2018-2019 In Review: We stumble on. It is enough.

For teachers, the end of year brings a strange mix of emotions: the impending relief of the last day of school is coupled with the weight of the final onslaught of paperwork. It’s a odd sensation, to feel both respite and stress simultaneously. One minute I find myself smiling as I cross off calendar days, and in the next moment I am putting the heel of my hand to my forehead as I draft my evaluation to hand to my department chair.

This year brought significant change not only for my department, but for me as a teacher. But, change is a hallmark of the job. It’s why I love teaching. It’s also what can make me feel the most unnerved. In September, I blogged about the doubts and uncertainties I had coming in to this year. At that point, and, if I’m being completely honest, for the better part of the year, I felt like a juggler attempting to keep batons of various sizes afloat. I’m happy to report that I didn’t drop too many while the circus raged around me. 

My main concern was over AP Literature and Composition. I worried that my initial examination of each book could not possibly culminate in the same deep understanding of the texts as the teachers who have been instructing the course for years; that I would not be able to find a happy medium in terms of workload, assigning too much or too little; that I would create lessons that were either too hard or, conversely, lessons that wouldn’t challenge students enough, boring them easily. These concerns were ongoing and although I can answer now, that (I think) I did alright.

We took a deep dive into texts: Ironweed provided ample opportunity to discuss diction, allusion, and absolution; Age of Innocence allowed for an analysis of how characters navigate the stringent structure of the upper class to establish social currency; we admired author’s craft and voice through the multiple narrators of As I Lay Dying (“My mother is a fish.”) and Let the Great World Spin (“The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough.”); Beloved prompted an intense evaluation of language and narrative structure (“I am Beloved and she is mine.”); and Less lent itself to a study of life’s big questions: Is a relationship successful if it ends? Is love “the lightning bolt” or “the good dear thing?” Who, really, do and should we write for? Based on the discussions that we had in class, ending on Less was, perhaps, the best decision I made this year and I am glad that I was able to get it approved for the curriculum.    

NPR Student Podcast Challenge Honorable Mention

During the end of January, I took a huge risk by implementing a unit on podcasts. I have yet to meet an AP Curriculum that leaves space for wiggle room, so I integrated this endeavor into our unit entitled What is Art? I worked with colleagues to develop rubrics, lessons, and cull mentor texts. We listened to podcasts, analyzing their structure and evaluating their content and composition. The students were receptive and excited to make recordings of their own, working alone or in pairs. All of the hard work culminated in my own podcast addiction and an Honorable Mention Award for my students’ submissions to NPR’s first ever Student Podcast Challenge. The risk paid off. You can listen to some of the podcasts our class produced here if you are interested. These kids really hit it out of the park.

Yet, in spite of these successes, I am left with more questions at the end of the year: Did I challenge the students enough? Sufficiently prepare them for the AP Exam? Do justice to the curriculum? It appears that to teach is to find yourself in a constant state of reflection.

Dystopian Novel Projects

9th grade turned out to be an entirely different animal. After having taught 9-Honors English for the last ten years, I had to make a significant adjustment to pacing and break down assignments into much smaller chunks than I had in the past. We did many of the same assignments and studied many of the same texts as before – Romeo and Juliet, Of Mice and Men, etc. – just with more focused instruction and revised requirements. The students really impressed me with their vignettes for House on Mango Street and their Dystopian novel projects. I found a way to keep the class rigorous while also being mindful of what I was asking students to do.  I’d say, overall, it was a successful year.

My one regret is that I was not able to do as much with independent reading as I had in the past. Don’t get me wrong – students still completed two hours of reading in class and at home and engaged in quarterly reflections, even AP. We shopped for books, conferred about titles, and shared what we read. However, I was not able to offer the same extensions and projects with independent books as I had in the past. Previous students come back constantly to talk about what they are currently reading, or to ask me if I recall the project they had created for their independent book. This year I just couldn’t get to the big project, which I feel terribly remiss about as it is a topic that I presented at a round table session with Penny Kittle at the 2017 NCTE Annual Convention. I’m disappointed that I could not give students that one extra experience to remember.

Next year already promises to be a year of continued adaptation. Four sections of juniors will replace my sections of 9th grade and AP Literature and Composition (enrollment is down because of a district push for enrollment in AP Language and Composition). Even so, I’m already thinking of how to approach the upcoming courses. I’ve begun to have conversations with colleagues, and to gather and organize resources, at the same time that I am cleaning my classroom and shaking out my summer clothes.

Ah, relief and stress: the two strange sides of the teaching coin.

