Sunday, May 31, 2015

Bonbons and Unicorns

Frederick Douglas once said, "If there is no struggle, there is no progress."  

Given what has been going on in my mind in recent weeks, and the lack of sleep as a result of those thoughts, I'm about to make great progress at something -- I just wish I had a better vision for the final product.

In gifted land, every year is different.  Gifted doesn't, and shouldn't, have a curriculum that is followed year after year.  The philosophy behind identifying any student at either  end of the spectrum is to identify the characteristics that make the learner differently-abled, and create learning experiences to strengthen the learner based upon those differences.  So while the goals of learning support students, struggling to achieve the standards, are "treated" with interventions to achieve specific and defined goals, the same sort of definition of achievement can not be defined at a specific level for those at the other end of the spectrum.

There is no bar, no test, no rubric, to define success for every gifted student or program at a uniform level.

I'm not attempting to minimize the work of learning support teachers.  They are the hardest-working colleagues I know.  Each of them sits with a pile of proverbial keys trying to unlock the minds of their students, grabbing, trying, and tossing the keys as they search for one that will work.  Gifted students are different, because as Teachers of the Gifted, we have no idea what success looks like for each and every student.  How can we define -- yet alone identify -- the achievement of full potential?

My assignment changes with my caseload.  Next year, I won't be at the junior high, because my caseload is so high at the high school that I won't have room on my caseload for junior high kids.  Our involvement in the Intermediate Unit's SEE Seminar program has ended, and my colleague, Sarah, and I are working to design individual and unique experiences for a larger audience, a little closer to home.  I'm slated to teach two new rounds of Themes in Literature next year, expanding on two topics I've taught before in much less time -- Disney -- and Espionage.   And even though I've taught both before, I'm teaching to a whole new group of brilliance, with potential that is untapped, and may be entirely different, in terms of strength and interests, than any group I've ever taught.

Yes, there is much to be developed.  There are many new challenges facing me.  In a week, my summer starts.  While I'm eating bonbons and sleeping until noon, this will all magically right itself, landing perfect plans on my desk when I return in the fall.

Because, as you know, I teach in a land of unicorns, where magic happens every single day.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Here Comes the Future....

We had a great time at breakfast and then took upside down pictures. Not that surprising, considering the strange things that always happen when there are multiple gifted students in one place..
It was 1999.  My youngest child was headed to kindergarten, and I'd been a stay at home mom since 1988, when we had moved to Lancaster County.  I had majored in elementary education, graduating a semester early, in December, 1982, hoping to get my foot in the door in a school district. After nearly two years of substituting, I was exhausted at the uncertainty of every "next day," and applied to Reliance Insurance Company -- they were hiring.  So my first full time job was settling bodily injury claims in New York state, from a desk in Pennsylvania.

Honestly, I liked that job a lot, and learned some great skills as I negotiated with attorneys, evaluated medical files, and reconstructed accidents.  More than 25 years later, I still giggle at the boneheaded claims like the guy who thought that just because the RV salesman told him that the vehicle was "so easy to drive that it could drive itself," meant that he could put it on cruise control on the New Jersey Turnpike and go to the back of the vehicle for some shuteye.  ($90,000 retirement investment with 143 miles on it before it was totaled rolling into the gully on the side of the NJT, awakening it's sleepy non-driver).

But teaching was in my heart, and had been since I ran a "nursery school" for four year olds in my backyard when I was eleven.  So I applied for elementary teaching positions in our home district, knowing that the commute would be short, and the summer vacations would align with my own family.  

I didn't get the first job.  Honestly, I can't imagine teaching second grade now, but at the time I was fairly disappointed at the rejection.  Two weeks later, I received a call from the principal at the elementary school, where I had just been elected President of the PTA.  "There's a part time position opening up teaching gifted and talented kids."

I had a gifted kid in my own home.  Other than that, I pretty much knew nothing.

Honestly, it was love at first sight.  I loved the challenge of teaching in weird corners of the school -- in the TV studio at one school, at another I was assigned to teach actually on the stage in the cafe-gym-atorium (my word, not theirs) while lunch was being served on the other side of the curtain.  Elementary gifted education was an adventure, in every sense of the word.   

 Today's the Big Day!

In that first class, on the very first day, I met Beth.  A giggly second grader with an obsession for the weather channel that rivaled Al Roker's.  She was loud, she was enthusiastic, and she was always the first to volunteer to try anything new.  That first year we worked through a program known as MARS 2030, where the kids studied space and attempted to design a colony that would be life-sustaining 30 years in the future.    When they graduated, I made jokes about getting together in 2030 for breakfast, and to evaluate whether our colony plans looked anything like the real thing.

Fortunately for me, these friends like having breakfast with members of other generations.  We've continued to meet, at least twice a year, to catch up.  Beth went on to major in elementary education, and even spent a week with me at UCONN at Confratute, where she took a graduate course focused on mathematics for gifted elementary kids.  We had a blast visiting the Frog Bridge in Willimantic, and giggling obsessively, because, well, some things are part of who we are.  (Ironically enough, the photo to the left was taken during a production of HONK!, where Beth played a dancing frog, among other things.)

