Final Lessons

I’m like every other teacher who tries really hard to teach to that final bell on the very last day of school.  But it’s hard, really hard, especially when the high stakes tests are over and the students think school is, too. This year I tried something I haven’t done for several years, having the students teach some final lessons.  I should have done it every year!

Students met with their table groups and a copy of our standards of learning.  They had to choose a skill they thought we needed to review, a lesson we should have had but never received, or a new take on a needed strategy.  It could be a reading or writing lesson, or both, and they had to have a hook, a learning target, a connection, and a part for all the players.  We used Dr. Ed Ellis’ mantra of I do (teaching), We do (small group or partner practice) and You do (independent practice) to pace the lesson and I cautioned them to not do anything longer than 20 minutes or they would lose their audience.

They’ve been fine-tuning their lessons and their planners for the last two weeks.  Yesterday the teaching began. In the first block, the team had each person write a prompt on a colored index card.  Then everyone in the class got a card from another group and had to write for 10 minutes about what was on his/her card. It was totally silent, except for the pencils scratching across the papers.  At the end of the time, each person at the table  read their writing.  I sat with the red group and their stories were amazing. One wrote a sarcastic piece about why 7th graders don’t like to write it was hilarious). One boy who NEVER writes, except under extreme threat of failing, wrote a fairy tale that was spellbinding.  After everyone read, the teaching crew said the groups had to choose the best story of their group. Then they flashed a sign ‘PLOT TWIST’ on the board.  The table groups now had to ‘perform’ the story for the rest of the class.  It was fun, engaging, creative, and very clever. I told them I am totally stealing everything they did for next year!

One block had costumes:


Since they were reviewing THIEVES (an acronym for external text structures like title, headings, etc.) they dressed the part.

After a quick review (letters in picture above) to make sure everyone knew the parts, the ‘teachers’ sent the students off in groups of 3 for a scavenger hunt. Each clue led them to a different area and a different letter. First student to get all of the letters of THIEVES, won. The clues were priceless; Go to the place where writing starts...(Writer’s Notebook cubby) and Where does Hatchet live? (Realistic fiction part of our class library) but all of the groups got all of the answers. I don’t think any of those students will ever forget THIEVES again!

Today one block did a review of nouns, adjectives, and verbs.  (You might think they know those already but the kids had it right – they still struggle with parts of speech!) Did we do a worksheet? No! Did we skill and drill? No! We went outside and played ‘Noun, Adjective, Verb’! It goes like this:

The teaching team stands at the top of the hill outside our school.

The players line up at the bottom of the hill, shoulder to shoulder, in a straight line.

One of the ‘teachers’ calls out a word.  If it’s a noun, the students stop. If it’s an adjective, the students run. If it’s a verb, the students walk.  If the students miss, they go back to the starting line.

We could hear them calling to each other, ‘Which one is the person, place or thing?’ ‘Is red an adjective?’ ‘I think I know the verbs – stick with me!’ It was a wonderful sight.

When I started this venture, I had my doubts.  I should have learned by now to never underestimate my students.

Genius Hour = 21st Century Schoolhouse

As  our schoolyear winds down (3 weeks left and counting), my students are gearing up.  In two weeks they are presenting their Genius Hour* projects.  This is a culmination of a year long of study on…anything they want. Taking the Google model of ‘20% time’ (20% of the workweek devoted to a topic or invention of choice) we have given every Friday for the last year to self-selected topics for study or interest.  It may be the best instruction I’ve never done.

Last week the first part of the student presentations were due. This included their ‘burning question(s), their sources (even those that didn’t work so well) and a few paragraphs about their journey with Genius Hour throughout the year.  I was amazed. Some of their questions changed completely during the course of the year; Billy started out wanting to know about tax codes but he ended  teaching himself Welsh. Others had a natural evolution as the research led the students into more personal paths; Grace wanted to know about world hunger.  She found statistics about the number of hungry children and the amount of food wasted each day by the United States.  This led her to strong desire to ‘really make a difference’.  She is challenging the entire 7th grade to participate in  She estimates it will result in a donation of 60,000 grains of rice, service learning at it’s finest!

