Saturday, June 28, 2014

Practice What You Preach

As I left my town's carnival tonight and walked back to my car with my family, a man stopped me.  Clearly, he was trying to sell me on something- he had a clipboard in one hand and a few post cards
in another that I knew I would grab and throw into the closest garbage can I could find.  As I glanced at his signature-filled clipboard quickly trying to decide if I would stay or go, I noticed his tee-shirt.    The shirt was black and on the back was white letters inside a no-smoking sign kind of visual.  Inside the red circle with a  large slash through the middle were the words COMMON CORE.

Hmm, I thought. Let's hear what he has to say.  So I did.  He bragged about his candidate who needs a certain amount of signatures to get on the ballot. Not a Democrat.  Not a Republican.  One of the early opposers of the Common Core.  Starting a revolution against the Common Core in Connecticut and will probably get it abolished in CT.... yadda, yadda, yadda.  "So, Ma'am, will you sign our petition to get this candidate on the ballot?"

Disregarding my distaste for the term, Ma'am, (I clearly still look 21), I think I surprised the man with my response.

"Well,"  I started to say, "I can't sign your petition.  I don't agree with you or your tee-shirt."

Quickly the man's face hardened.  "You know you're in the 10% of the population," he quickly chided.

Frankly, I didn't know that.  If I had been prepared for a debate, which I was not, I might have questioned his statistic.  In Connecticut? In the nation?  Of parents?  Of educators?  10% of whom?

I didn't.  Instead, I offered a brief dialogue about how I don't believe that it's the standards that are the enemy, but rather the state testing and teacher evaluation being linked to it.  I mentioned my thinking that it's the misinterpretation about curriculum, instruction and assessment of these standards, by people like David Coleman and school leaders around this country, that misrepresent the CCSS document. Parents and policymakers, who are jumping on the anti-CCSS bandwagon, too, I believe are misinformed.  So I asked, "What is it about the CCSS that you don't like?"

My question stopped him in his tracks, and his answer made me realize at that moment that he was one of the thousands of anti-CCSS people who were making judgement without studying the facts, or even the document itself.

"I don't believe that the federal government should control the curriculum," was his answer.

Ah ha.  There it was.

People and parents, everywhere, you may have been misinformed.  I believe people everywhere need to think through the following points about the CCSS to inform your thinking before signing your name to petitions in any parking lot:

1.  The CCSS is not a curriculum.  The CCSS is a SET OF STANDARDS.  Rigorous?  YES.  Challenging?  Absolutely.  But it is not a curriculum.  The standards cannot tell you HOW to teach to them.  It cannot tell you what books to read  or write about (despite the appendix or some other publications that have been released).

2.  Standards are not new.  Standards have been in every state for many, many years.  Connected to those standards are state tests.  Yes, the mandates have changed about when and how often those state tests are delivered, but a set of standards is not new.  A set of standards that 40 states align to?  Yes, that's new.  But I think you'd be hard pressed to find someone who doesn't believe that kids in North Carolina shouldn't be held to the same standard as a student in California and Connecticut.  They are going into the same workforce, the same college pool, and the same world, right?

3.  There are flaws with any rollout of something new.  Within the next few years, the CCSS will be revised, as all new documents are.  How many amendments have been added to the Declaration of Independence, for example?  As we know more, we do better.  I believe this document is flawed.  But I don't believe that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak.  There are powerful, real issues with the CCSS and they will need to be revised (K-3 standards, to name a few).  But, I believe schools should be setting high standards for students to think critically to become lifelong learners and productive citizens. I believe students need the habits of mind to apply knowledge in their own lives to change our future.

4.  The CCSS has made teaching better if the district has manipulated the standards for what they are, not for what they are not.  I wrote a blog post last year about why I embrace the CCSS.  I've contemplated my thinking on it over this past year after the strong movement against the CCSS, but I remain steady that the CCSS is not the enemy.  The people who misinterpret it are.

Photo credits:
5.  The CCSS is a document that "spirals down" based on anchor standards in Reading, Writing, Speaking/Listening, Language, and Math to prepare children to be students who are College and Career Ready.  Page 7 of the ELA (English Language Arts) CCSS document online states the definition of a student who is College and Career Ready.

  • They demonstrate independence.  
  • They build strong content knowledge.  
  • They respond to the varying demands of  task, purpose and audience.  
  • They comprehend as well as critique.  
  • They value evidence.  
  • They use technology and digital media strategically and capably.  
  • They come to understand other perspectives and cultures.  

Dear Future Governor candidate that I wouldn't sign your petition today, what are you against?  

6.  The CCSS requires all teachers to be teachers of literacy.  Instead of ELA teachers being in complete control of children's reading, writing, speaking and listening, the CCSS holds ALL teachers accountable for literacy.  How does a scientist think about content in Science and write about it?  How does a historian read primary documents and make judgement about them?  The CCSS has started conversations about transferring skills across the day so students are thinking about literacy in new, authentic ways.  Yes.  We want students to transfer their skills across disciplines to apply their learning in relevant ways.

7.  The standardized test is not the CCSS.  There are issues with SBAC and PARCC, no doubt.  But
Photo courtesy of Scholastic
honestly, it's not a bad test--- at least based on the pilot that I've seen these past two years.  If you didn't want your child taking a bad test, they should have been opting out of the Connecticut Mastery Test that asked kids to make up evidence to support their point in persuasive essays.  The CMT editing and revising was the worst assessment I've ever seen and when we questioned it, we were told that we shouldn't be looking at the test (by the state).  No one opted out of that.  Is that real world?  Does that prepare them, or teach them, how to write? How to think?  Nope.  Will revisions need to be made to the new tests? Yes.  Is it ridiculously long?  Yes.  Do schools need support with the technology? You betcha.  But the testing isn't the CCSS.  The testing is the tool to measure understanding of the CCSS.  They're different.  Let's not confuse the two.