When I went to her bridal shower last month, the inevitable "how do you know Beth" game was played.  It was amazing to see how many of her good friends to this day met her through her days in the gifted program.

Today Beth gets married.  I'm hoping someone more capable than I is curling her hair.   I can already guarantee I will shed a few tears, as I think back to the girl, who will always be known for her paperclip necklaces and weather channel fascination becomes Mrs. Kent Gable.

The weather is supposed to be sunny, hot, humid, with a chance of thundershowers.  Beth will be in her glory.

Oh, and her email address?  icysnowflake.  (You can't have every kind of weather on a single day in May, even if you wish really, really hard.)  

Maybe she'll take comfort in knowing that the average temperature on Mars is -80 degrees, so somewhere in her world, there may be conditions ripe for icy snowflakes -- if they can find the water -- and that conditions are expected to remain the same through 2030, when she celebrates her fifteenth anniversary.  Who knows, maybe they'll vacation on a distant red planet as a getaway from the kids.

I am a lucky person to have students for more than one year.  Some of them come into my life and never leave, even if they may decide to vacation on Mars.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Blown Away.

The flurry of the end of classes was certainly evident today.  The monthly fire drill, which hadn't happened during May, still caught me by surprise when the ear-piercing alarms went off second period.  The project presentations began in the second Themes in Lit. class, first with seniors, and then with others willing to be brave enough to present earlier than their assigned date.

I had scoured the room looking for one senior, Alex, who was MIA.  Eventually appeared, with the largest hug imaginable, for me.  Okay, three hugs, as the entire class celebrated his acceptance to Franklin and Marshall, along with a GIANT financial package, allowing him to realize big dreams for many, many years.  (And yes, this is the same Alex who I thought would be making designer watches as his career back in October...)  He will be a biology major.  Oh, and when I say GIANT financial package, his scholarship for four years in college exceeds the value of my house and both cars that we own.

But the winds of amazement didn't stop there.  

Sophomore, Taylor, presented her project.  A video so profound and full of insight and encouragement that I had to watch it twice in class -- primarily so I could recover from the giant lump in my throat keeping me from speaking.

I share it here, with Taylor's permission, and hope it gives you a chance to pause and reflect upon your own life, and to dream about the lives of kids in schools everywhere.  

I'm telling you now, the future of the world is in very good hands.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Caught in the Webb!

The semi-annual proclamation of the end of the year in Themes in Literature began early this morning in first period.  Our district offers seniors in good standing the opportunity for a "senior exemption" from final exams next week if their discipline logs and attendance are superior, and they have an A in the class.  It's a wonderful motivational perk for the seniors each year, but a tad stressful for classroom teachers counting on their seniors to rise to the occasion during presentations that might occur during finals week.  For my class, it meant that my seniors began their Talent Development Opportunity (TDO) presentations today, sharing their focused obsession for the semester, along with their metacognitive reflection of the process.

They did not disappoint.

There were students that explored various artistic techniques, one who played and analyzed APBA, a "fantasy" baseball game, one that explored learning Italian in anticipation of a trip this summer, and an upcycled Chinese character book that now contains gel printing and inspirational quotes.  Amelia shared her NHD project passion, and many in the group echoed the value of NHD as an experience that any gifted or talented student should consider adding to their schedules to help prepare for college.
There was an entire book of thoughtful free-verse poetry that brought tears to the eyes of more than a few.

As I sat and listened to each presentation, I highlighted the words on the Webb's DOK wheel that the described the projects, or that the students used in their reflections.







Draw conclusions, Cite Evidence.  Construct, Hypothesize

They were caught in the Webb!

Yes!  It worked!  My SLO goals to encourage students to identify and execute a project while systematically considering their metacognitive process throughout their project had every single student (who has presented so far) move from Level 1 in their initial project proposals, gradually becoming more involved in their projects, digging deeply and advancing through the levels with an ever-increasing intensity with each month's reflection.  Every single student experienced every level of thinking in their process.

Oh, and amazed their classmates, and, once again, blew away their teacher with their insight and accomplishments.

There are no rubrics (aside from Webb's DOK) for this project.  Go ahead and argue, but I know for sure that rubrics, with these kids, would only LIMIT their abilities.  My lack of rubrics for TDOs mean that the learners reach for the moon and land among the stars, instead of identifying the correct number of beans needed to satisfy the beancounter teacher.

The world needs more stars.  And fewer beans.

At least in my world.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Dream Big. Change the World.

I woke up at 2:30 am, worrying about school, and how things change every year, and how next year might be drastically different than this year, and how I felt like I was finally getting on top of the expectations that both the district and I have for me in terms of performance, and now the target is moving, and well,
..... you see how the mind can race in the wee hours of the morning.

I calmed myself down, and thought, "If you could be anything in the world, what would you want to do?"

And I answered myself - out loud.  "I want to be Jenna when I grow up."

Okay, the fact that Jenna is 18 and I'm 54 is probably enough justification, but it really isn't the age thing.  Jenna is one of the most peaceful, embracing of life, focused people I know.  (And I am going to qualify that with an explanation.)


A year ago, Jenna wanted to be a physical therapist.  She'd visited a few in her time, working through swimming injuries, etc., and obviously was drawn to their love of people that she shared.   She picked her college, and packed up for a quick trip in the summer with her youth group, to a national denominational conference.

