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Sunday, December 10, 2017

Heart Maps under Construction: A Lesson on Learning and Relationships

Think about your ideal lesson. Hmmm. What did it look like? Perhaps your lesson became part of your teacher portfolio and put you in the running for Teacher of the Year (TOY) on your campus.

Now think about the lesson that didn't go the way you had planned. How did you feel? Maybe you went home and ate a gallon of your favorite Ben & Jerry's or seriously considered early retirement.

Sadly, I believe teachers often feel shame when a lesson doesn't look like the polished examples on Pinterest. If you think about it, our society thrives on perfection! Student work examples in our curriculum and teacher posts on Twitter are prime examples. To up the ante, district teacher evaluation systems feed into the idea of "product over purpose."

This past summer I helped design and teach a high school summer literacy institute for bilingual newcomers. The class was part of a grant from my university called ELLevate! My co-teacher, Tricia, and I believed the idea of Heart Maps would be a fun and engaging first day lesson. The multimodal design helped level the playing field for students with limited English speaking abilities.

The first day of class, we introduced the Heart Maps by asking "What is special in your life?
Think about the people, places, and memories most important to you."

Next, examples of completed Heart Maps from past classes were shown to students as models. Instructions were clear. Crisp templates and colored pencils were sharpened and ready!

I was surprised when the Heart Maps went unfinished the first day...
         and the second day...
                   and the third day....
                          and the fourth day....
                                                    and on and on and on.

At the end of our summer institute, not ONE Heart Map had been completed!

What happened when a multimodal lesson for newcomers went unfinished? 

1. Relationships were built.

Students in our class were all Latina but came from diverse backgrounds and experiences. I learned that if you were from Venezuela, you spoke a different form of Spanish than if you were from Mexico. Color coding would often be interrupted by a story or memory in a student's heart. Students were engaged in learning and listening to one another.

2. Writers blossomed.

One of the purposes of a Heart Map is to inspire writing. It's so easy to get stuck in this mindset of the "five paragraph essay" or fixated on "writing to the prompt." Instead, students are able to choose a section from their Heart Map when writing reflections.

When students are given voice and choice, writing becomes authentic and relevant to their lives.

 Here are some of the examples from student writing journals:


3. Teachers and students became co-learners.

The Heart Map lesson created a space for students and teachers to become co-learners in the classroom. There is a fixed mindset in classrooms today that the teacher is in control. I've heard it called, "Sage on Stage" which is what many classrooms look like. The teacher lectures, the students take notes, all followed up by a test. 

When a lesson doesn't go as planned, students have a sixth sense and can pick up on teacher insecurity or frustration. Letting go of preconceived ideas of what the lesson should look like invites innovation and creativity into the classroom.

This is when learning begins.

My twitter post! 

Confession Reflection:
  • How would student learning outcomes have been different if a grade was given based on completion of the Heart Map template?
  • Why is it important for campus evaluators to avoid comparisons between teachers based on student work? 
  • Have you ever had a lesson that didn't go as you had planned? How did you feel?
To learn more about the ELLevate! grant visit:

You can learn more about Heart Maps from Georgia Heard

Sunday, November 12, 2017

5 Things Bad Teachers Do Very, Very Well and New Teacher Strategies to Keep Them at Bay!

You are a new teacher and eager to implement the strategies and new literacies you learned as a college student in your education courses. If you're lucky, you have a digital portfolio to show the awesome things you did as a pre-service teacher.

During your interview, you even answer questions to demonstrate your understanding of 21st-century literacies and how important it is for students to be engaged in learning and to have access to technology. But once hired, your dreams and visions are crushed.

It seems that Bad Teachers have mastered the martial art of suffocating your ideas. When you do feel a moment of boldness to speak up during lesson planning, a look or a comment, crush your hopes for being the type of teacher you know you should be.

Do NOT lose heart!

There are teachers (maybe not the vocal ones) who are amazing. Unfortunately, the bad ones are in schools, as well. Bad Teachers are polished and believe what they are doing is right. Sometimes this is affirmed by a "Teacher of the Year (TOY)" nomination or elected as a team leader.

I have listed 5 Bad Teachers and what they do very, very well along with strategies to keep them at bay:

1. Mr. Ima N. Kuntroll: Ultimate Disciplinarian
Bad Teachers run their classrooms with military precision. Desks are in neat rows. You can hear a pin drop. Not only are their classes in perfect order, the Bad Teacher will be quick to point out to the principal (or even a School Board Member or two) how the new, unruly teacher across the hall has let his/her class run amuck.

The Bad Teacher has no tolerance for students talking, moving around, using technology without the constant supervision of the all-seeing eye. Past performance records reflect their "well-run" classroom. Mr. N. Kuntroll prides himself on being the Captain of his Ship!

New teacher strategy: Appeal to Mr. N. Kuntroll by remaining courteous. Ask questions about campus policy. This Bad Teacher will respond to respect and will enjoy talking policy. In the meantime, don't yield to the belief that a "well-run" classroom means students sit quietly in rows. Group desks so that students can collaborate. Stick to your beliefs.

2. Ms. Claire Itty: The Lecturer
The Bad Teacher is able to teach with their eyes closed. Their voice is most often monotone and assumes their students understand every word they're saying.

Strategies, like introducing academic vocabulary before a unit or providing background knowledge, are meaningless endeavors, especially since these tidbits of instruction were part of a prior grades' curriculum.

The Bad Teacher readily accepts the responsibility of teaching the grade-level curriculum. No more. No less. Ms. Claire Itty will be the first to tell you, "It is the student's job to ask questions when they do not understand."

