The Magic

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:15 pm by

Do you ever get discouraged about reaching all your kids in the time you have allotted?  I sure do.  I have kids I worried about from Day One and kids I didn’t even know I needed to be worried about until day before yesterday.  Then there is the lovely habit my kids of making me believe they have ‘it’ when in fact, they do not.  They’re knee deep into an ‘awesome’ book one day and the next they tell me, ‘Oh, I abandoned that one, it was boring.’  Or they write me a gorgeous lyrical reading response letter one week and the next week they don’t bother to turn one in at all.  What gives, people?  Can’t I help you turn into a reader and writer and then just let you fly off to books and stories on your own?  …Not so much.

The good news is that discouraging days are often divinely followed by wondrous, magical moments. Moments that give me my footing back and help me believe that the path I so carefully stake out for our students is the one they need to be on.  I posted earlier about the ‘awesome’ book Reading in the Wild by Donalyn Miller.  I’ve slowly been rolling out some of the ideas from the book (from my 2 pages of legal pad notes – single spaced) with the kids, not wanting to overwhelm them with my enthusiasm.

One of her ideas is to have the kids do small, informal, book commercials.  Now I’ve been doing book commercials for a couple of years, but always by me, not the kids.  Hearing a 7th grade boy talk to other 7th graders about the excitement of The 11th Plague is WAY better than Mrs. McG. talking about it – DUH! So, trying to appear subtle, I threw a sign up sheet on the board and said if anyone wanted to recommend a book to the class they should add their name.  I watched during silent reading.  No one signed up.  The timer ticked down to 1 minute – still no volunteers. ’Well, that was a great idea that didn’t work, I thought to myself.’

The timer went off and suddenly, Huntley yelled out, “WAIT! I wanted to sign up to give a commercial!” I hope my jaw didn’t drop.  In my head it certainly did.  This was Huntley, our dear boy who is frequently absent and hates to read.  He is on book 4 for the year and all of those 4 have been a struggle.  Look up reluctant reader in the dictionary, and there is his cherubic face.  But, here he was, strutting to the front of the class (the FRONT OF THE CLASS!) to talk about The Darkest Path by Jeff Hirsch.  He said it was, ‘adventurous and exciting’ and  he ‘couldn’t stop reading it’. He went on to say that ‘Jax might like it, he likes the same kinds of books as me.’  All this time, I thought he wasn’t really listening.  Turns out…he was!

At writing time, I told the kids the story of how our cats, Ron and Harry (yes, THAT Ron and Harry) came to live at our house.  I showed them a picture of the cute little kittens who arrived together in a little tiny crate to meet our very large black labs; Paddy and Molly.  Paddy ignored them completely (I’m still not convinced he actually knew they were living here) and Molly has made it her life’s work to turn them into dogs so she can play with them.  So far, it’s not working but she hasn’t given up yet.

the new boys in town


The kids were to write for 5 minutes about what happened next, after Ron and Harry left that crate.  It could be realistic, fantasy, or a combination.  The only rule was keep writing and see where it leads.  At the end of the 5 minutes, Huntley wanted to share his writing (has not shared ANY writing since the first day of school). He got a round of applause for his adventure story.  Jason also shared, the same Jason who has mostly done comic strips stories since school started.  He also got an enthusiastic response from students and teacher alike.

Since both of  these responses could not have been more uncharacteristic Teresa, my co-teacher, and I were astounded.  Why this day?  What clicked that hasn’t clicked before?  What is it so we can do it again???

I think there are two possible answers.  One is that we teach what we value.  For Teresa and I, the relationships are the most important thing. We want them to feel cared for and nurtured in a deep and abiding way.  We appreciate kindness and thus, the kids are extremely thoughtful.  We value reflective reading so the kids strive to notice the words on the page and the effect those words have on them.  We encourage writers so the students take every opportunity to find the golden lines in a piece shared, or insist that the writer continue writing so they can see what happens next.  What we emphasize is what they notice. That’s step one.

The second part has everything to do with them and very little to do with us as teachers.  After all, our students could notice what we wanted but still reject those ideas.  I have students in every class that are not buying what I’m selling.  This group does, though, in part, because of the level of trust they have created with one another.  They feel safe. They critique without being mean. They encourage with conviction.  They have each other’s backs and they all know it.  Because of that, they can relax and be who they really are, write what they feel, read what they want, and, in the process, lift each other and themselves up.

A group this caring? They can move mountains.  They can create beautiful art.  They can even  pass tests.  And they can give their teachers a little magic to make it to another day.


Why I Heart Donalyn Miller

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:56 am by

Over winter break, I read Donalyn Miller’s second book Reading in the Wild and I was struck again by how she articulates what I and many of my fellow teachers feel but have never said.  Those thoughts at the edge of your brain that you just can’t quite grasp?  She not only grasps them, she figures out how to do them with real kids and then she writes books that tell you how to do them with your real kids, too.  How cool is that?

