Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Just Noticing

I've been teaching reading at the middle school level for the past six years. It's the first time I've taught a class that is grouped homogeneously. I have three different groupings: those reading above grade level, those reading at grade level and those reading below grade level. Those groupings are based on the results of state test scores and an assessment required by the county.

It is what it is...

Last night was Back-to-School night and for the seventh year in a row I've noticed that the classes with the largest parental attendance are also the classes with students reading above grade level.

Why? What can I do to change that? Does it matter?

Just wondering.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Getting it Together

Back-to-School Night, the one evening set aside for parents to meet all their child's teachers, is not my favorite event of the year. Speaking in front of a classroom of twelve year-olds is easy, standing in front of their parents is not.

Fortunately, the evening goes by quickly. Parents follow their child's schedule and visit each class. Teachers are given about ten minutes to go over their class objectives and expectations and to answer any questions about the class.

Tonight I survived my 17th Back-to-School night. It was, as usual, a blur of me talking and parents looking- with a few questions thrown in between. I don't remember many specifics, except for the father who came up to me at the end of class to report his son has been feeling like he got off on the wrong foot with me. He's been in some trouble in my class and feeling like I've been singling him out.

Yup, that kid has been driving me crazy, but tomorrow my goal is to find a way to for us to work together so that we both feel respected and valued.

Monday, September 27, 2010

A New School Year...Not Like Any Other

A young man in my sister's class pulled a gun out today and threatened to shoot a classmate. He added that he would shoot the substitute teacher as well. This was not the same young man that told another girl that he would stab her. Nor was it the same boy who stole from the classroom. It wasn't the same student who spit on the principal earlier in the year either.

The gun wasn't real, it was a toy. My sister teaches in a rural area twenty miles north of Baltimore. She teaches kindergarten.

It's been a helluva year.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Getting off the Curb

I learned to ride my bike while living in the house on Othoridge Rd. in Lutherville, MD. I was somewhere around 7 years old. One training wheel fell off my bike and instead of repairing it my mom just went ahead and took the other one off. After the training wheels came off I spent most of my time riding along the curb. It was easier to balance the big two-wheel machine knowing I had the curb as a safety net when I started to wobble. It didn't take too long, one day I pushed off the curb and kept wobbling, curb no longer needed.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Getting Into the Zone

My employer requires that I come up with a Professional Development Plan (PDP) each year. It's a way for teachers to identify an area they'd like to work on, come up with a plan for the work and to carry out the plan. At the end of the year I'm asked to report on how it all went.

One of my struggles has always been the best way to reach the students I have that are reading below grade level. In my opinion they fell behind their classmates somewhere around second or third grade and never caught up. By the time they get to me in sixth grade they've had three or more years of reading frustration under their belts and for the most part they've started to see themselves as non-readers.

This year, I hope to get them to change that vision...I want them to see themselves as readers. A friend offered up a little Nancie Atwell theory and I'm eager to give it a go. I left work today with my copy of The Reading Zone tucked in my bag. I'll spend some time over the weekend rereading it and coming up with my plan.

For the first time in quite some time, I'm excited about my PDP.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Hello Friday

Thursday. In college it was known as the "gateway to the weekend." It was a day to go out with friends, have a few drinks (or more) and say a hearty hello to Friday.

Twenty-five years later Thursday is still the gateway to the weekend, but the revelry that went with the welcome isn't quite the same. Tonight I am excited about getting to bed early. My hello to Friday will have to wait until a bit after 5:00 AM when my cell phone alarm awakes me as it plays the theme song from "The Jetsons."

I can no longer schedule my classes for late Friday afternoon like I did in college. My students will begin wandering in to homeroom at about 7:40. They will bid me a good morning and we will be off and running for the rest of the day.

However, since it is Friday, maybe I'll bring in some donuts.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

So Many Questions

Remember those questions I asked the students to respond to back on the first day of school? I shared their definition of reading as well as their thoughts on rules that would encourage a positive learning environment. The last question was sort of a free-for-all. I asked them to write down any questions they had about the class, middle school, 6th grade, or me.

I tried a similar exercise my first year as a third grade teacher. When in the process of learning about a new group of students I found that their questions reveal as much about them as the answers they give. This year's sixth graders disclosed a bit about themselves in their inquiries.

