known as "chocolate", sugary objects known as "cinnamon buns", white objects referred to as "marshmallows", primitively cooked over a fire, and a liquid known as "cocoa" the words of my mom "ABSOLUTEY NOT ALLOWED TO GET A PUPPY"

In school I am as focused as a painting.

I collect snow globes

Ello, I'm Lauren.

I like to dance when the teachers aren't looking.

Oh, yeah... it's going to be an awesome year.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

X Marks the Spot

I've never been a big fan of The Family Circus comic; I guess I just don't get it. In fact, a friend and I have a running joke: whenever we are in the same place in the morning, whoever gets the paper first (it's usually him) will report to the other, and so far the details have never varied. "Guess what?" we say. "The Family Circus was not funny today."

As a child, though, I was sort of intrigued by those Sunday strips that showed one of the children (or perhaps their dog, Barfy) starting and ending in one place. These were drawn almost as treasure maps, with the character's paces marked as dashes, meandering and looping back around, only to end up on a big 'X', where the punchline was delivered.

Tonight, when I reflected on my day, that's how I imagined it. This morning, a friend called to suggest that we all go hiking with the dogs; she had an errand to run first, but it was on the way. Fine, I told her, but since we were driving out to Shenandoah National Park, could we stop at the big grocery store in Gainesville on the way back? That was okay with her, but what about lunch? I packed some snacks and water, and there was a really great sandwich place right by the cable office where she needed to go. We phoned in a takeout order, and planned to run by on the way out of town. But wait, Heidi needed to pick up a prescription-- maybe we could swing by the pharmacy at her HMO on our way home?

And so, stopping here and driving there, we did it all, and at the center there was a most amazing hike up the Devil's Staircase to an elevation where the climate was so different that the leaves were already changing. The trail ran along a mountain stream, criss-crossing it several times over slippery rocks and past lots of little waterfalls, pools, and rapids. It was challenging and even treacherous at times, but our little dash marks made it back to the parking lot and eventually to the big X, home.

Friday, September 18, 2009


poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.
~from Valentine for Ernest Mann by Naomi Shihab Nye

Pretty much the only time I write poetry is when the lessons in my sixth grade writing workshop are focused on it; then I work on composing poems alongside my students. My sensibility changes during those poetry writing times. On my morning dog walks, I pick up sensory details like pennies in a parking lot; another time they wouldn't be worth reaching for. I like how it feels to think this way, to sense a potential poem in a twisted locust pod, or the five fingers of a sweet gum leaf, or that solitary hook-armed monkey somehow separated from its barrel mates, but I can't sustain it. When we turn our attention to another genre in class, my poetry sense gradually stops tingling, and the pennies stay on the pavement.

I want to change that.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Back in the Day

On my way home from work today, I heard someone on the radio refer to something "that we witnessed during the early part of the century." She meant this century. Doesn't that sound weird?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

10,000 Hours

What English teacher has not received a link to Nancie Atwell's video-recorded response to the NY Times article of August 30 about reading workshop? Either forwarded directly by a colleague, mentioned in a professional e-newsletter, or referenced in an edu-blog, the video has gone what passes for viral in our little online community.

I confess that I have watched it twice already. I'm all about Atwell-- plus, I've been to her school, and I've actually seen those bookcases behind her. (An aside... take a look at the cover of the second edition of In the Middle. Mm hmm... same white book shelves, just filled with quality literature.) Nancie makes a great argument on the video; her reasoning is clear and reassuring, and it will resonate with anyone who's struggled to create an effective language arts program lately. We're lucky to have her as such a rational voice for our profession.

Beyond her defense of "the audacity of kids choosing their own reading," it's her Malcolm Gladwell reference that I've been pondering today. In Outliers, he posits that to really achieve mastery of something, it takes 10,000 hours of practice. Atwell, of course, mentioned it in terms of reading fluency, but I got to thinking about teaching. The basic calculation for teaching time is 7.5 hours a day at 180 days per year. At that rate, with no absences, you can put in your 10,000 hours in about seven and a half years.

