The Importance of Joy: Part 2

Notes from the Classroom

This is part 2 in a series.
Here’s part 1The Importance of Joy.

There is a video I like to play when I facilitate professional development. It’s about a blind man trying unsuccessfully to beg for money on a city street. Passersby rarely give him a coin and mostly ignore him. One woman walks past him, then thinks better of it and turns around. She proceeds to change what is written on his sign from “I’m blind, please help me,” to “It’s a beautiful day, and I can’t see it.”

Almost immediately, the people passing by are much more likely to give him a few coins. The woman comes back later, and the blind man asks her what she wrote. She responds with, “I wrote the same but in different words.”

Now, full disclosure, this video is an ad for a company, but the message is the same: the words we use are powerful and have the ability to change our worlds.

Part of What Stunts Change

Recently, we had the pleasure of bringing Richard Sheridan, CEO of Menlo Innovations, to West Bloomfield as the keynote speaker for our district-wide professional development. Sheridan wrote a book called Joy, Inc., which details Menlo Innovations’ journey to build joy into every facet of their company culture. After reading Joy, Inc., we knew that Sheridan’s message would be a powerful one for our staff.

As Sheridan spoke, there were so many meaningful takeaways. But the one that resonated most with me and many others was his mantra to “Fight fear, embrace change: run the experiment!”

So often, fear paralyzes us, especially in education. As teachers, we’re so cautious to embrace change because we’ve had so many bad experiences with change: it’s not funded, we’re not trained, administrators don’t value it, we know it’s going to change again in a year–this list goes on endlessly. Sheridan encourages us to try new things anyway, maybe even in spite of our fear.

In West Bloomfield, we are in the middle of figuring out what 21st-century learning looks and feels like, and have had many conversations about flexible furnishing and spaces. David Stubbs, creator of Cultural Shift, an independent consulting company that stimulates design thinking, has been working with us on these endeavors.

In a meeting with him recently, we were lamenting the fact that many teachers say something to the effect of “that’s great, but…” and give myriad reasons why the idea wouldn’t work. Stubbs urged us to turn the conversation on its head, to ask another question instead:

But What Happens if We Do It?

In a time when we consider every possibility for why something won’t work, what happens if we run the experiment and do the thing we think will never work?

When we continually focus on why something won’t work, we never allow our minds to imagine that thing actually working, and thus limit our capacity for making change.

When I think about saying the same thing but with different words, like the woman in the video, I can’t help but think about how we can change our outlook with the change of one word. What if, instead of saying “but,” we said “and”? What if the teachers mentioned earlier said, “That’s great, and….” And rather than giving reasons why it wouldn’t work, they gave reasons why it would?

What would happen if we just did it?

Screenshot 2014-09-26 at 12.44.07 PM Jianna Taylor (@JiannaTaylor) is the ELA Curriculum Coordinator for the West Bloomfield School District. Prior to this role, she was a middle school ELA and Title 1 teacher. She is a MiELA Network Summer Institute facilitator and is an Oakland Writing Project Teacher Leader. Jianna earned her bachelor’s degree from Oakland University and her master’s degree from the University of Michigan. She also writes reviews of children’s books and young adult novels for the magazine School Library Connection.

All the Cool Kids Are Stressed

Notes from the Classroom

It’s testing season and stress is at an all-time high. But the past few years, I’ve started to notice an alarming trend. The students aren’t stressed about their stress; they celebrate it.

On test days, an AP student will drag into class and proudly proclaim that he was up until 3:00 a.m. studying. Not to be outdone, a fellow student will counter that she slept for three hours–midnight to 3:00–and then got up to continue studying. And they’re not lying.

I get more emails from my students between the hours of midnight and 6:00 a.m. than any other time. They chug coffee and Red Bull. They give up activities they truly love in favor of more studying and more test prep.

Happiness and a balanced life? Totally lame. Stressed and miserable? Badge of honor.

A Culture of Overworking

I know it’s not just my school. The other day a fellow English teacher in another school tweeted this to her students:KV

On the same day I saw her tweet, I read this New York Times piece about how a high school in Massachusetts is working to combat stress among its students.