Do we get to blow stuff up in Science?
What time is it when you are late for class?
Will we read Moby Dick?
Are you allergic to anything?
Is it true that if you read more you become a better speller?
Why is there a squeaking noise by the sink?
What are three of your favorite songs?
Who inspired you to be a teacher?
Are you funny as a teacher?
Why do they call it Middle School?
Does anybody else feel the same way I do?
Will we have a lot of homework? Will it be hard?
Is 6th grade a repeat of 5th?

One thing I've learned from this activity is that even though it may look like every student is "with me" during class discussion, they aren't. Their brains are moving every which way. They are filled with questions, but they're not always the ones I'm trying to answer in class.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

One More Time?

In an effort to allow each student to give their best I often allow them to retake quizzes and tests or rewrite assignments. I explain to them that we don't always succeed the first time. Allowing them to try again offers a second chance for success.

Yes, when I adopted this policy last year I was sure students with D's would work harder to get B's or A's. For the most part they did.

Today I handed back the first quiz of the year. Students who had scores in the 90s were eager to try again to attain that perfect score. Many students with scores in the 50s, 60s and 70s opted to do the same. But what about those kids that didn't opt for the retake? What's my responsibility to them? Should I allow an 11 year-old student with a D to opt out of the second chance, or is that a parent decision? For now, I'm leaving the decision with the student. No matter what they end up doing I'm pretty sure they'll learn something from the process.

Monday, September 20, 2010


Class meetings take place once a month. The sixth grade counselor comes in to lead the class. Students are given the opportunity to ask questions about middle school and air any concerns/frustrations they're experiencing. This month the counselor began the meeting by asking each student to share a high and low of their life in middle school so far.

I was happy to hear that the kids felt like they were making new friends and that the teachers were pretty nice. There were the expected comments regarding homework load and a few unfortunate comments about problems with bullies. But the most surprising comment I heard all day came from the mouth of a young redhead. When asked to give a high for his year so far he commented, "The food in the cafeteria is amazing!"

Not what I expected.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Exhausted...but it's all good.

Forty-six hours after the beginning of our annual weekend of fun and friendship I was on my way back home. Three hours after my return the car is unpacked, dirty clothes are in the wash and I am exhausted. It's a good kind of exhaustion though, one that resulted from late night laughter, floating in the sun on the Severn River, an abundance of fabulous food and early morning coffee talk on the deck.

It's all good.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Mock Thanksgiving

Somewhere about 23 years ago a group of friends came together for a weekend of fun, food and friendship. We were in our early twenties and trying our best to a make a life in the "real" world. We had all spent some amount of time at college together and weren't quite ready to say goodbye to the kind of moments that are shared when living on top of one another in a dorm. Sure we gathered for the occasional Sunday Brunch at the Belvedere Hotel, but what we really needed was a chunk of time longer than the four or five hours an afternoon offered.

An idea was hatched, by who I'm not sure. We would plan one weekend a year and have a Thanksgiving of our very own. Mock Thanksgiving was born.

The fun starts tonight. Those twenty-somethings have become forty-somethings with college kids of their own. We get about 36 hours of time to yuck it up on the Severn River. Come Sunday afternoon I'll drag my tired, sleep-deprived self back home and wonder how the weekend sped by so fast. I can't wait.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Autumn Wishes

Shades of red were in the process of taking over the green of the leaves that hung on the tree. I noted the change in color on my drive home today. I smiled. Those changing leaves mean more than cooler temperatures and robust colors around town. They also mean the prospect of the first frost and a happy good riddance to the ragweed pollen that has been creating havoc in my sinuses the last three weeks.

Bring on the leaves of red and orange, as well as the frozen dew of autumn...please.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A New Year, A New Challenge

I've had my share of discipline problems in the classroom. For the most part I've always figured out a way to deal with them. It's a relief when I am able to establish a positive relationship with the difficult student; the tough part is the sometimes-arduous road I often travel to get to that relationship.

This year is no different. Each day a young man has entered my room and each day I've felt frustrated and disappointed with our interaction during the class period. Seven days into the school year I can see that changing the way we interact isn't going to be easy, it may turn out to be my biggest challenge of the year.

Monday, September 13, 2010

To Do...

In the beginning of the school year my daily list of things to do is the one thing that keeps me organized. In the past it has also driven me crazy.

This year my goal is to keep one list in one place. That's different from years past where I had multiple lists going in a variety places. I do great job of teaching 11 and 12 year-old students the tools they need for organization, yet rarely do I do such a good job of keeping myself organized. It's a weakness that I continue to work on.

