Monday, January 31, 2011

Fast Food, Dolores Umbridge, and Education

Bear with me. This is going to have a lot of seemingly random references. I hope, however, that it will be worth it!

We live in a fast food society. I admit that I sometimes fall prey to the ease of swinging through the drive-thru to pick up some processed dinner delights for my family on hectic nights (read: nights I have class, nights we have Cub Scouts, nights when there’s nothing left in the fridge or the cabinets, nights I have a headache, etc.).

In my frequenting, albeit ashamedly, these fast food joints, I have noticed a thing or two that reflects both our American culture and education. Today, for the purpose of posting on this particular blog, I’m going to equate fast food restaurants and American public education.

A few years ago, fast food restaurants started building new structures that featured two drive-thru windows. The logic behind this would be that it would speed the customer through the line, allowing the customer to pay at one window, drive up a little further, and receive the food from the other window.

I’m no genius, but it seems to me that this is just an illusion. You just FEEL like you’re going faster, which lessens the number of complaints from the customer. Well, I’ve noticed that several of those restaurants in our area have boarded up the once-popular additional window. Perhaps the public has figured out that it was indeed an illusion. Perhaps the fast food industry realized that the plan wasn’t as good in reality as it seemed in theory or on paper. Perhaps due to the economy, restaurants couldn’t afford to staff the additional window. Whatever the reason, this fad seems to have fallen by the wayside (at least in my tiny part of this fine country).

OK, before we get to the meat (haha, get it?) of this story, let me bring in a seemingly unrelated reference from Harry Potter, specifically, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. When Dolores Umbridge is introduced to the Hogwarts students at the start of term feast, she says in her rather lengthy (read: boring) speech, “…progress for the sake of progress must be discouraged.”

And here it is… How can I combine fast food restaurants, Dolores Umbridge, and American education? Well, it all comes down to progress.

I hate to agree with that nasty old witch Umbridge; it kind of hurts my inner Gryffindor to do so. Alas, in this instance, I’m going to embrace the quote only and not the other sentiments she expresses.

Progress, for the sake of progress, must be discouraged. Fast food restaurants are falling back to the old tried-and-true one window scenario. It makes better sense. They are comfortable going back to what worked after trying something that they thought would work, but didn’t. I believe it’s time for us as educators to consider the same.

How does this relate to No Child Left Behind (NCLB)? I love what I read in an article tonight that described NCLB as “impossibly sunny.” It is my personal opinion that NCLB sounds great in theory and probably looked fabulous on paper, but it’s not working out so well in practice. I feel that we are sacrificing authentic teaching and learning for the sake of AYP.

There have been quite a few times in my career when I have realized that something isn’t working in my classroom. I’m more than happy to talk about it with the kids. It’s actually happened recently. I sit down with them and say, “Hey, kiddos, this doesn’t seem like it’s really working. What do you think? Do you think we could do something better? What could I do to help you learn more?” And you know what? I always learn something. We work together, teacher plus students, to create a more efficient and effective learning environment. I’m happy to abandon ship IF I know what I was doing is not what’s best for my students. More often than not, it requires me to do things more simply instead of trying to incorporate all of education’s newest buzz words in the classroom.

In schools, I feel that we are always looking at the newest, biggest, baddest (ok, best) thing in education. We try it because everyone else does. We try it because it’s new. We try it because experts (aka “salespeople”) say it will make our test scores go up.

Is this wise? Is this jumping too quickly on the two-window bandwagon? Are we making progress simply for the sake of progress?

It’s time to join forces with Fast Food and Dolores Umbridge. I’m issuing a call for “Back to Basics.”

Hold on now. This doesn’t mean we go back to teaching today’s students in the same way we were taught when we were younger. I don’t believe that’s the best way to teach. In fact, I’m a big believer in the thought that an 18th century education doesn’t adequately prepare a 21st century student. So what do I mean by back to basics?

Basic, to me, is this: We do what’s best for all students. We need to have the guts to stop and say, “Maybe what I’m doing (or what we’re doing) isn’t working. What can I do to best serve ALL of my students?”

This, my friends, requires bravery. This requires that we admit that sometimes, we are wrong. Sometimes we get caught up in the hype. This is tough. It requires us to reevaluate everything we are doing.

I don’t want to teach to raise test scores. I want to teach to raise lifelong readers and learners. I want to teach to inspire. I want to teach to challenge. I want the teaching and learning that occurs in my classroom to be authentic. Meaningful. Lasting.

This, to me, is back to basics.

What does “Back to Basics” mean to you?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Pleading Guilty to Grammarcide

Oh heavens. I operate a website with information for my students' parents. I enjoy it, and it thoroughly demonstrates my innate nerdiness. Anyhoo, I update it every Sunday morning and send parents a reminder email that it has been updated.