The Book Whisperer changed my teaching life, as it has millions of other teachers as well.  Suddenly, what we had always thought might work, that kids should be able to pick their own books, like real readers do, was in a BOOK!  Not only that but people, important decision making people were taking notice. Now, we hear self selected books and say, ‘Of course – duh!’ but when the book first came out self-selected reading was NOT what was happening at any school I taught nor in any of the schools my own children attended.

I read The Book Whisperer  over the summer in 2009 while helping with the National Writing Project Summer Institute.  It went through that group of teachers like a whirlwind. Each day we’d come in saying, “Did you read about the____?” and “I LOVED when she said _____________”. That summer resounded with ‘Amen, Sister!’ directed at Donalyn Miller, this wonderful teacher and author who was giving us permission to do what we really wanted – fill our students with the joy and magic of reading.  We were all inspired to head back to our classrooms in the fall, ready to rock the literacy world. We could not wait for school to start!

In the years since, my respect for Donalyn (I can call her that because I introduced her at a conference and she told me I could.:) has grown in direct proportion to the results I have seen with my students.   She gave me permission to do what I knew was the right thing for kids.  If someone questioned me, I could point to her book on my shelf and say, ‘Read that and you will understand that this is the way we should have been teaching reading all along.’ Many of my administrators did read it and became champions of it, too.

Through the years, most of my kids became real readers because of what I learned from her book.  My kids knew what it meant to be in the ‘Zone” (lost in a book and the world falls away).  They rejoiced at the end of every quarter when we had days where we celebrated by reading – only reading – for the language arts block.  Their totals for books read climbed ever higher, far surpassing any totals PBW (pre Book Whisperer). They knew how to intelligently discuss their favorite books as well as why they liked them. They became experts at recommending books to each other and even started a ‘Leave a book, take a book’ swap in our classroom to increase circulation.

Now comes Reading in the Wild, just when I needed it.  This nagging thought had occurred to me sporadically over the years when I’d see my former students in the hallway.

 ”What are you reading?” (to the student who read 84 books the previous year)

“Oh, nothing really, not for fun, we have Literature Circles and we get assigned our books.”

 ”Well what about outside of school? What are you reading at home?”

“I don’t really read at home that much.”  

My heart sinking, I would wonder what happened – how could you be a real reader one year and let that passion go?  It didn’t make sense to me but I told myself that I couldn’t control what happened after my kids moved on.  I could only do what I could do…yadda, yadda, yadda.

Guess who already thought about this problem?  Guess who wrestled and studied and worked to find an answer?  Guess who wrote a book (with contributor Susan Kelley) to help all of us?  That’s right – our very own Donalyn Miller.  She tried to codify what it means to be a real lifetime reader.  How do they act?  What do they do?  What are their habits?  And most importantly, what can we, as their teachers, do to instill these habits for a lifetime, not just a school year?

Here are three of my favorites:

1. If you suspect one of your students is ‘fake reading’ (and come one, we all have at least one of those in every class) there is a form in Reading in the Wild that you can use to observe said student for 10 minutes.  When all the boxes show ‘staring off into space’ instead of ‘in the zone’ you have real data to use when conferring. ( The first step to recovery is admitting there is a problem…) My co-teacher and I have these forms copied and ready for Block 5 tomorrow. :)

2.  Like most teachers, I teach a mix of Honors, Academic, and Team Taught classes.  Most of my true Honors kids would read even if I told them not to.  They are already addicted.  Many of them are perfectionists, however. (It takes one to know one, I know…) When I assign reading 30 minutes for homework, they find half an hour (or more) of time, sit down, and read.  Donalyn tells them (and me) that ,’Hey – we lead busy lives – it doesn’t have to be 30 minutes all at once!  If you always have a book with you, you can read while waiting for your little brother to get done with soccer practice, or while your Dad runs into the drugstore, or your bus is stopped in traffic’.  She created a nifty little form, The Reading Itinerary, where the kids track, for a week, where and how long they read.  This seems to me to have double benefits – my Honors perfectionists can relax a little and give themselves permission to read in smaller increments and my reluctant readers can have a multitude of places where reading can actually take place.  My B Day kids get theirs tomorrow.  They will keep track for a week and we’ll regroup.  I fully expect some revelations when we do.

