Teaching ELA as a Survey Course

Each year, I hear, “I hate English class, but I love your teaching.” So, it’s time to shake things up a bit.

This is my MacBook Air Cover.

I love this MacBook Air Cover, but this morning it has taken on a new meaning. As I contemplate how to revise my courses to be more relevant to the students, this little cover provides ideas for lessons that appeal to the left brain and the right brain.

As we all know, learning needs to be fun. When teaching discrete subjects, we run the risk of losing students’ interest if they are not “English” people. I have written about ditching discrete subjects in the past, but that was in the context of creating my own school. Now, I am thinking of ditching discrete subjects in my classroom, to bring the core subjects into the classroom somehow as anchor texts for teaching ELA skills. Perhaps that will put the fun back into the course, at least for a little while.

Before I share some ideas, though, I should probably give you a little context.

Just the other day, a student said, “I hate English,” and because I was in their hearing, they said, “But, Ms. Mac, I love your teaching. This is becoming my favorite class.”

Well, that’s nice, but how do we get to “I love English class, and it’s because of your teaching.” Or, even better, “I love English class because of the stuff I’m learning”?

I love my students’ honesty for two reasons: it helps us establish a rapport based on trust, and I learn so much about them that is factual and gives me information I need to revise my curriculum.

That said, I asked the student, “What is your favorite class?” The answer: Math. Other students answered a mix of Science and Math, along with Gym and, of course, Lunch. (We have “Lunch” on our schedule, so they joke about it being a class.)

Knowing that my students lean toward the left brain — calculations, logic, analysis, etc. — helps me more than they realize. How can I combine those principles with ELA skills? That is going to be my mission.


I am not a left-brain person, but I love algebra, which is what most of the sophomores are learning. I had to learn algebra again to successfully pass my certification exam, and teaching myself seemed to work better than learning it in school. I also love spreadsheets, having had to learn to use Microsoft Excel to an intermediate-advanced level in my previous career. Finally, I love statistics and analyzing data. Once I got the hang of stats in an introductory college class, I dove right in and enjoyed every minute. I’m not sure what that says about me. When forced to learn mathematics, I let go of those inhibitions I had before and find a whole new world, I guess. Perhaps you, dear reader, will have some ideas as to why what I say is true.

What could I do with this? A research project, of course!

Controversies in [Insert Your Favorite Discipline Here]

  1. Students search the library databases available for controversies in their favorite discipline. For example, students look for controversies in mathematics or science. Not only do they learn about the controversies in their discipline, but they learn how to find credible sources.
  2. Students also learn to conduct research and take good notes on their sources as they study the controversies in their discipline.
  3. Finally, students learn how to write a paper using MLA or APA style, which is something they will need to know how to do when they go onto post-secondary education. (Unless they are going into engineering, apparently. My son had to learn a framework that is completely different, and that was frustrating. Perhaps I will survey the kids to ask who is going into engineering… 💭)

Conducting Quantitative or Qualitative Research

Students learn:

  • The difference between quantitative and qualitative research, and how such research helps leaders to better understand the public.
  • How to create valid surveys, use spreadsheets for aggregating data, and basic statistics to best understand what their results are.
  • How to interact with diverse groups of people by asking many to participate in their survey.
  • How to write a paper in APA style that discusses their findings.

Writing Word Problems

I often wonder if students make the connection between English and math as it relates to word problems. So, why not ask them to write their own?

Students learn how:

  • Textbook and test writers create word problems.
  • To take what they have learned in math and what they learn about the writing process and synthesize it to create word problems.
  • To help each other solve the word problems they have created.

If you have other ideas, I would love to hear them. Please leave a comment. Thank you! Thank you for following Teachers on Fire.


Reclaiming Myself

When I decided not to make teaching the most important aspect of my identity, I felt lost. It’s time to find myself… perhaps for the first time.

Photo by Tomas Robertson on Unsplash

It’s something I should have done a long time ago: find my purpose in life, except I thought I had. I knew, from the time I was very small, that I wanted to be a teacher. Still, I did not become a teacher until much later in life, as life and my terrible lack of confidence intervened with my plans. Somehow, though, teaching became part of my job description with each job I took during and after college.

When I became a mother, I thought I had found my way, because being a parent is full of purpose, love, and commitment. That little boy is now a grown man, of whom I could not be prouder. He’s starting his own life, charting his own course, and making a difference in the lives of those who know him. Whenever I write about my life’s progress, I want the world (or the few who read this) to know that my son is the brightest part of my life, and in the darkest moments, his light shines my way toward the light again. I also want him to know that when I write about the darkness, he’s always outside the perimeter, apart from whatever has been plunged into that darkness.

I know, I digress. Forgive me, it had to be done.

When I finally became a teacher in K-12, I celebrated. Finally! It felt legitimate like I did not have to fight to be recognized as an educator anymore. I was one. I am one.

