The (Messy) Art of Writing

For the first time in a long while I am tutoring writing one-on-one. I enjoy it so much, but I forgot how much of a difficult undertaking it really is. Writing is such a murky, fickle art. No two writing pieces are ever the same–save plagiarism, oh my–and in fact, even the same piece of writing from conception to publication is hardly recognizable when comparing the first draft to the last.


As I am tutoring, I find myself saying so many things to my students that are just as amorphous as the task of writing itself. When working with students–especially ones who do not enjoy writing–I find that their goal is to finish the task, usually an essay, as quickly as possible with adherence to the most general rules: five paragraphs, a thesis statement, evidence, and maybe a little analysis. And it doesn’t matter if the ideas are insightful, they are present.


So, I want to try to focus on some other ideas about writing in my teaching practice this year. The ones that aren’t as concrete as the formula we use to teach kids how to compose an essay.


  1. It’s important to know what you are writing about. Make sure you understand the subject of your writing before you start writing about it. If you’re lost when it comes to analyzing the literature or other content, your reader will be lost in your words.


  1. The more you focus on the subject of your writing (i.e. a book, a literary criticism, an historical event) the more you will find that your ideas about it change. When you start analyzing something, it is the time during which you know the least about it. While you are writing and working with the subject you will learn new things about it. Don’t be afraid to change your ideas about a subject. Just because an idea came before another doesn’t make it immalleable.


  1. Stop writing. You need to take breaks. Writing is a huge undertaking that requires a lot of mental energy. Take your time and refresh your brain with a little down time.


  1. Revision is the most important step. Yes, I’m making a judgment here, but I really believe I have a solid point! It takes a lot to get your ideas on the paper, but it takes even more strength and belief in your own work to add, delete, and move around sentences, paragraphs, and ideas in order to improve upon something. Don’t get attached to your words, otherwise, they will rule you and your writing will suffer.


  1. They don’t call it the writing process for nothin’. It is a process, and like any process it takes time. We live in a time of instant gratification, and writing products do not suit such the need for immediate indulgence. It’s a journey and you have to take it if you want to be proud of where you end up.


So, to my students, this art we call writing is messy–as I suppose is the nature of any art. You will see new and different things as you delve deeper in a subject, you will change your mind about what to write and about how to write it. You will understand, eventually, that no piece of writing is ever truly finished. But if you take your time and embrace the challenges that go along with this art I promise you, you will find that the process can be satisfying. Just keep going. Keep reading. Keep learning. And keep writing.


My Back to School Pledge

Every year around this time I start to get excited. Excited for the possibility of the upcoming school year. Excited to meet my new charges. Excited to learn and try something new. Excited to buy all the supplies I will need to be successful during the upcoming year (I admit this unashamedly). Excited to catch up with my colleagues. The charge is almost electric.

This year, I am taking this electricity and channeling it into a pledge to my students, to my colleagues, and to myself before I even walk over the threshold of the building. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

To my students:

I pledge to be tough with you. My goal is not to be your favorite teacher, my goal is to make sure you learn. Some days it may upset you, but in the end, I care more about your success than about your feelings toward me as a person. Your future is linked with mine, too and I’m invested in your success.

I pledge to listen to you. I understand that we are coming from different perspectives, and I will consider your needs, but I will also push you past your comfort zone.

I pledge to smile long before Thanksgiving. My classroom is not a scary place, it’s a safe place where you are free to make mistakes and learn from them. Such an environment requires strictness, but it also requires a sense of humor.

To my colleagues:

I pledge not to complain. It feels so good sometimes, but in the end, it doesn’t get us anywhere. I’m going to try to be more positive and find solutions to our frustrations. If I can’t, I can offer you a drink and an ear at the end of a tough day.

I pledge to help you when I can with whatever I can. Last year, I was so swamped with work that I was stressing about making it to my morning and afternoon duties. Two colleagues were willing to cover them for me and I was so very grateful. I want to pay it forward.

I pledge to laugh with you. No explanation needed. A smile always makes us feel better.

To myself:

I pledge to revamp the successful lessons I’ve already taught. I don’t want to get stagnant. I want to keep improving and I can’t wait to make good lessons great ones.

I pledge not to stress about things that are out of my control. There is so much that is out of my hands and I can’t waste valuable time worrying about things over which I have no influence.

I pledge to enjoy even the tough moments. This year I want to embrace my (past and present) mistakes and learn from them. I want my students to learn from their mistakes and I want to be more open to learning from my own as well. It’s tough sometimes, but worth it.

What are your pledges for this school year?

administrators, education, educational administration, observations, scoring, teachers, teaching, Uncategorized

Why “Gotcha” Isn’t Funny Anymore

I don’t attach disclaimers to my writing.  I never feel badly about what I have to say, but this disclaimer is different. It’s for you, the reader, not for me. It’s a simple promise that the content to follow is not an empty string of self satisfying complaints, but rather it is a genuine concern for teachers, especially young and non-tenured teachers, and for the field of education itself.