And it’s not just high school students. In my Twitter feed, this opinion piece about our culture’s celebration of overworking popped up. Why wouldn’t our kids wear stress like a badge of honor? We do.

I think English teachers have a unique opportunity to do something about the stress we see in our students. We can’t change the culture of overwork and stress completely, but we can set our students up to better manage it.

Writers’ Notebooks

One of the easiest places to open the conversation about stress and workload is in the students’ writers’ notebooks. I think we need to be careful about how we frame those writing invitations, though. Inviting students to write about their stressors might be an opportunity to unload and unburden themselves, but it might be just one more chance for them to glorify their stress. Instead, frame reflective writing opportunities around stressors, successes, and plans.

Recently, my AP Seminar students returned to school on a Monday after a weekend of completing drafts of a major essay. The stress in the room was palpable when they entered. We started with our notebooks:

What’s something you’re happy about with your writing?

What is something that’s stressing you out about your writing?

What is the next step in your plan?

Verbally, I urged the kids not to skip a question or respond with one-word answers. As they wrote, I walked around and encouraged those who were struggling to find something good, and engaged those who couldn’t see a next step.

By the time we were done with our notebooks, the tension had eased and they were ready to dig into their drafts. If we are mindful about creating opportunities for students to work through their stress, hopefully they’ll be able to do it independently, too.

Standards-Based Grading

A broader consideration for reducing stress is in how we grade.

Though we are all eager to focus on the learning and to discount the letter grades, many of our students (and often their parents) are most concerned with their grades. As English teachers, we are uniquely situated to move toward standards-based grading because so much of our curriculum focuses on skills rather than content. If our students begin to see our classes as opportunities to practice skills and grow over the course of the year, perhaps individual assignments will begin to feel less like a hammer drop.

For example, in AP Language and Composition, I needed to prepare my students to write three different styles of essays. Throughout the second semester, we probably wrote four or five of each type. We conferenced about them, we self-assessed, we peer reviewed, and the writing improved over time. Through it all, students knew they would have multiple chances to improve and show me what they could do. When it finally came time to make one “count,” the pressure was significantly lower than if I had been counting them all along.


One final way we can help our students manage stress is through our own modeling.

English teachers are notorious for dragging home bags and bags of essays. And, if you’re anything like me, you’re probably guilty of telling your students how buried you are in papers.

However, do we share enough of the ways we find balance in our own lives? Do we find balance in our own lives? If we do, we should share it with them. Tell them about how we pushed the stack of papers aside last night and stayed up reading–not a required novel but something we loved. Or even better? Tell them how we pushed the papers aside and played outside with our kids. If you don’t do those things, it’s time to start.  

On that note, it’s a beautiful day. I’m going for a run.

Hattie Maguire (@TeacherHattie) is an English teacher and Content Area Leader at Novi High School. She is spending her sixteenth year in the classroom teaching AP English Language and Composition, AP Seminar and doing Tier 2 writing intervention. She is a National Board Certified Teacher who earned her BS in English and MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University.

Teacher, Mom: Finding a Balance

Notes from the Classroom
teacher mom bags

A typical scene as I unloaded the car on a Friday afternoon this fall.

I’ve been thinking of blogging about being a teacher-mom for a while now, but this is totally out of my comfort zone.

I’m usually happy to share anything teaching related, but when it comes to talking about my personal life, I clam up. The more I think about it, though, the more I realize that it is teaching related. As a blogger-friend of mine, Jay Nickerson, likes to say, “teaching is a human endeavor.” If we ignore ourselves as a part of the equation, our craft is sure to suffer.

Up until the past few years, I was that teacher: Mine was one of the first cars in the parking lot before the sun was up, and then one of the last as it was starting to set. It’s safe to say that teaching was my life. I even married the math teacher in the classroom next door.

When our son, Jack, was born, it was an adjustment. But once we got into a routine, it became the norm. I scheduled my time strategically, careful not to waste a single minute of my time away from him. I didn’t always work the same long hours as I used to, but I grew to feel like I was in control of my balancing act.

And then came Charlotte. She just turned one last month, and she has already had upward of 10 ear infections and has been admitted to our local children’s hospital three times: once for a simple surgery to put tubes in her ears, once for a week that included a stay in the PICU, and once that was not-so-conveniently timed during the first full week of school.

