Jump on in

There is an episode of The West Wing where President Bartlet says “lets dangle our feet in the water” and sends Josh on a mission to appoint FEC commissioners. As the story line of the episode unfolds, Sam and Josh are in meetings trying to accomplish things that both they and the people they are dealing with know the President isn’t serious about actually doing. Everyone is frustrated. At the end of the episode Leo challenges the President to be bold and put his authority behind his staff to accomplish his goals.

President Bartlet: You came to my house, and you said, “Jed, let’s run for President.” I said, “Why?” And you said, “So that you can open your mouth and say what you think!” Where’d that part go, Leo?
Leo: You tell me, Mr. President. I don’t see a shortage of cameras or microphones around here. What the hell were you waiting for?…Everything you do says: “For God’s sakes, Leo. I don’t want to be a one-term President.”
President Bartlet: Did I not say “put our guys on the F.E.C.?”
Leo: No sir. You did not do that…You said, let’s dangle our feet in the water of whatever the hell it is we dangle our feet in, when we want to make it look like we’re trying without pissing too many people off!
President Bartlet: You’re writing a fascinating version of history, my friend.
Leo: Oh, take a look at Mandy’s memo, Mr. President, and you’ll read a fascinating version of it.
President Bartlet: You brought me in on teachers. You brought me in on capital gains. You brought me in on China. And you brought me in on guns.
Leo: Brought you in from where? You’ve never been out there on guns. You’ve never been out there on teachers. You dangle your feet, and I’m the hall monitor around here. It’s my job to make sure nobody runs too fast or goes off too far. I tell Josh to go to the Hill on campaign finance, he knows nothing’s gonna come out of it…Sam can’t get real on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, because you’re not gonna be there, and every guy sitting across the room from him knows that.
President Bartlet: Leo, if I ever told you to get aggressive about campaign finance or gays in the military, you would tell me, “Don’t run too fast or go to far.”
Leo: If you ever told me to get aggressive about anything, I’d say I serve at the pleasure of the President. But we’ll never know, sir, because I don’t think you’re ever gonna say it.
President Bartlet: I have said it, and nothing’s ever happened!
Leo: You want to see me orchestrate this right now? You want to see me mobilize these people? These people who would walk into fire if you told them to. These people who showed up to lead. These people who showed up to fight. (points to CharlieThat guy gets death threats because he’s black and he dates your daughterHe was warned: “Do not show up to this place. You’re life will be in danger.” He said, “To hell with that, I’m going anyway.” You said, “No.” Prudent, or not prudent, this 21 year old for 600 dollars a week says, “I’m going where I want to because a man stands up.” Everyone’s waiting for you. I don’t know how much longer.
Source: tvtropes.org
It’s one of my favorite episodes and the end is certainly moving. I’ve been thinking about this lately. The other day I was using the phrase “dangle my feet in the water” in reference to using design thinking in my classroom. I thought it was clever. But the more I thought about the connotation as exemplified in The West Wing episode, the more I realized it was wrong.
I have jumped in to using design thinking. It’s something that I am committed to understanding and using well. I am gathering materials to have a makerspace, and I am seeking out resources (people and readings) to help me understand and successfully implement design thinking.
Today was my second run with the Manila Folder folder challenge. I did it with my 11th & 12th grade Economics class. The benefit to this is that now all of my students 9-12 have been introduced to design thinking and I can continue to use and develop it in all my classes (I’m also teaching a Christian Apologetics class and a small section of British Literature). This run was different. I felt more confident facilitating the session, but I noticed that the kids struggled a bit more than my other class did. I’m still not entirely sure why, and I need to spend some more time reflecting on that.

While they were slow to get inspiration, they it was neat to see the inspiration come and see the focus with which they tackled developing their prototypes. They did a nice job with the challenge, and I’m looking forward to getting into content connected design challenges with them.

The question for the Manila Folder Challenge is “How might we bring joy to someone using a manila folder”. What brings joy to me is seeing high school juniors and seniors, at the end of the day, carrying home with them the manila folder light saber and basketball court made for them by a classmate.

Dangling My Feet into the Waters of Design Thinking

I first learned about design thinking at EdCampWesternMaine in 2016. Dan Ryder (@wickeddecent) led a session where he not only explained the design thinking process but also took us through a flash lab. It was intriguing, but I just didn’t quite get it. I didn’t have a maker cart and I didn’t really see how I would be able to implement it. Plus I knew I hadn’t really wrapped my head around the whole thing. I have been learning to not jump right in with every shiny cool idea I learn about on Twitter and at EdCamps–I guess I’m maturing.