Being a K-12 educator has been, in a word, difficult. I started my career in a residential facility for adjudicated youth. Every day, I left with a broken heart for those kids. Then, I moved to alternative education. Every day, I left saying a prayer for those kids. Finally, I started working at the high school I had dreamed of since I was a student teacher there almost 10 years before. Covid hit and everyone’s life turned upside down like we were living in the land of opposites. My personal life also dissolved into the darkness, with that one exception I mentioned before—my relationship with my son. I’m still recovering from it all.

This year is supposed to be my first year really teaching. This is the year I can put my heart and soul into my practice, improve, reiterate, evaluate, and plan for future improvements. This is the year I can shine, if only in my own mind.

Instead, it feels like the darkness is swallowing me again because I don’t know if I know myself— if this is what I am supposed to be doing. Something feels off this year. I’m not as committed as I used to be. I’m not as obsessed as I used to be. I dare say I’m not as nice as I used to be either.

Is that necessarily a bad thing, though? Instead of losing control of the classroom, I’m firm. I do not raise my voice. I simply tell the kids “No,” and that their behavior is unacceptable, so I won’t put up with it. I’ve changed seats. I’ve moved a large class into the library, so students who want to try their hand at creative writing can, while I try to corral those who don’t away from them. I haven’t smiled when I should frown; I’ve frowned.

I hate every single minute of it.

My behavior doesn’t feel like my behavior. I consider myself, in some ways, a fraud. I keep wondering when I will throw in the towel and return to the way I was, the one who doesn’t nag but tries to redirect gently. The one who tries to smile most of the time. The one who …

The one who wasn’t as effective as she could have been. Admit it, Heather.

When I was a child, my friend Paula and I used to play school in my basement. She and I emulated our teachers, and she was decidedly a LOT meaner than I was because she went to Catholic school (sorry, Paula). Back then, the nuns did not care if you liked them or not, and that was who she was mimicking. Meanwhile, I pretended to be like my gentler teachers, of whom there were a few, and those were men. The male teachers in my elementary school were kind and considerate. The female teachers seemed to think they needed to be overly strict to be effective. I never understood that.

Until this year, I’ve tried to be a kind, considerate, and friendly teacher. What happened? I did not have control over my classroom, except when the students agreed I should have control. I decided to do things differently this year, so I could get my classroom back. I wanted to not feel nauseated every day, worried that today was the day things would devolve into chaos. I wanted more respect. This was supposed to be my year.

What I want is cooperation, freely given, because we have been raised and encouraged to be cooperative. I’d like to have a classroom from thirty-five years ago, truth be told. Back then, teachers and parents worked better together in many cases (sorry, parents, but it’s true in many cases). I can remember teachers being unafraid to criticize because parents had their back.

Back then, teachers did not call addressing poor behavior “redirecting.” No, they called it “yelling,” and “disciplining.” Redirecting. I can see Mr. Williams, my sixth-grade teacher, now, holding his belly and laughing if I mentioned that idea to him.

“Redirection? What the hell is that? Nah, I’d redirect you right to the principal’s office. Watch how easy it is: GO!” Considering his height and baritone, almost no one thought twice about not cooperating with him. I miss Mr. Williams.

And yet, to me, he was kind, considerate, and just all-around wonderful. Cooperation, respect, and genuine friendliness, once extended, are often returned. That’s what I have tried to extend to my students. For the most part, it’s been returned, but then there are those who continue to challenge me.

This year, I find myself not caring as much about those students as I have in the past. It kills me, but I’ve called them out more than I would have before, proclaimed their behavior is unacceptable, and it must stop this instant. I’ve been able to shrug off little comments and snickers. Managing my classroom has become, in many respects, more important than my students’ comfort and enjoyment.

I hate every single minute of it.

That is why I recently figured out that my identity is no longer wrapped up in being a teacher. I am lost in this purgatory between who I was and who I want to be since I don’t know who that future “who” is.

This de-linking has been coming for a long time, since I was told someone thought one thing enveloped my entire identity: being a teacher. It was so boring to the rest of the world, I was told, to listen to someone drone on about education. It was sad for others to know that I had nothing else in my life that interested me as much or more than teaching. (That wasn’t true, either.)

After almost two years, I am questioning this identity. For a long time, I have been what others think I am capable of, and worry incessantly that people will find out what an idiot I am, how incompetent I am, and that I’m going to throw in the towel and go back to being a low-achieving chump. When faced with a challenge—such as a chance to show my teaching skills without COVID-19 hanging over us—I want to crawl under the desk, curl into a ball, and wait for it to be over.

Is it that I need to de-link from this identity and find something else? Or is it that I need to “screw [my] courage to the sticking place” (so says Lady Macbeth) and stop doubting myself?

