Why I Want My Middle School Students To Talk…MORE!

Chalk Talk

It isn’t often that you hear a middle school teacher say she wants to hear her students talk more. In fact, a small part of me was a little afraid that the title of this post alone might result in an instant delete from your inbox. But please, hang with me. This year, I have been working to redefine what student voice really looks like in my classroom, and I think you might be interested in my takeaways.  Concentrating on this goal has involved learning how to manage the amount, and the quality, of the conversation that occurs in my classes.

I set the goal to focus on student voice this school year because I want my students to feel heard. Feeling heard is important for all of us, but I feel like it is especially important for middle schoolers. They are in a stage of life where they are trying to figure out who they are within the confines of who others think they should be. They feel ready for independence, yet so much of their daily experience is controlled. If you have ever talked one-on-one with a middle schooler in a personal setting, it isn’t very long before they mutter the words, “[insert name] just doesn’t understand me.”

As a teacher, I want to be one of the adults that my students feel are responding to them, not talking at them. I think that is the key to them feeling safe enough to learn. Note: responding to them does not mean they will always like how I will respond, but I have promised myself to provide opportunities for their voices to be heard–regularly.

I also want my students to work hard. They are bright. They have valuable insight. Prior to this year (and maybe because I am a writing teacher??) I had fallen into the trap of thinking that “working hard” meant having students produce a physical product. Not any more. I have come to recognize vocalization as a different form of assessment–an incredibly valuable one–and I’ve worked it into my assessment routine.

What I Tried

At the onset of planning any given unit, I commit to providing my students with a variety of experiences. During each unit, I strive to plan whole-group and small-group activities, opportunities to read, reflect, play, write and speak, and students will be expected to produce evidence of thinking and growth through active demonstration, writing in their notebooks, and by participating in online activities. This year, I added concentrated efforts to get them talking.

If you do your research, there are plenty of strategies to help teachers regulate classroom conversations. These strategies are effective classroom management strategies, so even if you do not want to use student dialogue as a form of assessment, they are great for conversation control. Here are my favorite “go tos”:

Socratic Seminar

What I Am Listening For

If you get really good at it, strategic classroom conversation can become an extremely effective mode of assessment. While the development of questions can take some planning, the execution is quick, easy, and the kids love it. Most of the time, they don’t even recognize it as an assessment! And, assessing their understanding is as easy as eavesdropping on conversations. You get to be the fly on the wall, circulating or standing back to hear their thinking. After you hear what they have to say, you’ll know what to do next and they will feel heard.

So, this year I’ve made it a point to get my middle school students to talk more, and I have spent more time leaning in to listen. If you have stuck with me and are still reading, thank you. As I promised, here are my takeaways:

  • If I want to teach the whole child, I have to offer a variety of opportunities for my learners to show me their learning. Some students have underdeveloped skills with writing, others are unable to effectively communicate orally. We have to practice both.
  • Make sure you have a quick way to end the dialogue. Set a timer or use a chant to regain their attention when the conversation is over.
  • If you initiate a strategic dialogue and there is a sudden hush…you have more work to do. They don’t yet have the understanding and you need to back up.
  • If you initiate a strategic dialogue and students can’t articulate answers clearly, it probably means they’re still processing. Let the conversations go on a bit longer and interject, and/or make time to bring the group back together and discuss as a whole.
  • If you initiate a strategic dialogue and students are quick to respond, listen hard. It will give you direction on where to go next. I have been amazed at how much more I get from hearing conversations as opposed to I have with written reflections, polls or exit tickets.
  • Always, always, always, know your purpose. This is one strategy. Don’t go overboard and use it too frequently. Use it when it makes sense.

I realize that, most of the time, middle school teachers are trying to do anything to get their students to STOP talking. I, for one, am not above bribing them with suckers when necessary (FYI, handing everyone a Dum Dums will buy you just enough time to make it through a mini-lesson on really important days!). But, middle schoolers love to talk. Use it!

1 “Teaching Strategy: Socratic Seminar | Facing History.” Accessed 3 May. 2019.

2 “Flipgrid.” Accessed 3 May. 2019.


Is A Passion For Learning In Our DNA?

I knew when I was 10 years old I wanted to teach children. It was my calling and fortunately, my luck was good.  When I graduated university in the early 80’s there was a teacher shortage and I immediately got a job teaching high school students Biology. I fully attribute this first job to great timing and networking.  I am certain I didn’t secure the position based on my expertise. In fact, I would like to return and apologize to those students because as I look back on my first decade of teaching I was operating on passion and muscle, not knowledge and intentionality.  It wasn’t until my early thirties that I hit my stride. The timing isn’t a coincidence. This was about the same time I developed some very important professional relationships that still thrive today. These critical friends ignited my desire to hone my craft and the fire still burns in me today.  

