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Saturday, December 3, 2016

5 Safeguards to Grinch Proof Your Classroom this Holiday Season

As we enter the Yuletide season of joy and giving, let's be honest. Every last nerve in our body is about to be tested. Our students are on the verge of eating excessive amounts of sugar for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They will be bombarded with ads for the newest, coolest toys available for a fraction of a cost if they shop online.

Their eyes will glaze over during class with visions of robot toys that shoot lasers at annoying little sisters, or video games that blow up evil empires while simultaneously chatting with an opponent in the UK.

As engaging as we try to make our lessons, they will not be able to compete with the big man in the fat red suit sporting a white beard who owns flying reindeer.  Yes. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are all at risk of becoming a Grinch.

Before it's too late, I've pulled together five safeguards to protect our students, parents, and ourselves.

Safeguard #1: Expand your Heart

During this holiday season, two types of students tend to emerge. The Cindy Loo Who's who are innately kind, loving, and will complete homework and projects in a timely manner. You will love these students. "Who" wouldn't?

But what about the non-Cindy Loo Who's who will fail to complete assignments, push your last button, and then go home and tell their parent that you hate them. Take a deep breath. A mentor of mine once said, "Fake it until you feel it." Act like you love The Cindy Loo Who's and the Non-Cindy Loo Who's and you'll be surprised when your heart catches up!

Safeguard #2. Collaborate don't isolate.

It is easy to feel like you are the only teacher on the planet who is considering early retirement (and
it's your first year) but know that you are not alone! Teachers all across the U.S. and Canada are feeling the effects, as well.

Just as you would never attempt Black Friday or Brown Thursday alone, you should not take on the days and weeks leading up to winter break alone. Go to your team and express how you are feeling.

Chocolate also helps.

Safeguard #3. Be realistic. 

As excited as you are about completing an ice sculpture of the Great Wall of China in your World Geography class, this is not the time or the place. Variables like shorter attention spans, additional carbs to induce sleeping, and inevitable interruptions by your former students coming by to remind you why you love to teach, are very, very real.

Ask yourself. What assignments can wait until these variable diminish? Separate the need to do's from the I want to's and you will become far less frustrated. Taking on too much can make you feel like you are a horrible teacher, which of course, you aren't.

Safeguard #4. Be kind.

Even if you have failed miserably at Safeguards #1-#3, it is never too late to change your behavior. Before sending out the mass email and a bcc: to your principal about the teacher whose students are climbing the walls. Stop!

Before posting or emailing anything ask yourself: Is it biased? Could it be taken out of context? Is it hurtful? If you can answer one or more of these questions with a yes, you need step away from your computer, Ipad, or Iphone and take a deep breath.

This is the perfect moment to engage in a random act of kindness!

Safeguard #5. Be thankful

Hands-down one of the best Grinch repellents is a spirit of thankfulness. Begin making a list of reasons to be thankful. Warning: While you may exude thankfulness on a normal basis, you may struggle. This isn't to say you aren't a grateful person...because you are! Remembering the reasons you are thankful is more about reminding you of the person you truly are. You are NOT a don't act like one!

Confession Reflection:
  • How can administrators support teachers who are dealing with "seasonal" behavior issues?
  • Why is it important for teachers to stay connected to their PLC or mentor teachers and not isolate?
  • What are the benefits of closing the Teacher Evaluation Window the week before a holiday break?

Saturday, November 19, 2016

"This I Believe" Experimental Study

Do people remember more by listening to the audio version of texts or by reading texts? This is an experimental study to add to a larger database on ways people remember what they have read. I need YOU to help me with this study, as well as, show how Twitter can be used as a global connector.

My research partner, Ed, and I have chosen an excerpt from the book, "This I Believe" titled Be Cool to the Pizza Dude.  It is an inspirational message everyone should read (or listen to) at least once.

To participate in this research study, you will choose form A or B and either listen to or read this article. You will then answer 20 multiple choice questions. Your choice of forms will need to be even if you prefer listening you may be given a form you will need to read.

On a personal note, I would like to demonstrate to my follow classmates the power of social media to gather responses from a global audience. Please help me in doing so.

Your name and identity will remain anonymous. However, I've added an optional place to put your Twitter handle for us to connect. I ALWAYS want to grow my PLN and connect with other educators.

Thank you!


Form A

Form B

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Hack in Action: An Excerpt from Hacking Homework

After ten years as a middle school reading intervention teacher and five of those years as a literacy coach, I've heard more excuses for missing assignments than I care to admit. Long gone are the shallow excuses like, "the dog ate my homework." As you can imagine, preadolescents are savvy and seem to know the perfect excuse to use and exactly the moment to deliver it.

Without question the coup de grace of all excuses is the excuse that shifts responsibility from the student to the teacher. The excuse goes something like this. The student looks the teacher squarely in the eyes and solemnly swears that they have already turned in their homework. It is the teacher's fault for losing it.

