Lately I have had a number of experiences that have reaffirmed much of my educational philosophy. I will be documenting some of the other recent philosophical inspirations as the next few days go by, but I wanted to share this one while it’s still going on. I want to remember, as the school year begins, what my expectations for myself are, and to continue working on cultivating these abilities.

Today on the Midday program on NPR, they are playing a panel discussion that happened at the Aspen Ideas Festival. There was so much glory that I sat in the car to listen and then had my daughter run in to turn it on in the house so that I wouldn’t have to miss anything.

“There is a moral, and ethical and almost spiritual element of becoming a great teacher for all kids.” -Linda Darling-Hammond

The panel started by talking about remembering fantastic teachers they had (once upon a time) and what was special about those teachers. I really appreciated their conversations about the teachers that were/are fantastic. A few that I remember right off hand that made me a little verklempt and I totally want to remember.

John Deasy was talking about how his first swim instructor was really fantastic. She let everyone know that no one is going to drown, and “no one in this room is going to learn how to swim without first getting wet”.  In other words, first and foremost, you are safe. Next, there are high expectations and you will meet them, and finally, in order to learn it, you get to immerse yourself in it… or you won’t learn it.

Another was a quote from the Talmud that apparently begins the book, Push (the book upon which the movie Precious was based):

“Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, “Grow, grow.” – The Talmud

They said that beyond just saying, “Grow, grow.”, a great teacher also whispers, “You can. You can.” They stick with you, almost “imprinting on the inside of my forehead” that story of you being the successful protagonist who can do it.

The panel also spoke about being a “Great Teacher” means being good for all kids. This is a tough calling, but also a worthy one. It means we must be able to reach all students in the classroom, not just being “right” for some (specifically the “easy”) kids, and disastrous for others. It is important to learn to love every child you teach. The panel does a great job of putting this into more realistic terms. “Loving” every kid just means being able to say “I understand you; I see you; I find a way to appreciate you as a human being and to connect to you to teach you.”

There is so much more, but these are just some of the highlights. The podcast is available! Listen to it! It is a fantastic reminder of the things we do well and need to continue to cultivate within ourselves.


I recently had a class that I affectionately referred to as “The Jerry Springer Class”. The Jerry Springer Class could sometimes get a little out of hand. Classes like The Jerry Springer Class often have a few extra kids who are dealing with more than any kid should ever have to… however their behaviors are definitely affecting the class. It’s times likes these when I  pull out my plan to deal with the “out-of-hand” class.

Step One: Identify the 1-3 kids that are really making the difference in the class. We all know that it is often just a weird mix of kids that makes all the difference. So figure out what that mix is. I know I’ve found the right kid if he/she might fit the description of, “Boy, when <Billy Bob/Janie Sue> is gone, the class runs so much smoother and everything is so much quieter!”

Step Two: Divide and conquer. Find a way to talk with each kid. Choices, choices, choices:

  • The Locker Talker”: my personal least favorite. Everyone knows that the kid being talked to outside the classroom up against the lockers is clearly in trouble. It’s never a good posture and never a good conversation. It’s a lot of teacher talking, and the kid mumbling “mm-hmmm” or whatever while their eyes dart around, wondering who is watching this go down.
  • “Delayed gratification”: talking to them after class is a tough one for me. On the positive side, it might give them some privacy as the classroom empties out, and it’s nice to just have them there instead of the influence of their friends hanging over their shoulder. On the negative side, it often copies the posture and conversation of the locker. It also disrupts their schedule (how else are they going to meet up with their girlfriend in the hall if they’re not precisely at the corner 1.23 minutes after the bell rings?), so their mind is set on getting the conversation over as quickly as possible. I also have a hard time figuring out how to get them to stay after without “outing” them in front of the whole class.
  • “In-class en-couragement”: a quick conversation in class, whether it be me kneeling down and chatting quietly with them or having the reason of calling each kid up to me to discuss something (grades and incomplete work) and having the conversation there.
  • Walk-and-Talk“: this is my absolute favorite if/when the scheduling works out.I find that whenever I can take a quick walk with the student, the “walk-and-talk” opens up discussion possibilities much more than any other way of talking. I’ve had kids deep in the spectrum release their stress in a calm, logical way and I’ve had kids with anger problems be able to work things out themselves with this. It is head-and-shoulders above the stuck-against-the-locker talk… which is clearly a “I’m in trouble” posture to have to stand in. When walking together, we’re equals: trying to solve the problem as one.