To say that “the norm” has changed would be an understatement. When I was able to drop the kids off at daycare, I felt like I was failing as a mom. And when I had to stay home with a feverish baby, I felt like I was failing as a teacher.

Thankfully, I work with a wonderful, supportive group of friends who were able to help me realize that I wasn’t failing at either one; I just had to readjust to a new normal. And throughout the course of this journey, I’ve come to a few big realizations.

Teacher-Moms* Manage a Unique Balancing Act

On my worst days, I’d sit in my car before heading home, and I’d cry. Why, I wondered, was I paying a daycare to take care of my own children so that I could spend my hours with someone else’s kids? It took a while to admit this, but after talking to lots of other teachers in the same situation, I’m starting to think maybe we’ve all felt that twinge of resentment at some point.

But, by the same token, even though they are “someone else’s kids,” I don’t know a single teacher who doesn’t in some way think of their students as “my kids.” It’s like we have two sets. My son calls our students “your work kids” or sometimes “your big kids.” And, before you think that we’re screwing him up too badly with this, it’s okay. He knows that they’re students, and that they’re not family, but he also knows that I love them. Sometimes I wonder if his understanding of this might be one of the reasons he’s thriving at his preschool. He knows that teachers are people who are unconditionally on his side.

I’m a Better Teacher and Mom for It

jack reading wilbur

My son, Jack, reading a book that my high school students collaboratively wrote and published. When the kids in my worlds intersect like this, it reminds me how important our work is, as teachers and as moms.

The other day, I overheard my kids playing. Charlotte was probably pulling one of Jack’s toys off the shelf, and I could hear him saying to her, “Do you know what dat is, Charlotte? Do you remember dat? It’s something you’ve seen at da zoo. It’s a bird, but it doesn’t fly. Dat’s right! It’s a penguin!”

Between each question, even though she doesn’t talk yet, I heard him pause and then patiently continue, prodding for understanding. And I had to chuckle because I could clearly hear myself as a teacher in his little three-year-old voice.

I know that the work my husband and I do in education also helps us teach our own kids. Likewise, I know that being a mom benefits my students. I see them through new lenses now. I’m more patient and open. I think about every student as someone’s baby.

And in sharing my vulnerability, my students see that I’m not some perfect teacher-robot; I’m a human.

I can sure live with that.

*I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that “teacher-mom” sounds a bit sexist. Of course I realize that there are teacher-dads out there too, and that they likely have many of the same issues as moms do. But, I’m a mom, so I can only write about my experience in this regard.

MKortlandt1Megan Kortlandt (@megankortlandt) is a secondary ELA consultant and reading specialist for the Waterford School District. In the mornings, she teaches Language Arts at Durant High School, and in the afternoons, she works with all of Waterford’s middle and high school teachers and students in the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment department. Additionally, Megan works with Oakland Schools as an instructional coach for AARI. She has presented at various conferences including the Michigan Council for Teachers of English and Michigan Reading Association annual conferences

The Importance of Joy

Notes from the Classroom

Joy, Inc.I don’t generally read “business model” type books, but when one of our Board of Education members began passing Joy, Inc. out to anyone and everyone who would take a copy, and my fellow curriculum coordinator was texting me passages from the book, I thought it was time to move it to the top of my “to read” list. 

Joy, Inc., by Richard Sheridan, details Menlo Innovations’ journey to build joy into every facet of their company culture–from how they organize themselves, to how they delineate responsibility, to how they work with clients. Fluffy sounding, I know. But the more I read, the more I started to think about how this concept of joy can–and should–be part of our classroom, building, and district culture, and how, too often, it isn’t.  

When you look at the table of contents, you might actually think you are reading a book meant for educators, with chapter titles like:

  • Freedom to Learn
  • Conversations, Rituals, and Artifacts
  • Rigor, Discipline, Quality
  • Accountability and Results

Although this is a book written for companies, it’s really a guidebook for how any organization might rearrange its culture to allow for more freedom, learning, quality, and ownership–all things we want students to possess.