In a stroke of genius, the responsibility shifts from being the student's responsibility to being the teacher's problem. If you're like me, some days it is not worth going to the extreme to convince the student that their homework is, indeed, missing.

Three weeks later the homework surfaces during a mandatory locker clean up. It is now stuck to another piece of paper by a sticky red substance that smells like cherry.

As a part of my reading intervention classroom, I decided to dedicate the first Monday of every month to teaching organization. (If I had a new student I would schedule a time to meet with him/her one-on-one).
I would have my students bring in their backpacks and every scrap of paper they could find in their lockers, even if the scraps looked like trash.

At a table or on the floor, I would have the students write on three sticky notes: Keep, Trash, or a "?". The first pile was for papers to be kept and organized, including incomplete assignments, study notes, schedules, etc. The second pile was for papers to trash or toss out; students would often find doodle sheets, drafts of paper that had already been written, and even multiple copies of the same paper.  The third pile was for papers that the student wasn't sure if they should keep or toss. Students were taught how to assess the purpose of the paper so they could determine if it should go in the keep or trash pile.

I would literally pick up each piece of paper and ask, "is this to keep, trash, or you're not sure?" I added an extra layer of support by placing the "Trash" and "?" piles in a file folder until the end of the grading period. It never failed for a student to run into my room in a near frenzy because they believed they had thrown away a paper that was due.

Students who are learning to organize often do not have the skills to prioritize what is or isn't important. This was a way to scaffold learning using Gradual Release of Responsibility. It is a best teaching practice a teacher would use if teaching an academic skill like how to multiply fractions or how to write an expository essay.

If students do not have instruction and a workable process, they are not likely to figure it out on their own. Explicitly teaching organization gives the students the skills and processes they need to be successful - author's comment (Connie Hamilton and Starr Sackstein)

You can learn more about ways to teach responsibility and organization in the book,  Hacking Homework. It is now available on Amazon:

Confession Reflection:
  • Why is it important to teach skills like organization?
  • Teaching organization skills and teaching responsibility often go hand-in-hand. Why is this?
  • What is the difference been supporting and enabling? How can teachers discern between the two?
  • How would explicit instruction on ways to organize assignments benefit students beyond the walls of the school?

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Emoji, Selfies, and Memes: Innocuous Terms in Today's Classroom

Unless you've been hiding under a rock for the past decade, you are aware of strange terminology spoken in the halls of your school, in the cafeteria, and even in your classroom. By all accounts, it may sound like jiberish or incohesive chatter: "idk", "lol", and "jk" are just a few. 

You watch in sheer amazement as your student's fingers fly across teensy weensy keys on a "smartphone" sending encrypted messages to friends, while it takes you a full two minutes to write and send one sentence.

If you have experienced this phenomenon, this blog is for you!

Who are Millennials?

Millennials are individuals born between 1982 and early 2000's. The are also the largest social group since the Baby Boomers. To put it in perspective, most of today's students have never physically addressed an envelope, used a hand held map, or used a telephone that wasn't attached to a land line. It is estimated that there are approximately 87 million millennials either in school or in the work force. In other words, Millennials have taken over planet Earth. 

1. All things abbreviated

Have you wondered why the letter "u" keeps popping up in student essays, or the letters LOL or IDK as an annotation? You remind your students to spell out words in their essays, to always use a capital "I" when referred to oneself, and to make a key when using unknown letters like LOL or IDK. If you listen closely, you will notice the written code has become a spoken tongue. It is not unnusual to hear one of my students say "jk" which translates into "just kidding." Here are a few other common abbreviations common among millennials.

IDK - I don't know
LOL - laughing out loud
FYI- for your information
JK - just kidding
TBH - to be honest
IMHO - in my humble opinion.

2. Emojis

Do you remember the yellow smiley face during the late 60's and 70's stamped on t-shirts, posters, and billboards? It was an international symbol of happiness and was called an "Emotican." Texting emotican's begin to appear at the end of messages to indicate how the writer was feeling or to convey the tone of the message. :)  :(  

Today emojis are ubiquitous to our society. Students have the ability to create an emoji of themself using free apps or choosing emojis from their Smartphone. Did you know that McDonald's recently handed out Emoji's in happy meals? 

When shopping for my grandson's two-year-old birthday party I spotted emoji stickers. I thought how cool it might be to use emoji's for polls and surveys and how it would create a universal language (or pictoral) for expressing emotions...until I remembered I teach college students. 
If you are teaching elementary or middle school students, sticker emojis would be an innovative way to annotate as kids read as part of learning characterization or author's purpose. This would be especially interesting during the climax and resolution of the story.

