Skip to main content

Posts

Showing posts from 2017

Remember to Sweep the Floor

I just finished reading Ryan Holiday’s Ego Is the Enemy. This book might easily make my top five books of the year because of Holiday’s ability to take history and make other people’s experiences helpful as we try to understand our own lives.

Holiday’s work serves as a reminder of two things for me. The first is that what we do is more important than who we are. He discusses Bill Walsh, former coach of the 49ers, when explaining the concept of a “Standard of Performance” (108). When we focus on what should be done and when and how, we can instill excellence. And Holiday argues that it’s this attention to exacting standards that is more impotrant than a grand vision. Like Walsh has said, if we pay attention to the small details, “the score takes care of itself.” Holiday ends this chapter with this: “Instead of pretending that we are living some great story, we must remain focused on the execution–and on excuting with excellence” (113). If we focus on the former, then ego gets in the wa…

Kids Wielding Critical Thinking

I first heard Cornelius Minor speak at NCTE’s convention last fall, and I was instantly impressed. He very quickly had dozens of adults moving around the room, jumping rope, making lists—learning in some of the most engaged ways.
I recently subscribed to the Heinemann Podcast and I found myself devouring the series of episodes featuring Minor. Trust me. You don’t want to miss these.The episode on “The Over-Engaged Student” is one of them. Through the story of “Prez,” a nickname given to one particular student, Minor explores ways that he is able to “turn the volume down” “but respect his enthusiasm” on the type of student that we have all encountered. You know, the one who always seems to have a comment or contribution to make, even if, at times, it might not seem relevant. And that’s when Minor says this: “One of the things that we never want to do is silence kids.” That made me stop and think about all the times that I’ve asked kids to “hold that thought” and then never returned to …

A Lasting Impact

I love graduation season. It's a time to celebrate hard work and academic achievement. For many students in both my hometown and where I work, many students who are graduating are the first in their families to graduate from high school.

As teachers, sometimes we forget that. I've been guilty of assuming before that because we're past Y2K that everyone has a high school diploma. I remember my own realization when I found out my mom's mom hadn't graduated high school. Encouraged by a doctor to drop out (I remember her vaguely mentioning something about an enlarged heart), she was told that she wouldn't live to be 18. Naturally, she carpe diem-ed. (Well, there wasn't much living it up. She married and had five kids. She also lived to her late 70s.)

So as I sat on the dais at my hometown's graduation ceremony, I reminded myself to remain calm about the air horns, the catcalls, the shouting. High school graduation might not seem like a big deal to me (everyo…

Targets and Time

I just finished Cris Tovani and Elizabeth Birr Moje's No More Telling as Teaching: Less Lecture, More Engaged Learning from Heinemann's Not This But That series edited by Ellin Oliver Keene and Nell Duke.

Needless to say, I pick up anything that's by Tovani and Moje because of Tovani's belief in the workshop model and Moje's extensive work in both disciplinary and out of school literacies.

After finishing this quick read, I've been thinking a lot about two things.

First, how we spend our time matters. I get less than 60 minutes with students each hour. Time is a hot commodity! Because of that, I am constantly looking at ways to maximize instruction. If I pass papers back this way or if I move this to this point in time, I can gain another minute. And those minutes add up! Sometimes, however, it feels like there is just never enough time. All teachers know that. In fact, I've yet to meet a teacher admit that she or he has too much time with students, especia…

Remembering Professional Ethics

I just finished Timothy Snyder's On Tyranny, a quick read that I picked up from Nicola's Books in Ann Arbor on my birthday. Written by Timothy Snyder, a history professor at Yale, the book is terrifying in its parallels between World War II and 2017.

As a teacher, the chapter on professional ethics stood out to me the most. Snyder writes that

Professions can create forms of ethical conversation that are impossible between a lonely individual and a distant government. If members of professions think of themselves as groups with common interests, with norms and rules that oblige them at all times, then they can gain confidence and indeed a certain kind of power. (41) He argues that its members within professions--doctors, lawyers, and businessmen--that abandoned their norms and ethics and allowed such atrocities to occur under Hitler. Had they united and refused to comply, he argues that the Nazis would have had a much more difficult time carrying out their plans.