Teaching is a complex task, though, and so, with that in mind, I tried to break my time down into student contact hours, meeting hours, and planning and professional development hours. When I look at the numbers that way, I figure I probably hit 10,000 instructional hours sometime at the end of last year, my sixteenth. Mastery? Expertise? Maybe a little.

I have a feeling that Gladwell was referring to more than simply logging your hours at a given task. Diligence alone is not enough; passion and engagement are reliable indicators of the quality of one's practice. As teachers we know this to be true of our students and ourselves; after all, there's more to Nancie Atwell than just 10,000 hours.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Writers Read #1

Today was another in that long list of firsts that comprises the beginning of every school year. My students conducted their first Writers Read discussions. This is an assignment that my teacher-friend originated: each week we choose a focus, one that usually supports the craft or convention that we are working on in writing workshop. The students do a prep sheet, where they answer some questions about their independent reading and pull an excerpt from the text to support their ideas, then they use the sheet to guide their small-group discussions about their books.

This is why I was doing my research about questioning strategies yesterday. Sometimes, the students simply read their prep sheet to the group and proclaim themselves "done" (as in, hand raised, waving vigorously across the room for your attention, only to ask triumphantly when you finally do give them the nod, "What do we do when we're finished?!?"). Last year, I worked with our gifted resource teacher on ways to teach the kids to extend their discussions. We tried some ready-made question models. The results were mixed; some students genuinely rehearsed, and even implemented, higher-order questioning, and some picked questions at random to ask so that they could check that off their to-do list.

Today, I tried a different approach. First, I directed the groups to use a "spiral method" when presenting the thoughts recorded on their planning sheets to their group. Rather than reading through all the questions student-by-student, I asked them to paraphrase one answer at a time, one student at a time, with permission for the others to interrupt politely, should they have a question or comment. Our goal was conversation rather than presentation. In addition, I told them that their conversation had to go "off the page;" the prep sheet was just a starting point. These directions turned out to be a good place to begin-- I think they helped the students conceptualize the task more clearly than in years past.

I have a plan for supporting higher-level questioning in the next couple of sessions, too. I want to do it in context, so we're going to continue with this approach to the discussion, but with a few minutes of follow-up to ask the students to jot down which questions extended the conversation most. Then we'll take a look at those questions and analyze them together to figure out what made them so effective.

That's the concept, at any rate. We'll see how it goes.

Monday, September 14, 2009

That's a Good Question

I was doing some research today on teaching kids questioning skills. I confess that I did not find the perfect resource, for there's quite the hodge-podge of references out there that will give an interested party a bunch of information on that topic. Also, the more I searched, the later in the day it became, and the more my thoughts got all meta-cognitive on me.

Can you really teach questioning strategies? I wondered. Don't authentic questions come from within?

Most of the websites I found were directed at teachers, but some seemed to have "business managers" as their main audience. That made me laugh a little. I free-associated to Steve Carell and The Office, and I imagined Michael using some of the "higher order questioning prompts inappropriately, as he would. For example: Synthesis-- "What would happen if you combined...?" (Regular viewers, you know you can fill in the blank.)

To be honest, that scenario wasn't much of a stretch, because I'd heard my own students asking ridiculous questions out of context last spring when the gifted contact teacher was in our room. She brought along a class set of flip-charts that had a series of question-starters based on Bloom's taxonomy. We directed the kids to use them to prepare for their weekly small-group literature discussion. How silly and stilted some of their conversations seemed, yet I kept listening for the break-through that would move the whole group to a higher intellectual order.

By June, I gave up, but I thought that if I started earlier this year, I might have more success. That was until today, when I questioned my questioning instruction, and I'm sorry to say that I haven't found any definitive answers (no worries: we all know that good questions don't have those), but I will continue this line of inquiry and report back, mostly because I really want to know.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


So, the kids in my class were working on their writing sample, and a little girl raised her hand. I went over to her seat. "Yes?" I whispered.

"I'm having a lot of trouble with this writing prompt," she told me, shaking her head.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because I only write animal fiction," she said with dismay.

I'm pretty sure I tilted my head and raised an eyebrow. "Animal fiction? That's a pretty narrow genre," I said. "Are you any good?"

"Oh yeah," she assured me, "I'm good."