There is one thing I can do, right now, that I think I’ve been trying to do: stop trying to please every student every day. There are so many reasons why a student might be recalcitrant or sarcastic, and I care deeply about the person, but still must address what could turn the classroom into a toxic environment. I must assume authority, not share it. I’ve been trying to do that.

I hate every single minute of it.

I’m struggling with this notion that someone else has dictated to me who I am. If I could, I would tell this person they have no idea who I am. For one thing, they never asked. I guess I was not interesting enough, what with being obsessed with being an educator and all. It would have been too much trouble, I guess, to risk yet another dull and boring conversation.

I hated every single minute of typing that.

One post cannot transform one’s life. However, writing this has been cathartic. Thank you for reading. If I can help one other person by writing these posts, it’s so worth every letter.


Dear School Boards: It’s Time To Treat Paraprofessionals as Professionals, Please.

Teachers consider the paraprofessionals who share their classroom heroes. It’s time school boards did, too.


A paraprofessional could also be a classroom assistant, teacher assistant, instructional aide, paraeducator, or just para. In my district, they are called paraprofessionals. We are down to a precious few of these incredible colleagues, as are many districts. The staff shortage in the education space is real, and extreme.

There are several reasons why there is a staff shortage, but the one easily fixed is how people are treated. All it takes is leadership to acknowledge there is a problem and change their approach.

Unfortunately, there are school leaders who do not treat their employees as professionals, including paraprofessionals. It’s right there in the name, but still unacknowledged.

Instead, leaders complain about how expensive paraprofessionals are, or insist they aren’t needed. When teachers explain why paraprofessionals are desperately needed, those explanations fall on deaf ears. That should not surprise me, and it really doesn’t, either.

In a system in which teachers are not treated as professionals, how can one expect paraprofessionals to be? Well, I do, and I want the school boards’ opinions of all educators to change.

I am officially holding school boards to account for the damage they have done to public education by being petty, power hungry, and woefully (and willfully) ignorant. Those boards that qualify will see themselves in that statement. To everyone else, I’m sorry.

Paraprofessionals Help Build Inclusive Classrooms

Educators strive to provide the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) for their students. We build inclusive classrooms, differentiate instruction to reach all learners, and create a welcoming learning environment for all. Paraprofessionals play a critical role here. They can address the needs of students who need extra help with concepts and skills. They can reinforce learning through small-group activities.

In our district, our paraprofessionals are excellent. They are experienced and execute their craft brilliantly. They do not need direction from us; instead, they use their experience and skills to engage those students who need help and encourage them to construct knowledge with support. As our classroom sizes grow, the need for such supportive colleagues will grow in kind.

Paraprofessionals Help Teachers Manage the Classroom

In our small district, our paraprofessionals have known families for years. “I helped his brother,” or “I helped his sister,” or even “I helped his mother and father,” are typical things one might hear from them. Their familiarity with the students and their families creates immediate bonds with them.

We are fortunate in this regard, but all school districts can benefit from having classrooms staffed by more than a teacher, at least some of the time. Teachers have so many things to coordinate during a lesson, it’s helpful to have someone there to help, to redirect, to indicate that instruction is not going as planned.

Paraprofessionals Provide Critical Feedback to Teachers

When I had the privilege of having a paraprofessional in the classroom with me, Ms. Shanfelt was able to provide feedback about students and instruction I consider invaluable. I am sure other teachers have experienced that. As we become more comfortable accepting constructive criticism, we welcome the offerings of critical friends.

Their Value Is Beyond What Is Commonly Thought

I urge leadership to visit classrooms in which paraprofessionals collaborate with teachers and students, so they can understand the value these colleagues bring to the classroom. I urge leadership to actually lead for once, instead of worrying about petty, petulant, irrelevant things that dominate board meetings. I implore them to put the needs of students first, and allow us to best educate the children. The kids need us, all of us. Stop hindering us from doing what we believe we have been called to do.

Related Reads

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A Follow Up to “How to Care for Students Differently”

The first week is in the books. So far, so good.

Created Using Canva

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“I can tell already that you are going to make the class very interesting this year,” I said to a student who already shows signs of what I call “slow walking” through assignments. This student is also gearing up to be the class jester. For example, for the first two days, he kept trying to tell me his first name was something other than it is. Finally, I showed him the seating chart with his picture and name and told him he needs to stop doing that. I was calm, cool, and authoritative. He stopped.

Yesterday (Friday), he told me he attended a school in an urban setting before coming here. Now I know he is new to the district. In my district, most of the kids have known each other since kindergarten. The new kids feel they have to make a name for themselves, so this is one red flag I can’t ignore. I thought, “You aren’t making a name for yourself with me.”

I told him I knew the school because I was a substitute there. He said it was amazing. I told him I worked there for a week and refused to go back.

“See, it’s amazing,” he said. Nice.

