Category Archives: Reflections

Student Stress #challengesuccess

I had the opportunity to attend the Challenge Success Workshop at Stanford.  I like to say that… “at Stanford.”

We put a great deal of stress on students with school, homework, and extracurriculars.  Do we justify this stress by thinking, “We’re just preparing them for the real world”?

Are their brains even ready for this kind of stress?

During the conference, I kept thinking about my own children and the roller coaster of time demands our family endures.  Some days, it feels like they should have more to do, and other days, it feels like there aren’t enough hours in the day.

I feel that, as a teacher, I should continue to be flexible with the amount of homework I assign and with deadlines.

As a member of our school’s #ChallengeSuccess team, I can spread the gospel.

As a school system, I feel that some of the takeaways of the conference were out of my hands.  We are a district that prizes its number of AP courses, its test scores, and its scholarship dollars.  We award weighted credit for more difficult classes; we pay students for passing AP scores.  We award improvements of ACT scores with exam exemptions.  We have class ranks.

I understand why we do these things.  BUT… it does conflict with much of the #challengesuccess agenda.



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I attended the Better Conversations workshop with Jim Knight.

It was a half-day workshop, and honestly, it was one of the better workshops I’ve attended.  Such a simple concept.  We’re teachers– we talk all the time, right?

But are we really listening?  Are we conveying our message as effectively as possible?  Are we making an effort to create meaningful relationships and partnerships?

It got me thinking about my body language, proximity, eye contact, tone of voice, etc., with my students.  I’m going to make more of an effort to make sure all my students feel connected.  I want them to feel comfortable sharing their work and asking questions.  I want them to value my feedback.  I quite often lump “them” all together when I should be focused more on the “he” or “she” level.  You’ve got to have a relationship with individual students for this to work.

It also made me think about how I interact with other teachers and with admin.  I think I’ve been slack in this area in recent years.  We’ve had a fair amount of teacher and admin turnover, and I am certain that I haven’t cultivated the relationships with our new arrivals that would make my workplace more enjoyable and productive.

It requires an intentional effort to develop a rapport.  If we’re going to collaborate and make cross-disciplinary connections, we have to feel comfortable talking to each other.

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Making New Teachers Feel Welcome!

Our school system revitalized the mentorship program, and I spent my afternoon trying to put together a “care package” for our new English teachers.  I probably spent way more time thinking about this than I should have, but it was either this or dusting my classroom.  I really dislike dusting.

The gift boxes...

The gift boxes…

If you have new teachers at your school– whether you’re a mentor or not– remember to make them feel special and supported during their first weeks.  Feel free to adapt this list to your own subject area, budget, etc.  Even a simple gesture like a coffee or a candy bar can go a long way when one starts to feel overwhelmed.

Your Box o’ Stuff: A Gift from Your English Peeps

  • Recycled Notebook

Because you need to remember to see worth in the students that others have passed by

  • Tissue

Because you or the students may be sick or crying and some students may just need to stretch their legs (And because it’s hard to teach if you’re not at school and hard for your students to learn if they’re absent)

  • BandAids

Because people get hurt (and because someone is going to try to get out of class and go to the nurse for a Bandaid and you’re going to have a Bandaid ready and shut that down)

  • Hand Sanitizer

Because some of our students are gross (and because they deserve love, high fives, and fist bumps, too)

  • Magnets

Because you need a place to hang the many flyers that will end up in your mailbox and to showcase exemplary student work

  • Wall Hanging Mounts

Because you will want to take pride in your environment and provide your students with a place that makes them want to learn (And there’s a good chance someone will go crazy if you use duct tape or hot glue on these new walls)

  • Post-Its and Stick-Its

Because you will feel overwhelmed with the amount of information coming your way in the next few weeks and now is the time to employ all those note-taking strategies you teach your students

  • Highlighters

Because you should never forego an opportunity to shine light on those who have gone above and beyond

  • Binder Clips

Because organization keeps you from losing papers (and your mind)

  • Electronic Wipes

Because we are blessed with technology and we want to take care of it (And remember to organize and plug-in classroom iPad and lap top carts or you WILL hear about it)

  • Red Pens

Because students need consistent constructive feedback from you and from each other

  • Purple Pens

Because students also need positive praise from you and from each other

  • Pencils

Because students who are forgetful or lacking shouldn’t be punished academically for failing to have supplies on hand (Just give them a pencil, book, paper, etc. There are bigger battles to fight.)