I'll concede that the CCSS have been misrepresented in schools.  Many believe the CCSS document is curriculum and they have butchered best practice to "align to standards."  Others have grabbed hold of it and mandated textbooks based on the Publisher's Criteria (which is ironic, by the way, because the document itself mentions that it cannot say how teachers should teach and yet the authors (Pimentel and Coleman) have made a lot of money doing just that).  Please don't confuse the standards to be curricula.  In fact, the standards themselves publish the following statement under the heading "What the Standards Are Not:"
The Standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach. For instance, the use of play with young children is not specified by the Standards, but it is welcome as a valuable activity in its own right and as a way to help students meet the expectations in this document. Furthermore, while the Standards make references to some particular forms of content, including mythology, foundational U.S. documents, and Shakespeare, they do not—indeed, cannot—enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The Standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum consistent with the expectations laid out in this document.  (CCSS, 2010)
The CCSS may transform schools.  It may.  It may force districts to think about instructional practices and methods.  It may bring up uncomfortable conversations in the parking lot of a carnival.  It may cause parents to think deeply about standardized tests and teacher evaluation plans.  It may force teachers and administrators to work together, strategically and systemically, to plan curriculum.  It may inspire 5,000 teachers to attend professional development at Teachers College (TCRWP) in New York City this summer over their own vacation to learn from each other and continue professional dialogues.  Maybe it will help students learn.  I say Bravo.  Let's have those hard conversations in the parking lot, in our Board meetings, PTA meetings, cocktail parties and in our schools.  Let's stay informed.  Because frankly, it's our future.

Yes, it is up to the local government and schools to push back and do the right thing.  The CCSS is not a curriculum. It's a set of standards.  Teachers should not be "graded" based on the standardized tests that are connected to very rigorous standards.  But that's not the CCSS.  Parents and people everywhere, let's not confuse the issues.  Let's fight the right fight.

No, sir. I won't sign your petition.  I don't even remember your candidate's name.  I wish I had jotted it down so I know not to vote for you.  I don't want a governor who puts people out on the field with that image on the front and back of their shirt.  I want a governor who understands the CCSS and wants to support schools in their attempts to reach the high standards.  I want to vote for a Governor who supports teachers and schools to transform learning in ways that help students succeed. Because I think that's what our future needs.  We need Governors who "delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims ... assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient;" and "recognize when irrelevant evidence is introduced" (CCSS, 2010).  Eighth graders can do it, and so should you, future Governor.   That's CCSS ELA Standard 8.8- Reading for Information: Integration of Knowledge and Ideas (8th standard in the 8th grade).  

I just ask that you, parents, policymakers, citizens, follow Standard 8.8 before you make judgement.  Let's "recognize irrelevant evidence" and make decisions based on credible and relevant sources.  The guy wearing a black shirt with Common Core crossed out on it may or may not be the best person to give you your information, but let's teach kids how to question and think through the issues.  Let's practice what we preach and fight the right fight to set the right example for our children.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Teaser of Upcoming Posts

Summer's here, my mind is clear, and I'm stirring up some blog posts for the next few weeks.  I've been at Teachers College Reading and Writing Project this week working on Information Writing, studying new middle school Units of Study, and learning from the best.  I can't wait to slow down and share it all with you.

Here is a teaser of some posts that I'm brewing:
Photo Credits to Heinemann 

  • A Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Roadmap to guide you through the new Units of Study 
  • A review and summary of my newest professional read, Uncommon Core by Michael Smith, Jeffrey Wilhelm and Deborah Appleman
  • Some thoughts about scaffolds and supports to guide all learners to move their writing forward from a session with Ali Marron 
  • Thinking through writing partners and information writing from my session with Mary Ehrenworth 
  • ...and a few other musings sandwiched in-between... 
Have a great weekend and happy summer!  

Friday, April 4, 2014

Slowing Down and Pulling Over

Photo by Jim Richardson from National Geographic
Driving back from our high school today from a tri-state consortium consultancy about how our district supports authentic intellectual work and listening (for the fourth time) to Donalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer on audio, I slowed down for a family of deer who spontaneously jumped across in front of the cars ahead of me.  I was a few cars back, so I inched slowly up to them, as I typically do. There are always more to follow.   To my left, I saw seven or eight of them, turned toward the road.  To my right, one.  Does he pass to join his friends?  Does he run up the hill?  Running across the road would be hard.  It's a busy street, and he would be taking a risk.  But his friends had made it, so perhaps he could, too.  They're waiting for him.   The deer on the left stood poised, not goating him along, just waiting.  One even nonchalantly dropped his head and started to nibble on the grass, as if to say, "I'll just eat here; no worries; take your time."

Donalyn Miller, at the same time, started talking about students taking risks with their book choices, and how we, as teachers need to create the environment for them to do so if we want to create lifelong readers.

I pulled over on the side of the busy street.  Maybe because I've literally been hit by a deer before, or maybe I wanted to see how this all played out, I'm not exactly sure. But it was worth it because the seven or eight deer on the left side of the street all sprinted across the road, to the right, and stood beside the sole deer.  And then they all crossed the busy road together, right in front of me.

Is it an animal instinct to stick up for one another?  To take risks for each other?  To guide one another?   And if so, where do we, as humans and as teachers, lose our way?

Every day, I feel like we are leaving colleagues behind, students behind.  We speed through the days and the weeks to cover the content and make sure that we are doing it all right.  We're doing a lot right.  But sometimes, we have to stop, graze, slow down, and take a risk to go to the other side and help our friends cross the street.  Help our colleagues overcome their fears to cross the street.  Help our students to cross the street.  Walk with them across the street to show them that it can be done.  We have to show them that we can do it side by side.  We are in this journey together.

Those deer who had made it across the street already, they waited for their friend.  And when he didn't come, or couldn't come, or was too afraid to come, they went and got him.  Maybe it's not as hard as we all make it seem to just do what's right.  

I am a coach, a literacy specialist, a teacher, a friend.  I need to be better at crossing the street side by side my students and my colleagues.  I want to do better and be better.  And so I will.  

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Damn You, Twitter... but Hello Sunshine!