So far I have managed to keep my daily lists in one place and tried to limit the number of tasks to five or six. I employ that same tactic during the summer and have come to find success in prioritizing what needs to be done as well as accepting the reality of what can get done in the span of a work day. I've found that it's best to separate work and home tasks as well.

After five days of teaching I can't say that I'm exactly on top of everything but I'm not flailing my arms in exasperation yet either. I call that success.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Rainy Sunday

I'm a fan of a good rainy day; the kind that makes you want to take the day slowly. Today's rain was long overdue. It's been quite sometime since we've had any measurable rainfall in the area.

There's a quiet that comes with a rainy day. The silence is only broken by the occasional drippy sound of water as it makes its way down the metal downspout. Clouds hung in the sky for most of today, offering up another layer of sound insulation. The peacefulness in my house had very few interruptions; the clink of a coffee cup as it was set on the table, the rustle of newspaper as pages were turned, and the insistent cries of a cat who desperately wanted to drink the milk in my cereal bowl.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


I've come to accept that I'm a pretty uncoordinated individual. I'm not sure why, but guess it has something to do with my lack of rhythm and a broken ankle in high school that has left me with two legs that are not quite even in height.

I can go for weeks or months at a time without a moment of clumsiness. Not today though.

Shifting my body from a seated position on the dock into a kayak gently bobbing on Lake Braddock proved to be, literally, my tipping point. I over-thought the whole process. With my hands placed on each side of the kayak I started to make my move. Feet went in and then I shifted the rest of myself toward the waiting boat. It didn't feel right. My friend was talking me through as best she could, but I could already feel a loss of control.

"I'm going in!" I shouted.


Clumsiness wins again.

On the bright side, it was a beautiful day for a swim.

Friday, September 10, 2010

An Offer of Peace and Trust

I made Frankie mad yesterday. In my hurry to straighten up his messy binder I messed up his own perfect system of organization. By the way, Frankie is labeled as ED, meaning his emotions are a bit tangled. One particular weakness he has is dealing with adults.

I did my best to put everything back together quickly, as I did so I heard a something snap. I broke his three-hole punch, or at least I thought I did.

"Ooops, did I break that?" I asked.

"Uh, sure did," he snarled.

I promised to buy him a new one, one that looked exactly the same. After confirming that he bought it at Target I apologized one more time. He was obviously frustrated and downright pissed off.

"Did I ruin your day?" I inquired.

I most certainly had.

I left work late last night, somewhere around 5:30. It had been another ten-hour day. I was exhausted and the last thing I wanted to do was go in search of a red three-hole punch at Target. I knew if I wanted to make things right with Frankie I had go shopping. I wanted to go home, really, I did.

I went to Target where, of course, there was no red three-hole punch to be found. Fortunately, there was a Staples nearby and once I entered the store I was greeted by a wonderful store clerk that guided me to the very thing I was in search of.

As I rolled the shiny red piece of plastic in my hand I realized I had not broken anything. Not only had Frankie mislead me about where to buy the thing he had also mislead me into thinking I had ruined it, along with his day. I started to put it back. I stopped and thought about the kind of kid I was dealing with and knew it was important to make good on my promise. There would be no forgiveness without the purchase.

Frankie was still mad at me today. I asked him and he told me so. He was also mad that he had homework on a Friday. I didn't assign the homework, but that didn't seem to matter. We decided to settle up after class.

He walked up to my desk after class still sporting the same sour face he had on for the 45 minutes he'd been sitting in my class. It wasn't until I showed him the peace offering that his expression changed...he smiled.

"It's exactly the same!" he grinned.

"Yup, I told you I'd get you another and here it is, as promised. A deal's a deal, right?"

He offered to give me the other one in exchange but I dismissed the idea. It went into his backpack and he was gone.

I saw him later that afternoon as he was running off to another class.

"Hey, Frankie! Are you still mad at me?" I called.

"Nope!" he responded as he sped by.

For now the teacher-student relationship has been mended, and I'm happy about that.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

What does Reading mean to you?

What does Reading mean to you? That's the question I posed to my students yesterday. I have found that their response tells more about them as readers than many standardized reading tests designed to show their present reading level.

A sampling of the responses:

Reading is endless words, put together.

Reading means to be smart.

Creating a picture story in your mind. It's kind of like a dream someone else made up for you.

