Monday, June 30, 2014

Is reading still reading? (Notice and Note Question 1)

This summer I've done a lot of professional reflection.  It's been good. I think I've grown from it, and I'm getting excited about trying some new things next year.

(Of course 70% off of office supplies at Office Depot due to it's change in location also excited me - wow, was that fun to happen upon. HOWEVER, that is a story for another time.)

So #ELAchat is doing a book study - a "slow chat" where you search the hashtag #ELAchatNN to see what others are thinking as we work through the book Notice and Note by Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst.  This week we are focusing on Part 1 (pages 1 -61).

This is the question that caught me -- Is reading still reading?

In my notes from the first time I read it, I jotted down in the sidebar "In 1815 educators were concerned about using paper instead of slates -- now we face an electronic change in interacting with paper with e-readers.  What will it be like in 200 years?"  There were serious debates on the movement from slates to paper (much like paper to computer today).  From a principal's publication in 1815: "Students today depend on paper too much. They don't know how to write on a slate without getting chalk dust all over themselves. They can't clean a slate properly. What will they do when they run out of paper?" (Thornburg and Dwyer's research)  I laughed when I read this.  What will we do when the program doesn't work?

However, let's focus on the topic at hand -- changes in reading.

While I'm admittedly more on the side of holding a book in my hands and writing notes in my own writing, I can see the enchantment of e-readers. Imagine interacting with a text where you could instantly click to find more, hear the author's words from his mouth, see additional charts, graphs, pictures, videos.  There are more and more distractions from the original text.  Sometimes these distractions are informative, other times they answer what I want to discover from the text myself.

Then I consider books on tape.  Is this still reading? Does your brain still figure out meaning?  I know that it's been beneficial to struggling readers as we approach complex texts (especially those with dyslexia).  They still engage in the words, ideas, thoughts. It allows them to make connections in the brain that seeing and hearing together help solidify the message.  However, is it a distinct disadvantage to not practice decoding the words on the page?  How do we use visual and audio together to enhance these skills?

Yet some things will hold true for all time and across all texts and methods of presentation.  "We still decode symbols to make sense of text; we still must interact with the text, bringing our own experiences to the words; we still must question what was written, must infer what wasn't written, and must make connections between the text an ourselves and others and the world around us.  We must decide when we agree with the author and when we reject his ideas or her attitudes." (p. 15)

So my goal is this - to look beyond the distraction and have students question.  What is the purpose? What is the method? What strategies did the author use? How did the author manipulate your thoughts? feelings? attitudes? How were you changed by this information? What evidence supports your answers?

See, in my mind being able to enjoy a piece, savor the ideas, delve into the intentional choices will serve my students well in life.  Be it on paper, an e-reader, a voice are all methods to differentiate to achieve this ultimate goal.  Our world is changing, and as an educator I choose to embrace that change as a method to meet the needs of my students.  Learning skills that help you focus on critical thinking - engaging in words - figuring out the "why" will serve you well forever.

Because I want my students to think for themselves, otherwise others will do their thinking for them.

It scares me when people let others do their thinking for them.

So I go back to my note in the margin.  What will it look like in 200 years?  Crazy to even suppose what it will look like.  I think back to the changes that took place when I left the classroom for 10 years.  (That was the hardest question to answer when interviewing -- how did you use technology in your classroom?  Well, I had an overhead . . .).  I think things will continue to change.  I think how we interact with texts will move with it. 

Therefore, I will continue my quest to excite students to ask, "Why?"

Friday, June 27, 2014

Summer Reading -- 1/2 way point

As we near July, I thought I'd share some of the summer reading I've been doing.  I believe in the power of reading - it engages the brain in ways that can touch the depth of our souls.  It gives the reader a framework from which he can build empathy, make decisions, and grow.

It's also one of the most important ways to keep the summer slide from happening educationally.

Seriously.  Reading a book that you enjoy is so important.