3. I struggle with meeting with all of my kids during reading time.  I try, I really do.  I make charts and create new conferring sheets, and schedule it out so I get to talk to everyone in two weeks.  It never, ever, ever, works.  Most of it is my fault because they’ll tell me something interesting about their book and then I think of a book it reminds me of and then we’re off and chatting away like I only have one kiddo to talk to…but I don’t.  Well, Donalyn does table conferences.  She sits down with a team of kids and talks to all of them at once.  (Yes, she has a nifty form for this, too.)They get to hear each other (you know they listen in to the one on one conferences anyway) and make recommendations, and discuss genres, and write books on their ‘Someday’ lists and you can do 4 people at once! I’m telling you, this woman is a genius.

Well, I could go on and on about why I heart Donalyn Miller.  I just hope she knows how much she has meant to the teaching profession.  I hope she knows that she has really made a difference in the lives of children.  I hope she knows I am a better teacher for having read and embraced her books and that I am not alone.

I hope she sells billions and billions of books:





Friday’s Gift

Posted in Uncategorized at 6:53 pm by

I had a terrible week. An uncle that I loved dearly passed away.  Grades were due. I had 120 memoirs to read and grade. My team members were grumpy and out of sorts (including me!). The computer wasn’t working so e-mails and screen projections for lessons were a struggle.  None of the lessons seemed to come together like I had envisioned them…then Friday afternoon, last block, was upon me.

I will be forever grateful that this is a team taught class because it enabled my wonderful co-teacher, Teresa, to experience the wonder with me. Since the lesson plan wasn’t  really working anyway, I decided we’d throw it out and just have a read-around.  We put the chairs in a circle, gave everyone their completed memoirs back and went over a few pointers:

You may read all, part, or one golden line from your memoir.

You will listen to the author and record beautiful words, or examples of figurative language, or a place where he/she made you feel something and write down your compliments on a sticky note.

When the author is done reading, pass the sticky notes to him/her so that when he/she gets discouraged about writing later on (which we all will) he/she can pull these out and feel encouraged.

Do not write, “I liked it. It was good.” unless you give specific examples for both!

And so we began.  Jason wrote about getting his pet rabbit from an ‘old prospecty-type guy’ and we all laughed. Katie described why she loved going to the beach so much ‘I am completely happy there.‘  and we nodded in agreement.  Some kids were too shy to read themselves and asked other people to do it for them.  That was OK – it was the writing that mattered anyway.  Matt wrote a story he thought was about his love of music but was really a love letter to his Dad.  Casey described a terrible trip when she was ignored by family and friends and nearly drowned in a wave pool.  We were all incensed on her behalf.

Then Ellie read her story about her cousin, Jack.  When Teresa and I read it, we thought she had mistakenly stapled two unrelated stories together, the first and second page were so different.  But when she read it, it made complete sense.  She began with a happy memory of her cousin and her at camp, then she quoted a beautiful hymn, and ended with the news of Jack’s death and her reaction to it. She made it almost all the way through before she broke down and had to leave the room.  She wanted me to finish it for her and I tried my best.  When done, it was silent except for the sounds of sniffling.  Then one of the kids said,  ”That was a big brave!”  He was right.  When Ellie returned to class she was inundated with high fives, hugs, and pats on the back.  They knew what it took to read that piece aloud and they wanted her to know they were grateful that she did.

Having already read the memoirs, I tried to balance the sad with the happy.  Adam, completely red, wrote about kissing a girl (on a dare) on a trip to Ireland.  We loved it. Jax wrote about driving a car for the first time at age 6 and when he finished, everyone shouted, “That was SO you, Jax!” The same voice was in A.J.’s piece where he wrote about a basketball game so thrillingly that I now feel as if I know what that feels like and I haven’t set foot on a basketball court outside of gym class since…well, ever! My favorite line from his story was his reaction to a ball hog on his team, ‘Wait – when did Coach hire Kobe Bryant?’ That is SO Adam!

Michael read his story about a Halloween night when he hid in a tree, dressed head to toe in black, to scare little kids.  He was pretty sure the 5 year old he scared first has not been trick or treating since that night.  We were all secretly pleased that it ended with the tree branch breaking, and him falling to the ground.  (It seemed like karma to many of us.) Michael’s story prompted a story from Connor, who has not volunteered to say one word since school started but went on for several minutes about a similar experience.

Then it was Rebekah’s turn.  She wrote about her ‘Granny’ s death from cancer.  She balanced the sad with the happy so beautifully that she made it almost all the way to the end.  Then she collapsed in tears and Teresa read the ending for her.  When she finished, the kids spontaneously stood up, applauding and cheering for Rebekah’s ‘big brave’.  As I turned back from delivering the last memoir, I saw A.J. with his arm over his eyes.  The all boy athlete was crying, too.

Kaivon read last. His was a story of a poetry recitation he did in 5th grade.  I was his teacher then, too,  and I was there when he recited.  He captured the experience perfectly.