As teachers, w…

Stop Ignoring Research

I just finished Kylene Beers and Robert Probst's Disrupting Thinking. I keep thinking about page 103 in the text, where they discuss the idea of "research-based practices" and how many of us "are willing to ignore what we know from research." They mention teaching grammar in isolation, spelling lists, lack of conferring in writing classrooms, monologic talk, prescribing novels without choice--the list goes on and on. I get frustrated because I hear from other teachers often excuses for why they do these things. And even I have felt forced to resort to some of these practices at times because it's what kids have been conditioned to expect at school. It is amazing how quiet a classroom can be when you give every student a worksheet. And if compliance is our end goal, then a worksheet works. But if we want students to undertake meaningful work that's often the work supported by best practices, we're going to have to be willing to get a whole lot more u…

Watching First-Gens Navigate Financial Aid

This past week, I spent much of my "free time" at school working with two students to ensure they have everything necessary submitted to the university they plan to attend this fall. I was a first-generation college student. So are these young men.So it came as no surprise when a few weeks went by and they hadn't followed up with me. One hadn't checked his email to notice a respond from the Office of Financial Aid to let him know that he needed to submit additional documentation. Other had been so consumed with life (I remember my own senior year when I was so involved in other activities that I forgot to turn in any of the local scholarship applications) that I didn't focus on anything beyond high school. So I spent a little time tracking these guys down, sending reminder texts like, "Paperwork. ASAP," and then following up in person. It was during this process that I also had the chance to watch a young man interact on the phone with the financial aid…

Making Time for Inquiry

I recently finished Leading for Literacy, WestEd's newest book about Reading Apprenticeship. This book builds on the work in Reading for Understanding, a text that I would argue should be in every teacher's professional library, no matter the content area. If you want to think critically about disciplinary-specific ways of reading and thinking, it's really the book for you.

Leading builds on all the great work that RA teachers are doing and shines much light on continuing and supporting RA implementation for the long haul. With vignettes from across North America, readers get snapshots of others' classrooms, leveraging other teachers' voices in our constant quest to become better reading teachers.

It wasn't until my participation in the Eastern Michigan Writing Project's Summer Institute that I really learned about teacher research or inquiry. In high school, I always thought that teachers just taught. I had this idea that everything that my teachers did rem…

Re-Evaluating What You Do

I recently finished Greg McKeown's Essentialism, a book I had bought two years ago when a few friends and I were on a panel at NCTE together. We had all agreed to buy this book to direct our presentation, but I never had--scratch that--madethe time to read it. I can begin this blog post about taking ownership by actually taking ownership. Not reading that was on me. I didn't make enough tough choices in order to make time to read it. So, Essentialism. In a nut shell, it "is not about how to get more things done; it's about how to get the right things done" (5). Essentialists rank; they discern. They take the time to question and think about opportunities that are presented to them, and they think through the trade-off that will occur if they do one particular thing instead of waiting for another or just saying no altogether. This is tough work for teachers, in particular.

Many of us are go-to people. We want to "do what's right for kids" all the tim…

Taking the Time to Ask Why

Recently a counselor shared an article entitled "Reengaging At-Risk Girls" by Nona C. Jones. She placed it in my mailbox, noting that she "thought of me" when reading it. I finally had the time to sit down, read it, and reflect today. What a powerful article.

In it, Jones writes this: "What shows up as defiance is nothing more than defensiveness, defensiveness learned from a girl having to defend her dignity. What shows up as apathy is nothing more than hopelessness, hopelessness learned from a girl who has never been given a reason to hope. What shows up as anger is nothing more than explosive hurt, hurt that a girl has contained for so long it has nowhere to go but out and at the nearest person.”

This serves as a good reminder that the students we interact with every day are more than just surface-level reactions, behaviors, and emotions. It's when we take the time to question, to ask why, to build meaningful relationships that we can really find out who …

The Mountain Top

I've been thinking a lot about a poem shared with me by my own high school mentor. I haven't read the original book that it comes from, but I shared this same poem with another student as we debated experience and perspective the other day.

Poem from ‘Mount Analogue’ One cannot stay on the summit forever – One has to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this. What is above knows what is below – But what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees – One descends and sees no longer But one has seen! There is an art of conducting one’s self in The lower regions by the memory of What one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, One does at least still know.
So, is it better to have climbed the mountain or to never climb? Is it better to take risks and adventures--to take a chance to see from the summit or precipice--or to remain below?
This is also a reminder that our experiences change us forever. We can never "go back" once we have ex…

We Must Look to the Best

I recently finished reading Todd Whittaker’s What Great Teachers Do Differently: 17 Things That Matter Most. While I’m always skeptical of the promise of “best practices” or any type of guarantee, I quickly realized that the things that Whittaker discusses in this book really are the things that the colleagues I consider to be the best really do.

