Slice of Life 2013

Reflection on Grant Wiggins’ posts: A Day in the Life of H.S. Students & Middle School Students’ Favorite Activities/Subjects

On Friday, I happened to come across this Grant Wiggins blog post and I’ve been thinking about it all weekend, wondering what to make of it. Judging from the number of hits this post has gotten (50,000+ as of this morning), I’m guessing that many of you have been thinking about it as well.

It’s not like it never occurred to me that the life of a student (in this case high school, but in reality not much different from my middle school students’ classrooms) can be difficult, tedious, and downright painful.  My colleagues and I often talk about how unrealistic it is for us to ask students to go all day with little to no breaks other than their twenty minute lunch (please remain in your seat) and the three-minute change of classes. Most teachers could not do it, yet we expect young adolescents to endure this every day. It’s just how it is. Get used to it. Stop complaining.

Except it really is wrong to expect from them what we ourselves could not do, isn’t it?

Some might say that we (adults) have lived through it and we turned out okay. But did we? I can’t speak for you but I know we had recess through the 8th grade. We walked home for lunch (a one-hour break in the day), we had P.E. every day. We also didn’t have test prep, remediation, or a developmentally inappropriate curriculum to master.

At my school, we don’t have and have never had recess. Some of us have lobbied for it over the years but it has regularly been shot down for a variety of reasons, most of them having to do with our schedule and squeezing every minute out of the day for “instruction.”

But aside from the school-wide implications of this teacher’s shadowing experience, what does it mean about my own classroom? This post has had me asking myself some hard questions…Do I allow for movement? Do I teach short mini-lessons to break up the class period?  Do I offer relevant project-based learning? Am I being responsive to my students’ needs, both academically as well as physically/emotionally?

While these questions have been running around my head all weekend, they were joined by even more challenging questions pertaining to my subject area.

As much as I would love to think that English Language Arts is most students’ favorite subject, I know it is not. Another great post on Grant Wiggins’ blog discussed a survey of middle school students about their most interesting assignments/subjects. This reminded me that in spite of my deep love for all things English, the majority of my students (and probably yours) do not enjoy it.

Take a look at the chart at this chart from the post. ELA ranks as #1 least favorite subject.



This should not be news to me as I regularly survey students at the start of the school year about their likes/dislikes. This year there were only about 10 or 12 students out of the 135 I teach who listed ELA as their favorite subject, and with rare exception these students were academically gifted  in language arts.  Science was the #1 favorite with math a close second.  Social Studies was up there with ELA as least favorite. Students cite “doing experiments or labs” and other “hands-on” activities as a chief reason for loving science.

What’s a devoted ELA teacher to do with this information?

I’ve been thinking about the structure of my class and how much time we devote to certain activities. I know that one task that is particularly disliked by most students is writing, even for those who consider themselves good at it. Writing takes time. How do I break up the class period to allow for movement, change in task, and still allow enough time for students to think deeply enough to write well?

Reading critically is also difficult for most students. I do try to break up close reading tasks with less challenging work, but again this is hard. It takes time for students to engage with text and move to the level of analysis required for some lessons.  How do we balance critical analysis with other less cognitively-demanding tasks?

Reading and writing are mostly sedentary activities. Do students need to be seated quietly at their desks to complete their work in my classroom?  What could I do to allow more freedom of movement?

Some of the challenges I have in my current position are very large class sizes (average class size of 30 students), academically leveled classes, and sixty minute class blocks. We switched to longer class periods this year. While the change to longer class times was initially welcomed by most teachers (we were at 47 minutes last year), maintaining student attention has been challenging.  It is also very difficult to have a lot of movement when classes are packed with students. The noise level can be a problem and it can feel rather chaotic with that many bodies moving around a small space, making it difficult for some to concentrate on the tasks at hand.  I still incorporate movement and group work but I find it quite challenging and almost impossible in some of my classes. This is especially true in my inclusion class. How do I balance the need for movement with the need for quiet required for thinking?

So what do I do with this information? How can I alter my classroom experience to better accommodate the needs of my students?

I am not sure. I do know that I plan to do some observational research this week. I will keep track of the amount of time my students spend on any one activity and take notes about the level of engagement I observe. I also plan to look for ways to incorporate more movement into our everyday routine.  I will continue to look for ways to increase student interest with relevant lessons and activities.

ELA teachers: Have you been able to make changes that have increased engagement in your classes? If so, I would love to hear from you.


AP Lit Lessons for the ELA Middle School Classroom

AP Lit Lessons for the ELA Middle School Classroom

This past week I had the opportunity to participate in an AP Literature & Composition Summer institute (APSI). As a middle school teacher in my district this was quite an experience and one that most teachers at my level never get to do. In my case, a high school teacher had to back out at the last minute, and I was the lucky recipient of this coveted spot. I wanted to try and capture some of the gems that I gleaned from this amazing experience so that other middle school teachers might benefit from my experience as well.

