Recent Teacher AHA! Moments

In the last couple of months, we’ve had some great PD at our school. I like any PD in that it makes me question what I do, but I really love good PD that inspires me, reminds me, or gives me a good poke. We’ve had three different visitors: Ellin Keene,  Reading Consultant, Ron Ritchart of the Cultures of Thinking Project, and Ruben R. Puentedura, creator of the SAMR ladder (see below).

Ellin Keene Talk About Understanding

We were lucky to have a couple of sessions with Ellin Keene. She’s a gifted speaker, and I could listen to her all day. She’s warm, funny, down-to-earth, and she really knows her stuff. Our sessions reminded me of the reading teacher I used to be, back when I was lucky enough to be able to include a reading hour and a writing hour every day. She taught a lesson in my classroom, and my students were enthralled. Her focus was inferring, and she used the first poem from Jacqueline Woodson’s award-winning Brown Girl Dreaming. She challenged my students by asking them to bring what they thought, felt, and believed to their discussion and writing. Their discussions were very insightful.

Here are some of my take-aways:

  • Kids don’t improve as readers by being tested more. (Duh!) Research shows that the most significant factor in student improvement in reading is time. They need to practice. Choice improves comprehension. Kids need extended time every day.
  • She shared a great model of conferencing with kids about their reading, checking in on their progress in individual and class reading goals.
  • I want to get back to this: Students construct a portfolio of responses, including written, visual, artistic, drama pieces, as assessment. I used to do that!
  • It’s all about the thinking.
  • A reminder: Proficient readers infer, ask questions, determine importance, active background knowledge, determine importance, create images, and monitor for meaning.

I took pages of notes and was quite inspired. I was very pleased, too, that she spoke to our whole faculty, not just the Language Arts teachers.

Practice: My 7th-graders are working on their Champion projects at the moment—researching the life of someone who embodied creativity, resilience, compassion, and collaboration. We’re about to start the creative stage of the project: constructing a multi genre research project. I always tell my class to imagine finding a box under their subject’s bed, full of mementos of their life: what would be in it? Last week, my students were researching, and I focused on the strategy of determining importance. I stopped them and asked them to write on a post-it note how they decided what to include in their notes. Many came up with great criteria: Is it something that impacted the direction of her life? Is it related to creativity, resilience, compassion, or collaboration? Is it something for which he is famous? Was I still thinking about it the next day? I  saw an instant picture of their metacognitive skills and was able to work closely with those students who needed some direction.

This kind of strategy is not new to me, but I really did need a reminder of what I used to do.

Ron Ritchart Making Thinking Visible

My teaching philosophy largely developed at my previous school in Australia, where thinking and the teaching of thinking were highly valued. Listening to Ron Ritchart made me a little nostalgic. His work at Harvard in the Visible Thinking Project is a little different though. Back in the old country, we used a lot of ‘thinking strategies’, but the Visible Thinking Routines really go a little deeper. He talked about the concept of enculturation: learning through the culture in which we live and work.

Here are some of my take-aways:

  • Getting kids to think and understand is a social practice.
  • The culture we create in our classrooms is teaching our students, regardless of our intentions.
  • It’s all about the questions.
  • Teens who are free to argue at home develop skills that will help them stand up to others when they need to.
  • Great question: What makes you say that?
  • The importance of a growth mindset.

Practice: I used the See, Think, Wonder Routine with my Champion researchers. I asked them to try to identify a turning point in their subject’s life. What would it look like? What does the student think about it? What does the student wonder about it? I was pleased with their ideas, and I think it will help them construct more meaningful artifacts of their subjects’ lives. My 8th graders have just read Of Mice and Men, and in our last lesson, after reading a slightly abridged version of ‘I’m not a tart: The feminist sub-text of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men‘, students paired up for a written conversation. Next we’ll read ‘The Impact of the Great Depression on Families‘, and students will use the Chalk Talk thinking routine to compare male gender roles in the 30s to today.

