Thursday, June 22, 2017

Black Lives Matter

Yesterday I woke up and did my quick scroll through Facebook, just for some highlights. I haven't paid really close attention to what is happening in the world because, frankly, I just can't take it. I clicked on one of the links my friend and inspiration Julie Frame posted and ended up watching 10 minutes and 16 seconds of the most horrifying and tragic thing I have ever seen. I watched the video of Philandro Castile's murder. I have so much to say about this video, this world, this idea that it is ok to shoot Black people when they are driving a car with no brake lights. But I want to stay focused on the teaching aspects of all of this. After all...this is a teaching blog. And the implications for teachers are endless. Julie challenged her friends to say publicly that Black Lives Matter. Challenge ACCEPTED.

Here is the link to the NYTimes article on the shooting.

The video shows the entire thing as it happened. The police pull the car over and explain that the brake lights are out. The driver, Philandro Castile, was a black man from Minnesota. He told the officer that he had a firearm in the car. Within seconds, the police officer is unloading his gun into Mr. Castile's front of the passengers...including his girlfriend and her young daughter. She is the person I want to talk about today. The little 4-year-old girl taken out of the car by the other officer is the reason for this blog post.

If the video of the event is too difficult to watch, watch it anyways. And stop right at the 1:10 mark. The officer has just been informed that Mr. Castile has a firearm on him. A legal one. Within seconds seven shots are fired and you can hear the officer yelling "Get the baby girl out of here!"

That baby girl may be in Minnesota, but she is MY student. She is YOUR student. She is ALL OF OUR students. While I will likely never meet her, I MUST know that she exists, as do countless other children that have seen and experienced things that no baby ever should. She is going to need teachers that understand that she has experienced unthinkable trauma and that her life will never be the same. I stopped the video for a few minutes when she was pulled from the car and just sat in disbelief. I imagined her as a 7th grader, sitting in my classroom, with a chip on her shoulder. I thought about what teachers will likely say about her. I thought about all of the kids I have had throughout my 20 years as a teacher. I can't count the number of times I have been frustrated with a student and then had to remember what my job really teach them. And that doesn't just mean the curriculum. We get so caught up in teaching our curriculum that we forget to teach the kids. We forget that they may be acting out for a reason. We don't always think we have time to sit down and get to know them, or ask them how they are doing. But we must.

I've heard teachers complain about students more times than I can count. I've complained. We get sick of kids that talk back or refuse to do our work. We get exhausted by the kid that rolls their eyes at us, or questions our judgment when we make a decision. Why do some kids have a hard time conforming to some of our basic expectations? Because some of them are that baby girl.

What can we do when we know that a students is struggling in school? There is one simple need to know that you care about them. They need to know their experiences and feelings matter. They need to know that they matter. Kids will do ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING for a teacher when they know you love them and when their voices are heard. We are in a situation right now where Black children are navigating a world the rest of us cannot understand. This is not a world where they feel safe and it is playing out in our schools every single day. They have to hear the argument about ALL lives matter, knowing that if that police officer had pulled over a white man with a gun, this never would have happened. This has to change how we teach. Of course ALL lives matter. It's such an ignorant retort to the message of the Black Lives Matter movement. We aren't experiencing a dramatic increase in violence against white motorists. White motorists aren't getting pulled over only to lose their lives. Black parents have to teach their children things that the rest of us have never considered.

Not only are African-American children more likely to be victims of violent crimes (at alarming rates) but they are also far more likely to have witnessed a murder. One study of seven-year-olds living in an inner-city showed that 75% of them had heard gun shots. I am 45-years-old. I have never heard a gun shot. I have never actually seen a handgun, other than one carried by a police officer. But 75% of little kids in the inner-city have seen or heard gunshots. This changes their lives, and requires that we, as teachers, pay attention.

Kids experiencing trauma like this will lose their sense of safety and trust. Kids that have seen or experienced violence are also far more likely to experience withdrawal, school issues, engage in high-risk behaviors, and display aggression. Of course they are. But there are things we can do as educators to support them. Kids falling behind in reading may not benefit from yet another reading intervention, but they might benefit from an opportunity to connect with an adult, or build a relationship that provides a safe space for them in their school. We have to do this. Test scores are only one measure of a student's abilities.