This past week I heard of a large school district near me change discipline policy to be proactive by builidng a classroom community. The school day starts by students sharing as a member of a learning community how they are feeling. There are a gajillion ways to integrate emoji's into building a community of learners. Wow! Think about the possibilities for teaching empathy? Compassion? 

3. Meme

A meme is an image, video, or text that is copied (often with variation) and spread to internet users. memes are easy to make and have the potential for some awesome lessons. There are free apps to create memes. You will also see memes posted by educators on Facebook and Twitter. 
Students could easily make a meme to demonstrate their understanding of a concept. Memes also make great bell ringers or conversation starters.

4. Mash-up 
A mash-up may sound like something you would do when cooking mashed potatoes, but the meaning is far more complex. According to Urban Slang Dictionary a web mashup is a web application that takes information from one or more sources and presents it in a new way or with a unique layout. Mash-ups are easily spotted on the internet especially by aspiring artists and musicians presenting their own rendition of a song by combining two songs. 

As a literacy coach and creative writing teacher, I loved to use mashups around the holidays to teach parody. I would have my students select a holiday song and add new lyrics based on a book they were reading. For example, one year Harry Potter was Mashed-up with The Night Before Christmas. They would record and upload to their private school You Tube account and then we would show their presentation during parent night. 

Here is a Mash-Up using movies to demonstrate hyperboles:

5. Selfie or Snap

What is a selfie? Wikipedia defines a selfie as "a self-portrait photograph, typically taken with a digital camera or camera phone held in the hand or supported by a selfie stick." Today, the newest, coolest feature is to add a filter on a selfie called  "snap" using the social media site Snapchat.

When confiscating phones from your students you may have noticed dog ears, or rainbow-like vomit spilling from their mouth, or sparking princess glitter  adorning their hair. I'm still scratchng my head on this one. I'm sure my parents probably felt the same way about some of the silly things I did as a teenager. 

I'm learning that sometimes it's best to relax and LOL, not be too serious and say JK....and that it's okay to admit when IDK.

Confession Reflection:
  • What are some ways to invite ideas and social behaviors of millennials into the classroom? 
  • In your opinion, is acknowledging and integrating millennial's social behaviors into the classroom a form of culturally responsive teaching? why? or why not?
  • What does this statement mean to you: "Let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater?" 
  • Why do some educators resist change? 
  • How can we equip students with the skills they will need for the work place? What changes would need to be made in the classroom to do so?

Dewey said, "If we teach today's students as we taught yesterday's, we rob them of tomorrow."

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Summer Slide Is No Walk in the Park

The streets were littered with potholes. I drove by a house with the doors and windows boarded up and a Private Property sign was nailed to a wooden post. It was clearly abandoned.

The house next door had bars on all of the windows and the next house..and the next house.

There were no bikes or toys in the yards. No furniture on the patios. No one was out walking their dog. No morning joggers.

Where were the people?

A few blocks later, I arrived at my destination and pulled into a graveled parking lot. It was the first sign of life. Adults and children stood in line waiting for the doors of Bethlehem Center to open its arms.

I couldn't wait to see a nine-week summer reading loss intervention program in full swing!

Hmmm. Summer reading loss. What is it? Summer reading loss pertains to the loss in reading skills children experience over the summer months when school isn't in session. It is also called Summer Slide.

Summer reading loss is an epidemic among poor children. In one summer children in poverty lose two to three months of reading skills while children who are not poor maintain or increase in reading proficiency. By 5th grade, children in poverty may read as far as two to three years behind their economically advantaged peers.

The doors opened and I grabbed my notebook and headed into the summer reading sanctuary. I walked through a kitchen with a stove that looked like it was on its last leg. The smell of food wafted from the oven. Water bottles and loafs of bread and peanut butter and jelly were stacked on a counter. The linoleum floor was faded but was immaculately clean.

hot meals every day!
The summer reading loss program took up a room about the size of a normal classroom. All nineteen children ages 6-8 years old were either reading a book, writing about what they read, or talking to a partner about their book. Teachers worked one-on-one with children or taught in small groups.

And books were everywhere!

I really was shocked to see how happy the children seemed. I knew good and well that my own children would have thought they were being tortured if they attended a FULL day of summer school, EVERYDAY for NINE weeks!

Bethlehem Community Center 
I knelt beside a table with a group of boys and was surprised when one of the boys asked, "Am I in trouble?"

"Oh my goodness! I'm here to see the wonderful things you are doing in summer school."

He took a breath and seemed relieved.

"What do you like most about your summer school?" I asked, fully expecting to hear, "I like the teacher or it's fun."

But what he said surprised me. It has also changed me.

He looked into my eyes and without hesitation answered, "I get to eat dinner."

Confession Reflection:

  •  In what ways can schools/communities support children who don't have books to read in the summer?
  • Why is it important for teachers to receive professional development on summer reading loss? How might this information support lesson design and assessment?
  • What are some ways teachers can encourage parent-school partnerships to help prevent summer reading loss?
  • Why is it essential to make sure a child's basic needs are met?