How Classes are Organized

Many classrooms today look the same as they did 50, even 100 years ago, with rows of individual desks facing the teacher’s space at the front of the room. The desks are cumbersome and hard to move when we want students in a different configuration. Additionally, we generally expect that students will be quiet and work independently on the task.  

The same can probably be said for many office spaces: employees are working mostly independently from one another in cubes or offices, and it is often quiet, as the general thinking goes that people need this to be productive.  

Joy, Inc. turns these ideas on their heads. At Menlo, they have purposefully torn down the walls. This allows all of the employees to work in one giant room, at easy-to-move tables that are often rearranged. This “reengerizes everyone and builds [their] mental capacity for flexibility” (41).  

As we think about what classrooms should look like, we begin imagining flexible seating choices that are easy to change, depending on the task at hand, and that naturally create a culture of collaboration and creativity.

Embracing the Noise

The lack of walls at Menlo also means that the room is not silent; it’s actually quite loud because “the noise you hear […] is the noise of work” (45).

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard teachers with an apologetic tone saying, “They’re noisy, but they are working,” as if they were ashamed of the “noise of work.” It’s time we embraced that noise as evidence of learning taking place.

Towers of Knowledge

Richard Sheridan, Menlo’s CEO, and the book’s author, doesn’t have a huge, closed-off corner office; his desk is right in the middle of the room, where he can hear the conversations of the programmers–and they can hear his. Sheridan often cautions against what he calls “towers of knowledge.” These are the people who have a vast knowledge of something that no one else in an organization has, making it feel like they are indispensable. These people become burned out, and others feel like they won’t survive without these people.

In some ways, teachers have traditionally been the “towers of knowledge” in their classrooms, dispensing information that students don’t have in lectures. This is no longer a sustainable way to teach if we want students to thrive in a world that values innovation, collaboration, and creativity.

All schools and school districts are involved in continuous improvement processes, and all too often, building joy into the culture isn’t a priority with everything else we are required to do. But as Richard Sheridan and Menlo Innovations prove, joy and all of the other work we have to do are not mutually exclusive. In fact, building a culture of joy can actually help make those other things work better.

Screenshot 2014-09-26 at 12.44.07 PM Jianna Taylor (@JiannaTaylor) is the ELA Curriculum Coordinator for the West Bloomfield School District. Prior to this role, she was a middle school ELA and Title 1 teacher. She is a MiELA Network Summer Institute facilitator and is an Oakland Writing Project Teacher Leader. Jianna earned her bachelor’s degree from Oakland University and her master’s degree from the University of Michigan. She also writes reviews of children’s books and young adult novels for the magazine School Library Connection.

What I Learned as a Coach

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_461317267I recently had the opportunity to work with a teacher on a unit of study. I went into the experience knowing that I was going to take on the role of an instructional coach, which means I would assist the teacher to improve instruction and outcomes.

Knowing that work needs to start with the development of a relationship, I began this experience with a few conversational prompts: What might you say are the biggest strengths in your teaching? What are you wondering about doing differently?

From that conversation, we planned to work on a unit that the teacher admitted had not felt successful in the past. The next step was to develop some goals.

As anyone who has studied coaching knows, the development of goals is crucial for the work that will be done. The goal we developed was to increase student engagement in workshop structures.

We also agreed that we would use a coaching model for this work. I would model the strategies in the first hour. She would imitate these in the second hour. In the third hour, a planning period, we would reflect.

Eventually, this would shift to co-planning and my observation of teaching the plan, after which the teacher would take on the role of planning – keeping in mind her learning from the modeling phase.

In reflection on the goals, I would say that they were accomplished. The teacher reflects that kids know and can exhibit more knowledge on the unit skills, goals, and standards than others had on this unit in the past. In a personal reflection, though, I’d like to share what I learned from this experience, and how I will use this learning to guide my work as an instructional coach in the future.

The Goal Should Not Be too Big

When I heard “workshop structures” as part of a goal, I knew my daily teaching model would have a clear teaching point, an example of relevant work, group or partner practice, and independent practice. But there was more.

shutterstock_257430889Many other things play into a strong workshop classroom: classroom culture, student-teacher relationships, grading, feedback, and exemplars, to name a few. In my coaching, I began to model a classroom that ran like my own workshop classroom, with all of these structures in place.