Step Three: Conversational Oreo: I like to sandwich the bad between two goods. (This analogy might not work out for many of you who find the center of the Oreo to be the best… but I’m sure you get the picture.) I usually start off by telling them that they really are a very smart kid. I can tell. (And, no, this isn’t a lie.) So, I say, I think it’s crazy that their grade/behavior/whatever is not a true indicator of who they really are. I let them know quickly what, precisely, I’m seeing grade/behavior/whatever-wise, and then I move back to the good. Because, I say, I really enjoy having you in class and because you can do this, I need your help. I need you to just do these two things and then we’ll be on the right track again. (The two things depend on what the situation is, but I try to keep them bite-sized… not something like “be nice” but instead something like “help so-and-so because I see they are struggling”.) Give them a chance to be a positive leader. Tell them how. Sometimes they just don’t know how.

Often just getting that kid to know that you do really care about them and aren’t just interested in them “shutting up for the betterment of the class” makes all the difference.

“All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” -Friedrich Nietzsche

A practice I first learned about in my Master’s of Education program, the Walk and Talk is a fantastic way to think things through and work things out. As adults in the Master’s program, we did it to process information, get to know each other and brainstorm. Whenever I have the chance, I like to do this with students for precisely the same purposes.

From Walk and Talk: The new meeting room, there are a number of health benefits that strengthen the case for the Walk and Talk. Some are:

  • “Walking stimulates oxygen flow around the body to increase your brain function so you can be more creative and it also increases your ability to solve problems faster.
  • Being on the move allows the mind flexibility because you are looking around as you walk. This stimulates the right side of the brain and the visual sense gives a greater sense of perspective to a situation being discussed.
  • Breathing is improved (standing and walking – rather than slumped in a chair!), which again improves brain function and increases energy.”

“Walking is good for solving problems – it’s like the feet are little psychiatrists.” -Pepper Giardino

Although the Walk and Talk is beneficial for all students, I have found it especially helpful for the students who might be the hardest to reach. It has worked for kids who are having a breakdown, kids who seem to be having behavioral problems in class, and kids who don’t have the skills to deal with their emotions. When there is a behavioral problem or just a kid who is having a hard time being their best, it is so fantastic to take a minute and go for a quick walk together. So many things get figured out, kids calm down, and perspective is found by both of us. We also have that moment to share. Walking is a shared experience and I think it helps build the bond between two people.

During the last week of school, I saw one of my colleagues walking up and down the hall with one of her (perhaps toughest) students. Later she said that during the first couple minutes, they just walked in silence. Shortly thereafter they had the opportunity to have a calm discussion. This is precisely what I’ve seen work as well!

The problem? When she came back to her class, the remainder of the class had gotten a bit out of hand. I wish there was a way to have the walk-and-talk without forcing others to give some of their prep time to watch the class. Perhaps it needs to be a change in culture so the class knows that it is important to be especially good during that time (just as they might if the teacher were standing outside the door talking to the student by the locker), but in a world where one can’t even legally leave the classroom to go to the bathroom without having someone watch the class, I have a feeling that just “trusting the kids to be good” won’t be the answer.

“Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow; Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead; Walk beside me, and just be my friend.” -Albert Camus


Posted: May 26, 2010 in Learning...
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I woke this morning to a bitter, rancid smell. As I walked to the bathroom, the smell stuck to me. It stuck so close that I began to wonder if I smelled. I even smelled both of my forearms two times (I thought it might be my skin… that’s why I didn’t smell the pits).  I couldn’t tell, so I decided to just lay back down for a while. When my husband woke, he pinned it right away.

“Well, the dog crapped.”

“How do you know?”

“Don’t you smell it?”

