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Raising Voices in Secondary Classrooms

I had five minutes to inspire ELA teachers at Dublin’s Literacy Conference. This is what I said:

I co-teach 9th-grade inclusion English I at Dublin Coffman High School, and I’ve been to NCTE twice now.

There’s a LOT to love about NCTE. 

NCTE’s theme this year in Houston was “Raising Student Voice,” but what I’ve come to learn about the conference in the two years I’ve attended is that the learning transcends so much more than the year’s theme.

I got to attend the First Timer’s Breakfast this year as a table host, which was super exciting. I got to see Donalyn Miller and Ernest Morrell speak.

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The way Donalyn opened her speech will stick with me forever. She said, “Look around you. This is where you need to be. This is your family. This is your home.”

And she went on to talk about the importance of surrounding yourself with others who are proactive in seeking out their own learning. Her wisdom can undoubtedly apply to today. I always consider Dublin’s Lit Conference to be a mini-NCTE. Look around. We may not know each other, but we are all related because we share common hopes and dreams for our students. So, to me, days like today are as much about professional development as they are about networking.

Donalyn also said this: “Kids need champions, but teachers do, too.”  Ain’t that the truth. We’ve all heard the statistics of teacher retention rates. And I’ll be honest here. Every year, as NCTE and as Dublin’s Literacy Conference approach, I start to hesitate. NCTE is RIGHT before Thanksgiving. I find myself asking do I have time for this? Shouldn’t I be home with my family preparing for the holidays? I’m tired, and I’m busy, and I’m wearing 100 hats, and I don’t feel good… Why do I keep signing myself up to go to these things? And then I go (because I already signed myself up for it), and get this: I NEVER regret it.

I never regret attending NCTE or DLC because of (1) the networking and (2) all the reminders as to why we became English teachers in the first place (like how to raise students’ voice). I don’t know about you, but when I don’t attend or participate in PD, I start to lose focus on what’s really at the heart of my job.

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So, I keep attending these conferences and surrounding myself with the people who also do because these people push me and praise me and help me find and reach my “true north.” This is a term that Kate Roberts used at NCTE. I figured out a few years ago that my “true north” when it comes to reading instruction is choice, and that has been the focus of much of my professional development over the last few years. I decided that in order to be a truly skilled teacher of reading, I better be a reader. I started reading YA books with my students, I worked on perfecting the art of the book talking, and I do all this because I strive to provide choice to insure success for all of my students.

This year, though, I’ve decided to put more focus on my writing instruction, and call me crazy, but I’ve decided that in order to be a truly talented teacher of writing, I need to be a writer.

Falling back in love with reading and identifying as a reader was easy for me. This new journey? Not so much. I’ve never in my life called myself a writer, and I don’t know how long it will take me to identify as one, but I’m trying.

A big part of this journey is a switch that I’ve made in my mind frame.

I used to teach writing with this in mind: “Be an encourager. The world has enough critics already.” I always try to praise a few specific parts of students’ work before providing one or two pointed bits of criticism to show room for improvement.

Then I saw this:

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It stopped me in my tracks. I’m always the critic. I’m always either reading and analyzing student work or reading and analyzing literature, and let’s be honest, it’s a LOT easier to be the giver of criticism than the receiver.

So, if I haven’t made it clear by now: I’m currently mustering the courage to build a writing identity.

A group of educators for Dublin City Schools has taken on this journey together. We’ve started an educational blog, we meet in person monthly, and we try to post weekly.

Screen Shot 2019-03-02 at 5.57.49 AMFor many of us, this is truly scary work for countless reasons. First and foremost, as someone at NCTE said, “Teachers, on a daily basis, are reminded of their failures.”  It isn’t often that we are reminded of our successes. So, it’s scary to write about the happenings of our classrooms in a public forum that is open to criticism.

Someone else at NCTE said, “Every student has a story. The most dangerous presumption is that they don’t want their voices heard.”

Now that I’ve started to write beside my students, I’m coming to learn that every teacher has a story, too, and the world needs teachers’ voices. I read this on teachthought a few days ago:

“In the next version of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal legislation that guides education policy in this country, the words accountability and assessment are mentioned in some capacity at least 250 times each.

The words teaching and learning? 22 times.


This is scary stuff because we all know words have power. I want you to ask yourself this today:

Who is currently writing the story of what happens inside your classroom? Whose voice is loudest?

In these ways, I’m learning how to raise student voice while simultaneously learning how to raise mine:

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And these are just to name a few. As I continue this journey to becoming a writer, I will share more on how my teaching of writing improves.

