Facing History and Ourselves, To Kill a Mockingbird, Stereotypes and Revelations

For our final novel of the year, my sophomores are reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I love this novel, and we don’t have a lot of time left in the school year to spend on it. I didn’t have the time or the energy to develop an in-depth PBL unit, and I’ve been on an “authentic learning experience” kick lately, so I decided we’d read the book, talk about it like normal people, and keep the literature activities to a minimum. While looking for new resources for teaching the book more simply, I came across wonderful materials from Facing History and Ourselves. So far we have had some great discussions about identity and stereotypes, and it is giving my students a good framework for understanding the novel. It also gives them a bridge to the work they are doing in American History as they learn about the Progressive Era and complete a project on modern progressive movements. They will be visiting The Root Cellar in Lewiston, an organization that serves a large immigrant population. It is my hope that they will be able to develop a stronger sense of their own identity and awareness of stereotypes.

Today in class I gave them 6 questions, taken from the Facing History curriculum, to answer about their reading of the first 7 chapters. I need to check their reading and comprehension. They paired up to discuss the questions with directions to record their discussion using the voice memo app on their iPhones/iPads, and then email me the audio file. The pairs went off to relatively quiet places to complete the activity. When they all came back together, one group told me that it wasn’t until they were working through the questions that they realized Calpurnia was black. They assumed because of the role she plays in the family and the amount of authority she has in the children’s lives, that she was white. The rest of the class replied, “Oh, I knew she was black.” So we talked about the things in the story that clued them in to that. It was a fabulous conversation about characterization, reading, and stereotypes.


Always Read Your Mail!

As we climbed into the school van at 3:10 Monday morning, my principal handed me an envelope and said something about also getting one and there being a typo. I don’t really remember how I replied. I’m pretty sure I didn’t really look at it before stuffing it into my bag. We were on our way to Boston Logan Airport for a four-day trip to DC. it was the first time I had planned and led a trip such as this, and my already sleep deprived mind was on getting everyone through security and onto the plane. At some point during the morning I noticed the envelope kept working its way out of my bag, so I stuffed it into a deeper pocket.

It wasn’t until I returned from DC at the end of the week (after an exhausting but successful trip) that I pulled out the letter. I had assumed it was junk mail. One of many fishing letters I get for curriculum or writing contests. Boy was I wrong! Instead of a generic sales pitch, I held a letter from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Because of a nomination from someone, I would find out who later, I was invited to attend Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers (ECET2) in Seattle, WA, July 15-17, with BMGF arranging and paying for my hotel and travel.

Friday afternoon I received an email with registration information and nomination information. Turns out I had been nominated by Kate Baker (@KtBkr4), a high school English teacher from NJ. I met Kate on Twitter, and over the last several years she has become a valuable part of my PLN on both Twitter and Voxer.

My registration and travel preferences have been submitted, but it still hasn’t fully sunk in that I will travel to Seattle in July to participate in an event where I will collaborate with teachers from all over the country to tackle current issues in education and share ideas about best practices.

I have been frustrated that I can not afford graduate school or to attend national conferences such as NCTE, but I have not let that stop me from seeking out learning online and through books. I have attended EdCamps and smaller local conferences for which I always pay out-of-pocket. I love to learn, I know there is much to learn, and I want to be the best teacher I can possibly be for my students.

I am excited to continue my learning this summer thanks to the generosity of others. At the end of June I will attend Heinemann’s Boothbay Literacy Retreat thanks to the generosity of Maine children’s book author, Cynthia Lord. Then a few weeks later, I will attend ECET2 thanks to the Gates Foundation. It’s going to be an awesome summer!

In My Own Backyard

This afternoon I celebrated the end of two very stressful, busy weeks and National Readathon Day by reading Paper Things by Jennifer Richards Jacobson. The book doesn’t officially release until February 10, but somehow Letterpress Books of Portland was able to secure copies to sell at the nErDCamp Northern New England Author Night last week. I love Jennifer’s writing, I’ve been hearing good things about the book, so of course I needed to get a copy and have it signed.