And Whittaker makes the argument that we shouldn’t compare ourselves to the worst to improve our practice. Part of the problem lies in the fact that “many ineffective teachers also think they are doing a good job,” and that building the ability to self-reflect is really hard work. But we can only deeply self reflect and improve our practice when we have exemplars to emulate.

Although there were 17 practices that he shares, I’m really thinking about these: -“When a student misbehaves, the great teacher has one goal: to keep that behavior from happening again. The least effective teacher often has a different goal: revenge.” (25)
-“Great teacher…

Was That a Dream?

I woke this morning earlier than usual. At 3:00 AM I stumbled to the bathroom, paying little attention on my journey. We have a small nightlight in the living room. It’s just bright enough to illuminate my path to the other end of the hour. And we’ve lived here long enough that I could probably navigate with my eyes closed.

I didn’t want to wake my wife, so I napped on the couch until it was time to wake for work. As I sat on the couch in a half-awake state, I thought I could make out a smell that I knew should not be in our house.

A few months ago, Stacy had woken me during the middle of the night to point out a skunk running in our yard. Its white stripe shining bright under the moonlight, I quickly turned back over and went to sleep.

But at 3:30 AM now, I felt a feeling of dread in my stomach. Did it get into the house? Did it get under the house? How much damage did it do? I knew I should have dealt with this earlier.

I walked around the house, smelling from room to room. It seeme…

“Isn’t that your job?”

A student stopped by to ask about Creative Writing.

“What’s it like?"

“Well, you get a lot of choice."

“So we can write about whatever we want?"

“Well, I want you to think about genre, audience, and purpose with every piece."

“Ok. So what will we do?"

“We will write. A lot."

“Why’s that kid’s name on the board?"

“He’s leading the prompt for tomorrow."

He is leading the prompt? Isn’t that your job?"

“Is it? In here, students will have some choice in the direction we head. And we all find inspiration from different sources. I want everyone to share that."

“But you’re the teacher…"

“And in here, we are all writers."

Bus Rides

Today I spent about seven hours on buses with students. The first trip involved 49 students on a trip to Central Michigan University, and the second was to chaperone a spirit bus for a basketball game. The ride to CMU was lively. Students were awake, engaged in conversation up and down the aisles. For some students, like the one I sat next to on the bus, this was his very first college visit--ever. For others, this was a return trip. They were hoping to finalize a decision about their next few years. After a tour around campus and lunch in a dining hall, we piled back on the bus. And before long, a tranquil silence took over. Students drifted off to sleep or just experienced a calm contentment with the day. Some questions were answered, and some new ones were developed. A powerful trip ended in quiet reflection. I write this surrounded by students on the return trip from a basketball game where our team just won. It's been a long time since our team has made it this far. It's …

Is That Chocolate or Poop?

If you looked at me at some point after 7:00 AM today, you would notice many splotches of brown all over my pants. Thankfully I don’t have to do the smell or taste test to see if it’s chocolate or poop—it’s chocolate sauce from a student’s frozen coffee beverage from this morning.

I pride myself on having an open and inviting classroom environment. I get to school early to work, and I welcome any students into my room after I arrive. It’s mostly a quiet space, and they can use a computer, print a document, or work with a partner on a project. School was a safe place for me growing up, so I think it’s my obligation to give that back to students today.

Around 7:00 AM, I announced to the students in my classroom that they had to get to first hour. I needed to visit a colleague, and it’s not good practice to leave students in your classroom unattended. So as I made my way to the door, another student arrived. Carrying two frozen drinks, she set them down on a desk. Little did we expect, o…

My Winter Break in Classrooms

Over my district’s winter break, I visited four schools and over twenty classrooms. From the professional development session I led in a middle school in South Carolina, to my friend’s classroom/library in a Catholic middle school, to a nearby district where I shadowed an assistant principal, to the four schools across grade levels in the district I grew up in and serve on the board of education, I spent my entire break learning. I’ll even argue that I spent my entire break visiting more public schools than our nation’s secretary of education may have done in her lifetime.

Before I write any more about those experiences, I think it’s important to offer a sincere thank you to every teacher whose room or school I visited. I know how unsettling it can be when someone visits your classroom, and I thank them for the opportunities.

I wanted to summarize a few things that I saw over break and have really been thinking about.