If you had five minutes in front of a room of ELA educators, what would you say?


Timely Affirmation

The annual Dublin Literacy Conference is one of my most favorite days of the year. It is marked on my calendar a year in advance and I never compromise on my attendance because I always walk away invigorated by what I learn. Usually I leave the conference with pages of notes and an overstuffed bag of books. This year, I left with something more- a timely affirmation that independent workshops should be non-negotiable classroom routines.

Our district heavily supports the idea of reading and writing workshops, mainly because the model naturally provides room for teachers to differentiate strategies, approaches and materials. Additionally, as a reading and writing teacher, I know that self-selecting text and self-selecting topics on which to write is an age-appropriate skill 7th graders need to develop if I want them to be self-directed readers and writers.

With that room to explore independently chosen texts and writing topics, however, there comes a challenge of showing accountability. There is something about the word “independent” that triggers an adult mindset that kids are not accomplishing anything real. In actuality, the opposite is true. Independent productivity is an indicator success! It is what we hope all students graduate knowing how to do. When students are free to choose what to read and write about, they tend to make more headway in practicing the targeted skills I want them to practice. In a way, the freedom to choose liberates their entire learning process. Instead of interpreting uninteresting text or trying to generate writing within a defined box, students end up spending more time refining skills.

Still, some teachers continue to question the value in providing independent reading workshop time: “How will I know students are really reading?” and “How will I know if my readers are interpreting texts correctly if I haven’t read what they are choosing to read?” And independent writing is practiced in even fewer classrooms: “What if they choose a topic they have written on a million times?” or “What do I do with the student who never writes during independent writing time?”  If teachers do not sort out their answers to these questions, or they don’t acquire the resources to steer their teaching strategies for independent workshop time, it is typically the first teaching routine to be tossed aside.

Last Saturday, both Pam Allyn and Jason Reynolds reinforced my dedication to providing weekly independent reading and writing workshops.  In Pam Allyn’s “Top 10 List” she made the comment that when people walk by a classroom of kids who are independently reading, she has heard passersby say, “Oh, they’re not doing anything. They’re just reading.” The audience of reading teachers nodding emphatically, knowing this frustrating perspective. We also know if we want to foster good readers, then, as adults, we have to teach what good readers do. And of course, good readers read! They read. A Lot! And they read by choice, even when someone isn’t watching them or telling them to.

Jason Reynolds also addressed how important it is to provide room for student choice. He talked about his rocky educational experience K-12. He refused to read the books he was told to read because he didn’t feel any connection to them; the texts he was asked to read were so far from his experience, he was not motivated to read. He didn’t feel seen or understood. It wasn’t until college that he saw himself in a book. And with that, he was hooked. Now, his mission is to write books in which kids can see themselves.

This was a timely takeaway because I feel as though independent workshop time comes under fire too frequently. Especially as we prepare for “testing season”, our schedules will be intense and irregular for the next two months. We will have some important planning conversations. What is the most important instruction to provide during these next two months? No matter what, which routines are non-negotiable?

For me, time for my students to independently read and write is non-negotiable. No matter how wacky the schedule gets, I am not going to compromise this component of my structure. As I have reflected on all of this throughout the week, I have come to the conclusion that there are some safeguards I will put in place to ensure that independent workshops run smoothly and true to my overall instructional design.

I will…Students will…
…align the whole-group learning targets with the targets I propose for practice during independent workshop time. …self-select appropriate goals and be able to articulate what they are working on
..focus on process and not product. …track their progress and be ready to talk about it when it is their conference time
…be ready to redirect students who get off track during work time and realize this is training ground for helping them manage their time.…use their work time well, or work with me to figure out what is getting in the way and develop a plan to move forward
…get to know my students as whole people, not just their academic selves as I talk to them and they share their thinking…reflect on their strengths and weaknesses


Find Your Tribe. Love Them Hard.

     Screen Shot 2019-02-27 at 4.32.10 PM.pngI think I can safely say that everyone who attends the Dublin Literacy Conference walks away with new learning. It could be about diverse books or about word learning strategies or about helping students find their identity or about how to confer with readers and writers or about the power of words or about learning progressions or about how to get to know students as people or about…you get my drift.

But one of the most important parts of Lit Conference, to me, might be considered a bonus. It is the chance for teachers to spend time with colleagues and friends and to “fill their cup” with other like-minded individuals. I am always amazed as I see smiles, hugs, and waves from across a crowded room. Who doesn’t love to catch up with a former colleague or have time to check in with someone from across a school district or across several states?