I have always been interested in what goes on in an AP class and the kinds of skills that students are expected to have once they reach that level. As a curriculum writer for my district, I had been charged with incorporating CCSS into our 7th grade curriculum and had successfully introduced more challenging texts and supporting strategies into that pacing guide.

Currently I teach 8th grade and I am in the midst of writing some new units for this grade level. I participated in the AP training class because I wanted to learn more about the content, strategies, and expectations for AP-level work in order to incorporate these strategies/skills into the new curriculum as well as apply them in my own classroom.

What I learned is that the skill of close reading is crucial for success in AP Lit. We have been teaching and reinforcing this skill over the past three years at our school. It was very gratifying to learn that this emphasis will definitely pay off for our students when they get to the high school level and beyond. AP texts include poems, prose, and book-length novels and plays. These works must have “literary merit” and in our state (NC) should include the focus of our 12th grade curriculum (16th Century literature to the present, British & American literature). All week we read AP sample texts, answered multiple choice questions, read student sample “free response” essays, and practiced scoring them based upon a rubric. The range of student writing was considerable and I was so impressed by the level of sophistication that some students were able to produce in less than an hour. On the free response section of the test, students must read an excerpt of prose text and/or a poem pairing and then formulate and write a coherent essay response in less than an hour. This is no small feat! Many of the texts were extremely difficult and I would have been challenged to do that even today, let alone when I was senior in high school!

In addition to the importance of close reading skills, students must know how to write well. Specifically, they need to know how to convey the “what” and the “how” of the piece. The “what” is the content—what is happening in the text? Does the student understand what is going on? Then, they need to be able to explain the “how”—what literary techniques/devices does the author use to convey meaning? It is not enough to know/define the literary terms; students should have internalized these meanings and be able to skillfully convey their understanding of the writer’s craft. This is where I think many students need the most support. They can pick out a metaphor or repetition or antithesis, but they struggle with explaining why the author chose these techniques to convey meaning. Provide lots of opportunities for students to practice this skill.

It would be impossible to list everything I learned  in my APSI, but here a few gems:

1)      Continue to teach students how to do a “close read” of a text. Remind them that they must read “beyond the text” and think about what the text could be saying on a symbolic or metaphoric level.

2)      Teach students about literary archetypes. This will be invaluable to them as they encounter the classics in high school/college.

3)      When writing about texts, always cite evidence to support your claims. Keep your discussions text-based. Show you know what you are talking about by citing direct evidence from the text to support your arguments. Focus on the “what” and the “how” of the text.

4)      When having students read a particularly difficult text or set of poems, have them first read/annotate the text individually. Then have students discuss their responses in a small group setting using guided questions for that text. After they have fully discussed the text in this manner, then have them write their responses. (We did this ourselves and it helped tremendously when we were writing our own free-response essays to a particularly difficult text.)

5)      The collective literary experience of reading a novel as a class is so important for so many reasons. In our district, teachers have been discouraged from reading a novel as a whole class since the implementation of CCSS. There are many reasons why this makes sense (e.g. the amount of time it takes to read through an entire novel together as a class, especially a particularly  long novel, lack of funding for books, different reading levels, etc.), but the importance of a shared literary experience cannot be downplayed. I would like to try Ariel Sack’s Whole Novels for the Whole Class approach and see if I can’t make that work this year.

6)      When students are analyzing/interpreting text, have them pay particular attention to the “tension of opposites in a text” (light/dark, good/evil), ironies, etc. All AP Lit exam free response texts will contain these contrasts on some level, and it is an excellent approach to interpreting a text. This identification of opposites/contrasts is also a great way into a text. Most students will be able to do this, and this gives all a place to start in literary analysis.

7)      You must balance the rigor with the enjoyment of the class. Always follow a particularly difficult text/novel with something more accessible/enjoyable so that students (and teacher) don’t burnout. This is so important to remember. Balancing intense analysis or writing with lighter texts will give all the fuel for the long haul.

In my classroom I have incorporated many of these techniques to help my students grapple with challenging texts. For example, we have read many of Poe’s short stories and some of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work. These texts are challenging in many ways—especially the vocabulary and syntax—but with appropriate support, my students have been successful in reading and enjoying them. I believe this practice and exposure to challenging works of literary merit will prepare them for the rigors of high school and college-level work. This early introduction familiarizes them with the language of the discipline that is so essential to their academic success. Knowing exactly what is expected of my students for AP-level work, I feel better prepared to provide the types of learning experiences they need to give them the best chance for success. This is particularly true if we are sincere about equal access to AP courses. Giving middle school students a heads-up on what to expect empowers all students to earn a spot in an AP course.

If you currently teach middle school and have an opportunity to participate in an AP Summer Institute or workshop, I encourage you to take it. This training and experience has been invaluable to me as I work to create a challenging and engaging language arts classroom experience for all.


Slice of Life: Would You Rather Fast-Forward Time or Rewind it?

Slice of Life
I’m participating in Slice of Life, hosted by Stacey Shubitz and Ruth Ayres at Two Writing Teachers.