Ruben R. Puentedura

What an interesting guy. He was here in Hong Kong for the 21C Learning Conference, and we were lucky to be able to have a session with him after school. His SAMR ladder relates to the different levels of integrating technology. Hurray! I was pleased to listen to someone who incorporated thinking and rigor into use of technology. We’ve all seen so many apps and tools that are really just a substitute for writing on paper or drawing with pencils. The SAMR model breaks tech use into four levels:

Screen Shot 2015-02-08 at 9.27.17 pm

I thought this was brilliant! He went into detail for each level, and his blog has lots of links and resources.

The big takeaway:

The most meaningful integration of technology is when the technology actually shapes the task.

Practice: I pinched his example of using Comic Life, and had my 8th graders make pages using their vocab words. I then collated them into a comic book on Google Presentation, which became their resource for that cycle. They really enjoyed it, and almost all of them learned all 40 words in about 8 days. This cycle, I’ve decided to use film, and we’re doing something I’m calling Stand-Up Vocab. I’m filming and then editing students’ 15-second performances using iMovie to create our class film.

This idea of using tech to shape a task is exciting, and I’m going to squeeze my brain to find ways to do it more often and more effectively.

I feel as if I’ve been richly fed in the last couple of months, and I’m glad I’ve finally been able to get some notes down.

Oh! I’m writing again:) More on that later. Boy do I have a whacky idea…


A veteran teacher turned coach shadows 2 students for 2 days – a sobering lesson learned

This is from Grant Wiggins’ blog, written by an anonymous HS learning coach who shadowed students for two days. It’s an authentic teacher perspective of student experience. It gave me cause for pause.

Granted, and...

The following account comes from a veteran HS teacher who just became a Coach in her building. Because her experience is so vivid and sobering I have kept her identity anonymous. But nothing she describes is any different than my own experience in sitting in HS classes for long periods of time. And this report of course accords fully with the results of our student surveys. 

I have made a terrible mistake.

I waited fourteen years to do something that I should have done my first year of teaching: shadow a student for a day. It was so eye-opening that I wish I could go back to every class of students I ever had right now and change a minimum of ten things – the layout, the lesson plan, the checks for understanding. Most of it!

This is the first year I am working in a school but not teaching…

View original post 1,853 more words

Creating a Reading Culture

A Facebook post by NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) this week made me think about my students’ home reading. In the linked article, parents were complaining about excruciatingly tedious tasks their children were given to track their reading. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big believer in tracking what my middle school students read, but it’s as simple as noting titles and authors. It can lead to reflection and discussion and helps students see patterns and movement in their reading choices.

But daily recording and written responses? As a reader, I can’t think of anything worse than having to record time spent and pages read every single day in addition to some kind of summary or other ‘activity’. It’s unappealing to me as an adult, and it would have been torture for me as a kid.

So how do you get students to read? Create a reading culture. How do you do that? Here’s what works with my middle school students:

1. Be a reader yourself. Love reading. Read what you love; get excited about what you’re reading. Consider joining a book club. Join Goodreads. Follow authors on Facebook. Read whenever and wherever you can. Fall in love. Sigh.

2. Let your students know that you love reading. If you’re not passionate about it, see suggestion number 1.

3. Subscribe to Publisher’s Weekly and School Library Journal. You’ll get regular emails about debut authors, favorite authors’ new books, new books in series, author events, and much more. Find out what’s going on and pass on irresistible tidbits to your class.

4. Show book trailers. See if your librarian will show playlists of book trailers in the library before or after school, or during lunch. (Well made) Book trailers are so much more appealing than a jacket blurb. They’re exciting, they project a sense of the voice, characters and conflict. Great for discussion! You’re welcome to use any or all of my playlists. I’ve got dozens and I add a new one most weeks:

5. Let students read every day, if possible.

6. Read aloud to them, no matter how old they are.

7. Applaud surreptitious reading! Ask your class,’ Who has ever read in the dark with a flashlight when you were supposed to be asleep? What other places have you read when you weren’t supposed to?’ They love this conversation. If no one has done it, challenge them!

