Opening the doors

pexels-photo-792032.jpegSometimes, I am all too apt to close my classroom door and teach. It gets noisy out there in that pod, though truthfully, I think the noise is usually coming from my exuberant, easily excitable learners. My classes easily win the prize for Loudest Class Breaks, which I realize is on me!

However, sometimes, we all shut our doors and forget there are opportunities out there beyond our four walls. I’m guilty of that for sure. I get in my own little routine and my own little head space. I forget who’s out there and what they have to offer us. It’s all too easy to close off and tune out. 

Yesterday, I opened our doors and welcomed the visitors. It just kinda happened! It enhanced my classroom, and it was a heck of a fun way to end my teaching day, especially because the rest of my day was spent on the dreaded standardized SBAC testing.

My neighbor teacher, one of the funniest, big-hearted women I know (and it is not an exaggeration to say our kids ADORE her), asked if I was doing a Fishbowl discussion any time soon.She was interested in observing one and seeing different approaches to discussion.  I hadn’t planned on one, but then I thought, “Sure, why not?”

My Language Arts students were reading different examples of conclusions for critical reviews and commented on their ‘noticings’ in Google Classroom. I was going to have them briefly discuss it in class anyways, so it was an opportunity to push their thinking more.

Just for the record, if you want the smiliest, most supportive, enthusiastic teacher to watch you teach, get my teacher neighbor. And follow her lead if you ever go and watch another classroom. The whole time, she grinned, leaned forward, smiled at the kids, and listened hard. She was a warm, open, curious presence. Afterwards, she made some observations, praised the kids, and asked some questions. It all took maybe twenty minutes. And she told me afterwards, “Now I get it!” She is doing all sorts of totally engaging activities with her social studies and reading kids, and I want to pop in and watch her in action, too.

It also made us both think, “Why aren’t we all observing each other all of the time?”

I have been hearing about schools who use professional development days to observe other teachers in other schools. I read about another school who has teachers visit other subject areas on a regular basis so that science teachers can see what’s happening in math, or English teachers can watch band (I can testify to its benefits, having observed our band teacher). And I also read about a ‘Pineapple’ chart. Every day in a common area, teachers can post a strategy or technique that might be beneficial to another colleague. It is optional rather than required. During prep time, teachers can drop in and watch another teacher instruct for a few minutes. Often, it’s all we need to get something great we can use with our own students. 

It’s good to be reminded of how much we can learn from each other. There are hundreds of years of teaching experience in my building. Okay. THOUSANDS of years…we’re on the old side!

The next cool visit came from two delightful former eighth grade students. Often, before class begins, they joke with me about wanting to come into our Language Arts class again. Before class today, right before my neighbor teacher popped in, I half-jokingly invited them to visit towards the end of class when my students are peer-revising critical reviews.

Lo and behold, there they were! I told the girls to ask my seventh graders if they wanted a Bless, Address, or Press, which is a National Writing Project strategy for revision. Basically,  the writer requests specific praise, asks for suggestions or feedback on a specific concern or problem area, or asks, “What do I still need to do to be done?”

The two girls jumped right in like professional writing coaches! They circulated around the classroom, sitting with my seventh graders, asking questions, gently pointing out areas of the writing that were unclear or could be worded more persuasively or effectively. My students were nodding, smiling, and making changes on the spot.

Afterwards, I asked the two eighth graders how it went. One girl exclaimed, “It’s so much EASIER to work with kids who aren’t my age! I look at their writing differently, and I feel like I can help them more. It’s fun!” I practically leaped for joy. 

My students commented after the ‘big kids’ left, saying the older girls helped them see things in their writing that they were missing. A few mentioned that now they have a clearer direction to keep revising. This all just makes my day, those little rays of preteen sunshine.  

I am curious about different grade levels mentoring each other’s writing. I am going to think more about this. I also keep thinking how much we benefit from leaving our comfort zones. As I read recently, “Leaving your comfort zone is where the magic happens.” It’s not just for my students. It’s for me. It’s for my colleagues. It’s for my former students, my current students, and my future students..