To learn more about Summer Reading Loss 
National Summer Learning Association visit their site:

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Merry Christmas in July!

It wasn't my idea to have a Christmas in July party, but it happened. Imagine. Red house lights blinking in the heat of the summer. Jingle Bells blaring from the stereo. A lamp post adorned with mistletoe and topped with a giant red bow...and a Christmas tree, tinsel and all, sitting in my driveway. 

Oh, and did I mention the reindeer? 

I'll get to that later.

I'm not exactly the social butterfly when it comes to neighborhood stuff. While I appreciate the occasional Bunko game or Tupperware party, I'm not one to initiate neighborhood festivities.

Outside of my church and weekly Saturday morning coffee time with a few girlfriends, my social life has much to be desired.

When our church Life Group brought up the idea to have a Christmas in July party to get a jump start to support a local charity, I wanted to crawl under my chair. 

I really did. 

Since I was a group leader, I felt obligated to smile and say, "What a great idea!" Inwardly, I was thinking, How will our neighbors know that this is really going to a charity? What if they think we are con artists hording gifts for our own children?

And so we booked our children's pastor, Kelly Welhelmi, to put on a puppet show dressed in her outrageous character, Rudette, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer's sister. We printed off over 100 flyers and posted to every house on our cul-de-sac and surrounding blocks asking neighbors to bring an unwrapped gift. At the bottom of the flyer in bold face type was: All gifts will be distributed through our churches' children's outreach.

Well, a Texas heat wave had hit and my family and our church small group were sweating bullets the night of the party. We had fans blowing and chilled lemonade and enough watermelon to feed an army. A few members from our church small group mingled waiting to be swarmed by neighborhood children. My front yard was a sight to see with a Christmas tree in the driveway, house lights, and even mistletoe over the doorway entrance.

We waited. 
And waited. 
And waited some more. 

Where were my neighbors? I was embarrassed and was secretly hoping we'd printed the wrong date on the flyer. After forty-five minutes, my next-door-neighbor walked his nine-year-old daughter over to get a better look at the lady wearing a brown suit, antlers that dangled tinsel, and a glittery red nose. 

The little girl placed an unwrapped My Little Pony toy under the Christmas tree and planted herself on our lawn. 

I cursed under my breadth. How could it be that only one child showed up?

And so I gave marching orders and sent my three children who at the time were, 5, 7, and 10 years, to knock on their friend's doors. I no longer cared about the gifts, I cared about saving face. 

Between door-to-door invites from my children, and a few phone calls to friends, I counted over fifty neighbors at our Christmas in July party. We had a watermelon spitting contest, a grand performance by Rudette, a puppet show, and of course lots of singing and dancing. Apart from the My Little Pony toy we collected around fifty dollars. By monetary standards, the party wasn't anything to write home about.

But something more important happened that evening. We got to know our neighbors. The couple who had just adopted a new baby from Korea, the man whose dog barks all night, an elderly man who is carrying for his wife who suffered from Alzheimer, and we got to know their names.

Every year when July rolls around, and the heat hits as only it can in Texas, our family talks about our Christmas party. We laugh and feel a closeness only we can feel. Now that I think about it...our party was a hit, after all.

Merry Christmas, even in July!

Monday, June 27, 2016

How to Survive the Dog Days of Summer

The final school bell rings. Overstuffed backpacks and shouts of jubilation reverberate throughout hallways as United States schools release for summer vacation. Starbucks gift cards and handwritten thank you notes from learners-- that would melt any teacher's heart-- are packed up. Good-byes are said. It's June and summer vacation has officially begun for teachers and learners alike.

Tip #1: Celebrate without guilt.

Give yourself permission to let out a whoop! at the top of your lungs. There is no shame in feeling a sense of jubilation for having time away from your classroom. It's okay to admit that you are be out for summer!

Think about it. You don't have to turn in lesson plans and you can eat lunch for longer than thirty minutes. Your food will actually have time to digest! If for a minute you start to feel guilty remind yourself that your learners are just as happy (if not happier) than you are to have the summer off. Celebrating will help relieve that pent up ball-of-stress and help get your summer started on the right foot (or paw).

Warning: the rush of adrenaline you initially feel is similar to a sugar-high. Be prepared to hit a slump within the ensuing days. This is normal and in no way implies that you need medical attention. This is a good time to pull out a Starbucks gift card and order a Triple Grande latte to give you a caffeine boost.

Tip #2. Take an excursion.

As badly as you wanted to be a Publishers Clearing House Winner for 2016, it didn't happen. This is an opportunity to do what teachers do best...go to plan B and improvise. Taking a road trip with the kids in tow can make for a fun outing. An excursion might be going to a museum, taking an overnight camping trip, or going to an amusement park.