As a building leader, I have often wondered how I can stoke the desire in teachers to commit to their own professional reflection and learning.  Although the desire develops for different people at different times and for different reasons, there seem to be some common influences that teacher learners share. The work of an instructional leader is to construct experiences that lead each professional to those influences and as instructional leaders, consider the factors that prime a professional to make a commitment to his/her own learning, despite grueling classroom day-to-day demands.

Connection. In every devoted learner’s life, there is a connection with a child or loved one who doesn’t  learn easily or whose learning needs are not being met. Sometimes it is a professional’s own child, sometimes a friend’s child, sometimes a student in the professional’s classroom.  Regardless of how the child comes into the teacher’s life, It is empathy for this learner’s lack of success which forces educators to examine their own thinking and to be relentless in seeking out answers to support the learner.  The challenge as an instructional leader is to recognize when a colleague has made a connection. And, to follow up the recognition with the ability to ask the right question.   Questions like, “What does your student do well?” “Who does this student remind you of?” “What is a time in your life where you struggled to learn something new?” “How can I support you or share responsibilities so that you might have time to get to know this student better?”

Collegiality.  Nearly every teacher I know has empathy. Identifying the student who requires support is just the first step. One of the experienced teachers at our building recently said that the most valuable professional development happens collaboratively and with colleagues who are willing to question her thinking and her decision making about instruction.  This kind of conversation doesn’t happen without a strong level of trust. Thoughtful consideration on the makeup of teaching teams as well as being intentional about providing time for teachers to collaborate during their workday nurtures a culture of professional learning and collegiality. I’ve also noticed that the most productive collaboration happens when teachers own the conversation. There is so much expertise in a teaching faculty and tapping into that talent and asking the right question to collaborative groups supports them as they build trust within their team and as they consider sharing their expertise with those outside their team.  Questions like, “What did you notice about your students’ thinking that helped you decide to use ________ strategy?” “Would you be willing to share how you implemented…..?” “What do you need so that you can be available to model these teaching strategies with your grade level colleagues?”

Curiosity. Real learning results from personal curiosity and a desire to solve a problem. Real learning can be expedited with access to the right resources, including time, money, access to expertise, and materials. Instructional leaders listen to what teachers need to quench their learning desires and they do what is necessary to provide. They ask questions like, “What do you need to make this happen?”  “What data did you use to make that instructional decision?” “What did you learn in today’s practice that will drive the focus of your subsequent lessons?”

My work as an instructional leader is to expect the best out of each member of my staff and to model being a good listener. My work as an instructional leader is to provide opportunity for teachers to nurture relationships during their school day so they develop a sense of interdependence which will lead to deep collegiality.  This is the work of all instructional leaders, not just principals. As we wind down this school year, I encourage each of us- principal, academic coach, teacher, learner- to seek out connections with your students and colleagues and be curious about the challenges that remain. For many teaching professionals, it is in our nature, ourDNA, to teach.  Instructional leaders nurture passion to get better at their practice every day. I pledge to stoke my own desire to learn and to provide the necessary fuel that will result in connection, collegiality, and curiosity for each professional I lead. I hope you do too.


Teacher Leadership · Writing Workshop

My Writing Journey

A few weeks ago, Lori, Kris, and I shared about our blog, our writing group, and ourselves as writers.  As we stood in front of these Juniors and Seniors who were about to begin blogging as part of their Physics class, I felt very proud. We were asked to talk to young writers about writing because we are writers. Throughout my life I have worn this label proudly, it has faded into the background and almost disappeared entirely, and recently has surfaced with new enthusiasm.

My journey as a writer has been a bumpy one:

  • As a child, I was a journaler. It makes me laugh when I think of those notes full of friendship woes and puppy love crushes.
  • Through high school and college, I was a procrastinator who spent many a late night/early morning cranking out a paper to be turned in a mere two to three hours later.
  • As a young teacher, my writing life was non-existent.
  • As a soon-to-be Mom, I wrote letters to Brody sharing my excitement, hopes, and dreams for him. (I have added to letter to this journal on each of Brody’s birthdays.)
  • After discovering the work of Lucy Calkins and The Reading Writing Project, I began writing what I asked my students to write.  (This was very eye-opening and a wonderful reminder that writing is difficult.)
  • In pursuit of my EdD, I slipped back into old habits from high school and college and quickly learned that these habits do not produce writing I am proud of.
    And today, I try to write at least three times per week. Some of this writing holds the seeds of blog posts, some of this writing helps me celebrate the wonderful business of our lives, and some of this writing will never be seen by anyone but helps me think.

