Category Archives: Life in the Classroom

Differentiation: When Virtue turns Vice

I sincerely believe in the practice of differentiating instruction for the needs of learners. To help learners grow and improve, we need to meet them where they are and craft variations in output, outcome, process, scope or purpose in order to help students move from A to B…so they can eventually get to Z.

But, a heretical wondering has been bouncing around my head lately.

Over my career I have had many students who, when we are tasked with reading a novel or other long work, either by IEP, 504, or personal preference, end up engaging with the audiobook version of the text rather than the printed version. I’ve always considered that a crucial form of differentiation.

As I was preparing to teach the current unit (Romeo and Juliet) to my 9th graders, I was mulling over how to engage them with the intimidating complexities of Shakespeare. It had been a few years since I last taught the play, so on an early morning run I was going over past unit plans, assignments, and ways I had engaged students. I came to this conclusion: I wanted my students to gain confidence when faced with complex or intimidating texts. That, to me, was more important than whether they “got” all of the nuanced details of the play.

It was clear in my head: The act of reading was what I was trying to teach, to some degree, no matter what literary text we were studying. My learning goal wasn’t that kids simply knew who, what, when, where, and how: it was that kids had the skills to decode the written word in order to be able to figure those things out from reading.

My heretical wondering: Might differentiation inadvertently place students on a lower trajectory for success if that differentiation is misapplied? To be blunt: Will listening to the audio book help a teenager learn to process a text visually? Of course, audiobooks are a necessity for students with visual impairments, but if my goal is to help students improve their processing and comprehension of text, might differentiation such as audiobooks actually get in the way of developing that skill?

I did some cursory research, and all of it was consistent: Using audiobooks to augment the reading of a text increases student comprehension of that text. My question, though, is about the enduring skill of being able to read and make meaning. Yes, listening to the text will increase a struggling teen reader’s comprehension of that text…but what does it do for their reading skill when they face a new complex text that isn’t or can’t be accompanied by audio?

I’m seriously rethinking all of the differentiation I plan in my class. If my goal is for my teenage readers to “get through” the text and know what happens, or even be able to interpret the literature to depth, the audiobook will suffice if I am teaching content. If I am teaching skills, though, I must focus on differentiating the learning of the skill (how I help kids strengthen the act of reading) rather than being satisfied that they “got” the content. When I think back over 16 years of teaching various complex texts where audiobooks were a go-to mode of differentiating, I feel confident my kids left knowing content but I wonder if I did a darn thing to cultivate their transferable skills. I wonder if I might have inadvertently flattened their potential trajectory as a reader.

A central theme of Romeo and Juliet is that “virtue turns vice, being misapplied.” In other words, being loving is a virtue, being lustful and misapplying that emotion turns that same sentiment to a vice…and in the case of the play, a tragedy rather than a love story.

I now wonder, too, if differentiation of instruction isn’t subject to that same theme: It is a virtuous idea which, if misapplied, might do more harm than good.

What’s So Great about Teaching?

About twenty years ago a policeman came into my classroom to talk to my students about his job. He started out with great enthusiasm, “How many of you want to be a cop?”

Not a single hand went up. Two or three kids even laughed.

Stricken, he said, “That’s not funny—in most classes a lot of kids want to be a cop. Ok, then tell me what you want to be when you grow up.”

Hands up all over the room. He listened as kids told him a wide variety of ideas from astronaut to doctor (it wasn’t just “doctor,” either, it was a particular specialty all picked out in fifth grade) to entomologist.

“Ento-what?” he exclaimed and then turned to me. “This class isn’t normal!”

Apparently no one had warned him he was coming to a Highly Capable classroom.

Once he left I did talk to my class about being polite with guest speakers (which is an important life lesson).

Then I asked them to write a piece for me. “Tell me the job you want and give me three reasons developed in detail for why you want that job.”

They immediately turned the tables on me. “So why do you want to be a teacher?” “Yeah, what’s so great about teaching?” “What three reasons do you have?”

“I know—I know—it’s because of all the vacations!”

I got them quiet and said, “Those are legitimate questions. If I ask you why you want to have a job one day, it makes sense that you would want to know why I want to have the job I have now. So I’ll give you three reasons. And they don’t have anything to do with June, July, and August.”

All these years later, my reasons are still the same.