Don't let disappointment steal your joy just because another teacher on your team is packing to go on an exotic trip to the Caribbean. It's normal to feel a twinge of jealousy, just don't let it consume you. Vacations are about building memories. It can be as simple as taking a one day road trip to someplace new. The important thing is to let your hair down and have fun!

Tip #3: Learn something new.

 You may have heard the adage: You can't teach an old dog new tricks. Summer vacation is the perfect opportunity to try something new. Ask yourself, What is something I've wanted to do but never felt like I had the time?

This does not mean you have to become an expert photographer, for example. It's simply about stepping out of your comfort zone and learning a new skill. Write a blog. Join a twitter chat. Take a Zumba class. Get your high school band instrument down from the attic and belt out your high school fight song.

Caution: Be prepared for your children, spouse, or significant other to ask if you are feeling alright.

Tip #4 Know your limitations

You are up to your eyeballs in laundry, your car smells like French fries, and you've developed an involuntary twitch in your left eye. This is a normal response to "shoulda-stopped syndrome" or triple SSS.

This is normal for teachers who are conditioned to a routine such as morning bus loop duty, morning announcements, rigorous lessons coupled with formative assessments, playground duty, lunch, more lessons, well, you get the picture. It can be exhausting...but it is also structured.

It can be a trap to think that since "school is out" teachers should be footloose and fancy free. Quite the opposite. Follow tips 1-3, but listen to your body and stop when it tells you to stop. Chocolate and wine can do wonders as long as they are consumed in moderation.

Tip 5: Embrace change.

Before you know it, you'll be cheering with your fellow teachers at convocation and welcoming in the new school year 2016-2017. There will be changes in technology, assessments, and perhaps a new educator evaluation system.

I confess that embracing change can be so much harder than it sounds! But then I remind myself that learning is all about growing. And growing is all about change. Being open and willing to embrace change will start the new school year off right!

Confession Reflection:

  • Fill in the blank. This summer I want to learn to_______?
  • Why is it important to monitor our activity level and take time out for ourselves?
  • What are the benefits of stepping out of our comfort zone and learning something new?

Thursday, June 2, 2016

No More Quiet Game: Inviting Talk into the Elementary Classroom

What is the Quiet Game?

While there are various versions, the premise of the game is the same. A leader is selected from the class and sits (or stands) in the coveted position of authority. Fellow classmates sit criss-cross applesauce in an area rug or remain seated at their desk.

The student leader then chooses the quietest fellow student by pointing. Without a single word spoken, the chosen student becomes the new leader and sits in the position of power. 

The game has grown in popularity because it  is easy to play, cost efficient, safe, and can be played almost anywhere. Bathroom lines are also a popular place to play. Instead of students sitting in the classroom, they are lined along the hall wall leading to the bathroom. The leader stands a few feet away from the line and points to the quietest classmate signaling that they were chosen for being the quietest. The leader returns to his or her place in line.

Adaptations can easily be made in the case that students continuously choose their “best” friend. Cliques are easy to spot if you are on the lookout. In the event of boys choosing only boys and girls choosing only girls, you can immediately invoke the gender rule: boys must choose a girl and girls must choose a boy. This is most prevalent in the earlier grades when cooties pose an immediate, but imaginary threat.

Cootie (n.) An invisible germ that is typically passed to the opposite gender. Elementary playgrounds are nesting grounds for cooties. In case of infection, a friend can inject the infected friend with a cootie shot.

Criss-cross Applesauce (adj.) Describes a way kids sit when bottoms are on the floor and legs are bent at the knees. 

Why We Play the Quiet Game

Imagine spending upwards to six hours in room filled with as many as thirty small children five days out of the week. You are also expected to be chirpy and happy. Oh, and you would be “actively monitoring” every child’s move.

Your lunch consisted of a bag of microwave popcorn you grabbed from the teacher’s lounge and a four hour old coffee because you were up with a teething baby until two in the morning and didn’t make your lunch.

During your interactive read-aloud, you feel your bladder ready to explode. You curse under your breath. What will you do? How do you manage a room full of children while you go to the restroom? 

And so you do what is familiar. You do what is safe. You begin the Quiet Game. You remind yourself that it will only be for a few minutes. It is a game that your teacher played when you were in elementary school, and the teacher before your teacher, and back and back and back.

You return to class and breathe a sigh of relief that the room is still standing. You do not see blood. There are no broken bones. You take a moment to affirm your students and seamlessly return to the story.

By the end of the school year, the Quiet Game is second nature to you and your class. It’s convenient and easy to enforce. Most likely you have never given it a second thought until now.

While there is no hard evidence, I suspect the Quiet Game was invented by a parent on an arduous road trip. It was a ploy to get the kids to stop talking and so it was strategically titled a “game”. Of course, all children know in their heart that there is nothing fun about the Quiet Game. I have personally never heard any student or my own children beg, Can we play the Quiet Game? Please? Pretty please?