There is a big problem in education today, and that is the “Gotcha!” mentality that is so keenly masked by the “we are here to help you grow” tagline.  Why does this happen?  Why isn’t there a growth mindset? Why must “bad” observation scores mean penalization or retaliation as opposed to identifying weaknesses or challenges accompanied with genuine feedback that will help the teacher improve?


So many young teachers, and even veteran teachers, who are talented, smart, and effective are leaving the profession because their bosses are not offering them feedback that genuinely helps them grow and without that facilitation of growth, teachers stagnate, become frustrated, and find other careers in which they can put their talents to good use. Now, there are other reasons for the lack of teacher retention, but I have seen and lived this scenario before so it’s the one in which I have the most practice.


I am my harshest critic, so after every lesson I teach I reflect upon it and determine how to improve it; I don’t need a supervisor for that, but I appreciate the feedback from another party because it offers me the ability to learn and grow–when it is not contrived so that an administrator can make themselves seem important in order to keep their job. Please understand, I am not an administrator-basher–I would like to be one some day–but I have a problem with any person who will hurt others’ careers in order to make themselves look good.


So, let’s stop trying to find what’s wrong with students’ work, or teachers’ lessons, and let’s take the challenges and mistakes we see and make them learning experiences so our students, teachers, and all educational professionals can grow from them. Here’s why a growth mindset will make you a better supervisor, administrator, and even a better teacher:


1. Your genuine desire to help will be clear and others will value your feedback.


When you want to help others improve and you make this idea clear to them, the people you work with–whether they are students, teachers, or other administrators–place deep value in the feedback that you give them. Your authenticity is transparent and that makes your opinion instantly worthy of their respect.

2. You appreciate others’ feedback because you subscribe to the idea that growth comes from listening to others.


You become more effective when you allow others to help you grow, which in turn, allows you to help others.  It’s really a fantastic cycle! The more you learn from others, the more you can teach others. Plus, when your students, colleagues, and even your subordinates know that you welcome criticism, they are more likely to listen to what you have to say and what you have to say is more likely to be effective and valuable.


3. Others trust you.


When you support other people you create trusting relationships. When people trust you they want your feedback. And when others trust you, they are willing to help you grow, too.


So, adopt a growth mindset, and stop giving senseless feedback to others just to prove you know something or to keep your job. The fate of education and the future professionals depend upon it.


Why Grades Fail Our Students

“What will my grade be if I hand this in tomorrow?”
“Whatever you earn. Did you get the rubric?”
“Yeah. But you’re not taking points off?”
“Well, how will I know what you know and are able to do if I sacrifice your grade for your lack of responsibility?”
“I’m really sorry it’s late. It won’t happen again. And thanks.”
“For what?”
“Not taking points off.”
“You will receive the grade you earned. Thanks for getting it in when you could.”


I have this conversation with my students every time an assignment is due—and every time they turn one in late. They don’t accept that they can hand things in late without their grade being penalized. (Other consequences apply; however, because I stress responsibility and timeliness.) But yes, you read that correctly. I don’t “take points off” of late assignments. I also allow students to re-take assessments and re-write papers as many times as they want. I don’t give zeroes to cheaters (they are prosecuted in other ways), and I always allow zeros to be replaced. I am an anomaly. I go against the norm. I also understand that many of my contemporaries may not agree with my policies, but here is my philosophy:
Grades must reflect what students know and are able to do. Therefore, they should not be influenced by compliance and responsibility or lack thereof.

Grades are destroying our kids. Students are so concerned with the ends of an assignment that they ignore the means; and that’s the part that really matters! They are so obsessed with “getting an A” or “passing this class” that they forget the reason things are graded in the first place: to show what students know and are able to do.

When you really think about it, grades are meaningless. Here’s why.

Example 1: Teacher A and Teacher B have the same essay and will score it with the same rubric. Teacher A notices that the student did not correctly respond to the essay prompt and therefore gives the student a 0/5 on that section of the rubric. Teacher B agrees that the essay is off topic but sees that the student put a lot of effort into writing the essay. Teacher B gives the student a 2/5 in that category. Who was right?

Example 2: The entire class took a test. The scores ranged from 97% to 48%. The teacher was disappointed in how many students did not do well and made the decision to curve the test by adding 20 points to each score. The range then increased to 117% to 68%. No one failed in this case. Did the teacher do the right thing?

Example 3: Teacher C receives a memo: “Please review your grades. Consider adding in some more scores to cushion the low grades and help the students pass.” Would you follow the memo? Is it fair?

The examples cited above are typical teacher practices. I know because I have done them. I have graded students on effort, behavior, past performance, rapport with me, personality. But I now see that I was doing them a disservice.

Consider the colleges who accept students based on their GPA or even specific grades in particular classes. “Wow! Student D gets good grades. He has the knowledge and skills needed to thrive here at our institution.” But does he? He wrote the essay in Example 1. Teacher B was his scorer. His test was one of those in the 60s from Example 2, but he ended up with a high 80. Overall, his teachers enjoy having him. He is hard working, well-behaved, and outgoing. And he’s a good kid who deserves to go to college so teachers don’t “kill” him with low grades.

