Channeling my inner band teacher

pexels-photo-442540.jpegThree years ago, I was assigned to mentor our new band teacher, Ben Caudill. I was understandably nervous. After all, I teach writing. I played violin badly thirty years ago,  and I wouldn’t know an oboe from a hole in the wall. But I got lucky. I got to see a master teacher in action. I like to think we can learn something from everyone, and I saw that motivating kids through grades can only go so far.

As a sixth grader, my son George also did not know his trumpet from a hole in the wall. Neither did sixty other kids. It was very loud in Mr. Caudill’s band room, full of squeaks and sour notes. Still, most kids got A+s every quarter. I have been thinking a lot about what that A+ means.

When I worked with Ben, I remembered being curious about his grading practices. If everyone gets a high grade, does it reflect what their learning? Does it show their understanding of the material? Does it motivate them? Do they grow as musicians?

My answer is yes. After observing Ben teach, I found big takeaways, ones I reflect on as I shift away from emphasizing grades in my English class.

First, Ben’s band students knew that songs lead to performances for a real audience. Warm-ups and practice weren’t just something they did in class every day for no apparent reason. Every few months, hundreds of moms, dads, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and friends gather in our cafetorium and listen to the band play. When that audience shows up, you want to sound good. You don’t want to be that off key trombone who makes your audience want to cover their ears, laugh hysterically, or run the other way. Having a real audience, one who you care about, one who is paying attention, one who is listening to you, matters. It makes you want to improve and try your best, for them and for yourself.

Another takeaway relates to feedback. Whether Ben was listening to kids play solo, in sections, or all together, he gave brief, specific feedback. It was quick. It was constructive. And it was neutral. Kids knew this feedback existed to help them, and because it was neutral, they didn’t get defensive or argumentative. Even my unmusically trained ears could hear kids could shift right in the moment and make the necessary correction, or at least try it. I watched it happen. It WORKS.

I also watched how Ben guides his students through making mistakes. Learning a musical instrument is all about weird notes, missing keys, screwing up. You pick yourself up, shake it off, keep practicing, and keep moving forward. Talk about a great metaphor for writing and for life.

My final takeaway is about growth. If you have ever spent time in a band room, you will think these teachers are miracle workers. Every year, Ben takes sixty completely inexperienced kids and unleashes them on flutes, clarinets, trumpets, saxophones, and DRUMS. It’s loud. It’s chaotic. At this point, it’s all about mistakes. Successes are fleeting. At the first concert, Ben’s students play songs that last ten seconds. Then, as eighth graders, we see the amazing progress. At concerts, they play complex jazz and symphonic pieces that quite often give me the chills. They are musicians now, and many of them see themselves that way. They see the payoff reaped from thousands of mistakes. 

Now, as an eighth grader, our son says band is his favorite subject. George joined a sextet with some friends, and they practice once a week before school. He practices with the jazz band two other mornings before school. This year he even did a trumpet solo, completely shocking his parents. Even more surprising, our sports-obsessed child was torn when he thought he’d have to miss his jazz band performance because he had a basketball game.

This is a delightful, surprising, and completely unexpected miracle.

This is the sign of a great teacher. A teacher who focuses on mistakes, feedback, growth, and having an authentic audience. A teacher who gives pretty much everybody A’s. There is a lot for me to think about here.

Of course, this leads me to writing.

I write best when I have an audience reacting to my words. I feel best about my writing when I receive honest, open feedback that helps me grow and that helps me see what is already working, what moves my audience, or what nudges them in a different direction. I learn from my many writing mistakes, and I’m always trying to stretch my writing in new ways. It would make sense that my students need those experiences, too.

How can I see that quantum leap with my writers, too? It’s all too easy to get in my head and start comparing music to writing. “Making music is more satisfying than writing. People would rather listen to music or play it than write or read. Music is more high interest. Kids are more motivated because of peer pressure. It’s harder to write than it is to play an instrument. “

Instead of comparing the negatives, I am making a shift. How are music and writing similar?

They both have the power to unite us. They both have the power to make us feel-to laugh, to cry, to understand, to connect. They both have the power to make us think. It sure isn’t about the grade.

Grades keep us compliant, and they keep me in control.

I used to think I wanted engaged kids, not just compliant ones who jump through the hoops I set out for them.

Now I know.

I want empowered kids. Kids who seek out learning and are able to persist through multiple areas by continuing to play, continuing to push, continuing to listen to others, continuing to find their own voices and their own hoops to jump through. Not mine. I’m just along for the ride.