Every teacher has a breaking point. Maybe it’s the fifth chorus of “The Wheels on the Bus” or the song “Let it go!” sung over and over again. We are only human. And so we demand that the class play the Quiet Game knowing full well who will “win” and which children will “lose” because of an intentional fake fart, or fake cough that sends the class into a fit of giggles.

Why Talk Matters

Research conducted at the Marzano Research Center @MarzanoResearch found a significant gap between a disadvantaged child and a child born into a professional family. The gap begins at birth. By three years of age, an advantaged child has learned twice as many words as a child in poverty. They also found that children in poverty have fewer books, technology, and often live in single parent households.

The gap is perpetuated by other factors that go hand-in-hand with poverty. Poor health, hunger, lack of sleep and the inability to concentrate are just a few very real things children in poverty deal with every day. Think about how you feel when your stomach is growling or the feeling of exhaustion after sitting up with a sick child into the wee hours of the night. I don’t know about you, but I can barely concentrate if I haven’t slept or I feel hungry.

One thing we do know for sure, without intervention, the gap continues to grow. By the way, “time-out” or assigning detention to a student is not an intervention. It is a punishment.

Talking is important. Talk has the ability to change brain chemistry and build neural brain networks. Yes, the brain can be rewired with meaningful talk. Just as food can satisfy tummy cravings, talk that is child-centered and intentional can increase concentration and spark creativity. 

Several years ago I was able to attend a professional development session led by Eric Jensen, author of Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kid’s Brains and What Schools Can do about it. Isn’t that a great title for a book? I was like a sponge soaking up all that I could because he was describing the kids in my literacy classroom.

One of my hats as a literacy coach was to teach a reading intervention class to students who were reading two or more years below grade level. In fact, at the beginning of the school year I could predict my students just by glancing over student addresses. I knew that one set of apartments housed our poorest students and I also knew of the trailer park where the other students lived. Guess what? A large percentage were my students!

While listening to Eric Jensen, I took notes like crazy and couldn’t wait to get back to my classroom. I had to try out his ideas about how talking and movement improved learning. I also learned that memory games helped students be productive in their studies. Now I say “games” because they were stress-free. The brain functions best without stress. I also learned that snacks helped, as well. 

Eric also spoke on the importance of student-centered talk to create classroom community and build self-esteem. He taught us fun and effective memory games to support concentration.

And so I began to ask "what if" questions. What if...teachers created opportunities for unstructured talk and play during the school day? What if...we replaced a game that rewarded silence and celebrated talk? 

What if We Did This Instead?

Here are some super duper easy ways to celebrate talk:
  • Play soft music and instruct children to move about the classroom. When the music stops, find a partner. Each student shares with their partner the book they last read or are currently reading. Students keep sharing until the music starts. (If you need to keep the noise level down, interject, “tip toe, or move like a butterfly).
  •  Choose a leader and whisper a phrase into his/her ear such as "the goofy giraffe jumped rope with the playful platypus." The leader whispers the secret phrase into the ear of the next child. When you say the game is over, the last child who heard the secret message repeats it out loud. (Initial phrases may be adapted to match maturity level).
  • A category is chosen like “transportation.” A leader begins by naming something that fits the category, like train or bike. Students touch their nose and remain seated if they can add a new item to the category. The leader chooses someone who hasn’t been called on and they name a new item. If they get stuck, they can call on a friend to help. This is also good for bathroom lines.
·    Crumple a piece of Kleenex and set it under a document camera. Invite students to say what they see. (This is the same concept as looking for animal shapes in the clouds). There is no right or wrong answer.

I encourage you to challenge yourself to make ONE small change by replacing the Quiet Game with an activity that celebrates talk instead of rewarding silence.

Confession Reflection:
  • Why is talk important? How can talk nurture a classroom community and celebrate diversity?
  • What are some other ways teachers can invite talk into the classroom?
  • How can administration empower teachers to invite unstructured talk into the classroom without penalizing or interpreting as misbehavior?

Sunday, May 1, 2016

What's in a Name?

The stakes were high. My heart pounded inside my chest as one-by-one my fellow comrades either passed the proverbial  litmus test, or melted into a puddle of shame and disgrace. Oh, how powerful are the words of a teacher.
Kindergarten Class Photo 
It was an overcast morning at Benson Hill Elementary School in Renton, Washington. I was five-years-old and it was the first day of Kindergarten. Obediently, our class of thirty students sat in a racially biased position called "Indian-style" (which today is more appropriately called, "Criss-Cross Applesauce.")

Ms. Heartless (not her real name) sat perched on a wooden stool carefully eyeing her new class. The activity was her idea of a "fun" way to begin the year. The "fun" activity went something like this. 

