NaNoWriMo Is Coming and This Year I Will Write My Heart Out Because My Message Matters

From and created by Tyrell Waiters

I participated in this awesome contest for many years before taking a break, but I believe this year, with all the confusion and disorientation many of us are experiencing, it is critical we do what we love. For more information, please visit

It was a late September morning, the day after the demons blasted a hole through the wall of the high school to get their latest fix, that Paul — a demon himself — found his best friend Aidan lying in his California King bed with his feet still dangling and a white sheet covering him from head to toe. Paul stood in the doorway, hands on his hips, smiling. The smile faded as his brows furrowed, and he shook his head in disapproval.

“What the hell is this?” Paul asked the sheet. Aidan groaned and told him to go away. Since confrontation was part of Paul’s nature and he found it useful, so he didn’t fight it, he dismissed his friend’s request with a snort. He went over to the bed and sat down. Then, he bounced on it. Aidan growled, which made Paul laugh. It was a derisive cackle, really.

“Would you please go away?” Aidan said in his deepest voice.

“No,” Paul said. “Listen, this is ridiculous. As much fun as it might be to see you in existential agony, your time of self-pity is up. Get up and let’s figure out what to do.”

Aidan pushed the sheet back, allowing his friend to see his ancient, beautiful face streaked with blood tears. His white hair had been stained with blood in places as well. “To do?” he asked.

“Yes! You never give up. In a thousand years, you’ve never given up! Why the hell are you being so stupid now?” Paul was slapping Aidan’s thigh as he spoke. He knew it wouldn’t hurt, but figured it might emit some reaction at least. Aidan did not move.

“They won. There was nothing I could do to stop them. Now, hundreds are gone.”

“And more remain! Besides, they aren’t really gone. Their minds are gone for now. They’ll be back. Yeah, some died from the blast,” Paul said, shrugging his shoulders. “But more survived it. You can help them, and you must.”

Dear Reader, if you ever tell Paul or Aidan they are best friends, they’ll deny it. Trust me, though, they are.

At this moment, Aidan grew furious. He raised his head, growled, and showed his teeth. His pale blue eyes flashed. Paul cackled again. It had been years since that display made any difference to him. Aidan backed off, as usual. He slammed his head down on the pillow.

Aidan cried into the pillow, “What?! How am I supposed to help them?! Do you think I can cast a spell to return their wits to them? We can’t even find most of them! They’ve run off somewhere…”

“So you’ve wasted time laying here under a flag of surrender while the kids are out there? You’re a coward.” Paul said this in a menacing voice that made Aidan sit up. Finally, he thought.

“I am no coward. I dinna know what to do!” Aidan’s Scots accent was prominent now, which always came out when he was in crisis. Paul decided to push because that’s what Paul does.

“You ARE a coward,” Paul declared, emphasizing his opinion with a stab of his finger into Aidan’s chest with each word. “You are acting like a helpless human instead of what you are. Stop it.”

Aidan, Paul, and the other characters to come have been in my head for years. That might sound crazy, but I’m sure you can confirm with any writer at any level that characters do that. I’m not a good writer, but I have the need to tell a story. These characters fit the story I need to tell. It’s their story, but the themes are mine.

My first theme has grown out of our current health and economic crises. If you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. If all you do is complain without having a suggestion for how to make things better, how is that helpful? If you pull the flag of surrender over your head, how is that helpful?

My second theme is that part of growing up is finding your why. You might find it odd that I’m talking about growing up in the context of ancient beings, but we can experience growth at any time in our lives. Stick with me.

  • We can feel small and insignificant, or we can feel integral and necessary. 
  • We can bring our gifts to the situation, or we can keep them to ourselves. 
  • We can risk ridicule and failure while we try to make a difference, or we can avoid feeling less significant than others by doing nothing.

But can we live with ourselves if we do nothing when we know we can do something? That’s why I want to be part of the conversation.

If we teachers support the notion that failure is an opportunity to learn when it comes to our students, can’t we support that for ourselves as well?

In a world where no one believes in demons, as almost no human does in my story, to blame the behavior on demons seems nutty in itself. And so, these poor humans, the ones that Aidan allowed to escape by diving under the sheet, live through years of trying to rebuild their lives and reputations because no one believes the catalyst for their actions was a supernatural creature. 

Outwardly, they look the same. Inwardly, they are a hot mess. Some don’t make it.

