Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Fall Semester 2011 Top Ten Moments

#10.  Writing recommendations for students I know will become future success stories.
#9.    Working beside Ms. Gunn, a great addition to Storm Lake High School.
#8.    Being planked during 8th hour Composition class  (I wish I had a picture).
#7.    Being amazed by the Accelerated English students' in-depth blogging assignments over five novels supplemented with current events, poetry, allusions, vocabulary and pictures. This task was nearly trumped by the My Antonia newscast done early in the semester.
#6.  Working with the first hour Elements of Writing students who researched and wrote about their interests, which created interesting writing. I learned about the Illuminati, skateboarding, dance, an underdog football player, music, the lady in black, and many others.
#5.  Teaching Introduction to Literature. The 5th hour students were a refuge in the middle of the day.  Who would have thought that explications and critical analyses during a pre-lunch class could be so relaxing and intellectually stimulating?
#4.  Having a new advisory group. It is the beginning of a four-year bond.
#3.  Watching the Composition students learn to objectively and confidently critique peer and their own written work. The profiles challenged them, but the outcome is a wonderful heirloom and achievement.
#2.  Learning what makes the students tick, and noticing how they find ways to reach the goals they set for themselves.
#1.  Being reminded once again that students want to learn.  They may complain, procrastinate, seemingly ignore, or even dread, but when it comes down to it, they want to be proud of actually accomplishing tasks they were not sure they could master.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Accelerated English Project

I dreamt up a new challenge for the freshmen, and all of it will be shared online.  It is the first time I have approached an assignment this way.  Students will have temporary blogs where they will share the nine parts of a project encompassing the five novels we have read so far this semester:  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, My Antonia, To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, and The Outsiders. 

On Friday I revealed the assignment's directions so the students will be able to come to class on Monday, grab a computer, and get to work for the next two weeks.  They will also need to work outside of class to meet all of the requirements.  I asked the students to read the entire set of directions before asking any questions aloud.  When it was time to answer their questions, the inevitable "Why?" came up.  Well, there are many reasons why.

After the initial anxiety wears off, I hope the students look closely to see what they would have missed if they had not completed this project.  I'm asking the students to find pre-1900 poetry that connects to the novels in some way. This will expose the students to literature they search for on their own, but more importantly,this will help students practice their thinking and communicating skills by sharing the connections between the novels and the poems. To counter the past, I want the students to find current (as in happened during the month of November 2011) news that reflects the issues that are found in the novels we have read.  Stories change, but conflicts humans face will always occur.  It's one of the reasons we read literature--to reflect on the causes and effects of human experiences. Poetry, news and novels have much in common despite their varied purposes.  Toss in a Works Cited, along with some well-written explanations, and the students are on their way to communicating complex thoughts in writing.  To balance all of that written work, I want the students to create a collage of pictures and then analyze what the images from the five novels reveal about their similarities and differences.  There are other parts to the project--explaining allusions, writing book reviews, and determining whether or not each book can be classified as a bildungsroman-- that will enable students to practice reading, writing, critical thinking, and researching, but they will also practice the life skills of time management, organization, following directions, and communicating with more than just the teacher.

When this project is all said and done on November 21st, I hope the students will know that there is not one right way to fulfill this task.  I also hope that the students will share their blogs with their classmates, so all can see the unique fingerprints students leave on the assignments they complete.

The students have asked me to complete this project too, but I can't start until Monday the 7th(their rules). They seem to think the task is so impossible that even I won't be able to complete in the time allotted.  But I already know they can do it.  Cheers to this project merging so much more than literature.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Good Students of Life

This year I advise twenty freshmen (and they are stuck with me until they graduate--hahahhaha).  I look forward to the day when I see each and every one of those students cross the stage to receive their diplomas.  These students, with both burdens and talents, need direction, boundaries, nurturing, encouragement, and goals to reach.  

My wish is that this year's freshmen become good students of life.  I want them to know they need to be advocates for themselves.  It is a sign of strength to ask for help when they are stuck. I want them to know that confidence comes from facing fears, from using obstacles as new avenues not dead ends.  I want them to see the moment as an opportunity, not something that can be saved for later.  I want them to use their gifts and talents with 100% effort, and if they don't, I want them to know a fresh start is only a decision away. Finally, and most importantly, I want my advisees to see they are no better and no worse than any other person.  We all have minds and hearts, hopes and worries, gains and losses, so why not treat each other with respect and open mindedness?

Good students of life show up, follow through on commitments, and have a good time doing what needs to be done because life is too short to stop being a student, which is a privilege and a responsibility that includes much more than doing homework and getting good grades.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Is it a Mistake?