I have digressed from an active Tweeter to a lurker since my second child, Jackson, was born.  In fact, Twitter, which once excited and inspired me to do better and be better makes me feel bad about myself these days.  I hear my inner voice saying, "You make yourself feel bad about yourself, Sarah, not Twitter," and that's true, but I blame Twitter.  I lurk online and see amazing chats, awesome conversations, and inspiring blog posts.  And then I feel bad
Photo Courtesy of Flicker.Com Sharing
about myself.  I'm at a place where I'm working hard to balance my duties as a wife, mom, daughter, sister, and friend.  Then, I try to balance all of that with another huge identity for me:  being a teacher.  A good one.  I'll be honest; for the first time, the lifelong learner in me is taking a break.  I order the texts that I want to read on Amazon, I really do.  I start them, but I can't finish them. I fall asleep.  It doesn't matter how miraculous they are or how well they are written. I can't keep my eyes open.  So I blame Twitter.  Why, you ask?  Well, for inspiring me buy the book because I love the authors and the Twitter Chats that I imagine I might be able to do one Monday, Wednesday or Thursday instead of feeding Jackson and putting Anna to bed.  And damn you, Twitter, for hosting these chats that force me to read the few pages that I can get through before I fall asleep reading it, and then feel badly about myself that I can't juggle it all.  Look, I'm just saying that Twitter makes me realize how much better I could and should be because I see how awesome educators are across this country, and I feel sad that I'm not part of it more frequently.   It's the mirror that I wish I could ignore.  And sometimes I do.  Then, add feelings of inadequacy about a blog that you can't possibly find the hours in the day to update as much as you want to and you get a real, true example of writer's block.  So that's where I am living:  between a state of frustration, inspiration, motivation, and sleep deprivation.  I'm right there in the middle.  

And then something wonderful happened.  Two followers of this blog world gave me a small shout-out through the rays of sunshine movement by nominating me for a Sunshine Award, and it made me feel loved for a moment.  For a moment, I was out of the middle.  Thank you for that.  Melanie Meehan of Two Reflective Teachers  inspires me with her knowledge,  zest for literacy, and skillful use of instructional strategies and Lisa Maples of Teaching with Technology teaches me how to apply that information with exciting technological advances.  I truly look forward to their blogs, and though I don't have time to interact with them on Twitter as much as I once did, I love to receive their emails every couple days to learn something new or validate something old.  Though it's taken a really long time to return the favor, I'm finally here to say thank you, and I would like to (albeit finally) complete the task and spread the sunshine.  

The specifics are:
1.  Acknowledge the nominating blogger(s).
2.  Share 11 random facts about yourself.
3.  Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger created for you.
4.  List 11 bloggers who inspire you.
5.  Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer and let all the bloggers know they’ve been nominated.  Don’t nominate a blogger who has nominated you.

And off we go.  Here are 11 random facts about me:  
  1. I am a mom of two beautiful children:  Anna (3) and Jackson (7 months) and a wife to an exceptional husband, father, and friend.  
  2. In eighth grade, my parents talked my best friend (Melanie) and me into trekking to Woodstock 94 with her older brother (Jeremy) and his best friend (Chris).  We obliged.  Though we weren't mud people, our tents were positioned right outside the mudslides. And, there's a picture of us in the Woodstock 94 CD.  We're the small specks in the middle.  On a side note, that "best friend" (Chris) ended up as my husband, though many, many years after Woodstock.  
  3. My grandfather, Donald B. MacMillan, was the original designer of the BlackHawk helicopter.  He was fired from Sikorsky shortly after because he went over his boss's head with the idea.  The big-boss liked it, his boss, not so much.  He never had a patent for it, and he died wishing that he could have some recognition for his work.  
  4. I have never smoked a cigarette. My grandmother died of emphysema when I was in sixth grade, and I was traumatized.   I vowed then to never smoke.  In fact, my essay was chosen to be read at DARE graduation about it.  I'm like the one true graduate of DARE's "Just Say No" program. Ha.  
  5. I'm obsessed with the Olympics.  Every two years, I become OCD-like obsessed.  Thank goodness for DVR during the Winter Olympics.  
  6. Until I was married, I slept with a very large stuffed mouse named Fievel.  He has traveled the world with me, though he's now tailless, pant less, shirtless, and very faded.  Now he sits on a shelf in Jackson's room, and some days I feel guilty about it.  
  7. I bleed blue and white. I graduated from Penn State in 2002.  While there, I danced on my feet with no sleep for 48 hours to benefit Penn State Dance Marathon (THON), which is the largest student-run philanthropy in the world to end childhood cancer.  One of the best experiences of my life during four of the best (or most fun) years of my life.  
  8. I hate leftovers.  Unless it's chicken fried rice, I won't eat them.  Though I struggle with cooking for only two, so there are always leftovers.  
  9. Both my parents and my husband's parents have been married for over 35 years.  We have great role models for love in our lives.  
  10. I believe that the gay-rights movement is the Civil Rights movement of our time.  I get physically nauseous when people argue about this on social media.  I do not engage because I can't control my anger about the issue, but I do not believe "ignorance is bliss."  I believe "ignorance is hurtful."
  11. I hate to exercise and diet.  If it were up to me, I'd be fat and happy.  Unfortunately, I've been fat, and I wasn't happy.  So I exercise.  And I'm actually learning to like it again.  Well, I am tolerating it.  For now.  

