Thursday, January 11, 2018

We Persist

Persistence. Grit. Resilience. The words we use with our students. The traits we tell them that they MUST have. But do we exemplify those very traits FOR our kids?

I know, I know. Teaching is difficult. We face more pressure from more directions than anyone outside the profession could ever know. The fact that we remain seems to indicate that we have those traits, and it does take a certain level of...stubborn nature... in order to remain.

I must persist with the individual kids in my room, even when it seems fruitless. I have to keep book talking and putting titles in front of students. I must stop them in the halls to tell them about a book. I must ask them in future years, once they've left me, even if they didn't become readers with me, about their reading lives. I can never, ever, ever, throw up my hands and say "Some people will just never become readers," and attempt to coerce or bribe those kids into reading.

We all have to develop the grit to stand up to bad practices. I keep reading the thoughts of people who write "I know there are problems with AR (or other programs), but I have to use it," or "I know there are problems with it, but it works for my kids." Do we want our students to sit back and watch bad things happen, or do we want them to develop the grit to stand up and face down injustices? If we want a society that speaks out, that takes a stand, WE have to model that behavior. WE have to be willing to be uncomfortable, to have difficult conversations with colleagues and administrators. We cannot meekly subject our students to bad practices and then expect the society that WE EDUCATED to value education and support our schools.

We want the kids to learn to question, to become critical thinkers. But how often do we REALLY question what is happening in education? I don't mean our grumbling to each other; I mean actual conversations with the people who make the policies. Conversations about the research that should drive the policies and drive our practices. We must develop the resilience to stand in the face of those who don't want to listen; we must keep talking to them.

I've made the move to talking to my students about the research that drives my instruction. The kids HAVE to know why we're doing what we do. If I can't explain the "why" and reference the research that supports it, then I have no business teaching it.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Things That Matter

I've always known that my relationship with my students is the most important part of my teaching life. I also know that getting to know students is crucial to developing those relationships. But after twenty years, I thought I had that part down to a science. Leave it to a kid to teach me that I don't know as much as I thought I did.

The day we got out for break each class met for 25 minutes, and attendance was on the low side. In order to be productive, I had students use The Kids' Book of Questions and guide discussions. The first question 1st period was "What's the hardest thing about being a kid?" and Rudy (not his name) replied "School."

We all laughed, I dug a little deeper, and I finally asked him what was easy about school. He said he finds math easy, and that intrigued me. Math is a problem for me, and I want to know how the mathematical mind works. I asked about seeing patterns, and he confirmed that he sees them all the time, and then he said something else. He said, "I can see shapes."

I asked for clarification.

He replied, "I can see 3D figures in front of me. When they say 'Imagine a 3D shape,' I put it in the air in front of me and see it."

I asked if he can project images onto paper, and he said he can. After further conversation, I got him to pull out his art sketchbook, and he showed us a drawing of a Dragon Ball Z character that was stunning. He was a bit embarrassed, but also a bit pleased, by the attention from his peers, and he was genuinely puzzled that not everyone sees things the way he does.

Here's what I knew about this kid before-English is his second language, and he never identified as a reader before this year. He likes The Walking Dead  and Dragon Ball Z TV shows, and now he loves TWD graphic novels. He works some with his dad and grandfather doing commercial construction. He has a younger brother and sister. When he was younger, he got pulled out of regular classes for reading. His family goes to Mexico during long breaks from school, and the area his family visits is kind of scary. He likes rap music. He skateboards.

These are all great things to know-but they didn't cause me to start talking to counselors about guiding him into courses that will utilize his strength and talent. It made me go back and look at the interest inventories from the first of school. For the question "What are your favorite subjects?" he answered "None." For "What is something you think you do well?" He responded "Eat."

