ASSESSMENT · blogging · Community · Leading · Literacy · Students · Teacher Leadership · Uncategorized

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

Community · Literacy · Reading · Reflection · Teacher Leadership · Teaching

Three Things from #DubLit19

As others on this blog have posted, the Dublin Literacy Conference is always a day in which I feel renewed and reinvigorated in my teaching. I learn so much from the presenters, the featured authors, and my colleagues with whom I debrief throughout the day. I also have the added bonus of being part of the conference committee, so I feel a sense of pride when I hear people sharing their happy stories about the day. It takes a lot of love, effort, and teamwork to get the conference organized through months of planning, and I feel so honored to be a part of it.

This year, three things really stuck out to me as I think back to my time at the Dublin Literacy Conference on Saturday.


The Students!

We always receive feedback on how much people love seeing our students’ presence within the conference. They perform our opening ceremony, introduce the authors, show off their tech skills at our Tech Tables, and guide attendees throughout the day. Students of all grade levels are visible, and it is so rewarding to see how excited they are when asked to be a part of the day. This year, our opening ceremony included Six-Word Memoirs from students of each grade level, and it could not have better exemplified our theme: “30 Years: Celebrating Our Stories.” Even our little kindergartener used her “big voice” (as encouraged by my colleague, Lauren) to share her story. There were laughs and awws, and I could tell that the audience loved hearing each of these kids speak to their truth.

I also love seeing the students introduce the authors — and the authors love it too! One of my students introduced Jason Reynolds, and through some of my own miscalculation, I told her to get there over an hour early. She was a trooper though, and sat through Jason’s first presentation with me even when she didn’t have to. When she introduced him, she talked about how he got his start as a poet and he was so appreciative that he referenced back to her words later in his talk. It’s wonderful to see students interacting with authors they admire!

The Authors!

I spent the majority of my day with Jason Reynolds as his author host, which was an incredible experience. Before picking him up with my hosting partner, Rita, I wasn’t sure what we would talk about it. He turned out to be one of the most gracious, laid-back, and thoughtful authors I’ve met in my time working on this conference. I could see how much he cared for his readers, for students, and for teachers who shared his books with eager (and not so eager!) readers. His message during his keynote and later session focused so much on seeing the whole child, while also helping students to know that we see and accept them for who they are.

Another benefit of being on the committee is getting to go to an “author dinner” after the conference. On Saturday, I was lucky enough to be seated next to Hena Khan as we all settled in for dinner. We had such an engaging discussion about books and students, and she was so lovely in all of her responses — I was sad when it was finally time to go!

Getting to make these connections helps me feel even more passionate about getting books into my students’ hands. I see how thoughtful these authors are, and how their books can help students in more ways than I can. But I can help them get there, if I share my love for these books as well.


The Quality Conversations!

I signed up to present at the conference this year as well, and I was so inspired by the conversations that sprung from my session. My presentation focused on how to have students reflect on their own identities, and how I’ve used Sara K. Ahmed’s book Being the Change as my guide. I only had about 10 people in my session, but the small group ended up being the perfect environment for a rich discussion. Other teachers shared their experiences and plans they had already thought about for incorporating this work into their classrooms. It really gave me a boost to have this dialogue and to continue to rethink the students I teach in my classes.


Even with just this small snapshot of the day, I know how powerful these moments are and will stick with me as I head back into my classroom. Overall, I came away from the Dublin Literacy Conference feeling renewed and validated in so many ways. I felt like I was buzzing with excited energy for the entire day — this conference is something I care so much about. I can’t wait to do it all again next year!



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 


Culture · Goal Setting · Reflection

Identity Revision

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I’m having an identity crisis…I think…? I mean, not really, but maybe. Yeah, I guess I am. I feel like I’m being pulled in two different directions on multiple levels–is that an identity crisis? Regardless, I’m having trouble figuring out where I’m supposed to be, what my path is, what I should be doing. In my home, in my job, in motherhood–EVERYWHERE.

This feeling first occurred to me when I moved to Ohio in July 2016. My husband and I had lived in northern Virginia for twelve years and wanted a quieter life for our one-year-old son. The hustle and bustle of the DC area started to be too much for my husband, who had to commute one and a half hours to work (one way!) every day. I got lucky and my teaching job was only 10-15 minutes away, depending on traffic, so traffic never got on my nerves unless we tried to get somewhere during rush hour. I loved Virginia, or at least I thought I did, and when we moved, Ohio was hard to get used to–new home, new job, new lifestyle, new grocery store…new everything.

I’m “older and wiser” now, and in a position where I can be reflective with my life and take a deep look into what I really want and need, as well as figure out what’s best for my family. That being said, looking back, one of the hardest transitions for me after this move was my new job.