First off, teaching came naturally to me. From when I was in junior high or high school, if I was swimming at the pool, I would end up teaching some kid how to swim or how to dive off the side into the deep end. If I was drawing pictures in the park, I would end up teaching a cluster of kids how to draw. No matter where I was or what I was doing, I ended up teaching someone something. I figured I might as well be paid for it.

Second, I’m good at it. When I taught kids horseback riding at summer camps back in high school, I told stories about medieval knights carrying their spears in their right hands. “See how it makes sense to mount on the left? See why we hold our reins in the left hand? Cowboys don’t throw a spear with the right hand, but they do throw a rope with their right hand.” Then we would act out mounting the horse while holding something in the right hand.

To this day, I find that telling stories and acting out scenarios helps kids remember information.

I have another advantage as a teacher. Does anyone remember Gregorc’s Learning Styles? I took a test a long time ago to determine my teaching style according to Gregorc. I found that, operating in my normal mode, I was pretty strongly Concrete-Sequential. But the minute I got frustrated, I flipped into Abstract-Random mode, in his parlance.

How does that help my teaching? As long as everything is going smoothly, I generally continue in a Concrete-Sequential style. But if students don’t understand a concept, if they start asking a lot of questions, if they look confused, then I get frustrated. I stop teaching the way I’ve been teaching—the way that hasn’t been working. I say, “Ok, let’s look at it this way.” I come up with a sideways, out-of-the-box way of explaining the concept. A more Abstract-Random way. (Something that’s not in the script of a Direct Instruction lesson.)

I’ve had students say, “Now it makes sense.” (I’ve also heard the criticism, “Well, why didn’t you say it that way the first time?”)

My third reason I want to be a teacher?

I love it when kids get it. Nearly forty years of doing this job, and if some kid suddenly grasps an idea they’ve been struggling with, I do a victory dance right there with them. I’m pumped. I’m excited. I’m vindicated!

This is the coolest part of my job! I get to watch the light bulbs go on.

Right here, by the way, is why I set impossibly high standards for my kids. So when they meet those standards, that victory dance is SO incredibly sweet.

Twenty years ago I gave my kids those three reasons, and they agreed, they were legitimate reasons to want to be a teacher.

I still think so!

Not Neutral on Net Neutrality

Last week my eighth graders presented their independent, interest-based projects, the culmination of two months of research and applied learning. Elizabeth showed us her original comic, which she published online. Maisy displayed her handmade quilt and told us about the history of quilting in America. Sam presented his Claymation short film. Dana taught us about installation art and demonstrated the infinity mirror she had made.

These projects were impressive examples of what students can do when they have access to the right resources. For Elizabeth, Maisy, Sam, and Dana, that meant high-speed access to specialized websites, including the publishing platform, the Emporia State University archives, and the Seattle Art Museum’s website.

If the school’s broadband provider had blocked access to some of these sites because they don’t bring in money, if it had slowed the connection speed in order to provide other users with faster service, or if it had required the school district to pay extra for access to less lucrative sites, these and the other student projects would never have happened. And that bleak scenario is exactly what schools across the country are likely to face in the wake of the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC’s) recent repeal of the practice known as Net Neutrality. Teachers and students will have fewer opportunities, and those with the fewest resources will, of course, suffer disproportionately.

What is Net Neutrality?

Since the internet’s inception, internet service providers have treated all content equally. They do not restrict, discriminate, or charge differently based on content, user, or type of device. This is the concept of net neutrality. In 2014 President Obama sought to ensure the continuation of net neutrality, and to that end asked the FCC to recategorize internet broadband service as a utility. The FCC followed this recommendation in February 2015, instituting regulations that prevented broadband companies such as Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T, from slowing or blocking access to legal websites, artificially slowing access for some customers while speeding it up for others, and charging customers extra for access to certain websites.

Net Neutrality in Schools

According to the 2017 State of the States report from the nonprofit EducationSuperHighway, 97% of Washington State’s school districts had the necessary fiber optic connectivity to meet the FCC minimum goal of 100 kpbs per student. At my school that means my colleagues and I can stream videos and download resources from YouCubed to help our students develop mathematical mindsets. This amazing website is helping us transform our practice. And we are not the only ones. As of this writing, YouCubed has received 22,895,390 visits. But what will happen if we can no longer freely access YouCubed or the countless other sites that support our teaching and our students’ learning? According to Richard Culatta, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education, “when carriers can choose to prioritize paid content over freely available content, schools really are at risk.”