Rather than let it get to me, and rather than thinking I need to do something to get this kid to like me, I told myself to “put a pin in it” and see what develops. I didn’t tell him I’m probably the nicest teacher he will ever know. I did not try to justify my behavior. Instead, I moved on.

In an interesting plot twist, I had reconnected with a student from both a residential facility and an alternative school just the night before. When I first met him at the residential facility, he was mean. I mean mean. He walked into my classroom, glared at me, told me his name, and said, “Now I’m going to sleep. Don’t bother me.”

He actually had told me his middle name, so I was really confused at first, but I went to the supervisor instead of asking any questions. After all, he said not to bother him.

Less than a week later, he ran away. No, it wasn’t because of me.

That September, I changed schools and was now working at an alternative school. Students lived in either their family’s home or a group home. As I looked at the roster, I saw his name.

“Oh man,” I said aloud. My educational therapist (who had also come from the residential facility) asked me what was up. I told him.

“Well, I’m here now, so you have nothing to worry about.”

When the student arrived, he acknowledged knowing me and the educational therapist (ET) and promptly put his head down. “Oh man,” I thought. My ET just smiled at me and gave me a thumbs up, which led me to wonder how he could be so calm. At that moment, I wanted to be him when I grew up.

By the end of the school year, this student gave me a hug every morning and told me he loved me like a son loves his mother. He also joked with me and told me that he knew he was my favorite son, instead of my actual son. (Note to my son: You’ll always be number one in my life. You knew that though, but I thought I would say it for the record.) 😃

How did that happen? I showed compassion, caring, and respect. He eventually figured out I was “for real” and what happened after was terrific for us both.

A colleague of mine had posted a picture of the two of them on Facebook a few days before. I responded, “Oh, how I miss him!” She told me I should friend him on Facebook, so I did. He accepted my request, and I was over the moon!

The next day, I saw his message on Facebook Messenger: “MRS. HEATHER I MISS U.” That started a conversation. He has a child now who is adorable with a woman I also taught at the residential facility. They both look terrific. Their lives have stabilized.

What I want to say to the young man who is already on a mission to make life difficult for me and his classmates is: “If you think you are the first angry young person to challenge me, you are wrong.” I want to tell him about teaching in alternative education environments, about the desks flipped in my direction, about the time someone tried to jump out of our second-floor window, and the time I was thoroughly cursed out. I want to tell him about the time I had to do an upper bicep assist on a girl because she was about to beat another girl up. So many memories…

Instead, I’m going to keep my friend in mind. I’m going to hope this young man grows up to be a man who can look back, acknowledge mistakes, but say, “I’m good now.” I will do what I can to help him get there. I will care for him differently.

Thank you for reading this post and following Teachers on Fire.

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That Wasn’t Professional Development. That Wasn’t Even Training.

Schools are trying to establish a “new normal.” Let’s start with redefining professional development.

Photo by Jason Goodman on Unsplash

Send an email to teachers telling them there will be a professional development (PD) session, and listen for the collective groan from each classroom. PD is notoriously terrible. If we are to establish a new normal, however, we all need these sessions, but we need them to be productive, engaging, and informative. You know, like how we are supposed to teach our students. Here are some recommendations.

Get Out of the Auditorium and into Conference Rooms or Classrooms

The first rule of training and PD, part A: The participants should be doing most of the work. Therefore a lecture-hall environment is not conducive to adult learning.

Recommendation: Move PD to a classroom or conference room. Add activities that get participants moving and thinking, and watch the participants come to life. Some M&Ms don’t hurt, either.

Tell the Whole Story

The first rule of training and PD, part B: Adult learners need to know explicitly why they are doing something and understand how to apply training or PD to their lives right away. Successful PD sessions tell the whole story, namely what the participants will do at each stage of the session, how they will accomplish their tasks, why these tasks are necessary, and when they can apply the skills and knowledge to their context. You know, like how we are supposed to teach.

Use a Sandbox or Training Environment

The second rule of training and PD: If you are training a software process, always have a sandbox or training environment available, so you aren’t working with real student records. Every participant should have access to the environment, and every PD leader should have practiced several times in the participant’s role as they develop the training. Additionally, there should be several scenarios in place for the training activities.

Engage a Subject-Matter Expert Before the PD/Training

The third rule of training and PD: You can’t lead a session if you really don’t know what you’re talking about. Collaborate with a subject-matter expert (SME) before the training. Let the SME take some time with the lessons planned and provide feedback. Start over if you have to. Just make sure you are thoroughly prepared to assume the role of your participants and successfully complete the process(es).

There is nothing worse, in my opinion than training in the wrong view. For example, trying to teach discipline log entries to teachers while in the administrator’s view is embarrassing and ineffective.