Lawson began by wanting to know what makes a rapper successful.  After numerous raps created over lunchtime, he decided he was ready.  His friend, Kyle, will supply the beat in their professional debut video.  Christina wanted to know how other countries celebrate holidays. Her final project will be a Christmas tree with 30 other holiday traditions as decoration.  Some students will be teaching us tumbling, how to lace a lacrosse stick, and how to draw.  They are excited to share their projects with another middle school close to us, to skype with another 7th grade class in the midwest, and to enter the Genius Hour Fair (which allows voting for videos of Genius Hour projects online).

Research has taken on a whole new meaning for them.  Rivka wanted to study the D Day invasion.  Here’s what she said in her reflection: ‘I had a little bit of trouble at first, finding real life stories of soldiers, but I finally found some really good sources.  I am really interested by these stories, because they are so real.  I was also surprised to see real thoughts that were in soldiers’ heads instead of stuff you would read in a book, and how different they were.’ Since writing this, she has interviewed a D Day medic at her church.  She intends to make a model of the beach at Normandy as part of her final project.

Nathan originally wanted to build his own soccer ball.  He was frustrated by the online videos and how complicated the process was.  He was almost ready to switch to another topic when he found a site that changed his mind…and his world view. ‘Send A Cow is a web page all about the struggles people in Africa face in everyday life.  The page I stumbled across is their love for the game of soccer.  The fact that they make their own soccer balls of common everyday objects that we would think of as trash like plastic bags and old socks inspired me to try and create my own.  I gathered my supplies and built the plastic bag base of the soccer ball thanks to a video I found on the Send A Cow webpage.  I was supposed to use string to tie the whole ball together but I couldn’t clearly see the the certain knot they were using.  I was stuck until I looked for support from my friend and he gave me the idea of using rubber bands as an alternative which worked perfectly.’ Nathan is going to compare his original soccer ball and his African soccer ball in his final project.

I have been continually impressed by the students’ willingness to persevere.  Even when their burning questions weren’t being answered, or they hit dead ends in their research, they continually cheered each other on and encouraged one another to find another way.  Hayley, who wanted to find out how to help abused animals said this, ‘When I first started out, I found some facts, but they weren’t the facts I was looking for. I got mad/discouraged and thought that there wasn’t a lot for my topic. So I added the question about the animal stats and that helped me along a little bit. But then the next time I went to work on it, I tried searching for some new things and a lot of new things popped up that I hadn’t looked at. That also helped me find some new facts and answer my first question more.’ Sounds like research to me!

The bonus, of course, is that I get to learn all this cool stuff right along with them.  Sophia reminded me of how much I loved the Greek gods and goddesses.  She’s making a coloring book to help us remember them all.  Zach is teaching himself Italian with the goal of surprising his father and grandfather with some phrases for Father’s Day.  Owen is teaching himself programming.  I’m not sure I understand even his reflection, ‘First I wanted to make and program a  robot, but I realized that was too hard and went to programming Python, then I felt like I should be different from my brothers, so I went to JavaScript.  After I found Codecademy I started to quickly learn JS, and after a while I was able to make a “choose your own adventure game”. I also found code school, but got confused after a while. I kept going with Codecademy and now I am learning functions and returns, if I ever get confused I go to JSlint (a JavaScript checker) with an easy to understand explanation.’ Whew! Go, Owen! 🙂

This was, by far, the favorite project of my students going back over 30 years.  They were engaged, persistent, collaborative, and passionate about this work.  Everything I love about teaching and learning came true during Genius Hour. Grace may have said it best, ‘Even though this hasn’t been the easiest project, it was the most fun.’ 


* Special thanks to Joy Kirr for her inspiration and her push.