"Well," I shrugged, "I think if you can write animal fiction, you can write anything, right?" We made eye contact, and I continued. "So, go ahead-- give this one a shot."

She sighed, but she set her pencil to the page, and soon she found her way into a response, no talking animals involved.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Ready or Not

Yesterday we were planning to have a congratulations-you-survived-the-first-week-of-middle-school-! picnic for all the sixth graders. It was really only going to take about an hour and a half, time during which the kids could socialize with us and each other, have a hot dog and a bag of chips, and go home happy. At first we planned to have short classes in the morning to accommodate the schedule swing, but then we decided to use that time for the writing sample instead of disrupting instruction again later in the month.

Earlier in the week, the weather looked a little iffy, and our plan for rain was to postpone and reschedule, expanding the short classes to full ones. By the time we switched to the writing sample activity, the weather forecast looked good, so we didn't have a rain contingency. Sure enough, "an area of low pressure stalled just off the coast," and yesterday dawned dreary and damp. At 7:30 am, I was urgently conferring in the hallway with not just my team teachers, but the leader of the other sixth grade team, too.

The picnic was out; even if the downpour stopped, the grounds would be drenched. What to do? I was in favor of going to a regular schedule, but there were enough teachers who objected, on the grounds that they weren't prepared to teach, to make that unfeasible. In the end, we did the writing sample, and we used the block of time after lunch to do some homeroom activities, things we would have done anyway. It was fine, but not ideal.

As team leader, I should have asked everyone to be prepared to teach in the event of rain. It was my mistake not to do that. I was a little surprised, though, at the whole notion of feeling unprepared to teach. Later that afternoon, when we were planning for next week over the phone, the teacher friend with whom I collaborate expressed some skepticism, as well, until we laughingly agreed that the two of us are probably never really ready to teach. It's impossible in a student-centered, workshop-organized language arts class to know exactly what will happen; you have to think on your feet.

"Hey," I said, "if you're never ready, then you're always ready, right?"


Friday, September 11, 2009


We gave the students a writing prompt today to get a baseline of their writing skills. Their pieces will be scored holistically by the whole staff using the state rubric. We'll give them another prompt in early June to measure their progress for the year.

The topic for today was: Your principal wants to invite a celebrity speaker to your school. Think about the celebrity you would choose to speak; then write a letter to persuade your principal to invite this person. Be sure to include convincing reasons and details to support your choice.

Here's who the kids picked:

President Obama
Michelle Obama
Selena Gomez
Raven Simone
Michael Phelps
Ryan Zimmerman
Jon Lester
Jack Black
Ryan Seacrest
Demi Lovato
Michael Jackson
Gerard Butler
Christopher Paolini
Stephanie Meyer
Gail Carson Levine
Rick Riordan
Taylor Swift
Adam Lambert
Adam Sandler
George Washington
Thomas Edison
Eleanor Roosevelt
Hillary Clinton
Jane Goodall
Al Gore
Alicia Keyes
Andrew Zimmern
Joe Jonas
Ashley Tisdale
Weird Al
Kristina DeBarge

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Leave Them Kids Alone

When you teach the same lesson five times in a row, it's bound to evolve, and there's nothing wrong with that; although sometimes I feel a little guilty that my first period class is the perennial trial run. That happened today.

We read our first common text of the year. Because my students select their reading for English themselves, we start most classes by reading a very short text together, usually a poem. I use the approach that Nancie Atwell describes in her book, Naming the World: A Year of Poems and Lessons. Like Atwell, I have found that almost any writing lesson can be illustrated with a poem.

If I err in planning and executing these bite-sized literature lessons, it is in the amount of participation I allow myself in the discussion. I am well-credentialed and opinionated when it comes to literature, and sometimes it just seems like it would be easier and faster if I tell the students what they should get out of the text, especially if they are quiet or tentative. I know that's not so, and I'm always happy when I get concrete proof, like I did today.

I asked the first group to box the verbs and highlight something they noticed about the text, and I had a question prepared to extend the conversation. The kids started slow and sleepy, understandably so-- it was early, and they've only known me and each other for two days. We had a decent discussion, though, and at the end of the lesson I asked them, as I always do, to rate the poem on a scale of 1-10 and tell us what they gave it and why. First period gave it solid sevens with a few outliers-- not such a ringing endorsement.