1.  To give half credit when work is redone.

2.  To value that students meet deadlines more than the work turned in.

3.  To avoid asking students to evaluate teachers early and often.

4.  To ignore issues that arise.

5. To work in isolation when trying to solve problems.

6.  To punish rather than postively reinforce.

7.  To not have clear, reasonable consequences for students who misbehave.

8.  To have power struggles.

9.  To punish students who are parents or who have full time jobs.

10.  To expect less than the best from our students.

11.  To create lessons that are not real world.

12.  To assume our students won't do homework so we don't make them do it.

13.  To shut down students with words or looks or assumptions.

14.  To forget that students choose to learn from us.

15.  To not listen when students say they do not understand.

16. To blame teachers when students do not succeed.

17.  To allow students to avoid doing what it takes to learn in the classroom.

18.  To avoid having frank but gentle conversations when students need correcting, direction, or are clearly having trouble coping in class.

19.  To assume students will come to the teacher if they have questions, concerns, issues, or need to advocate for themselves.

20.  To allow lack of discipline to hinder students' classroom experience.

I have struggled with the above list at some point in my career, even now after eighteen years in the profession I have not arrived at the magical right answer in all situations (Rats!).  Teaching material is pretty simple-- present a skill, an idea, an event, a coping mechanism--but presenting the material in ways that prove the teacher believes all students are capable takes creative thinking, problem solving, reflection, and constant revamping.  All students learn differently, are bogged down by different burdens, are trying to grow into themselves at different rates, have different values and goals that may or may not match teacher expectations, and face the assumptions teachers have about them.  As I review the above list, I'm thinking about what I need to work on so students get what they need from my classroom and my advisory time.  Teachers have a short period of time when they can intervene and do their best to be the bridge students need to get on with the rest of their lives as productive citizens.  I aim to continue asking myself the tough questions so that my mistakes can be corrected and my students know they are what matters in the classroom.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

I Wonder What 2011-2012 Will Bring

 I wonder how the chemistry of each class period will create its own learning environment.

I wonder what challenges will arise.

I wonder who will work hard, who will need to be coaxed, and who will have an agenda separate from mine.

I wonder how I will reach each student with the ways that work for each individual.

I wonder what I will learn about the students, the content, what to improve upon and how to solve problems.

I wonder if laughter will trump anxiety.

I wonder what new creations will arise from the assignments given.

I wonder what I'll have to say about this year at the end of the semester.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Change is More Than Money Rattling in Pockets

My reflective mode is in full force: the seniors finished May 18th, the underclassmen on May 31.  School starts again for teachers on August 15th and for students on August 22nd, and it's time to use what happened last year to energize and focus this year.

Being a PLC leader for the first time last year helped me understand more thoroughly what each teacher in the Language Arts PLC needs to nourish the rich garden soil of education that encourages strong roots and healthy growth in each one of our students.  We worked hard to piece together a suggested plan to help those who need more get more--and I'd argue every single student always needs more: more time, more challenge, more encouragement, more interaction--and knowing that our PLC will not stop advocating for our students until there is the perfect place for each and every pupil who walks the halls of Storm Lake High School makes me proud to work with our teachers and makes me hopeful for the future of our students.  Each student matters.  All students should be able to get the courses they need to help them reach the goals they've set for themselves during and after high school.

Knowing I need to be more technologically savvy, I asked to participate in a series of professional development  sessions emphasizing technology integration into the classroom. So far my plan is to share information about what is available, and then let the students figure out how to use these tools to accomplish tasks.  One small way students problem solved last year included using Google docs instead of a flashdrive. is another tool that some students have used to help them keep track of resources--one student even kept her phone contacts on the site as her back-up plan. also allows students to organize their lives or notes or to do lists or whatever they'd like to keep track of online while syncing with their smart phones. is a way to organize information somewhat like symbaloo, yet different.  I'm sure more great resources will emerge. I also have a Smart board, which is new to me, so I can't wait to experiment with that resource as well.

One of my favorite changes for the 2011-2012 year is the proposed Tornado Time the high school will be implementing one day a week during SSR time (and eventually we hope to make it more than once a week).  It seems in some ways to be an extension of the AVID program the school has adopted.  The goal is that each and every student is consciously connected to a resource, mentor, and advocate, a.k.a. the adviser.  I am lucky because my advisees are freshmen, and this start will be new in all ways for those in Room 67.

Because of a group of creative, interested students, Wednesdays after school last year opened the opportunity for a Writing Club.  Usually twelve to fifteen students attended, and the chemistry, ideas, and connections were something others have to attend in order to understand.  The protocol is simple:  Any student can come to room 67 from 3:45-5:00 prepared to write, to listen to what others have to share, and to respect all in the room.  We usually do an individual freewrite/story starter, a group share, a partner or small group writing, a group share, and voila, time is up.  We have loads of fun--even if the subject is heavy.  Every week new surprises arose, and for those who liked this outlet, it seemed worth their while.  I hope it maintains its success.

Most importantly, new class lists are ready to be printed and I can't wait to see who will be filling the seats in my classroom.  It's always exciting getting to know students I haven't known before.  I hope that all, including me, will gain much from the classes.  Cheers to a new year!  I can hardly wait.