I had been an English teacher for twelve years in Virginia. It doesn’t seem like a long time when you say it out loud, but it felt like a really long time by the time we got to Ohio. I think one of the biggest issues I had with coming to Ohio in the beginning was the fact that the English teacher part of my identity, my personality, a part that I had been forming for over twelve years and was known for, was not coming with me. There were no English teaching positions open when I applied, so I had no choice but to do something different. Luckily, I earned my gifted endorsement in 2010 (which was supposed to be my end of career, fade out plan!), so when the possibility of teaching middle school gifted came open, I decided to jump on it and get my foot in the door that way.

At first, I was excited about the possibility of teaching a new subject, if that’s what you’d even call it. Gifted is a beast unto itself and has gray areas everywhere, which is both inspiring and detrimental, depending on how you look at it. The opportunity to teach something different, to get some new and different perspectives, came hard and fast, and quite frankly, knocked the wind out of my sails. I was thrilled and ready for the challenge, but scared at the exact same time. I THRIVE on interactions with my colleagues during the day, and I’d be the only gifted teacher in the building and on the metaphorical island! What if I don’t know what I’m doing? What if the kids are smarter than I am? What if all they want to work on is MATH?? I’m not a math teacher! I’m an English teacher, faking it as a gifted teacher! Bless. What am I going to do here with these kids? My supervisor kept telling me to play to my strengths, but how can I be the best gifted teacher when my strengths consist of writing literary analysis papers and making sure the periods and commas are in the right places in an MLA formatted works cited page?

That first year was rough. I called my gifted colleague Emily literally every day. She was my lifesaver. The biggest issue I had was with the lack of lesson planning structure. I was coming from the world of Advanced Placement classes where every moment in the class was accounted for because if you lost time, students were missing out on opportunities to be successful in their reading and writing strategies that would be assessed on the exam in May. In Cog. Ed., there were no exams. No requirements, except teach students how to create, innovate, communicate, collaborate, problem solve, think critically, research, and be aware of themselves in a positive manner. Right. Ok, that should be easy…<Insert eye roll>. For someone who is used to and craves structure, this situation was a complete and utter nightmare. Thank God Emily had a handle on what she wanted things to look like and because she and I hit it off right away and share a similar teaching philosophy and background, we were able to work together to get some semblance of a structure to work with our classes, and still be able to provide the necessary freedoms the gifted students need.

While I struggled with this issue, I noticed that maybe this was what the gifted job was supposed to be teaching me–how to be flexible, how to let go of structure and really cater to what students need in the classroom. Sure, having a plan for daily learning is necessary, but being able to say, “No. We’re not going to do that today because these kiddos need something different.” is key. How many times had I wished to have extra time in my AP classes to stop the lesson, and really focus on the needs of my students, both academically and personally, as they navigate through high school? Being able to let go of that structure for my Cog. Ed. classes allowed me to really see the possibilities available for these students. We have focused on design learning, researching without restrictions, and learning about ourselves and how we work with others. Being able to do this kind of learning allowed for me to be able to take a step back and facilitate the learning instead of being in charge of it–letting the students choose how they wanted to learn instead of me telling them how they were going to learn.

After two years of teaching gifted students in a gifted setting, I have come to realize that I do love the freedom, and that there are colleagues who want to collaborate with me. I’m really very lucky–I get to push students to create, collaborate, communicate, and innovate in ways that they might not otherwise have the opportunity to try during their time in middle school. I don’t have to grade excessively. I rarely speak with parents–really only to send out our agenda for the week and answer the occasional question about the math class hierarchy or summer gifted camps. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have failed numerous times. So many I stopped counting. I would start a project with students and not finish it, I got in over my head on quite a few assignments and couldn’t follow through meaningfully so I just stopped with the project, and there were many days where students did more creativity challenges that necessary. These were lessons I needed to learn in my teaching life and struggle with in order to be better for my students. And for that, I am so grateful.  

But I keep coming back to the same few questions: Am I happy doing this job? Am I making an impact? Is this what I’m supposed to be doing with my teaching life?

Honestly, I don’t know and I don’t think I’ll ever really know the answers to these questions for sure. And I don’t think anyone ever knows, especially in education. I’m just over halfway through year three of teaching gifted students and I have a tremendous amount of learning left to do (which I’m REALLY excited about!), and that means that this particular boat ride can’t be over yet. I love the challenges that my gifted students present to me daily. I love their questions and organic curiosity. I love the freedom to do what my students want to do without restriction. I love that my principal, supervisor, and colleagues trust that I’m doing my job and come to me with questions and/or help. And I love that I’m still able to use my English teaching expertise to help my students be successful in my class and their other classes, as well as expand my own learning by listening to my students and their thoughts and wonders. And who’s to say that I can’t take these learning experiences back with me to the AP English classroom one day…?