Melanie asked 11 questions, and here are my thoughts on each one:  
  1. If you were going to write a book, what would it be about?  This is a tough one. I've always wanted to write a book, and I hope that one day I'll have the time and confidence take a stab at it.  Sometimes I envision the book to be a satirical account of the classroom (David Sedaris like), with the intended audience being colleagues or parents.   I think it would be really funny.  I have some good stories, as we all do,  that are in my back pocket for that rainy day when I sit at my computer and start to pour them out.
  2. What is your most vivid memory from elementary school?  Interesting question.  This one really makes me pause.  Honestly, my most vivid memory was the time that I forgot my homework for the first time (and quite possibly the last).  I called my mom, who was home but lived 20 minutes from school, and cried, begged and pleaded for her to bring me the assignment.  She refused, and told me that I wouldn't forget it next time.  "It's your homework, not mine,"  she said.  I vividly remember standing in the cold white office on the pea green rotary phone in shock.  Tears followed.  Mean mom, right?  You might say so.  But, I don't have another memory of forgetting my homework! 
  3. What is your favorite question to ask during an interview?  I sit on a lot of interview committees and my favorite question is, "What is your favorite professional text that you have recently read, are currently reading, or would like to read next?"  I find it so telling.  I feel so strongly that we, as teachers, are reflective learners, and the types of books that people read (or don't read)  tells me so much about their goals, philosophies, and methods.  
  4. When you are busy--too busy--what is the first aspect of your life that suffers?  Great question.  I think the easy answer here is "me."  But isn't that true of all moms, and maybe even especially moms of teachers?  If I'm being totally truthful, though, it's not really "me"  as much as it is "my hobbies."  I love to be on Twitter chats and blogging, for example, but that's the area that has recently taken a back seat when I only get a half hour of kidless, diaperless, husbandless wakefulness.
  5. What is your favorite store?  Target.  Hands down.  My husband has banned me.  I go in looking to pick up some mayo, end up buying $200 worth of (what can only be described as useless) crap, and then have to stop at the store on my way home for mayo.  ;)
  6. If you could go anywhere on vacation, all expenses paid, where would you go and why?  I have wanted to go to Napa or Tuscany for so long.  It was supposed to be my 30th birthday present to myself and then I ended up pregnant.  Then it was going to be a maternity leave "push present" but we couldn't afford it (and I didn't want to leave the kids for that long).  Do I really need to answer why?  It's Tuscany!  Napa!  Wine, anyone?
  7. At the end of the day, what are you most likely to say to yourself?  "Good work, you made it."
  8. When something goes really well at work, who are you most likely to tell and why?  My husband is my best friend and confidant about all work related things.  He's a great partner, and he shares the highs and lows of work with me on a daily basis, even if his eyes are on his iPhone while I tell the longwinded story (brevity is not my expertise).  
  9. Same question as 8, but when something goes really badly?  Same answer as question 8.  :)
  10. What is your favorite poem?  I can still recite most Shel Silverstein poems from my elementary school days.  I love him, as juvenile as his poetry may be.  Honestly, my favorite "poem" is "Oh the Places You'll Go" (which is also a book) by Dr. Suess.  I read it to my eighth graders each year, and I hope that they will forever move mountains.  
  11. Who was your favorite teacher up until college and why?  I feel so fortunate that I've had such wonderful educational experiences over the years, and I've loved many teachers along the way.  But, the "favorite teacher award" has to go to my kindergarten and first grade teachers:  Mrs. Hobart and Mrs. Emerich.  While Mrs. Smith helped me learn how to write creatively in sixth grade and Mrs. Dopslaff taught me how to  analyze Hemingway in high school (which ultimately led me to become a teacher of literature) it was Mrs. Hobart and Mrs. Emerich who instilled a love for school and learning from the start.  Right out of the gates, I loved learning, and it's due to their encouragement and care.  My sister is a kindergarten teacher now, and I love that she will inspire gaggles of other little kids to be little lifelong learners like Mrs. Hobart and Mrs. Emerich did for me.

Eleven Bloggers Who Inspire Me: 

Please, bloggers, don't feel pressure to complete this task unless you have the desire to do so. I follow many blogs that have surely been nominated before.  Nonetheless, I hope this will bring a smile to your evening or morning.  

  1. First and foremost, I must nominate Melanie Swider of Two Reflective Teachers. Especially since I can't nominate Melanie Meehan, her partner,  I know I must give credit where credit is due to Melanie Swider.  She doesn't have to respond, but she should know that she's partly responsible for my blog.  She made a blog seem possible as we walked down Amsterdam Avenue a few summers ago, and her (their) blog inspires me every day.  
  2. Chris Lehman's blog is my go-to source for all things literacy.   So much of my learning comes from Chris.  Every post and every tweet is thoughtful and important.  Other than Lucy Calkins, I think Chris Lehman may be the other voice in my ear as I strive to be better and do better as a literacy specialist.  He's the consummate professional and educator and I have the greatest respect for his work.
  3. Kate and Maggie Roberts of Indent motivate me to be a better teacher. I know that she's been nominated already, but I wouldn't be true to myself if I didn't recognize these amazing educators.  Through the Vimeo videos, professional texts (most recently the co-authored text, Fall in Love With Close Reading) and through their blog, I reference their work on a daily basis as I coach teachers and converse about workshop.  Just. Plain. Amazing.
  4. I echo Melanie's words.  Stacey Shubitz, along with the rest of the bloggers of Two Writing Teachers are the definition of reflective educators and writers.   Though I don't engage in their amazing community as much as I would like, their posts keep me energized to read, write, and learn on a daily basis.
  5. Though there's been a changing of the guard this year, I love to read The Nerdy Book Club blog.  It's as simple as that.    Lots of great ideas, great reading, and great conversations happen here, and it's a blog that I frequently recommend to other professionals who are avid readers.
  6. Granted... And.  Grant Wiggins is a guru of curriculum design and his blog posts are ones that I have to sit in a quiet place and read with a pencil in hand.  The content is deep, meaningful, and thought provoking at its least.  As a curriculum writer, I live with Grant's words as I develop curriculum to inspire and challenge teachers to tap into student potential.  
  7. Though not really a "blogger" per se, I would be remiss to not include Chartums.  I visit the blog weekly, if not daily, for new ideas and shared resources.  I love to share the charts with teachers to challenge them to improve the learning environment for our middle school.  
  8. Another resource that I frequently point teachers to is the Teach Mentor Texts blog.  It's pretty self explanatory, but this site is updated so frequently with amazing new texts that teachers can use to teach craft, elaboration and structure in narrative, information, and argument writing.  
  9. Cool Cat Teacher is a fun and energetic blog where I steal so many teaching ideas.  Vicki Davis is the author and every time that I go to her blog, I have an ah-ha or "why didn't I think of that?" moment.  Just flawless.
  10. I'm not supposed to nominate Teaching with Technology blogger, Lisa Maples, because she tagged me earlier this winter, but I can't help it. I love her blog and I glean so many exciting ideas from what she shares.  
  11. Last, but certainly not least, I must give credit to my friend, Art's, blog.  Though I secretly hate him for leaving me and "retiring" last year, I find him to be a colleague that inspires me to think deeply and meaningfully.  His blog is a math one, yet it always forces me (and more importantly, students) to think outside my/our comfort zone(s).  Isn't that what good teaching does?  And for that, and many other reasons, too, I love him.  
And my eleven questions that I pose:  
  1. If you could be an Olympian, what sport would you choose?  Why?  (I may or may not be watching the Olympics right now)
  2. What author do you "follow"?  (Perhaps you have read three or more books that they have published?)  What kind of writing is this?
  3. If a student was about to enlist in the military, what would be the one last sentence that you would send them off with?  
  4. What is your favorite professional text that you have recently read, are currently reading, or would like to read next?
  5. If you could live anywhere in the world for just one year, where would it be?  Why?  
  6. What was/is the hardest obstacle that you have overcome?  What advice would you give to someone trying to overcome the same one?  
  7. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice that you would apply, what would it be?  
  8. Do you wish your family was bigger or smaller?  Why?   
  9. What ONE thing do you feel should be changed in your school?  Is it possible to change it? 
  10. If you had to define your life in one word, what one word would you choose? 
  11. What is your favorite type of music?  What is your favorite artist within that type of music?  
Whoa, that was a lot.  I made it.  Did you?  I know that many of the bloggers above have been nominated for this before, and perhaps the window of Sunshine Awards has passed.  But I do hope that the nomination has made you smile, if even just for a couple seconds, and bring you some sunshine on these snowy, cold days.  And for those of you who have made it here, thank you for following this blog. I promise to be better. I do.  And, thank you, Melanie, for nominating me and for believing in me, too.  