As I think about this writing journey, there are three things that I know are most important to my writing process:

  1. A clear audience. Is the writing only for me or will I share with a larger audience? When the writing is only for me, I freely share all of my opinions and include the brutal honesty that will help me truly reflect. When the writing is something that I think could be shared, I am more careful with my words, I write in a more concise manner and I think about details I can share that will engage the reader.
  2. A topic I care about. It is almost impossible for me to write about something that I do not care about. Writing is hard – I have to be 100% invested to put forth the effort!
  3. Feedback from others. The encouraging words from others about my writing are fueling me and I am so grateful. I LOVE when someone mentions our blog and wants to talk about one of the posts. I LOVE when someone shares that something I wrote and posted on the blog has caused them to think. I LOVE when my writing group praises me for the writing habit I am working to develop.

As I reflected on my personal writing process I started thinking about all classrooms where young writers are asked to think.

  • I wonder what our young writers would recognize as the essential elements to their writing process. Do our classrooms allow for these essential elements?
  • I wonder if our young writers feel ownership of their writing process. How can we help them develop this?
  • I wonder if our young writers would describe themselves as writers. How can we help them build this identity?
Books · Community · Culture · Reading · Reflection · Students

Book Clubs: Civil Rights Connections

Note: This post was written for a previous unit I led with my 8th graders during historical fiction book clubs that centered on the Civil Rights Movement. Many things that we discussed in that unit continue to feel resonant to me, and listening to these student voices is important.

For the past couple of weeks, my students have been studying the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. They have varying degrees of background knowledge on the topic – many know Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, but few of them know many details beyond the biggest names and moments. In order to learn more, students are in book clubs reading different books related to this time period, including New Boy, Warriors Don’t Cry, The Lions of Little Rock and Revolution. Our classes are following the Lucy Calkins Units of Study for Historical Fiction Book Clubs. We are also watching a few documentaries from Teaching Tolerance to help them visualize what that movement felt like.

Last week, my students watched a documentary called A Time for Justice, which gives a basic overview of the Civil Rights Movement in about 40 minutes. I had students reflect on the video after watching, including a question that asked, “What personal connections do you make to this video?”

I was impressed and also saddened by some of their responses. I’ve included a few here.

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What struck me most about these responses is that there are still so many instances of injustice that happen today to which students connect. Even my 8th graders recognize how the struggles that African Americans faced during what we call the Civil Rights Movement are similar to those that many marginalized groups face today. Some of their connections are incredibly deep, painful even. Others note moments of injustice they see in their daily lives, even it is what we see as commonplace. Some made connections with amazing books they had read, like Dear Martin by Nic Stone and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

As 8th graders, my students are still figuring out the world around them. But at this moment in time, it feels like we all are. I want to give my students a space to reflect on their own connections to the world, to express what troubles them about what they see in the past and the present. As I read through these, I also think of how much these students have grown over the past nine months. Maybe I can’t teach them everything, but I can help them feel like they are heard. After reading these responses, I will continue to give my students opportunities like this to reflect and make connections, and to share some of these responses with others who may not have similar experiences. Getting books that cover these topics is also important. I will keeping searching for titles that I can recommend for students to not only see themselves, but also to view others’ experiences and learn from them. Building empathy is one of the most important things I can do as a teacher in today’s world.


Driving 85 When the Speed Limit is 70

The life of a soccer mom has its ups and downs. (I am not complaining because that stage of my life is coming to a close and I will be sorry to see it end.) One perk is the times I get to spend with my daughter driving to Cincy or Indy or Huntington or Memphis or Louisville. Bailey and I love music and the tunes we prefer on road trips are from Broadway shows – specifically Hamilton, Rent, Wicked, Les Mis, and Dear Evan Hansen. We sing and bee-bop along for hours on end. This past weekend we traveled to Cincinnati for a night game and then drove home Sunday after an afternoon game in Northern Kentucky. I love our time together when I can look over and she’s belting out lyrics like “No day but today!” as loudly as she can.


But like I said earlier, there are some “downs” to being a soccer mom and to trips like this. It is stressful to spend hours and hours in a car driving around your most precious cargo especially when you look down and notice you are driving 85 miles per hour and simply following a stream of cars who are hurtling down a highway. Don’t get me wrong – I am not a slow driver and I am usually 7-8 mph over the posted speed limit when I travel. 15-20 mph over is pushing it for me!

