“This” Population

I’m so sick of hearing teachers say, “That (approach, program, lesson) won’t work for ‘this’ population.”  I get it, guys.  You teach kids who come from poverty.  Kids who don’t have enough to eat.  Who don’t have good home lives.  They might not even have homes.  Kids who might have family members in jail, or in gangs.  Kids whose parents are so busy working, there is no family time.  Kids who probably don’t choose to read on a daily basis.  I get it.  I’ve taught those kids, too.  And I’ve struggled.  I left one school in tears almost every day for a whole year because it was so frustrating.

But that doesn’t mean I dumbed down my instruction.  Or rejected a student-centered approach.  I’ve seen this happen way too many times.  Teachers give students fill-in-the-blank worksheets because “that’s all these kids can handle.” Or they ask kids to all write to the same prompt because “they can’t think of their own topics.”  Or kids spend hours on rote learning because they “don’t know how to do anything else.”  You know, “this” population. It’s all they’re capable of.

No, no and no. “This” population might need more scaffolding.  Or more time to gain trust.  More building of background knowledge.  They certainly don’t need to be turned away from an approach that will make them more independent.  They don’t need cookie-cutter assignments or busy-work.  They need to be challenged.  They need to be taught to set goals and to work in groups and to solve problems.  They need lots of time-on-text to practice reading.  They need to work on self-selected writing pieces.  Just like any other population.

The next time you’re tempted to say your students can’t do it because they’re from “this” population, I want you to think about one thing.  Any principal, any administrator, any staff developer, any educator could say that about you, for whatever reason.  ”Oh, these teachers.  They’re from ‘this’ population. They probably won’t get it.”

And wouldn’t that feel like a giant slap in the face?

What Authors Really Think About

Is it me, or has our teaching of reading become overly analytical?  As I’m writing this, I’m noticing the word ‘anal’ in the word analytical and I’m thinking, yup, that must be where it comes from…  Here’s what I mean.  I’m a writer.  Aside from this blog, I write for kids.  When I write, I’m trying to tell a good story.  I’m hoping to create believable characters.  I want to make you laugh or cry or get goosebumps.  I want you to remember my characters long after you’ve closed the book and to wonder how they are or what they might be up to now.  I want to move you with my words.

It’s kinda funny (and a little pointless) to me when teachers take my books apart and ask kids to interpret them with a “conventional” meaning and a “subversive” meaning.  (I didn’t even know there was such a thing, did you?)  Most writers that I know aren’t thinking about how to impart theme or heavy wisdom to kids, especially kids in elementary school.  Sure, if you learn a lesson, that’s great.  But I’d rather have you fall in love with the people I write about.  I’d be thrilled if you journeyed to another world with me, if only for an afternoon.  I’d be really happy if you found yourself on the pages of one of my books and learned a little more about who you are.

Truthfully?  It doesn’t matter to me one bit if you understand exactly why my character said that thing to her friend as he lay in his hospital bed.  It only matters that you heard and felt the sorrow in her voice.  It doesn’t matter if you get every single joke, cause guess what, teachers?   Some of those are written for the grown-ups reading the story.  So don’t bother taking those apart, and asking kids to provide evidence for why they are (or aren’t) funny. I don’t write so that kids will respond in a notebook, or get points for answering comprehension questions when they finish.

I write to entertain.  I write to touch your heart.  I write hoping you’ll create your own meaning from my words, and maybe even write your own stories.  For me, that’s meaning enough.

I Love Mistakes

I love my job.  It’s different every day.  I get to meet new people all the time.  It’s creative.  I travel to places I probably wouldn’t go otherwise.  So what’s not to love?  The fact that I don’t feel free to make mistakes.  As a teacher I loved experimenting with new lessons or new ways to talk to kids.  I wasn’t afraid of “failure” because most of the time nobody was watching.  And kids are very forgiving.  (Either that or they don’t notice when a lesson is a dud.)