Yesterday reminded me to stay curious and flexible, to leave my comfort zone, and to  keep our door open.

Teaching is so hard, and teaching is so rewarding. Class periods like this remind me why I love my job.

Here is a link to the article about teachers observing other teachers.





Some Thoughts on Book Love

Whenever you read a good book, somewhere in the world a door opens to allow in more light.

–Vera Nazarian

My thoughts are a little scattered here, but I would still like to share them. Even with my scatter, I am still laser-focused on how we cultivate readers. Not just any readers. Lifelong readers. Readers who will read to their children some day. Readers who know themselves, who stretch, who grow, who change as a result of the books they read.

If you haven’t checked out middle grade or young adult literature recently, just know that we are in a Golden Age. Witness my classroom door, full of books I have read all year long. There are SO MANY GREAT books out there. So many stories I learn from as an adult. So many stories that help my students feel like they have a place in this big, complicated world.IMG-7648.JPG

This year, I am giving my English students Book Love, a minimum of ten minutes per day of independent reading time every single day. Our focus is writing, but strong readers make strong writers. We all know this. I want my kids soaking in words. I want my kids reading how good stories are told. I want them to see themselves in what they read, and I want them to see other people’s experiences, too. I have heard Language Arts described as Empathy Class, and when we read with open hearts, our hearts grow, too.

Book Love is sacred. Nothing gets in its way, and it’s such a beautiful way to begin class. I love looking around at kids curled up on our half-full beanbags or nestled in a corner. I love the soft hush of pages turning. I love whispering with kids about what they love about their current book, which characters they relate to, what surprises them, what they’ll read next, how they connect. It connects us, too.

Not all kids read. But most do. It is worth our weight in gold, regardless.

Every bit of research I have read, and I’ve read a lot this year, points me to the power of independent choice reading. This means giving kids time during school to read and allowing them to read what they want. It doesn’t mean just leaving them alone to read, though. We guide, support, ask questions, and, yes, challenge our kids to stretch themselves as readers.

Here’s a big idea.

“Results from the world’s largest annual study of K-12 student reading habits found that students who started the year as struggling readers but ended the year at or above benchmark each day read just six more minutes than struggling readers who did not meet the benchmark.”

Six minutes, people.

It’s even better when kids choose what they want to read. It’s even better when they start figuring out what they will read next. It’s pretty much awesome when I get to talk to my kids about these books. It is building new bridges between all of us.

Our seventh grade Language Arts department is giving students approximately sixty to eighty minutes of independent reading per week. The research I quoted above makes me feel like it should be way more.

Book Love-this independence, this choice- is all new to me. But I will say this. Back in high school, a long time ago, I faked my way through the vast majority of classics we were supposed to read. I could write a competent five-paragraph essay, and I felt prepared for rigorous college courses, but I did not become an English major even though I live and breathe books and love to write. I was so turned off by all of the analysis I had to do that I just couldn’t bear it in college. So many times in my teaching career, I have wished that I had majored in English so that I could teach high school and so that I had that grounding in literature. Now I listen as my daughter, my son, and my students, remind and warn me of the danger of too much analysis. I try to find that sweet spot between Book Love and realizing new things about what I read and why it matters to me. In reality, it’s all about the Book Love.

Let’s open the door. Let’s let some light in. Let’s read.

Fishbowl Learning

pexels-photo-942295.jpegLately I have felt dragged down by the weight of the world. Heavy news keeps on happening. It’s often bad as we’re all too acutely aware.

But my seventh graders continue to give me hope, and here’s why.

My mom was visiting for a long weekend from my faraway homeland of Minnesota, so I took a personal day. We’ve started writing critical reviews (reviews of books, TV shows, movies, video games, music, etc.) but also had to stop to write a district-wide Common Assessment. So, my substitute teacher showed them The Outsiders. It wasn’t fair to ask a sub to teach the next complicated steps for writing a review.  As students viewed the film, they filled out a T-Chart, jotting down what was strong or weak about the movie, how many stars they rated the movie out of 5, thoughts about the plot, characters, and conflicts as well as what hooked them or didn’t hook them. All of this would be used in a fishbowl discussion when I returned.