Our next assignment is based on the NPR radio show called, “This I Believe,” and my students will all receive A’s for finishing their essays. But they will also have to choose an audience. They will conference multiple times with me. I need to see that they are trying to use the strategies I’m teaching them. They will need to show that they moved their writing from a first draft to something more powerful.

Meanwhile, I’m going to channel my inner band teacher and see how much my students grow this year as writers. I am up for the challenge.


More questions than answers

lava-diving-towersMany years ago, I lifeguarded at the neighborhood pool. We had a lot of down time on cloudy days, and we had many creative modes of entertainment. One of our favorite spots was the diving well. This was back when pools still had not only diving boards but diving platforms. I’d watch as my braver fellow lifeguards would climb the ladder to the diving platform twenty feet up and then flip, cascading gracefully way down into the deep end. When I climbed onto the platform, shaking, stomach in knots as I looked down at the turquoise square of chlorinated water far below me, I couldn’t stop thinking, I can’t do it. I can jump, but I can’t flip.

Then, one day, I climbed up on the platform and thought, “Well, I can do this.” I stopped looking all the way down. I stopped overthinking it. I reminded myself that I could do a front flip and a back flip off the low diving board, and the higher platform just gave me more time to complete the rotation. And I started to breathe.

Now I’m taking a similar plunge in my teaching career. After twenty years of teaching writing, and after twenty years of remaining simultaneously curious and terrified about writing workshops, I am transforming my class into a true writing workshop. Now my students choose  their topics. They choose which genre they are working on. They choose when a piece of writing is finished, and they choose what they will write next, not me. I am just providing structures, support, and coaching to guide them to their own discoveries and processes.

Here’s why, and my reasons are at the heart of my love of teaching.

I want my writers to be engaged rather than merely compliant. I want to help my writers, not their writing. I want them to become curious, independent, and empowered writers. I do not want to rob my middle school students of this rich opportunity to discover not only what matters in their lives but why it matters so much.

As a writer, I know my own writing process. I relish choosing whatever I read, and by the same token, I want to choose what, when, and how and why I write.

So why haven’t I handed my students this same great freedom? We don’t all write the same way using the same process. Giving students the freedom to choose and to discover their own process is paramount to their development as writers and as thinkers. So what has held me back for all of these years?

Fear. The same fear that kept me from initially taking the plunge off that diving platform over thirty years ago.

Is my classroom going to turn into chaos? Can I still address all the standards I am supposed to be teaching? Will my students feel prepared as they move into eighth grade and on to high school? How will this affect my writers who struggle and need more structure-will they still feel successful? And, the most important question of all-will my students like writing workshop? Will they grow as writers in the ways I fervently hope they will? Will they be engaged and motivated?

Fear is not holding me back any more.

I needed to put my fear to the side and educate myself rather than speculating and wondering.  Last spring, I read books by Penny Kittle and Linda Rief. I searched on the Internet and read articles about writing workshops. I watched videos. I spent all summer taking a 6 credit class based on Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle. Most importantly, I talked with my curriculum director, my principal, and my colleagues. And this knowledge and these conversations fed my belief that this was how I want to teach my writers.

In my defense, it’s no secret; middle school students are not easy. I love their energy, their optimism, and their ability to quickly forgive and forget. I also appreciate their questioning, their rebellion, and their sass, but they can be total nut jobs. We all were! Believe me, I’ve heard how tough they are from their parents, not to mention parenting my own pre-teens. Honestly, the thought of letting them loose, of giving up the little control I had, of relinquishing the always-fragile classroom management, terrified me. Even now. Even after years of guiding kids through the writing process. Middle school kids are distracted by their fingernails, by Sharpie markers, or by someone’s new braces, not to mention Picture Day or Halloween. And, some of my students, as a direct result of the trauma they’ve experienced, have an extremely difficult time self-regulating. For many years, I agonized. By giving my students freedom, would I lose control? Would they?

Our world is changing rapidly. I honestly do not know what particular skill sets my students will need ten years from now. I do know that they will always need to problem-solve, to think critically, to respond kindly and honestly to the opinions and words of others, to listen deeply. Choosing topics, choosing when a piece of writing is finished, choosing what to write next, and choosing how, when, and why they write will guide them towards greater self-reliance, confidence, and trust in their abilities to listen, read, write, and speak. Now I understand that my ‘loss of control’ is my students’ great gain as lifelong learners.

I will blog much more about the nuts and bolts as I stumble, make mistakes, and grow this year. I can already see how writing workshop is transforming my classroom and how my students perceive themselves as writers. I will also say that I have many more questions than answers, but I am embracing the challenge. We can jump and flip from high places together, and we will come up for breath. 