Friday, August 5, 2011

In Response to "Calling All Bloggers!--Leadership 2011"

Scott McLeod, the author of the blog "Dangerously Irrelevant," has posted a challenge for bloggers at this site:  Calling All Bloggers! Leadership 2011.

In some ways technology is sold like exercise equipment on an infomercial. We cannot buy every product that sells itself as helping students learn, but teachers can be the experimenters and offer testimonials to what seems to work well.  Unfortunately, there is only so much time for the classroom teacher to fulfill daily responsibilities, so in some ways it is up to the administration to solve this problem.

1.  First, administration can give teachers scheduled time to learn, research, share what they have learned, and encourage other teachers to implement what they find being sure to frame this process around the question, "What should students experience in school that will encourage success after they graduate?" This yearlong goal can be revisited at professional development and teacher meetings.    Students need to be effective communicators, researchers, critical thinkers and evaluators; they need a personal organizational system that works for them, and they need to find ways to follow through on responsibilities. So if teachers use these outcomes to guide lesson design that naturally  integrates technology into units, time will be well spent.

2.  It seems administrators can use the time that is already available to help teachers learn about technology.  Professional development is one way.  Perhaps meetings could open with a YouTube demonstration of how to do something or other.  Also, our school has Professional Learning Committees in place, which is potentially a good setting for teachers to develop technological competency by finding, sharing, and demonstrating what works for them.  Another possibility is to encourage teachers to form study groups. Perhaps administration could establish graduate credit opportunities for teachers who choose to further their technological knowledge and classroom implementation built around an expert's book or perhaps a series of exercises linked to Bloom's Taxonomy or differentiated learning, or whatever the school wants to emphasize.  The possibilities are endless, but without direction time gets away too easily and nothing is done.

3.  Teachers are wary of gimmicks, newfangled ideas that seem to go nowhere, and especially of wasted time, so whatever plan administration implements, it is inefficient to lecture teachers on what they need to do because most of it goes in one ear and out the other.  Instead, use that precious time to teach teachers something useful (which goes back to #2).

My mind was stretched as I wrote and rewrote this entry because there are so many levels of technological expertise within a school. I do know that teachers appreciate it when their time is valued by administration which is shown when our leaders think ahead, establish a plan, follow through on expectations, and evaluate how well the process worked--all of these steps, not coincidentally, are also the steps good teachers take in the classroom.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Habits and Lessons for Student Success

How can I be a better teacher during the 2011-2012 school year?  What can I provide my students so they get the most out of my classroom?  How can lesson design, feedback, and evaluations encourage each student to practice and improve their reading, writing, speaking, listening and thinking skills in a way that makes sense and truly forces students to work hard?  These questions are guiding me as I look back on the 2010-2011 year in order to plan for the upcoming school year.

First, my students need to read more.  I don't care if they read novels, magazines, online newspapers, their sister's diary, or car manuals. Each bit of information they read offers them another idea, insight, fact, and way to assess credibility all while building vocabulary, offering, of course, more words with which students think, thus expanding their world.  Reading is one habit students will never regret forming.   Even though they may not directly attribute accomplishments to their reading skills, I know that once this foundation is laid it provides a firm structure for future success.

Second, my students need to be smart researchers.  They need to know where and how to find the answers they are seeking; then they need to know how to prove those answers are credible.  Weighing what is researched against their belief systems by probing why resources contradict each other is another skill that should become habit. Students need to develop their own system of efficiently researching, storing, and organizing information so it fits their lifestyles. My job is to allow that practice through lessons and assignments.

Third, my students need to write more.  Writing helps students sort out their deepest held beliefs, solidify knowledge into long-term memory, communicate with others, and create something out of nothing. Trusting their inner gauge telling them their writing is not finished or is veering in many directions or is not really saying what it is supposed to say and then editing accordingly is another student habit that can be formed if I guide students by asking questions like, "Can you see how this idea contradicts that one?  Which one do you want to say?" or "What is a one sentence summary of your paper?  Is the entire paper about that subject?  If not, what needs to be omitted?  What needs to be developed?"  If I simply insert a correction, I am teaching students to distrust themselves and trust only the teacher.  Students can't learn to be independent writers (and writing is thinking on paper) if they aren't allowed to do their own hard work( aka do their own thinking).

Fourth, my students need to discuss more, which reinforces the habit of having confidence in their own thinking. Those listening can disagree or agree, can question the speaker, can probe more deeply into their own opinions, and may learn something new.  What is more powerful than students knowing they can share their opinion in class?  Fast forward to their future--they will know how to communicate with their spouses, children, bosses, and neighbors, take the risk of starting their own business, follow their interests, share their opinions on school board or city council.  Those who share their voices share their talents; those who share their talents lead fulfilling lives.