High Costs for High Stakes

This week marks the start of high stakes testing at my school.  The students have been at DEFCON 2, probably as a result of their teachers exhibiting high anxiety levels. This is the most stressful time of year for my students.  They are worried about everything; whether they will pass, what it will mean if they don’t, will it impact their grades, if they fail, will they be retained? and on and on the list of stressors goes.  Keep in mind, these students have been taking these high stakes tests since 3rd grade and the answers to their questions have never changed.

This year, we get an added bonus – expedited retakes.  Our state has decided that if a student fails within a certain range, they will be immediately remediated and retested, in the hopes they will pass the second time.  Here is the problem: the tests do not reflect how real readers read and real writers write. My students choose their own books to read and for the most part, the topics they write about. Yes, I teach skills, strategies, and grammar but it takes place within the context of authentic texts, and for writing, from their own pieces.  This is considered best practice for English instruction in middle schools. The tests could not be further removed from that practice.  Instead they are an endurance test – how many boring passages can we cram into one test with questions designed not to find if you are a thoughtful reader, but whether you are a clever test-taker?

We tell our students that they are not to worry about the test but to do their best.  Each September, though, one of the first things we do is to check if they passed the test in the previous grade.  As long as the success of students (and their teachers) rests on the results of the tests, they will remain high stakes but I don’t want Pearson to determine the success of my students. That success is a conversation between each of my students, their parents, and me. That success is looking at their portfolios and documenting all the excellent decisions they made in 7th grade that resulted in a powerful writing piece, or a book they adored.  That success is seeing them dance and sing with the students in the self-contained class who join us for brain break every Friday. That success is seeing them stomp and cheer for one another in our annual Poetry Slam. That success is seeing them conduct their student led conferences with their parents, where they articulate exactly what success means to them, with evidence to prove it.

As part of our testing review this year, we had the students write poems entitled, ‘I Am Not the Test’ to help them remember where their worth truly lies.  Here are some samples:

I am not the test 

but I am joyful, athletic, and

musical. I am

outgoing, kind and comedic,

I am not the test, 

but I am intelligent, happy, 

and theatrical.

I am not the test.



I’m not the test.

I’m awesome and funny.

I’m smart and cool.

I’m not stupid or

boring. I have lots

of friends.

I’m not a loser.

I’m a winner.



I am not the test…

I am the basketball player,

The guy who’s 6 feet tall, 196.9 pounds,

And can jump 23.7 inches.

I am the trumpet player,

Who can say no to too many concerts.

I am the helpful, smart, kind boy

Who knows determination, who can work hard,

Who you can rely on.

I am the guy who can touch the 9’ rim.

I am the 140 pound weight lifter.

I am NOT the test.



I am not the test.

You can test failure,

You can test soil,

But you can’t test me.

I am strong.

Sometimes I’m wrong.

But you can’t test me.



I am not the test,

You cannot test emotions.

You cannot test sports.

You can test boring math but

All you get is a number.

Good grades mean more than a bad SOL grade.

Good is such a strong word,

But bad is stronger.

Calling someone bad

Just because of your grade on a test

Is not fair because

I am not the test.



I am not the test.

I am an independent person.

I take care of those around me.

I have the ability to pick you up if you fall.

I am not the test.

I am not a number.

I am not an item with a label.

I am not one to judge.

I am not the test.

I am the crazy laugher, the over-thinker.

I am the one always taking pictures.

I am one to love nature.

I am not the test.



I am not the test…

But I am smart.

I always challenge myself

To reach for the moon,

And, someday, I’ll land on it.


I can play the piano,

When I play the notes and

Sing along, beautiful harmonies

Float from my fingers like leaves

Caught in the wind of song.


I can act.

When I was Alice

I looked in every rabbit hole,

And I stepped into her shoes.

I was in Wonderland, singing with the Tweedles.


I always stay true to myself

I can’t let other people

Tell me who I am

I will always be me,

I am not a test.


What will be the cost for Megan, or Billy, or Logan if they happen not to pass the test? Will they look back and say, ‘That was the year I failed.”?  After a year of hard work, moments of brilliance, perseverance, and creative writing, will they be able to remember that they are NOT the test?  High stakes, indeed.