On Sunday, though, I found myself barreling down I-71 at an excessive speed. When I noticed what was happening, I slowed down, moved into the right lane, took a deep breath, and looked at Bailey. Why did I let myself get caught up in moving as fast as the line of cars in the left lane? Why hadn’t I paid attention to my speed and noticed that I was passing quite a few vehicles like they were standing still? Why was I hurrying instead of being thoughtful?

And then my mind wandered to thoughts about how situations like this remind me of teaching and of life in general.

As teachers, we are all trying to get everything “in” – before the test, before the end of the quarter, before semester exams, before the end of the year, before being evaluated. Here are some things I think we can learn from my experience on the highway:

  • Slow down and take a look at the students sitting in your classroom. Will adding another worksheet or fun word activity or project help them become better readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists or musicians? Does every second have to be filled with stuff? Could five minutes to process or practice or reflect benefit them instead of five minutes of rushing through another thing?
  • Don’t feel like you have to follow the crowd. Again, think about the students. You know them. You’ve talked to each one of them and have learned their strengths and struggles. Just because a colleague is moving onto the next book or the next writing does that mean that your students are ready to do that?
  • Enjoy the time you have as you are having it. As I looked over and saw my daughter singing at the top of her lungs with a big smile on her face, I realized that this was a precious moment. We get to spend a limited amount of time with students, so treasure it. (Even those moments when it is difficult and I know that it sometimes is.)

Someone may say “Well, I have to stay with my team” or “Won’t my kids (or myself) fall behind and not get everything done?” We are all professionals and we know what good practice looks like. We know how to talk to our students and how to see where they are and then determine where they need to go and how to get them there. Following the crowd or the “this is the way we’ve always done it” may not fit with what you know is good for the students sitting in your room at this time. Don’t be afraid to ease up on the gas pedal and move into the right lane.

As I look at these suggestions, I believe it applies to everyday life also. “Slow down”, “be yourself”, and “enjoy life” are mantras that I try to live by. There are many times that I have to remind myself though; it is so easy to get caught up in everything. But as I diligently and reverently tried to remember all the words to “Wait for It” while singing with Bailey and Leslie Odom, Jr., I realized that speeding home with the rest of traffic wasn’t the best thing for me and that I needed to put my beliefs into practice in order to arrive safely and with a peaceful piece of mind. Do I think I will never look down and see my speedometer nearing 85 mph again? Probably not. However, I am aware and feel I have some strategies for dealing with that both as a human and as a teacher.




Going From Automatic to Manual: Shifting through Writing.


Some Back Story: Last month my precious baby boy turned sixteen which means he got his license which means that Mama got herself a new/used Jeep Wrangler and handed down the 140,000+ miles car to her boy.

The thing is, I have no idea how to drive the Wrangler.

It’s a manual.

Do not do this at home, kids. Deadpool is a professional.

How I picture driving a manual Wrangler: There are a bunch of rrrrrrrrr, rr, rrrrrrrr sounds as I push in the clutch, press the gas, switch each gear. Maybe I go off roading (of course I go off roading–it’s my daydream), maybe I get stuck in the mud and I have to shift, shift, shift, to get this baby out… maybe I don’t, either way I am driving around in my automobile like freaking badass Barbie.

The reality of me driving my manual Wrangler: I stall. A. Lot. When I’m going 35, I feel like I’m going 90. And I can’t remember if I’m supposed to put it back into 4th or 3rd when turning a corner. There are so many numbers. And how am I supposed to look at the dials and drive at the same time? And what in the world happened to 10 and 2? How can I keep them at 10 and 2 when I have to shift? And I have to Jeep wave? What? Oh, I threw it into third trying to start from a stop and that won’t work? Why not? How do I know which gear I’m in, there’s this sleeve over it. It’s like the mystery sleeve, guess which gear you are in Zakrzewski? And maybe there are a few choice words…give or take.

It’s a process. I’m working on it.  

I’ve been driving for over 27 years (Oh sweet mother of victory, I did not think the math would give me that number). So, with 27 years of experience, this should be easy. I mean I’ve been driving a car for a long time. Gas means go. Break means stop. Turn the wheel. Easy freaking peasy.

The thing is, even if you’ve been driving for years, learning to drive a manual is just a little bit different than driving automatic. And it takes practice–in all kinds of situations–practice.