Since I say this to my students, I want to make sure I keep abreast of what is new in literature.  Before I put it on my shelves, I want to read it first.  I come to the table as a teacher, parent, learner, and lover of the written word.

Some books I want to discuss with parents first.  I want them to know the content so they can have conversations with their kids about it (or read it with them . . . that's always my first choice).  Others go directly to my shelves.  I haven't decided where all of these will fall yet . . . so I'm just sharing my list.

This is simply what I've read this summer -- it's not my "favorite list ever" books.  I may generalize into suggesting for a "boy" or "girl" -- but those are loose terms.  In reality, a good book is a good book in the hands of either gender.

Books for "girls":

Second Chance Summer by Morgan Matson -- I love this book.  It's about a girl who deals with her issues by running away from them.  Through this coming of age, she learns that in reality, facing them is how you grow.  It discusses forgiveness, love, and dealing with loss.

Amy and Roger's Epic Detour by Morgan Matson -- Who doesn't love a good road trip story?  Facing the reality of the death of her father, Amy drives across the country with a family acquaintance.  This one has a little more edge on the issue of sexuality, but it is neither highlighted or overly specific. 

Mindspeak by Heather Sunseri --  The first in a trilogy, Lexi Matthews has no one to trust.  Her father is missing, and the more she learns about her past, the more questions she has.  It involves special abilities in being able to influence people's thoughts and healing. It is just the beginning of what she is capable of -- book 2 is on it's way to my house, and Ms. Sunseri is in the process of writing book 3.

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins -- Imagine going to France for your senior year to live in a boarding school.  It's a romantic book about life, growing up, letting go, and moving forward.

Rebel Spirits by Lois Ruby -- I fell in love with Lois Ruby's writing when I was in college.  My professor had her come and do literary conferences with us, and I loved how she could blend modern day with the past, with just a hit of paranormal.  This book follows the same pattern.  Where better to set a book about the Civil War than in a historic bed and breakfast in Gettysbury, Pennsylvania. 

To All the Boys I've Loved Before by Jenny Han -- Lara writes love letters to boys when she is ready to get over a crush.  She details the things she likes about her current obsession as well as expressing her inner feelings.  She never intends to mail them; it's her form of closure.  Until they get mailed . . .

Ask Again Later by Liz Czukas -- Imagine two dates to prom -- a football player trying to recover from being dumped and the other a theater friend . . . only to find out that her true interest is somewhere else.  Told from alternating perspectives, I liked the layout of this book.

Alice in Zombieland by Gena Showalter -- I had a student recommend this to me in May.  It's not my typical read, but I found myself engaged in the first book of the triology.  Alice Bell learns that what she thought was an overprotective parent was really someone fighting to keep her safe -- from zombies.  Now she must avenge her family by learning how to fight. (I also read the second book -- and like the Twilight series -- sexuality was more of an issue.  It was still good.)

We Were Liars by e. lockhart -- This book was haunting for me.  It goes beyond the fa├žade of a wealthy family and looks at reality.  After all, what we assume about others is rarely true.

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson -- Post-traumatic stress syndrome.   Returning from the war made Hayley's father different. He dealt with depression, fear, silence, and demons.  Hayley struggles to care for her father, their family, and learning to look to the future.

The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han -- Dealing with life, death, and love.  This book captures the inner turmoil of Belly and the families that have "summered" together for years. It is a coming of age story.

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher -- I wish I could rewind the past in this book.  It's a haunting tale told from the grave. This is another book that haunts me.  What can we do so it doesn't get to this point? 

The One by Kiera Cass -- My daughter could hardly wait until the third book in The Selection series came out.  My students were the same way.  I consider this a cross between The Bachelor and The Hunger Games.

Books for "boys":

Boy 21 by Matthew Quick -- A basketball story that isn't just about basketball.  It's about adjustments, refocusing, the Irish Mob, and finding your voice.  I can't say enough about this book. 