The verb activity wasn't going the way I wanted it to, so I dropped it for the next class, and asked them to do the highlighting and prepare their answer to my question in advance. Again, 7-8 rating for the poem. For the next class, I asked them to highlight two things and write a question for the group themselves. Big improvement, the quality of the conversation was a lot higher: I was much less involved in extending and re-directing the comments; they made great connections between the text and other texts and their own experiences; they proposed interpretations to each other and worked them through.

All of my classes are heterogeneously grouped, so it wasn't the ability of the kids. The same thing happened in the next classes. AND, all three groups rated the poem consistently higher than the first two. One student actually said, "At first I didn't think much of it, but after we figured it all out, I really liked it," and she held up the page with a big purple 10! written at the top.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Reading Requirements

Today I introduced the weekly reading log to my students. This document has been a staple of my English class since day one, September 7, 1993. I have required my students to read at least one hundred pages from a book (or books) of their choice 5 out of 7 nights a week from September until June for the last sixteen years. (Wow-- you know that's got to be way over a million pages.)

Back when I started, I knew I wanted them to read because reading is a skill that improves with practice, but if I thought of myself as a coach, I was definitely in the drill-Sargent-inspired, you-WILL-read category, and woe to those students who crossed me, mm mm mm. And woe to me, too, as it turned out, because some of those kids gave me a run for the money. Imagine not appreciating being forced to read.

These days, I'm a kinder, gentler literacy coach, and honest conversation is my motivator of choice. I told one class today that if they weren't reading, I wouldn't yell at them, but we would definitely have to have a conversation about it. "I'm going to ask you some questions, figure out what's going on, recommend some books, help get you back on track," I said.

"Yeah," I heard one boy whisper to another. "I think I'll just go ahead and read."

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Telling Tales Out of School

My first day of school went pretty well; we have some nice sixth graders, and I don't have any complaints. Teachers do talk though, and I submit the following for your consideration:

The teacher who spent the whole first day telling the students about himself, complete with family photos and a quiz at the end.

The teacher who showed every class the wrong way to enter his room, slamming his door at least ten times.

The teacher who asked students to share an anecdote from their summer, and when they finished, called on the kids who didn't raise their hands and made them contribute, but, unbeknown to the students, only gave participation points to the ones who volunteered.

The teacher who felt her intensified class is over-crowded and so intends to lay on the work load to see who "should" be there.

The teacher who lectured on rules and procedures the whole first day, promising at the end of each class that it wasn't going to be like that every day.

The two teachers, one a specialist and the other a special ed teacher, who kicked two special education students and a general ed kid out of a class of 15 the first period of the day.

Oh my.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Farewell to Summer OR The Dogs Ate My Sock

Summer comes to the household of two teachers with a different timetable and a new set of rules. Every day is a vacation day for us, and everyone we know knows it. This summer has been the summer of dog-sitting. It seems like every other week there's been a visiting canine in addition to our own dog and two cats.

Our place is not that big; in fact for many years we resisted getting a dog at all because of our concern about lack of space. One day we realized that we probably weren't going to move anytime soon, and so we've found a way to make one dog work, and it really does work-- she's a treasure to us. Sometimes, we think she's so great that it seems like it would be a good idea to get another one.

As willing and able as we are to help out our friends and family, it's back to work for us tomorrow, and the dog-sitting gig just won't be as convenient. Plus, vacation time is over for most other people, too, so our opportunities diminish. I'd like to think that the inevitable nuisances of caring for a dog who is not your own has cured us of the notion that we should be a double-dog duo, like this morning when our dog and her guest pulled out the sock I had carefully tucked into my shoe last night and used it for an energetic game of tug-of-war. I really liked that sock.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Conference is a Noun

I read a fair number of teacher blogs, some for inspiration, some for validation, some for shared experience, and some just for the are-you-kidding-me? factor. I think that almost all teachers want what's best for their students and work in good faith and to the best of their ability to provide that. I know that teaching can be frustrating, though, and working day after day in what you feel is a lose-lose situation will erode your dedication. The other side of that coin is arrogance-- the certainty that you know without question what your students, their parents, and the administration should do. If only they would keep their side of the bargain, all those children would be successful.