Friday, December 13, 2013

It's Personal

While I'm just drafting this blog post now, I've written it about one hundred and fifty times in my head over the course of the last year, and more specifically, week.  Maybe it's because Newtown is
right next door, or maybe it's because my sister is a teacher at Sandy Hook that I feel so connected to what happened on December 14th last year.  I get chills when I think about the moments leading up to the phone call that changed our lives forever.   Over the past year, I've run the gammet of emotions:  sadness, more sadness, and grief; powerlessness; anger, lots of that; fear; frustration; and of course... in my case, relief, which has, at times, also led to guilt.

I've never really wanted this blog to be personal, because that's not its purpose.  I created this blog a little over a year ago in order to continue my own learning, share new learning, and stay connected to the wonderful educational blogging and Twitter community that I so admire.  For example, one of my favorite blog posts is by Kate Roberts (TCRWP staff developer extraordinaire, co-author of the fabulous blog Indent,  and most recently, co author of the amazing book:  Fall in Love with Close Reading) and it is about how we can (and should) "close read" our lives around us.  I think of her words often as I pay close attention to the happenings of my day and how they impact my feelings or perspective.  This morning was no exception, and while I finally pen this post that I've been writing in my head over and over this past week, I realize more than ever that I have to make this blog post personal, because teaching is personal.  I can't separate the two.  

I pulled into Dunkin Donuts this morning, my usual stop on my way to school.  There were nine cars in the parking lot and eight of them had a green ribbon sticker, or perhaps magnet, on the back of their cars.  Eight.  It made me pause to realize how many people, particularly in this area I think, but all over the world, too, publicly support the teachers, staff, and families of Sandy Hook.  Two cars had stick figure families on the back of their windows too, but the rest of them were empty;  just the green ribbon decorated the back of the cars.  Sporting my green nail polish and wearing my green shirt,  I hustled inside with the cold December air nipping my nose.  The same crew was working behind the counter, and the same retired guys were sitting at the tables sipping their (probably cold by now) drinks.  To them, this was probably just another day.  The back of their car showed a symbol of support, but their days would probably go on just like they would any other Friday.   They might talk about Sandy Hook today and tomorrow as it is splashed all across the television and radio stations again, or maybe they'll reflect silently about the sadness that they feel or the friend that they knew who knew a family member.  And then they'll go on with their day.  I found myself feeling jealous of their carefree morning. 

Ironically, I don't have a sticker on the back of my car.  My sister gave me one that I displayed proudly, but when I traded my old car in and drove my new car away, I left the magnet behind.  At the time, I called her desperately looking for a new one, but it hasn't made it onto the back of my new car.  This morning, as I stepped back into my car, I closed the door and without warning, tears started streaming down my cheeks.  Maybe it's because I wished for a sticker on the back of my car so that the next car would drive in and see ten cars in the parking lot and nine (not eight) of them showing support to Sandy Hook today.  Or maybe it's because I want to be able to go on with my day today like those retired men in Dunkin Donuts will, just thinking of this day as another day where something bad happened to someone else.  It was probably because each sticker that I see, each green ribbon that I notice reminds me of the twenty six innocent people who went to school one day and never came home.  And then I go there... I go to the place where I think of the parents, and the families, and the friends, and the little, little, little kids.  And I think of the survivors. I always, always think of them, too.  The little kids who saw and heard too much that day.  The teachers who tried to protect them with every ounce of their being by standing or sitting in front of them, reading to them, talking with them, and herding them to safety.  This morning,  I don't know exactly why I cried; I just did. 

And then I pulled it together.  I walked into school, smiled at students, and prepared for the day.  Because while teaching is personal, it also requires us, as teachers and adults, to stay strong.

I want to write a thank you to the Sandy Hook teacher.  I'm a teacher, and if you're reading this, you're probably a teacher, too.  Since we're all teachers, or parents, or friends, or just human beings, we think of December 14th with a lens that is forever changed. We think of our jobs differently; we think of our kids differently.  I'm more fearful than I was a year ago today.  I'm more grateful, too.  I'm less cynical and try to listen more. I'm thankful to the Sandy Hook teacher for staying strong through the hardest year of their lives to show us, the world, how very special and important teaching really is.  They remind us that teaching is about kids.  Teaching is about growing minds, growing stories, and growing up.  Sandy Hook teachers are walking the halls of their school today, yesterday, and tomorrow doing what you and I know must feel completely impossible:  making it through the day, and, not just today, but every day... for the kids.   That's strength.  And it's personal.  When they smile at a student like I nonchalantly did this morning, they are hiding the pain that they feel for the students and staff who can't smile back.  They go into their classrooms and continue to grow minds every day despite how hard it feels. 

And while I'm closely reading things around me, it doesn't fall on blind eyes to me that a snow storm is expected December 14th into December 15th.  It's as the universe is saying, "You've been strong through the storm of your life.  Stay home for this one and take care of yourself." And I hope that's what every Sandy Hook teacher and Newtown family does.  I hope they cuddle up with those that they love and love them and feel... whatever they want to feel.  And if they want to cry, I hope they do that too. A lot of it.   