We began our argument-writing unit, and yesterday I used a warm-up activity called “Would You Rather..?” suggested by Kelly Gallagher in his book, Write Like This. I divided students into four groups and gave them a “Would you rather?” question to ponder and then respond to individually (each student would have to make a decision and take a stand).
One of the questions was “Would you rather fast-forward time or rewind it?”

I thought about my own answers to these questions, particularly what my answers would be when I was in the 8th grade. To me it was a no-brainer…of course I would have chosen “fast-forward time” when I was 14! Who wouldn’t want to be older when you are the difficult age of 14?

Imagine my surprise when I realized that only three or four students out of all of my five classes chose “fast forward time.” I was amazed at their quick decisions to rewind their lives. How do you want to rewind your life when you’ve only been on the planet for 13 or 14 years?

Many said they wanted to be “little again…like 5 or 6” or “in kindergarten so we could take naps and have recess” but some said “we didn’t have any stress when we were little.”

I continued to question students to be sure they understood the question. Maybe they misunderstood what I was asking them? “Wouldn’t you want to be 16 so you could drive a car? Or maybe old enough to go to college and be on your own?”


Scratching my head, I asked other teachers what they would have answered at 14. They all said “fast forward time” immediately. Not one person said rewind time. My colleagues were equally baffled.

So why am I writing about this today? I guess because it bothers me at some level. I want to know why today’s young people don’t look forward to growing up. It reminds me of an article I read a few years back about the growing number of teens who aren’t applying for their driver’s licenses when they are eligible. Many simply aren’t interested in driving cars. This was unheard of when I grew up. Of course you would get your license! Even if you didn’t have a car of your own (as I didn’t until I was in college), driving a car was a rite of passage and it meant freedom. EVERYONE had to get a driver’s license.

I am not sure if my students’ longing to go back in time is a reflection of how coddled they are and being “little again” means more parental caretaking and less responsibility-taking on their part, or if it’s a result of  feeling like they were forced to grow up too fast? Whatever the root cause, it saddens me that this generation of students does not see independence and adulthood in a positive light.

What are the implications for their (and our) futures if this reluctance to grow up is more widespread than the students in my 8th grade classes?


Counting by 11’s Blogger Challenge

Rhonda over at Mardie’s Muse invited me to participate in a meme that is circulating in the blogosphere and Twitter. Not entirely sure what the purpose is but it sure reminds me of a chain letter…you know, one of those that says “if you don’t follow these steps exactly and pass it on to X number of people, bad luck with strike!” Just kidding (sort of) but in an effort to play along (as well avoid the school work that is waiting for me), I will give it my best shot.
As Rhonda explained in her blog, the process is as follows:
• Acknowledge the nominating blogger.
• Share 11 random facts about yourself.
• Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
• List 11 bloggers that you’d like to nominate.
• Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer, and let the bloggers you’ve nominated know that they’ve been nominated.

11 Random Facts about Me
1. I grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey and my Jersey accent rears its ugly head whenever I am around people from the NJ/NY area (especially family members). Although I haven’t lived there in 30 years, you can take the girl out of Jersey, but you can’t take the Jersey out of the girl (hence my twitter name jerseygirl_1021).
2. Both of my parents were deaf. Although I know some sign-language, my parents did lip-read and we were not encouraged to learn to sign. It is one of my deepest regrets.
3. I don’t eat chocolate. (I am considered a freak by most of my women friends for this fact).
4. I am 6 ft. 1” tall and I have never played basketball or volleyball (although I was heavily pressured in high school to join the teams). At the time, most girls did not play sports and I was definitely not “sporty” by any stretch of the imagination. I do wish that I had, as I had a definite height advantage back then (kids are bigger today!), and a basketball or volleyball scholarship would have been sweet.
5. I met my husband on the telephone. At the time I worked for a sister company of his (me in New York and he in Los Angeles) and we began chatting at work and eventually at home and the rest is history.
6. I weigh less now than I did when I was 12 years old. I lost 100 pounds between the middle of 7th grade and the start of 8th grade. I have spent the better part of my life keeping it off.
7. This is my 14th year of teaching. I taught for one year after I graduated college and left the teaching world. I re-entered it 18 years later (translated: major culture shock).
8. Although I grew up in the 60’s and early 70’s, I did not participate in my first protest until this past summer. Anyone familiar with what’s going on in my state of North Carolina has heard about “Moral Monday” protests. At the end of July, I marched with other educators from my state to protest the ongoing cuts to education in our state. Truth be told, I liked it.
9. Although I was born and raised in a city, I have become quite a “country mouse.” I live in an outlying suburb and I have grown to love the peace and quiet here. Whenever I visit the big city, I am amazed that at one time I actually worked there and enjoyed it. I like to visit the city but couldn’t live there anymore.
10. I have taught at the same middle school for the past 13 years and I have taught all three grade levels (ten years in 6th, three years in 7th, and now I am in 8th grade). I LOVE 8th Grade! I recently covered a class for a colleague who teaches 6th and I vowed “never again!”
11. I am considering getting my certification to teach high school English…just in case.

Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.

1. What 1-3 pieces of advice would you give to a newbie teacher?
1) Join Twitter and follow as many great educators you can find. 2) Never stop learning— great teachers are lifelong learners and realize that they can never know everything 3) Find a great mentor teacher and learn as much from this person as you can to apply to your own teaching.
2. You’ll be spending the afternoon outdoors. Where will you be and what will you be doing there? I will be either at the lake, taking my dog, Rosie, for a long walk OR at the dog park with her. Nothing brings me more joy than being outside on a beautiful day, watching Rosie and her dog friends play at the park.
3. Which 2-5 professional books were the most influential in molding you as a teacher? Explain.
Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle was the first professional book that helped shape who I am as a teacher. Her workshop model is one that I have tried to emulate over the years (sometimes successfully, sometimes not), but her thoughts on teaching and learning make sense to me. The 2nd most influential book has to be The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller. This book absolutely transformed my approach to independent reading in the classroom and helped me to build even stronger relationships with my students through shared books. Donalyn’s 40 Book Challenge has been a staple in my classroom ever since, and I have been able to share this with many other teachers and have seen its transformative power. Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This and Deeper Reading have helped shaped my approaches to reading and writing with students, especially the concept of using mentor texts. Currently, I am reading Ariel Sack’s Whole Novels for the Whole Classroom, and although I have just started it I can tell it contains a wealth of practical ideas that I can use in my classroom. I could go on as I am reading a few others, but you only asked for 2-5.
4. You are writing. Describe the scene. Where do you write? Paper and pen, journal, notebook, or computer? Music or quiet? Office, den, living room? Desk or couch?
Depends on what I am writing. I have been journaling for around 20+ years. I write every morning using a pen, spiral notebook, at my kitchen table, with coffee in hand. For my blog, I use the computer. Although the computer is easier to use in terms of editing, I truly love the act of writing by hand. There is something about writing out my thoughts that is completely different than typing them on a computer.
5. What are the top 3 things on your bucket list? Top bucket list items: I would love to go to Europe some day. I have never been there and have always thought it would be wonderful to go to Italy or possibly Greece; I would love to actually publish my writing someday; and I would love to become a grandparent.
6. Tell about a time when you had a particularly positive influence on a student (or class of students) OR tell about a time when a student had a particularly positive influence on you. (See question 11).
7. What is one new thing you want to try in the classroom in 2014? I would like to try doing the Slice of Life blogging challenge with my students this year. I did it myself last year to try it out, and I would really like to see how it would work with students. It was a wonderful experience and I think that students would get a lot out of it.
8. You have just received a blank cheque (unlimited funds from an anonymous donor) to be used for a class field trip. Where are you taking your students? What will they learn from this field trip? That’s an easy one since we are in the middle of planning a three-day trip to our nation’s capitol, Washington, DC, for our students. The trip is scheduled for the first week of June (after our state testing is complete), and we have about half of our students signed up. The other half really need help to pay the fees and this blank check would be an awesome way to make sure 100% of our students get to go on the trip. We want to go to DC with our students to show them the historic places that represent our nation’s history and culture. So many of our kids have never been outside of Raleigh.
9. You are off to dinner and a movie? What kind of restaurant will it be? What genre of movie will you see? Dinner would probably be at either an Italian or Mexican restaurant. I absolutely love all things Italian (bread, pasta, sauce, cheese) as well as most things Mexican (chips, salsa, guacamole, fajitas, tacos). The movie would be what my husband would call “art house” (aka a weird, character-driven movie that probably is sad and/or has an unhappy ending. Don’t know why but I love these types of films.
10. What literary character are you most similar to? Explain. This is probably not a good thing, but I can really relate to Olive, in Olive Kitteridge. Don’t ask.
11. Tell about a particularly proud moment in your teaching career. Since I’ve implemented the 40-Book Challenge in my classroom over five years ago, I have had the pleasure of seeing student who started with me as non-readers, and watched them blossom into readers by the end of the school year. One student I taught in both 6th and then 7th grade, Sarah, started the year with me in that situation. She had the lowest possible end of grade scores in reading and she saw herself as a non-reader. Over the course of her 6th grade year, I was able to introduce her to books that she actually liked and she started to read on her own. By the end of 7th grade, she scored at two points away from the highest level in reading on her end of grade test. End of grade test scores aside, I know that learning to read changed this child’s life. She comes from a very poor, dysfunctional family where few people graduated from high school. I am confident that with continued support from her teachers and her firmly established love of reading that Sarah will defy the odds and find success.