8. Steal occasional class time for reading, just to show them that you can! I didn’t broadcast this at the time, but a few years ago, my eighth grade class were voting on the Kirkus Video Awards during class. They were enthralled by The Maze Runner trailer, and one student quickly and quietly found an excerpt on the publisher’s page. She asked if we could read the beginning, and the class all begged. Of course, I read it aloud. They loved it. Seizing the opportunity, I bought a digital version online, and we ditched our regular programming to read the whole book over a week. They raced in to class every day to find out what would happen next. I got a little behind in my already over-stuffed unit plan, but some of those kids turned into readers that week. I asked our wonderful librarian to order some for the library and they’ve been in constant demand ever since.

9. Let them read good literature in class. Let them be swept up in a narrative. Take them to another world. Give them a taste of the power of reading.

10. Get them talking about what they’re reading. Ask them to raise their hands if they’re reading a really great book? Ask them to tell the class why it’s so great.

11. Whip them into a frenzy when a new movie is coming out based on a book. When it comes out, make sure you’re there! Ask in class who’s seen it, and excitement will grow.

12. Find a way to bring authors to your school.

13. Find out about local author events and publicize them in your class. Go to them yourself, and then tell your students about your experience.

14. As a class, write to authors. So many MG and YA authors tweet, instagram, blog, and are on facebook! It’s easy to contact them personally in a way that didn’t previously exist. When I wrote to Neal Shusterman on his Facebook page and he responded, my classes were amazed that he was so accessible and interested in talking to readers.

15. If you have students who say they don’t like reading, spend some one-on-one time with them in the library. Find out what they’ve read recently, what kind of movies they love, and go from there. Build a stash of secret weapons for reluctant readers. Try Once by Morris Gleitzman, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, The Maze Runner by James Dashner, or Sold by Patricia McCormack. Find out what’s popular and push it.

16. Discourage students from thinking that 18th century books somehow make more virtuous reading choices. Students need to be challenged, but they can be challenged in many ways. My students in each year level construct a ‘Rich Reading’ list. They categorize books as follows:

  • What books challenged you in terms of language?
  • What books made you angry about injustice?
  • What books helped you understand others and their struggles?
  • What books broadened your understanding of politics, power, or ethics?
  • What books increased your understanding of historical events?
  • What books made you reflect deeply about your own experiences or beliefs?
  • What books offered examples of excellent writing?
  • What books had characters you could use as role models?

We review and update our lists frequently. Books suggested by multiple people are asterisked.

17. Try and get your whole school on board. If you can wangle a pajama day in which every teacher allots some class time on free reading, do it!

18. Let students read with a buddy or a small group. It doesn’t have to be organized with roles and tasks. Just give them a little time to talk to each other.

19. If you can afford it (or can find funds somehow), buy a new book that’s going to be popular (e.g. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green) and lend it to kids. I had an old Kindle that I used purely for lending to my students. They loved it. It meant that they could read it before it became available in the library. Unfortunately, one day it came to school with a broken screen. That’s life. Alternatively, if your local public library lends digitally, and you have an old reading device, use that.

20. Celebrate reading events. At my school, I organize an annual Reader’s Cup: a grade-level competition including games, puzzles, video challenges and other book-related tasks. It’s great fun.

21. Look for author webcasts in which your class can participate. A couple of years ago, Charlie Higson presented a webcast on ‘fear’ on October 31st. It aired in the afternoon in England, but in my region, it was on at about 10:00 at night. I held a Halloween event in my classroom, late at night. Kids came dressed up, bearing candy and Halloween treats. We submitted questions to Charlie Higson, and the kids were thrilled when he answered one of our questions and named our school. Afterwards, we watched the 1931 version of Dracula. It was a hoot. Warning: school is rather scary at 1 a.m.

22. In the US, you can occasionally obtain Advance Reader’s Copies of new books from publishers. This is advertised sometimes in Publisher’s Weekly newsletters, or you can approach publishing houses directly. Reading something before it’s publicly available is quite motivating.

23. Wherever possible, give students autonomy in their responses to what they’ve read. When it’s time to do a reading response to their home reading in class, make it engaging. Use hotseating, create videos, write scripts, or let them choose.