A fishbowl is otherwise known as a Socratic Seminar. I like to have four students in the inner fishbowl at one table. Then, the rest of the class forms a circle around them. Occasionally, depending on the topic, I’ll choose a few students to stand up front and write down “Big Ideas” on a big piece of butcher paper as the discussion progresses. Sometimes each student has a coach in the outer circle, while other kids keep track of how many times each inner fishbowl student speaks or how many times they use a collaborative sentence starter. There are many ways to do fishbowls, and the level of complexity often depends on the topic of discussion as well as time…isn’t it always about time?!

Movies and T-charts are not rock star lessons by any means, but it kept our ball rolling. It gave my students more practice with evaluating and analyzing different elements of a text and expressing their opinions clearly with supporting evidence  It wasn’t ideal timing for the pacing of the unit. However, teachers all know life happens, and I only see my mom a few times a year.

But it all worked out even better than I had anticipated. I love it when that happens.

On my return, after a lovely day with my mom, my substitute noted that kids didn’t seem super engaged with the movie or with taking notes. During my prep period, after reviewing kids’ T-charts, I thought, “Uh oh. This fishbowl could be a you-know-what-show.” I thought about blowing off the fishbowl. I’m so glad I didn’t.

Part of the power of the fishbowl is that kids know my role is to listen to their voices. I do not ever step in and comment during a fishbowl  unless an unkind comment is made, which rarely happens. If kids sit there staring at each other, they remember those awkward silences, and they’ll do it differently next time. Often, they start to use the collaborative sentence starters more, they think about how to progress the discussion, and they figure out how to invite new voices into the conversation.

I drew name cards on the spot so that kids could see the groups were random. We let there be a ‘rollie chair’ option, where kids from the outer circle could roll into the fishbowl to ask questions to move the discussion forward or in a different direction. I also modelled how you move from the outer to the inner circle by waiting for a natural pause in the conversation rather than jumping in and interrupting. It’s important to set the tone right away.

I grade fishbowls, though I don’t grade whether a student talks or not. Some kids are extreme introverts. Some kids have conflicts with other kids in the room. Some kids have had a really, really, really bad day, week, or month. It just doesn’t seem fair to ask them to push through some of these vulnerabilities. But I do encourage them on the side and give other opportunities to give it a go again. By the end of the year, with practice, kids all end up participating. Students receive full credit for listening/participating, lose points for blurting once, and lose all points for blurting twice. This also rarely happens. They like to hear each other!

To my utter delight, both of my classes carried on great conversations. The outer circle listened respectfully to each other. And, surprise, surprise, they voiced lively, varied opinions. For example, some kids thought the old 50s music detracted from the movie, while one of my musician kiddos argued eloquently that the music made sense and even enhanced the movie. One of my hardest kiddos gave me plenty of reasons to praise him when I saw him later in the day. He was insistent about how the BOOK WAS SO MUCH BETTER than the movie and could back up his opinion with clear, persuasive examples. I tried not to jump up and down with glee!

I will note. This is the group  I heard about all last year. How unkind they were to each other. How they constantly put each other down whenever they got the chance. They are still not easy. But they give me hope.

The next day I told them how proud I was. I told them that our country is currently in a critical state of “not listening.” I reflected what I heard: agreeing, disagreeing, listening, responding. Every student used a respectful tone. Some students even invited others who had remained quiet to speak. I told them that in past years, it often takes us many fishbowls to find our voices and find our ears.

Sometimes we discover student strengths in unexpected moments.

Sometimes we catch students exceeding our expectations.
In these moments, they give us hope for the future. For all of our futures.

Many of my best moments with my students are when I close my mouth and listen, just listen, and trust them.

Breaking Rules With a Mentor Text Blitz

pexels-photo-216630.jpegI’m in search of reading great writing. Writing that shines, soars, and inspires.

Not five paragraph essays.