In high-poverty schools such as mine, the risk is especially great. The internet provides access to experiences that our schools could not otherwise provide, such as authentic science investigations and contact with project mentors. Many of our students also live in homes without reliable internet access; they depend on having it at school not only for their assignments, but to develop the technological literacy that all students need and deserve.

Net neutrality has helped to reduce inequities between well-funded and under-funded schools, between students of privilege and students of poverty. If such access disappears, the equity gap will increase.

Broadband service providers argue that net neutrality stifles the free market. Other opponents fear that regulation allows the government to invade our privacy. Those arguments do not persuade me. There is no financial incentive for broadband companies to provide unrestricted, high-speed access to consumers, including schools. If they have the opportunity to make money by restricting access to certain websites, or by charging consumers for access or faster service, they will do that in order to satisfy shareholders. We may well find ourselves living in a world that our students will recognize from their favorite dystopian novels: a world where access to information and expression exists only for individuals with the most power and the most money.

I asked my district’s chief technology officer if the district has a plan for how to respond to the effects of the repeal of net neutrality. He replied, “We had no impact before the change and from what I’m reading/seeing/hearing, the impact back may be just as little. This is a move to free market service, not the end of access. It’s high on my radar. I deal with the FCC almost monthly. I’m watching it.”

We all need to do more than watch. While there was no impact on schools before the net neutrality regulations, that does not mean broadband companies would not have moved in the direction of restricting access and speed.  If we remain passive, if we wait to react until there is a change that harms schools, our students will lose.

For information on the efforts of various state leaders to ensure net neutrality in Washington State, go here.

The Worldwide Woes of Rural Education

It’s no secret that there is a shortage of teachers entering the workforce in Washington (OSPI has a page on this). But have you seen the news from rural China? Recent articles explain how education in rural China is in a crisis. Due to the developmental divide between urban and rural areas, and the low wages for teachers, young Chinese teachers entering the profession have little incentive to work in rural areas, far from the conveniences of the larger towns and cities. Likewise, wealthier rural families send their children to schools in more urban areas for better opportunities. Meanwhile, the students who remain in rural schools suffer from ever-decreasing quality of education, high teacher turnover, and limited programs of instruction.

Yunnan Rice Fields

I wish these articles were as exotic and foreign to me as the locale would suggest, but, line after line, I kept seeing a parallel to my own teaching context.

First of all, Chinese villages are inconvenient, with transportation issues for students and teachers. Transportation is a problem in rural Lewis County, too. Some students who attend my small, rural school in Southwest Washington, ride the bus for more than an hour from their remote homes. And, teachers who want to eat at a nice restaurant, shop at a large store, or get the oil changed in their car will have to drive at least forty minutes from our little neighborhood. Okay, it is probably worse in rural China, but who wants to drive forty minutes for fast food?

Another parallel? Rural Chinese teachers have little or no social life. Likewise, although many young teachers take rural teaching jobs in our region, it takes very little time before they realize that these remote, depressed areas are not exactly conducive to meeting other young singles. They have to travel for socialization, and, let’s face it, first-year teachers don’t have the time or money for the traveling.

Yamdrok Lake, Tibet, China

Other Chinese programs have cropped up to create incentives for teachers and young college graduates, even if they have no long-term wish to teach at all. These young people are encouraged to “volunteer” to perform a service for less privileged populations. They often start out enthusiastic and effective, but rarely last as teachers. They are a temporary fix that leaves needy rural students feeling abandoned after a short time.

This is a problem in our school, too. We have several positions filled by people who would not normally qualify for the jobs. For instance, our secondary special education teacher is a long-term substitute without prior experience in special ed. This is her second year. That would be especially terrible, but we are lucky, and she is doing a super job. But how fair is it that someone is doing a job they were not trained to do, without receiving benefits? She doesn’t plan to stay in the job.

Riffe Lake, Mossyrock WA

Another program that China is developing is a pipeline for rural educators, starting with high school students. They are incentivizing young people, getting them to promise to work in rural areas in exchange for their college education. This is where the parallel ends. I wish we had incentives for young people in rural communities to go into teaching. Our rural county is lacking in high school programs for future educators (such as Recruiting Washington Teachers), and that is especially frustrating.

Look, it takes a certain kind of educator to work in a poor, rural area. We are remote. We lack conveniences. Plus, we have kids that need us desperately due to poverty, homelessness, and domestic issues. We have diverse populations with needs that are sometimes hard to meet with limited resources and staff. It is hard to come from somewhere else and fall in love with this community, despite its beauty and the charm of the people who live here. Candidates for teaching jobs need to be up to the challenge.