Teachers: Talk to your kids. Get to know them. Make sure they know you care about them as people. You'll be surprised to see what they can accomplish and become with the right schooling experience.

The little girl taken out of that car, telling her mom not to argue so she doesn't get shot too, is going to be in your class one day. And she is going to need a whole lotta love and a whole lotta patience and understanding.

Next time one of my seventh graders rolls their eyes at me (which makes me crazy) I am first going to seek to understand. It's not acceptable to roll your eyes or argue with a teacher, and it certainly isn't acceptable to fight at school or break the rules that exist for our safety. But sometimes, we can change behaviors...and lives...just by asking a few questions and letting them know that you care about them and will give them what they need. All the reading and math interventions in the world aren't going to turn kids into readers and mathematicians. Loving them, and letting them know you do....will.

To be clear, lots of children experience trauma, black, white or otherwise. And we have to reach out to all kids to find out how they are or what experiences have made them who they are today. But a lot of our Black children are in crisis right now. And for good reason. We have to change it. And I double down on Julie's challenge to say it publicly. BLACK LIVES MATTER.

Saturday, June 17, 2017



We did it. We survived another year. I just finished my 19th year as a public school educator, and when I think about how much school has changed since the first time I walked into my very own classroom...I get whiplash. But one thing hasn't changed...the joy and necessity of SUMMER VACATION. Soon...I won't know what day of the week it is. That's how I know summer is really underway.

Yesterday I went down to the front office to sign my teacher evaluation paperwork. I got stuck on the date...I knew it was June, I knew it was Friday and I knew it was the 16th. For the life of me I couldn't remember what year it was! My principal laughed and said, "That's not usually the one people get stuck on." I laughed out loud and added the 2017 to my signature line. And today...I am sitting in Starbucks beginning the process of recovery from the best job on the planet.

People sometimes complain that teachers have the whole summer off. I get it. I love to rub it in the faces of my friends and family when I am not required to go anywhere or set an alarm. That is one of the benefits of teaching! But I know people that work out in the real world have no clue how absolutely necessary summer vacation is. It's OK. We know that you have no idea what it is like to wake up on the first day of summer and know you can go to the bathroom whenever you want to.

These are the simple pleasures of being a teacher. And the things I am celebrating today! I might just get up and go to the bathroom right now. Just because I can. I can sit down and eat lunch in a restaurant instead of running to the microwave during the 25 minutes the kids are not with me. I can slow my brain down. I can stay up late (although I probably won't), and sleep in every day (I definitely won't).

ATTENTION TEACHERS: It's time to be human again. It's time to slow down and stop stressing. You can read ANY book you want! You can even write your own! (That's what I plan to do...) I'm going to spend my summer making teacher stuff, blogging about teacher things, and hanging out with my teacher sisters. I never leave the world of teaching, but I will soak up the sunshine and fresh air and when September is upon us...I'll be ready once again.

HAVE A HAPPY AND PEACEFUL SUMMER, TEACHERS!!! And make a comment below and tell me what you plan to do this summer that you can't do during the school year!

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Bloom and Maslow

I woke up this morning and checked Facebook. One of my favorite people (I love you, Julie Frame!) posted this picture/quote. And I love it. It is such a good reminder that I want to shout it from the rooftops. While kids all over the country are taking hours and hours and hours of assessments, while balancing lots of homework, projects, extracurriculars and all of the other things kids are busy with in these last weeks of school...there are some basic realities that we have to remember. For teachers it may have been a while since you talked or read about Bloom and Maslow...but it is well worth being reminded. We get so caught up in getting as much curriculum in by the end of the year, because we are told we must get those scores UP. BUT...jamming in months worth of curriculum just to say you finished it is not worth the stress it causes the teacher and certainly isn't worth the stress it causes kids. 

The Bloom's Stuff is all the learning. The more we learn, the higher  level thoughts we have. At the bottom of Bloom's taxonomy is the basic understanding and ability to recall facts. As teachers, we are trained to understand these theories (in college mostly...unfortunately I haven't heard anyone refer to Bloom or Maslow in a while). As you move up the taxonomy the skills get harder. The thinking becomes more intense and learners start to make decisions about information they have attained at the lower levels of the taxonomy. We should be striving for students to reach that top level. I contend that we have lost that ability with the inundation of educational reforms and the lack of skills related to those making decisions about teaching and learning. If you are in a race to teach your standards...your students are likely to remain at the bottom of the hierarchy....just jamming facts into their they can perform on an assessment.