  • Thank You cards

Because you will want to thank people like Phillis Gaines, Nancy Reyes, Becky Ruhlman, Wanda Neilson, Judi Brown, Dotty Miller, Mrs. Oliver, Mrs. Huskey, the counselors, assistant principals, Mrs. Lambert, and especially the janitors, because they will take care of you

  • Tech Tip Sheet

Because you will want to showcase all your accomplishments and ask for advice when you need it

  • Popcorn

Because it’s going to take a few days to get back into our school schedule (a 12:40-ish lunch time is a loooong time to wait until our tummies adjust to the schedule)

  • Relaxing Face Mask

Because you’re going to be tired and maybe even cranky (And you deserve some me-time so that you can face the little monsters… um, students… tomorrow with your best self.)

  • Hot Chocolate

Because it’s chocolate… Duh! (And because you need to reward yourself for bell-to-bell, engaging instruction, efficient classroom procedures, and fair but firm classroom management)

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It’s been awhile.

During the spring, student publications like literary magazines and yearbooks are in frenzy mode, and the only way to handle the frenzy is through effective time management, organization, delegation, and prioritization.  Each of these topics in relation to student publications is worthy of its own blog post, so I’m going to focus on the one most evident:


Reflection is important, but sometimes when the current is moving quickly, it’s all a blur.

This blog, an evidence of my reflection or lack thereof, reflects something just as important– my priorities.  Right now, my students and their success as communicators and thinkers and our actual student publications are my priorities during the school day.

Once we have the printed literary magazine in hand and its corresponding website popping and the student news site updated for the final time for the year, I’ll think of plenty of could haves and should haves.  They’ll probably wake me up in the middle of the night and will most likely manifest into blog posts.  I’ll then calm myself by thinking of this year’s successes.  These will probably be blog posts, too.

Right now, the current is swift, and my students and I are in this together.  I’ll stand at the water’s edge soon enough.

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Differentiation– Intuition vs. Intention

As educators, we are expected to meet students where they are and then lift them to higher ground. Unfortunately, many public school teachers continue to use a one-size-fits-all approach to classroom instruction. When teachers juggle too many preps, extracurricular activities, and student numbers, they have little time to prepare engaging lesson plans, much less have the time to differentiate those lessons. Our teachers deserve this time because each student matters. Incorporating differentiation into instruction can improve the academic experience for all of our students.

We have all received a one-size-fits-all t-shirt, maybe at a blood drive or a fun run. How many of us have quickly retired that shirt to the bottom of a drawer? We might wear it when washing the car or mowing the lawn. We consider ourselves lucky if this shirt can even be worn in public. Unfortunately, our students are also lucky if they succeed with a teacher who has a one-size-fits-all approach to classroom instruction.

The typical class demographics consist of students of different ages, genders, socioeconomic statuses, and capabilities. One student may seem destined for Harvard and another student may seem destined to drop out. They may come from different cultures; they may speak different languages. These students may have different interests, learning styles, and readiness levels.

Advocates such as Carol Tomlinson tout the benefits of differentiation as student growth and motivation as well as efficiency in instruction. It makes sense. It makes so much sense that most teachers differentiate intuitively. When students needed extra time to complete a test, these teachers took those one-size-fits-all t-shirts and let out the seam. When students pointed and said la camiseta or manga corta, these teachers nodded and then took a sharpie and wrote t-shirt across the front of those shirts.

What is better than intuition? Not much. If anything, it is intention. If we take the time to understand our audience and adapt our message, our medium, and our product, we have better results. This is not only true of the classroom; it’s true in the business world, too. Effective marketers never target everyone with the same message; they can’t afford it. They specialize. They study demographics and psychographics in order to find and capitalize on niche markets.

If we apply this mindset to our classrooms, because we are, in effect, marketing ourselves and our content to an audience, we realize that first we must develop an understanding of our audience. We need to study interest inventories, learning style results, and test data. We need to take into consideration all of the other variables. We need to incorporate flexible grouping; as a matter of fact, we just need to be flexible… because each class—each student— is different.

This approach takes time. No one is asking every teacher to differentiate every lesson for each student every day. It is a continual work in progress. Maybe you will focus on one unit this year. Maybe you will focus on hands-on learners this year. Maybe you will focus on meeting the needs of your special education students this year. Maybe you will focus on your independent learners this year. Maybe you will focus on various strategies to tackle nonfiction text.

The point is to remember that no one ever walks into a department store in search of a one-size-fits-all t-shirt.

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Personality Types

I’ve been thinking about how I address different personality types in my classroom.  Not learning styles.  Just basic personality types.  Which personality type does my teaching style tend to favor, and which personality type does my teaching style exclude?  Identifying personality types in one thing, but adapting to meet the needs of each personality type is another.  I don’t know the answer to these questions, but it’s something I plan to explore.

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How Universal is UDL, the Universal Design of Learning?

I have been trying to be more intentional about incorporating UDL (Universal Design of Learning) in my classes.  As the mother of a special education student, I can certainly see its appeal.