As part of her independent study TDO a couple of years ago, Jenna had focused on the topic of Happiness.  She started a blog, which changed her focus and passion about life in a significant way.  She went to the conference, and lead worship in front of thousands of people, and came home sooooo over the physical therapy career, eyeing Peace Studies as her new major.  Oh, and maybe a double major in Political Science.

This kid absolutely lives a life of peace.  I know that there are days when she doesn't feel like she has it all together, but she manages to act like she does, making the most confident 54 year old a bit envious.  She had a challenging senior year schedule, yet decided to compete in National History Day, adding an Individual Website entry to her already-booked life.  Her topic? Clarence Jordan, the father of Habitat for Humanity.

Back in December she came into my room in tears, almost unable to speak.  She extended an envelope containing a letter.


Yes, she had scored the pinnacle of primary resources on Habitat for Humanity -- an actual letter exchange interview with the former President.

Six months later, she's writing a salutatorian speech for graduation, and is the only high school writer for the BIC church blog. She's headed to the national competition for NHD with her website, and then off to her dream college next fall.  Her graduation party invitation arrived with all the life and enthusiasm one would expect from someone out to change the world....(see picture above.)

Yes, I want to be Jenna when I grow up.  Or, at least, be permitted to watch from the sidelines as she Dreams Big.  Because even though she has become the idol in my dreams, causing me to wake in an envious state, I stand in awe of the millions of possibilities that she -- and so many other seniors looking at life's limitless possibilities -- have in front of them.  

As a high school teacher, I see many kids who are indecisive, apprehensive, and downright unmotivated.  I also see students walking the proverbial path of life, carefully discerning their calling for their next phase of life.  And sometimes, when life seems uncertain for me, I realize how very blessed I am to be able to see success stories all around me in the students planning to change the world  while sitting in my classroom.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Selfie x 189.

It seems hard to believe that a little less than a month ago this was projected on my board, in an attempt to convince the unconvincable that the end of the year was looming - actually RUSHING - full speed ahead, and that nothing stood in the way of the last day of school and report card delivery except, well, a research paper.

For some reason, the idea of a FIVE PAGE research paper to freshmen is something that is perceived as insurmountable.  There is fear, trembling, and doubt over the ability to achieve.  This is the final project in the triple crown of papers necessary to complete the graduation project requirements embedded in the Information Literacy course, and is, arguably, the most challenging.


Well, for starters, kids need to have an opinion.  (Okay, I can hear you laughing.  Of course kids have an opinion.  Sometimes even when they aren't even asked.  Okay, all the time.)  Ask any fourteen year old for an opinion, phrased in the form of a thesis statement, and the paralysis, confusion, and utter silence begins.  

Selfie X 189

For 189 school days, (minus the 7.5 to go until the end of the school year), I've attempted to create an environment in my classroom where students have ownership of their learning.  I've defined tasks, and asked for input on how we, as a class, arrive at the destination, allowing students to problem-solve, take risks, and explore new learning in meaningful ways.  I've sat on my hands, zipped my lips, and tried not to make approving-looks eye contact, while hoping that students are gaining the confidence to have an opinion and defend it as their own, rather than seeking approval from me and nodding in total agreement ala Eddie Haskal.

Paul Moss recently wrote an interesting analysis for Te@chthought, and asked the following questions:

  1. How much I have set up a culture of independent learning?
  2. How good are my questioning skills?
  3. How much do I ‘open’ up students’ minds with pertinent and differentiated questions?
  4. How much do I allow the students to ‘find’ the answers to questions themselves?
  5. How much do I let students breathe with a challenge, before I step in?
  6. How much do I use wait time effectively?
  7. How good am I at supporting the transition to learning like this?
  8. How well do I tie in the learning objective with the tasks presented?
  9. How much do I encourage an environment of curiosity about the learning, why it is being undertaken, and how it links to other areas we have been focusing on?

Talk about the ultimate selfie!  Paul put a video camera in his classroom, and then analyzed what he saw.  His analysis of his observation is very similar to my own:  
kids are looking for the answers that they think I WANT THEM TO GIVE rather than answers that will help them defend their own opinions.

Paul's analysis:

When watching the videos it is strikingly clear that the students are not used to such a learning culture. Many of them have great difficulty in making progress on their own. They seem to have fallen into a pattern of passively learning material, completing exercises with little connection to anything other than the moment, and worst of all, easily giving up when the challenge is ostensibly too difficult (often at the very first moment of difficulty).
The consequence is that often I have had a classroom with an overwhelming vibe of student angst and annoyance at not being told the answers, and not being able to complete tasks quickly. At times students have literally challenged my teaching credentials. Many times I gave in to such disharmony. In hindsight, and ironically, I gave in too easily. However, as I have evolved and learnt to be patient in the method, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the students are slowly becoming more independent, and fighting that little bit harder to achieve an understanding of a task.

The rubric written in red to the right of the calendar pictured above was yet another attempt to allow student input into what criteria should be judged in the aforementioned research paper.  I've done this process for several semesters now, and the papers are generally better quality when the kids spend some time defining the expectations in a dialog as a class about important elements of the assignment, point value, etc.  I am also amazed by how many of the most vocal during the design phase seem to miss the checklist that they've created once they hit the magical fifth page signalling their completion of the paper.