New teacher strategy: During team planning, ask your team to share types of formative assessment to check for understanding. Countering Ms. Clair Itty's belief system with a proactive stance will give you leverage as you plan your lesson. Hopefully, this Bad Teacher will have a change of heart.

3. Mr. Wunsize Fitzall: The Lesson Designer

The Bad Teacher is indubitably gifted in the art of lesson design. He is able to take state standards and seamlessly design a lesson to fit all students regardless of age or ability level.  Special Needs? Gifted and Talented? English Language Learner?

Response to Intervention? No problem! Each of these students will be expected to master the learning material without scaffolding or differentiation.

Mr. Wunsize Fitzall will be the first to tell you, "Our job is to prepare students for the real world. Adults don't get a scaffolded tax return."

New teacher strategy: This is an easy one. Scaffolding has become a mainstream practice and is supported by research. Remember you learned about Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) in your strategies course? Differentiation is also a staple of Response to Intervention (RtI), Individual Education Plans (IEP's) and ways to support English Language Learners (ELLs). Stick to your guns on this one. Unless Mr. WunsizeFitzall changes, he will be "retiring" in the very near future.

Ms. Fave Ortism: The Affirmer
The Bad Teacher is able to recognize the brilliance in her students, in spite, of what other students tell her. She wears the proverbial rose-colored glasses. Be rest assured, when end-of-year award
nominations come out, it will be the student who is: studious, quiet in class, courteous and is able to sit for extended lengths of time without the slightest shift in his/her desk.

On the flip side, The Bad Teacher will be ready, at the drop of a hat, to give zeros in the grade book and points off in an effort to shape the unacceptable behavior of distracted and talkative students. Ms. Fave Ortism recalls with fond memory, "I am able to spot the class pet within the first week of school. It is a pleasure to read and grade every assignment. I never tire of giving this student an A+ +  +."

New teacher strategy: Take my word on this one. Ms. Fave Ortism will never see the error of her ways. Her rose-colored glasses are here to stay. Use this Bad Teacher as a reminder to see the value in EVERY child. A child's ability to sit quietly, or a "reading level" should never define a child. ALL children need and deserve your love and respect.

5. Mr. Smartie: The Know-it-All

Bad Teachers are experts in their subject area. Their students are merely empty containers in need of the teacher's vast expertise to fill their empty minds. Regardless of advancements in technology, the Bad Teacher knows more.

How is this possible? Why they have had more life experience and most likely have a master's or even a doctoral degree in their field of study. This is in no way to trivialize continued education!

However, the Bad Teacher will forever remain the smartest person in the room. Mr. Smartie is quick to raise the point: What will happen when computers break?

New teacher strategy: Mr. Smartie is highly intelligent and has knowledge and insight from years of practice. However, knowledge alone does not make them a good teacher. If that were the case, Google, should replace teachers. No! Excellent teachers relate to and listen to their students. Explore new concepts about teaching and learning such as Understanding by Design, (UBD), Genius Hour, or Project-based learning (PBL). Edcamps will also inspire you!

NEW TEACHERS: Do NOT LOSE HEART! There are Good GREAT TEACHERS like Ms. Cher Moore, Mr. Ed Kamp, and Mr. Yewcan Dewitt in classrooms. Seek them out.

In the meantime, do what you know is BEST for kids. Remember, you were hired for a reason. Stay the course!

I highly recommend Todd Whitaker's book: Shifting the Monkey: The Art of Protecting Good People from Liars, Criers, and other Slackers.

Confession Reflection:

  • What are some ways instructional coaches and administrators can support new teachers?
  • How can new teachers be empowered to take risks and to implement new and innovative ideas?
  • What are the dangers of rewarding bad teachers (TOY nominations, department chair, service on campus committees)? What message does this send to new teachers?
  • Why is it important for teachers like Mr. Wunsize Fitzall or Mr. Smartie to engage in ongoing professional development?
Clip from Ferris Bueller's Day Off: Anyone, Anyone?

Monday, October 9, 2017

NaNoWriMo: A Teacher's Best Kept Secret to Inspire Young Writers!

I confess to experiencing a slump every October. While I am no longer in the classroom, I don't think I'll ever forget the weariness that set in this time of year. The beginning of year hype, drummed up by the convocation keynote and the "thumbs-up, go-get 'em" attitude from administrators, no longer inspired me.

One year, I secretly downloaded a free "Count Down App" on my Iphone. (I hang my head in shame). I indulged in watching the clock countdown to the last day of school.

In 2011, I was assigned to teach two elective creative writing classes. I looked forward to August and September because of the synergy coursing through my students' veins. New clothes, back-to-school pep rallies, kept learning engaging. October was ripe for writing scary stories and a dead-poet unit.

By November 1st, my students were experiencing sugar withdrawals from eating excessive amounts of Halloween candy. Major store chains began selling Christmas trees; giving my students the illusion that winter break had begun.

As a result, border-line panic hit. How could I hold my students' interests? Afterall, this was an elective!

An ELAR teacher on my campus learned about NaNoWriMo and passed along the word. Seriously, it was like manna from heaven!

What is NaNoWriMo YWP? NaNoWriMo YWP stands for National Novel Writer's Month Young Writer's Project. The goal for students is to plan and write a novel between November 1st and 11:59 PM on the last day of November.

This short video will allow you to see the benefits of the NaNoWriMo project.

I can tell you first-hand how the NaNoWriMo experience transformed my classroom and created pathways to authentic student learning and engagement.

