2021 – An Opportunity

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No two ways about it, these are challenging times for educators. We miss teaching our students but we also want everyone to be safe. I believe this is a time for us to regroup, reflect, and redefine what students really need from us. And from my 40+ years in education, I know we need to give the learning back to them. This is our chance to make real the promise of student centered education. I had a professor in college who said that the one doing the talking was the one doing the learning. It’s time to get the students talking. Here are my top ten strategies to implement true student centered learning:

  • Ask them what they need and then listen to their answers.
  • Help them set goals and teach strategies to meet them.
  • Embrace and support curiosity.
  • Teach student led inquiry.
  • Cultivate respectful discourse.
  • Hook them on reading of their choice.
  • Encourage them to write about things that matter.
  • Celebrate all the possibilities.
  • Let them teach us technology tips and tricks.
  • Form close communities.

If we truly want our students to not only survive but thrive in these challenging times, we have to change the way we teach. If we continue to focus on covering content, completing the previous year curriculum, and preparing for standardized testing, we will lose them. And we might not get them back.


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I am guilty, I admit it.  I often do not give my students enough credit…to understand, comply, step up, or wrestle with difficulty.  Yet so often when I do challenge them with something hard, they do it. Frequently, they do the task in brilliant ways I would never have anticipated.  In all honesty – it’s not just frequently, it’s invariably.  You would think with 35+ years of teaching, I would have learned this lesson.
Case in point – Socratic Seminars with my 6th-grade students.  I had tried them before in other grades with limited success.  Sometimes the discussion was lively and fascinating, other times it was painful and laborious.  I thought long and hard about whether my young charges were up to the task of facilitating their own discussions – my goal being to remove myself from the mix and let them handle it on their own.  Since I have the luxury of seeing my students every day this year,  I decided to try it and see what might happen.
Since school started, we have had weekly Socratic Seminars on Fridays, completely run by the students.  They are amazing. We have explored topics including:
  • Does rap music have a negative impact on youth?
  • Animal testing: Is it necessary?
  • Censorship: Who should decide what young people read?
  • Junk food: should schools sell it?
  • Is the death penalty justified?
  • Teen smoking: Who is responsible?
  • High school dropouts: What can be done?
  • Should students be paid for performance in school?
  • Are kids responsible for stepping in to prevent bullying?
  • Should school be a place for debate?
We use information from the Strategic Education Research Partnership (SERP) to find information about our topics.  You can download the materials here: http://wordgen.serpmedia.org/s_weekly2016.html 
Each interdisciplinary unit has facts and discussion around the topic through different disciplinary lenses: language arts, math, science, etc.  As the week progresses, we work through the information so that students can determine their point of view for the Friday seminar.
A few summers ago, during the National Writing Project’s Summer Institute in the Valley (https://shenandoahwritingproject.org/)   I learned a technique where students are provided cards for the Seminar to add structure to what can be a completely new form of discussion. Each student receives 4 color-coded cards;
  • Opinion
  • Response
  • Example
  • Question
The class is divided in half (we did it by using our writing partners) with one half on the inside circle and the other half on the outside, sitting behind their partners. One student is chosen as the facilitator. One student is chosen by the facilitator to start the discussion. Each time an inner circle student speaks, he/she hands the corresponding card to his/her partner on the outside.  When you run out of cards, you stop talking!
The outer circle participants are watching, encouraging, and prompting their partners. They keep track with a written reflection sheet of the number of times their partners speak as well as any particularly brilliant responses. At the end of the first round, they debrief their partner and switch places.
From the first week, students have taken this as their own and astounded me. Not once have they asked for help, clarification, or assistance. Not once have they run out of things to say. Not once have they failed to use at least one of their cards (most use all of them).  Not once has the discussion been less than thoughtful, insightful, and compelling. Not once has the discussion become disrespectful, even when heated.
Not once has the Seminar ended when I failed to say to myself, “Look at what these kids can do!”

Block 3 Rocking the Seminar

Reboot 1

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Interesting, inspirational, and important professional development has saved my teaching life on many occasions.  This past weekend, it happened again.  I attended the Fall Conference of the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project and left with ideas, plans, and lessons I couldn’t wait to try out.

One of my favorites came from a young teacher, Sam Gesford, from Shenandoah County.  He demonstrated a metaphor lesson that went like this:

If I were an a)____________ I would be a b) ___________ because c)_______________.

Possibilities for a) include:

  • color
  • holiday
  • vehicle
  • animal
  • food item
  • OR choose your own adventure

Patrick said, “If I were a vehicle, I would be a limo because I store very important things.”