I was lucky enough to present a session with Kara Belden, a friend and one of the people who makes me glad to work in the Dublin school district. Kara’s part of the presentation was about how teachers need to find their tribe and their “true north”. I loved sitting and watching Kara speak so passionately about how teachers can find their own voice and their person or group of people to sustain and support them.

Pam Allyn, the keynote speaker, asked us to think about someone from our past who inspired us as educators. We pictured the person and silently gave them our gratitude for helping us become the person we are, and then, we said the names aloud. I immediately thought of about 10 people but settled on my first principal when I taught in the Cincinnati Public Schools, Dorothy Battle. I was an idealistic, naive 22-year-old who walked into an unknown setting. Mrs. Battle was my champion and supported me through some tough situations. I said her name aloud along with hundreds of others; it was amazing to hear so many names lifted in gratitude. What a wonderful sound!

I was thinking about my tribe going all the way back to my first-grade teacher, Mrs.Snyder, who first showed me how to build relationships between a student and a teacher. Then came Ms. Thomas, Mr. Taylor, Dr. Lucas, Stephanie Davis, Dr. Fenner, Dr. Stewart, Jill Reinhart, the women of this blog, and countless others whose names would fill this page and the next. Some of my tribe simply inspire me to be a better teacher. Some of them make me laugh, while others help me process and grow as a learner. Some of them make me question my daily practices which sometimes is the most important for my growth and psyche. (And Dr. Lucas had a bottle of bourbon sitting on the table at each of my Senior Seminar classes in college as inspiration as we tackled William Faulkner – including a shot or two on the last day of class.)

Screen Shot 2019-02-27 at 4.34.22 PM.pngI’m so grateful for the Dublin Literacy Conference for the learning but more importantly, for the chance to hug, smile, and spend time with people who make up my tribe and renew my educational energy.





Dublin Literacy Conference 2019 – where do I start? This conference is always the perfect pick me up at the end of February – hearing the messages from others passionate about learning, connecting with the many committed educators who come together to learn, and feeling the excitement that a love of learning creates.

This year I had the opportunity to learn from two amazing authors through their presentations, but also in personal conversation. And can I just say that my YA author fangirl-ship grew exponentially!

Hena Khan, one of the loveliest people I have ever met in my life, is one of those people who effortlessly makes those around her smile. She writes books so that while reading young people today do not have to “accept the fact that no one looks like [them]” and will never think “my story doesn’t matter.”

Humility, intimacy, and gratitude were not just the main points of Jason Reynolds’ keynote, these are the characteristics he exhibited from the moment we picked him up in the morning until the last book was signed that evening.

And these authors are not just super awesome people – they are 100% committed to the readers of their books. Over and over I heard thank yous to teachers for putting books into the hands of students. When I told Jason that my 8th-grade son asked me to tell him “I think he writes good books” Jason’s smiling response was “I’ll take it.” Hena shared that the best part of the day was when the students who attended her family session earlier in the day came back hours later to get their books signed. The words and actions of each of them reminded me of how awesome it is to spend most days of my life surrounded by these curious, talented, opinionated, lovestruck, confused teenagers and reminded me how important it is that they know that “it’s okay.”

Thank you to everyone who helped this YA author fangirl learn at this year’s Dublin Literacy Conference.


You Had Me at Hello

Picture this.

It’s 7:45 in the morning. On a Saturday. And I was back at work attending the Literacy Conference.  Hundreds of fellow educators were in attendance. All with cups of coffee or tea or Monsters in hand.

Now, I would love to say that I was enthusiastic about this. Truth is, I had been out late chaperoning my daughter’s field trip to Dayton. We didn’t get back until 12:00 a.m. in the morning. And I woke up at 7:00 a.m. to haul my “middle-aged-I-was-up-past-9:30 grumpy gus” self back to work.

And then it began. 

It began with our children. Dublin’s kiddos who spanned all grade levels, reading their six word memoirs.

Available via (no foam teachers truly exist…it was a metaphor).

First, if you ever want to get a teacher to listen at a presentation, you show us our kids. We become their instant parents…it’s kind of like those plastic pill looking things that you drop into water and the plastic part melts away and a foam figure is left behind. That’s how we are when our kids are on stage, we are in the plastic (I’m tired, I stayed up late) and then the kids come on stage (just add water), and then we are all like, plastic- melts-away, and we are now full-foamed teachers who just love our kiddos.

Second, these kiddos serve as reminders as to why we will sign up for a conference months in advance all enthusiastically.