In addition to the benefits expressed in the posted video, here are three additional ways this project transformed my classroom.

1. NaNoWriMo became a path to student engagement and creative written expression.

I always looked forward to introducing the lesson: "You are going to write a novel." Some students looked terrified at the novel-writing challenge, but by the time November 1st arrived, they were anxious to start their stories.

This is because NaNoWriMo has abundant resources to support students and teachers. For example, mid-October, I began integrating the Writer's Notebook into daily lessons. (See NaNoWriMo resource link here: Using a class account, my students were able to download and save a user-friendly file to a flashdrive or to their student document file. Students could complete self-paced lessons on plot mapping, character development, etc.

Students used Google docs to draft and write their stories. This allowed me to watch their novels in progress! I discovered Twilight fanfiction, zombie apocalypse stories, tragic romance dramas, adolescent underdog sagas, and coming-of-age stories. My students begged to keep writing to the last minute of class!

8th grade students write their novels using Google docs

6th grade students brainstorm topics for their novel
2. NaNoWriMo became a path to collaborative learning.

Collaboration is a future-ready skill our students will need to succeed in their careers. If you doubt this, think of ONE job where collaboration is not needed. Hmmm.

However, our educational system is designed to privilege isolated learning often under the guise of "individualization."  Walk down the halls of your school. Are desks in rows? Are students required to finish their homework alone? Would these student supporting student interactions outside of school be considered a form of cheating?

NaNoWriMo breaks down invisible barriers and allows students to become resources to one another.

For example, my students became collaborators in their writing. They would share their drafts with each other to find ways to develop a character or to resolve a problem in their story. Some students were natural born editors and helped others with the conventions of writing. Some students were especially creative and saw places where a plot twist could enhance a scene.

As my role shifted from being a "sage on stage" to a facilitator of student learning, natural relationships developed.

6th graders share drafts and get feedback from peers

3. NaNoWriMo became a path to authentic publication.

What if students could submit and have a completed novel published AND receive free copies of their book? I know. I didn't believe it either...until Melanie.

Melanie was a newcomer and her first language was Mandarin. She was also an avid reader. Think about the student who sits alone at lunch and reads or walks down the hall with their nose in a book, well, that was Melanie.

Melanie with her published novel
When I introduced my students to the  NaNoWriMo writing project, Melanie seemed relieved. Her writer's notebook replaced her nose-in-book lunch periods. She began coming to my room after school to talk about her NaNoWriMo draft.  Melanie shared her ideas and I was able to affirm her. She didn't need my ideas, Melanie needed to know that the answers were inside of her.

When the NaNoWriMo window closed, Melanie continued editing her novel. She had read the fine print on the NaNoWriMo YWP site. Little did I know that she had spent the winter break polishing and submitted a fifteen chapter novel, until she handed me an autographed copy! Inside the cover she had written:

Thank you, thank you, thank you. I can't say that enough. And, please, please, please wherever you read this, remember that you made half of it.
My heart felt thanks,

Melanie (last name omitted)

I recently reconnected with Melanie this fall. She is now a student at a Texas University on a full scholarship. While I am not able to say with conviction NaNoWriMo was the turning point in her life, I do believe she was given the confidence boost she needed.

Make this November part of your classroom success story by taking the first flying leap today!

Confession Reflection:

  • What are some contributing factors to teacher post-convocation stress? How might unconventional projects like NaNoWriMo alleviate stress?
  • What ELAR/English Common Core or state standards (TEKS)  are supported by projects like NaNoWriMo?
  • How would projects like NaNoWriMo support student agency?
  • Do you know of an educator who would benefit from the NaNoWriMo project? If so, spread the word!
To learn more about NaNoWriMo Young Writer's Project visit their website at:

This link will connect you to step-by-step instructions on how to sign up, set up your virtual classroom,  how to enroll your students, and resources to get your students started:

Sunday, September 3, 2017

How to Not Beat a Dead Horse when the Sky Continuously Rains Cats and Dogs (and other Worn-out Phrases)

Does your head spin after reading four out of five essays in which a student claims they are able to "run as fast as a cheetah"? Does the phrase "It's raining cats and dogs" play in your head like a broken record? Do you feel like pulling your hair out when you hear similar expressions?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, this blog may be right up your alley.

Here are five insights from my own teaching experience that will help you avoid beating a dead horse and keep learning fun and relevant.

1. Add sparkle to creative writing experiences.

At the beginning of the year, I had my creative writing students brainstorm a list their favorite expressions, namely idioms, on individual strips of paper. The idioms were added to the mix of other student created prompts and placed in a shoe box dubbed our class "prompt generator".

It never failed for the worn-out expression "raining cats and dogs" to make the list. The day the prompt was selected, I felt a twitch forming in my left eye. Lo and behold, one of my students, Jared (not his real name) did something so creative!

He fused the prompt with a previous prompt and drafted a story titled: The Day it Rained Cats and Dogs was the Day the Animals Escaped from the Zoo! Jared collaborated with a first grade classroom who then illustrated the story! Jared shared his story with his elementary illustrators on World Read-Aloud Day using Skype.

2. Ditch idioms from the stone-age and teach in context. 

Unless you've been hiding under a rock, pop artists like Taylor Swift's mega-hit, Shake it Off, or Justin Timberlake's Can't Stop the Feeling contain a plethora of figurative language expressions. If you're in need of a fun and relevant activity, I suggest creating a Scavenger Hunt, old school style, and have students work in teams to find these jewels tucked away in their favorite songs.

