Lessons from a Sunny, Snowy Day

While gazing out my window this morning, I noticed it was one of those days: those cold, sunny days in Winter. For those who live where snow is a novelty and not a way of life from October to May, that may seem odd to you. But the sunny days are the worst. They are the most bitterly cold. There is no cloud cover to keep in the warmth, so it seems to just leak from the air and vanish.

However, there’s something really wonderful about these days, too. Let me share a story.

I have 2 brothers, and when we were growing up, we were the main snow-shoveling age kids on the street. We had a few retired couples, a widow, some families with younger kids, and some families with kids who had already left home. So we did a lot of the shoveling for the elderly folks on our short street.

One day, I was shoveling the drive of our neighbor, Mrs. Bommarito. My older brother was shoveling our drive. He wasn’t doing a great job. There was packed-down snow and ice from people walking and cars driving over it, and he was just leaving it on the driveway! I was going to do a much better job. I mean, I didn’t want Mrs. Bommarito to slip and fall because I had left a spot untouched. So I shoveled away the top layer of snow. When it got to the packed-down stuff, I chipped away at it. I grabbed our smaller metal shovel, designed to cut through ice, and got every last piece of snow and ice off the pavement. I was out there at least half an hour longer than my brother, but I did a far superior job. I took a look at my work, and I was quite proud of what I had done.

Then I turned around (Mrs. Bommarito’s house was on the other side of the street from ours), and I saw what my brother had left. When he went in over half an hour earlier, there was still all the packed-down snow. But much to my amazement, it was now all gone! I hadn’t heard anyone else shoveling. Nobody came and finished the job. How did that happen?

What I really wanted to know: how did he do the exact same job that I did, even though I put in so much more time and effort?

The answer was simple: it was one of those cold, sunny days. The sun, being unimpeded by any clouds, melted away what my brother had left. I bet if you looked closely, you would have seen sublimation take place. Meanwhile, he was inside with a hot drink, while I was doing the work that the sun would have done for me.

So what’s the lesson here?

How often do we work, as teachers, harder than we need to in order to reach our students and help them learn? What are the things that are already in place for us that will help our students if we just get out of the way and let them do their thing? I can think of a few:

  • Cell phones
  • Interest in the content
  • Engagement with the activity

Are we so scared of some of these things that we don’t use them to their full potential? Are we working twice as long as we have to, while our colleagues sit at home with a nice drink, achieving the same results?

Here’s the rub: this snow shoveling trick only works on the sunny days. If you leave the packed-down ice out there on a cloudy day, or at night, it turns to ice. There is nothing more dangerous on your pavement. But those sunny days: they’re bitterly cold.

We have to endure the cold of the sunny days in order to let the sun do its trick. We have to test the uncertain waters of using cell phones. We have to put in the work to find out our students’ interests so we can use them to our advantage. We have to help our students be engaged with the material. This is hard work. But which would you rather do: work harder so your students will learn more effectively and efficiently, or work harder so your students will learn in a way that takes more time and effort?</P.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s a bitterly cold, sunny day. And there’s snow on my driveway.

While writing this post, I looked up Mrs. Bommarito to make sure I was spelling her name correctly. In doing so, I discovered she passed away in January 2012. She was a fixture in my childhood, as we went to church together and then out to brunch at Big Boy’s afterwards. Thank you for this lesson that you didn’t even know you were teaching me.

Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her. May she rest in peace. Amen.



All We Need Is. . .a Rock?

Some of you may have seen this piece floating around: “Congressman Says We Don’t Need Education Funding Because ‘Socrates Trained Plato on a Rock.'” I encourage you to go read that article, or at least watch the video (the congressman’s remarks start at ~45:40, which is when you’re taken via the previous link).

My running thoughts as Congressman Brat gives his remarks:

  • This is the footage from a committee hearing on bill H.R. 5: the Student Success Act. This bill discusses ways in which federal funding is used for education and proposes some changes to this. So essentially, the people in this room, speaking in this video, are the ones who have some of the most influence over how our schools are funded from the federal level. Let’s keep that in mind.
  • Congressman Brat uses the phrase “trained in.” Not as in “Plato was trained in philosophy,” but as in “Socrates trained Plato in.” This is the same verb form that we would use for a justice swearing the president in to office, or someone being flown in to a city. This makes the training an act of installation, rather than an education and enlightenment of the mind. This isn’t even really a form of the verb “to train,” but if we accept it as something that can be said in the English language, it would imply that the goal of education is to train someone to the point where they can be installed as some sort of leader. I’m sure Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle would be pleased as punch to have their lives, which centered around education and thought, reduced to a mere “training in.”
  • Socrates trained in Plato, and Plato trained in Aristotle “on a rock.” This then becomes the center of an argument for why we don’t actually need funding for education — as some of the greatest minds of Western civilization were developed using just a rock, and that rock was also their floor.
  • A good mark of success of our schools is if our graduates can give a good answer to the question “what is a business?” Well, that makes sense, given that the only way to be successful as a human being is to be a part of a business model.
  • The goal of education is to compete with other countries and win. Oh, wait — except it’s not. It’s win-win. Which is precisely how businesses operate in a free market economy, I believe. Everyone wins.
  • The way we can do better: get the private sector in the schools. Every single school. Not a single one should be funded by the government. That’s actually not a bad idea, given that the private sector is well-known for caring about every one of the citizens of the country [oh, wait, I mean the world. Win-win], and not just those who can contribute to their success as a company.
  • If CEOs get into the schools, then we can get beyond the policy debate of how to fund education. I mean, come on guys. The CEOs run our businesses. Knowing what a business is is the primary goal of schooling. Who better to do the job?
  • We need a revolution. We need a breakthrough. We need to get the private sector, which by-and-large measures success by their economic health, funding the schools completely, except by funding the schools completely, I mean giving every teacher a rock on which to hold class.
  • Once again, in case it wasn’t clear: knowing what a business is is WAY more important than skills, conceptual understandings, and the ability to reason through a problem.

There’s a lot to go over here, but I’d like to revisit the Socrates/Plato/Aristotle piece some more. I wonder what else they had at their disposal. Off the top of my head, I’ve come up with a few things:

  • Every hour of every day over several years dedicated to teaching a small number of students who were completely devoted to their studies.
  • The freedom to teach using groundbreaking techniques that they felt were best for them and their students.
  • The respect of their community. (Okay, well, sort of: Socrates was put to death for corrupting the youth of Athens)
  • No goal in mind but the development of the body of human knowledge. Oh, wait, I forgot: they were just there to “train in” their successors. My bad.

So, Congressman Brat, let’s try something. I’ll teach in a public school — anyone can come. They will pay me out of their own pockets whatever I need, à la Socrates. If they can’t pay, then I can’t have them there — I need to eat! I know, I know, that sort of defeats the whole “public” idea of it, but this is how we create the great minds of our civilization! Some students will just have to be cast aside. They have to be my students every day for somewhere around 15-20 years. It’s a worthy investment, considering the great works they’ll do when they’re done! What’s that? You want them done when they’re 18? Hah. Not a chance. We’re talking about the great minds of civilization! No concessions to be made! Also, I can only take a few students on. Let’s say. . .5 or 6. And if I decide they’re unworthy, I can kick them out. But the others better make up for the lost pay! As I said, I need to eat. I’ll get to teach these students in whatever way I want, and I’ll get to teach them whatever I see best fit. Pardon? You want them to perform well on international tests? You want them to learn what a business is? I’ll try to fit that in, but would you question Socrates what he taught Plato? Oh, I see. You would have been first in line to give him the hemlock.

If you can give me those things, Congressman, I think we have a deal. Extend this invitation to every other teacher in the country, too. Now, as for the other 70% of our population, who will be without a teacher: you’ll have to figure out what to do with them. Maybe they can join Congress.

A Common Thread

My freshmen read four texts as a whole class (more or less one each quarter). This year, the selections we have read so far (including what we are currently reading) are:

  • The Odyssey by Homer
  • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  • Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare

Some things just seem to keep coming up.

In The Odyssey, Penelope is required to stay 100% faithful to Odysseus or give up and remarry, even though he may be dead. Even though he spent 10 years in Calypso’s bed.

In Of Mice and Men, Curley’s nameless wife isn’t allowed to as much as talk to the men. Even while Curley is at a prostitution house.

We’re only in Act I of Romeo & Juliet. Already, we see Rosaline, the nurse and Juliet’s* virginity being addressed and conflated with child-bearing and marriage. Even as Romeo is encouraged to get over his love sickness by sleeping with someone. Anyone will do, really.

I’m proud of my students for having intelligent conversations about this. I’m happy they can find parallels from these books to the double standards they see all around them in their own lives. Them being able to see this and talk about it makes me happy for the future they will help create.