I was already in tears, and it hadn’t even been five minutes into the program.

Then she came on.

Pic is from internet.That tattoo tho. #amazing

Pam Allyn. A witty, passionate, sprite of a human being, whose enthusiasm for sharing her love of reading to students, to educators,  floated back and forth across the stage. Her enthusiasm, palpable. Her message, empowering. We, we who stayed up late, could do this. We could be warriors in the classroom. We could impact so many readers with our toolbox of skills.

And she modeled them.

She was my coach in the huddle who grabbed my face-mask and said, “Zakrzewski, you’re tired, I get it, but this game is yours. So, go. Do. This.”

So I did.

Session 1: Super Secret Book Clubs.

Book clubs are run by kids. (whaaaaat?)

We read what the kids suggest. (whaaaaaat?)

They set the rules, write their own questions, analyze their own books. (whaaaaaat?)

This is a way for kids to choose the stories that they relate to. That represent them. That show how they feel. Their book clubs, their lives. You listen to them. They listen to you.  It can be done, people. Just show them the way. And these two ladies definitely did. And since then, their clubs have grown.

Session 2: Ignite Student Voice in the Secondary Classroom

With each session I was building a common framework toward a belief I hold close to my heart. Every individual has a story. But as a teacher I understand, that not every student has the confidence to tell it. As my girls from Dublin worked through their presentation, they emphasized “The world needs your story,” “Student voices should be louder than ours.” But sometimes we need to help them with the words, to help them see that their own story, the story of who they were, are, and are becoming, is important–for them and for others.

And then lunch.

Look, I could write an entire ode to lunch. But I won’t. But I can tell you…she who stayed up too late, and then got up at seven, also forgot to eat breakfast…so by the end of the session, she was turning into a snicker’s ad–you know the one, where you become someone else because you are hungry. I’d like to think I was probably Sophia from Golden Girls.

Session 3.

Jason Reynolds with m’girls. 

And it’s at this part of the program where time stopped for me. Enter Jason Reynolds, author of a number of young adult books (All American Boys, Long Way Down to name a couple).

To quote Renee Zelwegger in Jerry Maguire “You had me at hello.”

From his opening with his flight experience to the end where he reconnected the experience to his own writing of young adult literature, I was captivated.

I might have been fangirling.

His main points: humility, intimacy and gratitude. Through writing, he is able to tell stories, his stories, stories of mistakes, of things he’s seen, witnessed, been through, successes and failures. Reynolds creates characters who meet a crossroads and have to choose, and every choice has the potential to change his life. These characters, these people and situations he creates, speak to those who need a voice. They speak to those who have never experienced these situations but should know the situations exist. He creates intimacy between character and reader. And it’s these stories, these written thank yous to everyone in his life and to everyone who is reading them, make me incredibly grateful to have seen him. To witness someone who is inviting us into a world, his world, built by his hard work, determination, many, many stories (and a little Queen Latifah), is an incredible gift to give.

So, while my “middle-aged-I-was-up-past-9:30-grumpy-gus” self drug herself to the conference, my “I-teach-because-I-want-kids-to-have-a-voice-and-be-proud-of their-voice-and-all-the-stories-that-make-them-into-incredible-people” self, left feeling ready to get off the bench and be thrown into the game.

*A huge thank you to all who presented. You gave us your time, your knowledge, and pieces of yourselves. For that, I am incredibly thankful.  (And, I also do not regret attending after staying up way too late the night before. Totally. Worth it.)

signing off-Z 



Teaching Writing In Progressions

What is the best advice you ever got?

My daughter asked me this question last week, and I’m still thinking about it. At the time, I was surprised at how long it took me to decide how to answer her, but in hindsight, the stakes were pretty high! After all, she was listening with such intent; I didn’t want to blow it. I needed to be swift and smart.

You’ll be happy to learn I rose to the occasion–another feather in the parenting cap, if I do say so myself! In the heat of the moment, I reverted back to advice my own parents had given me. I sifted through all the wise tidbits, sorted the practical from the profound. I landed on the advice of my dear ‘ol dad: “Take it one step at a time.”

I love this advice because honestly, it can easily be applied to just about anything. It is especially meaningful to those of us that rely heavily on checklists and like to see our steps toward achievement, no matter what the final goal might be. Taking it one step at a time has been so ingrained in me, it tends to comes out in everything I do–even my teaching.