Over the past year design thinking had been on my back burner. I’ve seen Dan share out the challenges his students do, and I’ve continued to be intrigued–especially by the tiny house challenge he does with his students when they are reading Of Mice and Men. I decided it was time to learn more about design thinking and see if I could implement in my classroom.

Many EdCamps, when you sign up, give you a chance to say what you’re hoping to learn. Usually I go without an agenda, but this year when EdCampWME rolled around, I was eager to learn more about design thinking. They ended up with two sessions on design thinking; one a general “this is design thinking” session that was quite packed, and a smaller session focusing on design thinking in upper level English classes. I attended both.

This time around I got it. The pieces clicked into place for me and I saw how to introduce, structure, and incorporate design thinking into my English class. I just need to find the right moment to begin.

I started graduate school this semester. I am in Antioch University New England’s M.Ed for Experienced Educators Problem Based Learning using Critical Skills program and I am loving it! An assignment for my class on facilitation was the perfect push to get me started on design thinking.

Using the Manila Folder Challenge, I introduced my 9th & 10th graders to design thinking. In the discovery stage we brainstormed what brings joy and what steals joy. This class is a 90 minute period, and we had done some work on reading the Odyssey during the first part of the period, so I wanted to get them up and moving. They did their brainstorming on sticky notes and put them on the white board. For the empathy interviews I had already decided the pairings. They were a little put out to not be able to work with their chosen friends, but one of the points of the challenge was for them to work with someone they might not know as well. Most of these kids have been in class together for years. The pairings worked out really well. I was watching the clock–I needed to give them a time constraint, but I also didn’t want to run out of time for the entire lab. I ended up rushing them a bit. When we moved on to the experiment stage, most of the students actually skipped the doodling/sketching of ideas and went straight to producing. Again, they were rushed.

It felt a little chaotic, though not out of control–I have a small room. I need new markers. I wasn’t able to observe everyone the way I wanted to. One of my goals as a facilitator was to guide without interjecting my own ideas. I was pretty confident I’d be able to do that as I had no preconceived notion of how the end products should look. I had one student that I needed to remind of the creative constraints, but overall the students took to the challenge. Several of the results were incredible creative. Some students were frustrated with the lack of time and others with the lack of good markers. The time constraint was necessary, but it still felt too rushed. I was amazed at the end when students started cleaning up without me having to ask them. Many of the students kept their manila folders (I have seen them hanging in their lockers), and the post activity reflections on Seesaw have been thoughtful.

Future labs I will do earlier in the period so that we still have the time constraint, but not in a way that limits the students’ creativity. I succeeded with not interjecting my ideas, but I would like to be a better observer of more of my students. I felt there was a lot going on that I was missing. I also think that as we do labs connected with literature and other ELA topics, there will be more challenge to me as a facilitator. I will need to use boomerang questions as students wrestle with abstract representations. Using design thinking is going to help my students develop their abstract thinking as well as their critical thinking and their ability to analyze literature and support their analysis. I am thrilled with the success of this challenge and my students’ response to it. I am excited to continue to develop design thinking in my classes.


Flipped Learning Network

A while ago Kate Baker asked to interview me about how I flip my classes. I love talking shop with Kate, so I readily agreed. It was to be a 20 minute interview and would be posted on the Flipped Learning Network at some point. Kate and I talked for 30 minutes and still didn’t get to everything! We still need to talk about flipping reading with Actively Learn!

Overall I am pleased with how the interview came out. It did reveal to me some bad habits I have developed in speaking that I need to work on, but I feel I did manage to articulate what I do and why I do it.

Click here to watch the interview and find links to the websites we talk about. Don’t hesitate to explore the whole website and learn more about flipped learning and the amazing educators involved in the Flipped Learning Network.



Fully Functional part 1

Last week I had the opportunity to attend a two day seminar by Sarah Ward of Cognitive Connections on Executive Function in Freeport. I’ve always had a general idea of executive function, but this seminar really helped me to understand how EF works, what it is like when someone has weak EF skills, and how to help develop and strengthen those skills. 

Executive Function utilizes inhibition and ability to wait, social regulating, and working memory–both nonverbal and verbal. In our modern age, we don’t practice working memory. We don’t need to memorize phone numbers because our phone do the work for us. We don’t exercise our imagination nearly as much either- games, toys and apps do the imagining for us. A core skill of EF is to run mental trial and error simulations–if____then_____. People with strong executive function skills can visualize what it looks like to be done with a task. They can use past memories to deal with novel situations by saying, this is the same, but different. 