11 Questions for the Bloggers on my list who choose to participate:
1. Dog or cat person? Explain.
2. What is your favorite grade to teach? Why? Least favorite? Why?
3. Many people (in the blogosphere and on Twitter) are participating in the “One Little Word” at the start of this new year. If you are doing this, what is your word? If you aren’t, what word would you choose? Why?
4. What book have you failed to read that would be embarrassing for you to admit?
5. What book have you read that you consider a “guilty pleasure?”
5. Choose 2-3 titles on your TBR list and tell why you want to read them.
6. What keeps you energized and enthusiastic about teaching in this time of testing/accountability and lack of teacher support?
7. Book or Kindle? Why?
8. What is your favorite Twitter chat? Why?
9. Snow day or delayed opening? Why?
10. Who is your favorite adult fiction author? Why?
11. What are the benefits of being a teacher who blogs?
11 Invitations to participate in this meme:
1. Stephanie Shouldis
2. Sarah Anderson
3. Bill Ferriter
4. Jill Barnes
5. Michelle Haseltine
6. Christopher Bronke
7. Liz McKenna
8. Andrea Payan
9. Ben Kuhlman
10. Cindy Minnich
11. Sonja Schulz


Slice of Life: Thank You PLN!

Slice of Life

I’m participating in the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by Stacey Shubitz and Ruth Ayres at Two Writing Teachers.

On this last day of 2013 I have been busy writing most of the day, working on my Teacher of the Year portfolio that is due in early January. The portfolio consists of several different parts, with questions about my professional background, education, community involvement, philosophy of teaching, educational trends and issues, and what my message to teachers would be if I am chosen as the county teacher of the year. Working on this portfolio has made me think about the things that matter and make a difference for me as a teacher and in turn have an impact on the students in my classroom.

There has been a running theme in my responses —the importance of developing my Professional Learning Network (PLN) and taking responsibility for my own professional development.

My pre-Twitter days consisted of me reading as many professional books I could get my hands on and occasionally finding a blog or two to follow for recommendations. Through my discovery of the EC Ning I began to expand my network, and it was here that I was encouraged to try Twitter. I would have never guessed what an impact that decision would make on my professional life! Through Twitter I have been connected to smart, creative, passionate teachers and writers/readers from all over the world. Right at my fingertips I receive expert advice and suggestions on a daily basis. Twitter chats like #titletalk, #engchat, #mschat have been invaluable to me.

My goal is to try to help connect other teachers in my school and district through social media like Twitter. I have given workshops on how to use Twitter, find people to follow, participate in chats, and ultimately build your own PLN.

My online connections with other passionate teachers keep me energized and enthusiastic in the classroom. I am always reading about something that I want to try out for myself with my own students.

In fact, it was through Twitter that I first heard about the Slice of Life Challenge. This past March I participated in the daily slicing and really enjoyed it. I wanted to try it out on my own before trying it with my students. I hope to slice with students this year!

So on this last day of 2013, I would like to thank all of you who I’ve met in this space, on Twitter, in chats, blogs, and other social media spots, for your contributions to my professional development. I appreciate the ideas, suggestions, materials, and feedback that you offer, and for challenging me to be the best teacher I can be. I hope that my contributions have helped you as well.

I look forward to learning with you in 2014!


Slice of Life Challenge: Reading Slump

Slice of Life

 I’m participating in the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by Stacey Shubitz and Ruth Ayres at Two Writing Teachers.

I’m in a reading slump right now and I need a good book to pull me out of it. For the past two months I have been busy reading lots of things—non-fiction professional books (Falling in Love with Close Reading, Reading in the Wild, Voice Lessons…to name a few), twitter/twitter chats, blogs, articles online. But sadly, no fiction.

Have you ever gone through a spell of reading really good books that leave you with a book hangover? Where the memory and the feel of the book linger way beyond the last page? To start a new book right away—especially one that might not measure up to the last one—would be sacrilege. So you wait for the feeling to pass and a new book to entice you.

Except that hasn’t happened.

To be honest, I have been immersed in the world of Edgar Allan Poe for the last two months. I am new to teaching 8th grade this year and we have been doing an intense author study of Poe and his work. Since this is all new to me I haven’t been reading much else since this study began. I am fascinated with Poe! His writing is so masterful and I have found the analysis of his writing to be exceptionally interesting to me and my students. (Not to mention the discovery of literary devices I never knew existed! Who knew anaphora and apostrophe were literary devices?) I am learning so much and I absolutely love it. But I am really missing being in the midst of a wonderful novel. It just doesn’t seem right, you know?

So we are wrapping up our last week before Christmas break and I would love to have a wonderful YA book to read in my downtime.

Any recommendations from my fellow ELA teachers?

Thanks for your help in pulling me out of my slump.


Slice of Life 2013 November 12, 2013: Smartphones & Shallow Reading

Slice of Life

I’m participating in the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by Stacey Shubitz and Ruth Ayres at Two Writing Teachers.

This week my students are working on their Article of the Week (AoW), an article I borrowed from Kelly Gallagher’s collection. They are reading about the use of smartphones affecting our ability to think deeply. In the article the author mentions Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. The information in the article spurred me on to pick up Carr’s book and dig a little deeper into this topic.

