What I Read This Week


Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult.  This was a re-read for me.  I picked it up again after quite a few years when I overheard a teacher talking about it in the hallway. I remember how much this book created my love for all things Picoult and knew it would be a great way to pass the time over winter break.  It was as good as I remember – an interesting look at a school shooting and the elements at play.  One of the reasons I love this book is it makes you think about the shooter’s family, in a way that you might not have before.  When someone behaves monstrously, who is to blame?

I am Malala by Malala Yosafzai

I have finally started the memoir, and I am enjoying it so far.  It is an interesting look into a world that I know very little of and one that is often only highlighted in certain ways through the media.  I am taking this one slowly and just reading little by little.

Articles that I particularly enjoyed:

  • All Teachers Should be Trained to Overcome Their Hidden Biases” by Soraya Chemely – posted on time.com on February 12,2015.  This is a really interesting discussion of the dangers facing both boys and girls in school when teachers don’t stop to examine their hidden bias.  Wouldn’t it be amazing if we actually took the time to video our lessons once in awhile and examined our own teaching for potential bias?  New Years Resolution, perhaps.

Some of my student blog posts this week:




The Power of Student Blogging: A Simple Reflection

My 8th grade students recently finished editorials.  Throughout the process, I had told them that these editorials would also serve as their first posts on our class blog.  After multiple drafts and a great deal of effort, students have begun to excitedly post their work, eager for feedback.  Today,  I had students reflect on what they learned about their writing process from the assignment.  If people still wonder whether or not their students should be blogging, I offer this comment from a student’s reflection:

“At times in my writing, I felt like giving up, but then I’d remember we were posting on our blogs and I became excited.”

The writing got hard, but she persisted.  Why? She knew her voice would be heard.  The power of an audience of many.

Student Choice Doubters – Read On.

There always seems to be debate amongst educators regarding how much choice students should have in their own education.  And although there has been plenty of research done by both psychologists and educators regarding how important choice to both  learning and motivation – Thank you, Alfie Kohn and Daniel Pink! – there still remains doubters.  I’d thought I’d share three stories that have occurred to me recently that made me once again appreciate how important choice is not only for students but also for their teachers.