I heed this advice every time I plan a unit using a teaching progression. I break down what I want to teach over the course of a unit into small, progressive steps, then move through the steps until I see the growth and achievement demonstrated by all of my students. I love planning this way. Progressions help me focus on one skill in isolation, categorize and prioritize the needs of my students, and visually reflect on the effectiveness of the unit.

Progressions can also become tools for students. This idea was new to me when I heard Kate Roberts speak about it last year. In her book, DIY Literacy, she talks about the use of micro-progressions as a reflection tool. As a small group aid, progressions help kids see how small shifts in their thinking can “level-up” in their understanding and work products.

After hearing Kate Roberts speak, my teaching partner and I put it to immediate use. We wrote a few progressions together, and when we got used to the idea, we started writing progressions specific to the needs of our writing classes. I started using progressions in small groups to help students reflect. Then I started using them with individual students to guide their plans for revision. And now, I have graduated to using progressions as a whole group to help us create. Writing progressions are the basis of my weekly independent writing workshop.

Some day, I might fancy this up, but for now this is my latest writing progression:

Using a micro-progression that showcases the depth and complexity of one writing skill at a time, students choose from where on the progression they want to work during their independent writing workshop. During practice time, students have adequate space within the progression to test drive their independent writing skills; the progression becomes an on-demand differentiation tool. With one tool, students can slide back and forth freely between progression levels and try a variety of skills in a writing piece of their choosing.

How I Use Progressions In Conferencing

This tool has helped both the students and me keep focused during writing conferences. I keep the weekly progression by my side as I plan and teach small groups. I can initiate small groups, differentiating writing instruction by teaching through a lens of progressions. Or, I can allow students to take the lead. 1-1 conferences go much smoother now that students come with the language of the progression to ask their questions or seek support.

How I Use Progressions For Revision

Students using a progression have a clear direction on how they can revise more independently. During reflection time, it becomes easier for them to see their efforts and decide where to focus next because they have the progression to inspire them.

I Finally Understand What Ownership of Learning Looks Like

A progression organically leads students to self-assess and take ownership of their writing growth. It gives them a visual cue to where they currently stand on the progression, and prompts them to take ownership of where on the progression they want to be next. They can see– one step at a time— what it will take to make their writing better.

In my experience, students are more driven when they can see where they have been, where they are now and where they are headed. They also love to tell me when they’re “off the chart”. They like to see me sweat it out as I come up with a new addition to the progression because someone’s writing was so good it exceeded what I thought anyone could do.  

Writing progressions have really helped me streamline my focus during writing workshop, and the kids like the simplicity. No matter where they start working on the progression, they feel successful at the end because it is simple to see how much they improved as a result of practice and–perhaps more important for growing reflective writers–HOW they achieved that success.


Getting Back on the Seesaw without Taking a Tail Dive


When I was little, there used to be seesaws–like, legit seesaws. The kind where if your friend jumped off, you were about to take a tail dive into the dirt. Obviously, it was more fun when your friend stayed ON the seesaw, as you could balance each other out. Good old 1980s fun.

So aside from reliving my Golden Girls’ past, there is actually a point.

As teachers, balance can often be hard to manage. We are torn between wanting to give one million percent to our students (they are our kids once they enter our class, after all). And we are torn between our own self-care, something that is often, frankly, brushed aside. We are natural caregivers with everyone but not necessarily ourselves.

We need to get our “full” selves back on the see-saw and stop having our “work” selves cause us take a tail dive into the dirt. But how? How do we do this when there is so much to be done?

Below is a list of activities that you can do. Some cost some green. Some are as free as a hippie at Woodstock.  Some take one minute. Some take an hour. The point is, you must carve out at least a few minutes for yourself on the daily–and maybe at least one hour on the weekly…I try to hit an hour daily if I can, but with teenagers and teenage social schedules, that can sometimes be tough…so I adjust. On those days, I shoot for 15 minutes. (For your ease of use, and so you don’t have to read all of them, I’ve put them in bold…so choose your adventure).

Available on Amazon

*Morning coffee with your tribe. Either rotate buyers or everyone BYOCoffee. Use this to talk about anything but work. Use it to catch up on what your kids are doing, what craft you are making even if it’s something like crafting with cat hair (apparently, it’s a thing, and there is a book about it). Anything. But. Work. Because honestly, if you don’t take a brain break from work, your brain is Going.To. Burn. Out.

*Speaking of tribes–don’t have time to meet? First, wrong, make time. Second, create a friend group on text, Groupme, Facebook, the Snapchatter…whatever.  Send each other feel good quotes, funny memes, a selfie of that hairstyle that you worked on for twenty minutes and then forgot your umbrella during a torrential rainstorm…things that will make you smile even if it is just for a few minutes.