Profile of a Librarian


It is seven thirty at Columbia Falls Junior High, and, already, five or six kids line the walls, waiting for the doors of the library to open. Chatting quietly, holding books, waiting. Now our librarian arrives fifteen minutes later, and kids begin to stream in.They gather in clusters around the library, talking, playing Legos, making bookmarks, draping on bean bags or rocking in one of the rocking chairs, watering plants, shelving books, dropping off books, checking out new books. Morning light floods the twenty-foot windows that look out onto the Swan Mountain range. It’s the best room in the school, but kids don’t go in there until they are welcomed, coaxed, invited to come and stay awhile by our amazing librarian, Kim Gange. In she sweeps with a smile, a joke, a giggle with a kid, a gentle reminder or encouragement. “You look like one of the kids!” she is often told. With her blond hair, blue eyes, and Scandinavian roots, she looks much younger than her forty-nine years.

When I asked Kim to describe what she does, she quickly replied, “I’m an atmosphere maker, and I’m a saleswoman. The very best part of my job is when the light bulb goes on. A kid connects to a book, and they come back and tell me about it. It’s even better when I’ve read the book. I love books. I love getting kids excited about books. I get to build relationships.” What more could you want from your friendly neighborhood librarian?

Full disclosure. I have known Kim since we were three years old. Our friendship spans forty-five years. We grew up down the street from each other in Duluth, Minnesota, and we moved to Montana together when we were in our early twenties. We have taught English at the same school for close to twenty years. We met our husbands here in Montana and are raising our children within ten miles of each other. One of the best parts is that Kim is my children’s librarian. As an example of her dedication, we were at the beach with our kids a few weeks ago, and she handed my son, who avidly attends every Tuesday lunchtime book club, a 1000 page Stephen King book she knew he wanted to read.

Now Kim is going into her third year as our librarian, and she has already succeeded at making the library a special space for kids and for teachers. But the path to working in a room full of books was a long one. Teaching English meant too much grading, too much planning, and too much stress. She would look through the windows of the second floor, look down into our library, see all those books, and think, I want to be the person who gets more kids into our library and get them reading more books.

To become that person took a whole lot of blood, sweat, tears, dedication, time, energy, and devotion. Kim returned to school, which meant two years of on-line classes. It also meant doing a practicum, where she left school most days during her teaching prep to observe and work with other librarians, who taught her about technology, how to weed book collections, and how to create makerspace, a place which brings people together to create shared projects.  

Sometimes it’s hard, she admits. Sure, she doesn’t have to grade any more! She never dreads going to work and coming up with that perfect lesson plan or grading 100 essays in a weekend. However, she misses the collaboration with fellow teachers, and sometimes, she wonders, “Does anyone really know what I do?” And, she wishes she could have more time with kids. Time to talk books. Time to sell more books. After all, reading is behind everything.

But now, Kim gets to know kids differently. Now she knows ALL of the kids, and some of those devoted readers, she gets to know more deeply than anyone.  She gets to work with everyone in the building and appreciates having a universal perspective, which shifts when you get out of the classroom and obtain the privilege of watching forty other teachers teach.  She gets a lot of peace now from her job. Instead of feeling all-consuming stress, she feels relaxed, stimulated, and excited by her work.

“I get to end my teaching career surrounded by books. I knew it was where I wanted to be.” As she gazed down at the library, filled with books, mountain views, and light, her desire to land there is our gain. Now students run in to show her what they’re reading. Now kids gather outside her doors early in the morning to gain entrance to a beloved space with their beloved librarian.

Libraries are one of the strongholds for freedom of speech, and finding our way into books is one of our ultimate freedoms. Don’t we all want kids banging down the doors of our libraries, clamoring for the newest novel by Jason Reynolds or Nicola Yoon? Don’t we want kids sitting around a round table playing chess and leaving their phones behind for those precious minutes of connection with each other and with books? We can only hope that Kim continues to build bridges, helping kids find that perfect book and coming back for more. After all, in the words of Maya Angelou, “Information helps you to see that you’re not alone. That there’s somebody in Mississippi and somebody in Tokyo who all have wept, who’ve all longed and lost, who’ve all been happy. So the library helps you to see, not only that you are not alone, but that you’re not really any different from everyone else.”


Books save lives.

quote-the-story-from-rumpelstiltskin-to-war-and-peace-is-one-of-the-basic-tools-invented-by-the-human-ursula-k-le-guin-3464651Years ago, when I was attending yoga classes regularly, we would often ask our teachers for heart openers. Yoga poses crack open the heart. They let the heart not just spill open but widen and grow.

This may sound odd or strange, but the biggest heart opener I have experienced recently was the NCTE conference, otherwise known as the National Conference of English Teachers.