Another activity is to have students collect phrases that have emerged in their lifetime. I had a middle schooler explain to me what a person meant when they used the expression, I can't unsee it. Online Memes are also popular for holding modern day phrases.

During book clubs or when teaching poetry, my students would play "I spy". During read-alouds, my students knew to be listening for figurative language expressions. We would add these expressions to others on a word wall. The expressions had meaning and context and students were able to access and include these phrases in their own writing.

3. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

One year I had my middle school students work in small groups to  investigate the origins of an expression or develop their own theories. Idioms such as when pigs fly and don't let the cat out of the bag have fascinating histories!

I got the idea after an art student gave me a coffee mug he had designed in art class that showed a pig flying. It was one of my favorite mugs, until he shared the gruesome story involving pigs leaping to escape from being slaughtered!

I began challenging my students to investigate the history of idioms. They discovered that some of our common figurative expressions date back as far as 397 A.D. If my students were unable to find the origin of a expression, they were encouraged to generate a hypothesis. It proved to be a productive way to get my students researching and reporting their findings.

Hint: I found that my middle schoolers (especially boys who were gamers and liked gore) would hit the pavement running if I said something to the effect, "Be careful sharing these stories with others who have a weak stomach."

4. Step out-of-the-box and create opportunities to celebrate diversity.

Students who come to us from different cultures have their own figurative language expressions. I suggest giving students who come to our school from other countries, the opportunity to share expressions unique to their culture (and in their first language).

This is an awesome way to celebrate our differences and learn from one another.

Here is an example. Create a template that include these questions:
1. What is the saying?
2. What language or dialect?
3. What is the literal English translation?
4. Is the saying a proverb? If so, what is the lesson?

A fun extension activity is to play pictionary or heads-up and include the expressions.

5. Keep an open mind to new interpretations.

One year I was assigned a social skills class for middle school students on the autism spectrum. My students took words and phrases literally which presented unique challenges. One of my students, Kristy (not her real name) was especially puzzled by the idiom "it's raining cats and dogs."

Kristy showed me a picture she had drawn of a landscape  with soft, squiggly lines falling from the sky.

I thought, "I've really blown this lesson!"

I stopped and asked Kristy to describe her drawing.

She pointed to the squiggly lines and explained matter-of-factly, "Oh, instead of raining cats and dogs...I changed it to know, just in case it's only sprinkling."

Have a great 2017-2018 school year and go break a leg!

Confession Reflection:
  • How does figurative language enrich our oral and written language? How are these expressions reflective of  history and diverse cultures?
  • Why would it be important to teach these expressions in context rather than in isolation? (Worksheets, multiple choice, matching activities).
  • Are there some figurative language expressions that we should abandon? Why or why not?
  • How many idioms can you spot in this blog? 
figurative language (n.) language that uses words or expressions with a meaning that is different from the literal interpretation.  Idioms are under the umbrella of figurative language and include English colloquials as "hold your tongue" or "easy as pie."

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Future is Calling: Are We Listening?

I confess that I think about the future probably more than most people. It may have been predestined. 

I was born the same year the future-themed, Seattle World's Fair opened and I was a member of the Race to Space generation.

Growing up in Renton, Washington, also had its benefits. I can vividly remember looking up at the Space Needle and wondering if the top part could fly into space. (Afterall, it was called the "Space" Needle). I stepped into an elevator that beamed me and my family up to the top of the Space Needle at unimaginable speed. Standing on the outer balcony, the floor below me rotated too slowly for me to feel, and yet the Seattle skyline changed every few minutes. 

I entered kindergarten in 1967 at the height of the Race to Space years. The school I attended was an experimental school funded by Science. Unlike traditional schools that had desks in rows and subjects segregated by topic, my school was round and had walls between “classes” that open in the day to allow my class to move to different stations to be taught by different teachers. 

Reading, math and writing revolved around science. Since Renton, Washington was the hub of aerospace engineering, we frequently had visits from astrophysicist and engineers from the nearby Boeing Plant.

I remember learning by experience rather than text books. I learned how heat molecules were light in weight and density by pouring hot water dyed with red food coloring into a tank filled with ice-cold water and watching the red dye rise to the top. I remember watching cold water with blue ink drop to the bottom of the tank. Instead of reading and writing about Dick and Jane, I read and wrote about famous scientist like Ben Franklin. 

Learning was meaningful and relevant to our school mission: Land a man on the moon before the Russians.  

Sadly, the funding for my school went away after the moon landing and I experienced a different type of learning where the end goal was to find the correct answer. 

Correctness was privileged over wonderment. 

The mysteries of space were replaced with over-priced text books, end of chapter questions that required me to define ambiguous vocabulary terms detached from meaningful experience.

I demonstrated my understanding by using a number two pencil to correctly “bubble” an option of a, b, c, or d, or all of the above. 

I spent hours upon hours tracing letters of the alphabet on ditto pages (now called worksheets). In middle school, English Language Arts required me to progress through "SRA" reading passages.

I learned how to be good at school. I lost my joy of learning.

Today, I fear that our students are being groomed as early as Kindergarten to privilege assessment over learning. Reading and writing are associated with levels, lexiles, preciseness, and scores. 

Our learners are immersed in acronyms that have flooded our education system and have become a language of its own: IEP, RtI, STAAR, CBS, CAS, ELPS, and so on.

I believe it is our moral obligation to move beyond prescriptive methods of teaching that have held our learners (and teachers) hostage. Classrooms should no longer resemble the classroom of the twentieth century. It's time to move beyond the known, and free our learners to explore the unknown!

The future is calling, but are we listening?