This Does Not Work

Successful PD does not look like this:

  • Everyone gathers in the auditorium.
  • The leader starts the PD by announcing the topic.
  • Pronouncements are handed down. For example, the leader might say, “We have a problem with discipline, so this year we are going to use the SIS to log write-ups and we are going to use a form students will fill out when they need to leave the class and when they sign back in. Did everyone have a chance to practice the form? I sent a link in an email. Oh, and we need you to do a better job with attendance, so we’ll reinforce the rule about taking attendance the first five minutes of class.” Believe me, you’ll hear crickets. New teachers will look to their mentors quizzically.
  • Then, the leader goes on to give a little more information but doesn’t tell the whole story. Sure, we have a problem with discipline. Kids are cutting classes, so we need to do a better job with period attendance, we are told. That’s great, but where is the training? The same for writing up students and using the sign-out/sign-in form.
  • Finally, the leader asks if there are questions. Guess what? One or two people will actually ask questions. Everyone else has checked out. They want to get back to their classrooms, or they want to go to a knowledgeable colleague to figure out what the leader is talking about. “What the *(& is a log entry?” is the question of the day, followed by, “Did you get the email with the link to the form?” and “How are we going to take attendance and write a kid up for cutting class when we can’t see if the kid has been present all day until our class without clicking five times to get to the right page?”
  • Shortly after the call for questions, everyone files out. What a waste of time.

This Works Better

Successful PD looks like this:

  1. An email goes out inviting staff to a PD session on student discipline and telling the staff where each group will meet and asking them to bring their laptops, paper, and a writing instrument.

An agenda is attached to the email listing each topic

  • Attendance procedures
  • Discipline log entries
  • Sign-in / Sign-out form: form link

2. The groups gather in their respective locations. Each leader is prepared with a slide show used to guide the session (not to lecture), handouts, activity sheets, and a whiteboard for parking questions or writing notes. Each leader has a list of logins and passwords for each participant for the training environment; these are distributed to the participants along with the handouts and activity sheets.

3. The session begins with the first item on the agenda. After a brief introduction to the content, the leader asks the group, “Why are we doing this now? What do you think the purpose is?” Responses are recorded on the whiteboard.

4. Next, the group works on how to implement the new process. Telling the whole story here is important. The “I do it, we do it, you do it” model of training still works and I recommend it when doing activities. The leader demonstrates the process from start to finish. Then, a role-play might help the participants figure out how to implement the process. Finally, each person tries on their own.


  1. The leader asks the participants to imagine themselves as students during the first five minutes of class and that they are the teacher. As the students settle and start their bell-ringer, the leader shows the attendance procedure and how to determine if the student is cutting class or legitimately absent.
  2. The leader then asks the participants to take attendance along with them.
  3. Finally, the leader asks the participants to take attendance on their own.
  4. Next, the leader previews what is coming up by announcing how the first topic connects to the second. For example, “After I take questions, we are going to work on log entries, so you can practice writing up the student who cut class.”

5. The leader overcomes objections, just like a salesperson during a sales call. If there are no objections, the leader has a little inner party, then asks for questions. Finally, the leader asks if anyone needs to see the process again. The leader also tells the participants that the handout they have should help them remember the process until it has stuck.

6. Rinse and repeat steps 3–5 until all the topics are covered.

7. Put the processes together. Build a scenario that demonstrates changes to the student discipline procedure. Better yet, ask the participants to imagine a scenario that includes all aspects of the new discipline procedure.

When adult learners are engaged in hands-on activities, they can figure out how to implement a new process within their context. When they know the whole story and why the new process is important, they buy into the idea. The hardest part of this type of PD is the preparation, but success or failure depends on being well-prepared.

Thank you for reading this post and for following Teachers on Fire.


How to Care for Students Differently

What worked for me before is not going to work this year. Here are two ways I will show I care differently.

Photo by Lala Azizli on Unsplash

This post is a message to everyone who reads it, even the one who wrote it.

In the past, I thought of myself as “Professor Fluffy.” (I am not a professor, but have always wanted to be one.) It was a self-imposed nickname, ostensibly to remind myself to be compassionate. Kids knew I wasn’t exactly strict, and they used that to obtain certain privileges that, I think, may have hurt their learning progress.

In the posts about my dream school, I write about being “life ready.” Reflecting on that now, it is unclear how continuing to be Professor Fluffy is helping students become “life ready.” Could I have been telling them they can get away with misbehavior by targeting the right person?

Perhaps. Perhaps I’m not ready to admit that. Let’s move on.

Let’s Put a Pin in That

Ed (a former boss) used to say, “Let’s put a pin in that,” whenever staff meetings became heated or went off the rails. He stopped the unwanted behavior of fully-grown adults and took back the meeting. It worked every time.

On a walk yesterday, I visualized dealing with the student who calls out, or heaven forbid, speaks rudely to me. How did I respond?