In South Carolina, teachers are so excited to use classroom librari…

Don't Be Misled by $778 At-Risk Payments

Governor Snyder recently proposed a $778 increase per economically disadvantaged pupil in Michigan. At first glance, this looks good. Who can argue with an announcement like this:

An increase of $150 million, to a total of $529 million, to ensure that children in difficult financial situations are getting the help they need. All districts and public school academies will now be eligible to receive an additional $778 per pupil to assist at-risk students.

After all, it's money for at-risk students. We instantly assume that the governor is proposing helping our neediest students, which should make us all jump for joy.

And we know from the adequacy study done last year that our poorest students require greater funding (30% more!) to educate if we ever hope to close the achievement gap, not to mention their general recommendation of $8,667 per pupil as a foundation allowance (note that many districts in Michigan still receive far less than this).

But the real problem of inequitable fund…

"Culture Beats Strategy"

I subscribed to Seth Godin's short blog posts recently because my boss shared Godin's writing with me. He's worth listening to on the Tim Ferris Show, too.

Two days ago, he shared a post that ended with this:

Culture beats strategy. So much that culture is strategy.
When I think about our work with students, culture really is the most important work that we can do. 
Is there a culture of trust and collaboration in our classrooms and with our colleagues? Or is the culture that we have created one of competition and negativity? 
We can't begin to take risks with our students and co-workers if we don't trust each other. And it's in that space of trust where we can really be willing to try something new. 
I'm also thinking a lot about the days where I seemed to focus more on the "strategy" of teaching rather than tapping into the culture in my classroom. Even when I think the culture is established to the point where we don't need to spend any more…

Pay Attention to Weapons of MATH Destruction (WMDs)

I distinctly remember a former professor telling me that she provided false information when filling out her Kroger card. She wanted the rewards, but she didn't want someone to be able to track purchases to her. This type of data is so widespread. When you shop on Amazon, your purchases are fed into an algorithm that suggests and predicts other purchases you might like. Meijer now offers money off future purchases when you reach a limit and log in with MPerks.

I recently began reading Weapons of Math Destruction because a colleague referred me to it. I'm convinced that this book, among others, should be a mandatory read for every educator, young and old. We live in the age of "big data," data that promises to be helpful but is really quite terrifying.

Like Cathy O'Neil points out in her book, an algorithm is really "an opinion formalized in code" (53). But try as we might to make a mathematical formula objective, it will be subjective and flawed because…

Focusing Forward

Shortly after noon, my phone was abuzz with texts asking if I'd heard that DeVos' nomination had gone through. I wasn't able to stream it at that point, but I had assumed her nomination would move forward. I'll also admit that I was hoping McCain would be willing to go "rogue" or "maverick-y" like he once prided himself on.

I will leave this image of McCain and Clinton here and not even comment.


So, in the mean time, what should teachers do? Well, we shouldn't get upset that our calls, our letters, our rallying "didn't work." In fact, it did. It proved we are a formidable force. 
This is the first time in history that a vice president has had to be the deciding vote for a cabinet nominee. This, to quote Vice President Biden during the passing of the Affordable Care Act, is a BFD. 

We must continue to be vocal. We must continue to tell our stories about public education. We must continue to speak out against injustice and the potenti…

Highlighting African American Authors

February is Black History Month. One of the goals that I set for myself is to share as many African American authors' voices with my Creative Writing students over the next 28 days.

Yesterday, I began with Jason Reynolds. He's one of my favorite young-adult authors. His writing is real, it's "mundane," and it has the potential to really connect with young people. I showed this video, where Jason talks about the need for diverse books to be both mirrors and windows for all young people.


Today, I plan to introduce Kekla Magoon to students. In this video, she talks about the powerful situation that young people are in. Their voices are important. Their words matter. And we can situate them to use their language for hope and change.


Cashin's 'Place, Not Race'

Despite the landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, today's schools are more segregated than in the past. But if the recent election reveals anything about race relations, it's that we've reached a point where, as Sheryll Cashin writes, "Nothing will get better, then, without reconciliation between sizable numbers of whites and people of color" (110). If we want to establish a true coalition and set of alliances that are working toward progress, everyone needs to feel as if their voices are being heard.

Published in 2014, Cashin's Place, Not Race explores the history and future of affirmative action in the United States, while encouraging changes in policy and strategy to create more opportunities for those in underserved places, which, in turn, will improve outcomes for all races.