Confession Reflection:
  • What are some ways we can equip students with future-ready skills in order to be successful in the workforce of tomorrow? 
  • Does your curriculum make room for 22nd-century skills to be taught and practiced? i.e. entrepreneurship, experience with digital tools, second language acquisition.
  • How can instructional coaches and administrators support resistant teachers to embrace a growth mindset without shaming or blaming?

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

A Teacher's Summer Tale: The Trade Secrets to Creating Stories that Teach!

Family selfie, June 2016
near Trescott, Texas
I confess that I can weave a tale that would hold the attention of most reluctant readers and writers. The fateful tale of The Lost Camper and the Vampire Bats or The Possum Who Forgot to Play Dead are two of the top favorites. As a middle school literacy coach and reading intervention teacher, I learned the slick tricks to keeping middle schoolers (even addicted gamers) on the edge of their seat.

Disclaimer: These narratives do not come spilling out of my mouth. My stories are intentional and well-planned...and as unexciting as it sounds...often rehearsed in front of my dogs.


It is long-winded, but for the life of me, I didn't know what to cut out. So, no offense if you click out and check out one of my shorter, visually easier-to-read blogs. The top 10 blogs underneath my twitter feed is a good place to start.

And so without further adieu, I will share some of the tricks of the trade as I write a summer tale.

Narrator: Me (teacher)
Audience: Most often students who hate to read and write and are not afraid of tell you so
Length: No more than 10-15 minutes
Title: None (I will ask students to create one for me)
Other: My thoughts and notes in italicize 

Introduction: Hook the listener and provide essential background knowledge.

Before my story begins, you need to know that I, personally, do not hunt; but I'm not against wild hog hunting! I just can't shoot them myself. Actually, this is part of the story. This gives the listener a context. Now wild hogs, also called feral pigs, are not the cutesy, animated caricatures like Pumbaa from the Lion King or Wilbur from Charlotte's Web. I purposefully compare and contrast to familiar characters from books and/or movies. The wild hogs in my story are fiercely mean and dangerous...I use a pregnant pause to hook the reader...and deadly.

In fact, wild hogs in West Texas  pulverize (rich, descriptive vocabulary), or destroy, (demonstration of using a context clue) farmers' fields and eat their crops. At this point, I will allow a student to Google a picture and share with the class. This leverages students' out of school literacies to build background knowledge. Did you know that wild hogs can weigh between 300 to 500 pounds? I am modeling how to use a rhetorical question for a dramatic effect. These hogs have  jaws strong enough to break bones and devour entire carcasses. I might ask a questioned about the scientific name for an animal that eats both plants and animals.

If the wild hog feels threatened, they WILL attack humans. These are beasts (purposeful use of a metaphor) you do NOT want to meet face-to-face. The foundation of my story is laid and students have the background knowledge they need to make predictions and draw inferences as I weave my tale.

Beginning: Establish the setting and characters. 

It was late June when my husband, Mr. Dollar, myself, and our dog, Ben, were on a hunting trip with a few close friends. Since I don't hunt, I take along a good book to read. The land where we hunt has no cell phone service or I would be playing Words with Friends or Candy Crush! I mention Internet games because I want my students to see me outside of the classroom. It's part of characterization and often builds curiosity. Students are fascinated that teachers have a life outside of the classroom! 

Since wild hogs hunt at night, we were safe and sound I throw in an idiom, twenty-five feet off the ground, sitting comfortably in our deer stand. A deer stand is basically a wooden fort propped up by posts with windows on every side. I am using imagery to describe the setting. A wooden ladder, strategically propped against the doorway, is the only way to come and go. Now this is important to remember. I'm coaching my students on information to attend to as they listen. This will help my students to begin to look for clues in stories to support making inferences.

Beginning of story continued: Set the stage and begin building the plot.

Looking out into the night sky, I was able to see thousands of twinkling stars. This particular night it was so clear I was able to find constellations like the Big and Little Dipper. More imagery and connection to academic vocabulary. We had only planned on staying about an hour before heading back to our campsite. In spite of the grueling summer temperatures, at night the temperature may drop to the upper 50's or 60's (degrees Fahrenheit). I pretend to shiver for drama sake. 

Also, our friends were watching our dog, Ben, and knew to come look for us if we were gone for too long. Oh, I forgot to mention there are other dangers besides wild hogs! I do not say anything beyond this statement. Inadvertently students learn to internally ask themselves questions and drawing inferences. This is metacognition at its best!

The temperature was dipping I am purposefully using personification and I was ready to go back to camp. I took one step down the ladder when suddenly I heard a rustling noise coming from somewhere below the stand. This is the initial action that will set off the chain of events in the story.

Middle: Rising action and story climax told with voice inflections.

I froze in my tracks. I am now creating suspense and hoping students will begin making predictions based on the information so far. I always scope out faces for signs of boredom. 

I jumped into the stand and clung to Mr. Dollar. I am using a show-don't-tell strategy. 

What was that? I am also purposefully omitted dialogue tags like "I said" or  "he answered" because that is book talk. Narrative storytelling (apart from books) uses a different discourse. 

Before Mr. Dollar could say a word, we heard the noise again.

If I had to describe it, it would be a high-pitched scream that sounded neither human nor like an animal. It was ferocious sounding and sent chills up and down my spine. There is something enticing when a story teller is in the moment. The story doesn't sound rehearsed. I'd heard of bobcats living in West Texas, but had never heard of any in the area where we typically hunt. This statement teaches students how listeners can use their background knowledge/experiences to make predictions about text.