You will note that I just broke a number of writing rules. It’s pretty darned liberating. I’ve always followed the premise (or is it dogma?)  that I want my students to learn the rules of writing first. Then, break the rules. Yeah, maybe they’ll get to do that in high school? Til then, we’re following the rules, right?

But I want my seventh grade students crafting shining, soaring, inspiring writing right now. I don’t want to wait. Maybe I’m selfish, but I want them to try it while I am their teacher. What if we are truly trying to imitate those beautifully crafted novels, poems, memoirs, reviews, articles, and essays we’re reading every day? Would our writing sound stronger, more crafted, more powerful?

I’m guessing yes.

Writers often use intentional fragments. They begin sentences with coordinating conjunctions like and, but, or so. To pack a punch, they use a one-sentence paragraph. If they’re making a complex point using complicated evidence, examples, and evidence, sometimes it takes more than one paragraph, and sometimes those paragraphs don’t need a topic sentence. Sometimes, the thesis appears at the end. Sometimes, it’s the title of the article.

If we truly want our writers to emulate and learn from other writers, then maybe, just maybe, we can begin breaking rules sooner. After all, middle school kids thrive on testing rules, limits, and boundaries.

Consequently, instead of teaching a more traditional five-paragraph persuasive essay, I decided to experiment with critical reviews. Critical reviews are an ideal way to mess with structure, think hard about what we love or hate and why, and express our ideas clearly. Reviews analyze and evaluate, and they also break some of these dogmatic writing rules in applicable, powerful ways.

We’re going for it, even though it’s overwhelming me at the moment. It’s my fourth new genre study of the year, and my brain is scrambled. But it’s worth it.

I spent hours searching for the perfect mentor texts-strong reviews my students can emulate- and I felt like Goldilocks. “This one is too basic. This one is too confusing. This one is too long. This one uses such big vocabulary!” I can write my own review, which I will. I’ll continue searching for strong published writing that engages and pushes my writers. Next year (do you know how many times this year I’ve said, “Next year”) I’ll also have student samples to use.

As I planned the critical review unit, I was starting to panic. I kept wanting to find writing that would hook my kids right away and inspire them to write their own reviews. Well, like many best-laid plans, it didn’t work the way I thought it would, but it still worked. 

Initially, I wanted my students to have a buffet-style experience so that they could read a wide variety of possibilities to inspire them. I ended up using movie, music, and TV reviews written by Los Angeles teenagers on a now-defunct website called, a few reviews from Teen Ink, along with one more current piece about baseball slugger J.D. Martinez signing with the Red Sox (the Diamondbacks fans in my family were NOT happy and had plenty of lively analysis that morning).

I made multiple copies of each review, seven in all, and taped each onto a big piece of butcher paper along with some magic markers. I chose groups beforehand-either partners or trios. Each group read a review and recorded what they noticed on the butcher paper. I also posted criteria for strong writing on a wall chart as a reference for discussion. The language is based on criteria from Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle we’ve been using all year long. My students can use it clumsily and sometimes accurately at this point in the year.

The best conversations arose as I walked around and chatted with different groups. Was the review persuasive, even if you’re not into the topic? Was the writer passionate about the topic-could you tell? Did the writer know a lot about his or her topic? Did the writer stay focused? Did the examples support the main point?

We rotated around to three different stations. When the time was up, I put a chart on the document camera and called on kids randomly to describe a positive or negative quality of one review they read. The responses were pretty standard, but it led to my students discussing and  thinking, How can I make my review NOT boring?!

Students like stations. And, I liked how my students interacted with an unfamiliar genre of writing and with each other. I don’t always have rigid expectations guiding these types of discussions; instead, I like to offer enough structure and freedom to let conversations evolve in different and possibly unexpected directions. I can see using this strategy with stations but have students all read the same mentor text. Different groups can comment on different elements of the writing, like the hook, conclusion, evidence, sentence structure, and so on.