In 2018, there are going to be a whole lot more conversations with the 9th graders in room 307. And they won't all be about books or writing (but they'll probably come from and lead to both). They'll be about life and unrealized ability and passion. They'll be about what makes us human. They'll be about the things that matter.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Healing the Wounds

In 1994 my daddy died suddenly, unexpectedly. Our entire family was devastated and had no idea how to deal with the immense grief. My eventual coping mechanism was to shut down the emotion, and that wasn't a good idea. After a few months I joined a grief therapy group that taught me lessons that I am reminded of often. One of the powerful revelations: when we suffer emotional trauma, if we do not deal with it, we remain at that particular emotional age, in that stage of grief, and every time we are stressed we revert to those feelings. The only way to begin to heal is to revisit the pain (it will be as fresh and raw as the day it was initially experienced), and work through it. 

I am reminded of this every time I see a kid who was traumatized into hating reading. Every year I have kids who tell me they loved Hank the Cow Dog, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, or picture books when they were little. Until they were forced out of those books and into what an adult said was more suitable. Until the joy of story was replaced by the stress of getting the "right" answer. Until reading became a chore to be completed for a  "reward." I've learned to put the books they loved in front of them, to let them revisit those times, and to let them talk about the trauma that the education system inflicted on them. Those kids often spend a few days with the titles they loved in earlier years, they rant about the injustices done to them, and then they're ready to move ahead. For those who NEVER had a positive reading experience, who never had an association of love and warmth with reading, it's a more difficult task. 

I've got some serious holdouts this year. I know the level of personal pain some of them have experienced, and I know that rebelling against the idea of reading is an outcropping of that pain. So I handle them lightly. It's kind of like dealing with a skittish colt. I put down the books and walk away. They come up and sort of snort at them. When they realize the books won't bite, they'll start to look. But there will still be the lost lamb. And you know that we always go out into the wilderness to try and bring back that one. They've been wounded. And we may not be able to heal all of their wounds. That's the hardest part, isn't it?

Sunday, November 12, 2017


I hate purses. I hate carrying one. I hate digging through the black hole that mine inevitably become. But most of all, I HATE keeping up with one. As a result, I rarely carry mine unless I'm going inside a store.
Last Thursday our English department attended a training off campus and I drove the school Expedition. So I took my purse. On Friday afternoon I was looking for said purse, and it was nowhere to be found. It's not in the house, and it's not in my truck. Yesterday morning I drove back to school to see if I possibly left it in the building when I went in Thursday after we returned. Not there. I went to the bus barn, and the Expedition was not there. I drove to Ft. Worth to the American Airlines training facility and my purse has not been turned in to the front desk. Today the coaches who had the Expedition checked and it's not in there.
I have instant banking/credit card alerts set, so I know that no one is using the cards that are in my wallet. But I'm worried. I'm irritated. I'm stressed. Hopefully, the housekeeping crew at the training center will report that it's in their custody tomorrow morning.
So what does this have to do with education? This low level stress has kept me unfocused and out of sorts all weekend. I've imagined the most horrible possible outcomes, but I know how to deal with the situation should that blighted object never reappear. How much greater is the stress on some of my students? Those who live with no electricity? In violent situations? On the edge of eviction? With substance abuse? Caretakers of siblings? Am I ADDING to the stress on them?
I don't think so. I hope I'm not. But I worry.
I don't ever chastise a kid for not having pen/pencil or paper. I just point to where they can be found. I don't quiz them over their independent reading, and if they aren't reading, I just hand them a new stack of titles to peruse. But am I doing other things, things that I haven't considered, that may be adding to stress?
We throw around the ideas of "grit" and "perseverance" and "teaching responsibility," (oh, how I WISH someone had taught me to be responsible enough to keep up with that stinking purse!) and I do not advocate just letting them do whatever they please with no guidance or accountability at all. And I know that they have to keep going even when they face difficulty. But tomorrow, this week, from now on, if a kid is distracted, out of sorts, unfocused, I'll be checking in to see if they want to talk about the underlying stress. I'll ask just a little more than "You okay?" before I move on to the "important" stuff. I'll offer general ideas for dealing with stress. These are high school kids and much of the time they aren't going to share, but they'll know that I'm aware-that I want them to be okay in our shared environment.

And I'll ask the kids if they've seen that blasted purse.