Teaching is personal.  Reading is personal.  Writing is personal.  And so, today, this blog is personal.  David Coleman, a self-proclaimed architect of the CCSS, may think that no one gives a sh*t about what I have to say or think, but I don't agree. Some of my closest friends have left teaching because they feel we've lost the "personal".  I sure hope not, because schools need personal.  Life is personal.  Sure, we have to consider other perspectives and our audience when we read and write so that our message is clear and insightful for the given purpose, but it is personal.  What those teachers did on that day... every single one of them, not just the ones receiving the 'glamorous' awards...  is personal.  And today, I salute them.  I bet they walk through those front doors today, shut their classroom door and sob.  Maybe they won't know exactly why they're sobbing, or maybe they will.  Then they'll clear their eyes, check their mascara in the mirror, and open their doors with a smile.  They are thinking of their audience and they are thinking of those kids.   That's personal, and that's life.  Thank you, Sandy Hook teachers, for being so strong this past year, and showing all of us that it's okay for teaching to be more than a string of standards and text books.  Thank you for showing how personal teaching really is. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Newsela: A Valuable Teaching Tool

At our middle school, like all others in the nation I'm sure, we are on an endless search for thought provoking, authentic texts to engage students. It is rare to find our search: non-fiction texts that could be used as mentors to teach nonfiction text structures within the relevant content focus. Oh, and we want it to be authentic and engaging, too.   It's even harder to find texts that support differentiated reading levels for all learners in the classroom while maintaining curriculum content standards. Our curriculum (and the CCSS) calls for students to engage with and analyze relevant, rigorous, complex texts that are authentic to students' lives.  It seems impossible.

Photo credit:

Then one of our social studies teachers found this amazing resource called Newsela.  Have you tried it?  The site claims, "Newsela is an innovative way for students to build reading comprehension with nonfiction that's always relevant: daily news. It's easy and amazing. And I actually agree!  It IS an innovative way to build comprehension, and it IS easy and amazing!  Oh, and it's free!  The site contains hundreds of current events in the form of news articles.  Authentic texts from newspapers across the country are adapted to read at a variety of Lexile levels.  Each article has at least four Lexile levels to make the same article more or less difficult based on vocabulary and text structure.  The evidence (quotes, statistics, etc) and bias stay the same, but the sentence patterns and vocabulary adapt to the differing levels.   I've viewed articles with levels ranging from 580 all the way up to 1200.  This allows for teachers to truly use the texts as mentors to teach skills (citations, multiple sources, bias, note taking, text structures, non-fiction text, perspective, etc, etc, etc.) at differentiated reading levels.  Brilliant.

The site contains a student and teacher portal to allow teachers to limit or provide as much or as little access to students as they wish.   Students log onto the site and can be assigned reading(s), or they can search for topics themselves.  The teacher can assign a Lexile or allow students to choose their own.  They can even annotate the text right there in the article.   I don't know about you, but we're always looking for ways to give students experience with a close reading and annotation of online text (instead of scanning) to prepare them for the "screen reading" of the upcoming SBAC assessment.

Of course the articles are one just piece to the complex puzzle.  Though the site bolsters the tagline, "Read closely, think critically, be worldly,"  we all know that the instruction is what matters.  Newsela is just another website claiming to align to the CCSS if teachers don't take advantage of its features in new, exciting ways to engage students.  That said,  Newsela's implementation and the benefits of its articles in a middle school content area classroom are limitless. Aside from the "cool" technology features, the instructional possibilities are endless, too.  Content area teachers can differentiate text levels using the same concept with an essential question, which allows all students to access current event articles.  This is where good, accountable talk can occur, leading to powerful argument writing later.  Teachers can spend their instructional effort enhancing skills and promoting conversations with relevant content.  I even envision genre study lessons where students are asked to level the texts easier or harder by studying different levels on the site to help them identify sentence structure patterns, vocabulary and text structure patterns.  If we add the site and good instruction together, it could lead to powerful, exciting student performance.

If nothing else, the articles are interesting and relevant for students (and adults!). They are fairly short
Photo credit to Cynthia Boris
and can be devoured in a single sitting. Or, they can be revisited for a close read.  In fact, I've found that kids want to read the articles more than once, or they click on the "you might like these articles" samples to continue reading about topics that they enjoy.  More non-fiction reading? Sign us up!

When students have difficulty reading a shared text, they seem much quicker to breakdown, become apathetic, and/or disengage.  Newsela, partnered with good teaching, breaks down those barriers and allows all readers to engage critical thinking with their peers through relevant, authentic sources. When a student struggles to read, it doesn't mean that they struggle to think.  This site provides the opportunity for students to access text that may develop with peers into deep, relevant conversations to prepare students to be educated, independent, critical thinkers.  And at the end of the day, isn't that's what it's all about?  Read closely, think critically, be worldy.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Skip the PowerPoint!

I recently had a content area teacher come to me for help with non-fiction literacy and research projects.  Brilliant, I thought.  I immediately got to work looking for the best strategies around to help kids research and take notes.  When we reviewed some tried-and-true-lessons to experiment in her upcoming unit, (ones that I have pilfered from Chris Lehman's book, Energize Research Reading and Writing) she assured me that she doesn't have the time for that kind of depth.  She just wanted the kids to know one topic well.  Then,  I went into her classroom and saw one full week scheduled to present research through PowerPoint.

Photo courtesy of
Have you ever seen a middle schooler present a PowerPoint?  It's painful.  Really, truly painful.   And trust me, the kids in the audience feel the same way- except for the fact that it's a free week of no- homework and they can just zone out during class and be thinkless for 45 minutes (I might have just made up the word thinkless, but I can't find another word to replace it, and so I'm going with it).  And yet a full week of instruction… valuable time... was being devoted JUST to the presentations.  Two other weeks were given to the research and construction of the group project.