I prayed that whatever IT was, that IT wouldn't be able to climb the ladder.

Again, the horrific scream. I welcome interruptions at this point. Sometimes students  want to ask a clarifying question, makes a connection, or gives me an out affirmation like, "oh, snap!"

Chills covered my spine and my blood ran cold. This sentence is a trifecta: personification,idioms, and hyperbole combined. Remember there was no cell phone service and our only pair of walkie talkies were in our pick-up truck. We did have a rifle with a night a vision scope and a flashlight and we were prepared to use it. This sentence is important because it shows a fighting spirit; which is important to characterization and supports the end of the story.

We shined a flashlight down at the ground but saw nothing else.

Again, the horrific sound....This is the point to threaten to end the story...I'm not sure if I should continue, because you will not be able to unhear what I'm about to tell you. I use language my students use like "unsee", "unhear" or "throw shade at".

And that's where I will stop for today. This is how I know if the story is adolescent worthy. A good story will have students begging for more. 

Ending: Falling action and resolution after hearing sufficient begging.

Of course, I do finish my stories and ask for an honest evaluation (thumbs up or thumbs down). I tell students that I need their help to come up with a good title. This can be a competition or whole group effort. There are no grades assigned. No teacher ruse like telling students, "Now, you get to think of a story to tell your partner." NEVER. EVER. DO. THIS.

Kids are smart and will catch on that you only told the story to teach them something. This is true, of course. The trick is to do everything possible to avoid the slightest hint of the underlying lessons embedded in your story. When you've done this, you are on your way to mentoring others!

The bottom line is that I believe stories live inside of all of us. As teachers, we are FAR more valuable than the newest and coolest literacy program. Scripted programs or a bubble map can not come close to the well-planned lesson modeled by a teacher in storytelling form. This is because creativity can not be bottled or bought!

Sometimes the best lessons come from the imagination of excellent teachers.

What story lives inside of you?

Confession Reflection

  • In your opinion, are there advantages to teacher storytelling? Are there disadvantages?
  • Why would it be important to allow student-directed activities in response to a story (creating a title, researching more on a self-selected topic i.e. vampire bats)? Would student engagement change if teacher stories were followed up by graded assignments or a quiz?
  • What is the value of creating a space for teacher storytelling in the classroom? Why is it important to recognize and encourage teacher's unique voices and ways of telling stories?
  • How would teacher storytelling support student learning of Common Core standards?

Reference: Plot Map

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Explaining the Unexplainable to Kids

How do we approach a topic that exposes the evil within mankind?

September 11, 2001, teachers across the nation had to deal with the worst terrorist attack on American soil. District and campus administrators had the unconscionable responsibility of communicating to teachers the events as they unfolded during that horrific day.

There were no cell phones or desk top computers in classrooms, so word was spread mouth to mouth all the while shielding our students from information that was difficult for adults to digest.

I remember being in a classroom and trying to wrap my head around an act so deplorable. I found myself second guessing what our campus administrator was telling us. After hearing the news of an airplane hitting the Pentagon, I secretly filed it away in what would now be considered "Fake News."

911 is years behind us, but every teacher, every administrator, every parent remembers the helplessness and disbelief that something so evil could happen in the U.S.A,. It was unfathomable. Years after the fact, I still feel a sickness in the pit of my stomach when I remember that fateful day. One of my favorite country artists, Alan Jackson, penned the song Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning." The song captured the immense grief and heartache we felt.

May 22, 2017, childrens' innocence was stripped away because of the evil acts of terrorism that took place at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England. Unlike the events of 911, smart phones have changed the culture on how we relay information. Social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat have opened the floodgates to a world of information that can be accessed by any child with access to a smart phone.

I can promise you our children are far more worldly than we want to imagine. Children are Internet savvy. It would be naive to believe that we have control over what our children see. Like many of you, I believe that parents have the responsibility of talking with their children about this event, however, there are instances when the lines between parent and teacher become cloudy.

If a student wants to talk about this tragedy, how do we go about explaining the unexplainable?

1) Look for the helpers.

Mr. Rogers explains how when he was a little boy, when there was a catastrophe on the air, his mother would say, "always look for the helpers." Direct children's attention to the Good Samaritans, the hospital workers, ambulance drivers, organizations such as the Red Cross, and others who are giving support and healing to families effected by this tragedy.

2) Flood social media with positive messages.

Author Peter Reynolds @peterhreynolds tweeted out, "We can make more light-together" #manchester #UK  If you have an individual or school Twitter account, retweet positive messages that are uplifting. If you are a teacher or administrator, you could post social media posts.  J.K Rowing @jk_rowling is an outstanding role model for shifting the focus from terror to positivity.

3) Be honest.
As much as we want to reassure our students that nothing bad will ever happen to them, that simply isn't true. There is a way to share honestly, without sensationalizing stories that instill fear in all of us. Seek out professionals in your district to get support on how to communicate in ways that are appropriate depending on the age and maturity of the child. 

In the words of children's author, Peter Reynolds, "There is more good than bad in the world. More light than darkness..." Pass the word along.

Confession Reflection
  • Why is it important for district leaders to consider district wide professional development to help educators respond to events such as 911 and May 22nd terrorist act? How would professional development benefit teachers? i.e. create a common language, learn age-appropriate responses, digital footprint awareness
  • What are ways educators can acknowledge acts of terrorism in terms that would not sensationalize or invoke fear in our students? 
  • How can teachers and administrators partner with parents and community outreach programs during times of crisis?