My idea of a solid solution is our own local pipeline. I can imagine some of my current students as future teachers in rural Washington. They would know what they were getting into. They would understand the rhythm of the place. They would know the people. They would speak the languages. They wouldn’t mind the drive “out town,” which is our particular colloquialism for the big cities of Chehalis and Centralia. These kids would be perfect for the jobs. And we need them- desperately.

Lewis County Blueberry Fields

But this is not China, and no one is offering them money to become teachers and come back home to teach. In fact, we struggle to get programs for these promising students to earn college credit in high school. Unlike most urban schools who can attract teachers with advanced degrees to teach college courses in a high school setting, our teachers are often teaching several subjects, some of them far removed from their original major. Like rural China, our best students leave us for the better offerings of larger towns, such as Running Start or schools that offer more AP courses, clubs, or arts programs.

So, despite having students who would be excellent future teachers, we are losing the opportunity to give them an early start on that journey, to win them over to the joys of rural education.

Because it is joyous.

It would take so little to solve so much. Before it is worse, before we seem even more like rural China, we need to get our policy leaders to incentivize the education of future rural teachers.

Making a safer classroom for students’ gender identities

On the first day of school this year, I asked my students – 6th graders – to write down their personal preferred pronouns on an index card, along with other info about themselves. I demonstrated writing mine (she/her) on the document camera, and gave other pronoun examples: he/him, they/theirs.

I got a few blank stares, and a few clarifying questions. Mostly I saw expressions that belied the feeling, “Uh, why are you asking me this?” (Or so I assume.)

I was posing this question to them because asking about others’ preferred pronouns has become common practice in more and more of the other spheres of my life. Why wouldn’t I introduce this practice in an art room, where I want to foster trust, and create a safe space for sharing essential aspects of ourselves?

As a cisgender woman (I identify as the same gender that I was assigned at birth), sometimes telling my pronouns feels tedious (“Nothing surprising here…”). But I agree with the idea that our society is a safer, better place for everyone when we all define and redefine our gender expression throughout our lives. 

My students are young – eleven years old, mostly. They are growing up in a world that has categories for gender expression that certainly weren’t available to me in my small town in the 90’s, when I was in 6th grade. Language is continually evolving and shifting as our collective understanding of gender shifts: labels like “gender-non-conforming,” “non-binary,” even “transgender,” are relatively new. The term “intersex” might not be new, but understanding of it as an identity is changing.

When I read students’ index cards later, I was touched by the fact that they simply did it – they wrote down their preferred pronouns, even if it felt like a “No duh,” and maybe that act, alone, got them thinking about gender in new ways. I regretted not having them share their pronouns with others in their table groups – that’s at least as important as telling me. I made a note to myself to do that part differently on the first day of school next year.

A few weeks later, we were watching a short video interview with the artist Louie Gong – he talks about his identities. This idea, that we all have many identities, was new to many of them. I used some examples, “Maybe you identify as a young person, as a Muslim, as a boy, as a skateboarder, as an East African.” The concept that identities are overlapping, and not necessarily fixed, connects to their understanding of their gender. You might be “he/him” today, and “they/them” next September.

I haven’t yet seen examples of students explicitly exploring their gender identities in their artwork, but then again: when was the last time I made artwork directly about my own identity as “female”? Maybe it’s creeping in, in their sketchbooks, or in questions I hear about whether the people in their drawings look “like a girl” or “like a boy”?

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction outlines the rights of WA state students around Gender Identity and Expression. “Students have the right to express their gender at school – within the constraints of the school’s dress code – without discrimination or harassment.” But how do we prevent discrimination and harassment?

Students also have a right to use restrooms and locker rooms “consistent with their gender identity.” A federal decision in 2016 requires all states to commit to these policies to protect transgender youth, or risk losing federal funding. 

My school has a single gender-neutral, single-occupancy bathroom available to students – it’s near the main office, and I used it one day last week. I noticed some discreet graffiti along the doorframe inside. “Hey queers.” “If you’re cis and straight, don’t use this bathroom.” I moved in to look closely and saw more. “I want to die” was followed by a suicide hotline number in different handwriting.