Ah. So THAT was the smell. My mind must have been in a pretty deep morning fog to think that it was me… I can’t be held responsible for that.

I walked out into the living room and, indeed, the great dane had suffered a few bouts of not only explosive diarrhea, but also mucousy vomit. It reeked. I gagged just walking into the hall… nevermind cleaning up the dog, cleaning up the kennel and cleaning up the room. (Although my husband, the hero, did most of the work with the kennel.) When I took Harriet (the great dane) outside, she also had blood in her stools. Needless to say I was worried. My husband decided to stay home with her for the day to watch for any more blood.

But I had to get to school.

So I got ready and drove to school. A little late, but far before my first class. I was feeling pretty down about the whole situation. I was bummed and still grossed out by the mess that I woke up to and I also was worried and felt bad for Harriet. Really worried.

I tried to keep it on the inside, but finally during second hour, a student (not one of mine, but he visits sometimes) asked how I was. I answered, “Fine”, and asked him the same. “Fine” was his answer as well. Then, for whatever reason, I let it out. I told him that I woke up to a sick dog with lots of diarrhea and vomit this morning and it kind of made for a hard morning.

He nodded and then told me quietly that his bad day started last night. His foster parents were fighting again and the mom was threatening to leave. The foster dad’s answer to that was to accuse her of cheating. The student said he didn’t want to listen anymore, so he just went to bed. This morning he woke up and missed the bus, so he needed to walk the 2.5 miles to school.

That put it all in perspective for me. I felt bad for feeling bad. My day was “crappy”, but my life isn’t hard. I’m really pretty lucky. This student reminded me of the burdens that so many of our students silently carry to school every day. Would I be able to focus and persevere every day in a situation like that? I believe that people are strong and will (almost) always “make it work”, but I still sympathize  and wish for a better, easier life for each and every one of them.

After he told me his story, I told him I was sorry, and then smiled and said, “Hey. I bet it can only get better for both of us from this point on, today, right?” He smiled and agreed.

Does Superman exist?

Posted: May 24, 2010 in Uncategorized

“You can’t relate to a superhero, to a superman, but you can identify with a real man who in times of crisis draws forth some extraordinary quality from within himself and triumphs but only after a struggle. ”
Timothy Dalton 

So have you all heard about this new documentary that is coming soon to a theater near you? It’s called Waiting for “Superman”.

I look forward to seeing it. I also, however, fear the story that will be told. (Maybe it’s Michelle Rhee saying that our educational system is crap.)  I hope that it is not one-sided and more heavy on idealistic rhetoric than proven strategies that can extrapolate across all areas. Don’t get me wrong. I love idealistic rhetoric. It inspires me. But when it’s being used to create an “informed” public to work against the system instead of working together to improve it, I have a problem. I hope that won’t be the case.

I’m no superman. I do what I can, when I can, to make the educational process more meaningful for students; get more kids to buy-in, stay-in, and keep-it-in.  I have a lot of fun and really, really, enjoy why I get to go to school every day.  On good days, much of what we work through has recordable positive effects in students’ educational programs. We all do. We all struggle and succeed, struggle and succeed. I hope the struggles are honored as much as the successes.

Being a nerdy-dabbling-sociologist at heart, I love to look at seating charts as a way to use student’s strengths, forge friendships, and create a feeling of family in the classroom.

As I was entering some quiz grades today, I noticed that one of my German 1 classes has a few kids with significantly lower scores than any kids in the other German 1 class. It looks like time for a new seating situation.

Step One: Rearrange the desks. I like to rearrange the desks whenever I have a new seating chart because it does a couple of things. First, it gives a clear, visual reason, that students will be changing seats. They’re so busy thinking about how the classroom looks different that they don’t even think about the fact that I’m moving them away from where they were. Second, whenever possible, I do it for each chapter, thus giving a new brain state for the new learning.

Step Two: Seat students as per their strengths and needs. Instead of just first placing all the “bad” students and then creating buffer zones around them (I totally used to do that), I try to think about what each student needs and/or what his/her strengths are. For instance, I might have a student who likes to talk… all the time… and it might, just might, be making me crazy.

