A Forward-Looking Reflection

Since I began teaching middle school two years ago, I’ve had to adjust to a building where teachers and students have little access to technology. The transition has been difficult. Moving from a school where I had fairly liberal access to a school where I have almost none is like slowing down to 35 miles per hour after you’d just been driving 70. You want to move faster–it seems viable and safe–but you don’t because the speed limit or traffic patterns don’t allow it.

While teaching at the high school, I learned to integrate seamlessly into my lessons.

Now I feel impaired, like I am teaching everyday without a thumb or an arm.

If I feel like that, imagine how my students must feel. They use computers–phones, laptops, e-readers, tablets, and video game consoles–nearly every minute that they aren’t in school. During school hours, kids are forced to power down. No more real world, kids!

But I am excited for next year because my team will have access to Chromebooks. I’m as anxious for the opportunity to use working computers in the classroom again as I would be for an upcoming vacation. And the best part: Blogging.

Three years ago I was looking for a more engaging way to teach the Transcendentalism unit to my sophomores. (See the list of resources at the bottom of the post.) My unit objective was for them to apply their understanding of the movement and create a blog that illustrates its influence on contemporary society. I also required the students to solicit an expert in the field to provide them with feedback about their blogs. (You can read the posts I wrote about the experience on the site Becoming Conscious.)

The process of creating authentic pieces of writing that showed they had something to say involved a great deal of research on the part of the student. And guess what? They did the research without complaint. In fact, I would argue that they did it enthusiastically. They also supported their ideas with research and proofread their posts carefully. Why? Because they knew that their audience was more than just their teacher. Their audience could be the world. The pressure to perform, to sound like an expert, was real and motivating.

The project was an overall success with the students. Many of them had never blogged before. Many of them created Twitter accounts so that they could connect with professors and authors. There were so many layers of learning occurring every day during the course of that project. The experience allowed me to connect with the students on a different level because I was reading and conferencing with them about their writing. I saw their complexities more keenly and developed a unique bond with them.

I am looking forward to having similar experiences next year with 8th graders.




We All Have the Power: Life-Changing Moments

When I returned to school as a graduate student in 2003, I was scared. The students around me were younger than I. They were smarter than I. They were better writers than I. And they had read more than I. I had no business being in their company.

That is how I felt sitting in Dr. Peter Beidler’s Medieval Comedy course in Drown Hall at Lehigh University. If you know Pete, he is one of the least intimidating people you will ever meet. I was not intimidated by him, but I was intimidated by the other students. I thought they had so much more to offer than I. They were younger. They were smarter. They were writers. was a high school English teacher.

After two classes, I thought about quitting. Grad school wasn’t for me, and I was OK with that. I would finish Pete’s course, and then I would go back to doing what I was good at: teaching literature and grammar to high school students.

What I didn’t know at the time was that Dr. Peter Beidler would change my life.

If you’ve never watched Drew Dudley’s TED Talk entitle Everyday Leadership, you should. In it he mentions “lollipop moments,” life-changing moments. Lollipop moments are those interactions that have changed us for the better–transformative moments where someone’s actions or words steered us down a different path or made us think differently about ourselves–the moments that have helped us be brave.

At the close of my second class with Pete, he asked me to meet with him for a few moments in his office. I instantly started to sweat (He probably saw the little droplets form on my upper lip.) and all of my shortcomings zoomed through my brain.

“He’s going to tell me that he knows I was scouring the Internet for good ideas to look smart in class discussions.”

“He’s going to tell me that Lehigh is not the school for me.”

“He’s going to tell me that I can’t handle grad school while working full-time.”

“He hasn’t read anything I wrote yet, but I’m sure he’s going to tell me that my skills are not up to snuff.”

I was never more wrong about anything in my life.

When I reached Pete’s office, he said, “I enjoy having you in class. You have a more experienced perspective. I think the other students can learn from you.”

What???? This guy is crazy. He’ll soon find out that I’m a fraud. Right?

In his talk, Drew Dudley quotes Marianne Williamson: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.” How true. I expected Pete to tell me that I was incompetent or incapable. I did not expect him to tell me the opposite. Why? I had never thought of myself as auspicious. I was familiar with, maybe even comfortable with, failure. But I was not comfortable with happiness, self-acceptance, or success. Whatever success I had achieved must be fortuitous, the result of good luck.

At first, I thought that maybe he sensed my reticence about grad school and offered encouragement because he felt obligated, out of sympathy, to help the struggling student. He didn’t really mean that I had influence.

My first of many visits to Pete’s office is one of my greatest “lollipop moments.” In the end, his words, the few minutes he took to speak with me, were enough to propel me through grad school while working full-time as a teacher. I became more outspoken in class discussions. I was still nervous about sharing my writing with others, but I overcame the feeling of shame that accompanies thoughts like “I’m not good enough.” I began to believe I WAS good enough. I graduated from Lehigh University with a Masters degree in English in May of 2006. It is the one accomplishment of which I am most proud.