What I am reading is causing me great distress, both personally and professionally. Carr outlines the many ways that our nation’s obsession with our smartphones is costing us our ability to do the kind of deep reading and thinking required in most classrooms today. While we may be spending more time “reading” on the internet, this reading is more like “browsing” than the kind of reading that requires concentration and deep thought. We flip back and forth from one site to the next, clicking away on hyperlinks as we quickly skim and scan the content. This different type of reading and responding to text is re-wiring our brains.

Personally, I have begun to notice that my own obsession with my smartphone and its apps has had an effect on my concentration. I tend to be less willing to tackle longer articles and dense text when I can quickly scan my phone for the latest tweets. Of course I still engage in deeper reading, but I am noticing that I am often less motivated to tackle reading tasks that are challenging, long, or complicated.

Professionally, I am deeply concerned about the implications of Carr’s work. Our state curriculum is aligned to the Common Core State Standards. Students are expected to engage in “close reading” and analysis of text, text that is often very complicated and challenging to the average middle school student. Their willingness to tackle this kind of intellectually challenging task is going to be that much more difficult if they don’t have the brain power to do it. If students’ brains are being fed a consistent diet of “shallow” reading, how can we expect them to embrace the feast that is “close” reading and deep analysis of text?

I worry that our state end of grade reading comprehension test is designed to assess a student’s ability to read deeply and analyze text. With nine long passages to read, students are not apt to read that deeply. The test is three hours long and many students struggle to read each passage once, let alone the two to three times required to truly analyze the text. If students are not able to sustain attention for one long article, what is the likelihood they will for nine?

What about you? Are you seeing any of this in your own reading life? What about your students’ reading lives?

I don’t see us giving up our smartphones any time soon, so what’s a teacher to do?

I’d love to hear your thoughts!


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Slice of Life October 8, 2013: The Power of Noticing

Slice of Life 

I’m participating in the March Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by Stacey Shubitz and Ruth Ayres at Two Writing Teachers.

We were working on the scripts for the drummer boys of the Civil War research project when I first noticed Sean’s writing. Until today, I haven’t seen any real writing, or for that matter, any real work on Sean’s part. Identified as academically gifted in language arts, Sean is also on our “watch list” for those who are not performing at grade level and liable to slip through the cracks.  Sean’s presence in my classroom had been unremarkable.

Until today, Sean struck me as a quiet, non-performer, more than willing to fly under the radar and hope to eke out another year without much effort on his part nor notice on ours.

Today I held my interest meeting for Nanowrimo, or National Novel Writing Month. For the past few Novembers, I have “sponsored” a small group of writers who were eager to take on the challenge of attempting to write a novel in one month. Some have been successful, meeting their word count goals, while others have succeeded beyond what they even thought they could do. All have had fun and forged friendships within this small circle of writers.

While I was circulating in the computer lab today, checking in with students as they wrote their scripts for the group photo story project, I stopped to see what Sean had written so far. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting much.

I was wrong.

Sean had written several eloquent paragraphs about the history of the drummer boys. It was clear that he was enjoying the writing and he was anxious to perfect it. I watched him wordsmith his creation and noticed the high level of engagement he had in this task. Until now I hadn’t seen him this alive in the classroom.

I immediately thought of Nanowrimo. He had to join us!

“Do you plan to attend the interest meeting today for National Novel Writing Month?” I asked.

“What’s that?” he replied.

I gave him my best two-minute definition of the writing challenge and urged him to join us at lunch to find out more. He agreed to check it out.

The lunchtime meeting came and went and I had many students show an interest this year, more than ever before.

But no Sean.

After lunch, Sean arrived at my classroom door.

“Did you forget about the meeting, Sean?” I asked, hoping I was correct.

“No, I didn’t forget. I just don’t think I can do it,” Sean whispered, avoiding eye contact with me.

“Sean, you have to do this. You are a writer. You have a gift. You have to try!” I urged.

Sean stopped and looked at me and then he smiled. The first genuine smile I have seen on him since school started. It was as if something clicked within him and I could see a light in his eyes that had been missing before today.

“I’ll think about it,” he said as he took his seat, “I promise I will.”




Slice of Life August 6, 2013: Return on Investment?

Slice of Life
How much are teachers worth?

Depends upon who you ask and when you ask them.

Lately here in North Carolina, your answer might be “not much.” Recent actions by the NC legislature sent a clear message to those of us in the trenches that our contribution to society is minimal at best, a complete drain at worst. We are “whiny,” “lazy”, complainers who always want more money for working “banker’s hours” and having “summers off.”

Yet, in the wake of a school shooting or natural disaster, teachers who gave their lives to protect students are hailed as “heroes.” The public can’t say enough wonderful things about how great teachers are and how they should be paid well to reflect the adoring public’s admiration and gratitude.

That is until the next state budget talks begin.

You see, as a nation we have a short memory.

It seems that many Americans have forgotten the very people who helped them to get to where they are today. After all, today’s politicians, doctors, lawyers, executives, did not get to their current positions without the encouragement and support of a few good teachers along the way.

Think back over the course of your life and identify at least one teacher who stands out in your memory as the one that made the difference for you. It could be he/she helped you to love reading or writing, maybe to finally understand algebra, discover your passion for science, or a love of history.