We probably all want to be able to say our kids are able to analyze, evaluate and create. But they sometimes can't make it past the first level of basic fact recalling. I think this is our fault. Well...I know it is. We haven't done much to address the thing we REALLY have to address in order to make the learning stuff work. And educational reformers and those writing laws about public education have no idea what they're talking about and never require us to figure out how to help a kid in crisis. Enter Maslow and his hierarchy of needs.

Maslow said that human needs are levels of a pyramid. He believed that people are motivated to achieve certain needs, and that we are innately motivated to achieve the next level of human need once a level is fulfilled. The very bottom and most basic of needs are food, water, warmth and rest. These ARE our basic needs. You can't move to the next level until you are not fighting to have your basic needs met. A hungry kid is never going to reach self-actualization when their focus is the basic need of food. And all of Maslow's stuff has to be in place in order to deal at all with Bloom's stuff.

What does this all mean? Before you can teach kids about geometry, to write literary essays or physics...they need to be fed, feel safe, have a sense of belonging, feel confident and know themselves as learners and people. We can continue to deliver instruction and then test kids all day every day...if we don't take care of them and their needs, we can forget about achieving top levels of Bloom's taxonomy.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Dear White People...

The African-American kids need YOU to start speaking UP and speaking OUT. We've been talking about the "achievement gap" in this country for long over a decade and it only grows. It grows because it is not an achievement gap. It's far more than that. Our African American children (especially the boys) are not getting a fair shake at school and we all know it. The curriculum is designed to cater to white learners. The texts are not culturally relevant, and we are all so focused on our curriculum and assessments that we have neglected to build strong relationships with the kids. And let's all stop pretending that white children and black children are following the same set of rules. They aren't. And WE are the only ones that can make a change for kids that deserve better. If we don't, the disparities will continue to grow. It's not easy to stand up to the dominant power structure that exists in our world, but it is absolutely necessary. This is a serious crisis and it's OUR voices that have to be heard. Silence isn't working.

REMINDER: If YOU have the power to change something you know is wrong, and you CHOOSE not to, you are complicit in perpetuating injustice. 

I am fully aware that this blog post is gonna make some people really uncomfortable.  I'm ok with that...I've been making people uncomfortable for quite some time.  In all likelihood, I am going to continue to make people uncomfortable with all my talk about equity and differentiation, and the issues that arise when we build racist structures in our public school systems. It isn't my intent to make people feel uncomfortable, but I am hard wired to advocate for those at a disadvantage...even when there are consequences for me. (We will get into what that is like at a later date...)

I am nearing my 20th year as a teacher. There is one thing that has remained constant during my career: the disparity between what is provided to white children and children of color. I started my teaching career in the inner-city. I didn't have a single white child during my time there. We also didn't have a library, a gym, transportation, or adequate resources. It was the best four years of my career, and where I learned to teach. I've also worked in a low income district, a district with almost no children of color, and an affluent district with more diversity than you could ever ask for. My own schooling was in a place where I was one of the brownest kids I knew. I had everything I could have ever needed: amazing teachers/principals, well-equipped facilities, safe transportation and updated resources. I know what my world of white privilege has afforded me. It's only recently that I found out that my own privilege is limited. My sister and I talk about our "not-quite-white" status. Most of my life I have lived in the throes of white privilege, but learned recently that it is limited, based on what I can only assume is my status as a brown girl. 

Teaching is my passion and I intend to make educational equity my life's work. I have been to two separate events in the recent past regarding the education of African-American children and closing what we call the "achievement gap." One was hosted by African-American kids and the other by African-American parents. BOTH times I was one of maybe three white people in the room. And BOTH times the conversation took a turn to a discussion about what KIDS and PARENTS of color should do differently to get better results for their children in our public schools. And both times I spoke up about who should be doing something differently, and the answer is: EDUCATORS...especially white educators. It's time to flex our white-privileged muscles and make a real difference.  If you think there is no such thing as white privilege, get your head out of the proverbial sand. And do it now. 