Convocation 2018 – New Beginnings, #squadgoals and Gratitude

It’s 8:45am on Monday, the first of three days of professional development before students arrive. I am sitting in the auditorium surrounded by hundreds of people, as the entire district has descended upon the high school for our initial meeting. Somehow, I have managed to sit one row and four seats away from my sister, a kindergarten teacher in one of the elementary schools. I take this as a good sign: this has never happened before, despite the fact that we have worked in the same district for close to ten years and have attempted to meet up before the assembly each and every time.

Convocation is a welcoming. It is a new beginning, a jumping point, the starting line. I have been teaching since 1999, so this is not my first rodeo. However, I am starting this year with a new department chair, and two new classes: AP Literature and 9th grade Advanced College Prep English. Both terrify me. I am reminded of the dog in the meme, surrounded by fire, a cup of coffee on the table, stating everything is fine.

fine dog

Over the summer, I read a number of books on the AP Lit curriculum. They were beautiful, though-provoking, and dense. I worry that I may have missed some of the subtleties and nuances of the text on my first read, that I will not offer the students as rich an experience as the veteran, master teacher who taught this class before me. I worry that I will not assign enough, that I will push them too little, that they will become bored easily. I also worry that in trying to make the class truly Advanced Placement, that I will ask too much of seniors who are already loaded with rigorous classes and extracurriculars.

I have taught 9th grade Honors English for the better part of the last decade. I am used to the pace, the students, the parents, the books. This year, I worry that I will expect too much of the ACP kids, that I will assign too much reading, demand too much writing, give them more than they can handle. I am also afraid that, because of this worry, I will give them too little by underestimating their ability and motivation. It’s a perfect catch 22 of anxiety.

At the same time that my back-to-school nightmares center around my planning and expectations, I am excited to start this new chapter. As much as the beginning of the year is full of unknowns, it is also full of possibilities:

  • Because of my new schedule, I have the opportunity to talk to students about books that I have not previously taught before.
  • Independent reading is now a curricular requirement in 9th grade, and I can’t wait to put books in the hands of my students. I am excited that all freshmen will now have access to the program that the THS Reading Revolution started to implement four years ago.
  • New curriculum has expanded the diversity of texts so students will have a better balance of mirrors and windows.
  • I find myself having meaningful conversations with colleagues as we help each other plan and pass on best practices and lesson ideas.

Even though there are so many “firsts” on this list, in the background of it all is the “tried and true” that I know I can lean on. As I struggled with AP books, two of my colleagues responded to texts over the summer, helping me navigate. When I had questions about what a comfortable pacing chart would look like for 9th grade, two more colleagues took the time to walk me through their experiences and offer advice. When I wanted to begin the year with a certain novel but was short five texts, colleagues lent me their personal copies to use with students so that I would have enough for my classes. I realized that while I was staring down all of the changes, I forgot for a minute that the constants remain. The group of teachers who have worked with me to solve problems, design instruction, take risks, and foster student growth hasn’t gone anywhere. They doused the flames and made sure that my cup of joe was full. I feel like my students would say of this: #squadgoals met.

So, as unnerving as the first few days can be — sneaking classroom set-up time in between the whirlwind of meetings, second guessing planning and instruction, organizing my classroom library — my butterflies are ones of anticipation and excitement, because I am not alone. I am thankful for the strong network of people who are helping to ensure that these new beginnings are not overwhelming, and that I don’t need to purchase a fire extinguisher and buy stock in Starbucks.

If anyone wants my unsolicited advice at this point in time, it would be to take a deep breath, believe in yourself, and lean on your squad. This, is fine.



The Edge of Chaos

Unlike my colleagues who immediately go into a flurry of response to what they learn, I’m currently suffering from conference paralysis. For me, attending NCTE is pretty much the same as sitting on the edge of chaos.  It’s exhausting, loud, and soul searching.  I never quite know what to do next.  And have you read my colleagues’ blog posts?  How can I even begin to follow Jim’s sharing of his heartbreak and how he is turning life experiences into hope and growth? And the musings from Karlen, who is constantly tweaking lessons to make her classroom into a beautiful, inviting environment for readers and writers to learn?  To grow personally and professionally beside them is a gift.  

Yesssss, NCTE was full of aha moments, but my brain just needs a time-out to process all the wisdom I collected over the past five days. My guess is that there are thousands of English teachers who returned to their classrooms this morning on full overload.  Maybe you need this, too?