A CONFERENCE opened your heart, you say?

That’s right. I spent the whole weekend talking with my hand over my heart. I caught myself doing it more times than I can count.

My school district sent me and an amazing friend and colleague to Atlanta, Georgia. And I hope we make them proud with what we do with what we learned.

All weekend, we talked about the power of words. Words we read. Words we write. Words we speak. Words we hear.

We discussed how books can be windows and mirrors.  When books are like mirrors, we see our faces reflected back, and we might just realize something new about ourselves. And, when books are windows, we can look out, see the faces of others, and realize how our experiences, our meanings, and our souls diverge and converge with others. Then we don’t see ‘others.’ We see how we connect to other human beings.

Books can connect us in ways that are specific and unique and universal.

At this precise moment in our history, I believe it is more important than ever to put books in the hands of our children, to say, “This is good. Try it. Maybe you’ll like it.” It is more important than ever to seek those mirrors to lead to greater self-knowledge. It is more important than ever to remember to look out those windows and see how we are more alike than different.

I listened to a Palestinian author named Ibtisam Barakat discuss how Arabs invented numerals, how no one can pronounce her name and how few try, and how afraid she is right now. I listened to one of my son’s favorite authors, Jason Reynolds, talk about how he loves when his writing speaks to kids who never knew racism exists. He co-authored a beautiful novel called  All American Boys. An African-American teenager experiences extreme police brutality and almost dies. A white teenager witnesses it and is afraid to come forward and share the truth because the police officer had been like a brother to him. Their book is all about the struggle to do what is right after horrible wrongs have been committed. Their story is about so much more than that.

I am not a bold person by nature, but know that I totally chased Jason Reynolds down in a hotel and said, “This is one of my son’s favorite books!” He smiled wide, asked my son’s name, and then fist-pumped, “Go, George, GO!!!” I was star-struck.

Right now, and always, students who struggle sit in my classroom. Students who are depressed, anxious, worried, stressed. Students who are lonely, scared, angry, frustrated. Students who feel different. Students who don’t feel accepted or included or loved. Books can reach out to that dark, scary, strange part of ourselves. They show us who we are, and who we can become. They remind us  that there is hope beyond darkness. They bring us light if we allow it.

Since I’ve returned from my heart-opening conference, I’ve read parts of All American Boys to my seventh grade students during our study of stereotypes. I am trying to show them windows  as well as mirrors. We have all been affected by stereotypes-that’s the mirror. And we have all stereotyped. And some of us are affected by stereotypes in ways that we cannot always understand or comprehend. Until we hear their stories. I keep gently suggesting. Hey, let’s look through this window. Now, how about this one? What do you think? Why do you think that?

For three days in Atlanta, I was not doing yoga poses. I was listening. I was thinking. I was absorbing. I was learning, growing, changing. Molecules, I swear, were shifting. When I was asked how my conference was, the only word to encompass it was this one. Transformational. I got what I needed. One of the reasons I haven’t written about it yet is because I am still figuring out what to do, where to go next, how to change, and why it matters so much.

And I can’t stop thinking about how books change lives, how books save lives. Stories about people like us or unlike us not only open hearts but widen them. Sometimes we are lucky enough to experience our hearts being broken open and filling with precisely what we need. Sometimes we are ready to hear the message we already know, as loud and clear as music.

My heart has grown, and I am ready for change. Now I am reminded of what I have always known since the moment over forty years ago when I learned to read.

Words have power.






Middle schooler in the house!

Recently, my husband was eating Cracker Jacks and gave his prize, a Baltimore Orioles sticker, to our eleven year old son.

“Why’d you do THAT?!” I heard my husband cry from the living room.

“What’d you do?” I called from the kitchen.

“He stuck it to his cheek..” my husband responded exasperatedly.

I couldn’t resist. For probably the millionth time since school started, I said, “Welcome to my world.”

I teach middle school kids, and they are so bizarre. They love to stick objects to their heads. They ask for tape, and thirty seconds later, it’s on their cheeks or lips or even their hair.

Look, you can fight every battle, but sometimes, I’m like, “Sure. You can wear that scotch tape like it’s your job for the next two minutes if it makes you happy. Then it goes in the trash.”  And don’t even try to teach if it starts snowing, or if there is a tiny spider in the classroom, or if a loud airplane flies by. We all have to take a moment to freak out and honor the distraction, and then we can move on. One of my seventh graders ran up to me with a metaphor she wrote comparing seventh graders to toddlers, and I had to laugh and agree with her insight wholeheartedly. It’s true. Everything is a big deal. Everything is either hilarious or horrifyingly worthy of a full-body tantrum. Life is one big emotional roller coaster, and, by the way, you adults? You are JUST SO UNFAIR.