I dove in too deep, though. The specific goal of modeling workshop structures became clouded in seating charts and notebook expectations and conferring notes. I learned, then, to choose a small actionable goal for the coaching work that would follow.

Clarify Your Roles

I’ve read about coaching. I’ve been trained as a coach. And I have been lucky enough to engage in work with an instructional coach.

I felt I knew my role as a coach. As I thought about this role, though, I only considered my own actions—and how I could achieve the desired outcomes.

I didn’t think about the broader scope of my role and actions. A coach does not act in isolation. Instead, coaches have to consider administrations, individual school goals, the community of learning, and the teacher’s goals and current actions.

A culture of coaching, I learned, needs to be established before any relationship of coaching can be forged.

Ground Learning in Old Experiences

This is not to say that coaching is meant to perpetuate old paradigms. Still, I recommend observing the teacher’s practices in place, as part of the relationship development and goal setting.

Adult learners can respond in a productive way when they recognize their old practice, compare it to the new practice, and reflect on the impact that those practices have on student learning. I learned, too, that a common language of practice can enhance these conversations.

In the end, no one can learn without the opportunity to do so. So, a big “thank you” to all teachers who take a chance on coaching, and to those who grow from it.

pic 2Amy Gurney (@agurney_amy) is an ELA and Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator for Walled Lake Schools. She has a Master’s degree from Michigan State University in Educational Administration and is currently pursuing an Education Specialist in Educational Leadership at Oakland University. She is a current Galileo Leader. She worked on the MAISA units of study and has studied reading and writing workshop practice and conducted action research.

Podcast #19: Cultures of Thinking


shapeimage_2In this podcast, Dr. Lauren Childs talks with Ron Ritchhart about Cultures of Thinking.

Ron has researched areas such as intellectual character, mindfulness, thinking dispositions, teaching for understanding, creativity in teaching, and communities of practice–areas that lead to Cultures of Thinking.

Lauren is deeply involved in this work. She has worked with Ron to implement Cultures of Thinking in many Oakland County Schools.

You can listen to this episode on iTunes or in the player below. You can also download an mp3 of the episode.

Ron Ritchhart’s Website

Cultures of Thinking Introductory Seminar

Cultures of Thinking Strolling Dinner & Gallery Walk

Get Back Up Again

Notes from the Classroom

cant yetFor the past two years, Loon Lake Elementary, where I teach, has really been trying to elicit a growth mindset in our students. We remind them we can always get better at something, and we need to work hard and not give up. We have been focusing on this in cross-grade-level monthly meetings, called Teams, as well as in individual classrooms.

Having a growth mindset carries over into all aspects of the classroom. Knowing that, here are a few of the growth mindset tools my kids have been exploring this year.

The Power of “Yet”

The word yet is a little easier for my kindergarten students to understand than the phrase growth mindset. When my students say they cannot do something, we always add on the word yet. We then talk about what we can do to get better. This really hits home with them.

We completed a sheet (posted above) about something they cannot do–yet–and what they could do to practice and get better. This elicited some great discussions about, for example, how they might not be able to read a certain book, but that they can read some things. And if they keep working on reading strategies, they will get there.

Class Dojo also has some wonderful videos that open up a great dialogue about having a growth versus fixed mindset. One in particular is about the character Mojo, who wants to give up at school because he isn’t “good” at it. The video chronicles how Mojo’s friends help him learn that in school you can’t give up when you don’t succeed the first, second, or third time.

STEM Lessons

A favorite lesson by all has been “Save Fred.” Fred is a gummy worm whose boat (a small plastic cup) has capsized with his lifejacket (a gummy lifesaver) stuck underneath it. The students are not allowed to use hands but are provided several paperclips to save Fred by getting his lifejacket on.

This lesson really drove home the importance of persevering. Students were extremely frustrated they couldn’t use hands and that the gummy worm was larger than the hole in the lifesaver. They had to keep trying. They also had to learn to work together and communicate ideas well.