In my story, the demons are the beings that siphon the fear out of humans. They live off of fear, encourage it to come forth before sucking it out of you, leaving you unhinged, not happy. Instead of being sufficiently afraid, which we all need to be, these people become bold and brazen and start doing dangerous things they would never have done if they had their wits about them. These humans declare their allegiance to absurd ideas or people. They become sycophants to tyranny and autocracy. Eventually, the levels of fear even out again, but it’s after they have displayed risky behavior for a sustained period, ruining their reputations, relationships, and lives.

Putting the demon aspect aside, think about current events. Messages delivered by important people matter. The messages being sent these days — whether good or bad — have emboldened people to behave in ways they would not have before. My fear is that those who support ideas that hurt others, because these messengers have validated them, are going to regret what they are doing someday and experience intense and crippling remorse. A bigger fear is they won’t.

So, yes, in my opinion, my story matters. It might be convoluted and sound silly. It might not be good writing. It still matters. I’m trying to be a messenger, to send helpful messages that support the solution seekers, not the troublemakers. That’s why I’m going back to NaNoWriMo this year. Writing is part of my why, even if I’m not going to win any awards. I must. I will.

(Yes, NaNoWriMo, I do plan to make sure I write 50,000 words in November, but I had to start writing now.)

Thank you for reading.

Schools Are Not Businesses. Why Do We Treat Them Like They Are?

“We really have a great product,” I have heard superintendents say. “We have several offerings for the students,” others have said. What is this? A car lot? A factory?
assembly line by Marie Van den Broeck from the Noun Project

For all the talk about differentiation, personalized learning, SAMR (a model for integrating tech into the classroom), UDL (Universal Design for Learning), UbD (Understanding by Design), the LDC (Literacy Design Collaborative) and a whole host of other acronyms for education’s alphabet soup, we are still being urged to use standardized testing and pacing in our classrooms. Why are we still using the assembly line approach?

My First Guess: It’s Easier

It’s easier to use the one-size-fits-all approach, just like it’s easier and possibly more cost effective to push out nightgowns that are one-size-fits-all. No need to re-tool that sewing machine assembly line for different sizes, right?

It’s possibly construed to be more equitable, too, since everyone is tested on the same anchors and eligible content. But have people of all sizes photograph themselves in the nightgown and send the photos to you. Do you really see the same fit for people of all sizes? Or is it only that the fabric covers their bodies, that there is enough coverage?

Coverage and Pacing

We talk about coverage in education as well. “Here’s a textbook,” you are told. Get through Chapters 1-10 and you have covered all you’re expected to cover during a certain time period. Groan… be still my student-centered heart.

That coverage is king is exactly why many of us do not use textbooks. A second reason is that most printed textbooks are not worth the paper they are printed on after they roll off the presses (another assembly line). A third reason: Textbooks are the epitome of “one-size-fits-all” thinking.

Digital versions are better, to a degree. At least authors can update the books with new information, which flows freely thanks to technology. Still, they are standardized, no matter what teaching tips they include. Why? Well, the authors can’t possibly predict what group of kids you will have in front of you!

Pacing is the other problem. I was a long-term substitute in a school that used a reading program I will not name. The idea was that there were levels to the program that did not necessarily correspond to a student’s grade level. Students were placed into a reading class after the diagnostic results came through. That sounded promising.

Once they were in their “appropriate” reading class, however, they “learned” at the same pace as everyone else in their class. The truth is that some kids were still left behind. They did not learn at the same pace as their classmates. They were afraid to ask questions.

Teachers were afraid to take questions, too, because they had to be literally on the same page as their colleagues each day. The curriculum was scripted, too. Yes, you received a script with your curriculum. You were told what to write on the board. You were told what to say. You were told when to pull a Popsicle stick from your apron and call on a student. Yes, you were given an apron to store all your props.

Needless to say, being a long-term sub who had not been formally trained in the program, I pleaded ignorance and went off-script many times. Oops.

The company made a lot of money from this program. The teachers felt better about having a program to lean on, perhaps. Some kids did benefit from it. Some did not. During the “Race to the Top” years, it made sense these programs were flourishing. After all, schools had to prove they were trying to improve, to provide evidence of improvement.