If I can intertwine the feedback and evaluations students need to develop the habits of success through lesson designs in each and every class period, and I see student growth in the above four areas, I just may be satisfied with how the 2011-2012 school year runs.  A year from now I will be doing this same reflective planning exercise, so my goal is to be proud of how all classes are run--this underlying challenge will fuel me all year long.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

My Top Ten Teaching Joys in the Language Arts Classroom

1.  The freedom to create lessons. Lesson planning is similar to meal planning--how can I nourish the students with academic courses, yet make sure they like what they are digesting--or at least gaining some nutritional value, so to speak, in each class period?  That challenge creates an endless menu of options, keeping teaching fresh.  When I stagnate, I go to my giant recipe box, aka years of experience, notes, and ideas, and start anew.

2.  Seeing student growth.  Who doesn't like watching students improve, gain confidence in themselves, and move to the next level?  There is no feeling like the joy of watching students complete what they thought was too high of a hurdle.  Student weaknesses are bolstered by using their strengths. This creativity in problem solving is a skill they use their entire lives.

3.  Learning from student insights.  One of my favorite experiences is seeing a topic in a new light thanks to students sharing their perspective. 

4.  Laughing with the students (when the time is right).  I remember when it was boiling hot, and I had two fans in my room.  One shorted out, and when I brought in the back-up, it too went kaput.  Then I loved the witty comments about Hades and my classroom. Those types of moments stand up to memory's erosion. 

5.  Practicing my problem solving skills.  How can I make each lesson pertinent to students' needs?  How can I use what I have in the classroom, in current events, on the internet, in the books on my shelves, in the students' experiences, to drive home a point?  Those kinds of questions stay with me day and night, and the answers come in the world around me.  There's always an answer, but the questions have to be asked first.

6.  I love that students constantly practice the skills of language arts:  reading, writing, speaking, and listening (and thinking naturally meshes with this list). Students get to see other perspectives, broaden their worldviews, practice communicating, build relationships with themselves and others, gain confidence in their own thinking, solidify their goals--the whole process is amazing and exactly what they need to be practicing in order to become productive citizens who will make the world a better place.

7.  Feeling great joy when reading a student's cleverly written sentence or a fitting, skillful use of motif or a metaphor that expresses exactly what the student is trying to describe, or a vivid, specific paragraph  that allows readers to vicariously live the author's description. I am the luckiest person in the world to be able to experience the best of what students have to offer over and over again.  

8.  Being a sounding board when students need to problem solve.  I encourage students who are stuck to come to me (and I also look for the telltale signs of stuckness and go to the students) mostly because it saves them so much time.  I am the one trained at pulling ideas, confusion, thoughts, etc. . . out of people's minds and onto the paper. In a few seconds I can ask, "What do you want to say?"  or "Give me a one sentence summary or preview of what you want to say in your paper" and voila, a thesis statement is born, a vision is created, a doubt is extinguished and an assignment can be started and finished.  

9.  Always looking to find a better, simpler, more efficient, more productive, more useful ways to meet objectives in the courses I teach.  Right now I am heavily researching ways to use the internet to push students  hard, yet to efficiently use their time and resources.  Time will tell if this focus will benefit the students, but in this information era, students need to be assigned tasks that encourage them to organize, evaluate, expand, create, and problem solve with the vast amounts of information that bombards the world in this day and age.  It's an exciting time in education for those very reasons.  What will our students of today create for our world tomorrow?

10.  The unique chemistry that emerges in each class period.  I love never knowing how personalities will mix to create the learning environment that supports students through a semester of any class.  It can't be bottled, but it must be enjoyed and appreciated.  Each class, each class period is a gift to all who are in that particular time and place, especially for me who gets to experience a dream come true by being in the classroom.

Friday, April 1, 2011

True Leaders

Successful leaders create a climate of success.  Since our district is on the cusp of hiring a new superintendent, I find the following list to be timely and important.

1.  True leaders arrive early and stay late--not for show, but because there is work to accomplish.

2.  True leaders do not mind group discussions that explore conflicts because they know that problems cannot be solved unless those who observe or experience the problems are part of the solution.

3.  True leaders know what they hope to accomplish.

4.  True leaders coach their players to MVP status in the roles they are most qualified to play.

5. True leaders offer simple solutions without secrecy.  They are open books.

6.  True leaders toughen when big problems arise.  They welcome challenges.

7.  True leaders foster people's opinions because they are good listeners who respect all people's desire to experience a safe, happy environment.

8.  True leaders know how to swiftly fix what is broken without threatening, intimidating, ignoring, or dramatizing.

9.  True leaders take the blame rather than look for a scapegoat.

10.  True leaders are honest in all situations but especially when under pressure.

11.  True leaders admit their mistakes, set good examples, care about those they lead, keep promises, and communicate well.

12.  True leaders know their actions communicate more than their words ever will.

13. True leaders prevent fires whenever possible.

14.  True leaders are firm but fair, communicate clear boundaries, establish reasonable protocol, and deal with problems as they arise.