The event hosted by African-American parents was advertised as a "STATE OF EMERGENCY" and yet the room was relatively bare compared to other community events. I was there. I didn't even know it was happening. My BFF called me a week prior. She is a white mother to three white children, but knows it is our COLLECTIVE responsibility to teach all kids and teach them well. She was the only white parent in the room that didn't have black children. There were only two school administrators present, both African-American women. The only classroom teacher in the room was me. This is simply UNACCEPTABLE. 

Here are some facts that may help you to decide to get loud about equity:
  1. U.S News reports that the U.S. Education is still separate and UNEQUAL, even 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education ended legal segregation in schools. 
  2. Because of societal disparities, Black children are more likely to start school already behind their white counterparts. They have a different starting line. 
  3. Characters in children's books are overwhelmingly white. 
  4. Black children are retained at far higher rates than white children.
  5. The school-to-prison-pipeline is a REAL THING. 
  6. Black children in American schools are disciplined (suspended and expelled) at THREE TIMES the rate of white students. 
  7. Schools serving primarily children of color have less money, more inexperienced teachers, and fewer educational opportunities including STEM, the arts, and other important course offerings 
  8. 94% of public school teachers at the high school level are white. 
  9. Black children are more likely to experience trauma or be the victims of violent crimes.
  10. Poverty and hunger continue to plague the lives of African-American children in the United States
This is my call to action for other white educators to speak out and be loud about changing a system designed for only a segment of the population. Black educators have been speaking out for a long time, and nobody listens. It is OUR turn. We can do this. We must. 

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Why you can't understand Spring Break unless you're a teacher.

I am sitting in a Starbucks in Vero Beach this morning...because I am on Spring Break! Woohoo! We made it to Friday...I made it to Florida...and the first thing I can think to do is?!? Blog about teaching.

How many times have you heard someone say that teachers have too many breaks, or that we only work nine months out of the year? I can say with 100% CERTAINTY...they have never been in charge of a classroom full of kids for any length of time. Spring Break is not a gift. It is an absolute necessity. When the countdown to spring break begins, it is a little bit like holding your breath. The week prior you just hold on for dear life and hope for the best...

Once you make it to the last day before break, there is nothing like it. There is a buzz all around you all day long, as kids and teachers watch the clock, waiting for the freedom that comes with this much needed break from school. When the bell rings for the day...and the kids have been sent safely on their way, you might see something like this:

It doesn't hit you right away. Whether you are leaving for a warm destination (like me!), or having a relaxing stay-cation, it doesn't always hit you right away that you have a full week to recover and regroup. But on the very first morning...the reality of spring break crystalizes. There is no feeling like it.

People that work in the "real world" have no clue what a break means to a teacher. You can eat when you are hungry. You can go to the bathroom whenever you need to. You can think about something other than school. You realize that your brain is about to get a minute to recalibrate, and you won't answer the following questions 478 times per hour: "Can I use the bathroom? Can I get a drink? Can I have a pencil? Can I call my mom? Where is the tissue? Where is the stapler? Can I switch seats? What do I do when I am done? Where do I turn this in? Is there any homework? Why can't I sit by my friends? When is lunch?" People with regular jobs in offices can not understand, would never survive, and should NEVER judge us.

Spring break is about to fly right by. I know this. I am prepared for it. When it is time, I will be right back in my classroom...answering the 478 questions per hour. Even though the answers are always the same. It's what we do. But if I didn't have this break...I might BREAK when answering "Where should I put my work?" because the answer the same spot you ALWAYS put your work. The BIG BUCKET with the number for YOUR HOUR labeled with a BIG NUMBER. And in the SAME SPOT it has been for 8 months.

So what is the point of my blog post today??? To remind you that next time you talk to a teacher on vacation and feel just a little resentful that we have a week off...or two...or ten...remember that if we didn't have that time, the wheels would fall off of the proverbial wagon. Teaching is exhausting. It's the best kind of exhausting, and is not meant for the faint of heart, but exhausting nonetheless. I have seven more days in paradise before I get back to the grind. I will be ready for the final miles of the marathon. But there is only one reason I will successfully survive the last two months of school: SPRING BREAK.

Thank a teacher today. 