Every other minute, I remind my husband, “See why I am so worn out after teaching seventh graders all day? Picture twenty of our son in a classroom.” They all vibrate. Luckily, I think they’re funny, too, at least part of the time. Meanwhile, they do stupid things on a regular basis. They often make terrible choices. The logic chip is often missing. And we have all been there. We have all been idiotic, emotional preteens who think the world revolves around us.

I see it all beginning with my son..the silliness, the mood swings, the INCREDIBLY LOUD VOICE, the constant gross motor madness, the oblivious disinterest in the lives of others.  We recognize that he’s a great kid, and we also dread when one of his many sports seasons ends because this child needs to move. Movement helps everything settle.

For the first time, my son attends the school where I teach. I never see him after we part ways in the morning-the sixth graders are tucked away in their own pods with their own separate scheduled deals going on, and it’s a big school. It’s probably better for both of us. When we arrive at school together, he walks all the way to the bike racks with me and then veers quickly to the left. I have told him that I will stay out of his business unless there’s a reason for me to be in his business, and so far we have coexisted beautifully.

I am an expert as far as teaching middle schoolers, but parenting one middle schooler is very different from teaching large groups of them. I cannot tell you how many parents have almost fainted at conferences when I tell them how well-behaved and awesome their child is in class. It’s true-parents get the vast majority of the pouting, the drama, the attitudes. I always sing the praises of parents whose kids are respectful and kind at school, who are willing to be themselves amidst intense pressure to hide or act like everyone else. At this age, it’s hard to remain true to yourself when you’re not sure who you are.

Yesterday, when I was going over some last minute instructions before (FINALLY!) finishing our essays, two girls were balancing pencils on their noses. The rest of the class was listening intently or at least seemed to be. A part of me still becomes irritated, and a part of me realized that these pencil-balancing, snowflake-obsessed, spider-watching creatures are what keep me so engaged in my job every single day. You have to think they’re funny at least some of the time, or you will lose your mind.

Then you come home to your son singing the words from the newspaper out loud and poking his little sisters to yank their chains, and you think, now it’s time to laugh while my child is taken over by aliens. Pretty soon, the surliness will overcome him. And then, some day, he will return to us. This is what they tell me, anyways. I can hope.

The Butterfly Effect

imgresIn chaos theory, the butterfly effect relates to how a initial, small change can lead to significant differences later. The metaphor, which I love, mentions that a hurricane can be affected by something as minor as a butterfly fluttering its wings several weeks ago. A tiny change can lead to a drastically different outcome.

So far, this has been a challenging year of  teaching, and I need to remember the butterfly effect.

Last night, I had a terrible teaching dream. I haven’t had one of those in a long time. In this particular nightmare, I walked into class, late and unprepared. Then, I got two new seventh grade students. One boy sat quietly, but every time I looked at the the other boy, he yelled, “WHAT?” at me.  Also, he kept changing shape. I’d look at him and he was short with thick glasses. Then, when I’d glance at him a few minutes later, he transformed into a tall, lanky, surly youth, his face covered in red acne boils. Eventually, he handed me a little white pill, and said, “You might want to make sure I take THIS every morning first thing.”

I stood by helplessly while my class continued to lose their marbles-ignoring the boring lesson, talking, walking out of class whenever they felt like it. Worst of all, one of my colleagues, who I admired a great deal, was observing me that day, and every time I looked over at her, her face was full of intense disapproval.

My teaching nightmare reminded me all too well about my first years of teaching, when my class often resembled barely controlled chaos. Kids threw things. I  had to break up more than one fistfight. I wanted to quit every single day.

It also reminded me of a recent conversation with a relative, who said, “I think everyone should have to spend an hour in a classroom so that they can marvel at what teachers do.”

I replied, “I think that everyone should have to TEACH a class for an hour.” When I was observing classrooms during my college teaching program, I’d watch teachers make it look so easy. I must admit that it was easy to sit back and judge. “I could do that, no problem,” I’d gloat to myself. Then, when it was my turn to teach fractions, chaos ensued. It was a sobering reality. The pros make managing twenty-five kids look like childs’ play, when in fact it is a masterful act.

And, I still have those days which echo my nightmare. This year, one of my classes contains what you call in the business, ‘a tough dynamic.’ It contains kids who bounce off each other in negative ways, who are unconfident learners for a million different complicated reasons, who stir up excitement to conceal what they are afraid to do, who would rather fail than try. Let’s just say that we are working on these things.