We also tried the “Marshmallow Tower” challenge, where they were given twenty spaghetti noodles, one yard of masking tape, one yard of string, scissors, and one large marshmallow. Student groups were asked to create the tallest tower to support the marshmallow at the top of the tower within a time limit of eighteen minutes. This was even more challenging than saving Fred. But we noticed that, with encouragement, students did not give up. However, they were extremely frustrated when towers fell repeatedly.

We decided to bring home the point that while you need to try again, you may need to change up your approach. We also wanted to encourage all group members to participate. So we revisited this same lesson, with the addition of straws and pipe cleaners. We started off discussing what students noticed had or hadn’t worked the first time around. We also talked about how to include everyone. Then we showed students the new materials and challenged them again. They were very excited about the addition of the new materials and came up with creative towers and new ideas. Additionally, they stopped to plan first and gain ideas from all group members, instead of one person trying to take charge.

Lessons from Theatre


The script. Click the image to open a larger version in a new window.

My kindergartners, along with our Second Grade Buddy Class, worked on a growth mindset Reader’s Theatre about Rapunzel, created by Whimsy Workshop. The storyline is about how the Prince comes to save Rapunzel, but when he says let down your hair, Rapunzel has just cut it off. The play reveals how they don’t give up, and that they try other ideas to save Rapunzel. The students loved performing for others, as well as the followup STEM challenge of creating a way to save Rapunzel. This further brought home the point that even if you don’t create something that works the first time, you should tweak it and try again.

Try Everything

I know that this isn’t something we can do all of the time. But if we encourage students to have a growth mindset and keep trying, they’ll be more likely to succeed and enjoy school. If students aren’t succeeding and want to give up, that is when we really need to bring them back to having a growth mindset.

Finally, remind them it’s OK to fail! A wonderful book I recently read and highly recommend, Rosie Revere Engineer, by Andrea Beaty, has a great line: The only true failure can come if you quit. Now more than ever we need to bring that home to our students!

image1Tricia Ziegler (Twitter: @axf96; blog: is a kindergarten teacher at Loon Lake Elementary, in the Walled Lake School District. She is a part of the Walled Lake iCouncil (Instructional Council) team and is part of starting a coding club at her school this year. She is in her eleventh year of teaching, with nine in kindergarten and two in Second Grade. Prior to that she taught in the Walled Lake Great Start Readiness Program, which is a state-funded preschool program for at-risk students. Tricia attended Michigan State University for her undergraduate degree and specialization in Early Childhood. She then attended Wayne State University for her Master’s in Teacher Education.

The Words We Carry

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_323200592Sixteen years ago I wrote a book.

I was inspired by my then-three-year-old son, who asked the innocent question, “Won’t the school be lonely this summer?” That question sparked something in me and I quickly drafted a story about a new school being lonely over the summer. My children enjoyed it immensely.

A few years later, I went to a children’s book writing conference and I paid extra to have an editor review my story. I will never forget sitting across from her as she told me that the concept of a school with thoughts and feelings was “creepy.” She told me perhaps I should rewrite it from the perspective of the school’s friend, the janitor. I never did. It didn’t feel right. I put the book away in a drawer and deferred that dream.

Two weeks ago I began to gather books to do a Mock Caldecott unit with my students, inspired by a teacher’s blog I found through a Twitter post. Imagine my shock when I came across School’s First Day of School, a story about a new school that has thoughts and feelings. A new school who talks to the janitor.

I was dumbfounded. I thought, “This could have been me. I could have gotten my book published. But I quit trying.”

The takeaway for me was immediate: the power of our words. I let someone’s negative words stop me. I knew all of the stories about authors who were rejected many times. But there was something about her words that struck me and made me feel so bad about my writing that I just quit. As a teacher, it made me think: have I done that to a student? Have I ever said something carelessly, even jokingly, that has caused a student to quit writing, quit trying, to defer his or her dream?

I hope not. But I know now I will not.

The Power of Negative Thinking

Coincidentally, last week my principal showed us a video from Tedx, where Alison Ledgerwood talks about getting stuck in the negatives. The research is absolutely astounding about the power of negative thinking, and how negative experiences are often stronger than, and not offset by, positive ones. Wow.