I'll share just a few lines that have had me thinking the last few days:

"While non-blacks see real and virtual examples of black success every day, they don't …

Place, Not Race -- Part 1

If you work in public education--specifically secondary education--you know now that it's the time when students' plans are solidified for the fall. College acceptance, deferment, and rejection letters are arriving, and students are starting to get their financial aid packages from universities.

I remember being in high school and how the process was so new to me. I was a first-generation college graduate, and my dad didn't know much about the process other than applying. (Applying to college was actually how I convinced him to get high speed internet; until then, we had dial-up, and I couldn't get the applications to load.)

I knew I had to fill out the FAFSA because my counselors told me to. I knew I had to check for deadlines because my counselors told me to. The list goes on and on of topics and deadlines that I heard from others about. I knew little about the expected family contribution (EFC); I just knew that my dad couldn't help much when it came to paying f…

"Flush with Cash"

I took some time this morning to read President Trump's inauguration speech yesterday. I was at school during the day and unable to watch it, but I still feel it's important to take the time to read and be aware, even if I disagree with someone.

In his speech, President Trump said this: "... an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge..."

And it's that part of his speech in particular that I take offense to.

To make that claim about schools in America--and particularly those in Michigan--is false.

I am a teacher. I serve on a board of education in another district. And I can tell you that neither district is "flush with cash." Year after year these districts have had to make difficult budget cuts, often balanced by the sacrifices made by employee groups.

When I hear rhetoric that districts should do more with less, that really means they should cut salaries and benefits. Anyone even re…

The Law That Started It All

After DeVos' hearing yesterday, I continued doing research about the secretary of education. And I stumbled upon the law that actually created the department here.

I've taken the liberty to bold some parts below:

SEC. 102. The Congress declares that the establishment of a Department of Education is in the public interest, will promote the general welfare of the United States, will help ensure that education issues receive proper treatment at the Federal level, and will enable the Federal Government to coordinate its education activities more effectively. Therefore, the purposes of this Act are--(1) to strengthen the Federal commitment to ensuring access to equal educational opportunity for every individual;(4) to promote improvements in the quality and usefulness of education through federally supported research, evaluation, and sharing of information(7) to increase the accountability of Federal education programs to the President, the Congress, and the public.  Some of the abo…

Past Secretaries of Education

After last night's hearing with nominee DeVos, I decided to research past education secretaries. Senator Alexander talked a lot about "precedent" when it came to procedures regarding the HELP Committee.

Let us remember that the first education secretary was appointed in 1979. That's the same year that Congress created the department under Jimmy Carter. This is also the same department that Ronald Reagan promised to abolish.

Even the first education secretary had experience in government. Shirley M. Hufstedler was both a federal and state appeals court judge. I'm going to say that because of that experience, she's probably familiar with law and how laws work. As we saw last night, when Betsy DeVos was redirected a question because her answer implied that states could choose to implement federal law or not, she might need a refresher.

Then we had Terrel Bell, who was a high school teacher, bus driver, and served in the Marines. Again, a long list of public serv…

Ineffective Practices

I've been reading Mike Schmoker's Results Now the past few days. It's been a great reminder for the start of this year about the urgent, important work that classroom teachers undertake daily and also a reality check that the smallest changes can bring about big results. And when I say "smallest changes," I really do mean that. He doesn't argue for anything radical in this book, unless you consider making sure success criteria is clear to students by showing strong examples of what they ultimately are expected to do, giving descriptive and specific feedback, or having kids actually read and write in school.

Throughout the book, Schmoker calls for a "coherent curriculum" and the opening of our classrooms to scrutiny and feedback. It's this quote that really has had me thinking for days:

'To put the need in perspective: we would be properly outraged if administrators routinely failed to show up for appointments with parents, or if most teachers…

Letter to the Editor Regarding DeVos

***Update:  At the time this letter was read at Monday’s board meeting, the hearing regarding Betsy DeVos’ nomination as the secretary of education was still scheduled for Wednesday, January 11. Later that evening, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions postponed the hearing until January 17 at 5:00 PM.

This is a letter to the editor that I will submit for the January 12 edition of the Belleville-Area Independent
-----
To the Editor:
This week marks a defining moment for public education in the United States. On Wednesday, January 11, a hearing will have taken place regarding Betsy DeVos’ nomination as the secretary of education.
During the past few board meetings, I have expressed my concerns publicly about Mrs. DeVos’ appointment to the top education post, and I reiterate those same concerns here. I have contacted Senator Stabenow and Peter’s offices, and they both have now expressed their concerns regarding this appointment and have vowed to…