Read Harder 2016

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Are you up for a challenge in 2016? Bookriot has a list of 24 different genres to keep you reading throughout the year. If you’re like me, you fall into the rut of favorite authors, the usual topics, and gleaning picks off the best seller’s list. Bookriot pushes you to read past your comfort zone into territories you might just discover you love. Does the challenge sound like a pushy-but-adorable teacher from your past? If so, you may have had Donalyn Miller as your teacher.

Miller, author of The Book Whisperer, has used the technique of having students choose from different genres to increase students’ independent reading for years. If students read independently and can self-select books, we know they’ll improve comprehension and learn to love reading, which provides all sorts of benefits such as stronger analytical skills, improved empathy for others, and increased knowledge to name a few. Having students read outside their favorite genre forces kids to take risks and have a chance to fall in love with books they wouldn’t normally pick up. And this might lead to picking up more and more books. Isn’t that what we want students to do?

If reading a book about horror or reading a play gets you outside your comfort zone, join me in a year of reading. You never know what book could make you laugh, mend a broken heart, or make your all-time favorite list. I’ll post my list at the end of 2016.

What do you love to read?



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The Sweet Smell of Success


A co-worker and I are teaching a mini-unit on Holly Holm, and in class the other day, we watched an interview she gave after she won the fight against Rousey. The interviewer asked about a past fight where Holm was KO’d by an opponent. In that fight, she’d been pushed up against the ropes and pummeled. Not only had her opponent won, but she’d bruised Holm’s pride.

After being KO’d, Holm said what she learned wasn’t necessarily about boxing, “I really learned a lot about myself and about other people.” Most challenges in life seem to be this way. When we’re pushed to a breaking point, it’s then we see the strength not only in ourselves, but in the people around us. We witness who is there to comfort and encourage and who keeps their distance (or even relishes in our faltering). We notice the small and large kindnesses, and we’re able to put our ambition in perspective. In the interview, Holm explained the impact of those who supported her re-match decision, encouraging her to try again. The second time, she won.

Like Holm after that KO fight, a year ago I felt beat up by the process of trying to earn my National Boards, but a number of people supported and encouraged me through another round. Sometimes help consisted of listening through an idea (for the hundredth time!), looking over a draft, or asking questions to challenge my reasoning. Sometimes it consisted of simply saying, “You can do it.”

And, the second time, I passed.

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for second chances, and all of the people who supported me while earning my Boards. It’s a little moment in a bigger life, but I’m grateful. And like Holm, I know who has my back.

Who are you thankful for this Thanksgiving?


*quote taken from


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A Change of Scenery


This is a shot taken outside my barrack classroom. My first year here, landscaping crews planted this tree by the field and tethered it to protect the sapling from the wind. Now, you can see the lines have long since been taken down, and the tree is large and sturdy.

When I was in college, I visited my grandparents in Arizona, where they wintered, and they took me to the Biosphere 2.0. It recreates different ecosystems indoors in order to perform research. The researchers added foliage and crops among other environmental elements like humidity and rainfall. They didn’t add strong winds because they thought it would be nice to avoid that condition. But several months later, the trees slumped over; they weren’t growing. Scientists realized, in order to grow, trees used the wind to build strength.

The past couple of years, the increasing pressures of the evaluation system, coupled with various additional mandates, feel like a gale threatening to topple me over, rather than produce the desired effect of making me stronger. But I do feel like I’ve grown at this job, though I wish we could see in ourselves the same growth we so obviously see in trees.

When I first started teaching, I worried about every decision I made. I second-guessed myself and spent far too much time processing each troubling encounter, each activity’s usefulness or drawback, and each success or failure of the day. I still question my decision-making, but I’ve learned to ask myself two questions, especially when facing difficult students:

1) What would I want for my own child?
2) What is best for this child?

Sometimes I can’t make certain things a reality for students, like when a student needs outside counseling/doctors/medicine but can’t afford it. Yet, these two questions keep me steady against the winds of outside influences.

Each day, I stand outside and greet students and see the tree change from autumn colors to bare branches to buds, and then back to green leaves, again. It’s a predictable cycle, like the rotation of students throughout the years, but one that seems just a little different each time.

How do you grow at your work?


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A Writer Affair

Screen Shot 2015-08-18 at 6.09.27 AMA long time ago, I fell head over comfortable shoes in love with an intelligent, thoughtful, quirky guy, and it’s not who you think. Sure, there’ve been others who’ve lead me astray with their wit and sophistication, but none are quite like my long-time favorite: Poe Ballantine.

This weekend, I finished Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere. It takes place in the small town of Chadron, Nebraska, not far from where my Gram lives and where my sister and a half-dozen high school friends attended college. It’s always fun to read a story and think, “I’ve been there. I know that grocery store. I’ve walked up that dorm’s staircase.” It’s a true-story-In-Cold-Blood-esque book that analyzes a murder and the possible suspects—but who had the motive and opportunity?

It has everything you need: strange bedfellows, a complicated love story, an innocent (seeming) victim, an off-beat writer, who happens to have a sketchy past, a Mexican-immigrant wife, and a possible Autistic son. Plus, Poe Ballantine wrote it—one of my absolute favorites (My Gram actually met him!! She mentioned it casually, saying, “Oh yes, he read at our library’s brown bag once. He’s very interesting!”) There’s even a documentary out that I have to find.

Okay, enough about my school girl crush already. What author are you in love with?


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She Me Love

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A few weeks ago, a job opportunity presented itself. It would allow me to use all my different areas of expertise: ESL teacher, dual language supporter, and writing background. The company has a supportive community, and I already know and love many people who work there. In many ways, it’s a perfect fit that might not come around again—or at least not for a long time.