Sunday, May 14, 2017

How to Keep Your Sanity and Teach Kids Simultaneously

It's the final weeks until schools all across the United States and Canada are about to be let out for summer vacation.

Tensions rise. Claws come out. Betrayals happen. Fear of contracts not being renewed can spark nasty rumors. It's easy to get caught up and forget who we are as educators and why we do what we do.

Here are 5 survival tips from the movie Top Gun to help educators make it to the last day of school in one piece!

1. Stay focused!

One of the easiest things to do is to be swept away by needless distractions.
Rumors and gossip can spread like a wildfire sparking fear in your staff and/or the teachers you work with everyday.

Anytime a conversation starts with, "Have you heard....?" or "Did you hear about....?" That's a sign to disengage in the conversation. Keep your focus on our most valuable commodity: our learners! Don't let distractions shortchange our kids.

2. Stay connected!

Don't be fooled into thinking that you can coast through the end of the year alone. This is especially difficult for educators or administrators who have felt betrayed or have been let down by a team member. This isn't to say you have to go into relationships with blind trust. It's okay to have your guard up, but it is foolish to think you can finish strong if you choose not to work collaboratively with your professional learning community (PLC) and administration.

3. Gear check!

Ask: Do I have what I need to finish out the year? Are my discipline procedures in place? Do I have the supplies I need? Don't wait until next year. Go ahead and put in a help ticket to technology department if a computer decides to have a mind of its own.

 Keep fresh supplies in your room. Learners can sense when their teacher has checked out for summer vacation and this may directly effect their behavior (in a negative way)! Also, don't forget to BREATHE normally and smile. This will give the illusion that you are calm and self-assured even if you're a nervous wreck!

4. Honor those in authority over you!

This can be a tough one especially if you feel like an administrator is out to get you. In reality, the opposite is true! Our administration is there to support and help their staff be successful. Think about it: their success as a Superintendent, Curriculum Director, Principal, or Assistant Principal is dependent on the performance of the staff they oversee.

 It's easy to feel singled out, especially if your end-of -year evaluation doesn't portray you as the shiny penny you believe you are. Keep your head up. Show respect. It's okay to self-advocate but do so respectfully!

5. Be professional...always!

I recently read a statement: You can never be too overdressed or over-prepared. I'm not sure how applicable that is...but there is a hidden gem in this wise saying. How we dress, our tone of voice, the way we interact with co-workers, parents, and learners should stay professional.

Let's be honest. Our learners are going to be going bonkers the closer to the last day school. Award ceremonies, field trips, year book signing parties, are all going to add to the adrenaline rush. Keep your composure and keep doing what's best for kids!

Confession Reflection:
  • What are ways educators can mentally prepare for the weeks prior to summer vacation?
  • Why is it important to maintain positive interactions with staff, parents, and learners?
  • How can educators veer away from negative conversations without hurting feelings or isolating themselves? Why is it important to avoid fueling hurtful rumors?

Sunday, April 16, 2017


It's that time of year when a collective sigh can be heard from teachers and administrators in schools across America. The one-size-fits-all, state-mandated accountability test is over. Now what?

Before introducing a new unit, I propose having an in-school playtime in your classroom.  I'm not talking about a whole class free-for-all that will result in your serious consideration of taking early retirement; but rather play that is manageable.

It is planned. It is focussed. It is productive.

Inviting play into the classroom is as easy as supplying a few board games purchased at a Goodwill, playdough, and legos. If you have access to Ipads and you are supported by your principal, play can turn into digital creations. (I'll share an example later).

Play can be cost efficient. Recipes for playdough can be found on Pinterest or a simple google search for teachers on a't we all?

Why play?  Erik Jenson, author of Teaching with the Brain in Mind, contends play builds memory and improves parts of the brain used for problem-solving. There are countless studies by neuroscientists to support how positive emotions associated with play improve mood.

Think about the student in your classroom who is not able to remember how to get from point A to point B after you have gone over, and over, and over the instructions. Think about the student who looks sad and may even be acting out in anger.

I'm not saying throwing an activity together and calling it "play" will support students.  Play needs to be something that you (the teacher) will buy into or your stress will spill over into other parts of your life. You will feel like kicking the dog when you get home. If you're like me, there needs to be structure. Give students clear expectations. I went as far as to say to my middle schoolers how play improved learning. Make play work for you and your classroom. 

Here are some ways play supports learning:

1) Play fuels the brain.

After buying one too many games with missing pieces at garage sales, I decided to write a grant for board games. Before the ink was dry, a parent came to me and asked, "What if I could get games donated to your classroom?" In no less than a week, my campus's parent-teacher organization (PTO) collected and donated more games than I could have imagined (or afforded).

With the influx of games, I upped play days to the first 15 minutes of class two times a week. I noticed the students who routinely played board games participated more in classroom discussions. My first-period sleepy heads were visibly more awake and had fewer tardies.

2) Play builds self-efficacy.

Self-efficacy is a fancy term meaning the belief in oneself to complete tasks or reach goals. One year I had a student beg me to allow him to bring his new Lego collection to school on Fridays. (He had a 'special edition'). After pricing Legos on my own, I agreed.

During playtime, you would have thought my Lego builders were given a secret agent assignment because they seemed secretive about their creation.

One day my Lego builders called me over, "Mrs. Dollar, do you want to watch our Lego movie?"

"Your Lego movie?" I repeated. I had no idea.

After watching their movie, I was awe-struck. These were sixth graders with no previous experience (that I was aware of) in moving making of any kind.

When I asked how they learned to make the video, one of the students hunched his shoulders and answered, "I googled it!"