Meanwhile, kids did NOT like most of the reviews they read. In the past, I might have panicked or honestly become slightly passive aggressive, like, Do you know how long this took me to find mentor texts?! SIGH!  It’s partly why I’ve always depended heavily on using past students’ writing as mentor texts. They tend to hook my kids right away. In our small town where everyone is related, I’ll often hear, “Hey, my cousin/sister/uncle wrote that!”  

However, student writing sometimes has its limitations. Even though my kids weren’t totally hooked by the mentor texts I selected, they still served a purpose. The texts showed my students what a basic review looks like, some elements of a review, and some ways into the writing. All was not lost. I just had to jump in and try it out.

I seriously think my neural pathways are about to explode this year. In a good way. But you might find me at the lake every day next summer, staring at blue sky and drifting clouds while I let my brain sift through all that I’ve read and learned about how to be a better language arts teacher. My search for mentor texts and learning how to use them more effectively is yet another piece of the puzzle to help my students’ writing stretch and grow. All this thinking, reading, and experimenting is helping me stretch and grow right beside them.

And, it’s time to start breaking rules. It’s time to start crafting writing like real writers do. It’s time to shake up the dogma and learn differently. I’ll let you know what I discover.

As a first step, I’m looking for great reviews. Reviews that not only persuade us but help us see the world through a different lens. Reviews that connect us to each other because of their deep respect for artistry, craft, musicianship, athleticism, creativity, or risk. Reviews that help us understand a book, a movie, or a moment differently, with fresh eyes. No review is perfectly perfect. I realize that there is something new we can learn from absolutely anything. Everything can teach us.

Next year I’ll keep learning.

Resources: I’m currently reading both of these books by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell. Both texts are invaluable in guiding my thinking and teaching.

Beyond Literary Analysis

Writing With Mentors


Sticky Thinking

pexels-photo-209678.jpegI’m looking for ways for my seventh graders to create real world, authentic writing that they can also share with an authentic audience. Critical reviews are a great way to teach kids how to form a specific, focused opinion, how to evaluate the best evidence to effectively support this opinion, how to write in a lively, engaging way, how to persuade us that their opinion has merit and is worthy of consideration, and always, how to let their voices shine through. Lots of meaty skills all in one little package!

When I decided on reviews for our next unit, I originally debated; should I keep it simple and stick to Nancie Atwell’s book, movie, or TV review? But then I read Beyond Literary Analysis, which reexamines the definition of a text. It talks about cultivating both authority and passion to analyze texts on a deeper level. So many times, I’ve had kids write about a book, poem, or story they didn’t connect with. No passion. Very little authority. Or, I’ll give them tons of choice for an informational or persuasive essay. The research required to deeply explore the topic takes forever. By the end, more than two months later, we’re all desperately sick of the work, and I am grumpy. No one wants a grumpy English teacher, right?

After spinning ideas around in my already overcrowded teacher brain, I decided to open it up full throttle and let my kids fly. Students can choose to write a critical review about a video game, a book, a movie, a TV series, season or episode, a restaurant, a music album, song, artist, or concert, or they can analyze a sports-related topic-a team’s lineup, a game, a trade, a particular athlete.

Of course, when I ran all these varied options by my students, thinking, wow, this is a lot for me to grab on to, one chatty kid, a kid who fights independent reading time like it’s his job, a kid who has also finished three books this year, a new record for him, immediately raised his hand.

“Can I review skis?” I knew some of my students would ask about reviewing products, and then I’d be searching for yet more mentor texts. It would complicate matters. But this kid races. We talk about the snow conditions almost every day and look up the snow report. He knows skis. He loves skis. Skiing is his passion, and if he can write about his passion, his writing will be stronger. 

Another student loves all things mechanical: four-wheelers, trucks, and especially diesel engines.  This might be the only topic that lights him up, that he knows a ton about. Authority and passion. I said yes. Sold. After all, this year is all about the learning, the messiness, the process, and creating situations where my students can fly.

We started off brainstorming, thinking, talking, and writing. On Valentine’s Day, kids wrote down five non-human things they loved. Then they ranked them. Then they partnered up to explain why they ranked them that way. A few kids didn’t follow directions, imagine that, put family, pets, or friends on the list, and discovered that they kinda missed the point. 