How do we develop students’ empathy and understanding for others’ gender expression, and for their own? A gender-neutral bathroom is a great start, institutionally, for protecting the needs of transgender students. I’m also heartened by the ways that queer students are showing up for each other – through sharpie messages on the walls, and otherwise. But we need classrooms, and hallways, and locker rooms that are safer and more welcoming of all of our unique gender expressions and bodies.

I’m looking for more ways to expand students’ understanding of their own gender identities, and I hope that creates more appreciation for others’ evolving selves.  

Two Chairs

Two chairs always sit outside my classroom door. Sometimes more; never one. It is my “office” where much of the real impact of being present with students happens. Here is where I meet, knee-to-knee, to talk with students about the worries and troubles of their lives; the things making them late for class, dull-eyed and even duller-spirited. Words between us are sometimes whispered, sometimes cried out in anguish and sometimes only said with the slow body language of a slight nod and downcast eyes.To write this blog, I flipped through my now two-decades-old book. In nice, quiet, rural America…

“Someone I love was raped last night at a party at our house. I want to beat up my father because he was too drunk to help her.”

“That guy my mom is dating? He keeps coming into my room at night.”

“I can’t breath when I am taking a test.”

“Those are cat scratches, I promise.”

As their teacher, I can help with the test anxiety issue. That I can do. Let’s talk about anxiety management.

The other “Big Three” sexual, physical and mental abuses. CPS calls made, perhaps an investigation. And then often nothing….Rarely do I see a child removed from their home. Far more often, the child’s world is disrupted for a moment and then it is back to life as normal.

It is obvious my students need a counselor for the trauma. But wait. We do not have one. Being a K-8 school, we are not required to even have one. Levy dollars would have to be spent to hire a counselor. Levy dollars in high poverty, rural schools are hard to come by. They are reserved for things like collapsing roofs and cracking foundations. These are things people understand and know how to fix. Mental health issues? Collapsing children with cracked foundations? Not so easy to understand. Or fix.

According to Washington State law, high schools are required to have at least one counselor. Apparently suicidal feelings, deep depressions, and good old garden-variety panic attacks are only for whose main concerns are dating and driver licenses. If only that were true. These issues, sadly, are in my book too.

There is not a lot of room for jealousy by the K-8 schools of high school counselors. According to the RCWs (, the role of a school counselor is defined by our state is “a professional educator who holds a valid school counselor certification as defined by the professional educator standards board. The purpose and role of the school counselor is to plan, organize, and deliver a comprehensive school guidance and counseling program that personalizes education and supports, promotes, and enhances the academic, personal, social, and career development of all students…” (emphasis added).

I just got the first of my own five children through high school and launched into college. I know what goes into that process. The job description of a school counselor? That is a tall order for ONE person to accomplish for sometimes over a thousand students. How could each student’s personal development be supported, promoted or even enhanced? How can they help those that are struggling the most when counselors are being asked to do all of the other tasks on their plate? What will be the result if they can’t?

Beginning in 1995, a long-term study called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, ( or ACE, explores just that question. It is composed of a simple questionnaire about negative incidents that may have occurred in childhood. The results showed that the higher the participant’s score on the ACE, the greater the risk of experiencing poor physical and mental health, and negative social consequences later in life, higher blood pressure, depression, and more prison time, just to name a few. Children who live in poverty are drowning in ACE. They do not even begin to have the resources they need to get to the surface of the water.

Back to my chairs. I am not a counselor. I cannot speak as a counselor. I can refer my students and their families to one. The nearest full time counselor is 31 miles away – about $36.00 a month just in gas to get there and back once a week. Life choices are often calculated in the cost of gas money, when every dollar is precious. The nearest counselor specializing in childhood trauma is 102 miles away.

It is often the same students sitting knee-to-knee with me. I speak with them. I tell them how their brains work, that the neuronal tracks they lay down now through the thoughts they CHOSE to think are what they will have to rely on throughout their lives. They must chose wisely, even when those around them may seemingly not be. I speak to them of their inherent worth simply because they exist, their strengths and the power that is theirs if they decide to claim it. I tell them they are NEVER at fault for what has happened to them. They are not the trauma they have experienced, but the survivor sitting in front of me. I speak with them, but not as a counselor.

Our rural children of poverty are facing issues that would pull many a well-adjusted adult under water. These are big things, painful things, things that are forming their lives and the world as they will forever see it. These are things over which they have no control and are drowning in. There must be better help for them beyond the life preserver of two little chairs outside a classroom.