  •  An “Un-conference”:  I am a member of my school’s vision steering committee and one of our main purposes is to help plan and offer faculty professional development that will both inspire and move us forward as we delve deeper into PBL and begin using a block schedule.  Knowing that in the past, teachers have had little, if any, say in what would happen on these days, our committee thought we would shake it up a bit by using the un-conference model. An un-conference, as its name suggests, is not a typical PD experience.  Instead of having pre-determined sessions and speakers, the day is created by those in attendance.  Individuals share topics of interest  and the schedule is created from this list of ideas.  (My colleague Dana Huff gives a great overview of our process on her blog if you are interested in how we ran this.)  In a nutshell, our faculty members had a significant amount of choice what types of sessions they would partake in. As a result, people seemed genuinely more engaged in the process, those who tend to be more reluctant to participate had strong voices, and I can speak from personal experience to say that I found it energizing and inspiring to discuss ideas that I found important with colleagues who felt the same way.  My discussions would also immediately have an impact on my teaching.  Most of us as teachers have sat through uninspiring PD.  Many of us may have only gotten through these experiences by checking email or playing Words with Friends.   Neither helps our students.  What does help?  Giving faculty members some choice over their own growth and trusting that what they will choose will be worth it.
  • Adopting independent reading: I had the privilege to participate in a week-long internship at The Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), a school in Maine founded by Nancie Atwell, where I observed how to run a reading and writing workshop.  One of Atwell’s philosophies that is evident throughout the school and in any of her writing is the importance of choice in both reading and writing.  Students at the school have almost complete authority in choosing what they read.  In the middle school, where I spent most of my time, there are no class reads; reading skills are developed primarily through choice books and reading conferences.  At first I challenged this idea as I do see the value in having an entire class read the same book and think the discussion that results from doing so is important, I quickly changed my viewpoint.  The students there were incredibly well-spoken, had astounding analytical ability, and most importantly, loved reading.  And though I will not be giving up my class reads, I very quickly realized that I had to figure out how to also get my students to read books of their own choosing.  Though I had always encouraged my students to read on their own, I never required it, and their reading was dwindling. Using the CTL model, I  now expect my students to read for 20 minutes each night in addition to the 45 minute period we spend reading and conferencing in class once a week.  The catch?  They could only read books they found enjoyable.  Although at first some students balked at the idea, proclaiming that 20 minutes every day was far too much, it has not taken long to completely win them over.  My proof occurred this Tuesday, our first day back from a long winter break. As I walked up the stairs to my class, I realized my students were already present, so I got ready to settle them down, expecting them to all be conversing about their time off. Imagine my surprise when I see every student in the class frantically recording all the books they read over winter break into their reading log, proud of their achievement and eager to share their accomplishments. Not only did this happen in my first class but also my second.  Every student, even my most reluctant readers, finished at least one book.  One student finished as many as eight.  Books ranged from the latest John Green to a Tom Clancy thriller to Animal Farm.  Not only are they choosing books that are enjoyable but they are also picking ones with high literary merit.  During our combined reading workshop the following day, 10 of my students presented book talks; it is obvious they are starting to love reading and are not afraid to show it.  Their vocabulary is improving.  Their writing is getting stronger.  Their understanding of what makes something a valuable piece of literature is developing.  It is hard for me not to beam with pride.  I’m finally achieving what I sought out to do when I decided to become an English teacher: share my love of reading with my students and help build theirs.  I don’t for one second think this would have happened if I told my students exactly what book they had to read over vacation.
  • Allowing student choice in writing:  I have always been a firm believer in allowing students as much choice as possible in their writing.  I have had my students blog every year for the past six years and typically allow them to blog about any topic of their choice as long as it remains school appropriate.  In doing so, I am often amazed at what actually interests them, how they see the world, and how much better they voice their opinions and put together an argument when the topic matters.  In the past few weeks, my students have written editorials on topics of their choice which have ranged from the Richie Incognito scandal to gay marriage to child labor.  I was a little nervous when one of my students decided that she was going to defend Miley Cyrus – really, how can you defend her, I asked – but I was glad I let her go with it.  Her final product argued that although what Miley was doing at the MTV Video Music Awards wasn’t great, the focus was completely on Miley and not on her “twerking” partner Robin Thicke. She went on to discuss double standards and maintained that the focus should be on the demeaning nature of Thicke’s song, which many believe is about rape.  Many people might fear, and I’ll acknowledge I did a bit, that when an 8th grader decides to defend Miley Cyrus that their argument will be immature and lack substance.   This was not the case here.  I gave this student expectations regarding the assignment and she surpassed them. And because she was writing about a topic that mattered to her, her voice was strong and her writing sound.  Amazing.

What prevents us from allowing people to choose their own paths?  Trust.  When we tell people how to act or what to do, it is because we assume that they are not able to figure that out for themselves or that they are going to make the wrong decision.  They might not choose the best workshop or pick the best book or write something of substance.  They don’t know what’s best for them.  Therefore, we have to do it for them.

Now, I am not someone who believes that an 8th grader should determine every aspect of their academic career.  I, as a teacher, also know that I cannot control absolutely everything about my curriculum or job.  But I do realize how  important it is for me to have some choice in my learning process.  And how much more enthusiastic I am about the process when I do.   Honestly, my students are not that different.

Summer Reading Blog = Writing Pre-Assessment

Photo Credit: Gibson Regester
Photo Credit: Gibson Regester

Just Say No to Book Reports and Yes to Blogging!

I wish I could remember the name of the graduate school professor I had who facetiously made this statement about book reports – “Yes, the first thing I want to do when I finish a great book, is to make a diorama” – because that really struck a chord. Not that there’s anything wrong with dioramas per se, but like many, usually when I read a great book, I want to process it and talk about it.  I do not want to make a mobile of important characters and symbols (is it bazaar that I can still picture the mobile I made in third grade but have no idea what book said mobile was on) or run to find the nearest empty shoebox.  Thus, in my attempt to stop destroying reading for my students, I have tried to change up the dreaded summer reading project to hopefully! make it a bit more interesting.

In the past few years, I have asked students to write a book review of the various required readings that they have done, and although I don’t think this was a bad approach, it really only allowed me to view their writing once school had already started.  This was helpful but would have been more beneficial over the summer when I try to do a lot of planning.  So, in trying to work “smarter not harder,” I have dropped this activity and instead am asking my students to respond to some discussion boards via our classroom blog.