We (they, and I) have come far this year, and have miles to go before we sleep, with apologies to Robert Frost.  I know that a year or so from now, five pages worth of text will truly be no big deal to most of them, and that in-text citations will not be the enigma they are today.

I'm hoping that I, too, can grow in that next year, after another year of reflection.

Maybe I need a selfie stick after all....

Monday, May 25, 2015

Down the Shore.

I was talking with a colleague last week who was surprised to learn that I didn't grow up in Lancaster County.  Given, I've lived here nearly 27 years, but my roots are in Montgomery County, outside of Philadelphia, with a brief stint after we were first married in Drexel Hill and Broomall.

"Wait.  you don't have  a Delco accent!" claimed my co-worker.  I began vigorously defending myself, claiming that Delaware County accents are reserved for those in Ridley Park and Folsom.  (I know this because my friend, Cathy, proves this to me all the time.   She's been out of Delco for 30 years and still has the signature sound...)

Regardless of whether one was raised in Delco or Montco, or any of the other counties surrounding Philadelphia, weekends like this were reserved for a trip "Down the Shore."   Sure, the rest of the world may call that sandy place at the water's edge "the beach," but they're clearly ill-informed.
Urban Dictionary is also wrong, for the record.  UD claims that Down the Shore what people here in New Jersey call going to the beach. What some people don't get, however, is that this is more the term used to discribe (sic) the trip taken while going "down the shore" from your home in an inland county or town. The drive to whichever beach town you are going to be spending time in is going down the shore, but once you're there you simply go to the beach. Now that we're down the shore, let's head to the beach.

I object.  Except for the part about proclaiming the next destination as "the beach" once you've arrived down the shore.

Oh, and the trip to the beach didn't involve GPS, Siri, or electronics when I was a kid.  (Except for that summer that we went to Ocean City with the Hindleys, and we used walkie talkies between the cars...)  We had good old fashioned maps, and knew that every single shore destination could be reached, simply by passing Olga's Diner, the landmark to end all traffic landmarks, in New Jersey.

Objectives vs. Outcomes

When it comes to education these days, it seems like it's more about the destination, and less about the ride.  Certainly Common Core Standards have offered a definitive end to justify the means by which we educate learners, but there is so much more focus on the planning than the journey itself.   When I was in college studying to be a teacher (admittedly, this was LAST CENTURY), we were instructed to write objectives.   The basic formula for those antiquated objectives was this:

GIVEN (something to do the task), STUDENTS will (define student performance) with (percentage) of PROFICIENCY.

We wrote these objectives, and sketched out a few steps for the lesson to be taught, within the confines of a two inch by four inch box in our plan books.  Oh, and we did them in pencil, to allow for fluidity and change.  
The focus today is much more about the planning.  So much so, that many teachers are feeling less than creative in their actual presentations of lessons, using more creativity to satisfy the requirements of using specific standards, activating strategies, and summarizing strategies to meet the demands of Common Core.  Some districts have adopted templates for lesson plans that are pages long, instead of boxes in a plan book, and gathering data upon data to justify what they've taught.  Objectives have been replaced by Essential Questions which give students ownership of the lesson -- if they remember to look at the posting on the board -- to review and compartmentalize their learning.

It's a wonder that anyone under the old paradigm learned anything, if you consider the criticism of 20th century teaching in today's world.

Bottom line:  It's still about the journey, for teachers.   It's the day to day process of seeing kids excited about learning, and discovering new things, that makes a teacher, not the scores on their performance evaluation or their students' standardized test scores.  It's that look in their eyes when they see the ocean for the first time, or find the perfect seashell.

Teachers know that there are many ways to get many students from Olga's Diner to the shore, and that the AC Expressway is not right for everyone -- because if it were, it would have everyone sitting at a standstill in traffic that would last until Labor Day.

Sunday, May 24, 2015


There are a lot of photos of tattoos gone bad on the internet these days.  Things like "No Regerts," "Superbowel," and "Sweet Pee," are particularly amusing to me, let alone those with homophone reversals like "A Love Thicker Then Blood."  If only these tattooed victims had access to something like CTL+ALT+DELETE to reboot and reverse their decisions -- to start fresh, without the added pain and cost of laser removal.

There are a lot of things in life that would benefit from the three-fingered keyboard salute.  Certainly personal interactions where you could suddenly erase words said in anger or frustration,  or a re-do as you back out of your driveway into your neighbor's parked car.

In 1981, David Bradley was working for IBM.  He was so frustrated by the constant starting and stopping, with a giant need to reboot to keep the project he was working on actually moving forward, that he opted to create the shortcut.  In a recent Mentalfloss article, the story of Bradley's invention is revealed.  His plan was intentional -- because the likelihood of someone actually accidentally hitting all three of those keys simultaneously was pretty remote.  What wasn't intentional, however, was the release of CTL+ALT+DELETE in the finished product.

It turns out that CTL+ALT+DELETE has become one of the most beneficial mistakes to those of us in the 21st century.  

