One Little Word: 2016 Edition

I’ve noticed in my writing about 2015 that acceptance has a twin, something that is perhaps as important if not more important. That’s what I’ll be working on this year.

My word for 2016:


I’m excited to work on my patience this year. Some specific targets for myself:

  • I desire to become more patient with my students as they challenge me as a teacher
  • I desire to become more patient with my son as he grows as an infant
  • I desire to become more patient with my wife as we grow in our second year of marriage
  • I desire to become more patient with myself as I take longer than I’d like to improve in various areas
  • I desire to become more patient with the world as it is not always going to be what I’d like it to be.

What’s your word?


One Little Word: 2015 Reflection

Last year, I blogged about doing “One Little Word” for the first time. I chose, for 2015, the word “accept” as my word.

I told myself I needed to do a few things centered around that word:

  • I needed to accept the teacher I am while I strive to become a better teacher
  • I needed to accept the blogger I am while I strive to. . .do whatever I hope to do through blogging
  • I needed to accept my own faults and weaknesses before I can begin to become better in those areas
  • I needed to accept the students my students are while they strive to become better readers, writers, speakers, and mathematicians
  • I needed to accept the things I cannot change

What I really needed to do was also accept that the word “need” is a little strong for these sorts of things. Perhaps “desire” would be more practical.

But, in regards to these “needs” I identified, how did I do?

I needed to accept the teacher I am while I strive to become a better teacher.
I have worked on improving my teaching while allowing myself to acknowledge that I’m a pretty good teacher already.

I needed to accept the blogger I am while I strive to. . .do whatever I hope to do through blogging.
I have not really been as adamant towards my blogging as I would have liked to have been, and I still struggle with accepting that maybe this just isn’t going to be what I would someday like it to be.

I needed to accept my own faults and weaknesses before I can begin to become better in those areas.
I have identified some areas of weakness — writing workshop being one — and worked to improve it. I have not done as well with this in my personal life.

I need to accept the students my students are while they strive to become better readers, writers, speakers, and mathematicians.
I think I have done a really good job this year of meeting my students where they are and helping them work from their currently level. Using more workshop methods has helped this. What I need to work on accepting is not ability levels, but work ethic levels. Some students aren’t going to do the work I ask of them. I need desire to accept that as a truth while working to help them become better workers.

I need to accept the things I cannot change.
This is always going to be the hardest one. I’m not sure how I am with this.


So, that’s 2015. What about 2016? I’ll post about that once the new year is here.


Slice of Life: Six Stars

Slice of Life

Yesterday, I had a student finish the book she had been working on for a few weeks. I asked her how many stars out of 5 she would give the book. Her response, without even stopping to think: “SIX!” I’ll have a talk with her math teacher about quantities, but her excitement was palpable.

Immediately, I thought of Colby Sharp and an idea he had shared with me a couple years ago: his secret six-star book list. This is a list of 10 books that Colby keeps (just for himself). These 10 books would be the 10 best books he’s read (or best reading experiences, or. . .well, whatever he wants; it’s his list). The point is there’s only 10 books on this list. If another book makes the list, then one has to get bumped. I think it’s a pretty cool idea.

I explained the idea to this student, and I asked her, just to be sure: “Would this book be on your list of your top ten books you’ve ever read?” She quickly agreed, adding that she thinks it’s the best book she’s ever read. She went on to swoon about it for about 2 minutes.

The book, in case you’re wondering: Jumping Off Swings by Jo Knowles. So congratulations, Jo! Something you made has impacted someone’s life forever for the better. That’s gotta be pretty cool.

Currently, the student is on a project to determine the best basket for the book (we have small collections with titles such as “Awesome Heroines,” “Sad Fantasy,” “Revisionist History,” and “Get You Right In the Feels”). She doesn’t think it fits in any of those, so she’s coming up with a collection name that will be suitable to the book.

Maybe we should make a 6-star basket.

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.

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

2015 CMBAs: The Second Hour and Fourth Hour Awards

Welcome back!