My list was: books, running, mountain lakes, sushi, and nacho cheese Doritos. In that order. Many students ranked sleep first! I should have! Our classroom filled with lively discussion, pointing, and wild gestures. It’s a loud group. Sometimes they deceive me with their volume. I assume they’re way off the deep end, and then it turns out they’re arguing the finer points of J.D. Martinez moving from the Diamondbacks to the Red Sox. They finished off with a quickwrite where they wrote about any of their topics and explained the reasoning behind their rankings.

The next day, I wanted to encourage messy thinking. I’ve been reading about making the writing classroom into more of a makerspace. Every year, many of my kids are super kinesthetic. They’d much rather be fixing a four wheeler, racing down Slalom on Big Mountain at forty miles per hour, or building vacuum engines out of Legos than writing some essay thingie. Fair enough, but I still need to teach them to write effectively and powerfully.

I’m trying to figure out strategies to help writing be more hands-on. Angela Stockman’s book, Make Writing, had some killer ideas about tinkering, so I jumped on it.

Kids brainstormed three main topics they’re interested in, and I let them go wild here, not worrying too much about it. They got three different colors of sticky notes, fifteen total, and a big piece of construction paper. They had to come up with their “Top 5” for each topic and rank them. They could move the sticky notes around on the paper to rank them, which many hands on kids appreciated. Plus, what’s not to love about colorful sticky notes?

Okay, having kids hand out the sticky notes was a hot mess the first time around. I kept hearing, “I don’t have enough purple!” Then again, this particular group has come a long way. Nobody even stuck them on their foreheads!

Finally, we arranged ourselves in an inner and outer circle, partnered up, and had two minutes to explain some of their rankings.  We rotated through two or three more partners, and then, at the end of class, they used their thinking in a quickwrite.

This is getting us closer to topics. As I listened to their conversations, they were analyzing! Yes! Most kids already had a starting point. Of course, there are students who looked at me slightly panicked or way too blase, not knowing what to write about yet. I didn’t make a big deal out of finishing the sticky note posters-even if kids wrote five topics down, it’s getting them somewhere. But I also talked with one student who hasn’t loved the past few genre studies. He was telling me about Primus, the bass player from Primus, his influence on different Primus albums, and the guest drummer on some of their albums. Brilliant. I can already hear his thinking shifting and deepening. Another student, who does not love to read at this juncture, could talk about the changing characters, conflict, and how it affects the plot in Riverdale. Bingo! Sold again!

We are saving these posters. Each student has a folder, and we’re going to keep dropping all of our prewriting, drafts, writing off the page, checklists, and peer revisions into the folder as a holding tank. When we are ready to reflect, students will have one place to examine their thinking through this genre study. Half the battle for me this year is how best help students track their writing process in a meaningful way.

Now we’re riding the review highway, paved with sticky notes, conversation, and most likely some detours as we discover our passion, and authority, as we write again about what matters to us and why it matters, as I learn right along with my learners and watch them fly.

Here we go.

Note: This blog post was completely inspired by Beyond Literary Analysis by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell. It’s a huge piece of the puzzle for me. I highly recommend reading it-full of great strategies and resources to give kids more room to think, learn, write, read, listen, and breathe.


Using new lenses. Paving new roads.

pexels-photo-877702.jpegThis has been a year of teaching shakeups for me, of seeing my classroom and my students through new lenses.

This year, I decided to stop grading writing.

That’s right.
I am a seventh grade English teacher, but I don’t grade writing any more.

Are you freaking out yet? Many teachers do. On the other hand, most of my students do not. They are psyched on this new arrangement.

I am, too. For years, I created different rubrics for every assignment with probably one hundred details in teeny tiny font to squish it all on one page. I revised or recreated them every year. I taught from these rubrics, a different one for every different writing assignment, and kids self-evaluated from it. But they didn’t own it. They didn’t use it as a tool to grow as writers. I’m just being painfully honest with myself here. Rubrics worked for me for a long time, until they didn’t. Until I started looking through some different lenses, until I realized what I’ve known for a long time. It wasn’t working for my students, whether any of us realized it or not. It was time for a new lens.