Meanwhile....if anyone needs me....I'll be in my office:

Friday, March 10, 2017

A Day Without Heat & Light

Earlier this week...the high winds took out electricity for almost a million homes in southeast Michigan. Including mine. This is just plain awful. My days have been so crazy and I haven't been able to function without power. I slept in my house on the first night, and woke up to go to work when it was around 58 degrees in my bedroom. I had no hot water. All of the food had been compromised in the fridge (let's be honest...there was nothing in there). I was frozen to the core and couldn't even take a one-minute shower without fear of turning into an icicle. For the first time in probably 30 years, I left without showering and headed to school.

Every hour I started my classes by asking my kids who was "electricity-challenged" to raise their hands. I could already tell who they were...just by looking at them. I recognized that "deer-in-headlights" look that I was also feeling. We told our stories of our triumphs and our disappointments as we worked to survive in our powerless world. We all connected around how much we miss our wifi and our TVs. It was like a mini-support group for the light-less.

By the end of the day...I was weathered. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and gasped. My hair looked a little like Kramer's (OK...a lot like Kramer's). My eyes had dark circles under them. I was decidedly disheveled. I was as grateful as a person could be that I had a personal day coming up because I didn't think I could manage another day of getting ready for work without heat and light.

Today my kids are all at school. I am sitting in Starbucks (SHOCKER) writing...because I have an appointment later that I just can't miss. If I didn't...I never would have taken this day off. Never. Because my kids and I were ALL a hot mess yesterday. I feel like I should be there to hear their woes. But alas...I didn't have to get up and brave the day without a shower.

I was laying in my cold bed last night congratulating myself for surviving two days without heat and light. I thought of all the things I couldn't manage because I didn't have my basic needs met. And then I remembered...

Lots of kids show up in our classrooms EVERY DAY having none of their basic needs met. We expect kids to manage seven different teachers a day. Seven different assignments. We expect them to take a big test...or present a big project. And what I remembered is that some of my kids (and yours!) feel like I feel today all the time. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.

They may not always be without electricity or heat, but they are without so many things that we take for granted. They feel like THIS all the time. And I think too many of us forget THAT too much of the time. Teachers can get so caught up with teaching curriculum and getting through their standards, that kids, especially the most vulnerable kids we serve, get left in the dust.

I am no good to anyone today. I am freezing. I haven't had a hot shower. I had to dig for clothes in the dark. I am totally and completely discombobulated. Some of our kids feel like this all the time. The last couple of days was a good reminder for me about the basics. And just how hard it is to function when you're worried about the basics. Electricity. Heat. Food. Water. Clean and dry clothes.

And often the kids that ARE worried about these things...have the hardest time trying to keep it together in school. I did...just yesterday. And I only had to endure a couple of days in the dark. And I really didn't have to endure...I could have easily just stayed with my sister. Not everyone has that luxury when they are cold and hungry. And understandably, they act out. Or shut down. Or fall asleep.

I'm still freezing as I sit here drinking my $7 latte. I  may even still whine later to my sister. And get her to feel sorry for me so that she will cook me a nice warm dinner while I use her hot shower and heat and cope with my "situation" by using her wifi and watching her cable. But I will try to remember how miserable this made me so I can help a kid to feel less miserable when they are sitting in my classroom. And I will do whatever I can to meet some of their basic needs so they can enjoy school. Even if it's just a little bit. 

My days without heat and light have not been for nothing. 

Saturday, March 4, 2017

It's a W.R.A.P!

It's a W.R.A.P has been my labor of love for the past three years...well one of them. During my journey to learn the ELA standards...I  created so many different things. But I started with an assessment system. I had no way to formatively assess specific skills, and no texts with which to assess them in an interesting way. During the summer of 2014...I started writing and creating. I started with sixth grade, since I was a sixth grade teacher. I have since gone on to develop the system for grades 4-8 and they cover ALL reading literature standards, ALL Informational standards and ALL writing standards. The very best part of doing all of this work is the feedback I have received from teachers all over the country that are using my materials in their classrooms.