I hope you enjoyed yesterday’s announcement of the First Hour Award. Those freshmen had a great time reading and selecting those two books to award. And since we awarded two books yesterday, I decided we would announce two class awards today: the Second Hour Award (selected by 12 amazing sophomores) and the Fourth Hour Award (chosen by 16 well-read freshmen).

The second hour sophomores, like my first hour freshmen, read a little bit of everything. They like teen romance. They like dystopian. They like graphic novels. They like picture books. There’s really nothing they won’t try. They’re pretty great like that.

Of course, that made coming to terms as a class on a book a little more difficult. But there was one book that captivated them — ALL of them — from the first time they heard of it.

Then there’s my fourth hour, a group of 16 freshmen who love largely realistic fiction. They’ll branch out into some fantasy and nonfiction a bit, and there’s a group who really like their war novels. But it’s mainly realistic fiction for them. And yet, it was a book that doesn’t fit either of these categories that entranced all of them. There was never a doubt what they were going to choose as their class award. And the Instagram campaign that went with it assured its victory.

These books, for my second hour and my fourth hour, are in fact not plural, but one book. One short book, with probably not over 100 words. This one just snuck into the 2014 realm, as it was published the last week of December. But there was enough time for it to win my students’ hearts.

The Second Hour Award AND the Fourth Hour Award goes to:

Please, Mr. Panda

Please, Mr. Panda by Steve Antony!

Congratulations, Mr. Antony. I couldn’t believe how in love with this book my students are. You may think you wrote a gem for infants and toddlers learning their manners. . .but if my students have anything to say about it, you’ve written a book worthy of love from high schoolers as well. Your awards will be in our room for you to pick up at your convenience!

Go back to the 2014 CMBAs Main Page.

On Gifted Readers: My Personal Experience

Tonight’s #titletalk on Twitter really got some gears turning for me, and it looks like for many others as well. The conversation was lively, smart, and FAST, as it always is. Thanks to Colby Sharp and Donalyn Miller for putting that chat together and hosting it tonight.

The topic for tonight was on gifted and talented readers. Not just those students who are marked as gifted and talented across the board, but specifically those gifted in reading (gifted readers, or GR). This is actually a larger population than we might think, because those gifted in reading might not be gifted in mathematics.

In the conversation, several things came up, often in the forms of questions: how do we identify our GR? How do we teach them? How do we meet them where they are without just piling on more work?

This brought to mind my own experiences growing up. I was identified as a GR when I was in Kindergarten. I was in gifted and talented classes, and my elementary school experience was unlike what I hear from many of my peers. It was exploratory. We had choice at almost every turn. We had time to sit — wherever we wanted in the classroom — and read. Every day.

Once, we were instructed to write a note to our student teacher, whose last day was coming up. I forgot to write mine (for reasons we don’t need to get into here, but keeping track of homework was never one of my strengths), so I wrote it during recess. When the teacher asked when I had written it (I didn’t have it at the beginning of the day and then it magically showed up a few hours later), I told her during DEAR (Drop Everything And Read). My punishment was that I had to stay in from second recess and read, since I skipped that portion of the day’s work. [Looking back, I’m pretty sure the teacher knew I was lying, and that’s not unimportant] Clearly, this reading thing was important.

Besides that, I did not look at it as punishment. I got to read again! Haha! I mean, sure, I missed out on the football game that day, but I got to read more! I even to this day remember what I read: Freckle Juice by Judy Blume.

That doesn’t have a ton to do with tonight’s post, but I think it’s important. My school, which was dedicated to serving the gifted and talented population of my city, made choice and reading time a priority in the very core of the curricula.

Then I got to middle school, where I was in advanced language arts courses and they were more of the same: read, with choice, and we’ll do a lot of activities to help us explore these books and make meaning of them.

Then: high school. This is where the wheels fell off for me as a reader. I wasn’t taking the honors English courses, as I didn’t really want to and wasn’t pushed to do them. In the standard courses, there was very little differentiation going on, and no choice. You know what we did?