Our class became a family that day.  We laughed, cried, comforted, and praised each other.  It was wonderful.  As I tell the kids all the time,

‘Writing can make your life better.’

On Friday, it did.



All it takes is one…

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:55 pm by

We start every class with silent reading.  The teams rotate who gets the ‘comfy spots’ (2 teams per day) and when I can, I try to give them 20 minutes.  That used to be my time to read, too, but this year I’ve been using that time to conference with each student.  They sit at a stool beside my desk and we talk about books.  Although I miss the reading time, this is my favorite part of class, conferring with students one on one.  At this age, they are so open about themselves, so willing to tell both the good and the bad. Here are my questions for the first meeting:

1.  Do you consider yourself a reader?

2.  What is your favorite genre?

3. What is the best book you have ever read?  What made you love it so much?

4.  How many books did you read last year? 

5.  What is easy for you in reading?  What is hard?

6.  What would you like to improve in your reading?  What reading goal would you like to make?


After U.S.S.R. (Uninterrupted Sustained Silent Reading) I ask if anyone is reading something wonderful or who was able to get into the ‘zone’?  There are always volunteers. Some kids talk about the same book each time but we can feel the passion he/she has for this book.  It’s contagious.  Many of them are quite articulate about getting into the ‘reading zone’ (which we define as getting lost in your book and having the world fall away).  Many of them have never experienced that feeling, not once, in 8 years of schooling.  I want that to change.  If they leave me in June without that feeling, I will be sorely disappointed.  The thing is, it only takes one book.  The right book, placed in the hands of the right student, at the right time – magic happens.  I’ve seen it.  The scales and resistance fall away and they turn into readers right before your eyes.  But that magic will never, ever happen without predictable time to read each day, with books of their own choosing.  We can teach them how to read, but we can’t make them readers without the time, space, and commitment to find that one book.

After a ‘Brain Break’ we start Writing Workshop.  Instruction is followed by 1 ‘Must do’ and many ‘May dos’ (which at this point in the year consists of drafting their memoirs, preparing for NANOWRIMO (National Novel Writing Month) in November, or any writing they choose).  Two more teams get to have the writing desks ($6.00 at Michaels) which I have inscribed with great quotes about writing. (One of my students today thought the desks ‘came like that’ and seemed disappointed that he couldn’t buy them pre-printed!)The only rule is ‘Keep writing!’  I try, not always successfully, to have time for Author’s Chair at the end of class where those that want feedback can share all or part of their writing and receive specific compliments as well as suggestions for improvement.  I think this time goes a long way in creating community and building authentic audience.  It’s hard to share your writing, especially if you write about things that really matter.  But again, all it takes is one.  One brave soul to risk laying bare something hard, or painful, or joyful, so that we feel it, too.  Then we become connected in a way unique to a reading/writing classroom.  If we can feel what the writer feels, we enter their life.  We become a part of each other then.  That’s when the real writing can begin.  I tell my students that writing what matters to you will make your life better.

That means I have to give them time each class to find that out for themselves.


Commencement # 30

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:36 pm by

I just love this time of year.  School supplies on sale, teachers all rested, refreshed, and upbeat, and the chance to do it all again, to finally get it right this time.  I’ve always liked beginnings.  New Year’s Eve is my favorite holiday.  I love the chance for do-overs.  As a constantly disappointed perfectionist, I think I can get it right if I just get one more chance at it!  My 7th graders are coming a week from tomorrow.  We got class lists today so I have a count and the names.  I can’t wait.

Welcome!  Hope the door seems welcoming!  The board tells where we are if we are not in the room.  All coteachers’ names are on the door.  Having been on the other side, I always appreciated that!









Quiet Chairs  I’m trying felt footies to cut down on the noise of the chairs.  I don’t know how long they’ll last but they are kind of festive – I did them by team colors so they do brighten up the place.  We’ll see if they survive the first day!


Reading Area 1Here’s one of the reading nooks.  There are also bean bags and body pillows in other spots but not all kids are comfortable with lying on the floor.  They held up really well last year so I’m optimistic.



Curious?  Each paisley curlicue gives a clue about something we will do this year.  This one says NANOWRIMO for National Novel Writing Month.  I want them to be curious about what’s coming – enough to want to come back next class at least…








First Day QuestionsHere are a couple of the first day questions:  ’Our class should be ___________ every day.’  and ‘What do you hope to learn this year in English class?’  You can also see the ‘Expert’ hats that say Spelling, Grammar, Punctuation, etc. that the kids can wear during Writer’s Workshop.  At the top are ‘Ask Me’ lanyards so the kids can have someone to ask when I’m conferencing.


PortfoliosPortfolios waiting to be filled!  Last year they were not accessible enough for the kids so they didn’t really take ownership of them.  I want these to be used every day so they will be ready for their Student Led Conferences.