I'm not in love with all things Common Core. I fully realize that the standards were not created by teachers. But it doesn't matter. This is what we have to do right now. And there are some awesome things in the Common Core standards. Understanding them is the first battle. I live with the ELA standards every day (even though I no longer teach ELA). I want to do the work that other teachers don't have time for because I love it. A few years ago, when I was working in the most innovative environment I had ever worked, my teacher friends and I had an understanding. Most of my colleagues had little kids at home. I didn't. We used to discuss it. One of my teaching partners and I were ALWAYS willing to do the work that needed to be done for teachers. We wrote assessments and shared them. We collected data to report out. We designed materials for teachers so they wouldn't have to. We did all of that because we could. We could work until all hours, and would prefer that our colleagues spend their evenings with their small children. (It didn't hurt that we loved doing it...) That was the deal. And we were always happy to do it.

The result of that mindset is a plethora of materials that teachers can use in an instant. You will not find any dense narratives in my materials. You won't have to spend six hours reading to prepare for one lesson. It's a W.R.A.P. is the first piece of my ELA puzzle.

I had to study hard in my doctoral program. My degree is in K-12 Curriculum and Instruction. Statistics and assessment strategies were obviously a major focus. I learned that assessments should always be developed BEFORE anything else. Building an assessment is like creating a road map. You need to know where you are headed before you leave. I actually don't think teachers should all be expected to have the skill set to develop assessments and write curriculum. I think people like me should do it. I love it. I have the training to do it. This is one thing that can be taken off of the plates of teachers in order for them to focus on their kids.

I hope that with this blog post I can show teachers what my formative/summative assessment does, and provide an opportunity for me to get feedback so that I can continuously improve it. It's a WRAP is a fluid document that changes with new information or ideas. I WANT to hear from teachers that use it. I want to know how to make it better for them.

It's a W.R.A.P. (Writing and Reading Assessment Program) covers the Common Core Standards for reading and writing. There are three categories for the CCSS: Reading Literature, Reading Informational, and Writing. (Language standards are covered in a separate document...) I created four different assessments for each category. The assessments are not just tests...they can be used as reading activities, they can guide instruction on any of the CCSS, and they are appropriate for use as formative and/or summative assessments.

It's a WRAP includes:

4 assessments for reading literature
4 assessments for reading informational text
4 assessments for writing

(They are also available category...see above!)

12 total assessments + Bonus assessments to use with student choice texts.

Each assessment/activity has the same components.

1) They are based on original (and hopefully interesting!) texts. The following is part of the assessment for narrative writing. It's a true story about one of my favorite days ever. My nephew has been dealing with the fact that LOTS of my stories are inspired by him.

Narrative writing example

2) Standard tracker for students - Each assessment begins with this standard tracker. The numbers let the student and teacher know which standard(s) each question is measuring. They are divided into three different depths of knowledge. I tried to include questions that begin with basic knowledge, but also questions that show a deeper understanding and ability to apply knowledge. And finally, the higher-level questions that show a student has mastered a concept thoroughly. When students get a question correct, they can shade in the appropriate box on the chart. They will see their own growth as they master each concept, and also see which skills they need to sharpen and practice. When I used this in my classroom, I had students check their own quite often, so that they could discuss and learn as we go.

Student Standard Tracker
 3) Assessment questions aligned to the CCSS. Each assessment (or activity, however you choose to use it) combines different types of questions including multiple choice, short answer, and constructed response. This can be used for test prep too!
Multiple choice questions aligned to the CCSS

Constructed response questions

4) A series of activities/assessments that are standard specific and can be used with student or teacher selected texts. These can also be used with any of the texts provided. Some grade levels include this portion as the 4th assessment (in reading). In sixth grade it is the "bonus" section. 
Each document is aligned to ONE of the standards and can be used with any text

This is an example of the generic portion of this assessment. Students can search for opportunities to make inferences and find evidence from the text. 

Example #2: Analyzing "plot" and can be used with any narrative text
 5) Answer keys! Every assessment comes with an answer key, when possible. Answers will vary depending on the type of questions asked.
Answer keys are provided wherever possible

I created It's a W.R.A.P. to help teachers teach and to help students learn. It is available for 4th grade, 5th grade, 6th grade, 7th grade and 8th grade. Yes, this is what I do for fun. I am a nerd...a CURRICULUM NERD! If you have used it, please comment and let me know what you think! It is so cool getting emails from teachers all over the country that use my curricular materials and assessments. I love it!