Re-do, Retry, Remorse.

At the end of the semester, the cries come.  "Can I do EXTRA credit?"  "What can I do to get my C to a B?"  (Or F to a D, or B to an A....).  Suddenly, the uninspired and unmotivated are, well, inspired and motivated -- but only for the sake of the grade that will appear on their reportcards, ultimately determining how long they'll be grounded during the summer or how many fewer videogames they'll be playing, based upon the wrath of Mom and Dad.

The idea that grades are earned instead of given seems to be lost on students.   It is common to hear teachers blamed for grades - "He gave me a C!" (said in an incredulous voice).  The idea that grades are gifts or punishments frustrates teachers beyond belief.  Especially at the end of the semester.

Our district has a success policy that allows students to revisit assignments that are less than satisfactory.  The concept of motivating students to go back and try to understand content more clearly, and prove that they've done so after the unit test or project speaks to the call for differentiation and no child left behind.  The reality is that the kids have figured out how to work the system, often taking tests without studying, and then asking for a retest after having a peek at the tested material.  Sometime the retests aren't requested until weeks or months later, when it's obvious that an increase in points will push the student a letter grade higher.

One of my colleagues identified a wonderful way to curb the enthusiasm of late-semester-testers.  (Say that three times fast!)  If a student fails to perform adequately, he or she may request a retake within 24 hours of the return of the offending test.  Sure, the re-exam can happen a week or more later, but the request for the re-do must be proposed, signed by parents and students, and in the hands of the teacher, along with the student's plan for remediation prior to the re-challenge.

It's the CTL+ALT+DELETE of teaching.  Allowing students to succeed, while maintaining the sanity of the teachers at the end of the year who have enough on their plates without having to administer tests from Unit 1 the week before finals.  Parents are aware of the student's efforts, minimizing the loss of valuable summer gaming time, and teachers are viewed as compassionate supporters attempting to instill learning, instead of giving grades.

Learning = Earning, right?  After all, they have a lifetime beyond the classroom for REGERTS.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

A Giant Jar of Glitter.

Shortly after my grandson, Carter, turned two, I was visiting his house with a new toy -- a new watertable -- a gift from his great grandmother.  Jennie, his mother, and I assembled it in short fashion, and filled it with water.  It came with two small plastic sailboats, among other things.

Carter played, standing next to the table, trying to sail the top-heavy sailboats, which kept sinking.  It was frustrating, as an adult, to watch as he repeatedly tried to right the boats.  Soon his body was tensing, he was gritting his teeth, his face was getting more and more red.  

I braced for an explosion.

Instead, he pulled his hands out of the water, shaking them in front of him, and walked to the corner of the yard, saying "walk away, WALK AWAY," as I watched in disbelief.

His very wise mother had, somehow, instilled this sense of reflection, and ability to remove himself from difficult situations, without outburst.  And he was only TWO at the time.

Carter is now four.  There are fewer instances of "walk away", and more red-faced meltdowns, which I attribute to his observation of others at school and in society.  (Because, after all, he is my grandson, and I think he's wonderful!)  Jennie still reminds him, as the meltdowns bubble up, and often diffuses whatever drama is currently facing his brain.  

Walk Away, Walk Away.

A Giant Jar of Glitter.

I instantly flashed on Carter's diffusing strategy this morning when I came across an article about a school in Mar Vista, California, that is teaching mindfulness as it relates to anger.  The related video is astonishing, considering the age of these kids.  

I'm shopping this weekend for a giant jar, and glitter.  Why wouldn't this same analogy work for academically overwhelmed students with fixed mindsets?  It was a lightbulb moment for me when I realized that Carter's walk away strategy is a tool that would benefit everyone in my classroom -- okay, in society -- not only for anger management issues, but for dealing with anything overwhelming.  Especially difficult content, multiple tests, and high-stakes evaluations.  The impossible challenge of final exams in two weeks or the pile of final projects and papers that have deadlines that can't be extended.  

What our classrooms need are giant jars of glitter, lava lamps, and anything mesmerizing enough to get kids to pause and reflect, to open their minds and accept their potential success.

Sparkly things are widely celebrated.  If my brain is a giant jar of glitter, at least give me the chance to breathe and watch it settle.

Friday, May 22, 2015

"Never question ability, always improve strategy."

There was a mystery van in the parking lot today.  There may, or may not, have been donuts in the back of that van, which were easily accessed by the remote hatch button on the keyfob in my pocket.

There are many new rules in our new high school building -- one of which speaks to the "no food in the classrooms" concern that previously resulted in critters with multiple legs or fur.  There is also very little that can be done to motivate 14 and 15 year old freshmen to stay focused when working independently on research papers.

For the last few weeks the board has slowly lost the letters to MYSTERY VAN, each time the class needed to be redirected, with the promise of a special excursion today -- the day the papers were due.


There were enough letters to warrant the excursion, with everyone taking a brain break for some fresh air. Donuts were consumed on the lawn, with all evidence swallowed.

So, yes, if bribery is a crime, I'm guilty as charged.

 "Never question ability, always improve strategy."

In her Edutopia blog entry today, brain researcher Donna Wilson offers some interesting insights into the motivation behind student learning and achievement.   What can we, as teachers, do to bribe convince our students to work  at a level of competency and commitment that increases student achievement in the long run?  