Step 2A: Assess the student’s situation: find the student’s strengths and needs. The example student talks a lot, yet did pretty well on the most recent quiz. Preliminary hypothesis: this student seems friendly, understands the information, and might be ready to move forward.

Step 2B: Proximity: Just how much of my own assistance/proximity does this student need in order to maintain the necessary focus in order to do well? The answer to this places the student generally near the front, in the middle, near the back, outside, inside, etc.

Step 2C: Who could this student benefit? Who could this student benefit from? Do I have a student who is a little shy but does well when others initiate conversation and may be having a few slight misunderstandings? I wouldn’t put the talkative student next to another student who clearly hates people who draw attention to themselves all of the time… but my talker might be the perfect fit for someone else.

I guess I go through steps 2A and 2B with an eraser very nearby until I find what I think will be the right “flow” for the class. I want kids to get to know others, appreciate each other for what they bring to the class, and grow/maintain that sense of family… all while learning and using/finding/refining their strengths.

Is seating the be-all and end-all for those things? Wow. No way. That’s a pretty tall order, pal. I do, however, think that finding the Qi in a seating arrangement (instead of just using it as a punishment system) brings me a few strides closer.

In my entry-level class, I have a student. Let’s call him Gonzo (no actual resemblance). Gonzo is that kid. He is the one who must be off in another world, well, all of the time. I explain something to a (finally) quiet classroom. Heads are nodding, kids are smiling. Directions stop and, like a shotgun start, heads snap down, pencils pop up and the “work” of education continues. Gonzo’s hand comes up. “Okay, so what are we supposed to do?”

Those around Gonzo (and even those on the other side of the room from Gonzo) groan. An audible heave of the “Oh, Gonzo” emotion. Some days it takes all they have to not spout off some snide remark.

Gonzo is not stupid. He’s not even a blue kid. He just sometimes needs to be spoken to directly (one-on-one) when giving directions, and sometimes, even then, even after a one-on-one session with head nodding and eye tracking, I turn to walk away and leave him to his now-guided work, and the hand shoots up again. “Okay, so wait. Now what am I supposed to do?”

A sigh breathes past my lips and I hold back a snide remark, but I turn around and go back because it’s my job to teach… not to give him a hard time.

And this is where I caught myself last week. This is where I had to change.

Another student asks a question, also not listening. I smile, jaunt over and cover what they missed with a sparkle in my eye and enthusiasm in my voice.

Did I probably treat Gonzo exactly the same way the first, second, third, twenty-third time that he asked the question? Yes. I might even put money on that. But when that enthusiasm stopped started to wane, I didn’t even notice. I didn’t notice until last week when I found myself refraining from my snide remark. That’s also when I noticed my squinty, tired eyes, my Bueller voice, and my slumped posture as I spoke with him. It was the tired me that sometimes slips by the attitude-bouncer, but it’s also the me I don’t like seeing.

They say kids know the real truth about people and what we are feeling, the truth that can be hidden from many adults. Our children are watchers. They watch us to see if they can trust us. They watch us to see how much we care. They watch us to see who we really are. They watch us in the times when we are most tired and dealing with people who may not be the easiest to deal with. Perhaps they watch us most at that time because it shows some of our true character. It shows them how we might react to them someday.

I often have conversations with students about how ethics aren’t really meaningful until they’re tried and tested in the tough situations, and last week I caught myself not living up to my own standards.

There is a story in the book of Matthew (25) about the end-of-times as Jesus says to those on his right, “‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

The people respond that they didn’t remember ever having fed or clothed him, to which he responds, “40I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

I think our students see the same. They see how we treat the kids who are the most outrageous, the kids who are the most persistent, the kids who are the least respectful, the kids who just don’t listen, and somewhere inside, they take it to heart: all the more reason to not start slipping down that slippery slope.

This week I made a renewing effort to wipe clean, to be excited, and to share that excitement with everyone, but especially Gonzo. I’m doing it for Gonzo, I’m doing it for the Gonzo watchers, but mostly I need to be doing it because I think it’s right and it’s who I believe I really am… and I need to be that no matter the circumstance.