The Discomfort of Learning—Plagiarism and Consequences

Recently students in a non-English language arts class turned in research papers worth a high percentage of their grade. Scoring the papers, their teacher found rampant plagiarism ranging from improper citing of sources to blatantly copying and pasting paragraphs of text from online sources without any citation at all.

My colleague who I will dub—Attentive-Responsible-Teacher (or Art)—followed our school’s handbook in regards to plagiarism. Art gave each student a zero on their paper, wrote up disciplinary referrals, and set parameters for students to try again. Because no one blatantly took an entire paper from another source and attempted to pass said paper off as their own, this teacher wanted students to learn from their mistake and have a chance to try again (at a 30% reduction).

Some parents and students came unglued.

Around 25% of the class had plagiarized sections in their papers and, according to Art, the responses from students ranged from taking full responsibility; to acknowledging poor note-taking strategies which led to the problem passages; to I never learned this.

After a flurry of emails, meetings, conferences and phone calls Art contacted me, as the English Department Chair, to clarify a few things.

Some students and parents argued their miss-cited papers landed in a gray area. That miss-citing sources is not the same as plagiarism. This is euphemism. Plagiarism, defined, is representing someone else’s words, image, etc. as one’s own. If a student includes a quote verbatim from a text without quote marks, they are graphically indicating those words are their own. Plagiarism.

It might be an honest mistake without mal-intent, but it is nonetheless a serious error deserving consequences. I spoke with a parent who felt the students should get to re-write the paper and still earn 100%, claiming that would make it a learning opportunity and not punishment. This contributed to an over-arching theme emerging from the conversations with parents and administrators: the students didn’t know they were plagiarizing so they can’t be punished for plagiarizing.

Of course they can. Just as I can get a speeding ticket when unaware of how fast I was driving, inadvertent plagiarism is not really a thing, but a rhetorical nicety created by parents and students to avoid the feeling of shame being called out as plagiarizers.  A natural human reaction.

Then it hit me, this situation was less about academic integrity than it was about failure. They failed something in such a way as to tarnish both their academic record (temporarily) and their personal integrity (also temporary, but I suspect it does not feel temporary).

From my teacher’s perspective, the academic learning opportunity is pretty clear. I hope they have a clearer sense of what constitutes academic plagiarism, and acts of academic plagiarism carry serious consequences (here a slight grade reduction, at University expulsion is on the list).

I also understand students and parents reacting to the culturally inherent fear of failure. The fact is, for learning to take place it must be uncomfortable and we must fail. As teachers, our job is not to make it more comfortable, but to respect students enough to walk them into discomfort, and not leave them there completely alone.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever come across for education, or for life, is from Samuel Beckett’s enigmatic story Worstward Ho! where his characters face continual abstract struggle: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

This advice applies to teachers and students alike. There are all kinds of failure, and when it comes to learning, it is necessary. The reality is teachers and students (and even parents) sometimes have to sit in discomfort for any development to take place. We all have to try again and continually attempt to fail better.


Right Book. Right Group. Right Time

I’d had my heart set on reading To Kill a Mockingbird to my current eighth graders since last spring. Thanks largely to Nancie Atwell’s influence (see The Reading Zone, 2007), I no longer assign whole class novels. Instead, read-alouds allow for an accessible whole class experience that supplements students’ independent reading. I know I am lucky to teach at a school where I am trusted to make such pedagogical and curricular decisions.

Although it had been a long time since I’d read it, I was confident that To Kill a Mockingbird would be a valuable literary experience. It would also offer opportunities to connect to and discuss current issues of racism and the justice system. When I revisited it, however, I noticed several challenges. There’s the matter of the narrator’s southern accent, which I knew I could not pull off. There is also dialect and the N-word. I prepped the kids for it, gave them a lot of contextual information, and decided to use an audio recording. Despite those efforts, the kids were disengaged. Whenever I paused for discussion, my usually opinionated and insightful students remained silent. After a couple of days, they asked me to abandon the audio recording and read it aloud myself. I tried, but they were still disengaged. At that point, Anisa said, “Jessie, we know this is a book you really like, but do you think you could choose a book that we would like?”

I grappled with that question for the rest of the day. Did we just need to give the book more time, or was it truly not the right book?