24. Be flexible in what students can read. Allow manga, comics, newspapers, magazines, foreign language books, graphic novels, and websites as a part of a balanced reading diet.

25. Make friends with local booksellers, or your school librarian ( I hope you have one…) and ask for book posters to put up in your classroom.

26. Every year, Teen Sync gives away two free audiobooks per week over the summer. Tell your students! Look for other local opportunities like this.

27. Teach students to look at ratings on Goodreads and Amazon and check out reviews.

28. Build a collection of excerpts (links to Amazon or publisher pages) so that students can read the first few pages before borrowing.

29. Introduce students to and other platforms on which students can publish their own writing and read and review the writing of peers.

30. When a student recommends a book to you, read it. In the last twelve months I’ve read two thrillers set in Cold War Russia and a novel in blank verse about the Manson murders, neither of which I would probably have chosen myself. If I want students to read some of my recommendations, I should be prepared to read some of theirs. In a culture of reading, you’re building a community.

Now I’m thinking about the copy of Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, waiting for me on my bedside table…

Valentine Skull-Crackers and Killer Pens

Do you ever find out about something and realize that everyone else has known about it for years? I hate that. This week, as I was watching a medical drama (I’m a sucker for a found foot, larvae under the toenails, and all kinds of crazy that show up under ultra violet light), a character wielded a ‘sap’. It made me sit up straight. The characters talked about it like everyone must know someone who owns one. Writers are curious. I needed to know more.


Saps are impact weapons made from lead-filled leather, somewhere around six inches long. They used to be carried routinely by police, but now less so. They can crack a skull, break bones, and damage organs. You wanted to know that, right?

I had trouble believing such a small weapon could cause such damage, so I turned to YouTube. Thus began my descent into the nether world of personal weaponry. I know weapons aren’t funny, and I’m very much pro gun control, but I must admit I laughed. A lot. I don’t know why. It was often inappropriate.

This video explains what a sap is. It also offers some pretty Valentine-themed choices with embossed hearts:

This one, showing some classic sap moves, is somehow reminiscent of Napoleon Dynamite. Unfortunately, it was not embeddable, but I promise it’s worth it, if you want to see in which direction you should wave your sap.

The same guy demonstrates some serious coconut destruction with a different sap in this video:

Apparently it’s illegal to carry a sap in most US states. Wait. Does that mean they’re more dangerous than guns?

I moved on from saps to something that kept me busy for at least an hour: tactical pens, made by companies like Uzi and Smith and Wesson.

uzi  schrade smith and wesson

These pens come with optional ends: a glass breaker or a DNA collector (a crown-shaped gouger). I looked at these for so long that I started to want one. The most enjoyable part of looking at these on Amazon was the user reviews:

The point would deliver a very painful jab even though it’s not “sharp.” It makes a nice intermediate stage between pulling a tactical knife and the use of pepper spray, both of which I also carry. (Smith and Wesson Military and Police Tactical Pen: Black)

This is something every Girl or Lady should have handy and know how to use. The pen looks too girly to be tactical, but what you have here is a stout little impact weapon that can be carried pretty much everywhere, especially on planes or other areas where even a small folding knife is a no-go.(Schrade Tactical Pen: Pink With Hearts)

If placed in luggage, clipped to an envelope, it will slip though x-ray security scans. I take mine through security every day, so I have some way to defend myself on the subway before arriving at my locked-down office that uses x-ray and metal detector. No need for it once inside. (KZ Zombie Pen-Etrator Tactical Pen: Blue)

There is a wealth of quirky character ideas to be mined in Amazon reviews.

I guess this means that the pen really could be mightier than the sword, so long as you had the lid off, and your attacker was very close and unarmed. And maybe not looking. He or she THINKS you’re going to sign a check, but you’re about to inflict six inches of aircraft-grade grade aluminium. This is another good reason not to write with a blunt pencil.