Most of us, no matter what our experiences have been in school, can identify at least one teacher (if not more) who made a difference in our lives. Their impact might not have been discernible to anyone other than us. Our parents and our closest friends might never have known the impact this teacher made on our lives, but we know.

We remember the teacher who…

Noticed us when we felt invisible.
Recognized an emerging talent and encouraged us to pursue it.
Cared when we were going through tough times.
Fed us when we were hungry, physically, emotionally, and intellectually.
Represented stability in our lives when so much was changing.
Lit the spark that fueled the fire of a lifelong passion or career.

It all started with that teacher. The one we will never forget.

These days the talk about teachers seems to forget the many “untestable” things that teachers do and the major influence they can have on young lives. It appears that our value is all about that “one test” on that one day. Teachers know that there are a multitude of influences on a student that they can’t control that will determine a student’s score on these high-stakes tests.

For example, I am a National Board’s certified teacher and I also hold a Master’s degree in addition to my certification in middle school English/Language Arts. I am one of the “lucky ones” who is paid for these “extras,” something that the state of North Carolina does not see as valuable.

The legislature feels that the “return on investment” for the state on these “extras” is not worth the money they throw at it. According to them, teachers who go the extra mile to enhance their training and education don’t always produce the highest test scores on end of grade tests. The return on investment for the state is not good enough to warrant paying us for these extras anymore. National Board’s pay is still being given, but it was on the chopping block this year and we expect it will be next year. It follows that if all teacher “incentives” are being removed, cutting National Board’s pay can’t be far behind.

But I challenge you to consider this: Teachers who pursue advanced degrees and training often share similar characteristics. They are lifelong learners who enjoy the pursuit of knowledge and share their love of learning with others, including their students. I know that whenever I take a workshop, read a book, or participate in some type of learning experience, I can’t wait to share that with my students. They see me as a role model of an adult who takes lifelong learning seriously and they catch my enthusiasm. Message: Learning isn’t just for kids!

Teachers who pursue the rigorous process of National Board Certification, are dedicated enough to devote countless hours to this process, over and above the requirements of their full-time teaching positions. When I was pursuing National Boards, I spent every weekend getting together with two of my colleagues to work on the extensive writing required for the products. This took months to complete and we sacrificed much time and energy, including time with our families, to pursue this certification. National Board Certification requires that a teacher closely examine his/her practice, critically and reflectively, and that process can’t help but influence the student learning in those classrooms. Will this necessarily translate to higher test scores on the End of Grade test? Often it does, but is there a direct correlation? No. Here’s why.

As a master’s level, NBCT teacher, I teach to the best of my ability every day. My passion and enthusiasm for learning spills over to my students, and most learn the daily objectives and more. Many of them will show what they know on this one test on this one day.

But then there’s…

Nadia, who has only been in this country for one year, speaks little to no English and has to take this reading test.

Jack, who can read just fine, but has decided he “just isn’t feelin’ it” on the day of the test and sleeps through three quarters of it, bubbling in random answers ten minutes before time is called.

Jon, who can barely keep his eyes open because he was up until 3am playing the video game, Grand Theft Auto.

Tanya, who can’t stop crying because she got into a fight on the bus on the way to school, and she is scared that she will be beaten up when she goes to gym later that day.

Mary, who has ADHD and didn’t take her meds that morning. She is barely able to sit still and needs to do so and remain quiet for close to 4 hours.

Sam, who’s fighting to stay awake, too. You see, Sam’s family is homeless and sleeping at the shelter is hit or miss. His cab got him to school late today and he wasn’t able to eat the free breakfast that is provided for him. He’s hungry and tired and passing this test is the last thing on his mind.

These are examples from my own classroom, but my experience is not unique. Children like this populate all teachers’ classrooms to one degree or another. Some teachers may have less, some more, but ALL teachers have students in our rooms that are under the influence of circumstances that are not things we as teachers can control.

So, yes, you can see how having a Master’s degree or NBCT cannot change the basic realities of life in public school classrooms today. Sometimes, in spite of these overwhelming circumstances, my students rise to the occasion and perform exceptionally, but many do not. They are also smart enough to know that accountability on high stakes testing is really not about them. The stakes are high only for us, the teachers. Why worry about how you are going to do on a test if you know that you will move to the next grade regardless of your score? Students may not perform well on these tests, but they are not stupid.

So, is the “no return on investment” argument worthy of our attention? Does it make sense to cut this incentive to teachers, one of only two ways teachers can increase their own pay without leaving the classroom?

Even if these teachers with “extras” don’t produce consistently superior test scores on this one end of grade exam, their impact on students will still be felt in so many intangible, untestable ways.

Remember those teachers who made a difference in your own life. My guess is their influence had little to do with your end of grade test scores, but the imprint they left on your life is indelible.