I hope Storm Lake hires a true leader for the superintendent's position. Our students deserve a leader who only expects the very best from them, from their teachers, from the support staff, from their parents, from our community and most importantly from him or herself.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Emma Needs Access to Her Accountant

The title of this post is an actual email I sent to Kim Johnson asking her to fix a student's inability to access her account, not her accountant.  Mistakes like this filled my entire Monday, the last day of February, the only Feb. 28, 2011 I will ever experience, and I lived it as a fumble-bumbling error machine.

In my head my lesson plans were perfect, which as usual, is the first hint that the day will go wildly askew.  So as Mrs. Morgan and I pushed mobile lab #5 to my room and we laughed at her funny statement about tight squeezes and mobile carts, I had in the back of my mind the agenda for the day.  I pictured my students working hard on their papers showing their scholarly poise and earnest desire to accomplish their tasks.

In Composition I, 37% of the class was missing.  Oh yes, I had forgotten to account for the DECA students and Dance Squad teams who were gone to their respective performances.  I still gave my spiel about, Diigo, Webspiration, Evernote and Google docs.  The students patiently put up with my unprofessional acting debut as tech teacher, and we made it through.

Intro. to Lit was a disaster.  I was reminded instantly of what I tweeted last week:  that teachers need to integrate technology naturally.  My attempt here was as artificial as the list of ingredients on low-carb. low-fat ice cream. was the convertible I intended to drive my students around in while they spouted off brilliant observations and connections from the novels they read on the post I'd created yesterday at that site; perhaps the wind of their peers' breeze would even muss their hair a little on this journey.  Instead we stalled.  Some of us were hung up on logging onto the computers; others were waiting to log onto their gmail account; others made it to and were so bored they had time to claim our group was from Watertown, SD.  The biggest snag was my assumption that I could quickly enter the user names of the students I had to invite into my group.  Of course, I set up two groups with the exact same name:  Intro. to Literature Spring 2011.  I couldn't figure out how to delete one of the groups, but I figured I'd remember to just pick one when I added names.  Nope.  I selected from both groups.  So after one student volunteered to clean up the mess I made and came up with the idea to rename the group to help me remember which one to invite members to, I was feeling a little anxious and wanted to give up.  Eventually the students posted a mini summary of their novels.  Not exactly a  deep and scholarly way to use my students' time.

My prep time was glorious.  I had a chance to fix the errors of my planning.  I created a step-by-step word document to help students log onto their Google accounts.  I must admit I was proud of the way I solved my problem (note that this is another hint that life will not cooperate).

Fourth hour rolled around, and my confidence in what I'd prepared for Composition II  faded when Kim made a surprise appearance to my classroom to break the news that I was teaching students the wrong information--that they had to launch from a particular domain, not the one I so carefully put on that word document.  Egads. 

Aside from squirting ketchup on my sweater during lunch, taking three sips of my milk to absolutely, positively make sure it was not fresh (ironically, I turned away a March 2nd expiration due date thinking the milk would be spoiled, and didn't bother to look at the expiration date of my newest milk:  Feb. 26 eww--left a bad taste in my mouth--plus the moisture from the outside of my milk sogged up my cookie) and finding out I sent Kim the message that "Emma needs to access her accountant," the day was not all lost.  A student in 7th hour said we should use Google docs when we do our paper critiques, so I hopped on the server and reserved the mobile lab for that and saved a tree or two in the process.   Another student, who shall remain nameless except in the title of this blog, said we should still give librarything. com another try--that I need to be patient. I was also happy to hear that another student said she tried using the Diigo account and liked it.  So the lessons were not all for naught.  But I'm still glad this is the only February 28, 2011 I will ever experience.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

How Teachers Show Students They Matter

1.  Expect quality work that consistently moves students to a higher level.

2.  Offer feedback to what students say, write, request.  This human interaction reminds students they are worthy of a quality education because they are worthy of your time.

3. Know exactly why each assignment is given, each unit is taught.  Be able to explain it to every student, including the skeptic who assumes all your assignments are busywork, all of school is pointless.

4.  Welcome questions that encourage independent students; discourage questions that encourage needy students.

5.  Know when to nurture; know when to kick students out of the nest.

6.  Encourage students to think about their future--using both practical and fanciful methods to remind students to set goals that they envision themselves accomplishing in their wildest dreams as well as in their most practical moments of realism.

7.  Avoid imposing judgments because therein creates the expectations of success and failure that students feel subconsciously.  These judgments are the most insidiously harmful judgments because the negative ones taint the core of our students who internalize the message that they are not worthy or are not smart enough to "get it."  If they feel this way, they will not move forward in the classroom.

8.  Create boundaries of respect.  Feeling safe enough to experiment and share thoughts means students will feel safe enough to do the same outside the classroom and make our world a better place.