This sub-culture of personal weaponry was at once repugnant and irresistible. I couldn’t stop! And actually I think I want to buy a tactical pen. The middle schoolers I teach would probably be impressed. And perfectly behaved. “Just let me get out my pen …” I didn’t know it, but maybe I really do need one. I’m feeling kind of under-weaponed.

I had to shut myself down last night after I spent another hour looking up easy homemade weapons. I live in one of the safest cities in the world, but if I were in the movies, I’d definitely want to make one of these, so long as I had some old planks hidden under the porch.

It’s difficult to explain why I found so many of these videos and comments funny. I’m telling you, I chuckled out loud. Often. I think it just seemed so unreal to me to be so worried about safety that I found it difficult to relate to or take seriously. What’s happened to the world? I know personal safety is a serious matter and that physical assault is no joke, but it’s hard for me to imagine living as fearfully as some of the people in these videos. As a writer, I find them very interesting. Are they really afraid of being attacked everywhere they go? Do they perhaps wish their lives were more like an action movie? Were they affected by something that happened to someone else?

I love to watch adventures and thrillers. Adore Jason Bourne. Envy Scarlett Johannson in The Avengers. I could never write it though. I grew up with guns, but I really don’t know how to write a scene with fighting or guns or other weapons. Yes, I fantasise about being caught up in some dangerous (but ultimately happily-ending) shenanigans, but, in reality, I fear I wouldn’t go into fight or flight so much as flee or pee.

Maybe I could manage a fight scene with spoons.

Goodbye Lizzie Bennet

pridenovelGoodbye Lizzie. And Darcy. And Lydia, Jane, Bing, Charlotte, and all the rest. Episode 100: The End of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries was uploaded to YouTube on Thursday. Almost one year after the first episode, it’s over.

I love Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

ppzI love the fact that there are dozens of adaptations because we can’t let the original go. One of my favorites was Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The Bennet girls wielded katanas and lace handkerchiefs – fantastic fun.

But The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, developed by Hank Green and Bernie Su, is the best of all. Why?

Screen Shot 2013-03-29 at 12.12.20 PM1. the story took a year to tell. I’m sure you’ve had this experience: You start reading a book and you can’t put it down . You find yourself instantly invested in the characters. You’re living in their world. You have to know what happens. You read the whole thing in one or two sittings, maybe when you’re supposed to be doing something else, maybe secretly, in the bathroom. And then it’s over and you grieve. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries stretched out what might have only lasted a few hours to a whole year. A year of living with the characters, their world, and their story. 

2. We were given brief story instalments. This is the flip side of the story taking a year to tell. If you’ve read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, you know what’s going to happen. You’re dying for it to happen. You cannot wait for Lizzie to meet Darcie. Who will they cast? Will he live up to Colin Firth? You cannot wait for the Lydia and Wickham debacle. How will they modernize it? Will I want to slap Lydia? When a five-minute episode ends with a knock at the door, it’s a deliciously excruciating agony to have to wait until the following Monday or Thursday.   

3. The characters are all likeable. Except George Wickham, obviously. We’re never, ever going to like George Wickham. In every adaptation, George Wickham is, and must remain, a pig. He will always be the opposite of William Darcy: a poseur. He’s cuter than usual in the LBD, but we always know it’s going to end badly. On the other hand, I’ve always found Lydia an annoying, extremely stupid character, but in this version, Lydia has a lot of depth, and the viewer can’t help but sympathize to some some degree. Even Caroline is a little more likeable than in the original story.

Screen Shot 2013-03-29 at 12.09.06 PM4. You don’t just get your LBD fix on YouTube. You can follow the characters on Twitter, or read their Tumblr posts. You can go to the LBD site. You can find actor/fan/character interaction. Pemberley Digital have their own website.There are even spin-off vlogs: Pemberley Digital’s channel, hosted by Gigi Darcy, and Lydia Bennet’s channel. You can join a discussion community. Now that it’s all over, I’m not only going to miss my YouTube twice weekly fix. Screen Shot 2013-03-29 at 12.23.42 PMI’m really going to miss the Facebook page Socially Awkward Darcy, whose daily fan posts have kept me going between Mondays and Thursdays. Does it have to end? This multi-platform drenching of LBD has made it not only a long-lasting pleasure, but one that can be experienced richly, in many ways. It’s like eating chocolate cake with chocolate ganache, chocolate sauce, shaved chocolate, and chocolate truffle ice cream while drinking chocolate milk through a chocolate straw. For a whole year.