And here comes the parallel (kind of like parking–see what I did there with a sweet continued analogy; you’re welcome).

This Is What Writing Is Like for Kiddos.

Deadpool thinks writing is the COOLEST!

They’ve done it for years. They’ve felt like they’ve been doing this since kindergarten. And they have. So when some kiddos come into the classroom and we ask them to write, some become frustrated because they feel they should know how to do this. This shouldn’t be hard for them. They have been throwing their essays into gear for years. But they aren’t in automatic anymore. Now they are in a manual. And that can be very intimidating.

As they move up through the grades, there are subtle changes, subtle shifts. New expectations.

You can’t use I.

Try to avoid passive voice.

You can use one word for emphasis if you want.

But don’t use a fragment here. It’s a fragment.

Oh, but this fragment works because you are emphasizing.

Use a comma here.

You need paragraph breaks.

This line can stand alone…no it’s not a paragraph, but it works.

You can use personal experience.

No you can’t.

You need quotes.

No you don’t.

Can you add more of your voice?

Be more formal.

I have this magnet for the Wrangler…for real. And frankly, I could use it whenever I learn new things. T-shirts, anybody?

So many nuances. So, for writers who were used to writing one way, (maybe the five paragraph way; maybe the flip the prompt way; maybe the “get in and get out” testing essay way) what was comfortable before is now hard.

So what do we do? How can we help teach our young drivers how to shift into different gears and just take off.

Write all the time.

You write. Show them what you do. Show them your mistakes. Show them your corrections. Talk them through your ideas. Laugh at your own phraseologies and savor your own voice. Show your “go to moves.” And write in different situations, casual and formal; academic and non-academic. Experiment.

They write. Ask them to tell you how they are coming up with their ideas. Have them show you their mistakes and give suggestions in how to fix them. Talk through both of your ideas. Enjoy their phraseologies and savor their voices. Identify their “go to moves” that you are starting to see.  And have them write in different situations, casual and formal; academic and non-academic. Experiment.

There are so many paths to writing. So many routes to take.  So many ways to do it.

And it can be really fun. As teachers, we can take them off roading, off of the five paragraph essay, off the flip the prompt. We can show it as a structure, absolutely, but we can show them how to break the rules and use those broken rules to make something spectacular.

Be patient. These kiddos are just trying to learn how to push in the clutch, shift, and press the gas. Let them keep practicing because that is what it will take to enjoy the ride.

A Special Jeep wave for my girl, Lucy Bennett who graciously loaned Deadpool her Barbie Jeep. 


Professional Spring Cleaning: Tips for Veteran Teachers

Some people head to the beach for Spring Break. They bask in the sun, sink their toes into the sand and spend time outside absorbing Vitamin D for the soul. Me? I head to the basement. I know how thrilling this sounds, and my teenage daughters absolutely love me for it. But I enjoy using the break to quietly recharge and get spring cleaning checked off the to-do list. In my house, I clean from the ground floor up. So last week on the first day of my spring break, while seemingly everyone else was packing their suitcases and catching early morning flights, I was packing up boxes of old toys and cleaning out the basement.

My favorite part of spring cleaning is getting to make a mess first. Admittedly, I was pretty energetic as I dragged out all the old toys and lined them up along the basement walls. It didn’t take long before I had a complete mess. I began asking myself: Did we really buy all this stuff? Why are we hanging on to all of this? There is a moderate fortune spent in big hunks of plastic and bins of stuffed animals sitting in our basement. Maybe we can pay our first college tuition payment based on garage sale profit!

Of course, the girls were completely taken when they discovered what I was doing. They weren’t shy about reminiscing and showing love to these old toys one more time as we sorted and boxed; some they had to keep. As memories flooded back, I realized the real reason I had put it off so long. I didn’t want to let go of the memories attached to all these fun moments with my kids.

Isn’t the same true of lessons we do with our students? Teachers go to great lengths to design meaningful lessons. This daily task takes time, effort, collaboration, and often money to do right. It only seems natural for us to develop connections with the lessons we teach, making lessons and activities we have developed hard to let go.   

For me, the most exciting part of teaching is coming up with new ways to approach the lessons I want to teach. I love all parts of my job, but I thrive on lesson planning and instructional design. I am a professional development geek, always in search of fresh perspectives and alternatives for reaching every kind of student. As a result, I have many different versions of lessons. All of those versions have accumulated over the years.

On one hand, I love having this accumulation of choice because it allows for smoother, more responsive differentiation. I can easily tap into the experiences I have had and lessons I have created throughout the years when I set out to meet the unique needs of my current students. I never really thought of this as a problem. After all, don’t all good teachers constantly evolve? [insert a resounding YES here].