So, maybe I’m not having an identity crisis. Maybe it’s more of an identity shift or identity revision.



Since starting this piece, I have done more soul searching and have had many conversations with colleagues, friends, and family, and have decided that my heart is still in the English/Language Arts world. A position opened up at my school to teach both 7th and 8th grade language arts, so I jumped on it and will be entering this role this coming fall. I don’t think a day will go by where I don’t use my learning experiences I gained in the gifted classroom with my language arts learners–if anything, it will help guide my instruction to better serve gifted students in reading and writing.

I’m really looking forward to this new opportunity in my career and who knows, maybe one day I’ll return to gifted, because who’s to say that gifted isn’t where my heart and soul are ALSO?


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.


Dear Nic Stone,

“We argue that the ultimate goal of reading is to become more than we are at the moment; to be better than we are now; to become what we did not even know we want to become.”

Kylene Beers and Bob Probst, Disrupting Thinking

My 8th-grade son has just finished a book club experience as part of his ELA class. There were several books he could choose from – The Hate U Give, All American Boys, Ghost Boys, Tyler Johnson Was Here, Dear Martin, How It Went Down and Piecing Me Together. After we talked a little about each book he decided to read Dear Martin.

On a cold Sunday afternoon as we were driving home from Target, (I am learning that VERY important conversations often happen in the car with 14-year-old boys.) I asked if he finished reading and if he liked the book.

“I don’t know – I thought I would learn more about how to stand up when people do things they shouldn’t. He told us about a lot of things that should never have happened in the first place.”

I responded, “Yeah, but when I read I learned a lot. I’ve never thought about talking to you about how to talk to police and I don’t think I’ve ever been in a situation where I looked different than everyone around me. And Justyce felt like this every day when he went to school.”

“Yeah, but Mom people are people and I think as generations move on things change … our friends are better.” He then described some things that my 93-year-old Gramma has said over the years. “I get really mad when family says racists things – they know better. How can I respectfully tell them that it bothers me?”

Wow! I honestly am not 100% sure that I navigated this conversation correctly and by no means is this conversation over. But there is one thing I do know – without these books and these amazing authors I would be even less prepared to talk about this with him.

Rudine Sims Bishop writes about how books can serve as “…windows, offering views of the world that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange.”  I am forever grateful for authors who become some of my greatest teachers, through whose words I am able to peek into worlds beyond my experience. Elizabeth Acevado (The Poet X), Samira Ahmed (Love, Hate and Other Filters), Tahereh Mafi (A Very Large Expanse of Sea), Mitali Perkins (You Bring the Distant Near), Jason Reynolds (For Every One), Jewell Parker Rhodes (Ghost Boys), Benjamin Alire Saenz (The Inexplicable Logic of Life) and Angie Thomas (On the Come Up) .you have each recently been my teacher and I want to say THANK YOU!

THANK YOU to all of the teachers and librarians who make these books accessible to young readers. THANK YOU to my son’s 8th grade ELA teacher who used these books as the anchor for book club discussions and learning.


Leading · Literacy

2019 Dublin Literacy Conference: “30 Years of Celebrating Our Stories”

We count ourselves lucky to teach in a school district that values literacy as highly as Dublin City Schools does. The last Saturday in February every year is a chance for us to recharge and reconnect as literacy teachers and leaders.

The Passionately Educating bloggers have a variety of roles in this year’s conference and we thought we would share!

2019 Dublin Literacy Conference Chairman: Jennifer Wolf

2019 Dublin Literacy Conference Committee Members:  Rita Shaffer and Rachel Polacek

2019 Presenters:

  • Lindsey Brauzer: Creating Connections during Reading Conferences
  • Rachel Polacek: Exploring Identity: Informing Instruction with Sara K Ahmed’s Being the Change
  • Melissa Voss: Reading and Writing Workshop (Revised)
  • Kara Belden: IGNITE Student Voice in You Secondary Classroom
  • Rita Shaffer: IGNITE Student Voice in You Secondary Classroom
  • Beth Honeycutt: IGNITE Student Voice in You Secondary Classroom

We are excited about this day learning and especially looking forward to the keynotes from Pam Allyn and Jason Reynolds.

If you are visiting the Lit Conference this year, we’d love to meet you and say “hello”! And each of us will be sharing our learning on February 23rd using the hashtag #dublit19.

More information about the conference can be found here and registration is still open.