I present to you the following deep thoughts on attending the NCTE Annual Convention with Crazy One and Crazy Two through GIFs…

  1. Karlen and I getting lost while trying to use Google Maps to get from our hotel to the Convention Plaza:                                                          giphy-2
  2. Jim or Karlen sitting next to me during a session while I’m trying to be a good listener:                   giphy-3
  3. Karlen running into Twitter friends at Starbucks:       giphy-4
  4. Karlen trying to enter the Exhibit Hall on Sunday while I ran the other way: giphy-5
  5. Karlen getting to hang with Penny Kittle for her Book Love session: giphy-6
  6. Jim after getting a Penny Kittle retweet:          yx87VHP
  7. Jim as inspiration hits:                 giphy-7
  8. Me listening to session speakers discussing common practice vs best practice: giphy-8
  9. All three of us getting books at ALAN: giphy-9
  10. What teachers think they look like (in general) when getting free books: giphy-10
  11. What we really look like:                                h0A96F8BF
  12. Teachers climbing into bed at the end of a grueling conference day: giphy
  13. And finally – ME… walking past, standing near, and trying to speak to my author heroes:                     giphy-11

Thank you, NCTE and St. Louis, for the much needed renewal.  Stay tuned for more posts as the 3 lone nuts recommit to sharing ideas and growth in the blogosphere.

When Your Thinking is at 85%: Getting the Final 15% or My “Duh” Moments from #NCTE17

I love attending NCTE’s Annual Convention. There is something about tens of thousands of English teachers going all “Hunger Games” over free books and swag that is as invogorating as it is frightening. What is more energizing than surviving the Exhibit Hall, however, is being part of the exchange of ideas and the larger community of educators who are there to hone our craft. I live for those moments when I am sitting in a session and it all just comes together, when what the presenter is saying “clicks,” and I find an immediate use for the materials or ideas in my classroom.

Many of those times, someone simply unites two ideas or materials that I had used separately. When this happens, I find myself thinking, “Well, duh. That makes so much sense! I should have seen this and done it earlier.” Then, I proceed to kick myself for not coming up with it first and being the one to present the idea.

So, here is a small sampling of three instances where this occurred over the course of #NCTE17, both for me, and for other presenters:

  1. The first “duh” moment that happened, surprisingly enough, is when I unknowingly pieced ideas together for someone else. I was listening to Sean Connors from the University of Arkansas talk about how he challenged his students in an assignment with dystopian literuate. His roundtable, entitled, “Becoming Mockingjays: Using Young Adult Literature to Foster Student Civic Engagement” was phenomenal. He explained how his students had studied YA dystopia novels, found a problem that existed within the books and society, unpacked the issue, explored and researched it, and then created a video on their findings. As an initial task, the students were encouraged to go into local bookstores or libraries and leave a notecard with the unpacked issue inside copies of the book. Then, they completed their research, analysis, and video. He said that students often wondered about the reactions of people who found their cards, and mused that it was something that they would never know. Considering what he had said, I asked if he had ever considered placing the cards into the books at the end of the project instead of at the start. This one simple change would allow students to print a QR code on their card that would link to the video they had created. That way, the students’ videos would gain a larger and more authentic audience, and would offer those indivuals who found and watched the videos an opportuntiy to provide feedback via commentary on YouTube if they felt so moved.
  2. Teaching rhetoric has been a big push in my district recently, as it has been written into our curricula for grades 9-11. So, I attended a morning round table session on Sunday (K.06: Public Rhetoric: Agency, Voice, and Mission in the Public Sphere) to gather ideas and materials to prepare to instruct on it. It was at my second round table where the “duh” moment struck: The College Essay as Rhetoric. Of course it’s rhetoric! How had I not seen this before! That essay is perhaps the most important writing teens will do in their lives up until that point – convincing a college or university to accept them for matriculation. Now, I can get them to see the importance of the rhetorical triangles of ethos-pathos-logos and speaker-audience-message in their writing and use it as a gateway for them to see the importance of those constructs in other writing as well.
  3. My last sesssion at NCTE was perhaps the most informative, althout I might be a bit biased. You see, I got to listen to some of my teaching heroes talk about best practices with writing in the #movingwriters panel. Each one of the speakers had fantastic ideas, but what stuck with me was what Hattie Maguire (@teacherhattie) had unpacked. We all have methods that we use to aid students with drafting. However, Maguire spoke of using physical movement in the writing process. Her idea was simply and spectacularly brilliant. Students are too often stuck in their desk or behind a screen while writing. Then, once they commit words onto the page, it’s hard to get them to change. Before students began to type, Maguire had students map out their argument on the floor and walk a partner through the progression of ideas. They took a stack of transition words and lay them on the floor along with their ideas to show the path of their argument. Once they had to move themselves and their partners through their ideas, they were able to troubleshoot imbalanced arguments, gaps in reasoning, and poorly ordered claims or evidence. This is absolutely perfect for everyone – it establishes that mind-body connection – but I couldn’t help but think of my “wiggly” students who would most likely be more focused on the task if it was framed this way. Again, simple brilliance. Macquire had given me the final 15% of the idea to make drafting fully engaging and productive.