For clarification, not grading does not mean not teaching. Here’s what I do to get kids using the writing process during our genre studies.

First, we read many mentor texts written by published writers and former students, as well my own writing. Then, my students discuss what made that writing strong and brainstorm criteria. We’ve done this in fishbowls, though I want to try some other techniques that are more comfortable for my introverts. The criteria becomes the map they follow as they draft, revise, and edit. It becomes the blueprint for our conversations with me and with peers. “Am I cutting to the bone? Is my “So What?” clear? “Did I share enough of my thoughts, feelings, and opinions?”

This criteria becomes the foundation for the mini-lessons I teach the whole class and for the conferences I have with individual students. I conference multiple times with each student face to face about what they’re currently writing, and I track how many times we’ve met as well as a quick description of what we talked about during the conference. I try (sigh, I’m going to try harder) to give students a sticky note reminding them what we discussed during the conference so that they remember what to do. Students track their progress in the writing process on a big huge white board, and they can also see other kids’ progress. We are also working on setting goals for each new piece of writing, though this is a total work in progress as I figure out how to make it work best for kids.

For the record, this process is often a hot mess. I am just beginning. I try not to be too hard on myself!

Then, based on the criteria that my students and I established at the beginning of the genre study, they self-evaluate their writing. They use a single-point rubric to evaluate their strengths and areas to work on next time.

Because there will be a next time.

It’s not the last time they’ll cut to the bone, write a “So What,” or use TFO (thoughts, feelings, and opinions). They’ll try it again during an essay, a short story, or a book review. They get many chances to give it a go.

But we do not end any more with my purple pen stating, “This is advanced, or proficient, or, God forbid, novice.” I experiment with what the notation looks like in my gradebook. We don’t have portfolios at my school; we still give letter grades every quarter, so I keep thinking about what I want these notations to reflect. This shift is complicated, so I will save my thinking for another blog.

I have read a lot about giving feedback once a student is finished with a particular piece. It’s tantalizingly hard to resist writing all over a finished piece; won’t THIS insight make them see what they need to do next time? Sure, kids read the feedback, and they look at the grade. But does this really help them grow much, if at all, as writers? I have my doubts, and trust me, I have scored thousands of papers and worked with thousands of writers.

If feedback is most important during the writing process, where the writer can make changes in that moment, then why don’t I spend a whole lot less time and energy at the end? Why don’t I focus my efforts and my energy on the process-won’t this benefit the product most? More importantly, timely feedback in the moment benefits my WRITERS the most.

In the past, I always offered students the opportunity to revise and edit again, and I would regrade it. Very few students-maybe a few every year, if that-took advantage of this offer. This leads me to believe, once again, that it’s not about the grade, it’s not about the final feedback I used to spend hours on, it’s not about the rubric I created with fifty million little specific details that STILL doesn’t say exactly what I want it to.

And the grade itself? Well, if it’s an A, kids are happy momentarily, and if it’s not, it makes them feel bad. I’m oversimplifying, but my target has shifted.

I want my writers to grow. I want them to see their own growth. I want them to move towards this growth by figuring out what they care about, by taking risks, by experimenting, by playing with words, sentences, and ideas, and by figuring out how to make their audience care, too. A grade isn’t gonna do much. My feedback, my instruction along the way, their feedback and support from their peers, how we “float on a sea of talk” (Britton, 1970)-that’s what makes the difference.

I realize, acutely, that this is a work in progress. You can probably tell by my blog post! I have so many questions, so much to learn, and so many ways to grow. My students still need quarter grades, and I keep experimenting, tweaking, refining.  

I do know, in the immortal words of Dolly Parton, “If you don’t like the road you’re walking, start paving another.” Luckily for me, there are plenty of teachers out there paving the way. My job is to keep finding new lenses for my glasses.

If you are interested in single-point rubrics, here is a blog about it.