Now, I realize that since I teach grammar, people probably pay more attention to things I type than other people (as in, non-grammar teachers). Because of this, I attempt to pay super close attention to my grammar in communications with parents and other people who know or care.

This morning, as I sent out the "Website Updated" email, there was [gasp] a typo! I wrote, "There is a lot of new, important notices on the website." UGH! It causes me intense physical pain just to see it written again!

In my defense, I originally typed, "There is a lot of new, important information on the website." I tend to overuse the word "information" when I communicate with parents, so I thought I'd be cool and change it to "notices." (Yes, I am acutely aware of the fact that using the word "notices" does not, in fact, make me cool. Stay with me, people.)

Well, I didn't realize that I had MASS EMAILED A TYPO to all of my students' parents. [Insert another gasp here.] It really bothered me! So of course, I sent out another email:

"Yes, there is a typo in my last email. I'm usually so careful!" Then I go on to tell everyone what I intended to say at first, and I admit to forgetting to change the verb agreement. I close with, "Whoops - I know I teach your children grammar - please forgive!"

I'm not sure which is worse: committing the grammarcide in the first place, or sending an email to point it out and apologize in a rather pitiful way.

[Sigh] I guess I can't win 'em all...

Comma Queen

Pre-Monday Musings

Today I sat in church with a good friend whom I happened to run into yesterday at the Book Exchange. She asked me if I found any good books, and I sheepishly replied that I bought about 10. I told her that I also raided my mother-in-law’s Young Adult bookshelf at her house for about 15 other books. I am quite proud of the books I picked up yesterday!

We started discussing our reading habits, and she confessed to me that she loves to read fiction, but she is trying to branch out and push herself to read more nonfiction. I told her that I have been reading a lot of professional books here lately (keep reading and I will tell you my top two favorites), but I am looking forward to diving back into some Young Adult novels. I also shared with her the title of a book I think she’d love even though it’s for younger readers. (The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi – if you haven’t read it, get it and do it! It’s fabulous!)

We continued to discuss the books I’ve recently acquired for my students. I told her that my goal is for my children to do the same thing that she and I had done while waiting on the service to begin – to discuss what they’ve read, to make goals for expanding their reading repertoires, and to share good books with others. I was eager to get some good deals on new books so I could recommend some new (i.e., new as in titles I don’t currently possess in my classroom library, not new as in recently published) titles with them.

I’ve recently finished reading The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller at the recommendation of my friend and colleague (Lit Lady). If you teach upper elementary or middle school reading (heck, even high school), YOU MUST READ THIS BOOK. This is stronger than a recommendation – read it, read it, read it! (Click here for information on how to order it.) Donalyn is the inspiration behind my recent book acquirements!

I love situations like today where I can sit with a friend and discuss what I’ve read. I want my students to be able to do the same thing. I loved reading The Book Whisperer because Donalyn makes it seem easy with down-to-earth and self-tested strategies for how to make this a reality for your students. She also discusses some of her attempts at getting her students to love reading that have failed. When you read it, you will say, “me too,” and “uh-huh,” and maybe even a “preach it, sister!” If you teach reading and you want your students to do more than know your state’s standards – if you want them to know the standards and develop a hard-core lifelong love of reading, get this book!

After discussing books with my friend, I enjoyed a wonderful sermon. I found it amusing, however, that as our pastor preached, I thought, “ooh, that’s a simile,” laughed at a pun, and even found examples of personification and alliteration sprinkled throughout the sermon. It made me nearly laugh out loud at how nerdy I am – for heaven's sake, I sat there and dissected his speech for examples from my state standard curriculum! Even though I was nearly ashamed of myself for delighting in the literary aspects of the sermon, I hope that my students internalize these concepts themselves and find themselves being just as nerdy as me when they grow up. What fun!

So here’s to a love of reading, nerdiness, and all wonderful things teaching! Have a wonderful week!

Comma Queen

PS - Another book that has absolutely transformed my outlook on teaching is by Rafe Esquith, a teacher in Los Angeles, entitled Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire. If you love teaching, this is also a MUST READ! I'm sure one day I'll devote an entire post to this book since I love it so much!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Balance This!

I realized tonight how badly I suck at balancing my lives. I bet that most working mothers/wives feel this way from time to time. I blame it all on my nerdiness.

I am obsessed with reading things about teaching. Books, magazine articles, blogs, my teacher friends’ Facebook statuses… I just love to learn more about my profession. (Read: I love to steal people’s ideas that are better than mine. Shakespeare said, “Everyone I meet is in some way my superior.” Preach it, Shakespeare, preach it.)