But as a staff developer, I feel like I always have to be “on.”  Always have to be the expert.  So I stick to tried and true approaches.  No-fail lessons.  This year, though, I vowed to change that.  I decided that I would try new things.  Yes, while teachers and coaches and principals and superintendents watched.  I decided to try new ways of being with kids.  I let kids “perform” poetry before rehearsing.  I let students run minilessons.  I allowed kids to share their interpretations of text without making sure they saw “what the author really meant.”

And guess what?  I learned.  I learned that little kids can make music in the moment and don’t always need to practice for their peers.  I learned that a kid’s version of a minilesson is very different than mine, but that my new goal is to get kids to teach minilessons at least once a week.  And I learned that there are very interesting ways to interpret any text, if we just give kids a chance to explain their thinking and don’t butt in with ours.

I also learned that I don’t always have to be the expert.  And that’s very freeing.


New Jokes

Today’s blog was written by my eight year-old son Ari.  I think joke-writing should be a new standard when people get real and revise the Common Core.  What do you think?  

What is the softest drink?  A smoothie.

Where do bad guys go shopping? The Darth Maul.

What do you call a lot of clams on the run? A clampede.

What is a policeman’s favorite color?  Copper.

What did the iphone say to the ipad?  Can itouch you?

Where do cowboy trees hang out?  The branch.



A Peek Inside My Notebook…

I keep a notebook.  I always have.  I love the freedom.  I love the way this kind of writing helps me connect to who I really am.  When I show up at an empty notebook page I never feel intimidated the way I might when I start a blog.  Or when I’m writing fiction.  Lately, I’ve been working a lot, and wondering if it’s too much, because I notice that I haven’t been writing in my notebook.

This summer I’m redoing the exercises from The Artist’s Way (theartistswayatwork.com) (I know this book probably isn’t in vogue anymore, but then again, neither am I.)  All I know is that I can’t wait to get up every morning and write.

Here’s a little peek at something I do often.  I started doing this when life wasn’t so good and I needed a boost most days…

What’s in your notebook?


Dear Administrators

While the rest of the academic world is caught up in end-of-the-year craziness, you are busy getting ready for September.  Your mind is likely full of ways to change your practice for next school year.  Wouldn’t it be great if one of your ideas included a new way to collect lesson plans from your teachers?

I have to say, I was never obligated to turn in lesson plans.  And I was never the greatest of planners.  I’m good at responding in the moment, though, and very reflective.  That’s why I balk when I see some of the lesson plans that teachers are required to hand in.  Lesson plans with many, many boxes to fill out.  Plans that require alignment with The Common Core.  Lesson plans that ask teachers how they’ll assess learning, how they’ll keep kids engaged, how they’ll differentiate and scaffold and link to other subject areas.  If you ask me, it’s a little too much.  Yes, I know, you have to make sure that teachers are on task.  But is a lesson plan really the way to check that?  YOU know who’s on task and who isn’t. And a lesson plan, no matter how many boxes, won’t change the ises or the isn’ts.

So here’s an idea: give teachers other options for sharing their teaching with you.  One of my favorite principals, Marc Biunno, of McKinley School in Westfield, NJ offers this to his teachers, in addition to the usual, fill-in-the-boxes:

You will have several choices for how you may submit lesson plans to me:

  • You may collect a copy of one student’s work in a folder for two weeks.  At the end of the two weeks, rather than submitting lesson plans, you will submit the student’s work folder (grades and all).  I will review the work that the student has completed and provide you with feedback.
  • You may schedule a planning meeting with me to review and discuss your plans for the next two weeks.  This option allows you to tailor your feedback, start a conversation, seek support, or just talk through your thoughts.  It’s also an effective way for me to get to know you as a teacher.

So why not, principals?  Wouldn’t you rather spend your time looking at student work or meeting face-face with your teachers when it concerns instruction?  All those little boxes might not mean anything anyway.  Teachers can (and do) cut and paste from year to year and who can blame them?


Why I Love My Job

Today I was invited to a presentation of McKinley KidTV at McKinley School in Westfield, NJ.  And wow!  That show rocked!  Under the direction of Joe Paradise and Cathy McGarry, two teachers at McKinley, a bunch of fifth grade students produced a one-hour TV show that made me cry happy tears.