Monday, November 6, 2017

My kid, Not Your Data

How often do we think about how our practices influence the lives of individual students? Not the whole class, not a grade level, but each student as an individual? Education has fallen in love with data and the collection of data. Students are divided into populations and subpopulations. Computer programs gather data on each kid, track the answer to each multiple choice question, and generate a label for each student.

Reading programs tout differentiation for each student. But the only differentiation that happens is within the computer algorithm. What about the kid? What about his/her mind and heart? What about what that HUMAN needs?

Twenty years ago one human was damaged by an Accelerated Reader program. And since I gave birth to that human, I paid particular attention. Our youngest was a voracious reader from an early age. I've never seen any person more excited to start school (he was aghast the first Saturday of the first week. He was dressed, ready to go, before we got up and had coffee. He was insistent about going-even if no one else was going to be there.) He read everything, loved for us to read to him, loved books on tape, loved magazines, newspapers, and every possible form of the written word. His teachers were amazing, and they fed his curiosity and his passion.

Then came sixth grade. The school librarian, in an effort to increase reading across the school, introduced an incentive program through Accelerated Reader. Our voracious reader who read everything became hyper focused on "points." He wanted to "earn" a boom box radio. HIS TEACHER DID NOT REQUIRE ANY OF THIS. She had zero requirements related to AR. But the challenge was there, and he was competitive. He wouldn't touch any book that wasn't in the upper echelon of AR points. He read Robinson Crusoe, Little Women (he hated every word of it), and Gulliver's Travels. That last one nearly got him into trouble. He failed the AR quiz, but he was adamant that he had read every word. The librarian told him that he just didn't comprehend it. He argued, and she had enough of his insistence. Thankfully, he had sense enough to get his wonderful teacher involved, and they discovered that the AR questions he missed were over Part II of the book- a second volume that the library did not have.

He ended up earning more AR points than anyone else in the school, and near the end of the year he got his radio. And after he got it, he announced "I may never read another book as long as I live." And for a long time, he did not. For years he only read what was required in class. And his love of school was gone. He still did very well (middle school and high school valedictorian) but it was no longer a joyous endeavor. He refused to read any book that anyone-parent, teacher, or friend-recommended. By his high school years I realized that I could leave an enticing title on the table and he would look at it. But I couldn't share my joy in a book and get him to read it. Over the years he spoke of his loathing of that AR year. He said he still couldn't stand the idea of knowing the "level" of a book. And this is a "smart" kid. One who did school well. One who wasn't starting off behind anyone else.

Once he got to college, he slowly started to check in with me to get reading recommendations, and now we share thoughts about our reading and trade titles we enjoy. He's finishing his PhD at the University of Oklahoma, and he's had an article accepted for publication in the International Journal of Cardiology. He was fortunate. His bad AR experience lasted only one school year. I truly hate to think of what might have happened had he had a greater exposure. And we are both deeply resentful of those "lost" years.

Was AR to "blame" for his reading derailment? After all, the company doesn't promote using its product for grades or incentives. They don't suggest rewarding students by providing parties and field trips. They don't tell teachers to assign grades based on points or quiz grades. They don't tell teachers to punish students who fail quizzes or don't go up in reading level. They don't tell teachers to limit the choice of readers based on a "level." (I've seen EVERY ONE of these abominable practices used in conjunction with AR. And just Google "AR incentive ideas.") And I don't blame Renaissance Learning.  Renaissance Learning is just a corporation doing what corporations do. Making money.

Schools and teachers who buy into the hype, into the data mining...I've got a problem there. I blame school districts that spend scarce, precious education dollars on this stupidity. School districts that are looking for instant answers, that are looking for an easy way out, that are looking for "teacher proof" programs. That have bought into the idea that someone else can do it better.  I've heard "I use it properly," "MY students love the competition," "MY students love the incentives," "MY students love answering the multiple choice questions," "MY students go up two reading levels," (what is it-a video game where they "level up?") "It's just ONE tool," "I DO conference with them, but the quiz lets me know if they comprehend it." Dear heavens, one person announced that students aren't allowed to do a book talk until they pass an AR quiz over the book. And on and on. I've heard "ANYTHING can be used incorrectly" and they go on to talk about the poorly implemented use of the work of people like Donalyn Miller and Kylene Beers.