5. Even though you know the story, it’s unpredictable. It’s not exactly the same as the original. I don’t want to spoil anything, but some plot points have been modernised to reduce your desire to hit some of the original characters over the head. In addition to changes in the setting so that it’s believably modern, it generally reflects contemporary attitudes to women, marriage, and work. In this context, Mrs Bennet is even funnier than in the original story. Don’t misunderstand: Even though some elements have been changed, the intention of every original plot point is still very visible. 

6.  The vlog creates the illusion that Lizzie Bennet is confiding in you, giving your viewing experience a sense of intimacy. You’re listening to Lizzie talk through her problems, and she often realizes things while she’s talking to you. There’s also an element of secrecy. She worries about certain characters watching the videos. Even though Lizzie talks about her viewers in the plural, it feels as if you’re part of a select inner circle. You’re Lizzie Bennet’s fake best friend—fun!

7. It’s Pride and Prejudice.

If you haven’t seen The Lizzie Bennet Diaries on YouTube, this long weekend is the perfect time to watch all of it. That’s what I’ll be doing.


Luka Lesson

Screen Shot 2013-03-29 at 10.19.27 AM
One of the greatest perks of my job as a teacher is author visits. Last week, Australian (Brisbane!) performance poet and 2011 Australian Poetry Slam winner Luka Lesson came to the high school library. His work inspired me to move forward on a writing project I’ve been stewing over. Confession: I’ve secretly harboured some prejudice towards rap. Sorry, rappers. My loss.

Luka Lesson calls himself poet, rapper, and artist. What he does is overpowering. His poetry is alive. It gets into all your senses.

When he writes/talks/performs about writing, it’s a passionate love affair. When his subject is juveniles being processed as adults in the Queensland legal system, it’s angry.  When his subject is love, it’s consuming.

And you feel it. Here he is performing in the 2011 Australian Poetry Slam.

On his site you can watch and read a lot of his work.

I take back everything I ever thought about rhyming and rhythmic poetry. Luka Lesson’s work is power.

Power to make you see. Power to make you feel. Power to make you get up and do something.

Here’s a snatch of his poem, “May Your Pen Grace the Page“:

May your pen express upon the page every feeling you’re in

May your white page – Yang

Love your black pen – Yin

May the ball in your ball point roll ‘cause that’s the point of the ball

And if we can’t make our points then what’s the point of it all?

My Parkour Career

I’m thinking about becoming a parkour expert. It’s not that hard. Watch this:

Just after I watched this video and several others, I wondered at exactly what point in my life I stopped wanting to do forward rolls. Can I get that back? As I was pondering this, waiting for my internet to blink back in, I turned to my iPhone for guidance. Look what came up.

I know. I didn’t believe it either. Right in front of me.

It isn’t spelled incorrectly. It’s spelled the French way—in its original form— which makes it an even more meaningful message from the universe. I have no idea what the correct answer is for the puzzle, but it clearly has something to do with balance, vision, and philosophical significance. Do you see it? My iPhone is telling me to take up parkour, less than three minutes after I was watching the youtube video.

Yes. I get that I might not, at first glance, seem like a typical parkour type, but let’s look at the facts: I know how to spell parkour, in BOTH English and French. I live in a city in which there are plenty of buildings, all of which have walls. I’ve watched my son play Assassin’s Creed. I’m very alert. The universe  wills it.

I’ll need some special gear. I’m thinking springy shoes:


Just for a little extra bounce. And I’ll need some very grippy gloves:

suction cup gloves

I’m going to be a little bit Lara Croft, a little bit Black Widow. I’ll probably look like this:


Except with better foundation garments. Or surgery.

Update: I just practiced rolling from left to right on my bed and I’m getting really fast. This is going to be awesome.