*Jam out to your music on the way to school, on the way home, in between classes. Or better yet, jam out to an audio book (I totally do this, and it may or may not weird some kids out when they are like–hey, Mrs. Z what are you jamming out to? Me: Oh, ya know, a little Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. (Seriously, his book is all kinds of amazing, and THAT VOICE!)

* Work out. There are a lot of places where you can take a class for free to try it out.

*Orange Theory (I totes recommend this–it can be as hard core as you want, and the trainers are motivating…there’s that whole thing where you’re heart rate is up for everyone to see–nothing like a little competition.) Plus, the orange lighting-super flattering.

*Cycle Bar (Oh. My. Gawd.) #1. The trainers are super positive and philosophical little ohm-makers. #2. And, it’s a great workout to loud music club lighting…Really, it’s like clubbing on bikes.

*Title Boxing (Get it Guuuurl). Grading papers got ya down? Take it out on the bag.  Want to feel strong, this is a class for you. I like to channel a little Ronda Rousey when I’m there. In my head–oh, 138 papers to grade? (punch the bag) I think it’s 125 now (punch the bag).

*Straight up, go to the gym. Take your tribe with you to hit some weights, the pool, the track, shoot some hoops (depending on gym.)

*Working out could be as easy as taking a walk to the bathroom on the other side of the building instead of across the hall. It’s legit a sprint because you have maybe 4 minutes to change classes. But sometimes those extra steps are just what you need to clear your head.

*Or simply put, go outside. Go for a run. Ride a bike. Roller skate on some hip and happenin’ old school four wheeled numbers.

*Write. Write your thoughts, fun quotes you enjoy that motivate you…paste pictures…do the bullet journal thing. Plan a trip that maybe you’ll take someday. Oh, Hawaii, someday I’ll see your lovely sands and palm trees.

*Look at photos: For clarification–photos on social media aren’t always the best (as studies are showing). But your own? The ones you take with family and friends and places you have gone. Food that you had two weeks ago that was so good and pretty that you just had to photograph it. (Don’t judge…I’m a foodie). This takes two seconds and can make a difference in your motivation for the day.


And he’s relatively travel sized.

*”Deadpool on a Shelf”–hear me out…I have a Deadpool figurine. He’s posable. And, yes, we leave him around the house holding messages. So, why not have a family one. Or implement it into your classroom if that brings you joy. Deadpool not your thing (WHY? He’s, like, THE COOLEST. SUPERHERO. EVER. But I’m not judging.) Perhaps another figure is more your style…maybe Eeyore (you anti-Deadpool you, J/K)…or Wonder Woman…or even the random bobble head that Uncle Nick gave you three years ago that you are still scratching your head over.

*Scroll Pinterest: It’s like the Sears catalogue for the next generation. I have so many pins I could probably just scroll my own and be totally surprised.

*Speaking of Pinterest….Cook–I don’t always have time to cook; I’ll be honest. But on Sundays I do a lot of meal prep so I can reheat. I try to look up different recipes on pinterest, and I try new ones every couple of weeks.  Sometimes they are good and sometimes they are called Donatos.

*Make lists: Yep, I’m a lister. I list things I’ve already done just so I can cross them out and feel accomplished. It’s easy. It’s free. It’s satisfying. I’m surprised it doesn’t have its own channel on Snapchat…is that what they are called channels? Or…..

*Draw/Doodle:  I have ZERO talent here. But, I can tell you that my students do this a lot…and not so secretly, I love it…and sometimes I  even draw back (although not quite as well as they draw). It takes away some of their stress while they do assignments, and frankly, I enjoy their amusement at my drawing communications.

*Breathe: (this is not an optional adventure) Guys and Dolls, teaching is hard. It’s GREAT. And it’s INSPIRING. But it can be exhausting. And you need to take care of you because you have hundreds (some of us thousands) of kids who are looking to us to be ready to roll on any given Monday.

Other ideas? (Of course there are! Comment on what helps you balance your life seesaw!)

Side note…Deadpool loves Peter Cetera


Classroom Libraries · co-teaching · Culture · Literacy · Reading · Reflection · Students · Teaching · Uncategorized

Taking “A Novel Approach” to EMPOWERing Students

img_3133Taking “A Novel Approach” to EMPOWERing Students 


This year, I read both Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani and A Novel Approach: Whole-Class Novels, Student-Centered Teaching, and Choice by Kate Roberts, and these books inspired me to make huge changes. Most notably, Deborah Maynard (intervention specialist) and I used these two texts to collaboratively make changes to our end-of-the-year unit surrounding The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.