One thing that really struck me was the normal developmental range for being able to hold images and see into the future. This impacts your ability to plan and execute projects and to delay gratification. 

2 year old: now

3-5 year old: 5-20 minutes

1st grader: several hours

3rd grader: 8-12 hours

12-16 year old: 2-3 days

17-23 years old: 2-3 weeks

23-35 years old: 3-5 weeks

Executive function skills are not fully developed until about 23 years old. If someone has ADHD, they will have an executive function developmental delay, typically about 3 years behind their chronological age. 

This really stuck me. I teach high school and will frequently have assignments, especially ones with several parts, due in long range. And then I get frustrated that my students are leaving it until the night before when they’ve had a week or more to do it? My expectations are not developmentally appropriate. 


Not only are my expectations not appropriate, but I’ve additionally set my students up for failure because I have not given them tools or strategies to tackle the task. This was another thing that really stuck with me from the workshop; the “Get ready *Do*Done” strategy. It’s a way of backward planning. 

First, ask yourself, what does “done” look like? When I’ve completed this task, what will that look like? Someone with strong EF skills can do this pretty easily. Someone with weak skills struggles, or just plain has no idea. We need to help them understand what done looks like. Mentor texts/models are so important here. Someone with weak EF skills can’t visualize it. They need a picture to match. An actual photograph works really well for this. Then you can break that whole down to the parts needed. That’s the “Do” stage. What do I need to do to recreate the “Done”? And then the “Get Ready” identifies the materials or skills needed. At this point you’re ready to execute forward and actually do the task. This method works with everything from getting ready to leave in the morning to completing assignments. 

At the workshop we took actual assignments that students brought to her and went through the process. As a teacher, I realized the importance of using this method when I plan out assignments. If I take an assignment through this process, it will help me to create more realistic and clear directions.  If I teach all my students to approach projects/tasks with this process, it makes things much more manageable. 

 My second large take away was regarding the use of time. I’ll address that in another post. 

Keep Calm an Carry On

Aside from the fact that I was sick for most of it, Christmas vacation was glorious. As I do approaching every holiday off from school, I had made grand plans for all I was going to accomplish to not only catch up on school work (grading and planning), but get ahead on planning so to try to ease the burden once back to school. However, once vacation actually arrived, I had already gotten my “Christmas Cold” as my husband calls it, and I was in great need of a genuine break. The first day of vacation found me on the couch with a book. As did the next day. During vacation I took care of household responsibilities, hung out with my husband, read, wrote, colored, and spent time with family. It was one of the most relaxing, stress and anxiety free vacations I have ever had.

I went back to school last Monday determined to maintain that peace and not allow stress and anxiety to take over again. I’ve been working for years to learn how to live a healthier balance between work and home. I actually feel like I am making progress in this as I have been setting some clear boundaries for myself. That is hard to do. I am a perfectionist, a bit OCD, highly driven, and very dedicated. I hate leaving things undone. But there are so many hours in the day and if I am to be healthy, I need to do things like reading, writing, coloring, and hanging out with my husband. That means that expectations are not going to be met, things are not going to get done. I’m trying to learn to be okay with that.

As an aside, I find it interesting that there suddenly seems to be a great many blog posts and articles about teacher burnout and how to take care of yourself- more than usual. It seems I am not alone in this struggle! School is so much more stressful than it should be. Students and teachers have lost the joy of learning. That is sad. We need to reclaim that. We need to restructure our schools so that we are able to experience that joy.

The peace from my vacation stuck around all Monday. Then Monday night my Christmas Cold, which I thought I was on the far side of, struck back. I spent the next three days on the couch. I had left all my correcting, teacher guides, and plan book at school, thinking I would be back Tuesday. It was interesting writing sub plans and revising lesson plans from home without any materials! (A good argument for using a digital plan book. I should start doing that again!) I rested and read, and I worked on the long range school improvement plan I’ve been working on for a while. I had one thing for school to focus on, and I gained  much more understanding and perspective to issues and solutions because my focus wasn’t pulled in so many different directions.

We are coming up on mid-term exams and the change of semester, and I am feeling the pressure of deadlines that once were off in the distance. This weekend I spent a large percentage of both Saturday and Sunday working on school work. Saturday getting caught up on some (not all unfortunately) grading and today on some planning and trying to prepare for mid-terms. And the emails from parents wanting meetings were coming in.