I remember the year I used David James Duncan’s The River Why with ninth graders. I had loved that book, and I was certain that everyone in a pre-Advanced Placement English class would love it too.  After all, what adolescents wouldn’t love a coming-of-age story full of humor, self-discovery, and romance? I could not have been more wrong. The kids hated it. They did not connect with the main character; the humor was too sophisticated. There was a near revolt.

My selection of Angela’s Ashes, on the other hand, was transformative for my juniors and seniors, who could both appreciate the humor and empathize with the depictions of extreme poverty. What had been a disconnected, disengaged group of students developed community and confidence. That was when I learned the power of the right book for the right group at the right time.

Are there some books that are universally the right book? Maybe. It seems that every group of seventh graders loves The Outsiders. But most of the time, I have to start with my group of students in mind, and search for the book that will be the right match. I had forgotten to do that when I selected To Kill a Mockingbird, and then, against my better judgment, I continued to put the curriculum ahead of the students. Anisa’s question gave me the jolt I needed to change course. The next morning, I told the kids that I valued To Kill a Mockingbird and hoped they would each choose to read it at some point, but I could see that it was not the right book for the class at this time.

Wanting to get us back into our read-aloud groove, I pivoted to Wonder by R.J. Palacio. It is engaging, but lacks the literary heft I know my students are ready for and need. During a discussion about what makes a book interesting, Yasmin mentioned Of Mice and Men as an example of a book that had a powerful emotional impact. Isaac and Steven agreed. Yasmin then bounced out of her seat, saying Of Mice and Men should be our next read aloud book. I looked at Isaac and Steven who nodded vigorously. I’d been considering Of Mice and Men. The students’ enthusiastic endorsement settled the matter.

I imagine that there are individuals who would see this course of events as a reason not to trust teachers’ professional judgment, and instead to centralize all decisions about instructional materials at the district or school board level. For me it has the opposite effect. It makes me think about the absurdity of individuals far removed from classrooms making decisions about text selections. If I, who know my students deeply, can occasionally make the wrong choice, how could it be alright to leave the decision making to individuals who don’t know my students at all?

In this age of teacher-proofing and mandated curricula, I am curious about other teachers’ experiences. Are you able to make decisions about what will be the right book for the group in front of you? How do top-down decisions about curricula affect your and your students’ experiences?

Oh, and if you have any middle school read-aloud recommendations, please pass those along too.

Creating Coherence

There’s a special kind of efficiency that happens when we’re able to see overlaps and connections. It is very easy to look at all of the demands upon us and see them as discrete and separate elements on a never-ending to-do list, but there is tremendous power in the pursuit of coherence.

One example: Student Growth Goals, Professional Growth Goals and Data.

We know that by law we all have to write and monitor student growth goals. I’m lucky to be in a district and building that gives us as teachers ownership of our goals, so we are empowered to design and implement growth goals that are meaningful to our students…not just for checking a TPEP box or demonstrating our compliance. In addition to student growth goals, we also have our professional growth goals we are expected to develop. If you’re on the comprehensive “all eight” evaluation (like I am), that means a small group student growth goal, a whole class student growth goal, a collaboration goal, and a professional growth goal.

Imagine if all of these things could be focused in a way that any data I gather serves to monitor all of these goals.

Here’s how I’m attempting to achieve this coherence:

I start by observing for a need. Those first weeks are critical for getting to know students as humans and as learners. Through observation and assessment, narrow my focus on a specific, high-leverage skill that I see as a gap in my kids’ academic performance.

Before I write their student growth goal, I consider the skills I want to develop. If I want to improve my students’ skills, I need to be deliberate about the practices I employ. Sure, I have some lessons from years past, but I want to consider what learning I need to do to enhance my practice around teaching this particular skill in a way that helps all students grow and improve. I explore some strategies, extend my own learning, and select a few specific teaching moves to try out. This becomes the seed of my professional growth goal.

Here’s where the unity starts to form: If I am going to change my practice, it should result in a change in student performance. Thus, I craft my professional growth goal and my student growth goal in the same block of text.

The core of my goal set, I nest “inward” for my small group goal. Within this skill, I have a subgroup who needs a bit more intervention. I expand my goal to address them and identify likely interventions.

Finally, I nest “outward” for my collaboration goal. Here’s the dirty little secret about collaboration goals: lots of teachers and administrators misinterpret what it takes to have proficient goals. The assumption is that my team and I have to have the same goals, use the same data, and demonstrate how we walk in lock step toward a common destination. Not so. If you read the actual rubric for 8.1sg, it is more about “playing nicely with others” than it is about everybody having to do the same thing the same way. So, I tag onto my goal how I plan to “play nicely.”