I've got a suggestion, take the THOUSANDS spent on AR every year and send your teachers to quality training by Miller, Beers, Robert Probst, Penny Kittle, Mary Howard, Linda Rief, Pernille Ripp or a host of others. And if they still don't implement those ideas well, SEND THEM AGAIN. Or have them work with mentor teachers who do implement those ideas well. Let's work together and turn our kids into readers-not data points.

What's Choice Got to Do With It?

We tell them they need to read. We tell them that they have to read. They've been offered carrots and sticks, but they still don't read. They moan, they groan, "Reading is boring, I hate to read", they fake read, and they don't read. Why won't they listen to us? We know how important it is for them to read, we know that it will improve their lives, and on an intellectual level they know it, too. So why won't they do what's best?

It seems that my entire life, my weight was a topic of conversation or at the forefront of my mind. When I was very young, my mother and grandmother decided that I was entirely too skinny. They got the doctor to give me a “tonic” to improve my appetite, held my head and pinched my nose shut (imagine funny-NOT abusive; I fought like a hellion and I’m sure there were wounds!), and made me ingest that nasty liquid. By the time puberty hit, that tonic kicked in and I became pudgy. Middle school and high school saw varying attempts to lose 5 or 10 pounds. With adulthood and children came more pounds and battles (but sometimes surrender, and sometimes token skirmishes) with my weight. I’m an intelligent, well-educated woman. I know how lose weight, I know about calorie intake, burning calories, and carbohydrates. I know that I'll feel better, I'll have more energy, and my health will improve if I add exercise to my daily life. Problem is-I loath exercise. I don’t like to dance, don’t care for swimming, hate to walk on the treadmill, not a fan of lifting weights, too clumsy to do aerobics. I tried all of those and begrudged every drop of sweat and every calorie burned. I could walk our dogs, but I have excuses. They are elderly. We're out in the country and we can’t have them get in the habit of leaving our property. Mainly, I don’t want to do it. I don't care what the research shows, and I don't care what the doctor tells me. Exercise is boring. I hate it.

Something I don't hate? Horses. When I was a kid, I was nuts about horses. I rode them, showed them, and read every book that I could find about them. After having kids who were not horse crazy, that passion dissipated until the boys were grown and gone. Now we have two horses and a donkey. One of the horses is a high strung thoroughbred that is gorgeous but unpredictable because he is so easily frightened. When he is handled on a daily basis, he is pretty calm and he has excellent ground manners, but there hasn't been a reason to spend time working with him. I’ve simply enjoyed watching my equines graze in the pasture. 

That's changed now. I've made plans for the end of August; we are doing family pictures, and I want some photos that include the animals. In order to make that happen, Sheldon needs work every day, and I’m leery of riding him (the ground is a LONG way away) until he’s in a more relaxed frame of mind. My solution? I walk my horse. For the past week we’ve gone on long evening strolls, and I’ve walked farther than I have in years. Not only that, I’ve enjoyed every second of each walk. I have a purpose, it’s walking that I like, and it's relevant to me. This is walking that I do without forcing myself, without making excuses to avoid it. I look forward to it. Today there isn’t time for our evening walk, so I’m making time during the day. I’m making time to walk.

Isn’t choice a funny thing?

Friday, July 15, 2016

Why We Need Diverse Books

In the late 60s, early 70s, there was not a great selection of YA literature that spoke to the real lives of kids. I devoured the Black Stallion books, but I never found myself in possession of a wild, desert stallion. Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and Trixie Belden were not kids who walked the halls of my school. A Wrinkle in Time probably came the closest, but there weren’t any other titles that pushed that idea of love and acceptance. By the end of junior high, a sweet librarian had introduced me to books written for adults. I loved James Herriot, devoured Victoria Holt, and I tore through Barbara Cartland’s regency romances. But there were no mirrors in those books, no guidance for a teen girl.

In the spring of 1974 the eighth grade class sat in the auditorium and got our schedule selection sheets for high school. One elective choice stood out to me-vocational agriculture. Ag. Finally, a class that spoke to my heart and my interests. I had lived and breathed horses since I got my first pony at the age of three, and I had visions of becoming a large animal vet. (With that in mind, math and science should have been my focus, but that’s another story.)