Feed by M.T. Anderson -- A science fiction piece of work where we all have a feed implanted in our brain - to play games, watch shoes, participate in chats, and of course, be bombarded by ads.  A computer in your brain can be cool, until you're hacked on the moon.

Payback Time by Carl Deuker -- He's become one of my "go to" middle school authors.  In this one a young journalist discovers quite a bit about secrets, journalistic integrity, and investigation.  Of course it also has a healthy dose of football.

Night Hoops by Carl Deuker -- a novel about choices and basketball.  It's also about reputations and seeing beyond them.  This is a book that will grab a sports enthusiast and give him a lot to think about.

Full Tilt by Neal Shusterman -- Imagine a carnival where one has to survive seven deadly rides before dawn -- each one representing a deep fear of yours in order to save your soul - and those of your sibling and friends.  The protagonist needs to dig deep for this one.

Thin Space by Jody Casella -- Identical twins in a car wreck.  One survives.  This is the story of the other struggling to find his way back to his brother to fix what he regrets the most.

Books for "all":

The Noticer Returns by Andy Andrews -- Many of my students fell in love with The Noticer last spring when we read it in class . . . can you say, PERSPECTIVE?  Guess what?  Andy found Jones again.  Filled with new ways of noticing the small things, I had a hard time putting this one down.

Anne Frank and the Children of the Holocaust by Carol Ann Lee -- a great companion to The Diary of Anne Frank (which we read) this gives a broader perspective of the tragedy in Europe during World War II.

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card -- My husband pestered me to read this for years.  It took two students begging me to do so this year to make it happen.  All three of them were right.  It's intense, about gaming, the military breeding fighting geniuses -- and how a young man needs to be smart enough to save the planet.  But at what cost?  There are so many levels to this book.

Paper Towns by John Green --  Last summer I read Looking for Alaska and The Fault in our Stars, but I was hesitant to read this one.  I'm not sure why.  It made me think -- on a lot of levels . . . actions, consequences, clues, and asking why? 

Professional reads:

Whole Novels for the Whole Class: A student centered approach by Ariel Sacks -- Would you go to a movie if you needed to stop every half hour and discuss the literary elements?  Ariel says that we do this to good literature and provides ways to help students engage completely in novels while keeping them accountable for what they're read.  It aligns with #CCSS standards and gives readers techniques to tackle grade appropriate texts independently.

Creative Confidence by the Kelley brothers -- I spent the first part of the book speaking aloud to the authors -- YES! We need to instill a love of being creative, thinking critically, getting outside of the box.  The second half of the book was again, YES! It gave practical advice on how to look at things from a different perspective and encourage the creative spirit that we ALL possess.  I hope I'm able to share this love with my students.

The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child by Donalyn Miller -- I'm not sure that I need to say more about this book.  It's amazing. Choice leads the child to re-engage in reading, a love of the written word and gives a challenge for each child to read 40 books a year. 

642 Things to Write About by the San Francisco Writers' Group -- How do you become a better writer?  Write.  Often. About many things.  This book provides the prompts and has gotten the ideas flowing.

Thursday, June 26, 2014


Today's post was inspired by a fellow English teacher, Twitter user, friend -- Cheryl Mizerny @CherylTeaches.  While we've never met in person, we met through sharing ideas, thoughts, and words through the Internet.  She probably knows my educational approach as well as people who I walk down the hallway daily with.

Because words are important.

Conversations are important.

Relationships are important.

(Shout out to Cheryl! You rock!)

So I was reading her blog.  I see part of participating in the #10SummerBlogs challenge as reading other blogs.  Every time I interact with another's thoughts, it gives me a slightly bigger perspective.