In middle school (well, our middle school), the go-to choice for projects is PowerPoint; students and teachers alike seem to love its prospects.  The perfect culmination to a content area study:  create a project to present to your peers and teacher to show your learning on a topic (which doesn't really interest you, either, but it's part of the topic study).   Teachers like it because it makes them feel like they are integrating technology.  Some even go as far as to say that they are teaching kids life lessons by using/teaching PowerPoint.  As a support teacher, I watch kids gravitate to the PowerPoint choice because it's easy, and frankly, doesn't require a lick of research.  So, kids love it.  I hate it.

Wait, before you get angry… Let me explain.

Picture this:  Student,  "Chris" and his partner, "Billy",  have been "researching" for two weeks, (which was really one day and playing on the animation of their Powerpoint for two weeks) and they stand up in the front of the room to present.  Since this project doesn't include a group grade  (who can get away with that nowadays?), Chris and Billy haven't actually worked together on the project.  Sure, they did some planning early on about who would take responsibility for the different slides based on the requirements listed in the rubric, but they don't REALLY do the research.  So then, based on the slides that are assigned to them, let's say… "what a whale shark looks like", they just research the whale shark's physical appearance.  So when they get to the beautiful graphic in the non-fiction text that describes the whale shark's eating habits, they breeze over it because it doesn't pertain to them…  Chris is doing the "diet" part of the rubric, Billy would argue.  Neither Chris nor Billy dig deep enough to recognize (or realize) that the diet of a whale shark is directly related to its physical appearance. Because, honestly, they're not reading. They're not researching, but rather, they're plugging in requirements to share with the class.  So, they stand up to present their beautifully animated and decorated PowerPoint, but neither of them actually know anything of what they're talking about. In fact, the background on the whale shark's feature slide is bright pink and the letters have a rainbow WordArt pattern.   They stand in front of the pretty SMART board and bore the class by reading bullets from the slide, facing the screen.  Actually, if Billy and Chris used bullets, and not full sentences on their slides, they're far ahead of some other presentations.  Sure, Billy and Chris may not be the exceptional example, but they are the norm.

The teacher is furious.  What have you been doing with class time the last few weeks, she quips?  Though the students have the right amount of slides, and technically they have the information necessary, they don't actually know their content and so their presentation flops.  The teacher is genuinely frustrated, looking for help, because the kids "can't" research.

And so the cycle continues, which brings me to my point.  Finally.

Skip the PowerPoint.  Get rid of it.  Don't allow it.  It's the lowest form of technology possible in today's day in age, anyway.  Kids could do it in their sleep.  It is the anti-research.   Even corporations hate it nowadays.  Look here!  People beyond education are shunning the once cutting-edge technology.  If our goal is to create thinkers that are college and career ready (independent, critical thinkers), we have to teach them how to convey meaning with interest, not read off of a PowerPoint slide.

If you really want to teach PowerPoint, you have to teach the presentation skills within your unit.  You have to teach kids how to present.  You have to teach symbolism:  how do objects in your presentation bring meaning to it?  How do they enhance it? How do the words make your argument stronger?  You'll need mentor texts and shared examples. You'll need to model presentation strategies and name the kinds of methods used in the presentations.  And you can't end there.  You have to show kids that the animation matters.  If the words float in, spin in circles, and jump back to make the audience laugh, then the topic shouldn't be about the veterans of World War II or the horrible effects of the e-Coli bacterium.

But you don't want to do that. That's even more time!  So don't.  Skip it and teach the real stuff. Looking for time?   Skip the three weeks of fluff and spend your time teaching kids what matters.  Teach kids how to find topics that matter.  Teach kids how to take notes on those topics.  Show kids how to talk about the subtopics that are important.  Teach about text patterns and word choices.  Show kids how every single word and picture in a diagram of non-fiction text gives you a new, significant piece of information.

Please don't misinterpret me:  I'm not downplaying presentation skills. We've all sat in enough horrible professional development to know that presentation skills are essential and important in today's fast paced, quick world.  So if that's your goal and your essential question, go for it.  But if the purpose is not the PowerPoint itself, but the content and the research, skip it. Presentation skills are only necessary to present information that has been researched.  Not just researched, or copied into bullets on a slide, but really understood.  That's what its purpose should be.  The research should be the point-- not just the product.  Teach kids how to understand.  Teach kids how to think.  Show kids how to present.

So let's put weight where weight needs to be.  Instead of checking off what needs to be included in the product, let's teach about the important symbols necessary to make an impact on an audience that will convey meaning and get kids excited about learning.   You'll find the time by skipping the PowerPoint. I'd be willing to bet that if we teach kids how to read the text correctly to do the research, they'll blow us away with their use of technology to present their ideas.  I know it can be done. I've seen it.  We need to find the time in the right places.

Do I use PowerPoint?  I sure do.  And sometimes, when I'm delivering PD, I get carried away (like I clearly often do), and the PowerPoint keeps me on track to finish on time.  Every word has been carefully placed to send a message, to convey my purpose.  Each picture relates to the meaning of the presentation.  There is a place for PowerPoint… I argue that its place, however, is not in the middle school classroom.  We just don't have time to be thinkless.  

Monday, December 2, 2013

Committing to Writing… and Running

Button courtesy of Chris Lehman's Blog

After five wonderful, sloppy, lazy months of wearing sweatpants and jeans on maternity leave, I dusted off my dress and boots and (reluctantly) dragged myself back into work today.  Even though I'm always thinking and reading (LOVED a few new, great books that I've devoured that I'll post soon)… I haven't physically stepped foot into the school in many, many weeks, and I'll admit that it felt darn good to actually be away and be fully present with my growing family.

But, I have a lot of catching up to do:  Twitter, blogging, SLO's, CCSS, and overall working.   So when I saw Chris Lehman's post about making a commitment to SOMETHING for fifty days, this blog came right to my mind.  Writing these posts and being engaged in the educational Twitter community makes me feel strong, and so I'm going to give it a try… again.  I'll take some days off, don't get me wrong, but I'm going to give it my best effort to create strong posts in fifty days (though not consecutively, I must admit).

Oh, and as all resolutions go, I'm going to lose 15 pounds in 50 days, too. But that's a different story.

Thanks, Chris, for the motivation!

I've had a severe case of writer's block.  What could I possibly share that others could glean, I wondered?  Every word was stressful.  I'll try to put that aside and just get writing. Maybe I'll get strength for my posts while on the treadmill or eating my healthy fruit.  Either way, I'm going to be here as often as I possibly can.  Hope you'll join me!  #nerdlution

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Where Have You Been?