But I’m ready to read a classic novel with my freshmen that doesn’t have a sexist double standard as a recurring part of the book.

Up next: To Kill a Mockingbird. That doesn’t have anything in it that’s a double standard between the genders or races, right?


*This is the only time I don’t use the Oxford comma. It doesn’t happen often, and I’m kind of saddened by the need to omit it here. I do love me some Oxford comma.

Book Club, Day 1

Today I moderated the first official meeting of the Cardinal Mooney Book Club. I was pretty excited about this, especially as there was a lot of interest from our upperclassmen, many of whom I do not teach. As it was the first meeting, we needed to come up with some ground rules. Here’s what we decided:

  1. No book shaming!
  2. No person shaming! [Meaning: if someone doesn’t like a book you love or likes a book you find juvenile, or hasn’t read something you think everyone should have read or has read something you find ridiculous, keep it to yourself.]
  3. Start every meeting with a book talk.

That seemed like enough. Too many rules, and things get too regimented and procedural. This is a book club, after all, not the DMV.

Once that was determined (and we had our book talk), we had to figure out what we were going to actually do with this book club. They quickly decided that they didn’t want to all read the same thing. Their reasons:

  1. They won’t all be able to agree on a book they all want to read.
  2. They read at different paces and that will be frustrating to have to read faster/slower than their regular pace just to talk about a book.
  3. They already do this in their English classes, and they don’t want this to be another class.

So we decided our focus would be a little different.

They are going to read books on their own, or with a reading partner. Each week, then, we will talk about what we read and share our love for books. The goal is to share love for these books around our group, the school, and the world, in that order.

Sharing the book love around the group is easy. Sharing around the school is a little more difficult, but not too much so, as in a small school things the students love spread like wildfire. Sharing around the world is the most exciting part, as the students are talking about using Goodreads and eventually a group review blog to share about what they’ve read and loved. Their focus is going to be 2015 books, as it’s pretty easy to build a good buzz with high school students about books that aren’t even released yet.

So keep an eye out for what my book club students are reading, loving, and spreading the good news about! I look forward to what they’re going to be up to.

Okay. I have to comment on my own post here. A few things I’d like to point out. The students in the book club are a mix of all grade levels, but the most vocal students are upperclassmen. They have had 12 to 13 years of experience with reading in a school environment. And they said, immediately, that they don’t want to read a book together. They want to choose the book they get to read. They want to choose the pace they read their books at. They don’t want reading for pleasure to become “another class.” These are the kids who spend an hour of their time after school once a week to join an activity centered on reading books. A group that will only add time to their already busy schedules (hours of homework + athletics + chores at home + work + maybe sleep sometime?). This is a group they want to be a part of. These are the readers. These are the students who we have supposedly done well with.
And they want to choose their books, their pace, and what they do when they’re done with it. Are we listening? Are we getting it?

Required Reading

Notice that the title of this post is not “On Required Reading,” which would probably talk about the practice of requiring certain books to be read by students taking a particular course. I have thoughts on that, and perhaps I’ll share them here at a later date when I’ve had more time at the high school level to share what I’ve been doing with that.

No, today, I’m here to assign you some required reading. It’s not required for everyone. But if you’re in education, it is. And if you’re not in education but you set educational policy, then you have to read everything I mention here today twice. Thrice. Four times. Until it sinks in, however long that takes.

They’re short reads, but worth me using whatever meager audience I pull here to redirect you to them.

The first is today’s Nerdy Book Club post by Jim Bailey, “Curing the Reading GERM.” This post is from a teacher-turned-principal and what he has done to embrace conferring with students about their reading instead of assigning AR tests to determine if the kids were actually reading. If you are in a school that is over its head with Accelerated Reader, and you know you want to get out but don’t know how, this post is a great starting point. You can find it here.

The second is a post from Donalyn Miller that also went live today. It is called “I’ve Got Research, Yes I Do. I’ve Got Research. How About You?” I can’t help but read that with the cheerleader-style chant Donalyn intended, and I just picture cheerleaders pumping up crowds to discuss research about best practices to develop literacy. We could use more of that. Her post is the first stop for you if you’re looking to compile some of the research that’s out there in defense of independent reading with conferring. You can find it here.