9.  Have faith that the next generation will find its way, as the generations behind us found their way.

10.  Constantly reflect on successes and failures we, as teachers, make in the classroom.  Ask before designing lessons, "What can my lesson do that will help students succeed?"  After a lesson has been completed, ask, "Did this assignment really get to the heart of what the students need or do I need to try something new?''  "Why did some students succeed?"  "Why did other students not understand?"  "What is the problem?"

11. Deal with issues that need correcting--from discipline to errors on work.  Students respect those who right wrongs.

12.  Learn to appreciate each and every personality, soul, child, learner in the classroom.  Modeling this sincerely will teach students to do the same to others.  All students want to find a place where they feel at home. Make your classroom that place.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


Dana Schroeder and I spent our lunch today discussing the many questions that run through our minds, including the idea that metacognition, thinking about thinking, is an important practice that helps students move forward.  If students know that learning is messy and jumbled, they are not as hard on themselves. In other words, if students think they are stupid, their academic success suffers, even to the point where they will not ask the questions that are on their mind, but if students think they will eventually figure out what needs to be learned, they are more patient with the learning process and more gentle with themselves.

Student:  I don't get this.
Teacher:  What?
Student:  This.
Teacher:  You know you have to give me more than that.  What about this do you not understand?
Student:  I don't understand what you are asking us to do.
Teacher: Which part?
Student:  I don't really get what you mean by your question.
Teacher:  Which part of the question trips you up?
Student:  The part about gender roles.
Teacher: Now I can help you.

Teachers can help students find the right questions to ask, find the right vocabulary to express what is not understood, and to pinpoint exactly where confusion is hindering understanding.  Students who do not analyze their own thinking tend to perceive academic success as luck(good or bad), whereas students who see learning as a process full of hurdles usually persist through the difficult times knowing hard work pays off.

So how do teachers help students explore metacognition?  Asking questions like "At what point did you know you understood this topic?  Or perhaps, "At what point did you get lost and confused?"  Even, "Can you see connections between how you answered this portion correctly and this portion incorrectly?  What is the difference?  How can you use what you did correctly to solve your incorrect problem?"  These questions create the foundation for independence and self-discovery, which is what metacognition is all about.

As a writing teacher, asking questions like "Is the idea finished?" when students ask, "Is this paragraph long enough?" helps students learn to trust themselves and not go to me for the thoughts that should be coming from their own minds--mostly this is a confidence issue, and as students gain confidence, they take more academic risks.  

Directly telling students that the goal is for them to become independent thinkers who can troubleshoot errors also fosters the persistence to keep working when they feel like giving up.

Thinking and writing are two sides of the same coin; when students gain confidence in their thoughts, they gain confidence in their writing. Frequently writing about their thinking process allows students to essentially record their progress over the course of a semester and ideally a lifetime.

Teachers cannot underestimate the far-reaching effects they have on students.  If teachers notice that students are not using metacognition, the solution is as easy as working it into the lesson plans that in a perfect world are created after teachers practice metacognition about their own classroom successes and failures.

Friday, February 11, 2011


The most important educating tool teachers use are questions.

Peruse the following about "Questions for a literature class." 
1.  Which questions encourage the students to think in ways they hadn't before?
2.  Which questions help students think about their own experiences?
3.  Which questions deal with general facts from the novel?
4.  Which questions encourage students to build a context beyond the world they already live in?
5.  Which questions encourage a deeper understanding of humanity? 

Questions for a literature class
Who are the characters in the novel?
What motivates each character to act as he or she does?
Which character do you empathize with most?
 Who has the harshest burden in the novel?
What about life do readers learn in this novel?
What role does the setting play in the outcome of the conflicts between the major characters? 
What historical era is represented in this novel?
What do the characters in the novel have in common with people in the news today?
Are the characters static or dynamic, round or flat?
What characterization techniques are found in the story?

 The questions asked shape what students think about a piece of literature.  The goal, then, is for students to start asking their own questions about the literature--to be confident enough to trust that their questions are valid and worthy.

Look what happens when students ask questions they want answers to
One of my favorite assignments in Composition I is the profile paper wherein students choose a relative as the subject of a 3000 word paper on that person's life.  The goal is to create an heirloom, a tribute to someone's life.  So the basic question, who is the subject of the paper is dwarfed by what does the student want to know about this significant figure in his or her life.  The answers the author seeks shapes the rest of the paper.  Students get a chance to ask the questions they want answers to, and voila, within a month, the final product is produced based entirely on questions the students have asked.  It is an amazing process.  The task is also satisfying for most students because they created the entire paper based on their own interests.

Questions lead to corrections
Questions also create the foundation of correction in a writing class.  When students polish a paper, they are to answer questions like those listed below about their peers' papers during large group critiques.  Without these questions, students see the papers as being fine. But eventually, they begin to see what needs correcting and offer good advice, taking the writing to the next level. 