Here is a terrific blog from some Colorado teachers. They presented their ideas powerfully at NCTE 2017 in St. Louis.


This I Believe

My seventh graders are just finishing essays called “This I Believe,” based on a now-defunct program on NPR. I wrote an essay a few weeks ago and shared the draft with them. Now that time has passed, I revised my essay, which appears below. I am wishing I had revised more during their process and showed them my writing moves and decisions. I’ll still read it tomorrow before we celebrate best drafts to show them how sometimes we need to put a piece of writing aside to help us figure out what we really want to say. I’ll tell them my “Believe” statement changed, I changed my ending three different times, I cut the part that compared my experience to writing, and I added sensory details like they advised me to when I shared it with them originally. Then, they will talk about changes they made to their own essays. Here’s my work in progress but a best draft for now.


I believe that spending time outside brings me immeasurable joy.

A few weekends ago, all I wanted to do was exercise hard. Sweat. It had been a full moon few weeks, leading up to the super-blue-blood moon lunar eclipse. If you teach or work in an emergency room, you know the moon affects us in mysterious ways. Especially our hormonal and vulnerable teens. Last week, I sent four kids from the same class to the counselor and two to the principal. I’ve been talking kids off the ledge. Everybody’s been unsettled, including me. It’s been rainy, cloudy, and tough to want to spend any time outside.

But being outside is why I moved to Montana over twenty years ago. I live five minutes from the Swan Mountains, five minutes from the Flathead River, twenty minutes from Glacier National Park,  and forty minutes from the Big Mountain ski resort. 

Instead of identifying that what I really needed was to breathe in fresh winter air, smell cedar trees, hear nothing but breeze, and see clouds float high above me, I drove twenty minutes to climb on the elliptical trainer and listen to loud music. My default ‘easy’ workout. As I walked towards the entrance to the club, I realized I left my running shoes back home.

I swore and climbed back into the minivan to drive back home. I had a small workout window today, and now I had even less time.

Quickly, I decided to grab my dog and my cross country skis and head outside to the golf course. It’s not wilderness, but it’s close by. Ten minutes later when I reached my destination, I realized I had grabbed my skate ski boots instead of my cross country boots. The bindings are not interchangeable, my dog was sad, and I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.

I was about to give up entirely, shaking my fist at the universe, or more accurately, at myself. But I was also grumpy. I had just spent time with other mentor and mentee teachers talking about self care, and this was feeling way too ironic. I had written that spending time in wilderness is one of the best ways I can take care of myself. We had also brainstormed what we do when we feel out of balance.  I know I’m unbalanced when I start forgetting things I usually remember, things that are important to me. Like my running shoes or the right ski boots! I knew I needed to keep trying.

Back at home, my window of free time was closing rapidly. I grabbed the right ski boots, loaded my confused dog back in the van, ignored my family’s teasing, and drove five miles up the North Fork road to my go-to running and skiing spot. You know, the one I should have gone to first if I had really listened to myself?

As I drove north, mountains peeking out from thick clouds, I worried that a parking spot wasn’t plowed out yet. I worried that my dog might blow out her knee in the deep snow. I worried that my van would get stuck if the plows came by while I was skiing. I envisioned yet more minor disasters. As a side note, all of these things have happened to me. I used to call them ‘adventures.’ Now I call them ‘pains in the butt.’ If my worries became reality, I would have to head home yet again, frustratedly facing my family, with no time left.

But you know what?

When I reached my spot, it was perfect.

Someone had skied right before me, cutting a smooth trail through new snow, and it was packed down just enough for my dog with bad knees. Snow fell lightly and gathered on tree branches. My skis glided through fluff. My heart lightened. I was exactly where I needed to be, on an unplanned road full of familiar terrain. It all worked out. 

Outside. New snow. Happy dog. Deep breaths. New light. Joy.

I believe I never, ever regret time spent in the wilderness. It is always precious. I always learn something new. Today it reminded me to look at the sky, pay attention, listen deeply, persist when plans fall to pieces, forgive my mistakes, remain grateful, and keep the faith.

Click on this link to read more from  This I Believe