Some highlights from each of them today:

From Jim’s post:
“We were a team that shared a passion for creating lifelong readers.  We supported each other in building classrooms that valued independent reading and strived to create a community of readers.  We saw that this approach was benefitting our students and wanted to share our learning with other teachers.”
“Anyone can fake it on a book report but it’s hard to fake a reading conference.  If you didn’t read the book, it was obvious during the conference.”
“Read aloud time was sacred in the room.  20 minutes every day, no matter what.  It was a reading utopia, and it was working!  Several students jumped 2 or 3 grade levels on the annual reading assessment.  Students told me they read more this year than all the other years of their life combined.  My 32 students read over 1000 books that year.  It was my best year as a classroom teacher.”

From Donalyn’s post:
“Multiple studies since 1977 have identified what helps children learn to read well and become lifelong readers, but the general public and many educators remain ignorant of this research.”
“Stephen Krashen found that the single greatest factor in reading achievement (even above socio-economics) was reading volume—how much reading people do.”
“Why must English teachers constantly defend the need for students to practice reading and writing in a class dedicated to reading and writing?”
“You might be saying to yourself, ‘Oh, you can get research to say anything.’ No, you can’t. You cannot find credible research proving that the Sun rotates around the Earth or that bad air causes diseases. You cannot find research proving that test prep improves children’s reading achievement or test performance.”

::drops mic, walks away::

A Short but Good Week

As we wrap up a short week of school (snow days Monday and Tuesday and then a scheduled half day today), I can’t help but think about how glad I am to have been able to have at least this half week with my students.

In these few short days, we have, either as a class or as a school:

  • Began reading Romeo & Juliet and been notably aghast at how early in in Shakespeare makes references to rape and jokes about male genitalia;
  • Read a lot of early American Romanticism poetry and noted how they all seem to be about death, in one way or another (this is really nice for them to see, as we’re gearing up for Poe);
  • Started a book club, and while we don’t know exactly what we’re doing yet, we know it’ll be full of awesomeness. . .and snacks;
  • Worked on a dance that our seniors will be performing for our freshmen and sophomores for an upcoming retreat (and a few teachers may sneak their way in there);
  • Spent a lot of time in the hallways, building relationships outside of the classroom (often as the students and I comment on each other’s tie and sweater choices for Mass day);
  • Discussed, without conclusion, the merit of book awards designated for minority populations (great discussion, and one I am glad to moderate);
  • Opened up our student lounge, a place for our students to relax after school while they wait for practice or rides; and
  • Worked with our students in ways we don’t often get to, as we had a half day designated to specific test-prep situations (which means I got to work with our juniors and freshmen on their math skills, which is not something I normally get the chance to do — it’s nice for us to see each other in this different light).

It’s been quite the week, even with it all jammed into 2 1/2 days. The thing I’ve taken out of each of these things: relationships. I’m constantly building up the relationships I have with the students. We’re bonding over books, over math, over sweater vests — whatever it might be. But it’s helping my classroom and the school (especially with the student lounge) be a place where our students can be comfortable, relaxed, and themselves. I am excited to see what we are able to accomplish second semester, as we move forward with these relationships in place and ever-growing.

Also, our art teacher drew this on my whiteboard today, so we’re definitely ready for our Poe unit now:
Whiteboard Poe

No Parking at the End Times by Bryan Bliss

No Parking at the End Times

I was fortunate to attend ALA Midwinter this past weekend (and get out before the snow hit!). While there, I was talking with Greenwillow editor Martha Mihalick about what she was excited for coming up. Instantly, she put this book in my hands and talked it up. I’m so glad she did.

The premise here is that we have a girl, Abigail, whose parents sold their house, their belongings, and put whatever they could fit in their conversion van and drove from North Carolina to San Francisco. Why? Well, because Brother John predicts that the end of the world will happen on Christmas, and Abigail’s parents decide they need to be there for whatever comes next.

Notice the past tense in that paragraph? Yeah. End of the world? Didn’t happen. So Abigail, her parents, and her twin brother Aaron are in San Francisco: jobless, penniless, and homeless (unless you count their van). What are they to do?

That’s the opening scene of No Parking at the End Times [side note: WHAT A TITLE!].

So, really, what are they to do? Well, if you’re Aaron, you’re to realize what a joke your parents have become. You’ll sneak out at night and befriend some of the other homeless San Francisco youth, because you know that’s what you are: homeless and parentless, but not hopeless.

If you’re Abigail’s parents, you will continue with the one thing you know: Brother John and his church. Sure, attendance is down what with the lack of the ending of the world and all, but God has a capital-P Plan, and this is all part of it. So while you’re waiting on breadlines and hoping for a sign from the man upstairs, you will be sure to be at Brother John’s church daily, relying on his words for sustenance almost as much as you rely on the free coffee at the supermarket.