  • We read the same text as a class, whether it be a novel or a selection from the 15,000-pound textbook.
  • We spent about 50 times longer than necessary answering the questions at the end of the reading, half of which I felt I could have answered just by reading the title of the selection

That’s about all I remember of English instruction aside from my creative writing class. In fact, I remember spending most of my time writing notes in between the pages of the books, and talking to the person behind me. Seriously. I can tell you where Dave and I sat and I told him about my first girlfriend (in the back, towards the left of center). I can tell you what Christina was wearing when we were supposed to be discussing Frankenstein (an Aerosmith t-shirt). I can tell you what Nelson was planning for his presentation (interpretive song and dance). And I can tell you that I yawned through each class that the teacher was leading, did enough of the reading to pass, and then fell into a dislike for reading.

It seems this could have been easily avoided.

It would take maybe two things:

  • Choice
  • Not turning reading into something that is done to answer stupid questions

I’m trying to be objective as I think about this. But I look at it this way: I was labeled as gifted — something I had no control over — and I found the work given to me so banal that it turned me off from reading all together.

I know I’m not alone in this.

So what are we doing for our gifted readers to keep them interested and engaged? No, scratch that. What are we doing for ALL our readers to keep them interested and engaged? I know those comprehension questions can be beneficial to some, but what about something a little higher on Bloom’s taxonomy? Remember and understand should not be the thing we push on our students 90% of the time. I mean, 90% of the time, they’re already doing that. What are we doing so that all of our students are receiving an education that is going to push them a little beyond where they already are, to something that they will appreciate, and maybe even enjoy?

Two Snapshots from an Exam Period

I’ve found myself thinking a lot about relationships lately. I mean a lot. Specifically, the relationships we see in schools: student-student, student-teacher, teacher-parent, teacher-teacher, and how those things all come together to impact student learning (and also how books seem to play an important role in so many of these relationships). I think I may be blogging more about this as I continue to think about and process these thoughts.

Today, I want to share something that happened yesterday. Actually, two things that happened yesterday. We were at the end of midterms, and it was the last test for my students before a 4-day weekend between the semesters.

The first thing that happened is another English teacher came into my room with about 15 minutes to go in the exam period. My students had all finished their tests, and this teacher was delivering the test of a student who took the test in another room. She gave it to me, looked at my students, then said to me, “Wow. Every one is reading. I wish I had a picture of this!” This stuck out to me for a couple reasons. First off: I should take a picture of it (and I did — but don’t have permissions to share here, so just picture a room of high school freshmen reading various books). Secondly: this wasn’t in the least surprising to me or to them. I had spent a semester building up the culture of reading in my classroom, so that I didn’t even have to tell them they should read when they were done (though I did ask a few if they had a book). They just did it. That’s where we are right now, and that makes me really excited for next semester.

The second thing that happened has to do with a student. He grabbed a book that I know is a bit on the mature side, and I thought might have some things that would be a bit much for him, just knowing him as a person and as a reader. So I called him up to my desk.
“Is there something wrong with my test?” he asked as he approached the desk.
“No, that’s not it at all,” I assured him. “I just noticed the book you were reading.”
“Yeah. I know that one’s a bit mature. It contains a bit of foul language as well as some scenes that are a bit more mature than other books you’ve been reading.” I could see he was a bit at ease now that he realized I wasn’t going to tell him he failed the exam he just took, and his demeanor became a bit more relaxed.
“My sister read this one when she was in high school, so I thought I’d take a look at it. I didn’t know much about it.” Now we were just having a conversation about books.
“That’s fine. I just wanted to give you a heads up about it. If you get to something that you’re not comfortable reading yet, you can put it down. You can always come back to it later on, even in a couple years.”
“Yeah, I know.” And here he got much more serious all of a sudden. “Thanks for talking to me about that. Most English teachers wouldn’t have done that.”

Now, I don’t know about his premise: that most English teachers wouldn’t talk with their students about the books they’re reading, in order to try to find the best fit for the student at that moment in time. In fact, most English teachers I know would do just that. But I do know that in his experiences, most English teachers haven’t done that. I’m glad I can be the start of a change of that for him. And more importantly: this small, quick exchange (it took about 45 seconds all together) contributes to a strong foundation for this student and I to continue to discuss books. That’s more than worth the time.