Anyhoo, I am spending my evening like I usually do, browsing the Internet for something fabulous I can incorporate in my own classroom. (Go ahead and say it, “Nerdy, nerdy, nerdy!”) I order some books from Amazon that I think my students will love after reading teacher and media specialist recommendations on their blog ( I research a little bit about an idea that one of my teacher friends says is effective in her classroom and contemplate how it could work in mine. I pull up one of my favorite teacher blogs by Mrs. Mimi (a teacher blogger from New York, sheer hilarity and in-your-face truth about teaching at  I get lost in her stories and nearly pee my pants laughing at situations she describes, knowing I’ve been there, done that, and gotten the cheap teeshirt.

Well, I all of a sudden remember, at 10 pm, that I promised my students earlier that if fifteen of them got pledges for our school fundraiser, that I would bake them chocolate chip cookies. As luck would have it (I really am proud, really), exactly 15 of them got pledges. Lucky for me, I have two packs of break-and-bake cookie dough in the fridge and can “make” them cookies. I am baking both packs because at this point, girlfriend needs a cookie too!

Then I realize that my son’s laundry is in the dryer, wrinkling his fave blue jeans (he is six, by the way). I have to say, though, that it’s a miracle that I’ve done laundry on a weeknight anyway.

I love my job. Teaching is my life. I recently did an interview with a newspaper about teaching, and the writer asked what I did outside of school. In my response, I realize that I eat, sleep, live, and breathe teaching. Add to that an equal love of technology and the Internet. Unfortunately for my family, I end up forgetting to do family things, like make dinner and fold laundry. I end up keeping my husband up past his bedtime so I’m not in the kitchen by myself making cookies that I promised the little darlings I would bring.

Lucky for me, however, I have a family who loves me and, if not fully impressed by my dedication to my students, they are generously tolerant of it. I may not win a wife-of-the-year or mother-of-the-year award, but I love the crazy pace of a teacher’s life. I couldn’t imagine it any other way.

Hopefully my fashion-savvy first grade son will feel the same way about my life in the morning when his jeans are wrinkled. Whoops. And hopefully, I won’t burn the cookies.

Comma Queen

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Gently Grab the Reader ~ Lit Lady

I have always marveled at the students that do not take the time given to free read in my room. If someone told me that I had time to read what I wanted, I would shower them with kisses and hugs. But kids that have not yet been hooked on reading tend to resist. They hold the book. They sit on the sofa. They turn the pages. They don't read.

I also think that the kids are amazed when I can tell they are not reading. As an avid reader, teacher, and mother, I know what real reading looks like from across the room. A 'staged' reader is like a siren with flashing lights in my room.

We have to grab those readers gently. Place the right book in their hands at the right time. An almost impossible task! Right?

Here is what I have been trying. I start every year with a shared reading - The BFG by Roald Dahl. It is a funny fantasy about people eating giants. We stop frequently, discuss freely, and reread the funny parts. I do with them the same thing I do alone when I read. Follow that with viewing of the movie and a compare and contrast essay about the book ~ it is a winning combination. I will usually see a few copies of The BFG or other titles by Roald Dahl being carried around by those that I have successfully 'grabbed'.

Then it is time for step 2... pay attention and model, model, model. I ask about the books they get from the library. I read the titles I see a lot. I conference and recommend. I get in the zone with them. I ask them to read to me. I continue to read to them. Gently grabbing the reader in all of them.

Reading is living. Reading is understanding. Reading is a gift ~ share it.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Bring Geeky Back!

Justin Timberlake made the phrase "Bring Sexy Back" popular. I would like to instead "Bring Geeky Back." 

What a weird mission, right? Probably. But I love the idea! I hate that there are still some kids today who feel like being "too smart" isn't cool, so they don't try as hard to achieve success. This doesn't just happen with older kids - it even starts with our younger students. This absolutely breaks my heart.

I do feel that it is probably better now than when I was a K-12 student, but this mentality still exists. Think about your own classroom. Do your students ever use the term "geek" or "nerd" to make fun of the smart kids in school? Have you ever heard of a student who doesn't want to be thought of as nerdy, but would much rather be cool? I know I've heard it.

I don't think of being geeky/nerdy as a bad thing! I certainly feel it's a compliment! I would describe myself as a big nerd, and I'm happily married to a geek I adore (I use the terms interchangeably, but I know there have been other blogs to define the proper usage of each term as they have separate meanings, but I won't go onto that right now). What I want to know is this: what can we do to bring geeky back?

Is it a matter of building self-esteem among the nerdy? Is it a matter of us embracing our own inner geeks to serve as confident role models for the future generations of geeky Americans? 

I think it's easier in this age of gadgets and gizmos galore (please pardon that Disney reference). I personally think it's the nerds who will lead us into the future. So how do we get them to be proud of their intellect and push them to do more?

I'm personally a fan of making "Bring Geeky Back" teeshirts, but sometimes I take my ideas too far. Thoughts?