Milee said she was Halloween because “you don’t want to be on my bad side!”

Khalil would be “a Tesla X Type because I go from 0-60 in 29 seconds.’

Students were encouraged to share their metaphors with their families. In Sam’s demo lesson, our writing ‘partner’ wrote a metaphor about our writing as a response. In class, I asked the students to ask an adult family member to respond with a metaphor.  Danielle’s older brother wrote, “Your writing is a fan because it never stops.”

Addison’s Mom wrote, “Your writing is sunshine because it makes me feel warm inside.”

Some of the metaphors were more confessional…

“If I were a color, I’d be red because sometimes I rage really hard.” admitted Jake. 


Sarah confessed, ” If I were a food item, I would be ice cream because I am cold-blooded.” 

Metaphors are hard. They are especially hard for kids that are 11 and 12 years old. Sam’s lesson was fun and engaging and all of my students have a much firmer grasp on the concept then they did before.  That’s what professional development should be – but so often is not.

Teachers teaching teachers. Teachers teaching kids. It doesn’t get any better than that.


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On the last day of school I asked my 7th graders to write a letter of advice to the teacher who is taking my place next year. We are switching places; she to 7th and me to 6th.  I asked them to help her understand the most important things about 7th graders as they were the resident experts in the field.  Here is a sampling:

When you are teaching seventh grade, you gotta have tough skin and a good temper, with that you’ll be fine.’ Connor

I want you to know that you should beware of people talking. 7th graders love it.’ Kaidee

Get ready for a wild ride.’ Kyle

7th grade is a little tough. Some of the 7th graders are a little crazy but you’ll survive. I found out that if you stay chill and take your time, then you will have a great time.‘ Burke

7th graders are really smelly. Now that I got that off my head, you should be very calm with them. As all people do, they make mistakes…(a lot)…’ Carter

‘Always have pencils in the class because everyone loses them.‘ Amanda

I am going to tell you right now, BUCKLE UP!’ Devereaux

If you get my brother, please whip him into shape.’ Mady

7th graders can be picky, but that’s only a small portion of 7th graders. Overall they’re OK – wait that’s a lie, they can be kind of a handful.’ Adam

‘Good luck on your 7th grade classes next year (you’ll need it). Amber

‘Always be fun so the students are on your side.’ Dominic

‘7th graders are just 6th graders a year older. Lily

7th grade is hard as is so be chill and don’t make it harder.’ Sebastian

I personally think the 7th graders you will get aren’t as amazing as us so you should just teach 8th grade.’ Payton

‘I heard you are teaching 7th grade (THAT COULD BE A BIG MISTAKE). Lindsay

Go easy on us and never trust us.’ Eric

A lot of kids ask each other who is your favorite teacher, I hope all your 7th grade students say you!‘ Christian

Don’t underestimate 7th graders. We can surprise you.’ Emma

Every day, Emma, every day…



Still Surprises

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Often lessons I think will be magical, fall flat.  But sometimes, it’s the little lessons that take off and surprise me.  This a week, a quote from Stephen King (of all people!) did just that.

Our English block is divided in half timewise but united by topic, with a 5 minute Brain Break to mark the transition.  In Readers’ Workshop we were discussing theme – a tough concept for many 7th graders.  We discussed how often the theme is revealed in the plot; something a character says or does or how they react to or change from an event can reveal the author’s theme or message.

We read Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson earlier in the week and we noticed that Chloe, the protagonist, changed because she never got a chance to make things right with the new girl, Maya. Of the theme theories discussed, we decided, ‘Be kind whenever you can.’ was the best choice. So, on this day at least, they ‘got’ theme. 🙂

After our Brain Break we always do Beautiful Words as an intro to Writers’ Workshop. These could be a video, story, poem, or in this case, a quote, followed by 3 minutes of uninterrupted silent writing.  Then we share. (One of my writing mentors, Don Gallehr, taught me, ‘Writing is a muscle that needs exercise to grow stronger.‘ so Beautiful Words is my attemps to honor that advice.) This quote was from Stephen King, the horror writer, and was:

‘A little talent is a good thing to have if you want to be a writer.  But the only real requirement is the ability to remember every scar.’

When the three minutes of writing were over, nearly every hand shot up to share.  This is an unusual occurence.  Rarely are so many students inspired at the same time.  Many students agreed with Mr. King.  Sam said, “Ever scar is a story waiting to be told.” Mary said, “No one else has the scars you have – those stories are yours!’ Very few students disagreed with the first part of the quote. They are convinced that everyone can be a writer, that each of them has stories only they can tell.