When the convention hall empties, when I have recovered from drinking from the educational fire hydrant, when I have had a moment to process ideas and apply them to lessons, I walk away with this conclusion: teaching has and always will take a village.

Duh, right?

#NCTE17 – a found(ish) poem

Found Poem – A pure found poem consists exclusively of outside texts: the words of the poem remain as they were found, with few additions or omissions. Decisions of form, such as where to break a line, are left to the poet.

Found(ish) Poem – all of the above, plus a sprinkling of my own thinking, because – hey, I matter… right?!

Click Here for a Recording of the Poem: https://youtu.be/9lngtSenc1Q 

What is right with education? 


And me… well…

there are so many things that I am not —
until I open a book.

And I read to gain empathy
empathy brings the most reward
I am, because we are
and we
We don’t gotta be a hero
We gotta be a human
We don’t save
We see.


Embrace discomfort and disruption;
Claim the uncertainty of that imaginative space


The canon is what is present in
it is being written in

Our disenfranchised readers,
are kids who are often
disregarded &

Our classrooms are battlegrounds for love,
for stories,
and for truth
And since I respect you and love you, I must tell you the truth:

  1. You cannot make a connection with a student who
    you have already put facedown.
  2. There is no apolitical classroom
    because no matter the issue,
    there is never just one point of view.
  3. Social justice is a pedagogy, not a unit of study
  5. When we write
    we must remember:
    there is never garbage.
    Garbage is discarded,
    never thought of again.
    Bad writing is fertilizer
    barren land needs to be packed with shit
    in order for anything to grow.

We write to keep the light lit
the light in the eyes of children
who need to hear our stories


Pass me the Hi-C so I can sing in High C
And my hymn will be of the unknown
With everything in hand
Despite tired feet
remaining until only ash lingers
I have hope knowing
there is a promise
of a new

And with my magic wand, I will improve education (and life) by:
teaching literaCY, not literaTURE
tackling bigotry, racism and homophobia with acknowledgement
by teaching sensitive literature
which is diverse, not because of its diversity
but because it is human.

So I say thank you,
I say good-bye now,
I smile knowing,
and I leave you with this:

No More, “That’s just the way it is.”
Or things will always be the same.

“Don’t Call it a Comeback!”

Hey blog-o-sphere – it has been awhile….

I am sorry for the absence. I have been gathering life experience that has forever changed my path, opinions, personal missions/mantras, and my daily manner of thinking.

Here are 7 things I learned since I last wrote:

  1. Hope – at its core, is the most precious thing one person can give to another
  2. Humor is a sign of resilience
  3. No matter the issue, there is never just one point of view
  4. Life is not fair – not even a little bit.
  5. We are stronger than we are capable of understanding
  6. My story is important and so is yours
  7. The WHY must be your biggest motivation in life

As I sit at #NCTE17 in St. Louis, Missouri, I can’t help but feel energized and happy to be writing professionally again, despite taking a step back from doing so. Because I am a transparent person, this hiatus occurred because my 6 year old daughter was diagnosed with cancer in March of 2016, and despite strength, beauty, and innocence, she passed in March of 2017. I share this not because it is sad… which it is, but I do so because I have struggled to find the time to contribute to this blog because of it.

Like many of my students, I have had to prioritize my emotions, time, and willingness to be public.

I type this now to my professional followers because I believe more than ever, that our students lives and individual experiences matter most and must be the muse for the interactions we get to have each day. We each bring our delicious burdens with us and often times, these burdens are the things that hinder us and prohibit us from contributing to our fullest.

So where I am going with this entry… well, a reoccurring question in my life and thoughts lately has been: why? Many of the whys I have been asking are a bit more spiritual, personal, and existential, the question has led me to a moment of pause, and I find myself asking why with more frequency in my life.

I recently read Simon Sinek’s book Start with the Why and it helped to bring me to an awakening in multiple facets of my life AND THAT is what this entry is about…

Simon calls it the Golden Circle (Why, How, and What):


So, when trying to sell, or in my case teach, something to someone, we must ensure our WHY is the core of the sales pitch, not our WHAT. This simple idea has helped me to try to be critical of all that I do in my classroom. I don’t want to waste a moment of my and my students’ time. Now, this idealistic approach is tough to achieve — but the Golden Circle model has helped me see a light at the end of that tunnel.