"Boys and girls, when I call your name you are to respond by clapping the syllables that are in your name. I will start. Ms. Heart (clap) less (clap). I have two syllables in my name."

1st day of Kinder, 1967
I watched and listened as one-by-one the other students clapped their name. "Bob (clap) by (clap)". 

I was poised and ready. When my turn finally came a surge of confidence coursed through my veins, "Tam (clap) ra (clap)." 

Immediately, Ms. Heartless chided me. "No, you have three syllables in your name, Tam(clap) a (clap) ra (clap)."

My head begin to spin. I was confused. I felt like everything from that moment on would define me. And so I did the unthinkable, I corrected my teacher. My palms sweated as I clapped my name once again,  "My name is Tam (clap) ra (clap). It's TWO syllables." 

Mrs. Heartless looked down at her class list. With the assurance of an expert marksman, shot a rebuttal that went straight through my heart, and reverberates to this day,"No, your name has THREE syllables...." 

In spite of spelling my name TAMRA on school papers, Ms. Heartless seemed convinced that my name needed an extra 'a'.

And so for the first half of Kindergarten, I went by the name "Tamara" (with an extra 'a') pronounced "Tam-a-ra" because of a typo on the class roster which in the 1960's was as sure as a computer hard drive. It wasn't until my six-year-old birthday invitation written to my class (and teacher) signed "TAMRA", did Ms. Heartless realize that there had been a misprint on her roster. 

I recalled this event on the first day of teaching Kindergarten. 

It was 1984, six years after the mini-series "Roots" by Alex Haley had taken America by storm exposing the heartlessness in which black Americans had been stripped of their identities during slave trade. As a result, there had been a surge of names from African cultures in newborns. These children were now entering school for the first time.

As I prepared name tags to tape to desks, I realized that I was writing names  rich in culture like: Shawneebria, Lakesha, and Kairaba. Children's names I could barely pronounce, much less spell. Because of the high poverty rate, many of these children came to school hungry, never having visited the zoo or had ever smelled a new box of crayons.

I decided then and there to learn to spell and pronounce every child's name correctly, as if they mattered more than shapes, colors, sight words, or any part of the curriculum.

While I am no longer in the classroom, I have kept my promise to myself and to every student who I have taught. If I messed up on a spelling or pronunciation, I would tell my students, "Until I get your name right, you can call me Mrs. Penny." That usually sped up the process.

As our classrooms, schools, and districts become more and more diverse, it is easy to skip-over or abbreviate a child's name. I've even heard teachers say "Hey, you" to get a student's attention or roll their eyes. But what if teachers took pause for a moment and placed as much of a priority on a child's name as a Common Core Standard?  

What if every child...every day...from every teacher,,.heard their name?

Confession Reflection
  • Why is it important to pronounce and spell our student's names correctly? How does this support student learning?
  • What are some ways teachers can support learning student's names? i.e. instead of a word wall have a name wall; cultural celebrations
  • Why is perception important? How can educators help students and parents feel emotionally safe and valued? i.e. body language, tone of voice, facial expressions

Friday, April 8, 2016

To My Principal...I Must Confess

Yes, I lied to my students. The dreaded state writing assessment loomed over my head like a dark cloud. You see, an initial writing inventory of at-risk students left the department feeling discouraged.

There was no denying it, this was possibly the worst group of seventh grade writers in the school's history (and I do not use superlatives lightly). As a first year principal you would undoubtedly notice. 

As a first year literacy coach, I did all that I knew to do. I approached writing lessons with the rigor of a sprinter at the start of a race. Who is someone you admire, and why? "Name and describe an invention that has changed your life."

Each prompt was met with grumblings and excuses like "I have a blister on my finger and it hurts to write" or "I can't focus because I have ADD and my mom forgot to have me take my pill today." I felt a permanent twitch forming in my left eye. 

And then an idea came to me.

My cousin, Melissa, became somewhat of a pop icon in her community when she promised to swallow a live worm if 90% of her 5th grade students passed the reading state assessment. You'll never believe what happened. They did it!

2016 photo with my Super T cousin, Melissa!
The local newspaper captured a still-shot of the unlucky worm dangling from my cousin's fingertips before meeting its fate. She was nominated for Teacher of the Year.  A year later at a family reunion, I asked her point-blank why?

I'll never forget her words, It's about relationship. Students need to know that we are willing to put ourselves in their shoes. 

You know, as well as I do, that cutesy doesn't cut it for middle schoolers. Boys, especially, like anything with the word "X-TREME" in front of it. And so we came together as a community and made a sort of blood pact. If my students put all of their effort into getting better at something they hated, I would reciprocate and do something that totally grossed me out. Yes, I would eat a bug.

If you remember, I stopped by your office and presented the idea of eating a bug as collateral damage if our at-risk students passed the state writing assessment. "As long as no PETA laws are broken," you cautioned. "I'll support you." 