“Hmmm… let’s put a pin in that. Please see me after class. For now, I need you to focus on what we are doing. Can you do that?”

  • “No”: The student goes to the office.
  • “Yes”: We try again.

After class, as promised, we have a discussion. I explain how the behavior was unacceptable. If I let the student get away with it, then everyone else will either be a) jealous, b) the next to give it a try, or c) both. I tell the student that I am writing up an “observation.” Then, I give the student a warning: if it happens again, I’m calling the parents and writing you up officially.

I know what you might be thinking: That’s standard practice. Why didn’t you do that before?

Exactly. I didn’t, and I must.

My friend and colleague, Maria, told me last year: “From the first day, you must enforce the rule of respect. As soon as someone attempts to disrespect you in any way, you must keep them after class and explain to them that their behavior is unacceptable and will have consequences.” In other words, “Woman, grow up.”

It’s a keen observation. If I ask myself why I let students be disrespectful, I have to admit I am afraid they won’t like me, and then act out even more. In a desperate attempt to build rapport with each child, I often refuse to admit that some kids need a teacher who can enforce the rules, to help them become “life ready.”

I must also admit that I hate paperwork.

Then Everyone Can Stand

Last year, I had a few students who could not sit still. As they were juniors and seniors, it was especially annoying. I would try to redirect them. I would ask them to have a seat. That would last about a minute.

This year, rather than letting them distract other students (as that is always what happens), I am thinking of trying a different approach by shifting instruction to standing mode.

One of the reasons software developers have the standing scrum at the beginning of the day is to make the meeting shorter. People focus more on the tasks at hand when they are standing. Additionally, after working with software developers for years, I have found they are easily distracted if they are sitting, especially if they have a phone or computer in front of them. That said, during a scrum, the focus becomes the whiteboard, where development is discussed in some form or fashion, depending on the mode of development they use at that company. For us, it was Agile, and the whiteboard was covered in sticky notes related to the latest iteration of the product.

I’m thinking of either buying small whiteboards and markers for everyone, or a set of clipboards and pens on which they can write down ideas for group work, like a mini-scrum. Everyone can stand up, form groups around the room, and work on story elements, for example. This will help students who cannot sit still socialize with their classmates in a productive way. Hopefully, they will become more engaged and not feel I am upset with them. Rather, I’m trying to help them progress with their learning.

By the way, I just bought the clipboards.

There could be many reasons why students cannot sit still. Perhaps they have problems paying attention, or they had an argument with a family member or friend, or they are agitated for another reason. While I have always cared and tried to find the root cause, I cannot let them continue to isolate themselves and perseverate on the problem any longer. I have to show them a way to become “life ready,” which involves putting aside an issue for a time. Perhaps they will feel some relief. We caring adults can help the student with whatever the issue is once class is over.

Two Ways to Help Students on Their Way to “Life-Readiness”

I’ll start with these two classroom management techniques and see what happens. If you have other suggestions, please leave a comment on this post.

Thank you for reading this post.


Humanities I: “Why Do Writers Write?”

A Course for Exploring This Essential Question

Photo by Thom Milkovic on Unsplash


Course Description

Ask students the important essential question: “Why do writers write?” You will hear they write to inform, explain, persuade, or entertain. This course explores the many reasons writers write that expand on that correct answer.

In this course, students will make connections between cultural context, personal history, and the urge to create. By surveying several historical periods and the writers who lived then, students will deduce patterns (and exceptions to those patterns) in the writer’s journey toward being a contributor to, and commentator on, the culture in which they lived.

The journey begins in the present and proceeds backward to help students build on what they know to learn something new. Texts include poetry, drama, fiction, and nonfiction. All text explorations are supported with historical texts, including video, audio, journalism, essays, and nonfiction.

Most importantly, it is through this coursework that students begin to understand their reactions to their environment, and how their environment influences their drive, determination, and contribution to society. This understanding is just one step toward becoming “life ready.”

Side Note

Toni Morrison famously said, “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” She also said, “Books are a form of political action. Books are knowledge. Books are reflection. Books change your mind.”

Apparently, there were many books she wanted to read — and she wanted others to read — to better understand human society, because she was a prolific, thought-provoking author.


Here is a sample list of foundational texts we will explore.

It’s likely this list would change year-on-year, depending on the students in the class.

The question we would ask before, during, and after reading the foundational text is: “Why did the writer write this?” This would lead to an exploration of supporting materials, such as expert analysis, journalism, video, history books, and essays.

Before Reading

We set the historical, biographical, and psychological context for the text or text set we are about to explore. What happened that could have influenced the writer? How do we know? What does it mean?

During Reading

While reading, we will revisit the before reading work. Literature teachers select parts of the text and help students make connections to what we learned before we started reading.