Although I firmly believe in having students create the content on the blog, for this summer blogging experience, I have asked students to respond to questions I have created, seeing as the majority of these students have not done any form of blogging before. Basically, I am using the blog as the means for threaded discussions.    Below, you will find my process for creating the posts regarding our summer reading book The Book Thief.  You can also check out our Summer Reading Page and feel free to add to our discussion if you have read The Book Thief!

Thoughts about Process:

  • Why a blog and not Schoology or something similar: If this were done during the school year, Schoology discussion boards would be a great tool, but seeing as the summer is a time to create new classes and archive previous information on the site, I felt this activity would be easiest with something I could easily control and that was also very simple to use for new students.
  • Optional “I’m confused” posts:  The Book Thief is a fairly long book that can sometimes be confusing due to the unique narration style.  I decided to create a few posts allowing students to ask questions regarding the book as I didn’t want them to continue reading not having any idea what was going on.  So far, these haven’t been used, and they may not, but at least the students (and parents) know they are there if need be.  I monitor all posts, so students can respond to their classroom’s questions but if there is an error in information, I can easily delete the post.
  • Limited number of discussion boards:  I will be teaching a small class next year of about 48 students.  I did not want to have so many discussion boards that there ended up being little discussion.  I also wanted to make sure my students responses to said discussions were varied and not repetitive.
  • Required number of sentences per posts: I’ll admit that this is something I hemmed and hawed about as I am not a firm believer in this approach.  However, I do not know these students all that well nor they me.  They do not know my expectations, and I do not want them to “mess up” because they didn’t understand what I was looking for.  Requiring a certain amount of sentences and providing models for what good responses look like makes sure that students are taking the easy out and also makes sure they provide enough information that I can use as pre-assessments.
  • More  required responses to classmates than individual thoughts:  I want my students to read what their peers are writing.  This will allow them to see a book at a different level.  If they are only writing down their own thoughts, they will never stop and read what their classmates have written.  So, I can guarantee that they will read at least four of their classmates thoughts simply by making this requirement.
  • Models, Models, Models:  It’s no surprise that I just finished Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like Us, a book that discusses the importance of modeling while teaching writing.  I have provided many models of both good and bad comments so that my students know exactly the type of writing I am looking for. Continue reading

Yup, Teachers Fail Too: A Letter to My Students

Photo Credit: young_einstein
Photo Credit: young_einstein

Word of the Week: Failed.

New Year’s Resolution: Failed.

I didn’t plan on purposely failing my New Year’s Resolution, to blog daily, the same week that the adjective for our class blogging word of the week challenge was “failed.” It was merely a poetic twist of fate. I had all intent to fully commit to my goal, to stay up late in the night if needed, quoting Shakespeare and sharing my wondrous wisdom (sarcasm) with the world. Unfortunately, need for sleep and my obsession with spotlighting the WA English Blog to the masses won out over sheer desire, and I haven’t actually submitted a true blog post – until now – in about 10 days.

I am typically not one to make resolutions, and – never one to be cliche-  if I do make them, I follow them.   But this was something I really wanted to do.  I had committed to this challenge so that you, my precious students, could see that I believed in the value of blogging and to show you that even English teachers can grow from continued practice. Now, don’t think that my failure is an escape from your monthly blogging assignments, and that I am going to come in to class and say, you know what, this blogging isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.  I’m not.  I still LOVE blogging and am amazed at the work you have produced.  And even if you aren’t admitting it to me, I know that many of you really enjoy it too. Instead, I  am writing because I want you to realize something about failure – if we don’t fail, we don’t grow.  OK, sometimes I enjoy a good cliche.

I now realize that my goal was too lofty, that I do not have the time or energy to commit to blogging every day.  I also know that in trying to write daily, I was struggling to find things to write about, and, as a result, the quality of my posts was not as I would have wished.  But I also let you down in the process because this is something I wanted you to see me do.  Perhaps I made a little “Jerry” mistake – you know, our buddy from The Chocolate War.   Perhaps I didn’t really think about my decision before I committed to it and by going in blindly, I set myself up for failure. I realize, now, after the fact, like Jerry did, that I made a mistake.  But unlike Jerry, I am not giving up.  What fun is that? And what kind of teacher would I be then?!?!  So instead, I am re-evaluating my goal and thinking about how I can make it happen.