I didn’t have any bulletin boards left but birthdays are still a big deal in 7th grade so the wardrobe became the canvas.  Notice the Harmony Hornets standing guard! :)  







I’ve been working on creating the environment that will build our community.  Only the kids can tell me if it really works for them, though.  On my mark, get set…commence!


Last Day Dancing with a Pen

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:05 am by

Today was the last day for students in our district.  One of my 7th graders plodded into our room, plopped heavily into his seat and moaned,  ”I can’t believe it’s our last day to dance with a pen…”  Come to find out, he, like me, thought the school year flew by and was not quite prepared for the end.  The good news was he realized that one of the many joys of writing is that it never has to stop, it’s portable, travels well, and only needs a stub of a pencil and a napkin to be done just about anywhere.

So today is about looking back, celebrating the amazing bits, contemplating how to make the bad bits better, but mostly reflecting on what an amazing job we teachers get to have.  This year 119 pre-adolescents came into my life.  They could not have been more different from one another but entering that magical world of reading and writing made us seem very much like family by the end (OK – dysfunctional family but still…) and I will miss them terribly.  I want so much for them to continue to grow as readers and writers but I don’t get to be a part of that anymore.  My difference-making ended today and that makes me sad.  This is a group I would love to nourish until they are grown and tell me to go away.

We found out today that one of my students will be published in the Northern Virginia Writing Project’s Falling for the Book anthology in the fall.  He wrote a poem called ‘I Am Who I Am’.  He was lucky to be in a class of students who celebrated every step of the way for each other, nudging, applauding, pushing each other as writers and then stepping back and saying, “Yeah, we DID that!”  He did not come to me as a writer.  His community of writers helped him to become one and today they stamped and cheered when they heard the news.  Because, yeah, we were part of that, too.

Many of the students completed an end of year reflection about their growth as readers.  The responses were so interesting to me, mostly because I was surprised by both the honesty and the depth of thought.    Here’s one from Hudson answering; What reading strategies do you use to help you comprehend while you are reading?  ”

“I stop and try to understand what the character is feeling or thinking, and I think about what the character’s main goal is.  I also try to layer events so I understand what’s going on in different places [in the story]. 

Layer events?  He’s 12 and already surpassed me in his complexity as a reader! Amazing!

Lexi read 12 books last year.  This year she read 124.  When I asked her why she said, “I didn’t know there were so many amazing books out there!”  Now she knows her favorite genres; fantasy and mystery as well as favorite authors; Erin Hunter and Norah McClintock.  She came to know those authors and genres from her classmates.  Their influence changed her life because now she gets to be a reader…forever.

Bijan, a struggling reader still, listed one of the things he does best as a reader; ‘reflect it on real life’. When I asked him what that meant he said he is able to connect what is happening in his book to real life.  He wasn’t able to do this until he read, Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko. He loved that book and read it 3 times this year.  Every time he reread it, he was practicing his reflection strategy. Now he considers that strategy a strength.  Does he love reading?  No.  But when a struggling reader can describe his strengths as clearly as Bijan can, he is moving closer to becoming a real reader.

Annable wrote about her favorite authors, J.K. Rowling and Tracy Chevalier;

“…they write so fluidly like a soft river of words.”  I wrote back,  ”They’re not the only ones!”

Madison responded to the question; Which writing strategy…helped you the most as a writer this year?

“Getting rid of the judge [the grumpy old man who sits on your shoulder telling you that your writing isn't good enough, etc.] because by the time I was finished correcting myself I would forget the idea I had before.”  Amen, sister!

To Which writing project should be a ‘must’ for next year’s students?  Emily wrote,

“Golden lines [finding beautiful examples of language in our books or poems] because it made you look for them and find them EVERYWHERE!”

That’s a bell that can’t be unwrung.  Emily will be finding examples of beautiful figurative language for years to come.  Better yet, she wants to be sure that next year’s students get to find those examples, too.  That chain of golden lines reaches forward and back.

Logan answered the question, What do you know about yourself as a writer that you did not know before this year?

‘That I could really get into writing things that interest me.”

I made him promise to tell his English teacher that next year when she tries to make him write to a prompt.  Perhaps he can teach her what being a writer really means.  If anyone can do it, he can.

And finally, back to Bijan, answering the same question as Logan;

“It [writing] is not awful!”  

Hey – ‘not awful’ is a step up from awful, right?  We take our progress any way we can around here.

B   Here are my students displaying their ‘Success Scrapbook Page”.  They had to think of 5 moments over the course of the year when they felt successful as a reader or a writer.  This is what I want them to remember about their 7th grade year, not a score on a high stakes test.




That number will never tell them who they are.  That number is for the state, not for them.