After Reading

Discussion groups and essays help students select evidence from the foundational text and supporting materials to create a synthesis essay about the work and how it is a response to the context of the time in which it was written.

Final Project

The student would choose how to present their final project. For example, one student might record a video and another might write a long-form essay. What the teachers are looking for is a thoughtful and thought-provoking response to the essential question, “Why do writers write?”

Thank you for reading this post. It’s an offshoot of the dream school series I started a couple of weeks ago. If you would like to read those articles, please see the reading list at the top of the article.


I Dream of Building Such a School One Day, Part IV

The last part of my “Dream School” series addresses the ideals by which teaching and learning would be organized. If money were no object, imagine what we could do!

Students Around a Harkness Table. Image by Katydailey, retrieved from Wikimedia.org


It’s hard to shake the feeling that I’m being presumptuous with these posts. However, writing them has given me hope that my brain has re-engaged with what I love, namely being an educator. This is a dream school, but perhaps there are things in these posts that can become reality.

If you have landed here and haven’t seen the other posts, I have included the reading list in a link above.

The Last Four Questions

We have addressed student needs throughout this series in various contexts. What I have noticed, as I review the previous posts, is that choice is important. Students would choose to come to the school. Parents would choose to send them. Staff and faculty would choose to practice here, after determining that the mission and values of the school align with their private mission and values. Our transparent commitment to critical thinking, problem solving and innovation, and service would influence their decision-making.

The last five questions concern teaching and learning at this dream school, which would be different from what one would experience in traditional educational settings. These ideas are not new, but what I have brewed in my head through adherence to the mission I created for the school.

Oh, and I see myself doing more “dream school” posts that speak to the topics in this post. If I didn’t create more posts, this one would be too long.

Three Points

  • I have questioned the veracity of teaching and learning in my context. There is much I would like to change about my practice, so I’m trying to work that out in these posts.
  • Problem solving often leads to innovation, so if I can solve my own problems, innovation will surely follow. I’m committed to continuous improvement. These posts have helped me remember that.
  • When I chose to become a teacher, I also chose to be a servant-leader. This is my opportunity to find more ways to demonstrate that.

What is the overarching teaching and learning philosophy that will guide us?

Education experts often talk about preparing students to be “college and career ready.” What about “life ready”? I think most teachers would agree that is way more important. That’s what our school would be about. Students would enter at various stages in their progress toward their best life. It would be our job to determine what that stage is. Then, we can help them progress toward their next goal, and then the next, and the next.

We would strive to have all students experience great success, of course, but what does success look like for each person? What do they want to achieve to be successful?

I am reminded of the movie Dead Poets Society, specifically the scene in which Neil’s father chastises Neil in the hallway for contradicting him in front of the other students. He says something like, “When you are a doctor, you can do whatever you want. Until you are, you do as I say.”

That rankles me. First, Neil’s father has already chosen Neil’s career path. Second, it’s obvious Neil doesn’t want to be a doctor. So, will he experience success or will he be remorseful that he could not pursue creative arts like writing and acting? If you haven’t seen the movie, I will not spoil the ending.

That said, our first priority would be to ensure that each student is “life ready” and can pursue what they decide is their best life. They will be well equipped with the skills they need to pursue any dream they want. How that path will look depends greatly on the person.

How should the curriculum be organized?

One problem with school is that there are so many students to serve, with only a fraction of the number of teachers to serve them. Since money is no object in my dream school, I would ensure the student:teacher ratio is small. That way, groups of students with similar interests could work together on their skills.

Instead of grade levels, I would like to come up with a pathway toward graduation that is more fluid, so that students do not feel rushed to complete their secondary education in a set amount of time. If they want to revisit a course, take on another course, or do some independent study, I think it would be nice to let them do that without worrying about an arbitrary deadline.

I’m also thinking of promoting work study and dual enrollment as much as possible. Co-ops serve college students well, so why not have something similar for older students? Dual-enrollment is popular, so why not plan for that for these students?

In this school, discrete “content areas” would combine so that one skill set supports the other, and vice versa. For example, I learned last year that students sometimes struggle in biology class because they do not have strong algebra skills. We could have a class in which science and math teachers work together to build a mutually-supportive curriculum. They could co-teach the class. We could do the same with the other math and science courses.

Doesn’t that sound like fun? Invigorating? Challenging, but in a good way?

We could also have a course that combines traditional social studies or history instruction with world languages, literature, writing, psychology, and philosophy. Again, there would be two or more teachers for these courses. Those teachers would also build a mutually-supportive curriculum for those courses.

Doesn’t that sound like fun? Invigorating? Challenging, but in a good way?

Physical education would also be important. I would probably have one hour for PE each day, except for Friday.

To tie all the strings together — and this is just pie-in-the-sky thinking — Fridays could be seminar days, during which teachers meet with all students to discuss a broad topic that helps students make connections between what they are learning in all their classes.