In his TED Talk, Drew Dudley points out that we often don’t tell tell the leaders in our lives the transformative power that they had. We keep it to ourselves, but we shouldn’t. We should tell people about these “lollipop moments.” I have shown Pete my gratefulness for his guidance; however, I haven’t ever clearly expressed to him how that moment changed my life. I will now.

A Year Cut Short

I came home from work early today, hoping to fit in a short run. The sun was shining for the first time all day. I decided to run without my iPod to enjoy the sounds of spring. About 1/4 mile from my house, the rain started. “Stop!” I yelled at the sky, thinking today the universe would listen to me. But it didn’t.

By the time I returned home, after running for 16 minutes and 58 seconds, I was soaked: My run was cut short.

I feel the same way about this school year–it has been cut short.  Why?

  • I haven’t taught my students all that I think I should.
  • I haven’t covered everything that’s in the curriculum.
  • I should have taught a few things much differently than I did.

Then there’s the perpetual echo: Have I prepared my students sufficiently for the PSSAs?

As a teacher, I criticize myself all the time. I didn’t grade any essays today. I forgot to speak to John today. Oh no! I forgot to call the guidance counselor about Kelly’s grade. Why can’t I remember to take care of everything? Why didn’t I say this or that to a student? These are the thoughts that wake me up at night and remind me that I’m not yet good enough, and I’m not accomplishing as much I should. I am often too hard on myself. I don’t forgive myself for being imperfect, for being human.

Today I am thinking differently. Today I am taking some time to contemplate what I do well. Today I am going to transcend self-criticism. Here are a few things that I have done well this year:

  • My students know how to annotate all kinds of texts. I am not kidding about this one. I taught this skill with gusto this year, and if there were an Annotating Text Championship, my students would win.
  • My students wrote every day. Every day that I met with my students, they wrote. It may have been a reflective paragraph in their writer’s notebooks. It may have been a sentence that they modeled and made their own. Some days they wrote essays. No matter what, they had time to think, process, and record their ideas on paper. Of this accomplishment, I am probably most proud.
  • My students read books that they chose. For the first time in several years, my students chose novels that they wanted to read, not ones that were prescribed by the teacher or curriculum. They discovered new authors, new styles of writing, and I believe they also learned that they are not alone.
  • I made the choice to align myself with leaders. I decided midway through the year that I was going to surround myself with like-minded people who believed in positive change and forward movement. This decision has made a notable difference in my practice, my attitude about my job, and my interactions with my students.
  • I allowed my students to teach me how to be kinder and more compassionate. Every year I learn from my students in many ways, but since I began teaching 8th grade, I’ve gained a greater realization of the power of empathy. Empathy can move mountains.

I encourage all my colleagues to take some time once a week and think about what you do well. When you reflect on your day, forgo the readiness to criticize; take some time to praise yourself. Silence the inner self-critic until tomorrow.

Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller, and Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset

In The Story of My Life, Helen Keller recounts her struggles with deafness and blindness. Almost every American student learns Helen Keller’s story at some point in middle school or high school. I was one of those students. I don’t, however, remember exactly when I was taught her story or even if I ever read it. Helen Keller’s story is so much a fabric of our culture that I feel like I have always known about her. Because I thought I knew everything I needed to know about Helen Keller, I was not excited to begin the unit about her with my students. My decision to teach the autobiography instead of the play was based on the Common Core standards and their focus on non-fiction. I asked myself, “How can the autobiography be as poignant as the play?”

Well, until I began reading Keller’s story and sharing it with my students, I realized that I knew almost nothing about her.

As often happens when I teach an unfamiliar piece to my students, I was pleasantly surprised with their response, which, in turn, increased my enthusiasm about the unit. If you’ve never read Keller’s autobiography, I suggest you do. In it, Keller recounts her struggles in intimate and precise detail. I asked the students to record Wow! moments, questions, and connections they made while reading chapter 6. One of the most popular wow moments that the students noted was “She knows more words than I do! How did she learn them being deaf AND blind?” Helen Keller articulately explains her learning process and her relationship to Annie Sullivan, but even so, don’t we all wonder at her accomplishments? If you don’t, you need to reread parts of her autobiography. If you don’t have the time to peruse the entire book, peruse a few chapters. I recommend chapters 3, 4, 6, 7, 13, 20 and 22. Ask yourself how Helen Keller became a world famous speaker, an author of twelve books, a progressive and relentless advocate for people with disabilities, a speaker of five languages, and a world traveler?

After much thought, I’ve come to this conclusion:

Helen had a patient, persistent, and loving teacher who, as Annie herself said, taught Helen like a seeing child.