If you’re Abigail, you are caught somewhere in between. You don’t know about the whole God-having-a-Plan thing, but you’re also not sure that your parents are lost causes. Certainly, if there’s anything to hold on to, it’s each other.


We follow our narrator, Abigail, as she tries to figure this all out.

This debut novel from Bryan Bliss [I know, I know; he spells his first name the wrong way] very smartly tackles issues of homelessness, faith, and morality. The publisher recommends grades 9 and up, but aside from some language and violence, I could see mature middle schoolers doing well with this one.

Of course, there’s a bit of an elephant here I should address: I am Catholic, and I teach at a Catholic school. How do I feel about this book on my shelves? The beauty here is that Bryan Bliss handles faith, God, and church in the way most of us see them. They can be a crutch to those who need them (e.g., Abigail’s parents, Brother John), but that doesn’t mean that they’re not important or not real. This book, as much as it is about Abigail learning to trust in herself, is about Abigail learning to distinguish between those who need God to be something He isn’t and those who simply need God. And it’s wonderfully done.

No Parking at the End Times comes out February 24 of this year. I recommend you check it out.



4 out of 5 fish!

2015 CMBAs: The Wyzbery

Wow. What a week. We’ve seen four classroom awards, four genre/form awards, updates from ALA Midwinter, a giant snow storm that has a name (because 10 inches of snow just isn’t enough to warrant notice if it’s not also named after a beloved Peanuts character). We have one more award to announce, and it’s the big one: the Wyzbery.

The Wyzbery is what my students call the award for the best book published in the previous year. For the genre and class awards, we talk a lot about criteria. For the Wyzbery, it is up to each student. They know what they like, and they are to use their own instincts to discuss and vote for what they believe to be the best book published in the previous year. It’s a pretty fun time 🙂

The Wyzbery is the longest-running award my students have named. When I began awards in 2012, we awarded just the one award, being the Wyzbery. Veronica Roth won for her 2011 release Divergent.

In 2013, many more awards were given out, but once again the Wyzbery was among them. That year, Jon Klassen won for the 2013 Caldecott Medalist book This Is Not My Hat (and I’m not saying, but I’m just saying: we determined and announced our winner first).

This year, we have looked at many books published in 2014. 40 books were nominated for one of the 8 awards we’ve already given out. 9 of those were also nominated as the best book of the year, and each book received at least 3% of the vote.

Two books, though, rose to the top, receiving over half the votes between the two of them. This was also one of the closest votes, as it was not determined until the last couple votes were counted. There was quite a bit of intense debate and tense moments, as everyone had their favorites for this one.

So let’s get to the announcement. I mean, there are football games and commercials to watch and such.

The Wyzbery Honor Book for 2015 is:

We Were Liars

We Were Liars by e. lockhart!

As mentioned in the realistic fiction post, this book not only grabs attention when people talk about it, but lives up to the hype. It will continue to be passed from hand-to-hand as the year goes on, no doubt. Congratulations to e. lockhart on this honor!

And now, the moment we’ve been building to all week.

The announcement.

Of the biggest award of the year.

Not the Printz.

Not the Caldecott.

Not the Newbery.

But one day before all that: the 2015 Wyzbery.

This year’s winner, beloved by all my students, is:

Please, Mr. Panda

Please, Mr. Panda by Steve Antony!

This marks the 6th win for Mr. Antony in this year’s Cardinal Mooney Book Awards, making it the most decorated book by any group of my students. They love the heck out of this book, to the point where they have been asking other teachers to read it to them. They just can’t get enough. I am pleased to award this year’s Wyzbery to this book they love so much. Congratulations to Steve Antony!

Both authors: we will keep your awards for safe keeping in our classroom. You may pick them up at any time.

Thank you, everyone involved, for your wonderful books. We know how much work goes in to each and every book published. It’s the work of an author. And then his or her early readers. And then agents. And then editors. And then the cycle repeats who knows how many times. Eventually, some of these books become published. And through the work of publishers, bookstores, friends, relatives, and people throwing books around on street corners (can you imagine how great that would be?), we find them into our hands. And we read them and are transformed. I wish we could award them all, but of course that would be to award none of them. But thank you to each and every person involved in making these wonderful books: those we awarded, and those we did not. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Click here to return to the 2015 Cardinal Mooney Book Awards main page.