As I filled in my choices, people around me were amused. No girl in our rural East Texas high school had ever taken ag. No one was certain that it would even be allowed. That made the pit of my stomach flutter, but I was determined. When I got home, Mother looked at my choices, and as we talked about them, my older sister announced that the only way she would allow me to take ag was if I also took home economics. My choice was to add home ec, or ride the bus. P.E. was out, and home ec was in.

Over the summer I heard a few rumblings that there were people who were not pleased that I was going to be “allowed” to take ag. The ag teacher made it known that I would receive no special treatment, and he expected me to quit in the first few weeks. The boys were certain that I would quit as soon as I had to get dirt on my hands. The adults in my life laughed; I had a reputation for being a spitfire who wouldn’t back down from any argument.

But as it turned out, I wasn’t equipped for this particular fight. I didn’t know that they were going to fight with weapons I couldn't defend against. No adult in my family, ever, cursed or used vulgarity in my presence. Ever. I was just about as sexually na├»ve as a kid could be. To be caught holding hands with a boy was a humiliation beyond endurance. Oh, I knew the basics of reproduction, and I would fling out a “hell” or “damn” in the presence of my friends. But I was about to be introduced to a level of verbal vulgarity that was beyond my comprehension.

I know, in today’s world that just doesn’t seem like a big deal. Back then…remember, they couldn’t run feminine hygiene commercials, and the only bra commercial I recall showed a woman wearing the bra over her TURTLE NECK. Every single day of my 9th grade year began the same way. First period, ag building, across the street from the school. The teacher came in 5 or 10 minutes or so after the tardy bell, and that time was a filth fest. One 14 year-old girl. Twelve or so adolescent boys. And it never let up. Oh, they never laid a hand on me, except for a shove to the shoulder and a laugh when they asked about my possible sexual experiences on our family horse farm. A tampon pulled out of a pocket with the suggestion that I might need it. I quickly heard every possible slang word for penis, vagina, intercourse, orgasms, masturbation. Multiple jokes and stories involving all of the aforementioned. Well, you get the picture. I never looked up, I sat with my head-down feeling as though my body was about to erupt in flames, never spoke a word, and I never told anybody.

That first week of school, we piled into the truck and made a trip to the ag farm. A new-born bull calf made my heart melt. Until the teacher had a boy throw it on the ground, spread its back legs, and hand me a knife. He talked me through the castration process and then poured rubbing alcohol over my hands to remove the blood. When I didn’t quit on the spot, I gained a measure of that teacher’s respect. I became his favorite student, but he still left me in that room every morning.

After I graduated from high school, I went back and talked to him about it. He said that he knew what was going on, but if he had intervened, the boys would have made it their mission to make me miserable outside of that room. He also figured that things would improve in later years. And they did.

But he told me one other thing. He told me something that broke my heart. While the boys weren’t thrilled to have me in their All Boys Club of a class, they would have left me alone in a few weeks. Except for one person. The father of one of the boys. He goaded them all year. He fed them nasty jokes, he told them things to say that he guaranteed them would drive me away. Worse, this was a man I knew. A man I liked. Who smiled at me when I was in his business. Who always spoke kindly to me. Who gave me affectionate side hugs. Who cautioned me when he saw me driving recklessly.

I never recognized that evil in him. I had never read about that kind of adult. And I had never read about a girl who stood up for herself. I needed a Willowdean, a Katniss, a Hermione. I know that my situation was nothing compared to the bullying that happens to our kids who are gay, transgendered, or in some other way unacceptable to some elements of society. But I know that year would have been easier if I had found someone like me in the covers of a book.

If your student is ever in my class, he or she may come home with a book that has a character who is gay, or transgendered, or has a family member with a drug addiction. I’m not trying to pervert your kid. I’m not trying to lead them into lives of sin. I just want them to see other humans, and I want them to realize that it’s not okay to inflict emotional or physical harm on people whose lives are different. I just want them to learn not to be creeps.