Still, there can be a downside to an abundance of resources. Teaching toolkits–like bins of toys in the basement–can get overstuffed. We talk all the time about acquiring skills for our teaching toolkits, but no one ever talks about managing these tool kits when they become too crowded. Just like my basement full of toys, a teacher’s toolkit requires the occasional spring cleaning. Otherwise, teaching methods can become dusty and no longer be as effective as they once were.

Last week I realized that veteran teacher lesson planning is a lot like cleaning out the family toy  stash. Lessons, just like toys, can and should be re-evaluated. And, teachers who have accumulated too many lessons to count should be especially intentional when deciding what to keep, what to tweak, and what to toss.

Professional Spring Cleaning: Tips for Veteran Teachers

#1– Sort What You Have

It is just common sense to keep what works and toss what doesn’t, but before you do that for this year, sort your stash. Lay it all out and see what you have. You know that what worked this year, with this group of students might not work next year with a new group of students. And the opposite is true. Just because an approach wasn’t successful this year, doesn’t mean it might not have value next year. Having choices matters, especially when it comes to making decisions on demand. So, start by sorting your strategies from your tools and activities. Get reacquainted with what you have. Here are some focus questions to help you sort effectively:

1. What strategies did I find myself coming back to frequently?

2. What strategies did I try but could refine?

3. What tools did I use? Where did they fit on the SAM-R model?

4. Was it the tool I used or the thinking strategy that worked for the kids?

5. What did I like about the tools and activities I used? What were the limitations?

#2– Selectively Purge

It will become overwhelming to keep everything, and who doesn’t love a good “Google Drive Purge?” It is important to embark on each new year with a fresh perspective, so don’t give yourself the crutch of planning next year with a simple cut & paste of lesson plans. Instead, save the seeds of your best lessons while saving room to experiment with new ideas and to grow from collaboration with colleagues and professional development.

To easily decide what lessons to keep, what to tweak and what to toss, think about two things: purpose and variety. Most every teacher wishes she had more time. While technology has helped us gain more efficiency, there still is no time to waste. That means every lesson should have a purpose. If you cannot identify your purpose, then tweak it or toss it. Additionally, students deserve variety in their day (and so do you!). What does it feel like to be a student in your class? Are you providing a variety of experiences each day? Each week? Lessons can vary in purpose and style, or you can provide variety by reconsidering resources, strategies, groupings, seating, or tools. Think about what lessons will only work one way. Then think about how more flexible lessons could be tweaked to provide more variety for your students’ experiences.


We all love it when it is finished (my basement looks AWESOME, by the way), but not everyone loves the act of organizing. However, with so much of our lesson planning and development being digital, it is critical that you organize and protect your “keepers”. Here’s how:

1. Have an organizational pattern. Take some time to reflect on how you might think to retrieve lessons next year. Do you tend to search for things by name? By unit/topic? By time of year? By standard? Decide your preference, then design a digital filing system that will work for you.

2. Create naming conventions for yourself. Naming conventions are codes for your files. For example, I project a mini-lesson for my students each day. In Google Drive, each of those mini-lessons is saved as “Mini-Lesson: XYZ”. My students also work from writing progressions each week, so all of those files are saved as “Writing Progression: XYZ”. These simple naming conventions can save you loads of time.

3. Protect your most beloved resources by having multiple copies. Don’t underestimate the value in printing off your best resources so if something happens digitally, at least you have a hard copy you can recreate. Also, it feels different to search for things digitally than it does to flip through a notebook. Sometimes the old fashioned way just works better.

This is a perfect time of year to do some professional spring cleaning. It’s perfect timing because you are still in the thick of your instructional time and your mindset is still focused on what is working and what is not. Make an appointment with yourself and take it on now.  Not only will you get a trip down memory lane, realizing all the great things you have done to promote your students’ growth, you will also smile every time you go to look for something…and find it!

Community · Culture · Environment · Students

Words Are Power

No surprise The Magic of Words book was my favorite.

I have always loved language and words! I know that sounds kind of weird, but it is true – crosswords, word searches, Boggle, UpWords, Scrabble, the Childcraft books that came with the World Book Encyclopedias, and Babysitters’ Club books filled many days when I was young. Then my favorite class in college – LINGUISTICS. I thought I was in heaven!

Words make us feel!