It’s been a tough decision for me, and I’ve been spending a lot of time weighing pros and cons, really trying to ask myself if I’m ready to leave the classroom. Would the lessening of daily stress level be better for my health? Not that there wouldn’t be stress in the new job, just a different kind that might not be so overwhelming—or at least so overwhelming on a day-to-day basis.

At first I thought I couldn’t give up having summers off, but then I learned pretty much everything would be the same—similar summers, similar breaks, and similar money. Everything seems equal, which only makes the decision that much more difficult.

Some days, with changes to education (tying test scores to teacher pay, funding issues, constant additions to the workload), I think about how I can possibly stay. How many more years will I have enough energy to continue working so hard and feel such little gained while testing more and more and more?

For someone who has never worked outside the bell system, even the lure of having a true lunch, where I’d have enough time to leave campus, would be an exciting proposition. Besides changing up my duties for another form of challenging work, I could have lunch with my kids or be able to volunteer in their classrooms once in a while. And, I’d be lying if I didn’t daydream about heading off to yoga on occasion with the more flexible schedule.

And then, while giving a state-mandated test—which I abhor—I looked down at a test booklet. It was for one of my newcomer students who’d only been in the US for about two months. She’s sweet and hardworking. The sentence she needed to fill in was about a teacher she liked. She’d chosen to write about me, and on the line that said, “I like this teacher because__________” she wrote: “She me love.” She’s right. I do love her. And suddenly, I couldn’t imagine leaving.

What helps you make up your mind?


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Sophie’s House of Cards

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Back in December, I had an amazing conversation with Sharon Oard Warner. Want to feel like you were there? Check out  my interview in Bookslut.

What questions have you asked and answered lately?

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Testing, Testing

Screen Shot 2013-10-23 at 6.41.18 AMIt’s a common misconception that the Hippocratic oath says, “First, do no harm.” It actually says, “I will take care that they suffer no hurt or damage.” If teachers had to swear by this oath and face consequences if they didn’t adhere to it, very few would be able to walk in on Monday morning and administer the PARCC test. Even trying to haphazardly prepare my students, all of who are several years behind grade level, feels harmful.

Next week, our school will begin a month long slog through the PARCC testing fiasco. Each grade level will be tested for a week, then there’s make ups, and the SBA science for 7th grade, and the SBA in Spanish Language Arts for students who’ve been in the country less than three years, and the LAS LINKS testing Spanish proficiency after we’ve just finished the WIDA ACCESS, oh, and end of course unit tests. There is little time to teach any more.

Yet, for ESL and Special Ed classes that are created at ability-level rather than grade level (meaning there are multiple grade levels in a class), I’ll spend the next three weeks without all my students together. Our learning is on hold while each week a different grade level isn’t in the room. Do I go on and re-teach each group? Do I create separate projects each week? There are no books to consult about how to approach teaching during testing when it lasts a month!

Here are other considerations.  We have no access to Internet sites like Discovery Ed, streaming for short videos from Youtube, or other educational sites like Brainpop during the testing. There’s no access to Ipads, computer labs, or laptops during testing because we have to conserve our broadband. Luckily, we’ve managed to keep the library. At one point, there was talk we wouldn’t even have access to the library for three weeks.

But surely there’s something to gain, right?  The information we receive will be so beneficial, so noteworthy, there’s no doubt we’ll see the great affects of this testing. Learning will be transformed and misconceptions cleared up–at least that’s what we’re told by the company and government officials who push them.

In reality, we don’t even see the PARCC scores until November, which makes them inconsequential. We don’t have the same students by that time. The kids have no consequences—except if you’re in high school and you graduate with a certificate of completion rather than a diploma, which means many of my students will drop out long before that’s a possibility.

But, I’m going to tell you a secret: I think kids learn more after the testing is over than any other time of the year. Why? There’s no pressure. Teachers start doing these amazing projects that are tied to learning but are fun. (Some might say, why don’t they do that all year long? They do on a small scale, but there’s not enough time and too much pressure to prepare for practice tests, drill students on vocabulary, complete common assessments, and take practice tests). Everyone relaxes, and it’s when you’re relaxed, you feel comfortable enough to learn. There’s joy in the students because no one is talking about tests. A colleague said in a meeting the other day he had less stress when he used to go to crime scenes and autopsy bodies than he has now as a teacher.

I’m heartened by the rumors of protest—though I realize what a headache this causes those who’ve done their best to prepare and manage the testing—because it means students are actively participating in their education, they’re as fed up with this system as some teachers are, and they want to see change, too.

Yet, I would remind them and especially their parents, none of this will change as long as people who are elected into office continue to tell voters they care for students while underfunding education at every corner, or as I witnessed on Monday, February 16, at the Roundhouse, as long as politicians extol teachers with grandiose speeches, and in the next motion vote Skandera (a person lacking any education degree or any classroom experience) into a legitimate position as Secretary of Education, thereby supporting the unfair, punitive evaluation system, which will ultimately link teacher pay to the tests.

To steal a line from Yeats, right now in the government and the PED, “the best lack all conviction while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.”

Who really profits from all this, you wonder? Pearson, the UK based company who created PARCC, makes over a billion dollars a year. In fact, they make roughly three-fourths of their profit off the US alone. They probably spend a little of that money to promote a UK soccer team or two, the most American of sports. Isn’t it great that your tax dollars could be helping a UK soccer team win the Champion’s League?

Do you root for Man U or Chelsea?


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