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A Novel Approach

Over the last few years, we have made some gradual changes away from whole-class required reads for many reasons, but The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet has always remained a staple of our English I curriculum.

The Debate:

Whole-class texts: Independent reading:
“Believing in teaching whole-class texts–long or short–suggests the belief that struggle is productive for young readers, that kids that kids need to read great books, that focusing on a common text builds strong and literate reading communities, and that students benefit from controlled questions and activities led by a proficient reader (the teacher).” “Choosing to focus on independent reading shows the beliefs that reading ability matters, that kids are going to benefit most from having experiences with great books that they can read on their own with strength, and that knowing the skills it takes to read any book will help them to build greater independence. This also suggests a belief that choice in reading is essential in building a strong reading life and that often our very identities are in part shaped by the books we have read.”
Both excerpts are from Kate Roberts’ A Novel Approach: Whole Class Novels, Student-Centered Teaching, and Choice

I personally tend to value independent reading over whole-class novels, but Roberts’ book provided great reminders of the importance of mentor texts, shared experiences, and modeling. Plus, it merges the best of both worlds, so it gave me fresh ideas and new energy going into 4th quarter, the only quarter that I still teach a whole-class novel. For the last few years, I’ve tended to focus on all the negatives of whole-class novels and all the positives of independent reading, but Roberts’ merging of the two provides a unique balance that allows time for both types of instruction and celebrates both types of learning.



Deb Maynard and I both took a course led by Steve Kucinski (@specialkdchs) and Kristy Venne (@KristyVenne) surrounding the book Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning. I took photos of the pages that resonated with me the most.


With this in mind, PLUS the ideas presented in A Novel Approach, we ultimately decided NOT to get rid of The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet altogether, but instead, keep Romeo and Juliet as a mentor text, teach the reading skills required to tackle such a challenging read, and help students apply those skills to their independent reading books.

Screen Shot 2018-05-06 at 2.33.38 PMIn addition to allowing students to purposely pair choice novels to The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, we gave students choice in writing prompts, and students proposed summative celebrations of learning rather than us assigning and requiring the standard compare/contrast essay that we always have.

You can read more about how we introduced the new unit and unique expectations to students and families here.


Throughout the unit, Deb and I read contemporary YA novels, too, and modeled all of the thinking and writing that we asked students to do.

We modeled thinking that we actually do when reading any book for any purpose since most of our students were reading different books than us and each other.

Taking the journey with students helped us to better know what skills were truly necessary, what work was especially hard, and what challenges most students would face.  

Critical Questions

1. What decisions are we making for students that they could make for themselves?
2. What changes should be made to inspire students to build independence and take ownership over their reading lives?
3. How can we make this shift:

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WHO – Deborah Maynard (intervention specialist) and I co-teach English I all day (five 48-minute periods).  We worked together to make all of these changes to our teaching routines and strategies and to make changes to our unit expectations and assessments in order to empower students to take ownership over their reading lives. Hear more about WHAT and WHY here: 

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WHERE – Dublin Coffman High School, 9th grade, English I, inclusion

WHEN – 4th Quarter, 2018; The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet Unit

HOW – surveys, flipgrid reflections, online discussions, observations

LIMITATIONS – It is difficult to quantify and calculate things such as empowerment, engagement, interest, and rigor, so we’ve had to rely on our observations, and have done our best to encourage students to be 100% honest in their survey responses and flipgrid reflections.


Because our unit in its entirety and our Action Research Project involve so many parts, I am going to break all of that info into multiple blog posts. Plus, we haven’t even finished reading Romeo and Juliet, and students are just now starting to work on their summative celebrations of learning, so stay tuned! More will be coming in a week or two, and I can’t wait to share!


Inspiration comes from unexpected places

Have I mentioned that for the last 15 years, I have been a math teacher?  I have lived and breathed mathematics education and it has led me to the beautiful world of leadership, where I am blessed to lead others.

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to attend our district’s Literacy Conference.  You heard me right. LITERACY. It was AMAZING professional learning and inspiration.  I am not a reading or writing expert, yet as I sat in this conference, I soaked up so many ideas and strategies that will transfer perfectly to my work with teachers across curriculums.  This is proof, maybe even encouragement, that inspiration comes from the most unexpected places and that we shouldn’t limit ourselves to learning within our own comfort zone.  