I wasn’t very far into the book before I was wiping my eyes, moved to compassion for Ari, the 11 year old main character/narrator. Ari, through a series of events completely out of her control, becomes homeless. The story takes place right here in Portland, Maine (called Port City in the book). This is a fabulous book that I really think should be read by every teacher and young person.
Just as I think everyone should read Kate Messner’s The Exact Location of Home. Although first they should read Kate’s The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z, so they meet Zig before they read his story in The Exact Location of Home.


Books like these always remind me that my students are dealing with things that I often have no idea about. Although, reading Paper Things, I realize that the chances of my students actually dealing with homelessness is pretty slim. I teach in a private school. I know it isn’t out of the realm of possibility, there might be a student who is blessed to have a grandparent or a generous patron pay their tuition, but most of our students have parents who are making incredible sacrifices to pay our incredibly low tuition, but they aren’t in danger of being homeless. Of course, I realize I am making an assumption about our students.

But books like these also make me grateful for what I do have, because in our depressed economy, working in a small Christian school, I realize how close so many of us are living to that line. How easy it would be for us or for the families of one of my students to slip into the place where what money is coming in doesn’t cover the bills and the situation snowballs.

This is the second book I know about to come out this winter that deals with poverty and homelessness among school children. This is a growing problem, although I wonder how much the problem it’s self is growing and how much we are simply just becoming more aware? In The Exact Location of Home, Zig lives in a town on the shores of Lake Champlain in Vermont. Ari, in Paper Things, lives in Portland, Maine. These are not necessarily communities where poverty and homelessness are the first things to come to mind, and yet it is a reality.

I’ve recently read some articles about how the issues with our supposedly broken education system aren’t that the education or schools themselves are bad. It’s that there is a high percentage of kids living in poverty. How do we expect students to complete homework, pay attention in class, and complete projects using technology when they are wondering where they’re going to sleep that night or when they’ll get a meal? Common Core isn’t going to do a single thing to improve schools, it will simply widen that gap between the haves and the have-nots, drive failing schools deeper into depression, and make it even more hopeless for a large percentage of the population.

So I wonder, how much do my students know or understand about the world around them? We want them to be concerned about children starving in Africa, to donate so we can help people in India get clean water and Bibles, but how much do they understand about their own community and state? Are they living in ignorance that because they are able to afford a new iPod, or buy fast food for lunch they assume everyone can, and they don’t realize that while its frustrating to wait to upgrade their cell phone because they need to save the money, just a few miles from them kids their age are hoping to get a bed in a shelter and a hot meal?

Reading Paper Things has gotten me thinking. A few weeks ago we had a really good planning session with the middle school and high school teachers. We talked about restructuring our school so that spiritual formation is the linchpin for our whole program. Part of the conversation was about how to incorporate service, so that it wasn’t some external thing, but an outpouring of their developing faith. In order to do that we need to approach our academics differently. We need to provide opportunity for real world experiences. I’m starting to think about the idea of exploring poverty or homelessness. I can see having the students read and discuss books such as Paper Things and The Exact Location of Home as part of a larger study on either of these topics.

I have more reading to do, including A Framework for Understanding Poverty, but I’m starting to ruminate on the idea of developing a problem based learning study that will incorporate spiritual formation, academic subjects, and service.


I want desperately to transform my school, our teaching, and our learning. I want to be do problem based learning and inquiry. I want a richer educational experience for me and for my students. I want to delve into difficult topics that break my heart and the heart of my students. I want them to have the opportunity to see beyond themselves and to develop gratitude for want they have and a heart of compassion for those who aren’t as blessed as them.

It’s going to take a lot of time and hard work on my part, but it will be so worth it.

Listening In

Today’s Senior English class was pretty extraordinary for me. I need to figure out a way to translate the evidence of learning and understanding that I heard today as I listened to my seniors talk.

First came the book share. It was Alex’s turn, and even though I gave him the option of waiting until next week (it is after all the first class back after vacation), he was willing to jump in. He is reading a book that his classmates basically dared him to read. It’s a YA Hollywood romance. He’s reading the book, one that is completely opposite of the type he would normally choose. He gave a basic plot summary up to what he’s read so far, he talked about the writing, the story line, the believability of the characters and the situations. He spoke as some one who is reading critically. He did so many of the things that we try to orchestrate from students and often fail to get. It was really cool to listen to him.