Since I am a teacher, I focus on a lot of “whats” – for example – close reading/ literary analysis, personal narrative, formative assessments, independent reading, writers workshop, etc. What I have come to realize is that the “whats” that have been the most successful in my classroom are the ones that use the “whys” to get my students to buy in.

To prove this point, let me use the Trumbull High School Poetry Slam as an example. Just so you have a little background, the Annual Poetry Slam is part of the Poetry Elective Curriculum. We call it a Cross Course Interdisciplinary Unit. The students in all the sections of the Poetry Elective work together to create the Slam from the ground to the sky. On the day we tell students they will be empowered and they will steer the direction of the Slam, we have to pitch them the idea. So let us consider two different sales pitches and see which one would get more buy in.

Sales pitch #1 –

“Ok gang – today I am going to challenge you to be in charge of the Annual Poetry Slam. To do so, you will be put into groups of like minded individuals that play to your strengths.”

Not terrible – the WHAT is clear and HOW they will do it is laid out. Now, I realize this example may get buy in when presented like this, but what about starting with the WHY!

Here is the new pitch using the Golden Circle:

“Ok gang – today you are going to get a chance to leave a permanent mark on our school community and help to change the lives of some of your peers. You will be a part of a group that plays to your strengths and work with students/ faculty who are like minded. You will learn skills that go beyond these classroom walls, by hosting, producing, and promoting the Annual Poetry Slam.”

If you notice in the second sales pitch, the WHY is very clear (“to leave a permanent marl on your school community and help to change… lives.”). A student isn’t left to wonder why I think they should be doing this. It is transparent.

So what does this distinction teach me and how does it apply to my day to day thinking?

Well, I value love, life, and time more now than ever before. So, as much as I possibly can, when I am thinking about a WHAT, I do my best to ensure there is a WHY.

In teaching, it has helped me to be sure my students know why I think what we are doing is important and meaningful. This simple formula has helped me diagnosis why lessons have been successful and why some have failed. When I am passionately invested in instruction, I have been unconsciously focused on the WHY.

So go out there – start with the why when you work with your students and when someone tries to get you to buy into a WHAT – be sure they can defend it with a WHY.

Much love all, it is good to be back, and my NCTE17 highlights will follow soon!


Let ’em Read!

A few weeks into independent reading, I ask my students to tell me how it’s going for them. The notebook entry, not surprisingly, is called “How’s it going?” and asks them to reflect upon the following:

What has your experience with Independent Reading been like so far? You can include (but are not limited to) a discussion of your thoughts and feelings about:

    1. getting to choose what you read
    2. the books you have finished
    3. the current book you are reading
    4. what you have noticed about your:
      • reading rate
      • reading ability
      • reading preferences
    5. the 10 minutes of in-class reading time
    6. having a weekly time and page number goal

I didn’t really know what their repsonses would contain, and what they said was truly englightening.

  • It was no surprise that all of my students said they absolutely love being able to choose the books they read. Many of them said that it has allowed them to rediscover their love for reading:
  • Each and every one of my students appreciate the 10 minutes each day in class. In addition to it helping them meet their 2 hour weekly reading goal, they say that they find those ten minutes to be relaxing. It allows them to escape into a book for a brief moment and it helps them reduces stress.  They also love how this helped to create a culture of reading:
  • What I did not see coming was a request made by multiple students to have independent reading in each of their classes, not just English. Students were asking for the possibility of beginning their science, history, and even math classes with some type of focused, topical reading:
  • Although the responses were overwhelmingly positive in favor of self-selecting text and independent reading, the one area that divided students was reading logs. Some view the logs as a great way to challenge themselves to surpass their weekly page goal. Others don’t like the idea of logging their pleasure reading – they said it made it seem like work. For students who are resenting the logs, I went over ways to alleviate the “work” aspect of it, offering that instead of writing down their reading each day, they could calculate their goal on Monday, reach that page number by Sunday, and be confident that they had read for two hours. They could simply document the end page on their logs and it would suffice.

When it’s all said and done, the weekly logs echo the students’ sentiments in the notebook entry, so I know they didn’t make stand alone comments to impress me. I watch them burn through books each week in all of my classes. In fact, when given a goal of 120 minutes a week, many go far beyond it because they want to read. And, what’s better than getting credit for doing what you love? I say, let em’ read!

4 hours, 20 minutes of reading in one week!

290 minutes of reading in one week!

638 minutes of reading! In one week! And she did all of her other homework!