 Questions for large group critiques in a writing course:
1.  How well does the introduction flow with the body and conclusion of the paper?
2.  Where does the author give the best examples to support main points?
3.  Where is the writing vague and general?
4.  How can the author appeal to the audience better?
5.  Is the organization smooth and constantly moving forward or does it stop and start jerkily?
6.  Has the author tied up all of the loose ends in the paper?

Final thoughts
Questions are meant to be answered.  If they are not asked, there is no answer.  If educators teach students how to use these priceless tools, students will build for a lifetime.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Rebounding from a Failure

"In the story 'Dancing Girls' why does the neighbor vacuum and then dump the dust in the corners? It doesn't make any sense."

"And why are the girls dancing? Why did they leave?"

"Uhh, I don't remember.  To be perfectly honest, I remember Ann who is set apart from the neighbors she talks about, but I didn't get that far in my reading."

Guess who failed here? Guess who spoke the last sentence in response to the two students' questions?  I did.  Me.  The teacher.  The one who creates the syllabus. The one who makes the reading assignments.  The one who is supposed to lead students to new experiences.  Here it is, day six of the semester, and I had no answer for the clarification students were seeking because I had miscalculated the time it would take me to get all seven short stories read. Monday and Tuesday had been snowdays, Wednesday I handed out the syllabus that was created before the snowdays, Thursday class time was dedicated to reading, and here it is Friday, and I had not read two of the stories:  "The Dancing Girls" by Margaret Atwood and "The Chaste Clarissa" by John Cheever.

Oh, I had read them before, many times, but the details escaped me.  That is why I take my own advice and keep track of plots, settings, characters, ironic twists, figurative language, in my notebook.  Every time I assign these stories, I read them like I have never read them before because I can remember big picture ideas, but the details leave my memory as soon as we move from short stories to poetry.

But I've since read the stories and answers to the students questions come back to me.  The boarder was quirky, odd, unstructured.  He left piles of dust in the corners.  He and his friends had girls over and they danced the plaster off the ceiling, so the landlady kicked them out.  Ann, the boarder who shared a bathroom with the rarely seen, odd neighbor, merely sat by the door, smoked cigarettes and waited for the party to leave because she was afraid to peek out of her room.  She missed out on the ruckus by living her careful life.

I have answers for the students now. But it is too late.  The class period is over. But another one begins tomorrow: a fresh start, a clean slate, a new beginning; I am striving to be the prepared teacher, the cliche in the classroom who leads students to new experiences.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Being the Teacher Students Need Me to Be

I have spent much of my English teaching career experimenting,  gathering information, and reflecting on what it means to be a teacher the students need me to be. So here is a brief (to me long to you) list of my ideas.

1.  I go into new semesters being grateful for whichever students I am lucky enough to have in my classroom. These students are entrusted to me, and I take the responsibility of  nurturing students to the next level of their education very seriously.

2.   I know all students want to learn, so my lesson plans must be true to that belief. My challenge as a teacher is to design lessons that reach all personality types and all types of learners. Students need repetition without getting bored, practice with genuine examples, new information to avoid stagnancy, inspiration that reaffirms their goals, and a reason to accomplish what is asked of them.

 3.  I try to make sure all students feel at home in the classroom by learning names as soon as possible.  After all, the class is for them. To help with this, I assign a seating chart from day one so students never feel like they do not have a place to go in the classroom.  Also, I keep a box filled with each student's name on slips of paper.  I can quickly and randomly draw names to select a person to answer a question or to help me choose small groups quickly or to draw a door prize for a surprise.  The added bonus of this little step is that students quickly learn they are expected to participate, which makes it more likely they will do their homework and pay attention in class.

4.  I aim to use class time for students to practice and for me to assess. Reading aloud, practicing grammar exercises, completing freewrites, presenting information, thinking aloud, and identifying what is being studied in reading materials are all ways students can practice and I can assess.  Later I can redesign lessons to help students practice their weak areas or move on to the next challenge.

5.  My goal is to create win-win situations, not power struggles.  Sometimes that means I must laugh at myself. Sometimes that means I must reassess an assignment. Other times it means I must say with a soft voice to a complaining student, "It is time you do what is asked of you."

6. I allow myself at least three mistakes per class period which takes away the pressure for the students and for me to never err.  Instead, we can make mistakes together; we can learn together.

 7. It is my responsibility to make sure students are on task.  If I take the attitude of, "It's their loss if they miss this information," I am not doing my job. Granted, I cannot MAKE a student do anything.  Here is an example that creeps up every now and again.  If students are working on a freewrite and I see a student who is ten minutes into the task and has no words on the paper, it is my job to check things out.  Some students are thinkers and use mental time to organize thoughts--I respect that.  But other students will not ask for help, so I ask, "Hey, are you stuck?"  The student responds, usually yes or no.  If the answer is yes, I ask, "What is puzzling you?"  Most of the time in two or three seconds, I can clarify what is expected and the student can move forward.  If I would have never asked the question, the student would stay stuck the entire class period (I know this through trial and error).  I am the teacher.  I must act like one.