That pesky evidence…

My Second Guess: Observation of Student Engagement Is Hard

The principal and assistant principal of my school are some of the hardest working educators I have ever had the privilege to work with. I could not do their jobs. They have become human octopuses too, especially mentally. There are so many focus points: student engagement, attendance, behavior, building security, building function, staff management, faculty management, compliance, and many others. I do not know how they make it through the many hours of the day they work.

It’s no wonder that observations and evaluations are so stressful and why districts and states strive to standardize the observation process. There is not enough time in the day to understand what is going on in a classroom, with a class of unique students, and still perform all the other duties of an administrator. When faced with many classrooms and many unique groups of students… well, you understand.

Therefore, evidence-gathering has been reduced to a few formal observations, some anecdotal observations, and those pesky test scores.

You know, those test scores don’t tell us a damn thing. For example, the student could have been ill that day, not slept well, been distracted by an argument with a loved one, or been fatigued in general. Perhaps the student didn’t understand the content, but was too afraid to ask a question. Alternatively, perhaps, the teacher needed to go in-depth on a concept or skill he or she knew the students were struggling with and could not “get to” that concept or skill the student is now being tested on.

We need new ways of observing and evaluating teachers. I’m not saying anything that millions of educators don’t already know. So why hasn’t it happened?


Full Circle: Schools Are Treated Like Businesses, and Then They Aren’t

Schools are not businesses, but they are treated like they are. Funding for schools is disparate, because local tax revenues vary district to district. In that way, districts are like businesses, but businesses are in competition and raise revenue at different rates due to their products and offerings. Districts should never talk about products and offerings. Why? Because they aren’t businesses!

There should be enough money to go around to support students’ education, sports programs, and social and emotional programs that will help them contribute to their communities and become the next generation of leaders. There isn’t.

I am amazed that extracurricular programs depend on ticket sales, bake sales, and many, many fundraisers. We could blame our weight gain over the winter on all the chocolate bars we buy (and consume, of course) to support winter sports!

Has anyone considered the fact that we are asking students to go back to the same folks who do not pay much in taxes because they don’t have the same incomes and property values as folks in another district? What a burden we are putting on parents and community members already struggling to stay afloat! Why do we have to do that?

Well, that’s because the distribution of funds for education is unequal and unfair.

One of the few policies of the previous U.S. administration that I disagreed with was “Race to the Top.” It put the schools in competition with one another. It was stupid. Instead of doing that, why not make educational funding equal?

Sure, sure – the federal and state governments are not supposed to dictate the policies and procedures of local districts. Come on, people. It’s not working. We are less competitive than other educational systems in other countries all the time. It needs to stop.

Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), a character on The West Wing (my favorite TV show), summed up how education should be in this country a long time ago. I leave you with this quote graphic, which I found via an article written by Jeffrey Dunn on Medium in 2015.

As always, thank you for reading.

To Be or Not to Be Part of the Solution? There Is Only One Answer to That Question.

If asked to be, the answer is ”Yes.” If not asked, that is still the answer.

Isn’t it weird how Shakespeare still entwines himself into our collective consciousness through lines such as those from Hamlet? After being dead for centuries, William Shakespeare still has such a profound influence on us. We are still able to take almost any play he wrote, update clothing and props for the times in which it is performed, and make an impact. It is profound for two reasons. The first, because it demonstrates the lasting power of his arrangement of the alphabet. Second, it shows how little has really changed in the human psyche, and how much we are more alike than we are different, among nations and across time.

This year, it is difficult to find precedents for most things until we start digging a little.

We rely now on historians, with their treasure trove of information, to lead the way. We rely on authors and teachers of literature to help us make sense of things, too, as they scour works to find the right quote, plot line, character, or other element to ground this situation in the “human condition.”

Politicians with a sense of decency and who serve the public are relying on millennia of rhetoric and logic to help them navigate this narrative that seems to spin out of control, sometimes on an hourly basis.

Science relies on the past to inform the present. What worked before? Will the same process work now? What do we have in our arsenal of remedies that might help us heal others? Where is our foundation?

One historian who influenced me greatly in college was Sister Patrice Fehrer of Holy Family University (then Holy Family College). One day, as I was speaking with her, she said to me, “Heather, all of us are absolutely necessary, although none of us is indispensable.”

I have gone to that line hundreds of times since 1992 or 93. Most of the time, it comes to mind when someone declares they are the current Messiah, whether they say that, or use another term.