Knock on wood that I'll never be that first case, but I have to admit that the second category of teacher reminds me of my earlier self. I can almost pick out their blogs by the stridency in their voices and that certain incredulous tone to the tales of the mishaps and malapropisms that they are burdened with. When posting assignments for their students, they use the words "all" and "must" a lot, as well as bold font and all caps to emphasize the importance of certain directions, such as these I read just tonight: Reminder: ALL students must conference with me AND a peer before September 18.

Such assertive confidence can propel an inexperienced teacher through the first few years, perhaps with great success, but it usually lacks empathy, which is what my experience has taught me to be the most productive approach to students, parents and colleagues. Empathy doesn't remove all the frustrating episodes of teaching, but it helps to alleviate the frustration. Not to mention that if we stand in judgment of others, we must be prepared for others to judge us just as harshly.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

An Independent Thinker

A retired teacher friend and her husband came over for dinner last night. Twenty three years separate us in age, but our friendship has already spanned fifteen years. I confess that sometimes I wonder what she sees in me: author, activist, and scholar, my friend sets the bar high for those who admire her and might wish to follow her example.

One of the most important lessons that I learned from working with her is that it's possible to disagree with someone without losing respect or affection for them. Professional disagreements can become rather heated, especially in a school, probably because the stakes seem to be so high... we're talking about the future of children here!

I don't even remember what it was that we disagreed about, but when you work on a team, it's impossible to see eye to eye on everything. It's my impression that many people confuse our opinions with ourselves. If someone doesn't like what I'm thinking, how can they value me? And if that's my frame of mind, then all of a sudden, a simple disagreement becomes much more personal and difficult to resolve amicably without losing self-respect.

My friend showed by example what it means to be open-minded. In even the most contentious of discussions, she listened without interrupting, never lost her temper, and never even raised her voice. On those rare occasions that she and I were on opposites sides of the debate, she'd go out of her way to find me after the meeting. "I don't see it your way, Toots," she would tell me, "but good people can disagree."

Friday, September 4, 2009

Access Denied

On Tuesday, President Obama is speaking at a high school right down the road from us. That happens to be the first day of school around here, and so today was the last day of our pre-service week. At our school, we kicked it off with, what else? A lengthy meeting. Although gathering as a staff is necessary, two-and-a-half hours seems like it may be overdoing it. I slipped into a seat at 8:33, just in time to hear the principal say that she was starting with an item that was not on the agenda.

Before I could roll my eyes, she told us that she'd been struggling with the issue of the president's speech. Some around me were confused because they had been unaware of the plans for his visit, but even though I was ahead of them on that particular 4-1-1, my brow was furrowed just the same. I listened as she continued, telling us that she had decided that no students at our school will be permitted to view the speech live on that day. At first, it was my assumption that such an activity might be too disruptive on the first day of school, but that was not her reasoning at all. She went on to say that there was a lot of controversy surrounding the address; in fact several parents had already called the school to say that they did not want their children to view it, and since we could not arrange for information letters with opt-out pieces, we weren't exposing any students to the telecast.

Go back in time with me twenty-four hours, or so... pretend that you haven't read or heard of the furor that is being raised over the president's plan to address the school children of our nation. All you know is that the President of the United States is coming to a high school in your district to make a televised speech for kids. Can you imagine how irrational the principal's decision seemed? What an over-reaction it appeared to be? That's where I was this morning, unaware that partisan politics have become so divisive in our time that there are citizens of this country who will not allow their children to hear the remarks of a democratically-elected president carried by a free press. And tonight, I'm wondering where our trust in democracy is.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Where Are You From?

I never know how to answer that question. I was born in the District of Columbia, moved to south Jersey at four, Saudi Arabia at 13, went to boarding school in Switzerland, college in New York, grad school in Norfolk, and now here I am, back in the DC metro area again. The truth is, I was born here and have lived here since 1989, but I wouldn't say I'm from here. Even so, twenty years is time enough to put down some roots, and that was evident to me tonight.