8.  I apologize when I make mistakes.  Ironically, even though I teach English, I have a hard time communicating what I am thinking.  Students often get confused.  I cannot hold my flaw against them. Instead I have found a way to counter that weakness:  modeling.  We constantly compare other essays, readings, other people's works, etc. . . that repetition allows students to see again and again what works or does not work and they learn what is required in that unit.

10.  Students must do the work or the class is for naught.  Here is an example.  If I truly want students to remember vocabulary words, I ask them to point out examples of that word in action.  For example, when we study appeals in persuasive writing, I will ask students to highlight where they identify logos, pathos and ethos. And they will repeat this in a variety of genres until the students are comfortable with those words in any setting. They need to know the words, so they need to be able to find them, to label them, and to discuss them.  Eventually as they practice, they gain knowledge and confidence in their skills.

11.  Ask students to do tasks that encourage them to go beyond the obvious.  Ask them to make connections they might not have thought to do otherwise.  Ask students to do their best so it becomes habit. Trust students to do what is asked of them, and if they do not, hold them accountable by making them redo it.

13.Finally, students must evaluate me, and I expect honest answers.  I use this information to better future classes.

There are so many ideas I want to interject; however,  I will stop writing for now, but I will never stop striving to be the teacher my students need me to be.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Professional Development--in More Ways Than One

After a day of professional development where the patient technology department taught us teachers about Twitter, Google docs, Google websites, Wikispaces, and I'm sure I'm leaving something out, I spent most of my non-PD time toying with those very devices and spending an ungodly number of minutes trying to upload a picture of my face on Twitter before finally defaulting to the same photo I currently have on Facebook, which, ironically, was on my cell phone, not the computer, so I feel like a twin or a fraud or something other than myself.  That must mean I'm learning.

The whole experience reminds me of that feeling of not quite being myself that at first is quite uncomfortable but eventually fits like a second skin.  It takes me a LONG time to get used to new places.  For the first three years I was at Storm Lake High School, I often took the scenic route from the teacher's lounge to my classroom because I took the wrong turn almost daily.  The extra walking did not hurt me any, yet I felt like there should be an easier way.  The more I concentrated on taking the straightest path to my destination, the more I ended up taking the long, winding route, which made me feel lost even though I wasn't.  I was learning.

I remember studying about brain research, and one image has stuck with me for over a decade: when we(meaning any  human) learn something new it enters our consciousness, gets completely jumbled up like a tangled blob of fifty necklaces as we try to connect the new information to our knowledge, and eventually, once we have learned, it comes out smooth and unkinked, not knotted at all.  If we never learn the new information, the jumbled knot of necklaces remains, and we shy away from it because we don't think we can untangle the mess.

So here I sit today, with my blob of tangledness on my website, and I'm tempted to never return to it, but then I'd be leaving a mess, and like my brother says, "make a mess; clean it up," so I know I need to go back to it.  Eventually, the maze of my website will become a navigatable path, so I can find one more way of reaching my students.

Today as I learned, fretted, wondered, and experimented, I was transported to what it is like to be a student who is introduced to a new idea, lesson, task or whatever for the first time from a teacher who has been through this step so often that it's almost automatic, and I am reminded it takes TIME and REPETITION and FALLING DOWN and GETTING BACK UP and RISKING the fall again and again that makes students so vulnerable. They trust teachers to have their backs so to speak, to expect them to keep pushing forward, to care enough about them to be the railing that holds them responsible to get to the next step on their learning staircase.

So thanks to today's professional development, I had to ask questions when I didn't have the answers, I  remembered what it is like to be a student, and I am more prepared mentally for a semster that starts in two short days.  I hope that I will continue the challenge of finding ways to reach out to students in this technologically changing world that does not alter the basic spirit of human beings--they want to learn, they want to move forward, and they want to move past discomfort of not knowing to the comfort of being sure they know.  They want to learn.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Grading Rationale

Here is a generic grading rubric for me to use when grading an essay and for students to use as a checklist to ensure they have met an assignment's requirements:

Effectively opens and focuses the paper                                   yes+      yes     no

Clear main points                                                                    yes+      yes     no
Effective use of proof to support main points                            yes+      yes     no
Avoids using general statements                                               yes+      yes     no

Effectively closes the paper                                                      yes+      yes     no

Smooth organization, effective transitions                                   yes+      yes     no
Effective use of word control (avoids needless repetition,
          avoids defaulting to second person,
          effective word choice, avoids filler)                                 yes+      yes     no
Effective use of sentence variety                                               yes+      yes     no
Effectively caters to the audience's needs and wants                  yes+      yes     no
        (encourages readers to want to read the essay)
Correctly uses MLA format                                                                  yes     no                   
Correct grammar, usage, mechanics(no more than
           three mistakes per typed page)                                                   yes     no

7-9 yes+                    = A 
1-6 yes+                    = B
all yeses                    = C
one no                       = D
two or more noes      = Redo/F