B  Thanks for a great year, cherubs – I learned a lot.


Let the dancing pens and book count begin again.


But what do you REALLY think?

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:26 pm by

Testing. All Month.  My students only had one day of their English high stakes test (55 multiple choice questions – about reading, are you kidding me?) but then we have all the other grades and all the other tests that determine we don’t have internet access, or library availability, or any work in the computer labs or laptop carts.  It’s all about the tests.  After our test was over, at least one student, in every single block asked me, “Why do we have to come to school?  The SOL test is over.”  (I think there are some teachers who feel the same way but that’s a whole other topic…)

In an effort to put this whole testing thing in perspective, I asked my kids to draw a picture of what they thought the test creators looked like, and then give them a backstory.  What was their home life like?  How did they come to be in this job?  Here are some of the results:

Z used to be a human but one day on his way to work he was bitten by a Zombie.  He then blamed his teaching job for the incident and became a Test Creator.  Now he creates hard questions to annoy students into becoming…ZOMBIES! – Bill 

Back in 1963, there was a chemical war with a distant planet.  NASA created a deep space radar satellite.  Instead of trying to communicate, they triggered a war.  Rodriquez McPittles was out with his family when a glowing boomerang glided through the air.  That was the last thing he saw before he lost consciousness.  He awoke in 1972 in a pile of rubble.  He realized that he and a group of mutants were the last thing on Earth.  He later realized that his beloved family was dead; his father, his mother, and his beautiful siblings.  He lost his sanity and ever since then he tortures little kids into doing mind-wrenching tests call the SOLS. – Logan

Janking 5000 was a very old computer and his ‘father’ built him.  He raised him with questions (and without Google) so he had to figure out everything himself.  He saw all the other computers getting updated while he stayed the same.  He chose to take his anger out by writing questions for children that they can’t use Google for either.  He never had a Mom and his ‘Dad’ abandoned him for an Apple computer.  He lives in a powerplant so he can have unlimited energy to do what he does.  He plans to go on until he dies (never) or until iPhone 10000000 comes out. -Calvin

Senor Ghost

This is Senor Ghost.  He died while taking a test.  Now he will get revenge by haunting tests and making everyone fail.  Even the easiest questions are hard when he haunts them.” Emily 

Mr. Paper is a former heavy metal star.  One day a scientist invited him to his lab and by accident, made him as thin as paper.  Nowadays he is a middle school teacher who hates students. ( This is because the scientist was a college student).  If a student makes one wrong move, he will whack them with his electric guitar.  He is also famous for his latest teaching endeavor, making a new testing category; UF for Utterly Failed.  - Jim

Mr. Washton-Haston was raised by female clowns.  They dyed his hair red and gave him a makeover.  In Mr. Washton-Haston’s free time he sends out questions about things he has overheard.  His Moms make him do acrobatics and he breaks at least a bone a day.  This makes him very grumpy.  Ladies and gentlemen,  Mr. Washton-Haston! – Genovi

Dr. Midget Catclone – As revenge for calling him ‘cute’ constantly, he plans to make SOL questions and hacks the mainframe that debates the questions and enters his own.  He intends to bore people to death. – Chase

Ms. Booty-Shahooty was literally raised by wolves.  Once, she was dropped on her head and all her hair was sucked up by a vacuum so now she grows it obsessively.  She trips on it around 6-8 times a day.  She lives in a cave and makes pesky tests for the SOLs.  She hates children. – Virginia

Mr. Gwenn Shoeford stands at a tiny 3 feet tall.  He is 50 years old but likes to think he is 20.  He is an orphan (his parents died when he was very little in a fire) and he had to raise himself as a kid because no one wanted him.  Not even the orphanage.  - Julianne

Some of the kids only did pictures:

I’m glad they have a sense of humor about it all (more than I do, at least) but think about the message we are sending with these high stakes tests at the end of the year.  The overall theme in all of their backstories was someone who DOES NOT LIKE KIDS! Yet these are the same people making decisions about their futures?

“A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” ~ Mahatma Ghandi

We must do better.
If you agree, sign the resolution:  http://timeoutfromtesting.org/nationalresolution/


Customer Service – Part 1

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:43 pm by

Yesterday I did something that I am at once exhilarated and terrified by – I asked my students to rate my effectiveness as a teacher.  I went to a session at the ASCD conference in Chicago where 2 New Jersey teachers, one 8th grade and one high school, described their journey to find out what their kids really thought about them.  It was similar to the moment many years ago when I first heard about going into a general education classroom to co-teach my special education students – a little like being struck by lightning.  I couldn’t wait to get home and try it!