Here’s what my goal might end up looking like…it is long, but it is accomplishing multiple jobs, all the while letting me focus on just one:

By learning about building coherence in writing, I will improve my professional practice by trying at least two different scaffolds that help students achieve more coherent analytical writing. As a result, my students will be able to select and effectively use a pattern evidence to support a claim, as demonstrated in regular journal entries, formal literary analysis papers, and evaluation of informational text. By the end of the quarter, each student will increase by at least one level on the “Argument from Evidence” assessment scale. My subgroup will consist of the students who scored a Level One or lower on the first assessment. I will offer additional interventions (via targeted feedback and small group writing workshops) to assist these students to each increase by two levels on the scale. I will collaborate with my PLC to examine my goals during our every-other-week PLC meetings. I will share my assessments for feedback and we will examine student performance to strategize interventions as needed.

When the assessment data starts to roll in, I can now use the student’s performance not only to examine their growth, but also the impact that changes in my practice had on their growth. To me, that kinda seems like what the point was from the beginning. In the end, I write one comprehensive goal that represents a laser-like focus on improving my practice in order to improve student performance.

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Extra Eyes to See and Ears to Hear

You know how you don’t know what you don’t know until you realize you don’t know it?

Today I stepped into a role as “instructional coach.” My principal is trying a new thing with several of the leaders in the building—-getting a sub on Wednesdays to cover our classes so that we can support new teachers, conduct informal observations, and provide feedback to any teacher who want an extra set of ears and eyes in their classroom.

Non-evaluative, peer observation are what so many teachers beg for. Yet, with the except of instructional coaches, or a pop-ins by a dept chair there is little time for this type of collaboration. To contend with time constraints, many of the teachers I know are using #ObserveMe as a way to get the peer feedback and informal coaching they crave. This summer, Nate Bowling and I led in-school professional development where we shared the vision behind #ObserveMe. Teachers created their evaluation goals in conjunction with their #ObserveMe goals. I was #stoked.

Fast forward, due to some life stuff, our instructional coach is on hiatus and many of the teacher leaders in our building are stepping in to fill the large hole he left. So there I was, armed with flair pens, a clipboard, a schedule, and an observation tool. I left my students in the capable hands of my student teacher and I marched down to the first classroom.

Over the course of two and a half periods, I observed three full-time teachers and one student teacher. Each teacher had emailed me asking if I could come observe for x, y, and z. I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t expect to feel as emotional as I did through this process.

First, I was honored that these teachers wanted me in their classroom. They wanted to be better. They wanted an extra set of eyes and ears to see what they weren’t seeing and hear what they missed.

Second, I was moved by the passion I saw from these teachers. The love that they have for their students, their content, and our school motivates them to ask for help from a colleague.

Third, I was inspired by each of these teachers who were putting in work to make their classes more engaging, more relevant, and more real for their students.

I honestly struggled to complete my teacher moves/students moves chart because I just wanted to write things like “I love how the kids look at your with respect in their eyes” or “Even though the students were reluctant to do the song in Spanish with you, they all did it–and that’s a sign of respect for you, their peers, or at least resignation that they need to play along”. I tried to stay in the template and write benign questions like “how do you think blah blah blah”.

What stands out the most is my last visit of the morning. I popped into a Science classroom where the teacher is building a program modeled after the GRuB School. I kind of knew that there was a group of “at risk” young men and women working with this highly effective and passionate teacher to develop social/emotional skills that translate into academic skills such as being on time, attending classes, and doing homework. I knew that some of the students in this program were in my English classes. But I hadn’t put two and two together–I didn’t realize just how many of them I knew. I sat on the edge of the circle listening to students giving each other advice on real life issues from dealing with parents to handling annoying teachers or friends, I wanted to burst into tears. Actually, I did…later when I was alone. Although each of those students struggle to control their actions and choices in a world of chaos, I watched them respond each other with thoughtfulness. I saw them respond to the firm but loving redirection from the teacher. I saw my students in a new light.

Later, when they came to class, I felt like we had a secret. They knew that I knew something about them that I hadn’t known before. They also knew (I hope) that I would listen and support them in a way I might not have before.

I left school today unsure if I made a difference for the teachers I observed. I do know however, that these teachers made a difference to me.