My new goal is simply to try and blog each day, to at least think about it.  If I can think of something to write about, I will.  If I can’t, I won’t force it.  Each night, before I shut my computer down to do a little leisurely reading – who am I kidding,  if it’s Tuesday, I’m watching Dance Moms – I am going to sign on to my blog and see what comes of it.

There might be days when I post five times and days when I don’t post at all.  Maybe I’ll get to 365 posts by the end of the year.  Maybe I won’t.  I do know that this is an approach I can handle and that I will both grow as a teacher and an individual from doing so.  

In the past, I might have let my failure get me down.  It would explain the 8 blogs I have attempted and since deleted – one post does not a blog make.  But not this time.  Not with you watching.   This time it is going to help me succeed, which is what I hope for all your future failures.

Blogging in the New Year: Bring on the Creepers!

Today, my class’s blog had a creeper, which is code for comments from people that we don’t know.  Sure, 8th graders think it is a bit creepy that people are reading their writing and then commenting on it, but I also think they get kind of pumped when their individual blog post is “creeped on.”  I know this by how many views said blog post received once I emailed the class to let them know.

All our Creepers!
All our Creepers!

I have used blogs in my classroom in some shape or form for six years now, starting off by posting myself and having kids respond.  That never seemed quite right, however, as I really wanted my classroom blog to be writing that my students had done. Last year, I finally got my classroom blog to be exactly what I wanted it to be – a group endeavor that students can post to on their own.  Students are required to post a certain amount of times per month, but can choose what they post and write about.  Our blog is public, which allows us to receive hits from all over the world and covers topics ranging from politics to entertainment to fantasy writing. Our most exciting moment came when a student book review received a comment from the actual author.  This definitely did not fit the category of creepy and was what every English teacher hopes will happen on their blog.  Yeah, we got lucky!

Blogging is definitely not cutting edge anymore, and something I believe should be part of every curriculum in some shape or form.  If our aim as teachers is to prepare our students for the real world, then we have to give them opportunities to write in the ways that countless people write.  Plus, blogging is a way to allow students to express themselves creatively, try writing about something they might not normally, and express their voice in ways that literary analysis writing cannot.

If you have yet to try blogging, here’s a few reasons why I think you should:

1.) It truly is an authentic audience.  The blogger that received today’s comment had written about her opinion regarding China/US relations.  The commenter will force her to think about her position differently, as he did not agree with her.  We all know that our voice as teachers only goes so far with students, but the voice of a stranger who challenges you to think differently about a belief is something that can be truly influential and a great learning experience.  People read blogs and kids will learn that having people read your ideas is powerful and thrilling at the same time.

2.) It invigorates students. No, I will not tell you that every one of my students absolutely loves blogging.  But, at the same time, I don’t think many of them absolutely hate it.  And for many, it is exactly the kind of thing they need to invigorate their educational experience.  It provides many students with a chance to write about things that matter to them, to play with technology, and to share their ideas with their classmates and the world.  Their writing improves and since I don’t grade individual posts, they become less burdened with grade requirements and write more for the joy of it.  You know something works when students email asking if they can write a blog post over break.  Playing around with blog statistics and celebrating feats is also motivating in ways that writing a paper just for a teacher can never be.

3.) It will invigorate you! I’ll admit it – I’m a bit addicted to checking blog stats on my class blog.  And it really is exciting when students receive comments or their posts get re-tweeted.  But what is most appealing about blogging is to see what it can do for your students.  As I said before, blogging can energize students to reach the potential they might not otherwise.  It excites them and allows them to become passionate about learning and writing, something as an English teacher is what I want for my students.  The growth my students have had because of blogging has been immense and that has been one of the best benefits this experience has had on me.

I truly believe in the power of blogging and know that it has been rewarding in my 8th grade classroom.  I look forward to a new year where my class will try out some new things on the blog to grow further.  Hopefully, we’ll get a few more “creepers.”

Here’s the link to our class blog: waeng8.wordpress.com