As I listened to the 8th grade teacher talk about how shocked she was that every child in her class did not love her completely and how hard and necessary that was for her to hear, I thought – why do we not ask the students what they think?  Politicians weigh in, school board members weigh in, administrators weigh in, even parents weigh in about my teaching effectiveness and how to measure it but I really don’t care about them – I care what my kids think.

I have surveyed my students before but it was more about the classroom or the curriculum, what they wanted to do more of, less of, that kind of thing.  I even have them give me a letter grade occasionally.  But I never asked them, ‘How am I doing for YOU?’  We teach how we are and that is not always a match for every kiddo.  I need to pay attention to that.  I have more boys than girls – do I teach them differently?  I don’t think I do, but they would be the ones to really know that answer.  This is the first year I have taught ‘honors’ classes – am I reaching them? I hope I am, I even think I am, but now I will know if I am.  And if I’m not – I can take steps to improve!

So, the first day back from the conference I went to one of my administrators, Patrick, (whom I adore) and asked him for his help.  The New Jersey teachers recommended that the teacher not administer the survey themselves because the kids might not be as honest.  They recommended having an administrator explain the process and ask the kids to be honest and fair and to assure them that yes, Mrs. McG. really did want them to do this.

Next, the technology teacher showed me how to set up the 42 questions (I tweaked an existing Teacher Effectiveness Survey from Robert Marzano because I respect and understand his work) on my webpage so the kids could do it online and I could analyze the results with ease. ( It was a much more involved process than I would have hoped but there it is.)

Patrick then went into each study hall and explained the process to the kids.  He told me later that they had two main reactions – they were REALLY excited to share their opinions because no one had ever asked them before, and …they wondered why in the world  I wanted to do this.

The main reason is that I crave feedback. I think it’s one of the reasons I loved coteaching – having someone to provide feedback daily was amazing!  I actually love feedback no matter where it comes from – it makes me more thoughtful about my instructional choices and forces me to reflect on why I do, what I do, the way I do it. I always hated it when principals would do walk-throughs and then never tell me what I could improve – I want to know how to get better!

It struck me that this may one of the most important steps I have ever taken in my teaching career.  I am going to know, without having to guess or infer, what my kids think of me.  It is so scary that I have regretted my decision countless times since.

The N.J. teacher said when she got her results back she immediately went to the ‘negative’ responses, even though the positive far outweighed those.  I know I will do the same.  But once she had time to process the results she realized they were right about many things they said.  For example, she did take on more of the instruction instead of giving some of it back to the kids to create on their own.

She told of a review session she did after seeing her results that had several students disagreeing with the statement, “My teacher lets me struggle with my learning.”  She freely admitted she NEVER let her kids struggle – she jumped in with a million strategies instead of just letting the kids figure out their own solution.  I do that, too!  So, after getting those results, she gave the review over to the kids that day. She told them to have scribes create the study guide on the board and to work together to find the critical information.  The final product had every item she would have given them and MORE!  A bonus for her was that two of her students who rarely participated volunteered to be the scribes and actively discussed what items to include.  The teacher as learner, indeed.

Once all the surveys are completed I plan to have a debriefing with Patrick and then he and I will have a discussion with each class.  We will need to talk through some of the questions and responses and learn from each other how to make the end of the year the best it can be for all of us.

I’m terrified but I also can’t wait…:)


Slamming in the Suburbs

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:43 am by

We had our first Poetry Slam today.  I’m capitalizing it because it was that special.  Kids who hardly ever talk got up and opened their souls.  Kids who talk too much finally showed they knew the difference between important and superfluous.  We had hilarious poems and tear-your-heart-out poems.  We had poems about bacon and bullying.  There were metaphors, alliteration, and personification floating up into the ceiling tiles.  For the past month I’ve been telling them they had to ‘bring it’…and they did.

Day one of this unit,  the kids wrote on the board the first word that came into their mind when I said, ‘Poetry!’.  Responses from every block were variations on the following themes:

boring, rhyming, Dr. Seuss, confusing, hard, silly, Shel Silverstein, etc.

I told them the story of when my kids were little and on our weekly library visits my girls would clamor for The Babysitters’ Club books and my son for Captain Underpants. I told them those were ‘candy’ books and were perfectly fine but they also had to get books for their heart and their mind.  It’s the same idea with Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein – lots of fun- nothing wrong with them- but there is more to poetry than just those examples.  Poems can make you cry and feel and be inspired and I was so looking forward to showing them some of those kinds of poems.  I’m pretty sure they didn’t believe me.