As a teacher, UDL is kicking my butt.

For those unfamiliar with UDL, it refers “to the design of instructional materials and activities to make the content information accessible to all children.”  It includes multiples means of representation, multiple means of action and expression, and multiple means of engagement.

For my multimedia design class, I usually begin with the final product and discussion.  I then model my approach.  I have also provided a written instruction of the process, and I have made a video tutorial that students can refer to once they begin working independently.  For formative assessment, I ask them to locate tools and summarize the steps as I walk around the room.  When it comes to their own original creations, I provide them with freedom to choose their own subjects and themes as long as they use original images and employ similar tools and techniques.

It’s that last step that stumps me.  I can’t think of another way that they could prove to me that they understand the process without actually employing the process.  I suppose they could describe it in an essay or create an infographic, but neither of those build their portfolios of original work.

I’m not sure how universal UDL is, but I’ll continue to ponder this.

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An Opportunity to Model “Grit”

It’s the beginning of the new school year, and our school is “transitioning.”  No, not like that.  We are lucky enough to be the recipients of a massive renovation, and we’re changing the culture of our school with a new administrative staff.  Is it feeling a little chaotic?  You bet.  Are these good problems to have?  You bet.

This is going to be a long year filled with construction, detours, displaced classrooms, floating teachers, faulty technology, and well, the unknown.  But you know what?  It’s an opportunity to model “grit,” which is Angela Duckworth’s term for perseverance and tenacity.  Duckworth once described it as follows:  “If it’s important for you to become one of the best people in your field, you are going to have to stick with it when it’s hard.”

There were so many last-minute problems to solve this week that our tech staff, custodial staff, and administrative staff couldn’t solve them all.  It forced the teachers to solve their own problems and take care of business.  And we did.

I’m fortunate to be surrounded by teachers who are determined to give their students a quality education and to achieve their program’s long-term goals in spite of any obstacles they might face.  I’ll admit, I don’t know how to teach grit… I doubt you’ll see it on one of my lesson plans.  I can model it indirectly, though.  The way I anticipate problems and the way I react to problems might be the best teaching I do all year.

It’s going to be a hard year, but it’s going to be the kind of year that separates “the best” from “the good.”

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“What did you read this summer?”

I begin each semester asking this question.  I get a few summer reading titles, I get a few other titles, and sometimes I get dead silence.  I then move on to film, music, art, and experiences.  It’s a good icebreaker.

It’s also a great insight into someone’s personality.  I want to get to know my students– don’t get me wrong– but I also have other motives.  I’m  jotting down their responses.  I use them as references throughout the semester.   I can talk about style whether I’m talking about Henry Miller’s Black Spring or Welcome to Nightvale.  I can talk about characterization whether I’m talking about Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.” or Brooklyn Nine-Nine.  The point is that I meet my students where they are, and then I eventually lead them to higher ground.

I’m of an age that the pop culture references that I used when I first started teaching don’t mean anything to my current students.   Why aren’t they laughing at my Seinfield references?  “What do you mean, you haven’t seen the X-Files?  We’ve got some serious work to do.”

So, what did I read this summer?  Mostly, I read blogs and news feeds, but I also managed to work in a few real in-your-hand books and literary magazines.

Mostly fluff, a few re-reads, and some of our school’s summer readings… I don’t teach any of those works in my courses, but I like to talk to my students about what they’re reading.

Can’t see the titles?  Here you go:

  • Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers
  • The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (re-read)
  • Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis
  • The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
  • Paddle Your Own Canoe by Nick Offerman
  • Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
  • The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday
  • The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (summer reading)
  • Island by Aldous Huxley
  • Frog Music by Emma Donoghue
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy  (re-read)
  • The Good Luck of Right Now by Matthew Quick
  • The Pinch
  • The Paris Review

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High School Publications… in the news

I spend the majority of my day with students who work on school publications. Recently, Angela Washeck, a journalist, spent some time in a high school publications class, and she reflected on her experience.  She wasn’t impressed.  Wascheck contends that high school journalism isn’t preparing students for a digital world.  PBS’s Adam Macksl then posted a rebuttal to Washeck’s observations.   Macksl argues that high school journalism is more about developing a process and learning how to work within a team.

I agree with both of them.

I assume that my students will not become journalists.  It’s a noble career, but I have never encouraged a student to pursue journalism.  Some have, but they did so on their own accord.  I use my publications classes as a way for students to learn about themselves and their world.  I make connections between the skills they’re learning and other career areas.  I also recognize that we live in a digital world, and regardless of whether my students are going to be engineers or nurses, I hope that they develop the ability to adapt to different technologies while in my class.

Perhaps the best thing that came from this exchange between Washeck and Macksl is that people were actually talking about high school publications and their worth.



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