Suddenly I realized I had been at my desk all afternoon. Yet after supper I returned to my desk and I’m still here. The stress and anxiety that comes with the weight of responsibilities of being an administrator, guidance counselor, and full time classroom teacher is very much present.

What a difference between last weekend and this. Last week I went into the work week rested. Tonight I am exhausted. I see before me all the ways I’m not meeting expectations and fulfilling my responsibilities. I’m wondering how I’m going to get correcting done, get planning done, finish the second semester scheduling done, conduct meetings with parents,  conduct meetings with teachers, conduct an interview, and be physically and emotionally available for my students.

Since my husband was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer back in July, we have been surviving. There have been a few days that we feel that we are living, but most of the time we’re simply surviving. I feel that way about school. I’m just getting through it (and most of the time, not very well at that!). I want to teach well. I want to enjoy teaching. This is why I wanted to hang on to the peace that I had after vacation. It felt like I was going to be able to live, not just get by.

I’m not giving up on that desire. I’m press on toward finding a way to reclaim the joy of teaching and reduce stress and anxiety for both me and my students.

I think I’ll go color or read for a few minutes before going to bed!

But That’s How We’ve Always Done It

The movement toward proficiency based learning/assessment and narrative assessment instead of standardized, “traditional”, grading with letters and a numeric or percentage scale continues to grow and gain ground. Among the many objections to the change is that traditional grading is familiar and easy to understand. It’s how it has always been done, therefore, everyone understands that A is very good and thing C or below is bad. 

If you dig into the history of education a bit, you will discover that traditional grading is actually pretty new. The first uses of a standardized system of ranking and grading are found in 1785 at Yale University. A tutor at Cambridge Univeristy, Willaim Farish, is reported to have used and developed a grading system in 1792. By the late 1800s more colleges were using point systems to rank or categorize their students, and by the early 1900s, elementary and high schools were using grades. 

How did teachers asses students prior to 1785? US colleges used a process modeled on practices from Oxford and Cambridge. Students attended regular lectures and engaged in a weekly discussion with their proctor, in writing and in person. A student completed a course when the proctor, and sometimes a panel of other professors, decided they had demonstrated an adequate mastery of the subject. 

I find a certain amount of irony in this. The system that everyone wants to keep using has only been around for a little over 100 years, where the system that people don’t trust because it is something new and different, is actually a time tested system. Cambridge University was founded in 1231 and Oxford in 1248. 

It is also interesting to note that the wide adopted use of a standardized grading system coincides with the industrial revolution and an increased number of students due to immigration and  compulsory attendance laws. Education was now something available to all, teachers had a system to quickly assess a large number of students, but the value of a personal experience focused on learning was lost. 

Source articles:

Answers.yahoo.com “Who Invented the Grading System for Schools in Our Country?”

Ehow.com “History of Grading Systems” by Nicole Lassahn

Slate.com “How Come Schools Assign Grades A, B, C, D, and F-But not E?” By Brian Palmer

Wikipedia.org “Grading”

Not The Teacher I Want to Be

There is a book out right now, I haven’t read it yet, but ads for it keep showing up in my newsfeed on Facebook. The Teacher You Want to Be: Essays about Children, Learning, and Teaching by Matt Glover and Ellin Oliver Keene.


I want this book. Because each time I see that ad, I am reminded that I’m not the teacher I want to be. I am struggling this year. I am spending much of this year in survival mode, not just at school, but in my home life as well. Cancer does that. My husband is doing remarkably well, but our new normal is very different, and we never know when it’s going to change again.

I’m sad to say, that for a large part I’m not enjoying school, I’m enduring school. And honestly, part of that is having to teach a science class. I thought it was going to go well, I thought I was going to enjoy it. I found some solid information on the importance of teaching foundational skills and some great activities that would teach those skills and get us out of the classroom. Things have not gone as hoped or planned. I’ve had resistance and criticism from parents and students, and a lack of engagement and co-operation from the students. What little time I have for lesson prep and correcting is spent on the science class, causing my English classes to suffer. If I had a better grasp on the science material, I would do better with my classroom management and trying to get the students engaged.

But I’m not being the teacher I want to be. I’m struggling to turn it around, but have reached the point of just trying to make it to Christmas Vacation and then the end of the semester. I’m not proud of this. But it’s the reality.

I don’t mean to paint a completely negative picture. It’s not all negative. I have some classes that are going quite well and relationships with students that are going well. I have classes that I really enjoy and even my tough ones have good moments.

But I know I’m not the teacher I want to be, and that frustrates me.