Photo credits to:
Teaching is damn hard.  The good, reflective kind:  it's really hard.  I don't care what anyone says about summers off, easy hours, tenure, job security, blah, blah, blah.  People who fight that fight have never been in the classroom to fight the fight that we're fighting.  If you are doing it right, it's just plain hard.  That's where I've been.

I've been teaching.  Teaching middle schoolers, teaching teachers, teaching myself.  We've been close reading, writing about reading, answering text-dependent questions, examining non fiction, completing performance tasks, debating, arguing, and writing about those debates and arguments.  We're researching, citing, and reflecting.  Whatever the CCSS buzz word is, we're teaching it. We're doing it.

I've been reflecting.  Each time I don't see a student moving forward, I pore through another book, another strategy, another method to try to find another strategy to reach that student.  When a lesson goes so-so, I run, no sprint, back to the drawing board to find ways to engage, inspire, and guide our learners.  Maybe it's technology that will do the trick?  Was I talking too much?  Did I set the purpose for learning?  Is the lesson, or assignment relevant, authentic, rigorous?  Am I reaching each learner in their zone of proximal development?  Am I fostering independence?  Why am I working harder than them???

So, I've been reading.  Boy, have I been reading.  Donna Santman's new book, Shades of Meaning, was a great, quick inspiration.  I'm navigating my way though the brilliant Randy Bomer's newest masterpiece, Building Adolescent Literacy in Today's English Classrooms.  I finally made it through Professional Capital by Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fuller and I also finished Teaching Argument Writing by George Hillocks, Jr.  After hearing Kylene Beers speak at TC's February Content Area Institute, I ran out and devoured Notice and Note, her genius take on close reading.  Some of my favorite bloggers and educators like Chris Lehman, Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts, the Melanies of Two Reflective Teachers, Grant Wiggins, Choice Literacy and Education Week  keep me on my toes as their writing and teaching inspire me every day.

Oh, and I'm six months pregnant.  So I've been sleeping.  And eating.  I've been doing a lot of eating.

But now I'm blogging.  And I'm back.  Nine inches of snow fell on my lawn yesterday, and today the birds are chirping.   I've been away for too long.  Teaching is damn hard, but teaching, reflecting, reading and then blogging:  well, it's damn energizing, too.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

True Heroes

On Friday morning, around 9:30 AM, I brought up some Christmas presents, wrapping paper, and supplies to wrap some gifts with my two year old daughter, whose cold and slight fever had kept me home from school for the day.  I had just finished my first masterpiece when the phone rang.  My husband, from his newsfeed at work, had just received word that there was a school shooting at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut.  My heart sank.  "What?" I gasped.   I called my sister, Beth.  It was just after 9:50 and she didn't pick up.  I quickly hung up the phone to call my mom, a nurse at Danbury Hospital, the closest hospital to the school.

She picked up cheerfully until she heard the desperation in my voice.  "Mom, have you heard from Beth?"  I asked, shaking and pacing around my kitchen.

"Nooo, why?"

"There's been a shooting at her school and I can't reach her."

And so it began.

We were one of the lucky ones.  Within an hour, I had a text message from Beth that she was OK.  Her husband, Matt, had raced up there to be with her, and she was safe.

Safe.  What does that word even mean to her anymore?  Does that mean that she can walk back into the school without memories of crouching in a corner with sixteen second graders, praying that the jiggling of the door handle wasn't going to result in gunfire in her classroom?  Can she hear the sound of the loudspeaker begin again without imagining what she heard and experienced on that day?

I drove there to hug Beth.  I knew she would be scared, and honestly, so was I.  At that time, the world didn't know the gravity of the situation, but as I walked toward the firehouse, I sensed it.  Media vans lined the side of the little road, yet there was just silence.  The heels of my boots clicking on the pavement was the only sound, second to the chilling roar of the helicopters above.  As I entered the firehouse, I wrapped my arms around Beth.  I was relieved; she was broken.  Then families were searching for their children.  Staff members were embracing their loved ones.  A fireman was on the phone, tears streaming down his face.

Our story is one of relief, but there were so many, too many, stories yesterday and today that ended in complete and utter destruction.   I have a broken heart every moment of every day for the parents of the children who were so unfairly taken early in a place of solace and care of a first grade classroom.  I honor the staff who bravely protected children and perished to shield them.  I pray for the staff, that they can heal together and rise up against the evil that they so painstakingly experienced.  A long road ahead of healing exists for too, too many souls in Newtown and through our surrounding area.

Every story that I have heard from Beth's colleagues sounds the same.  Their first priority was to protect those kids.  They were holding doors closed, huddling in corners, singing to their students, calming the kids down, hiding them in closets, bathrooms, storage closets and under cubbies.  They are all heroes.  True, honest heroes.  What they heard and saw yesterday morning has forever changed them, and I pray that their hearts will heal.

I am numb from sadness, as I think we all are, but I can't help but think about Beth, her colleagues, and the Sandy Hook community.  The pictures that you see on the news--- those are their friends and colleagues.  Their children.  Their students.  Their families.  Every time the news shows a picture of someone crying, wounds are reopened.  Yet, they cling to the news for more information--- to piece together a story and try to make sense of why their little community was rocked to the core by such evil and hatred.   The terror that we watch on the news and can only imagine, they lived it, and they are living it every moment of every day.   I can appreciate and respect the heated conversations about gun control and mental health on the news as people try to wrap their heads around how this could have happened to the most innocent of lives in the most cherished of places.  Yet, to me... at least today... it's about the people:  the heroes, the fallen, and the survivors...  not the guns.  At least today... it's just too close to home.

Too many lives were taken too soon yesterday.   My heart breaks for the families who, after hearing the terrifying call that I heard in the morning, were never able to wrap their arms around their loved one(s) like I did.  I pray for the families who weren't able to feel relief yesterday.  There are simply no words to express the destruction of hearts just a town away.  I pray that all of our hearts will heal and that broken hearts will mend.  Tonight, I light one candle to honor the light of the lives and souls that have been ripped from their families and friends.  I light another one to recognize the heroism of the teachers, staff, survivors, and families who will continue their healing for a long, long time.