What’s wrong with a clean desk?

deskThis is a picture of my desk at the start of the last quarter of the school year.  It will never look like this again; clean and organized, detritus free.  When students return, it will be covered with messages, writings, notes, plans, letters, and ideas.  Things to remember and things I will surely, based on past experience, forget.  The live of my students are written on the papers filling my desk.  I am at my last chance to make a difference to them.  I know I will fall short with some of them and that nags at me.

Also on my desk is my mantra for the year.  I tried harder this year than any other of the last 31 to make it true:

‘My job is to help create readers and writers, nothing else!’

I know I have helped some of them along that path.  Yesterday the applications to be our first Writing Center Tutors next year were made available and several of my students fairly exploded with the announcement. These particular young people consider themselves real writers, with real voice, and the confidence to help others become real writers, too.  It fills my heart to see this self belief. (When I was 12, I was a mass of corrupting hormones, with self-doubt vying with shyness for supremacy!) I admire these young people so very much.  I know they will make a difference to struggling writers next year because I have seen them do just that in our classroom nearly every day.

But there is a girl in one of my classes, who always seems an eyelash length away from tears, and has yet to find a way to write herself out of the sadness.  I only have a few weeks left to find a way in, to find a place where she will trust me, and then herself, enough to let go, and perhaps heal that dark hurt just a bit.   I want her to know that writing can help in ways nothing else can, that it can help her find and mend the broken places even if she doesn’t know what those are yet.  I want her to feel the release that writing can provide, the clarity it can bring, and the way it can bridge your life to the other side of sadness.  I haven’t found our opening yet and I’m running out of time.

A boy in another block on another day may be the grumpiest 12 year old I’ve ever met. Constantly complaining, always challenging, repeating, ‘I’m bored!’ with such regularity it feels like background noise now, and having to get it right to get the ‘A’ without any real concern for content or quality. If I don’t show him the difference between the two goals this last quarter, will someone else do it?  I hope so, but I’m not completely sure because he’s smart and motivated and many teachers might think he is the model student.  But underneath all that accomplishment is a scared little boy so unsure of his gifts that he requires the ‘right’ path be delineated precisely before he makes a single step. But his brilliance would be so beautiful if it was set free! Just once, I want him to find success on his own, through trial and error. I know he could do it but I haven’t convinced him through 3 quarters of trying. If I miss this chance, will he never fill the billowing pride of self satisfaction for a job well done? Or will he chase an ‘A’ for the rest of his life, get an ulcer in college, and be dead of a heart attack at 43?  This is the stuff that keeps me up at night.

One of my favorite things about teaching is the fresh start we get each year.  Clean slate, do overs with the chance to do better. The flip side is that we only get one year to impact our students.  The only thing I can control is my year with them, so the responsibility of helping them become readers and writers weighs heavily, especially with the end so near, and my desk so clear.

Voice and Choice

The further I stray from giving my students choice, the worse their products become. Conversely, the more choice I give them, the better their contributions become.  You would think I would remember that but I don’t. We recently completed a research unit, a unit that is always met with a resounding, ‘Oh, no!” from all but a few of my 7th graders.  (I have a few who would do a research product for every free choice writing all year but that’s a posting for another day.) For them; Research = Boring.

This year, we decided to tie in college and career readiness with our research.  Which college or career are you considering? Make that choice the focus of your research.  Our counselor had just completed a career survey with every 7th grader so that was a great starting point. We added a college match search and we were ready to launch.

The twist came with who they were doing this project for, in other words, audience.  It wasn’t going to be me or their parents, it was going to be each other! They got extra points for creativity so we had long discussions about what that looked like.  They also had to ‘engage the audience’ which prompted a long discourse from them on every teacher who doesn’t do that…! The final presentation would be a Gallery Walk. Students would set up their projects and their classmates would visit and leave a sticky note compliment. Here are some examples of their final products:

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It’s amazing what a little voice and choice can do!