I was getting ready for a new day the other morning when three 8th grade girls marched into my room and announced they were there to make my day by getting books. 10 or 15 minutes later I had to ask them to leave because the high school teachers were arriving for morning prayer. They left with books in hand and smiles on their faces.

On a regular basis several of my freshmen browse the shelves after class. As Alex says, “I just need to look at all these beautiful books.” 

Friday morning Joey announced to me that he has finally become a reader. He’s already finished Night by Elie Wiesel, our current whole class read, and is nearly finished Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl, “I’ve been reading in the morning; it’s a long car ride to school. I just had to find the right books. I’m a reader now.”

These are just a few of the reasons I love being an English teacher and why I feel a classroom library is important. Today I went to the Scholastic Book Warehouse Sale; an event I look forward to every year. I am grateful for a husband as obsessed with books as I am who helps me select great books for my classroom. Some of the books I got today we will read before they make their way into the hands of students. 



If every blog post I wrote in my head actually ended up here, I would be an incredibly prolific blogger! Unfortunately the great idea I hash out while I’m in the shower or driving to school is gone by the time I’m anywhere near my computer. The desire is there, but I’m not taking the time to sit down and pound it out. 

Teri Lesense (Professor Nana) has developed a great habit of writing mini blog posts. This is a great example for me. Instead of thinking, oh, I need to write out this idea, but writing takes time, and I have all this school work to do (my usual excuse) so I can’t right now, I need to write mini blog posts to get into the habit of blogging. 

Fortunately for me, WordPress has a wonderful mobile app. I really have no excuse for not throwing out nuggets as they come to mind. Quick Writes of blogging. 

This is Real Life

I was thinking today about being a connected educator. It’s always talked about as such a big, important thing, this being a connected educator. It means you’re in the know and at the forefront of educational trends. You are being influenced and influencing others professionally.

I consider myself a connected educator. I’m active on Facebook, not just sharing pictures of my cats and keeping in touch with family, but sharing blogs and articles about teaching, connecting with teachers and students, and following educational sites. I’m on Twitter (@nataleestotz) and Voxer. I blog (although not as consistently as I’d like).

But this week I was floored by the true meaning and value of being a connected educator.

Friday, July 3, my husband had a doctor’s appointment to follow up on the cough he’d been having. A cough we were all attributing to spring allergies. But he wasn’t feeling better, and our GP ordered chest x-rays. On his way home from having the x-ray, he got a call to return to the hospital for a CT; the x-ray showed a significant amount of fluid. They drained nearly 2 liters.

At Monday’s follow up to the ER visit, our GP referred us to a pulmonary specialist. Wednesday, July 8, while sitting with the pulmonologist, he got the final lab results from the fluid.

Stage IV.

That night we called our families and closest friends. We texted other friends, I emailed my colleagues. I notified my ELAFlip PLN and my RuralEdChat co-mods I wouldn’t be involved much for a while. I put a post on Facebook.  It wasn’t long before the love and support was pouring in from literally all over the world.

That’s what it means to be a connected educator. It’s not just about sharing great ideas for lesson plans or classroom management, about following big names in education or the publishing world. Even though many of these people I have only communicated with through Twitter, Voxer, or Facebook, we have built relationship. John and I are just overwhelmed and humbled by the outpouring of love and support we are getting.

Things are happening fast. He had surgery today. It went well. They drained more fluid, took tissue to biopsy, and sprayed surgical talc into his chest cavity to stop the pleura from continuing to weep. He is resting comfortably and is in good spirits.  Monday he is scheduled for a PET scan, and next week we get the results of these tests and hopefully find out what type of cancer, exactly where it is, and what our course of treatment will be.

We know it hasn’t fully sunk in; we haven’t fully grasped the depth or severity of the situation, but we have accepted it. This is what we have to face and the road we have to walk. We are walking it together, we are surrounded by a tremendous group of family and friends, both near and far, and most importantly, we are trusting in a loving God who is so much bigger than this ugly thing called cancer.

Just last week we heard YA author, Chris Crutcher speak at Boothbay Literacy retreat, and then read his autobiography, King of the Mild Frontier. He spoke about some of the horrible things he has seen as a child psychologist, things that often work their way into his books. He brought up the question that people so often ask, why do bad things happen to good people (or good things to bad people!). The conclusion he has come to is this: take out the adjectives and ask the question again. Why do things happen to people? They just do.

We’re not asking why. It’s happening. We’re asking how are we going to walk through this. We know the answer: head held high, side by side with each other, our loved ones, and our faith.