  • Excitement … my infant says momma (or something that sounds like momma) and tears immediately fill my eyes.
  • Fear … “I think we need to talk.”
  • Happiness … my 14-year-old says “Mom, I love you” (or anything at all to me).  Grief … “Pap has passed.”
  • Inspiration … Mom saying “I am proud of you” (yes – even at 43 this still matters).
  • Disappointment … “I am sorry, but we chose another candidate.”
  • Love – “I appreciate you.”

Language. This stringing together of words that we often take for granted is so important. It allows us to think together. It creates culture … language creates a community.

What we say and how we say it shows others what we think and how we feel – and it matters. A group of students is off task … a teacher says “Get back to work or you will be eating lunch with me.” Or “When you are off task it interferes with the learning of others and makes me feel frustrated.” Or “What is going on? What is getting in the way of your learning? How can I help you get back on track?”

Using we to describe our classroom communities, referring to our young learners as readers and writers, describing our English learners as developing bilinguals – all of these nuances are meaningful and convey different messages.

Recently a teacher shared a quote with me that reminded me of the power teachers as the adults in the room hold.

“The messages that students receive externally become the messages they give themselves.”

What messages are our students hearing? Are these messages what we want them to hear? We must be more careful with our words and never forget the power they hold!

Culture · Environment · Reflection

Finding the Truth

When I visited my parents’ house a few weeks ago, I decided to do a little “Marie Kondo-ing” in my childhood bedroom. A lot of my work from college was still there, and one thing I found was a big accordion file of letters that the seniors from my student teaching classes wrote to me at the end of the school year. Some were sweet, some were pretty neutral, but one stuck out to me.

The first time I read it, I was so angry with the student. The words How dare he? crossed my mind. What does he know? Even as I started looking through the letters, I was searching for this one because I still thought that it was obnoxious. I was feeling a little bit of that glee you get when you know you’re right about something and someone else was wrong.

Once I found the letter again, I realized that I was the one who was so, so wrong.


The letter wasn’t signed, but I had my suspicions which specific 12th-grade boy wrote it. I initially thought he was so self-righteous in trying to be philosophical by saying things like “instead show them not the key to the door, but the door so they may open it themselves.” Now as I read it, I completely understand this student’s sentiment. I wasn’t listening to my students as a naive 23-year-old. I was doing what I thought teaching was: giving information and having students repeat it back. Assigning work and expecting them to just do it, no questions asked. This letter is pretty spot on in terms of how much my beliefs in teaching philosophy have changed over the past eight years.

If I am being honest, this 2018-2019 school year has been incredibly challenging for me professionally and personally. I have more students to care for than I ever have before, and many of them seem to have more needs than in years past, or maybe I am just more in tune with them. I have experienced a lot of anxiety myself in the past year, which I think leads me to be more inclined to ask a student questions about their life, listen to their concerns, or just approach the work we’re doing with more of a sense of care.

As a middle school teacher, of course, my job is to teach content, but this year, I have been learning that teaching the whole child is truly more important than whether they can tell me what dramatic irony is. While I’m not always perfect at this, I’m trying to find ways to lean into the true needs of my students while still encouraging them to take steps toward academic progress. If one of my classes loves to talk, I try to spend some of my workshop time to build relationships and share stories about my life, while also listening to theirs. In my mind, building that rapport and trust while sacrificing some content means that I will probably get more effort from these students the next day. Sometimes this is true and sometimes it isn’t — this isn’t a perfect system, but it’s something I’m continuously working on.

Our district has been focusing a lot on social-emotional learning this year, and I have come to the realization that middle schoolers need that more. When I take time to listen to them, to give them choice, and to let them explore subjects that interest them, I know they are growing more. Teaching is a constantly-shifting practice, and I am trying to find the balance that works best for me and my students.

So to the student “not all that much younger” who wrote me this letter: thank you. Your words have helped me realize just how far I’ve come since I started teaching just eight years ago.

Writing Workshop

Rigor Mortis Bend

CD01EE2F-A29F-4FBA-86C6-4102F3C6FAA8Excerpt from The Running Dream

by Wendelin Van Draanen

“Rigor Mortis Bend.

It’s a place in the 400-meter race where every cell of your body locks up.

Your lungs ache for air.

Your quads turn to cement.

Your arms pump desperately, but they’re stiff and feel like lead.

Rigor Mortis Bend is the last turn of any track, and at Liberty High you’re greeted with a headwind.

The finish line comes into view and you will yourself toward it, but the wind pushes you back, your body begs you to give up, and the whole world seems to grind into slow motion.

Your determination is all that’s left.

It forces your muscles to fire.