One afternoon last month, my well-laid plans were faltering. Students kept getting called down to the principal or the counselor’s office for various negative reasons. My blurters were in high-blurt mode, my dramatists were stirring up trouble, and my fragile eggshell kids were about to crack in many tiny pieces. With this group, I often remove kids from the classroom briefly to refocus. It is not my favorite strategy, but when kids start to take away other kids’ learning, sometimes a location change is necessary.

Then, the drug dogs showed up. When the drug dogs arrive, we close the shades in our rooms so that kids can’t see whose lockers are being sniffed. No one can leave. We are in lockdown, and it can last for up to an hour, depending on what the dogs find.

In that moment, I flashed back to my nightmare. My class was in crisis, from  for the sweet, silent students who never utter a word and have to deal with boisterous, blurting belligerence on a daily basis to the blurting, high-needs challenges of mine.  We were all trapped with each other. No escape.

I should have taken some deep breaths, but I didn’t, and forty-five minutes felt like an eternity. I surrendered to the chaos and the dysfunction, albeit briefly. It was hard to feel like a rookie again.

But always, always, I reflect. Sometimes, I am too impatient. I want results NOW. Then, I remember; learning takes time. Little wings continue to flutter and flap, and their movements can change the course of a hurricane.

Eventually, I will see growth, and hopefully, my students will, too. Unlike an inexperienced first year teacher, I know that by the end of the year, this may very well be my favorite class. It’s happened before. Those groups who test you, who challenge you, who drive you absolutely insane, who make you want to call in sick every day? Those kids are often the ones who need us the very most.

I’ll do the dance this year with them this year. I’ll remind them about respectful boundaries, I’ll push them to do their best, I’ll nurture their fragile teenage selves, and I’ll keep building relationships. I always hope I’ll reach all of them; I know I reach some. Until then, I will keep reminding myself.

Be patient. Think about butterflies. Have faith.

Time to grow!

Do you believe that you are born with your inherent intelligence? Have you ever backed down from a challenge? Have you ever made mistakes? Have you ever been afraid to fail or take a risk? Do you make excuses or blame others when things don’t go your way?

I’ve been thinking about these questions quite a bit lately, and I have been asking my students the same thing in connection with their learning. The growth mindset is one of those buzzwords that keeps cropping up all over the place for me. My cousin, a yoga instructor in California, even posted a Growth Mindset classroom bulletin on Facebook this week which was similar to the one below.

I’ve been teaching for a long time, and I’ve seen a lot of buzzwords. But the idea behind the growth mindset really fascinates me, so much that I took a six credit class about it last spring.  In a nutshell, the growth mindset means that you embrace challenge. You realize that mistakes are how you learn. You take risks, and sometimes, you fail. You take responsibility for your own mistakes and your failures, and you move on.  You celebrate other people’s successes instead of becoming jealous.’s not always easy. That’s the point.

When Pete Carroll made that fated call during the Super Bowl last February, and the Seahawks lost to the Patriots during the last seconds of the game, he said that he thought about the game for a morning, and then he let it go. That’s right. One morning to mull over a crushing defeat viewed by billions. That is the growth mindset at work. You keep on moving. You keep on learning. You keep trying. And you realize that how smart you are comes from your hard work and your effort. When I mentioned this anecdote to a colleague of mine, she said, “I couldn’t even let go of the fact that my bike gear was broken for a whole day, let alone one morning!” It’s HARD to shift your thinking, right? But possible.

Carol Dweck, the author of the book

Mindset performed an experiment where she told some kids that they were smart-in other words, she praised their intelligence. Dweck told other kids that they were hard workers. She specifically praised their effort. Then, each group was given a puzzle to solve. Then they were given more difficult puzzles. When it came to solving the harder puzzle, guess who gave up first?

The kids who were praised for their intelligence.

When you tell someone that he or she is smart, it can sound like this. “Oh..I’m smart. That means I don’t have to work for it.”

This also includes athletes. When you tell someone how naturally talented they are, maybe then they think, “Oh..I’m so good at this. I don’t have to work as hard at it.”

So, at the beginning of the year, I gave my students a survey about the growth mindset. I taught them some language to use. We watched some videos about famous failures and one about LeBron James who asks us, “Do you think I was BORN this way? I worked for this my whole life.”

My students are also finding quotes about the growth mindset and coming up with a symbol to represent the quote in some way, and when we’re done, our quotes will hang from the ceiling in the classroom all year. I am teaching them strategies to face their challenges and keep pushing through. Tomorrow, I have some other things in mind for them, which I also may write about here.

And I am working on my own growth mindset. I keep thinking about where I start making excuses or where I am afraid to take risks. I keep thinking about challenges and walking into them rather than running away. I want my students to know that we are all  vulnerable. We struggle. We are human. But if we shut down and stay fixed, our learning shuts down, and this affects a whole lot more than our English grades.