This paragraph stuck out:

"My sister’s best friend, a teacher, was featured on Oprah Winfrey’s show finale so I watched when I normally did not. I’m glad I did. Oprah said something that has stayed with me ever since: 'I’ve talked to nearly 30,000 people on this show, and all 30,000 had one thing in common: They all wanted validation. If I could reach through this television and sit on your sofa or sit on a stool in your kitchen right now, I would tell you that every single person you will ever meet shares that common desire. They want to know: "Do you see me? Do you hear me? Does what I say mean anything to you?"' She put into words what I wanted a child and what I want for my students. This is my idea of the perfect classroom—a place where every student feels acknowledged, validated, and cherished."

They all wanted validation.

They all wanted to know they matter. They have something to say. They make an impact on the world.

This is an important perspective as an educator, a parent, an adult, a human being.  What can we do to extend the knowledge that "you matter" to everyone?

What would the world look like if we did?

Sometimes noticing the "small" things really makes a difference.

When I walk down the halls, I greet my students (when possible) by name, smile, make eye contact and let them know I'm glad they're there. (I've even this through song . . . but that's another post.)  I can still see the face of a young lady who was telling me about a book she was reading.  I told her, "and that is precisely one of the things I love about you."  Her face was shocked. 

It shouldn't have been.  She is an amazing young lady. She's smart, creative, fun.

Later her mom wrote me and told me how much that meant to her daughter.  She'd had a rough year with family changes. It was a new school.  Saying those words meant so much to her.  It meant so much that she went home and talked about it with her mom.

I'd meet another student with, "Now go set the world on fire."  Of course we had the usual literal jokes that arose from that statement.  What he needed to hear was that someone believed in him.  I do.  I know he will impact the world.

Last week he told me thank you.

He took time out of his summer to say thank you.

I have parents telling me all the time that their child talks about me and my class at home.  They tell me how much it means to them. What does this boil down to?  Real relationships.

My challenge is to always SEE my students -- balance what they need with what I need and make the best choices I can. 

Do I fail?  Yes.

Do I apologize when I do? Yes.

Does that often open the door for another chance?  Yes.

Validation.  It's important. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Grouping students

This is the target that I've chosen to focus on this year for my school growth plan.  Every year we look at one of the TEAM rubric (how we're assessed on observations) indicators and do some indepth research on how to improve that area so impact student learning in the classroom.

So I begin my journey with -- reflection.

See, I've been thinking about since the end of May (when I chose my target).  How do we intentionally group students to work together to achieve success?  How does this happen in the work force?  How does being in a group impact the creativity of answers given?

This led to the questions that have plagued me for years.

How do you make sure everyone in the group is held accountable for their piece?  What does this look like? How do you teach group dynamics when students don't agree?  (I think this may be a second post, I'll just focus on the first ones for now.)

I know I don't have all the answers.  I know that NEW answers will arise when I actually meet my students on August 8.  I know that some of those initial observations will require different ideas and methods as well.

However, I believe in being intentional from the start.  I am planning my groups before they come through the door so that I can start laying the foundation for rich relationships -- not just between the students and me, but between each other as well.

This is my thought this year.  I'm going to have each child in 5 different groups.  I will be naming them after colors, and students will not know the critera behind how they are chosen.  THAT is important to me - all they need to know is that they are important in different ways because each child in the room is important.

Group 1:  Similar score on reading assessment groups.  This is a traditional grouping -- high, medium, lower, etc.  It will be based on the STAR assessment from the end of last year (they all took assessments throughout the year to get a solid base number).  I will revisit this group each quarter to see if changes are happening.  (Sometimes new motivation and a new setting will encourage a student to reach a new level on standardized testing.)

Group 2:  Cross score on reading assessment groups.  There will be students from each level in these groups.  Therefore they can learn new strategies working with people with different viewpoints.  (Once again, I'm willing to be flexible and change as students change throughout the year.)

Group 3:  Similar "learning styles" groups.  I used to do a profile at the beginning of the year painting a picture of each student as a learner.  We look at favored intelligences, learning modalities, and right/left brain preferences.  This will group students with a similar picture together. 