I also learned that my Lego builders had been learning about Recycling in their Science class.

3) Play improves mood.

Ask any teacher if learning should be fun, and you'll get a variety answers. I tend to reside in the "learning is fun" camp. In my opinion, there are far too many stresses our students deal with outside of the school walls. If play can bring some reprieve from life's disappointments like parents getting a divorce, or worries over money for groceries, then it is worth doing. 

I believe it is during play when students are able to take a moment and leave their stress at the classroom door. 

Note: I invited play into my middle school literacy classroom after attending a district training on teaching students in poverty with Eric Jensen. My assistant principal (and supervisor) asked me to try some of the strategies presented in the training as part of our campus initiative. One strategy involved using games to improve memory. The first year, I had phenomenal results in improved behavior and even test scores, that I continued using games. I added "play" because I had some students who didn't want to participate in an activity that involved competition. When play became a routine part of my classroom, I supported activities with state learning standards and added reading and writing extension activities. If you'd like to try implementing play on a routine basis, you'll need the support from your administration. 

Confession Reflection: 
  • How might play support a positive classroom learning environment?
  • What are some characteristics of play that would equip students with skills to be successful in the real world? i.e. taking turns, social language, collaboration
  • Why is it important for teachers to make play accessible to ALL students? What are the dangers of making play only accessible to 'well-behaved' students?

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Lost in Translation: When Lesson Plans Go Wrong

As with most adventures in life, things don't always go as planned. It was 2007, light years away from Angry Birds, Iphones, and instagram. Class projects relied on the good ol' #2 pencil, glue stick, colored pencils, crayons, scissors, and a trusty ruler.

I was a week away from spending a romantic springbreak get-a-way with my husband touring the city of love and lights; Paris, France. But as with all teachers, it is in our DNA to carry our students in our hearts, even on vacation.

I was walking the aisles of Hobby Lobby when a miniature passport with the Eiffel Tower on the cover caught my eye. Wa-La! The Flat Stanley project was scheduled to launch. It would be the crème de la crème of literacy ventures. I would take a class-made Flat Stanley to Paris, snap photos, and return ready to translate the photos into a journal starring our very own Flat Stanley.

Before internet gizmos and gadgets, hashtags, and Avatars, Flat Stanley was a simple paper cut-out, shaped like a boy with reddish-brown hair, fair skin, and rosy cheeks. He was an ordinary boy until a bulletin board fell on him during the night flattening him. The 1964 book series, by Jeff Brown, has Stanley capturing burglars and retrieving keys from storm drains; feats of heroism attainable because of his flatness.

As fate would have it, the day my literacy class was scheduled to discuss our global project, I bit down on a cherry jolly rancher and cracked my back molar. I went to the dentist and was told I needed a root canal. I scrambled sub plans and wrote detailed notes on Flat Stanley literacy circles, mapping out his adventures to famous landmarks, and of course, using paper templates of Flat Stanley.

When I returned on Thursday, teachers would vote anonymously on which Stanley would go. It was a lot to ask from a substitute, but visions of the project trumped any common sense.

Dreams of French pastries and desserts kept me strong through the ordeal, and I was confident the Flat Stanley project would prevail. I would not...could not...let a jolly rancher take me and our class project down.

The swelling was worse than expected and  a dry socket would keep me out until Friday...the last day before spring break. I emailed my substitute who assured me the students were "highly engaged" and the students' characters were "coming along nicely."

I returned to school to find a plethora of paper creations lining the walls, only none of them looked like Flat Stanley.  I opened my book bag and a lump formed in my throat.

The crispy white sheets of Flat Stanley templates, were tucked neatly inside my school tote bag, along with my project plans. 

I looked around the room. There was a Harry Potter look-alike (scar and all), a transformer, a Justin Bieber, and even a Pegasus. I wanted to cry. What have they done? I cursed the jolly rancher. In the absence of templates and lesson plans, the students didn't know that they were creating a Flat Stanley replica that would actually go to France.

My substitute wasn't to blame either. I had forgotten to take the templates out and half of the plans were paper clipped to the copies. She only knew to read books and have students create a character using their imagination. It was the best I could've expected, really, given the circumstances.

I confess that I blamed the jolly rancher for years for the project gone bust. But there was a bright spot in the Flat Stanley Fiasco, as I called it for years. His character was unmistakable. With the exception of Flat Stanley's hair and white complexion, it was Kenny to a tee.

He had also designed a passport with a hand-drawn Eagle on the cover with black marker.

I pulled him aside, "You did a wonderful job drawing your character. What is his name?" (I excepted for him to say his name).

"Mrs. Dollar! He already has a name...Flat Stanley!"

After class, I quietly asked Kenny if he'd like for me to take his Flat Stanley and he answered, "Duh! That's why I made a passport!"

I confess that I wanted to create an authentic Flat Stanley, the one Mr. Brown would be proud of (or so I thought), but my teacher inner voice screamed no! I guess you could say it's one of the moments when, as a teacher, I had to let go of preconceived notions, my ideal lesson, the crème de la crème project.. and go with the heart.

To learn more about the Flat Stanley Literacy project:

Confession Reflection:
  • Has there ever been a project/lesson that didn't go the way you planned? What did you learn from the experience?
  • Can you think of a teacher who affirmed you in some way? Did the experience shape how you relate to your students?
  • How can administrators nurture a climate that affirms risk-taking and celebrates "jolly rancher" moments?
I originally published this blog in 2013, but decided to republish this year. This is one of my all-time favorite blogs. I also found more pictures to post.