Teaching in the community where I live and have family has been exceptionally rewarding to me. Over the years, I've taught the children of my friends and neighbors and three of my nephews. Tonight, we had our annual open house for rising sixth graders, and I was moved at the pre-existing connections I felt to so many kids and families. There were parents I hadn't seen in six and eight years bringing their youngest child at last to middle school. Lots of other siblings and cousins and friends of former students went out of their way to tell me that they knew me and they were excited about the coming year. One of my colleagues realized that she and the parent of one of the kids went to our very school together nearly thirty years ago.

The two new teachers on the team both stopped me afterward to say what a remarkable event it had been. We open our doors on this night before school starts in order to allay the anxiety of parents and children who are making a big educational transition with new expectations and requirements, but tonight, for me, it was a testament to the power of simple human connection, even if I'm not from here.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Dead White Guys

Ten or twelve years ago, maybe longer, back when I was a pretty new teacher, I was invited to serve on a committee for the county-wide language arts department. Someone had decided that there should be a middle school author study, and it was our job to choose a "classic American author" and write some grade-level curriculum. After the first hour or so, this group of 8 white women decided that the works of Jack London would best lend themselves to interdisciplinary connection with our social studies curriculum, which was American history in 6th and 7th grade and world geography in 8th. The initiative had come from someone on the school board, and so our recommendation and outline of possible activities and materials were sent forward for review. It turned out that this particular official had hated Jack London when she was in high school, and so the project was refocused to create an author study of Mark Twain. The consensus was that his work more closely aligned with the social studies material anyway, and we worked hard to design units of study for all the middle school kids in the county.

Somewhere out there is still the vaguest of expectations that all of us teach the Twain, but, to be honest, there is no accountability, and very few teaches still do it. In my own experience, I found that it is usually pretty excruciating, and I wrote the lesson plans. Maybe I'm not a good teacher, or maybe Mark Twain is irrelevant to many of our students. Maybe both. When I think about it today, though, I think the key to the whole thing lies in the beginning of this story: We arbitrarily selected Jack London, who was just as arbitrarily vetoed, because a successful and well-educated person found his work unengaging, and so another long-dead author was chosen to replace him, also somewhat at random, and then we were surprised when students found it challenging to relate to his life and work. We even worried about the kids and the future of our culture if they couldn't appreciate Mark Twain, but it was okay for the school board member to give the thumbs down on Jack London-- obviously, the future of society was not at stake there.

I think we want to believe in a canon of literature the way children believe in Santa. But as David Sedaris pointed out, in Holland, St. Nicholas arrives at your house with 6-8 black men and a switch to beat you if you've been naughty. And if you've been really bad, they throw you in a sack and take you to Spain. Hmm... at least they don't force you to read London or Twain.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Reflection on Practice

My session went pretty well today. One of the challenges of this particular group is time. We met for two hours today, and we have just 5 more one-hour sessions scattered throughout the year. That makes it tough to build a community around writing, but it seems unthinkable to leave that piece out of a Writing Project continuation group. How can 12 teachers share our writing, talk about our practice, and read and respond to professional literature in an hour?

The only solution I could see to this dilemma was if we wrote about our practice and shared that. Even so, these could not be full-length drafts-- an hour wouldn't be enough time for three people to workshop their writing, and, let's be realistic, if you know you won't have to share, how likely is it that you will write? One of the things most people appreciate about being in a writing group is the accountability; it makes you write. So, I proposed that we all commit to keeping a teaching journal, recording and reflecting on our practice 2-3 times a week, and then choose an entry to share with a group of three each time we meet. Each teacher will give and receive feedback on three points: the craft of their writing, its content-- i.e. their practice, and their process.

"Where does the professional literature piece fit in?" you wonder. Why, I'm so glad you asked! Ultimately, in addition to the very worthwhile tasks of using writing to be more reflective practitioners and soliciting peer input on our practice, the objective of the teacher writers in this group might be to identify and develop an idea that could become a published piece. (Who knows? We might do this again next year.) So the other thing we're doing in the time we have together is to define what "publication" means to us. In the 21st century, publishing is undeniably an evolving concept, and we're going to share examples of teacher-written publications that may be outside the traditional. Who knows? Eleven new edu-bloggers may be born.