Slice of Life Tuesday, July 30, 2013: Blame the Teachers

Slice of Life
Yesterday I went from being an interested observer to an active participant in the Moral Monday protests that have been held every week in Raleigh, North Carolina for the past 13 weeks. I have watched these protests grow and have admired the people who attend weekly and those who willingly are arrested to show their support of various causes.

Yesterday’s rally had a special focus: Public Education. In case you hadn’t heard, North Carolina has set a record for passing a number of devastating cuts to public education, as well as other backwards-thinking voter suppression laws, attacks on women’s rights, and cuts to the poor and unemployed, just to name a few.

Our legislators voted for a budget that gave no teacher raises (after six years of flat salaries), took away tenure, and did away with supplemental pay for Master’s or advanced degrees. There wasn’t any money in the budget to raise our pay (currently 48th in the nation and some say dead last after this budget passed), but they did have $10 million to give to parents for school vouchers, and $3 million for Teach for America. Huh? How does this help us?

Some of you may be asking where was our union or representatives while all of this was going down? We don’t have one. North Carolina is a “right to work” state and for public employees unions are illegal. We do have a local NEA affiliate, NCAE, but it is completely voluntary and has no real “power.” They are supposed to be looking out for our best interests, but up until AFTER the budget passed, they were oddly quiet on these most pressing teacher concerns. When asked why they were so slow to respond, a NCAE representative said they trusted the integrity of our legislators to support us and do the right thing. Really? After months of reports about all of these proposed drastic cuts? None of this was a secret. They were quite open about their intentions to destroy our public schools and trash teachers in the process. Now it is too late to change anything. Governor McCrory signed the budget as expected.

The public vitriol is at its peak. News coverage of the Moral Monday event drew over 800 comments on one local news webpage. As usual, most of the comments were anti-teacher, anti-public schools.

Soon I must head back to the classroom. I have never been so discouraged and demoralized as I have been these past few weeks, and my usual enthusiasm and excitement to start planning and brainstorming new ideas for the coming year just isn’t there. Frankly, this is not too surprising to me as I tend to get quite fired up about this stuff. What’s scary to me, though, is that even my most optimistic, always upbeat teacher friend admitted to me at the rally that “for the first time in 29 years of teaching, I am not looking forward to going back.” Whoa! This from a dear friend and colleague who never lets the political circus get to her. This speaks volumes. If she doesn’t want to go back, how must the rest of the 100,000 North Carolina teachers feel?

It is human nature to want to blame someone or something for our troubles, so why not blame teachers, right? This is one of the underlying beliefs of the opposition. Teachers are the reason our test scores are not at the top of the nation. If we would just do our jobs, then we would get the respect we desire (they say).

I hate to admit it, but I have to agree with the opposition.

Teachers do have to take the blame for some of our problems, but not for the reasons our opponents claim. Let me explain.

I believe that one of the reasons why these overzealous, anti-public education politicians got away with this budget slashing is that while they were wheeling and dealing behind the scenes to get their agenda passed, teachers were too busy teaching to pay too much attention. Contrary to public opinion, most teachers do not work a 40-hour (or less) workweek. Sure, some of us are info-maniacs and keep up with the news and political game-playing going on around town. But, most of us informed or not, are way too busy doing our jobs to be activists, even though we may believe wholeheartedly in the cause. Most teachers are averse to doing things that take time away from the classroom and/or what’s best for their students. While we might want to take action or get involved, we simply feel we don’t have the time.

Another contributing factor is that most teachers are entirely too passive when it comes to standing up for themselves or the profession. Even though we may totally support the cause, teachers have been conditioned to be passive observers and to rarely, if ever, speak up. Don’t believe me? Attend a faculty meeting and you’ll see what I mean. Sure, there is reason to be careful. Principals can make life miserable for you if you are one to make waves. But, that’s why we have tenure, right? Shouldn’t that protect us?
Well, tenure is a thing of the past here, too. Instead they are going to offer “merit pay” to the top 25% performers (using ONE end of grade test as your judge), in the amount of $500. This amounts to around $20 per month after taxes. Tenure in exchange for $20 per month? Sure! That sounds fair! Without tenure, teachers will be more fearful than ever to speak up about injustice.

Teachers must accept responsibility for their own fate. We must make it a priority to get involved in the fight for public education. We are the ones who only too clearly understand what is at stake here for our students, our schools, our profession, and even our country. Our country was built upon the ideal of a free and public education for ALL. We must fight to keep it that way.

Those of us who protested at the rally yesterday woke up this morning wondering what should be our next steps in this fight. I’m not sure, but I do know that I must continue to find a way to be engaged in this cause.

If you are a teacher reading this and you are lucky enough to work in a state that values you and your profession, supports students and schools, and makes education a priority, then count yourself lucky. But please be ever vigilant to this insidious political agenda that is infiltrating schools in states across the nation. Pay attention. Your state could be next. If it can happen in North Carolina, it can happen anywhere, and the legislators who passed this budget will be only too happy to encourage like-minded representatives from other states to try and pull a NC budget in their own states.

Teachers, the time is now to speak up and have our voices heard.

No more waiting for Superman.

moral monday 7-29-13