It speaks to our interdependence. Each human needs the others. We cannot survive unless we all work together. Since we are all fallible, each of us brings to the situation a gift someone else doesn’t have.

Together, we become part of the solution. If we try to go it alone, we often become part of the problem. If we dismiss the good advice of others, we become part of the problem. If we refuse to hear others, we become part of the problem. That is how we end up on what has been called, “the wrong side of history.”

If we want to be part of the solution, we must – to paraphrase the great Maya Angelou – believe people when they reveal their character to us, embrace those who are ethical and humane, and reject those who are not. We must also recognize our interdependence and trust the trustworthy.

We need to stop giving oxygen to the words of those who consistently think they know better than anyone else and who do not act for the good of the rest of us. If someone reveals to you, time and again, that they are narcissistic, I say you need to run. One who is confident and knows his or her capabilities will help the rest of us. One who believes that only they can fix “it” should be avoided. Cult leaders should be avoided at all cost; cult leaders never serve their people, only themselves. History tells us so. Dictators gain followers by presenting their intentions falsely. Once their followers believe him or her and relinquish their power, that person can do almost anything and get away with it. We cannot let that happen.

As teachers, we need to lead the charge to lasting, sustainable change. We need to continue questioning everything and teach our kids to do the same. Look at the history of the world. Prove me wrong.

If This Is the “New Normal,” When Does It Begin to Feel Normal?

They promised we would “get used to it,” but we haven’t yet, and it’s so exhausting.

Photo by Julia M Cameron on

“Resistance is futile,” Picard warned us about the Borg, and right now I feel like I’m starting to become part of the Borg Collective… or perhaps a human octopus. I haven’t decided. My laptop, which is supposed to be portable, DOES look like an octopus, and its 8 GB of RAM is maxed out on a regular basis. Close all your applications, I’m told. Really? How am I supposed to teach that way? How can I leave the computer to help someone in class AND see if the kids are chatting questions? I can’t take the thing with me. Remember, it’s now an octopus, with cables coming from every available orifice. How may times should I join the conference so I can manage two things at once with this device and that device and the other device? Oh, and if I ask all the kids to sign onto the conference, my Wi-Fi connection screeches to a halt. So there’s that, too.

What I’m Hearing from Other Teachers, and in My Own Head

Classroom Management

We manage the students joining remotely and manage those who are in the classroom with us by keeping them both as busy as possible while we figuratively split ourselves in three to also manage the logistics of this new normal. Take attendance, let people in the room, remind them all to complete their bell-ringers. Take attendance, let people in the room, remind them all to complete their bell-ringers. (I repeated the sentence on purpose. Most of the time, we have to repeat ourselves and the process.)

Teaching in Two Places at Once

We are on camera and have to remember, too, that we should look like we’re getting cues from a tele-prompter. Don’t forget to look at the kids in the room. Whoops, don’t forget to look at the camera. Okay, back to the kids in the room. Wait, have you looked at the camera lately?

We have to share our screen and ask repeatedly if everyone is seeing what we think we are projecting because the connection freezes. Our camera freezes, too, or completely fails (“Webcam has been disconnected,” or “Screenshare has been disconnected,” the conferencing software tells us.). Then, precious time is wasted reconnecting.

Not Enough Time

We used to have 45 minutes for a class period. Now, it is officially 41. In reality, it’s more like 35. Don’t overload the kids, we are told, so we try to avoid giving homework. So many kids in sports (why are there sports right now?), with multiple games a week, getting home at 10:00 PM. Don’t overload the kids, but make sure you are staying on pace. Oh, and don’t forget to prepare them for the statewide assessments they missed last year! Those are coming soon!

Make sure your lessons are posted by Sunday, but also adjust on the fly and hope the kids remember after you tell them and post to the conference whiteboard that things have changed. Never mind they should check their calendars, which you are training them to do by saying the same thing over and over: Check your calendar daily.

Let’s add something new to your routine this week, we are told during a faculty meeting. Crickets from the audience for a moment and then a chorus of legitimate complaints from the brave few who want to defend the rest of us. Come on, folks… there is enough going on. Hire some hall monitors and be done with it. We cannot manage all this alone.