The backstory: Four days a week, during recess, the kids meet with Joe and Cathy to write, direct and produce TV.  The kids decide on issues, or themes or news of interest to them and then they research the topics.  This year the show centered on Super Storm Sandy, how the brain learns to read, students composing music about endangered animals, and don’t forget MythBusters!

I love that the kids choose the topics.  THEY decide how to shape the content of the show.  THEY create it, and THEY’re the stars.  Thank you, Joe and Cathy for making this possible for McKinley School kids.   Teachers like you make me love my job.  Check out a video at vimeo.com/67690352.

Celebrity of the Week

Okay, I admit it.  When I first heard about Celebrity of the Week in my son’s class I thought, ho hum.  By second grade, kids are over that stuff aren’t they?  But no, my second grader,  has waited all year for the honor.  I guess I wasn’t really listening when his teacher, Lori Talbot explained the ritual.  (And I was probably half-thinking, how does this fit in with best practices?)

Now it’s here and…well, wow.

Each day is something special for the Celeb.  Monday he’ll share a poster he created that tells about him.  Tuesday he’ll share his favorite book.  And today, as Lori says, “Wednesday, is the day Mom and Dad get to brag all about him and what makes him his wonderful self.”

Here’s the letter my husband wrote to our little guy.

Dear Ari,

Your name means Lion.  You have the strength, grace and confidence of a lion.  When you make up your mind to do something you don’t let anything get in your way.  You’re lightning fast too!  No one is going to throw you out when you play baseball.  

Ari, you care about everyone and everything.  You feel everyone’s feelings and try to make others feel better.   And you’re the best hugger!  And back scratcher!  Not too hard, not too light…just right!

You’re already a published writer!  You’ve written many picture books and even sold them every year at your summer book stand.  If your readers are lucky, you might even autograph a book!

You’re a master builder.  Legos, Hero Factory, pillow forts.  And as for finding your way out of mazes, well let’s just say that “You’re the man!”

If anybody needs to be cheered up?  You’ll make up a joke.  Or a game.  Your funny ideas will have everybody rolling on the floor laughing. 

If Star Wars was real, you would be a Jedi Knight in training.  And then probably Luke Skywalker’s Padawan!  You have the goodness of all the Jedi Knights combined.  You can probably even use ‘The Force’ to open doors.  

Ari, we have never met anyone who did not fall in love with you the first time they met you.  You’re the best thing that ever happened to us and we love you more than anything.  

Love, Mommy and Daddy

If Ari can read that aloud without tears, I’ll be surprised.  (I couldn’t.)

Thursday–he’s really looking forward to Thursday.  He gets to have lunch with Mrs. Talbot.

And Friday, he’ll receive his fan letters from the rest of the kids.

Did I say ho hum?  I take that back.  Anyone who showers this much love on her students is anything but.  As one principal said to me recently, “You can’t measure heart.” But you can feel it, and it’s alive and well in Lori Talbot’s second grade class.

Mother’s Day (again)

In honor of all moms, I’m republishing last year’s post about Mother’s Day.  There may still be time to have a Mother’s Day Tea in your class…

Last week I received a note from my son’s first grade teacher.  She was inviting me to a Mother’s Day Tea and by the way, could I write a poem for my son?  Oh, man.  Another Mom project, I thought.  Can you say corny?

But I wrote it, wondering what the other moms would do.  Would they all write something?  Would they all show up?  Would we be rewarded with good food at least, for our efforts?

Well.  Let’s just say I cried all the way through the Mother’s Day Tea.  I was so completely taken listening to the moms read to their children.  And the stories that were told in verse.  Wow.  The mom whose first son had died and who now found healing in her second son.  The mom who made the clever rhyme comparing her son to an ice cream cone.  The mom who’s afraid to read aloud to the class for fear of stumbling, but found the courage to read a loving ode to her daughter in front of almost fifty people.

I’m moved by the moms in my son’s class.  I am moved by the poetry in their souls.  I loved this Mother’s Day celebration more than any other so far.  I thank my son’s teacher, Angela Cerchio, for asking me to do corny and for giving me the chance to open my heart.