Reading is a combination of work and fun.


Something you use every day, just like math.

Reading is the measure of a person's imagination.

A fun thing to learn about new words and learn about cultures.

Reading means you look at words and understand them.

Reading is fun as long as you have the right book.

I'm always surprised by the variety of responses I get. This year I was pleased to see that not one student defined reading as boring. That makes my job much easier.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Class Rules

Today I asked my 6th graders to list two or three classroom rules that will help create a positive learning environment.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Don't play with anything in class.
Be nice and kind to your new classmates.
Don't be loud.
Don't look on other people's papers.
No breaking anything in the class.
No skipping class.
No bullying kids for their lunch money.
No calling anybody names.
Have fun!
Don't look miserable all the time.
Be positive all the time. You can't have a positive room if the teacher and students are depressed.
No invading of personal space.
No insulting of any kind.
Do not hit, throw or kick.
Be kind and friendly to your peers even if they are mean to you.

And lastly...
quite simply put...


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Name Game

The first day of school is a blend of new faces and names. I have three Joshua's in one class. Is that some sort of record? I started going through the roll and noted two young men by the name of Joshua. I was relieved when I found out that one would go by Josh while the other preferred the more formal Joshua.

Then there was Shane. He wanted to be called Josh as well.

Oh yeah, Laurel goes by Olivia.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Hints of the Seasons

Way back when I was a kid I used to watch the trees for the first signs of spring. I'd ride the bus each day with my eyes scanning the branches of every tree we passed. When would the first buds appear? My investigative eye would continue by searching the lawns for the first crocuses.

I was reminded of those bus rides today as I pedaled along the bike trail taking note of various leaves that had begun to change color. Sure there was plenty of green out there, but there was a good bit of yellow and orange as well serving as a subtle hint that fall is on its way.

Of course there's also one rather unsubtle hint that fall is just about starts tomorrow.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Change of Scenery

Bruce Springsteen sang it, "I'm just tired and bored with myself."

Today I felt it...tired. It was a long week, one filled with moving furniture, unpacking boxes, uninspiring meetings and a good deal of low morale among my colleagues. The tired I felt wasn't the sleepy kind; it was more of the exhausted, bone-tired kind. Hence my motivation to get out and about on this gorgeous weekend wasn't real strong, but fortunately it was strong enough to get me out of the house.

I strolled through Eastern Market and enjoyed an hour or two of people watching. The bright blue skies and gentle breeze were enough to put everyone in a good mood. Buyers and sellers chatted amiably. Laughter and smiles were the norm of the day. Jewelry and crafts sparkled in the late morning sun; outside cafes were full with people of all ages.

My find of the day was a necklace made by local artist Zoey March. I was drawn to her booth by a small sign, "Found Poetry Necklaces." Zoey explained that she uses a square cardboard cutout to look for poetic phrases in old dictionaries that she finds. Her inspiration for the pendants on the necklaces comes from her browsing. Zoey explained that what she loves about this type of work is the way the words surprise her when they come together. She went on to say that the pendant I chose, "Wait in silent wonder," took her breath away when she happened upon it. I agree.

Turns out a change of scenery was just what I needed.

Friday, September 3, 2010


Today's Washington Post included an article on former custodian, Ron Hillyer. It was just the inspiration I needed after a long, frustrating week at school.

Note to self: it's about the kids.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Torturous Thursday

Torturous: adj. \torch-rəs, tor-chə-\ very unpleasant or painful

I'm sure more than one child has come home and described school as torturous, not me, but surely someone.

Today I find myself joining the ranks when I proclaim that school was torturous today. It wasn't the students. They're not there yet. It wasn't another meeting. We had one but it was short and someone brought delicious pastries. The source of today's very unpleasant day was the fire alarm system. The one that was being tested ALL DAY. The first piercing sound at about 9:00 AM made everyone in the room jump. So did the second one. By the afternoon we were one jumpy bunch of people.

I heard there were 160 units to test. I wish I knew that in the beginning, that way I'd know how many more alarm tests I have to suffer through tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


There's some new device being used in the DC area. It's a noisemaker, one that emits an annoying high-pitched sound heard only be younger ears. The intent of the device is to keep kids...teenagers...from loitering in the area. Apparently all those teens hanging about is chasing those with older ears from the local businesses. Teens don't spend as much money as non-teens.

I wonder how long it will take until some young, tech-savvy teen invents a device to repel the sound.