The surprising part was the level of passion this quote generated.  Many students disagreed with the idea that you actually have to be scarred in order to be a writer.  Trip said, “I don’t think there is anything wrong with writing about happy things!” Connor agreed, “If you only write about the dark stuff, it will just make you depressed.” But Mackenzie disagreed, “You have to write about things that matter to you or they won’t matter to the reader. Not everything is sunshine and lollipops.”

The discussion became very heated as some students felt strongly that it was indeed possible to imagine and write about a scar as vividly as if it had actually happened to you in real life.  Mason said this, “If I’ve had a broken arm, I can still write about a broken leg – I may have to do some research but the experience is similar enough for me to imagine the rest.”  Jason vehemently disagreed, “If you have not gone through the experience first hand, you will never be able to write about it as well as if it actually happened to you.” Each class was fairly evenly divided about this issue, again something that rarely happens with 7th graders.

What I loved most about this discussion was the fact that these 12-13 year old writers were thinking deeply about craft, about what it means to be a writer, and what it means to write well.  I wish all the teachers who don’t really believe every one of their students can be a writer could have witnessed this discussion firsthand. And it’s only October…


Another Chance

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As I said in my last post, this will probably be my last year as an English teacher. I’m determined to get things right, to do things the way I know they need to be done for my students, and to keep my focus only on them.  One of my favorite things about teaching is the chance to start fresh each year, a continual do-over that allows us to be better teachers.

Here are 3 things I want to remember this year:

  1. If I want kids to be honest in their reflection and their writing (which I do – otherwise why bother?) then I have  to create a safe community even though I feel like it takes up too much time. I’m not going to rush this process this year as I have in the past.  I start to feel behind and then begin to throw out the teambuilding games and the classbuilding activities. But we need those connections. And we need those connections to be strong so that when it comes time to take a risk, we know we will have the support we need to write through that hard memory and come out safely on the other side.  They will never be real writers if they are unwilling to take risks. They need a space that values their bravery in sharing their difficult truths.
  2. English is a risk taking environment. More than any other discipline it requires so much of who we are as people in order to do it well.  You have to be able to let yourself go in order to get lost in a book.  You have to be willing to lay who you are out in the pages of your story so that we can see the truth and match it to ourselves. I have to be willing to do all that and more with my students. When they watch my vulnerability in our shared stories, they have permission to write theirs as well. It doesn’t work to just tell them to be honest.  I have to show them they can do it by doing it myself first.  This is a challenge for me but I can do it because it’s an even bigger challenge for people who are 12 and 13 years old and trying to figure out the whole world.
  3. The most single important thing I can do for my students is to hear them – each and every one of them.  When they talk with me, I want them to know I am listening. When they show me something, I want them to know I am watching. For many of my kids, this is an easy task. They are open and talkative and secure in their place in their family and the world. This year I want to connect with the fringe kids – the ones who try so hard to fly under the radar they nearly disappear. In the past, many of these kids have stepped into the spotlight during our Poetry Slam. They blow everyone away with their beautifully crafted words that shout who they are and what they believe. I don’t want to wait until April this year. I want to see them and hear them before the end of this first quarter.  I don’t want anyone to disappear.

Being passionate about reading and writing (I really do believe they both will make your life better) also matters. My passion may carry some kids through until they find it on their own. I’m OK with that.

Last Beginning

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My students ask me all the time if I want to be famous.  I don’t.  I wouldn’t mind the fortune part, don’t get me wrong, but I like quiet, I like solitude occasionally, and I much prefer my own life.

This is my last school opening as a classroom teacher.  After 35 years, I plan to become a school librarian. So, in this my last year, I’m going to work really hard and try to do things the way I know in my heart they should be done.  So maybe I do want to be famous, but only to my 7th grade students…


I want to be famous

to misunderstood seventh graders

who don’t believe they can

…when I know differently.


I want to be famous

to the reluctant readers

who don’t yet know

books will make your life better.


I want to be famous

to battle scarred ADHD boys

who don’t realize I raised one of my own,

so I really don’t mind if they stand up to work.


I want to be famous

to the shy girls who hold back

so unsure of themselves they melt into the walls.

“I see you.” I want to say. And mean it.


I want to be famous

to the blood stained writers

who’ve only seen red slashes

across their beautiful words.

“Choose you color.” I’ll tell them.

“We’ll work together until the words match your heart.”

Final Lessons

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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

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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 freerice.com/#/english-vocabulary/1411  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

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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.