Once the book share was over, we moved into a set up of the group project they are going to complete as part of our wrap up of Hamlet. We reoriented our selves to what work we had already completed with the play. I explained to them about the 30 Minute Shakespeare series and how abridgments work, gave them a few guidelines and resources, then set them to work.

I was in and out for a while, dealing with some administrative issues that had come up, but once I was able to sit down and listen to them work, it was wonderful! They reviewed the plot, then went to work discussing what characters they should cut and why, and what scenes they should cut or abbreviate and why. We had some good discussion about the actions and motives of some characters, and we talked about why Shakespeare included the Fortinbras storyline. But mostly I listened to them compare the script with the movie, analyze the characters and scenes, and evaluate and defend their decisions.

Valuable skills were being plied and demonstrated. Their discussion reveled their thinking in clear ways. As I listened to them, I felt so excited to hear evidence of their thinking skills, their understanding of the play, and of Shakespeare’s craft. I thought, “how do I translate that to a number in the online grade book? How do I help them to see the valuable learning and demonstration of learning they are doing right now?

I’m not sure how to answer my own questions. I know that I can do better at giving students more opportunities like this one for them to demonstrate their learning and skills. I know that I can do better at identifying desired outcomes ahead of time and backward plan to design my lessons. I know that I can do a better job of assessing physical work that students produce. But some how I feel as if what I heard today can’t really be assessed, at least not by a number in a spreadsheet column.

Life Long Learner

Yesterday I registered for my very first graduate class. I haven’t applied to grad school yet, although I do want to. I’m able to take a couple of classes as a non-degree student before applying. A friend of mine who knows how desperately I want to start my Masters gave me a little extra encouraging push.

The class I’m taking? Problems In Literacy: Assessment and Instruction. The course description says, “This course conceptualizes reading assessment as a process of becoming informed about learners. The course focuses on the development of diagnostic insights and corrective strategies for struggling readers of all ages. Current trends from research and practice are explored. Case studies and in-class practica help teachers implement effective procedures in the classroom.”

I’m really looking forward to this class for many reasons. First, I have been wanting to start my Masters for a very long time. Second, I love to learn and it will be great to be sitting in a classroom under an instructor I highly respect (I already know the instructor) with other teachers who are in different situations. Third, but not last, I’m looking forward to the opportunity to discuss how to assess readers  and to communicate that in a way that helps students.

Burden of Proof

I’ve been spending time looking at the foundational skills that Watershed School uses. I really like the idea of kids keeping a portfolio that demonstrates their competence in the foundational skills and the content area expectations. The proof of mastery lies on the student, not the teacher. I want to do this. I want to present my students with the standards and give them guidance, but have the burden of proof on them. They need to have a digital portfolio where they are posting the artifacts that demonstrate their learning. Parents can check that to see how their child is doing, rather than asking me. They can see for themselves.

I wonder if we could try to do this for third quarter? Each teacher can select the specific skills and content they want students to master and to be in the learning phase. They can set a base line of assignments, and then it is the students’ responsibility to meet the standards, to review their work with the teacher and determine their level of mastery, and then create their digital portfolio. At the conferences at the end of the quarter parents will be able to review the student’s work, and long with the student’s evaluation and the teacher’s evaluation. A true discussion of learning could take place.

Now I need to figure out what standards and portfolio pieces I would require for English!

(why) I (want to) Quit (grading)!

My school operates on a semester system with each grades reported quarterly. Every year we get to November, the second marking quarter, and we start to panic, and this year has been no different. Second quarter begin the first week of November and ends the middle of January. During that time, we will have had a three day high school retreat, a half day for report card conferences, a day off for Veterans Day, NWEA testing, three days off for Thanksgiving, two half days for staff development, 2 weeks off for Christmas vacation, and three days for midterm exams. When we return from Christmas Break, we will have a week and a half before midterms. That time will need to be spent reviewing for said midterms. The month of October wasn’t much better. In fact, last week was our first full week of school since the beginning of October. Teachers are lamenting the fact that they don’t have any grades for report cards and what are we going to test them on for midterms because we’re so far behind now in our curriculum.