But does D deserve to go to college?

He didn’t earn those grades, they were given to him.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that Student D get accepted into college. (After all, he deserved it.) His first semester is a hard and fast lesson in “how to pass your college classes”. He hands in his first paper with the naïve pride of a college freshman, and when he gets it back he is surprised and embarrassed to see that the margins runneth over with critical remarks. It turns out the paper showed no knowledge of the subject matter and D grossly overestimated his writing skills—as did the admissions committee. He was pretty convinced that he had this whole “knowledge and skills” thing down when he was in high school. After all, his grades were “good”.

Somewhere along the way D was cheated. He was cheated by the letters and numbers that control our ideas of achievement and mastery. And it’s not D’s fault. Our country’s obsession with “grades” and getting “good” ones is what failed him. Teachers, administrators, parents, society; we are all so worried about numbers. Good numbers. But what do those numbers really mean?
The next time you hear about a “good” grade, take a moment and think about whether that grade was earned or given. I try to make sure my students earn their grades. I also try to help them focus on learning as opposed to grades. We have put our faith in these little numbers and letters, but do they really show success?

Fellow teachers, I challenge you to grade students honestly and fairly according to mathematical standards (whether they be applied to a multiple choice test or an assignment with a rubric). Take a moment and allow the numbers to show you what students really know and are able to do. It will cause you to re-examine your teaching (and of course your grading) practices. It also might make a lot of people upset. And I hope you’re as okay with that as I am because how will we ever get away from the injustice grades are imposing upon our students without disturbing the norm.


Wanted: real curriculum leaders, not just managers

I’m up for it.

Granted, and...

What is leadership in curriculum?

Whatever the answer, the question should not be confused with a related but far different query: What is management in curriculum? Yet, I suspect that few people with curricular responsibilities appreciate how different the questions and answers are – and why real leadership is rare yet sorely needed now.

Management. Curriculum management is an easy-to-grasp idea. An administrator with curriculum-management obligations ensures that the curriculum gets revised or at least examined in cycles, e.g. every 5 years, on a staggered calendar. Then, the manager ensures that time and money is set aside in July for the work, and requests/invitations for teacher-writers are sent out. At the writing meetings the writers make decisions on how to tweak lessons or activities and suggest resources. The work is done when time and budget run out.

Such work requires no leadership per se. And such work predictably leads…

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How the Common Core has Helped Me (and My Students) Improve

The Common Core.

The beast that so many educational reformers have been battling for the past few years now.  And those advocates have their reasons, whether they be political or personal, but I have yet to encounter anyone (in my realm of reading articles, blogs, talking with teachers) who can legitimately tell me why the Common Core Standards are not effective academically.  I have heard some of these complaints about our CCSS:

“They will not stick around…they will be gone in 5 years.” (To this I ask, so what standards are you teaching if we have adopted the CCSS here in our state?)

“They are too writing intensive.”  (I can’t even go there…)

“They take all the creativity out of teaching and learning.” (I have managed to do a lot of creative things with the CCSS.)

“I can’t teach the way I want because the standards tell me how to teach.”  (No. They tell you what to teach, not how to teach.  And maybe your teaching needs some re-vamping anyway if you are that concerned about not being able to teach the way you “want” as opposed to making sure students learn.)

“It’s so complicated, I can’t figure out what they are trying to tell me to do.” (I can’t even go there, either…)

So, I will share with you a few ways the CCSS has helped me, and my students, improve over the past year.

1.) My planning is more coherent.

When I am planning a lesson, I keep in mind the standard(s) I am striving to teach my students. It keeps my goals and objectives clear and my instruction streamlined. My students appreciate this.

2.) I am no less creative.

My students do a lot of creative projects…at home…and the tough stuff–the analyzing, evaluating, and assessing–is done in school where support is available.

3.) The kids “get it”.

The CCSS are for teachers AND students.  I show my students the standards and explain the end game of every lesson. There are no secrets and the kids know exactly what is expected of them. I also use rubrics based on the CCSS for clarity.

4.) Rigor is natural.

The standards themselves are quite rigorous, so if you follow them, rigor becomes a natural part of what you do in class every day.  No worries about providing “extra work” or even “busy work” because students are already busy enough…you know…with learning.

5.) There is a clear shift to academics being important.

Okay, maybe this is not a way it has directly helped me and my kids, but nonetheless, it is important to include.  I am the first to say that school should be fun/interesting/worthwhile in order to keep our clients (students) wanting more.  But recently we (Americans) have gotten carried away with school being more about social growth, and only social growth, in an effort to maintain that interest and fun.  (It’s sad but true, see The Dumbest Kids in the World.)  The job of an educational institution is to educate–socially, physically, emotionally and academically.  Academics must be a large part of that whole picture and the CCSS help make it so.

If you have found that the CCSS are not working for you academically, I would like to hear from you.  I can guarantee you that you’re probably making it harder than it has to be.  And if your reasons are political…well…more power to you.