I think about the growth mindset even more as a parent. I want my own children to get where they are going and know it is because they knew that mistakes and failure are  a huge and necessary part of learning, and that ‘smart’ will only get you so far.

No matter who you are, Mindset is a thought-provoking read, and it’s not just about learning.


On not writing and writing

When I began my blog a year and a half ago, the main impetus, for me, was to write again. To make writing not just a thing I did every once in a while, usually in my classroom, but a regular working process, a daily commitment, a discipline. I had a few clearcut reasons. One reason is that I am a writing teacher, and I was feeling hypocritical. How could I encourage, cajole, nudge, and propel my middle school students forward with their writing if I wasn’t also participating in this complex, maddening endeavor? It didn’t feel right.

Another reason was that I do love to write, though it is a double-edged sword. A few days ago, one of my seventh graders was setting writing goals as well as expressing his feelings, all negative, about writing. For the record, I am used to kids writing, “I hate writing.” As I glanced down at his paper, I said, “It’s okay to hate writing. I hate it too, sometimes.”

This kid is adorable. He looked up at me and gave me a full, freckled. dimpled grin. “I hate writing, but I love this class.”

I was especially glad to hear this because we have been writing a lot in class, though I didn’t mention that.

I replied, “I know writing is hard. It’s one of the hardest things you learn to do in school. It’s complicated. You don’t have to learn to love writing, but I hope you get better at it this year.”

He nodded and smiled again. These were his first genuine smiles of the year. I couldn’t help but add, “But of course, it’s great if you learn to love it, too!”

I spoke from the heart, but really, my end game as a writing teacher has changed. I used to want my students to LOVE writing. But what I realized is that I often don’t. I certainly get a lot of joy out it on occasion. On other occasions, it is laborious, frustrating, and tortuous. So is it realistic to expect my students to love it, too? Especially when I am asking them to push themselves in millions of different ways in their narratives, analytical paragraphs, and essays?

Over my years of teaching, I’ve changed my approach based on my students’ backgrounds. Some of my kids do not see themselves as college potential. Some would be the first in their families to earn a college degree. Many of my students don’t see why writing is necessary or helpful in their worlds, and it’s important for me to show them why and how they might need it some day.

I tell them that I don’t make any assumptions about their futures. I don’t know what they will do with their lives, and at this point, neither do they. I tell them that I want them to have a Plan A, B, and C. I tell them about adults who return to college and are intimidated by writing. I tell them that I don’t want that to be them. I tell them that I don’t want them avoiding challenges because they think they don’t know how to write.

And, whether they are college-bound or not, the world is changing, and none of us even know how. My students will need to know how to express their thoughts clearly, to persuade, to problem-solve, to inform, to emote. We talk about situations where writing is important, and it’s not just about college essays.

I want all of my students to be confident writers. If they love it, great. That’s the icing on the cake.

So I’ve giving these impassioned little speeches, and meanwhile, my file on my computer for August contains precisely one blog. I miss writing. It’s possible for me to find the time in summer with three kids to write, but this summer, I chose not to. That doesn’t feel right.

Blogging is not my ideal medium, but there are pluses. It keeps me somewhat disciplined, I can do it pretty quickly- I don’t need hours-and it can be satisfying. The most important part is the discipline. It is way too easy for me to come up with billions of excuses. Time is a valid excuse, but other people with busier lives than mine manage a disciplined writing practice. There are days where I fold laundry instead of writing (back to that hating it thing). I wish I loved knitting or volleyball, but I was born loving writing, and that’s just how it goes.

The end result is that blogging helps me stay in tune with the struggles and triumphs of my seventh grade writers. It helps me stay authentic and true to myself. My writing has grown. I do love it (and hate it).

So I am committing to writing my blog until my wee one is off to kindergarten in a year. Then I will have an expanse of time, the first time in ten years of part-time teaching and being home with my kids, to write and see where that goes. It helps my students, and it helps me.

And, as my husband likes to remind me, “You are a lot less grumpy when you are writing.”


Sinkholes and bright lights

Yesterday, I showed my advanced seventh graders a few pictures of sinkholes. In Tangerine, the novel we are reading, the main character’s middle school collapses from all the sinkholes, and the main character surprises himself by jumping into the action and saving a number of his classmates. By doing so, his self-concept changes from feeling like a freak to feeling like somebody, somebody who could be a hero.

Unfortunately, I have felt fragmented while teaching this novel. We’ve been taking the SBAC standardized test, and every Friday ten of my kids are gone for an all day track meet. So, it was delightful to take twenty minutes with all twenty-four kids and discuss what we’ve been reading.