Group 4:  Cross "learning styles" groups.  These groups will embrace students who learn differently to help learn from students who have different gifts. 

Group 5:  Choice.  This one is scary sometimes.  They all want to work with a friend.  There are certainly times for this.

My room is going to be arranged in different groupings around the room (I usually have them in groups of 2-3, but I think these will be more like 4-5.).  Each grouping will have a random number.  When students walk through the doors, there will be a note on the welcome board that tells them which group to sit with for that day.  Through these groups, we will practice the learning targets for the day.

So why groups?

First, this will allow me to differentiate for different learners in the room.  All learners will practice the same skill, but the work in "Purple 1" will probably be a little different that "Purple 4" on days that similar score reading tasks will be processed.  (For example, I may go to and pull the same article at different lexile levels for readers, OR I may have a different writing challenge with the group.)  Other days they will all be the same task with a different focus.

Second, it will help me in building relationships across the classroom.  Every single student in that room has something to offer.  Occasionally this is hard to see from the perspective of an 8th grader.  It is my hope that when you learn the stories of another, you start to accept that person for what they have to offer.  It also keeps grouping from being stagnant.

Third, I think this approach puts more emphasis on the student as learner with me as a guide.  It's a fact, students learn more when they're engaged. 

I appreciate your thoughts.  It's a work in progress -- and I appreciate learning from the best.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Just Another Middle School Teacher --

I often have people ask me about my blog title.  "Just Another Middle School Teacher . . . " it makes them uncomfortable.  After all, the term "just another" implies that someone doesn't stand out, doesn't make a difference, doesn't try new things.

I see it in a different way -- let's look at my perspective.

You see, I love what I do. There is rarely a day that I'm not excited to get to school, learn with my students, try new things, have fun with words.

But I think there are a lot of people like me.

Every day there are people in the trenches just like me - working their hardest with the tools they are given.  I know that each teacher brings a special gift, a talent, a unique view of the world.  And when we work together - magic happens.

Together - as a team - we are more.  I am proud to be a part of that team.

There are so many educators that I admire.  Many I know personally.  There are teachers that I've worked with in Kansas, Minnesota, and Tennessee that really make a difference. Every. Single. Day.  I am proud to have physically worked alongside such talent.

Then there is Twitter. The last year has opened my eyes to possibilites exponentially.   Every time I sign on there is the potential for lightning. I see teachers making a difference in so many ways.  It's made me better at what I do.  It doesn't matter if you have 10 tweets or 10,000 - your voice can be heard.  Every single one of you makes a difference. I am proud to be a part of my PLN.

See -- it's not "just another" in a push aside way.  It's "just another" in that I'm another pair of hands trying to do the best I can.  I'm not someone with all of the answers, all of the solutions, even all of the problems.  I'm grateful for the opportunity to do what I love.

Because the focus really shouldn't be on me -- it should be on learning, growing, and discovering.

This is why I struggle on #FF -- you see, I would have everyone follow all of you, and 140 characters simply isn't enough.  I start to put groups together, but it's impossible because if you're reading this you SEE the possible.  I'm just another teacher because we are ALL valuable, and I believe we have the most important job in the world.

So in my own way, I'm proud to be "just another middle school teacher." 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Miracles can come in funny packages

I have a miracle plant.


I have no idea where it came from.  Though if I'm being honest, I picked it up somewhere the year before and planted it not knowing what I really had.

All I know is that in the spring, there was NOTHING in the dirt.  Then leaves emerged.  Long spindly leaves. They had all of the earmarks of -- shhh -- a weed.

I didn't shirk my duty.  I pulled it out.

It came back.  I sprayed it with week killer.

It came back.  I sprayed again.

It came back.  By this time, it was hot outside.  You know, steamy, oppressive heat that settles over you like a blanket.  The kind where even the weathermen give up - it's going to be hot and sunny.  I didn't want to mess with it.