In other words, Annie believed in Helen.

Annie Sullivan had a growth mindset.

At first, when my teacher told me about a new thing I asked very few questions . . . but as my knowledge of things grew, and I learned more and more words, my field of inquiry broadened, (3)

I hesitate to use the phrase “growth mindset” because educators have heard so much about it lately, but it clearly explains what made Annie Sullivan such an inspiring teacher. I’m also reticent to use the phrase because  I think some educational leaders misinterpret the it. (I could write an entire blog post about that topic, but I’ll save it for another time.) If you are unfamiliar with growth mindset, you can watch Carol Dweck’s TED talk called “The Power of Believing That You Can Improve.” Even if you are familiar with the concept, the video is worth watching.

One of the most powerful messages that Helen’s story conveys to teachers one hundred years later is the power of a growth mindset. Annie never allowed herself to believe that Helen was not capable of learning. And guess what–Helen learned more in her lifetime than many of us could learn in two if you think about where she started, trapped in her own mind, her own darkness, with the inability to communicate how she felt or what she thought to herself or with the outside world. And please let me note that Helen did not learn because Annie told Helen that she was great all the time. Helen learned and grew because Annie believed Helen could be better, and as a result, she made Helen aware of her mistakes.

In chapter 6 of her story, Helen Keller writes, “At first, when my teacher told me about a new thing I asked very few questions. My ideas were vague, and my vocabulary was inadequate; but as my knowledge of things grew, and I learned more and more words, my field of inquiry broadened, and I would return again and again to the same subject, eager for further information.” I asked my students to analyze this quotation and think about what it reveals about Helen Keller’s character. When I reviewed the students’ responses, one stuck with me: “Why did she ask few questions in the beginning?” This  question honed my focus for a brief moment and provided me with an insight: Aren’t many of our students like Helen? Like Helen, they do not have the background knowledge or the words they need to discern what questions they should ask. It’s our job as teachers to build that background knowledge and those vocabulary skills so that our students become questioners. After all, aren’t the best learners curious? They want to know more about a subject, like Helen, whose “field of inquiry broadened” when she was finally given the words she needed.

Sarah Tantillo (who you can also find on WordPress) writes in The Literacy Cookbook that “comprehension in general, not just reading comprehension . . . applies to listening, seeing, smelling, touching–everything you do in order to try to understand.” If Helen Keller could develop an understanding of her world through Annie’s teachings with only three senses, then even the most reluctant learners can learn in our classrooms. They may have other disabilities that are not sensory-related, but they are capable of developing an understanding and curiosity about the world in which they live.


Control vs. Conversation

Control is the enemy of authentic conversation.

Just as perfectionism (another form of control) is the enemy of creativity, honest and productive conversation cannot occur if one party is wedded to maintaining control.

As a teacher, I think of conversations with my students. I may have a goal in mind when I enter a conversation, but ultimately, I am not the one in control. I must actively listen to the other parties and validate their ideas. If I don’t, the conversation is counterproductive, and one party inevitably leaves feeling unsatisfied. I think most everyone agrees that effective leaders are good listeners. Even if they don’t immediately act on the feedback they receive, they hear it and consider it.

On Sunday afternoon I listened to Hacking Assessment tltalkradio hosted by Randy Ziegnfuss and Lynn Fuini-Hetten. If you have not yet listened to this podcast, I highly recommend it. You can find it on the website and on iTunes. In season 2, episode 3, Randy and Lynn interviewed Starr Sackstein author of the book, Hacking Assessment, volume three of the Hack Learning Series. I have not yet read the Sackstein’s book or the other two volumes in the series, but since I am an Amazon Prime member, volume 3 will be in my mailbox tomorrow.

One of the main points Ms. Sackstein makes in the podcast is that the most difficult change for teachers is relinquishing control. (You can read more about this topic on Sackstein’s blog.) Letting go of control is uncomfortable and even distressing, but once teachers begin to entrust their students with the power to make decisions, the real magic begins to happen. When I was first learning to play baseball, my father said that every bat has a sweet spot. I believe that every classroom does as well, and it’s the teacher’s job to find it and use it. But the only way to optimize the power of the student-teacher relationship is to experiment, take risks, and ultimately, have fun with the learning process. It can be done. It requires lots of hard work, shifts in mindset for teachers and students, and support from administration, but it can be done.

The most interesting part of the podcast for me was Sackstein’s discussion of grades. She believes that ultimately she allows students to assess their own work, based on the standards, and provide the teacher with evidence to support their evaluation. Sackstein admitted that she still sometimes struggles with giving some students the grades they think they deserve, but ultimately, it’s about the process, not the grade. The grade isn’t as important as what was learned.

I intend to write a follow-up to this post once I start reading Sackstein’s book, so stay tuned.