Finally, each student should have time for independent study or student-led study groups. During that time, students could reflect on what they studied that day and apply it to their plan to build their best life. Educators would be on hand to guide them and provide constructive and encouraging feedback.

What would the schedule look like?

It’s safe to say that “core” classes should be at least 1.5 hours each (including a five-minute passing time), four days a week. A 1.5 hour block for independent study/study groups would be ideal. On Fridays, we would hold seminars in the morning, break for lunch, and then have time in the afternoon for independent study/study groups and extracurricular activities or sports.

Dorm life would be full of vibrant activity that is not only interesting, but educational. Extracurricular activities would be important. This would be the time when clubs and sports could thrive.

A sample schedule created by me using Google Sheets (Note: breakfast, dinner, and other routines are not included)

How would we explain our curriculum and learning targets to colleges and other post-secondary organizations?

It is unlikely colleges and post-secondary organizations have not seen transcripts like this before. None of this is new. I’m sure that if we share our course descriptions, curricula, and full transcripts with post-secondary organizations, we can respond to any questions they might have.

What else would you like me to dream about? This has been the most fun I’ve had in years.

Thank you for reading this and the other posts. I am grateful.

As a bonus, here is a quick mock-up of what the campus would look like. Yes, there are things missing, of course. This was created by me using Miro.

I Dream of Building Such a School One Day, Part III

In this article, I explore questions related to the educators and staff of this dream school. If money were no object, how would a school be staffed?

Photo by charlesdeluvio on Unsplash

The last post focused on the practical needs of the students and the mission statement. I attempted to create an environment in which students are at the center. Our mission is to support students as they learn to think critically, to problem solve and innovate, and to live a life of service.

Here is a link to the reading list. I believe it will update as I publish.


The best way to support that development — which, in my opinion, leads to a full and fulfilling life — is to recruit educators who also value these ideals.

But wait! There’s more. 😀

The educators who would enjoy working at the school would be those who are disruptors of “traditional” education. They yearn to educate in a different way, to explore cross-curricular connections, and to co-teach with others outside their “content area.” They strive to blur the lines between discrete subjects and find the touch-points where “subjects” intersect.

Additionally, educators would have no problem being highly involved in student life. For example, we would need dorm parents. From what I have read, that sounds fascinating and fun, if a bit overwhelming at times.

Who would make the perfect head master? Who would do well in our administration?

I already have the perfect head master in mind, but that is between his wife and me. Please do not read into that a preference for a particular gender. I just happen to know the person I think would be perfect for the job.

That said, the head master would be, above all, student-centered. The HM’s first priority would be the well-being of the students, and he or she would embrace the education of the whole child.

Of course, HMs need to be well-versed in all the other practical matters related to running a school, but more importantly, they must be willing to learn. They must be collaborative with other faculty and staff, as well as peers among those who run schools.

Finally, HMs need to know how to choose the perfect staff to support the HM role, including assistants, administrative assistants (you know they run the school, right?), and disciplinarians. Yes, I intentionally used the term “disciplinarian.” I think it’s unfortunate that the term has fallen into disrepute, even if I understand why. There is no need for a disciplinarian to be unduly harsh with students. Instead, they should be a role model for exemplary behavior and help students learn how to treat others fairly, with respect and dignity. That’s for another post.

Who would make the perfect educational professional?

There are so many professionals we need. Teachers, paraprofessionals (how I wish I could be a para… if only the benefits were there…), counselors, psychologists, and the like.

These educators would be happiest if they believed in disrupting education as we know it, and if they were dedicated to serving the “whole child.”

Who would make the perfect school medical professional?

In our school, there would definitely be more than one. Since money is no object, we could hire an M.D. and several nurses who specialize in youth-oriented medicine. I would also argue that psychologists should be part of the medical staff.

The medical professionals should be involved in several ways with the students, faculty, and staff. For example, they could help teachers with certain lessons. Could you imagine the school psychologist coming to literature class to discuss a novel through a psychological lens? Why not? I can also see doctors and nurses having a lot of fun helping kids learn anatomy and physiology.

Who would make the perfect nutrition specialist and all the other wrap around services a school needs?

We would need a nutrition specialist and staff that could develop meals for teenagers that support their growth and development, preferably from local sources.

We would also need custodial staff that could attend to all the needs of the grounds and buildings. They should also support any students who express interest in any aspect of the buildings, from gardening to engineering.

After all, we are all educators.

One more post…

In the next post, I will address these questions.

  1. What is the overarching teaching and learning philosophy that will guide all of us?
  2. How should the curriculum be organized? What is the purpose of the curriculum?
  3. What would the schedule look like?
  4. How would we explain our curriculum and learning targets to colleges and other post-secondary organizations?

I hope you’ll join me for the next post! Thank you for reading.