My students voted and it was decided that I'd eat a chocolate covered baby cricket IF they all passed the test. The rest is history. 

My neighbor worked at the local Petco and routinely brought home baby crickets to feed to her son's pet iguana. I took one look at the miniature sized crickets jumping around in the air-filled plastic baggy. I gagged. I envisioned myself popping a bug into my mouth, choking, and spewing tiny legs into the air. 

I didn't have the stomach or the will power to do it. My cousin's words haunted me: It's about relationship. Students need to know that we are willing to put ourselves in their shoes.

And so my lie was born.

In the secrecy of my kitchen, my husband, Michael, and I conspired to create a fake chocolate cricket. We microwaved a clump of Nestle chocolate morsels and with the finesse of a master chef, meticulously doubled-dipped Nestle Raisinetes candy into the gooey chocolate. We purposefully added swirls to resemble a toothpick thin leg or a bulging cricket head. 

To cover our deception, I took the air-filled bag filled with live crickets to school to erase any doubt that I was using fake crickets. Next, I opened a Tupperware container showing the "crickets" we had concocted the night before.

On the count of ten, wide-eyed with wonderment, my students watched as I popped one of the "crickets" into my mouth. 

Wrinkled noses and exclamations of "Oh, snap!" and "Awesome!" erupted from my class. "What's it taste like, Mrs. Dollar?" 

To their delight I answered, "It tastes like chocolate...with a crunch!"

I didn't make the newspaper, and I wasn't nominated for teacher of the year, but I was able to learn the art of capturing my student's hearts. 

Maybe next year I'll go for the real thing. (Well, that is, if you approve). 


Tamra Dollar

Post Script: To My Principal...I Must Confess is a true story. (As are all of my blogs). This lie ate at me for years. I felt guilty and so I waited until I felt certain all students involved had graduated from high school and my Principal had moved to another campus. Writing this confession was cathartic. While I wouldn't recommend using an incentive like this (there are other ways to engage students) but at the time, it was the best I knew to do. Oh, and my principal forgave me. :)

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Conference Burnout: Reviving Educators in a Most "Un"Common Way

Group Selfie at #Txeducamp 2016
sponsors Tom Kilgore and TWU's  Dr. Krutka
It's that time of year when educators are submitting workshop proposals for 2017 or frantically registering for the next biggest, hottest conference.

I confess that I've never been to an educator conference outside of my school district or University. Really. But I have plenty of teacher friends who return from places like Las Vegas or West Palm Beach raving about the bigger-than-life keynote or big-name vendors that gave them free book markers and razzle dazzle trinkets.

I've also talked to educators who are ready for something different. They are tired of the same old, same old conference agenda and they feel like they are no better off than if they had stayed home and washed the dog. Let's be honest. Conferences aren't for everyone.
One size does not fit all.

TOY Whitney Crews, Debbie Turner
What if there was a new model? Not a top-down frame that elevates a few high profile speakers who hold the keys to the kingdom; but rather a bottom-up frame that distributes the power and knowledge equally among the attendees.

There would be no vendors or registration fees. A district administrator or school board member would have the same privileges and opportunities as a first year teacher excited about some new strategy that has worked in the classroom. No special seating. No ego stroking.

TWU Txeducamp session; Using Twitter in the Classroom
The Edcamp model does this. It creates a learning space where people come together to share freely and the agenda is participation driven. In fact, there is no agenda until the attendees show up! What makes this "unconference" even more unique is that is builds upon the "Law of two feet". If, at any time, a person feels like they are neither learning nor contributing, they simply leave the session and go someplace else.

TxeduCamp Organizer, Tom Kilgore
My fav school board member: Tracy Fisher
Furthermore, sessions are led by ordinary educators. There is no one person who holds all of the knowledge or is the "expert" on any given topic. The sessions feel conversational and allow everyone attending to participate and have an equal voice.

Session leaders keep the flow of conversation and ideas in motion (facilitator). No one is to impose their opinions on others (space invader).

Beware: There is a thin line between a "facilitator" and a "space invader."

In a world which sometimes privileges some educators over others, it's easy to fall into a trap believing that unless you have authored a book that's flying off the shelf, or earn the title of "keynote", you have little (or nothing) to offer to others.

That simply isn't true.

Tom Kilgore explains Edcamp Protocol
If you are suffering from conference burnout or information overload, maybe it's time to find a different approach to learning. Maybe an Edcamp is a right fit for you.

Learn more about Edcamps, visit their website:

Confession Reflection:

  • What is the difference between a conference and an unconference? 
  • How do unconferences give creative space to educators?
  • Have you ever been to an Edcamp? What was your experience like?
  • Would your district or university consider sponsoring an edcamp?

Thank you Texas Woman's University!