I admit I have mixed feelings about literary analysis. Oh, I know how important it is. But too much analysis, in my opinion, can kill the book. Just enough can open us up to beauty, new ideas, connections, realizations. I’m always seeking that fine balance, but I’m a rookie. I have years to learn it.

One kid said, “This book is really easy.”

“Sure,” I countered. “My fourth grader read it over spring break. But pay close attention to what’s going on beneath the surface. He didn’t pick up on the layers. But you will.”

It occurred to me that these sinkholes mean something more. I’m not sure what, though I had some ideas. I threw the question to my class. “What do you think the sinkholes symbolize?” Symbolism drew many blank stares. Then they groaned when I read them the SpringBoard definition: the study of symbols. I came up with my own on the spot; I was punting. “Think of an object that means something deeper, that stands for something else.”

I had them think-pair-share with a partner for a few minutes, wondering in my head where this would go. Then, I called on kids randomly.

“A circle!” the smart aleck in the back popped off.

“Karma,” said another. “It’s like his conscience.”

“Communism!” said my conspiracy-theorist-minded boy who sits off by himself. We laughed, and he said, “No, listen…” and connected the dots for us, garnering a round of applause from the class.

“It means the empty hole in Paul ever since he lost his eyesight and how he feels like he can’t ever fill it back up.” That one got us, from my reader who hates writing. We all nodded and paused to ponder that one. Then, the responses kept growing, until we had a spectrum of options to think about as we continue reading.

As you can imagine, this discussion, and the next one that followed, made me happy. My students were driving the discussion, not me. I didn’t have an agenda. I just wanted them to start digging beneath the surface and see how this novel connects to itself, how it reveals more and more as we read it. They are starting to see.

These kids are bright lights. I love how I can throw them a question and watch them dig in. I love how they see things I don’t. And I love how hearing these different points of view makes all of us grow.


Measuring a summer’s day

My advanced language arts class just started the novel Tangerine, which is new to me. I haven’t taught a novel in fifteen years, and I forgot how much fun it is, especially with a group who, like me, for the most part loves to read. I have had a few troubles. One is that I can’t get the Led Zeppelin song, also coincidentally called, “Tangerine,” out of my head. I keep hearing, “Measuring a summer’s day…a living reflection of a dream,” in my overtapped brain and wondering what they were possibly thinking. My other trouble is that initially I felt intimidated. I am here to say that teaching a novel is not for the weak of heart. There is a LOT of ground to cover, not to mention that whole ‘keep thirteen year olds interested’ challenge that we all face daily.

My excellent colleague, our high-energy, hard-working literature teacher, has been mentoring me through the process. In addition to her novel-teaching pep talks, Leslie also has a gift for mimicry. She reads the daily announcements with various aliases. Their names escape me at the moment, but I am partial to the Irish lady and the lady from Jersey, as well as the sassy lady. I’m sure this all comes in handy for her night job as our state champion Speech and Debate coach. Leslie reassured me multiple times when I freaked out about teaching a WHOLE novel.

“I teach the WRITING part,” I’d say.

“Don’t worry,” Leslie would say in her normal voice, though if she’d said it in her sassy Shaniqua voice, it would be equally reassuring.

I love the book, so that also makes it easier. It has layers. It has themes that make me think. Kids will see the layers when we’re done.

I dove, somewhat blindly, in to one of the first lessons. We talked about sensory details, similes, and metaphors, and why they make us want to keep reading. Then I handed out tangerines to every student, and first they described how they felt and smelled.

“Can we eat them now?” they kept asking.
“Not yet, not yet!” I kept replying

Then, we all opened our tangerines at once, and the room filled with the bright smell of citrus. Then, we wrote similes and metaphors.

Towards the end of the novel, the main character drives through the fields of citrus trees in Florida near his home and breathes in the addictive smell. At that moment, the aroma of tangerines holds a deeper meaning for him because of everything he has now experienced. I hope my students remember when they all opened their fruit at the same time. I hope they hold a deeper meaning, and maybe that rich memory of citrus will remind them. Doesn’t the memory of smell echo for everyone in poignant, powerful ways?

Apart from the fact that I still can’t get that Led Zeppelin song out of my head, I am thoroughly enjoying this new teaching experience. I am learning so much. Now I am seeing how I can make the connections to writing much deeper. When my writers craft narratives, I can remind them about Tangerine. How important it is to connect with your reader through your senses, through your thoughts and feelings, through your themes. The best books teach us to live more deeply in our own lives, and we are reminded with every great book we read. Next year, I may even begin with this novel.