How much time do we spend focusing on the HOW instead of the WHY when we're guiding students through revisions or redirection?  As I've taught the concepts of in-text citations and the wonders of the "Works Cited" page, I've felt like I should be banging my head against the wall repeatedly, if for no other reason than to celebrate when the banging stops.  Sadly, the kids feel the same way.  "Let's get this year OVER!" commented one kid.  

While I can commiserate with their pain, I truly don't care whether they memorize the indentations, italics, and punctuation necessary for each type of citation. Lord knows I have to look the formatting up myself each time I use them, switching between APA and MLA formatting in my head.

But the reality is that the course they are taking is INFORMATION LITERACY.  The skills they are proving in the research unit are related to their ability to FIND the sources necessary and APPLY that information to the task at hand.  My learning goals weren't about memorization, they were about proving the ability to navigate and utilize reliable tools.

If donuts at 8 am on  Friday before a long weekend is motivation enough to keep kids focused on the process -- to get them thinking about the resources available to them that are trusted and reliable -- then I'm all for a mystery van in the parking lot.

Because thinking about thinking is good for everybody.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Apocalypse Now?

9 1/2 Days.    When I taught at the Middle School, there used to be a celebration by teachers of reaching the milestone of "Single Digits" after school at this point in the year.

Really?  How did this happen?  

Yearbooks were distributed yesterday afternoon, making today the first day of the annual begging, pleading, threatening phrase "PUT THE YEARBOOK AWAY OR I WILL TAKE IT!"

At one point, I pointed out that the year isn't over yet, and that by looking back they were forgetting to live in the moment.  You should have seen the eye-rolls as they stuffed their yearbooks in their backpacks.

 A Clean Desk is a Sign of the End of the Year...

Sanity maintenance, oh, okay, and Charlotte Danielson, required that I clean my desk today.  Our annual self-evaluation is due tomorrow, and I needed to cull through all the treasures I've "filed" away during the year so that I could put them all in a lovely notebook to present to my principal to prove my worth as a teacher.

I am not a person who functions well with things shelved nicely behind closed cabinets.  I forget what's there, and am inspired by what I see.  Honestly, I am often shamed into creating neat piles by some of my co-workers and more fastidious students who are overwhelmed by the chaos that is my normal.

That's not to say that the thorough pile-search today was a chore.  Actually it was quite the opposite.  This has been a very rough week for a variety of reasons, too burdensome to delve into here.  So finding happy memories of this year, and gathering them together in one place to prove that I'm effective helped me to convince myself that a single bad week in the course of a year is a pretty darned good year.

The three day weekend is almost here.  Einstein (allegedly) agrees that my desk clutter supports my qualifications to teach the brilliant kids -- even if it's only by association.  I'm not talking home stretch,  and I'm dreading watching my seniors graduate in two weeks.

Nobody has yet to make graduation proof mascara.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Teachers in the Summer.

I'm guessing that today's department meetings should, somehow, signal yet another "beginning of the end" of the school year, as it was the official unveiling of our teaching schedules for the fall.  This week has been filled with emails allocating budget figures and invitations to submit purchase orders to spend our $150 for classroom materials for the entire next year, along with schedules for final exams, senior parades, slideshows, and class picnics.  We're 48 hours from the "SINGLE DIGITS" left in school calendar days to be counted down.

To the non-teachers in the world, the assumption is that the pool will be opening, and the latest beach novel will be in our hands with our toes in the sand, for the next 90 days or so.  To those of us gathered at the department meeting today, it was about defining how to refine, reconfigure, and rewrite lesson plans, curriculum, CMAPs, unit maps, and Student Learning Maps before the first day of school in the fall.

It's overwhelming.  It's daunting.  It's got to be done.  

So yes, you might see a teacher reading a steamy novel this summer.  Ask that teacher what's on her nightstand at home, or in the bottom of her beach bag, because chances are pretty darned good that she's reworking something, somewhere, to make the lessons better next year -- for the preservation of her own sanity, and for the good of her students.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015


There is a societal expectation that gifted kids are, well, exceptional.  Honestly, this is true -  both the societal expectation and the exceptionality of identified gifted students - yet much of my time as a teacher of the gifted is attempting to defend or justify the behavior or under-performance of a student on my caseload.

By Pennsylvania Law, gifted students are identified as such with an overall IQ score of 130, although the state encourages that a matrix for identification be used to allow for discrepancies in testing, and consideration for performance.  There are a number of students who qualify as "twice exceptional"  (aka 2e) because of their unique acquisition and retention rates that are far superior to others, while they struggle with social issues (usually) with additional exceptionality identifications of autism or (in the past) Asperger's Syndrome.  (Think Rainman or Sheldon Cooper.)

Public education spends a lot of time trying to label people.  Quite frankly, society does the same thing -- let's define the undefinable.  Does that even make sense?

Prejudice or Pre-judging.