I believe this experience came to me for a reason. Multiple reasons perhaps. But the biggest for me is this: I must always, always, find something good to say to my students. I must encourage them as writers, as readers, as people, so that they never defer any dream. I must find ways to help them not let the words of others get them down, as I did.

Perhaps I should blow the dust off of another manuscript I have in that same drawer and send it out into the world. Then keep sending it, no matter what. For now, I will pledge to myself and to my students to be the voice of encouragement and praise in their heads, one that will hopefully shout louder than any critic they will ever hear.

beth croppedBeth Rogers is a fifth grade teacher for Clarkston Community Schools, where she has been teaching full time since 2006.  She is  blessed to teach Language Arts and Social Studies for her class and her teaching partner’s class, while her partner  teaches all of their math and science. This enables them  to focus on their passions and do the best they can for kids. Beth was chosen as Teacher of the Year for 2013-2014 in her district. She earned a B.S. in Education at Kent State University and a Master’s in Educational Technology at Michigan State University. 

Hard Conversations

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

51mp4tejmhl-_sx336_bo1204203200_Last year I participated in a book study at the Oakland Schools chapter of the National Writing Project. It picked up themes from a summer workshop on creating a culturally responsive classroom. Focused on Geneva Gay’s book, it began for me a difficult process that, along with a conversation I had with my seniors, taught me that I wasn’t doing enough to create a classroom atmosphere that promoted and supported all of my students equally.

During this conversation–a kind of exit interview I’ve done on and off over the years–my students of color gave me some hard facts about the education I was trying to help them with. They said that they were “used to” being on the outside, used to only reading about white people–except in February–that that’s just how it is.

Used to it.

That haunts me.

Blind to the problems I was creating and perpetuating, I decided to ask myself hard questions about my own assumptions, and how those assumptions were affecting my students. I don’t like the answers I’m getting but I’m going to work on it.

51vllt2frql-_sx334_bo1204203200_Step 1: Expand Our Horizons

Over the summer I assigned The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Between the World and Me to my AP Language and Composition classes.

We read Lacks last year, and I thought that by adding Coates’ excellent book to the menu, I might begin to open my students’ thoughts to ideas of privilege, to a culture that sends very different messages to students who lie outside the mainstream. I’ve come to see summer reading as an opportunity to introduce students to things they might not pick up and that are not from the canon.

Step 2: Brave Conversations and Listening

I edged students into the shallow end of this conversation about race, exploitation, poverty, and history by using a Culture of Thinking routine–Circle of Viewpoints. This let us take on different points of view and explore how the writer can skillfully move a reader through complicated and difficult ideas.

My hope was that this would set the tone for the more challenging Between the World and Me. For this I used a simple Think-Pair-Share routine to set up small conversations that I could eavesdrop on. With students spread out all over the floor, their books open to close-read passages, I watched and listened. How would they respond to Coates’ razor sharp, often accusatory, observations? Most of my students are people who “think they’re white,” but there’s a sizable portion who are not. Avondale is blessed with a remarkably diverse population. Would the white students notice the knowing looks on their non-white classmates’ faces, as they read passages that pointed to a culture that told them that they were “different”? How would they react to the idea that there are laws and regulations that are not just unfairly enforced, but designed to put certain groups of people on the wrong side of them?

Another Step: Reflect

It was a mixed result. I didn’t expect an epiphany about privilege. Epiphanies are rare, and scary. My aim was to point students toward challenging ideas, those that were skillfully written.

Some of the ideas were too much for them–my fault for not better scaffolding the skills–but there were some encouraging conversations. I heard a conversation connecting Coates’ idea about the “control of black bodies” to what happened to Henrietta Lacks’ cells. In another conversation in a larger group, students discussed how the dress code seemed to be designed to make girls’ fashion choices responsible for boys’ behavioral ones. I heard students wonder about the dress code’s prohibition against “sagging” and who that might be aimed at.

These are tough issues. But when I feel that discomfort, I think back to that conversation last May and that horrible phrase “used to it,” that my students felt like outsiders, extras in a play not about them. That discomfort we feel, that shift from familiar to unknown–that seems important enough to spend time on, and I’ll be returning to it throughout the year.

Always Another Step

I’d like to invite others to help me with this. I’ll take any advice, and I’d love to talk about these issues. The book study ended so I’ve got some time.