Forces you to stay in the race.

Forces you to survive the pain of this moment.

Your teammates scream for you to push.

Push! Push! Push!

You can do it!

But their voices are muffled by the gasping for air, the pounding of earth, the pumping of blood, the need to collapse.

I feel like I’m living on Rigor Mortis Bend.” (16-17)

So, I knew I was scheduled to write this blog post for about two and a half weeks now and I just kept pushing it to the metaphorical back burner. I tried to sit down and write. I made a list of topics to write about. I definitely thought about what to write. But no ideas emerged. Nothing worth sharing. Spring break is right around the corner, and I’ve hit a wall. Like Jessica, the protagonist in Wendelin Van Draanen’s award-winning and inspiring novel The Running Dream that I recently read, I hit Rigor Mortis Bend, the place where you have to push yourself to complete something.

I continued to find other tasks to complete, no matter how menial, in order to avoid thinking about and coming up with a topic to blog about this week. I changed all of the bed sheets in the house. I did the dishes. I looked for a missing library book that has been renewed on my account over a dozen times. When at school, I organized my desk, I walked around the building finding others to chat with. I contemplated e-mailing our blog team to let them know I was going to have to bail on this week’s blog post, and to see if anyone else was ready to post instead.

Then it occurred to me that I was doing EXACTLY what some of my learners do–they hit Rigor Mortis Bend when writing, and then they stop. They avoid. They quit. Like me, they have things they’d rather be doing. They have other things to think about. The problem lies in that I can usually come up with something to post or submit, but once learners hit this wall, they’re finished. So, how can we help learners fight and push through Rigor Mortis Bend when writing?

I think the answer to this question is twofold. First, as teachers (and notice I didn’t say JUST English/Language Arts teachers!), we need to create opportunities for learners to write more in class, not for homework. And second, we need to be writing beside students to model our own imperfections and struggles with writing.

My PLC saw that we weren’t giving learners as many writing opportunities as we wanted to when we started off the school year. Things happened–snow days, lessons ran over, assemblies, changes in the schedule, you name it. And for whatever reason, time with writer’s notebooks haven’t made the final agenda in quite some time. Now that we’ve recognized this, we are devoting Friday’s classes to writing and conferencing about writing. We want learners to know that writing is important and that talking about writing is important as well. We are being very cognizant of making sure that learners are drafting and writing in class and not out of class where they can’t ask questions, or talk to friends about their writing. This also gives us the chance to do a better job of talking to students about the writing they are doing, whether it’s a quick reflective piece in their writer’s notebook, or one of our big essays for the school year. We are planning to use things like “What’s Going on in This Picture?” from The New York Times and The Quickwrite Handbook by Linda Rief to get our learners thinking about something, whether it’s a picture or more writing, and build a volume of writing from which to draw ideas for more extensive and developed pieces. We totally regret not doing these things at the beginning of the year, yet we aren’t waiting for the beginning of next year to try these ideas in our classrooms. Why? Because it’s never too late to try something new. Our learners are more flexible than we think, and if it’s something they can do and have fun with, they will do it and not even realize that they’re learning.

In the same fashion, we need to be sure we are modeling our own drafting and thinking process for students. Don’t get me wrong, I struggle with this as well. I have a young family at home who demands my attention and I’m currently teaching four preps and six classes at school every day, so I completely understand the excuse that there is no time to get writing done to share with learners. But that’s the thing–they need to SEE/WATCH/OBSERVE us in this process, so it’s not about coming to class prepared with a mentor text to share with them. It’s about drafting on the SmartBoard or Elmo, in front of them, and doing your thinking out loud, letting them watch you struggle. In her book Write Beside Them, Penny Kittle insists, “I wasn’t supposed to be a writer–just someone trying to write–like them. In fact, I was a better model because my hesitations and insecurities were just like theirs…I finally understood that ‘model’ was a verb. I wasn’t creating a model, I was the model–which made the difference.” (9). So, in that vain, I pulled this very blog draft out and shared it with my students. I told them I couldn’t think of anything to write and that writing, in general, was on my mind and this is what I had come up with so far. I talked through what I wanted to say, and hearing their feedback and ideas gave me a better idea of what I wanted to write in this post AND what they need from me in class when practicing writing.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that in order to help our learners push through Rigor Mortis Bend in their writing, we need to be able to push through it with our teaching (and with our own writing!) as well. Teaching writing is tough and we have to be willing to accept that what we’re doing in the classroom isn’t working as we intended it to, and make the change to be better, despite the timing. It’s never too late to try something new.