There's an interesting TED talk presented by Julian Baggins about the definition of self, that calls upon us to consider how we define ourselves, and how we define other things in our lives.  (It's worth the time to watch.)   My Themes in Lit students are in the process of analyzing themselves metacognitively, with respect to their 101 most influential fictional characters.  This leads to many interesting questions:

  •  What is the difference between favorite and influential? 
  •  Are the characters LIKE you or are they influential because they challenge you to be something that you aren't, but would like to be?
  • Are your characters the same as they would have been five years ago or five years from now?
  • Are you YOU, and how does YOU change?
Suddenly we're waxing philosophical, and looking for labels and definitions.  We took Gretchen Rubin's test to determine an identity, and we did abridged versions of the ever-popular Myers Briggs tests, analyzing ourselves using tools that we, in our minds, criticize, leaving us to wonder whether the very definition of giftedness is doing a disservice to all who are identified as such.

Metacognition hurts my brain.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Heavy Experiential Learning.

 The countdown on the board was changed, early this morning, by the first kid to enter my room.  13 1/2 days to go for students.  Before that last day of school, along with all the fun associated with the celebrations that follow final exams, there are projects of all sorts, and papers piling on teachers' desks.  The challenge has been issued -- I truly WANT to be grading 27 research papers this coming weekend.

Considering that the alternative is spending next week begging, pleading, and threatening those who haven't yet turned them in, as successful completion of this final paper is a graduation project requirement.  It's tough to get freshmen to be motivated by "it's a requirement for graduation" when that seems so very far away.

The final paper for Information Literacy is a five page research paper, complete with a works cited page and in text citations.  For some freshmen, this appears to be a ridiculously difficult task to complete.  (Honestly, the moaning and cajoling for some would make one wonder if the torturous task at hand involved giving up a kidney...)  FIVE PAGES?  Sheesh!  

And then I point out that they probably texted more words than that in the last week.  Somehow, that offers little solace.

Two young men have both expressed interest in careers operating heavy machinery.  They've written as much as they can, based upon their research, and truly are at a loss for, well, words -- meaning - enough words to fill the necessary pages to satisfy the requirement.   Lucky for them, our district employes an amazing dude named Randy, who is generous with his time, and trusting with his keys. 

Imagine being fifteen years old.  Too young to drive, and standing next to a giant backhoe, when you're invited to climb in to the cab and control the bucket, swing around in the seat, and work the opposite end?  The questions were great, the interviews were strong, (and recorded on cellphones!), and not a single moan or complaint about added this new resource to the works cited page when we got back to the classroom.
Experiential learning motivated two less-than-motivated students to seek the questions and answers, and play with some seriously heavy equipment under the guidance of an expert.  (And the papers will be turned in on time, by the end of the week!) 

If only every student had the chance to have a reason to care about their research assignments, and a mentor, like Randy, willing to extend a few minutes, and change an outlook.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Knock, Knock.

There's a silly list flying around social media comparing teachers' school lives vs. their personal lives.  Things like, "you can eat at a five star restaurant OR scarf down a healthy lunchbox in 12 minutes, with one eye on two tables of fourth graders."

Teaching high school offers fewer opportunities for kids to be shocked when they discover something personal about their teachers.  I'm always amused when I'm with my elementary teacher friends who are seen by a student out in public.  Basically, there are two reactions:

1.  The kids stare, in total disbelief, at this unusual sighting.  (Do they think we actually DO live at the school, and are never in a grocery store or at the mall?  Apparently....,yes)

2.  The kids (elementary) RUN with such force to hug the afore-sighted teacher that they nearly knock her down.

Teaching in a small town, there are some of us who know many kids in another capacity.  Heck, at least two of my students also called me "Mom," which made for interesting classes.  (Both kids claimed I was harder on them than anyone else in the class, which is probably true.)  Others call me by my first name in the neighborhood or at church, and catch themselves halfway through Suzzzzz.....Mrs. Heydt. 

The reality for me is that my persona in the classroom is darned close to the persona that is my life.  Sure, I measure the words I use in the classroom -- (except that one time talking about Holden Caulfield, when I shocked the heck out of a brand new class on the first day.  I still defend the context, okay?) 

When I first started teaching, I needed a quick way to get Gifted kids to stop and listen.  Somewhere along the line I discovered "Knock, Knock."  

Yup, it seems like all the "One, two, three, eyes on me" sorts of phrases resulted in absolutely nothing.  But yell the first line of a joke, and everyone stopped dead in their tracks, echoing back with "Who's there?"

Now here's the difference.  Gifted kids are okay with not knowing the answer, nor do they push beyond that, demanding a joke.  They focus, they respond, and we're back on track.

Until I did it on a school bus, in front of parent chaperones, on a  field trip.  Apparently parents are not as willing to let it go, and move on.

Do I wear my heart on my sleeve?  You bet.  I get emotional.  I let them see me get emotional -- most of the time.  Are there days when I replay the day in the car on the way home, answering the most ridiculous questions out loud with the uncensored response I really wanted to use?  Well, actually, no.  But I have a good friend who uses that technique as his own deescalation technique.

There are a few things that I refrain from saying these days.  Most of them cycle in my head like this:

1.  How can you walk with your pants around your upper thighs?
2. Leggings are not pants.  Yoga pants are for yoga.  You are not currently doing yoga, you're hanging out in a hallway.
3. I wish I could get away with saying, "I don't want to see Bs.  Boobs, Bellies or Backsides."  