The weed grew.  I gave in.  I decided at least it was a pretty weed.  It kind of looked like it belonged next to my new rose bush.  Matt and I laughed at each other at the weed that wouldn't go away.  It got bigger -- about waist high and just as thick.

That's when I noticed it.  The buds.  Swollen buds that promised pink.

Pink?  We looked at each other and shrugged.  This was no ordinary weed.  The buds grew bigger, plump, reaching skyward.  I couldn't wait to see the bloom.

It was no ordinary bloom - a brilliant pink hibiscus ringed with white.  It. was. stunning.  For the rest of the summer and until the first freeze, there was never more less than six daily blooms.  Deer and rabbits didn't feast on these flowers as they do my normal annual hibiscus plants.  My normal plants are hors d'oeuvres for my garden.  This flower stands tall, proud, triumphant against adversity.

I was humbled.

After all, how often do we miss the beautiful blooms thinking it's something to get rid of? 

How often do we try to stifle creativity for conformity?  How often do I cut down my dreams for practicality?  How often do I do this to others?

The plant grows back every year.  As I type it sits full of promise, ready to erupt into colorful bloom any day.  Every year I use it as a reminder - a reminder to look past my fixed thought patterns and embrace the possibilites.  It's a reminder that beauty emerges from failure.  It's a reminder that when nurished, a "weed" can show the true potential that God intended for it.

I like it when God gives me metaphors to ponder. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Creative Confidence -- The Failure Paradox

I've been reading a book entitled Creative Confidence by @kelleybros as a suggestion from Rik Rowe. 

To start with, it's been an affirmation of my life and what I believe.  I encourage all to read it -- it will reawaken the childlike wonder that we all had before humanity had an oportunity to make us doubt.

Blessed are those who escaped that doubt.  I know you exist because I see evidence of it every day.

One of the early sections that really spoke to me was "The Failure Paradox."

After all, "in our experience, one of the scariest snakes in the room is the fear of failure, which manifests itself in such was as fear of being judged, fear of getting started, fear of the unknown.  And whole much has been said about fear of failure, it still is the single biggest obstacle people face to creative success."

Fear. It can be crippling.

It keeps us from living to our creative potential.  It creates a "fixed" mindset, where people would rather shut down than enjoy the process.  I read a "mommy" blog earlier this week where she mentioned that all of her friends just watched the kids swim instead of jumping in with them.  Why?  Will others judge me if I get in? What if I don't look my best?  What if my stroke is awkward? What if I stand out?  It becomes an opportunity missed.

I prefer the "growth" mindset.  You see. I'm going to fail, and I'm sure I'll be judged.  I agree with what the Kelly brothers said about Thomas Edison, "He understood that an experiement ending in failure is not a failed experiment -- as long as constructive learning is gained."

I read a book written by a 15-year-old this week that blew me away.  It was about a young lady who was applying "popularity" advice from the 1950s to today's society.  She often felt like a failure in the book, but she kept pushing through.  Some people called her names, made her cry, yet she also discovered that most people are basically nice.  That reaching out to people was important - relationships were important.  It's more important to be true to yourself than worry about what others think. (Popular:  Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek)

I know I learned a lesson from her.  Thank you, Maya Van Wagenen.  I'm impressed with your growth mindset.  I'm keep you on my list of "must read" authors.

As a teacher I need to push my students to try, to accept failure, to learn, to grow, to try again.  I have my "Wall of Failure" on the back of my room filled with famous names -- The Beatles, Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, J.K. Rowling, Abraham Lincoln, Lucille Ball, Marilyn Monroe just to name a few.  Imagine a world without one of them.  Imagine what could have happened if they listened to the people who said they were not enough -- not talented enough, not fast enough, not pretty enough, not funny enough, etc.  I keep one poster blank for the person who did listen, and the world will never know.

In a world where numbers are important, let's remember to engage in the act of stepping outside the box.  Let's teach that failing is okay, as long as it doesn't stop you.

Let's not let another blank poster go up on the wall.