Who’s up for some discomfort?

RICKRick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project through the Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative partnered with the MSU Writing in Digital Environments Program, which concentrates on improving student writing and peer feedback. Rick has presented at the National Advanced Placement Convention and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.

Creating a Culture of Readers

AARI Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_123704254Each year, students tell me, “I don’t read” or “I haven’t read a whole book since the fourth grade.” I take those comments as a challenge. It’s part of who I am. If someone tells me that something can’t be done, I double down and whisper to myself, “Wanna bet?”

This attitude faltered this fall, though, when I moved to teach at a new school. My new building was recently designated by the state as a Shared Educational Entities school, which means that it draws nontraditional students from the other main high schools in our district. Students come here to recover credits, or if they have not otherwise found success in a traditional high school structure.

As I unloaded my boxes of books, people were quick to warn me that I wouldn’t be able to use those here. “You don’t have enough time,” they warned me. “These kids won’t read.”

Of course I’d had plenty of those kids in the past. But they were always among students who already identified as readers, so I relied somewhat on the readers to help establish a culture of reading. Even when I taught AARI (reading intervention) classes at the traditional high school, I built a reading culture with independent, choice reading.

But for some reason, facing what seemed like an entire building of “non-readers” in an alternative environment, I wondered if I could still do so.

The possibility scared me, but I dug in my heels. Could I establish enough of a reading culture that I could “trick” students into reading outside school, without thinking of it as homework or a requirement?

So far, I’m a month in, and this is what I’ve tried.

Book Talks

A few times a week, I take a minute or two to highlight a couple of books from my collection. I show students the cover, tell them a bit about the book, and sometimes read a page or two as a teaser.

I have the students collect these titles on a handout called “My Bookshelf,” on which they collect the books based on how interested they might be in reading them. They rank each on a scale of 0 to 10. When they are stuck, and unsure what to do next, I ask them if there are any books on their “bookshelf” that they might be interested in reading.

Classroom Library Scavenger Hunt

In the first week, as we’re establishing our norms and getting to know each other, the students complete a very quick survey that asks them to explore the library. They have to check out how the bins are organized, look for titles that they recognize, and decide which areas of the library they might gravitate toward.

This gives them lightly structured and non-threatening time to get the books in their hands. It also allows them to get comfortable looking through the space.41uzrunxtkl-_sx331_bo1204203200_


Sometimes I build a few pages of read-aloud into a book talk. Lately, though, I’ve been trying to include some read-alouds from choice books in my mini-lessons.

For example, when we did a lesson on making inferences about characters’ thoughts, I read from the first chapter of Gary D. Schmidt’s Orbiting Jupiter, which is one of the 2016 titles for the Global Read Aloud project.

Choice in Independent Practice

After our mini-lessons, I try to build in as many choices as possible. As we were establishing the norms for our classroom learning community, my students told me loud and clear that they hate when teachers tell them what they have to read. At the same time, they’ll do it if they can choose the readings. Sometimes they have a choice between a few different short stories, and sometimes I’m able to include independent-reading books as well.

I’m only a month in, so I don’t yet know how successful I’ll be, but I am hopeful. My students are talking about the books and asking questions about the read-alouds. One student asked, “Did this guy write anything else?” His eyes got wide as I showed him the section of my library that houses Walter Dean Myers’ books.

A little over 25 percent of my students have actually checked books out of my library, and one boy even took two. And every student (EVERY! STUDENT!) has been able to identify at least one book that they want to read.

To say that this hasn’t been easy is an understatement. On days when the kids act like all they want is a worksheet and to check out of thinking, I worry that I can’t keep it up. But I’d say that with a start like this, it’s well worth trying.

MKortlandt2Megan Kortlandt (@megankortlandt) is a secondary ELA consultant and reading specialist for the Waterford School District. In the mornings, she teaches Language Arts at Durant High School, and in the afternoons, she works with all of Waterford’s middle and high school teachers and students in the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment department. Additionally, Megan works with Oakland Schools as an instructional coach for AARI. She has presented at various conferences including the Michigan Council for Teachers of English and Michigan Reading Association annual conferences.