Something tells me that would be frowned upon, but it would make for a dresscode that people would remember.  Even if they chose to ignore it.

Saturday, May 16, 2015


I love rain.  More than rain, I love thunderstorms, especially if I am inside and able to breathe the rainy-cool air as the storm rolls in.  While many may view rain as a nuisance, soaking clothing, ruining hairdos, and necessitating the need for carrying an umbrella -- which is, most assuredly, in the exact OPPOSITE place that you need it to be--I celebrate the big giant droplets that seem to fall first like acorns from oak trees, until they suddenly join together in a rhythm that offers a reason to wait.  The steam rises off of the pavement, the leaves glisten with raindrops, and I zone into a trance of celebration for the power of the storm and the rumbling overhead.  It is in these moments that I become circumspect and reflective.


Today was a wonderful day.  Bruce and I had tickets to the TEDxLancaster event, which has given me much to reflect upon during the aforementioned rain.  The speakers varied in both message and ability, one utilizing liquid hydrogen to create her own levitation demonstration, another attempting to make dancers of the entire audience.  The cool thing about a TED event is that if the speaker is awful, or you disagree with the message, it will be over in less than 15 minutes.  Each and every message offered an idea of hope for a better world.

We need more rain.  More time to sit back and listen to the drops and think.  There's probably a metaphor for the proverbial "fill my bucket" with ideas, or Bucket Lists that need to be written, in a day like today.  So for now, I'll think about a wonderful day, holding hands with my husband, and listening to big ideas of people who cared enough to share their passions with Lancaster.  Within a few weeks, they'll be immortalized on the TED site, and maybe, just maybe, one or two of them will change the world.

One idea at a time.


Friday, May 15, 2015

The Final(s) Countdown

It's Friday.  (AHHHHHH!) This time of year, the weekends come both too fast and not fast enough. That may seem like an odd description, but anyone who has ever taught high school in mid-May will understand. The days seem to drag on, with the clock moving so slowly that it sometimes feels as if there's been a power failure.  And then, suddenly, it's Friday, and the countdown to summer vacation appears on the whiteboard, surreptitiously scrawled by some student who has taken the responsibility to change the official countdown.

13 1/2 days left for students.
How is that even possible?  It seems like just a few weeks ago we were checking morning television for snow delays.  

This week has been more down time than productivity, in terms of direct instruction.  Two full days at National History Day for me meant independent assignments and substitutes in my classroom.  Additional absenteeism due to AP testing and Keystone testing, leaving such a small smattering of students that attempting productive instruction, or even discussions, seemed less than reasonable in terms of success.

This time next weekend we'll be hanging flags and thinking about parades.  And I'll be grading 27 rough drafts of research papers in three days to make sure that there is time to do final drafts before final exams.   The annual awards presentation is this Sunday night, when the first of the scholarships will be awarded to the seniors.  The countdown has begun, and it appears there is no stopping it now.

So seniors, and parents of seniors, breathe deep, and know that commencement sounds like a word that means ENDING, yet is actually exactly the opposite.  They're ready to fly.  Just open your fingers.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Fishy, Fishy...

If your first response to this posting is, "Hey, Susan.  Goldfish pictures again?"  then I guess I can chalk you up to being one of my friends who is considered to be superior (or, perhaps, distinguished) in your ability to pay attention to detail.    
It certainly seems that a lot of attention is given to the lowly goldfish, and most of it is, quite frankly, pretty uncelebrated.  Heck, as far as I know, PETA has never taken up the cause of the poor species that repeatedly gets bonked on the head by ping pong balls at carnivals and school fairs all over the country.  They're cheap, their easy, and often are purchased to feed to something prettier or flashier in a tank.  (And let's not even talk about what they did in the frat houses -- GULP!)

Nine Seconds.

Today's revelation that the attention span of the average goldfish is nine seconds is not the surprising part.  Really, go ahead and concentrate on something, for nine full seconds.  Look into the eyes of someone, stare at your own hand, whatever.  Feel the length of nine seconds.

And then read the study that suggests that the average human's attention span has dropped from twelve seconds (in the year 2000), to eight.  Yes, EIGHT seconds.  It's interesting to note that humans writing about this phenomenon include the folks at Newser, with a subtag line that claims "read less, know more."

Arguments from various online sources indicate that we humans are better at multi-tasking these days, (which is contradicted by the folks at PBS contradict in their "Dangers of the Internet" Frontline special).  But Newser also reports that more Americans are working on the weekends to complete their work not finished during the week, allegedly because of their inability to concentrate at work due to distractions, including social media.

So what does all of this have to do with education?

The formula for educators used to be that chunks of information should be delivered to students in a formula that roughly correlated to one minute per year of life.  So first graders required no more than six minutes of instruction before requiring some sort of alternative task -- either a response, or a movement of some sort -- and the average senior's focus time was roughly 18 minutes.

And now we are told that nine seconds is potentially too long.

Arsenio Hall used to call these sorts of reports "Things that make you go hmmmmm."  Honestly, I am actually having to HUM, extensively, to rationalize this.

Good thing, though, that I'll apparently lose interest in roughly eight secon...............