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Here are 4 reasons why we don’t need to look for subject specific PD all the time (Secondary teachers, take note and elementary teachers, come to math PD!)


  • Humanity comes first.  At the literacy conference, it was all about kids.  Students introduced the speakers, students shared their insight about reading and writing, students shared their technology knowledge with us, and students shared their writing and melodies.  In the words of Linda Sue Park, “You are arming our youth to save the world.  Readers, writers, and teachers coming together to help our youth.”  Educating our children is about saving the world.  Wowser. That was powerful.  And then @gcouros shared, “We need to make the positives so loud that the negatives are almost impossible to hear.”  These powerful messages have so much to do with humanity and the impact we, as teachers, can have.
  • Learning is learning.  Yes, different content has different learning progressions and themes, but kids are kids.  This means that the way we learn is the same no matter what we are learning. Brain research supports this.  Motivation and engagement research supports this.  When we are thinking about the “best” ways to teach, we just need to focus on the desired outcome: learning & growth.  
  • Rigor crosses all curriculum. When we are working to stretch our students, we know that rigor is important.  When I read the definitions of rigor in Roberts’ DIY Literacy, it reminds me of the definitions that I see about mathematical rigor.  We achieve this through individualizing for students, through reflection, choice, and goal-setting among other things.
  • Learning is a result of engagement.  We know that learners grow the most when they are pushed to do most of the thinking.  Instructional models like workshop, PBL, and inquiry cross over to all content areas, because students are doing the thinking.  This was loud and clear at Dublin’s Literacy Conference.  We can engage students through ownership of learning.  We can conference with them to help guide learners.  We don’t need to tell them what they need to know.  We need to guide them to be curious so that they WANT to know.  How do you engage your students in an authentic way?


So, as I take my new (literacy) learning with me this week, I am calling it inspiration.  How can we push outside of our “worlds” to learn from the community, our students, our parents and experts from other areas to improve and move forward collectively?  How can we collaboratively improve teaching and learning?  We can do it.  It’s for our children.


Daily Call

Olivia is my youngest child. Although, she really isn’t a child anymore.  She is a second year language arts and social studies teacher in a neighboring school district.  And me, I am a 32 year veteran currently serving my school as its Principal.  We are at opposite ends of our careers, and this isn’t the only quality in which we are different.  Liv and I have had a tumultuous relationship.  My recollection is that from the moment she was born we were either completely in love OR completely frustrated with each other.  Fortunately, as both of us have matured, our relationship has too.

In fact, each day between 5 and 5:30 pm, Olivia calls me. I am usually on my way home from school or finishing up with the loose ends of the day.  We spend our 20 minute phone call debriefing the day.  I learn about Cheyenne who eats paper from her math journal, verbalizes every thought that pops into her head and doesn’t believe she can read or write since she was retained when her twin sister moved on to 6th grade. I learn about Jason, a student with autism, limited English proficiency, and a fierce desire to impress his teacher and classmates.  I learn about Dametrese, a boy who Olivia describes as her most advanced reader and writer. She tells me about how they challenge her; how they make her laugh and how they make her a better teacher.   Even though I have never met any of these students, I feel like I know them. I feel like they are my students, too.

Around March of her first year of teaching, our calls changed.  Initially, Olivia was consistently frantic, exhausted, or stumped about the next steps for things that happened that day.  The conversations were very one-sided  She asked lots of questions and I gave her ideas about how to proceed.  However, as the year went on, our conversations evolved.  They became less a question and answer session and more of a dialogue about the strategies she was using.  Instead of Liv asking questions, I became the questioner.  She continued to share the ups and downs of the day, but the essence of her story was more about how she felt about the strategies she was using.  Our roles changed and as a result, our conversations got better and more meaningful, for both of us.  The questions I heard myself asking Liv became questions I asked myself- and the teachers I am learning alongside- about the lessons I observed in our school.  My daughter was providing me the opportunity to practice instructional leadership!  She pushed back when my questions didn’t make sense.  She even hung up on me a couple of times when my questions offended her. Gratefully, she loves me unconditionally, called me back the next day and made suggestions about how to ask the questions differently before I offended one of the teachers at our school.

I cherish the talks Liv and I have about our work.  We continue to grow as professionals. We talk about books.  We talk about what she is learning from her literacy coach. We talk about her perceptions of morning PD sessions. Most importantly, we talk. Not everyone is blessed with a daughter who telephones every day and who shares her passion for teaching.  It is my hope, though, that each of us can find a confidente that pushes us to grow just as Liv and I have done for each other. Who will be your daily call?