Then, in the following weeks, we studied Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, and Gwendolyn Brooks.  We talked about dreams deferred and what so much depends upon.  We tried to figure out what made a poem ‘good’ and decided if it made us feel something or think about something in a new way, we liked it.  If it used words in a clever and/or unique way, we liked that, too.  We really liked it when the imagery was strong enough for us to get a vivid picture in our minds.  Then we set about trying to do that with our own poems.  We wrote small haikus and lengthy biographical poems.  We revised for stronger verbs and imaginative figurative language.  We read to partners and teammates to get feedback and revised again.  It was hard work, but at the end of every class, when we had Author’s Chair and someone read their words and we got goosebumps, the poetry community began to grow.

Finally, we started to watch some Poetry Slammers on video.  Sarah Kay and Taylor Mali were favorites along with the kids from the Bronx who taught us poems really can change the world.  http://www.edutopia.org/poetry-literacy-live-technology-performance-video  We noticed how they played with words, how they emphasized the important parts with body language and tone and how sometimes they had a tag line repeated throughout.  We knew we could do that, too.  We had things to say, too.  Then came the thought – why can’t we have a Poetry Slam here?

So, today was day one.  As the students came in each block, the first five in the door were the first judges.  We had a podium, a spotlight, and a microphone.  As each slammer finished, the judges gave them a score out of 10 on whiteboards.  Top and bottom scores were thrown out and the middle three were added for the total.  The top three scorers from each class will compete in the auditorium after spring break with all the other 7th grade English classes.  Judges rotated out after three rounds so everyone got a chance.  What is amazing to me is that the three winners in every class were the exact three I would have chosen.  5 students received perfect scores and they deserved them.

When we were done, we watched part of a wonderful video called ‘Louder Than a Bomb’ which is a documentary about the largest poetry slam in the country. It takes place in Chicago each year and has over 500 high school students participate.  It makes poetry cool. The kids in the video say, “It’s not about the points, it’s about the poetry.”  And today, in Hamilton, Virginia, it was about the poetry,too.  We were slamming…and it was AMAZING!




Classroom Confession

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:40 pm by

OK – I’m going to confess something teachers don’t usually admit or discuss.  I have a favorite class. I teach 6 blocks of students.  I love all my kids and we have a great time together but…Block 7 is my favorite.  Part of it may be that they are a real mix of boys and girls.  Several of my classes are heavy on boys, two of my other classes have only 3 girls in them!  They are also sandwiched between my two most challenging classes so they feel like a reprieve for me in the midst of the siege. Beyond that though, they are, as a group, some of the most kind and caring children I have ever taught. 

After the Sandy Hook shooting, the environment at my school was very strange.  The shooting was not addressed in any kind of global way other than an e-mail to review our lockdown procedures with our students and that we could anticipate a drill in the spring.  We did, eventually, have a moment of silence in honor of the victims, but that came later.  I took the stance that if it came up in my English classes, we would discuss it but if it didn’t, I would not bring it up. 

The whole week I waited (the shooting happened on a Friday)  for my students to say something.  I don’t know if they were taking their cues from the administration, if they talked about it on their own, or if they didn’t think they should talk about it.  Thursday, as we were about to start our writing workshop, one of my girls asked, “Mrs. McG., do you think we could write to the families of Sandy Hook today and let them know we are thinking of them?”

That opened the floodgates and for the next 45 minutes, we talked about the shooting, gun control, familes, siblings, and the emotions and anxiety poured off my kids.  They were thinking about it and many of them were feeling the effects in ways I could not have imagined.  As adults, we can work our way through these terrible events and come out on the other side.  But sometimes kids, without that ability to process, get stuck and need help sorting through all the horror.  We cried together that day and then, it was just the tiniest bit easier for all of us.

Yesterday, I was trying to impress upon them that poetry has the ability to change your life.  Most of my kids have been brought up with Shel Silverstein, Dr. Seuss, and Jack Prelutsky.  Nothing wrong with any of those authors…but poetry can mean more than catchy rhymes and silly fun.  I showed them an Edutopia video of a Bronx poetry slam:


Their mouths were hanging open at the end and then they talked about the passion, and imagery, and strength of these poems.  They noticed that the kids in the video were talking about things that really meant something to them and because of that, it meant something to us as well.  In other words, they totally got it. Very often, they get what I am trying to teach them.  I have to admit I love that.

Block 7 students also love writing.  When I ask them to get out their Writer’s Notebooks, they don’t groan, they cheer.  I always save their summatives to grade last because I know they are going to be stellar – it’s my carrot to keep grading because I know I get to read their work when I’m done.  They seem ready to tackle any writing challenge – write a novel in a month? Sure!  Answer a prompt?  No problem. Create a class anthology of poems? Let’s go! It’s so fun to teach kids that love writing almost as much as I do.

So, that’s my confession.  I love Block 7 the best.  I plan on telling them on the last day of schoo,l if they haven’t already guessed.  They deserve to know I loved teaching them and that every day we spent together felt like a gift.  Lucky, lucky me.


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