The focus is on the test and the alpha-numeric grade, not on the learning. Has learning been taking place? Sure it has. On the retreat the students learned a lot about themselves, each other, and their faith. My seniors are learning as they continue in the college process, applying to schools and for scholarships. My sophomores have been watching The Crucible over the past week and we’ve had wonderful discussions about theme and author and director/producer purpose. Friday they started to get into logical fallacies and were already making connections between the official terms and arguments that they’ve heard or used. My freshmen are learning to write extended definitions and about Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. They are reading, and writing, and getting introduced to concepts that they knew but now have a name to put to. But I’ve not been able to test them. We haven’t fully developed any writing pieces. So how do I show them and their parents that learning is taking place? A number or letter isn’t going to do it. There isn’t enough data to justify a grade.

This is just part of my struggle with the traditional grading system. Even when I have lots of work to grade, I still struggle, feeling  that a letter or number does nothing to communicate the real learning that is taking place. Now there is a support group for someone like me. Through Twitter and Facebook I am connecting with like minded educators, and the conversations are fabulous. We’re all in different stages of this journey. Some have been “no grades” for some time, while others are just beginning to have their thinking challenged. Last week the first #TTOG chat took place on Twitter. The conversation had taken shape on Facebook through the Teachers Throwing Out Grades group prior to the organized chat. People are raising through-provoking questions and sharing helpful resources.

My goal is to help kids learn and to discover the joy of learning for the sake of learning. I’m looking for the best way to achieve that. I’m excited that as I’m trying to figure out the best way to do this thing called education, I have an ever growing group of like minded people with me on this journey!

The Adventure Begins

More and more I am discovering that what I said years ago in an job interview holds true: I don’t accept the status quo. I don’t want to do something because that is the way it is always done. I have become a reformer.

I’m always reading, always learning, always ready to try new things. I have had the benefit of working in small faith-based schools under principals who trust me and give me freedom to try new things. It all started several years ago when I first stumbled across the idea of reading and writing workshop on the internet.

I’ve done lots of reading about workshop in English class: Nancie Atwell, Ralph Fletcher, Donalyn Miller, Penny Kittle. These are my go-to texts, even though some of them aren’t specifically about workshop. My most recent read was Using the Workshop Approach in the High School English Classroom by Cynthia D. Urbanski. I first started reading about workshop probably about six years ago. I’ve implemented pieces here and there sometimes successfully, sometimes not. But I’ve never let go of the idea. It makes sense to me. Which why I can’t let it go. I believe it can work for any subject, but it is going to look different in different discipline. The individual teacher makes a difference, too. What works for one teacher, such as Nancie Atwell, will not completely work for me. My understanding of workshop and my implementation of it is slowly evolving. The prevailing idea is that high school English must be traditionally structured. I do not believe this to be true.

Ideas such as flip class and gamification are becoming popular. I find gamificatino interesting, although I’m not convinced it has staying power. Workshop and flip class however, I believe do have staying power. I believe that I will eventually figure out how to do it effectively!

History is a subject that you can’t find much about for workshop, but I believe it can be done. History should be approached as teaching students to be historians. So workshop would be modeling how to think and write like a historian and then guiding students in practice of that thinking, reading, and writing. That would completely change students from being passive to being active in the study of history. I’ve tried to find materials about teaching history this way and haven’t found much. What would history workshop look like? It would definitely provide opportunities for integrating and being active. I really want to try to develop this idea.

There are so many new trends in education: workshop, flip class, gamification, standards based, place based, project based, the list goes on. There are a few that I am working on developing my understanding of, and hopefully will be implementing to some degree. In addition to the structure, there is assessment. I’m becoming increasingly frustrated with traditional grading. I want to move to narrative feedback and do away with alphanumeric grading.

I’ve already begun working on workshop and flip class. I’m learning about SBG and trying to decide where I fall on SBG or PBE and how exactly you do that. Project and Problem Based learning are pretty cool, and I’ve become intrigued by place based learning. These are things I want to explore further.

I’ve adopted a new catch phrase and mission: Authentic Learning, Authentic Assessment, Authentic Faith. This is what I want for myself and my students. So I need to find the best way to achieve this.