Oh, you don’t have the money in the budget? Why didn’t you think of that before you bought all this technology that no one is going to use the way it was intended? Remember: People matter first. We can’t have a lapel mic on, our laptops tethered to a camera, an iPad projecting to the Apple TV, and actually help kids in the room without broadcasting what’s happening to everyone. Our ability to teach has been hampered by the notion that this tech will help us teach during this weird, unsettling time.

Student Engagement

The carefully laid plans to build community, do tech training, and run diagnostics? Yes, that happened. However, it feels like it was so long ago that even I vaguely remember doing it. It’s frustrating — there is this feeling chewing the inside lining of my stomach, telling me that I should forget everything I’m trying to teach them and spoon-feed. This will not work, though, if the kids are not held accountable! We have to be a team! They have to do something.

MOST of the kids have been impressive. I should say that before people think I am complaining about the students. They have been patient, cooperative, and kind. Some have started to check out, though. How do I get them back? How do I reach them when I can’t see them in person?

Although We Are Doing Everything We Can, We Are Still Considered “The Problem.”

I heard this weekend we teachers are still being blamed for this nightmare. I have something to say to that, but I won’t. What I will say is we still need your grace, your patience, and your help.

Thank you for reading.

This Is What Happens When an English Teacher Has Writer’s Block

It’s not pretty.

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

The key to having your voice “heard” is to use it often, but this week’s post topic eludes me. Perhaps it’s fatigue. Maybe it’s this feeling that I’ve already said too much.

Still, I yearn to be part of the conversation. I want to talk about the purpose and goals of education — what they really are and what they should be. I want to scream from the rooftop that ideas such as “patriotic education” are stupid. I want to counter the argument about “patriotic education” with the idea that our history curricula are watered-down versions of the truth (and sometimes lies). We need a civics curriculum, too, but not in the way certain demagogues are imagining it.

“The factory model of education does not work!” I would scream if I could. It will not help students become 21st-century citizens! Grade levels and tracks may have worked last century, but really they didn’t. Which students really felt like they were learning much that was useful in grades K-12, in core classes? Which students felt that teachers were letting them peek behind the curtain to learn WHY something was being taught? Which students honestly felt the teachers were teaching something not only because it needed to be “covered,” but because it had value?

I must admit I was in awe of more than a few of my high school teachers. That said, only three stood out as those who added value to the content by teaching skills we could use the rest of our lives. Those teachers showed us we were capable, helped us learn to think critically, and taught us how to take notes, among many other things.

Pink Floyd performed the song “We Don’t Need No Education,” and it became an anthem. If the education system was working, would that have been the case?

Oh, sure, kids are always going to be cynical about education, you might say. But why is that, actually? We are brought into the world naturally curious and eager to learn. We go into preschool and kindergarten excited about school and all the wonderful things we will learn. And then, it seems, the curiosity, the eagerness, is sucked out of us as if it were pus. By the time kids get to my classroom, years of drainage have passed. Over the summer, each summer, they rediscover curiosity and wonder. It fills their system, and they smile as they rediscover the world. They are happy to be in school for about two days, and then the cynicism kicks in again.

They all want to ask, “Why are we learning this?” but don’t dare to ask it aloud.

I want them to ask! I’m so eager for them to ask that I tell them upfront, and I tell them I have a method to my madness. If they weren’t so tired, I think they might laugh at that.

Why is it that I feel guilty right now for assigning a novel-study portfolio that provided students a healthy list to choose from? Is it because I’m assigning them schoolwork? It’s not supposed to be just “work.” We study literature to better understand the human condition and our place within the world. Great literature is supposed to help us think, dream, and realize. It’s not busywork. It’s not a packet of worksheets. It’s inquiry-based, exploratory… it’s personal. And yet, I still feel like I am imposing.

If education really worked the way it’s supposed to, kids would be eating up the idea of diving into a novel written by an author who won the Pulitzer or the Nobel. Instead, I feel like I’m pulling their teeth.

And don’t get me started about how sports schedules are eating up students’ time outrageously. Why we even have sports happening right now is beyond me!

Ok, rant over.

I have questions.

  1. What have we learned from this experience of virtual or hybrid teaching and learning that we can use if things return to “normal”?
  2. Will we use technology to redefine and redesign educational activities? In other words, are we looking at the SAMR model to transform teaching and learning?
  3. How will we emphasize acquiring 21st-century skills, appreciating diversity, celebrating differences, acknowledging that we are all part of the human family, facing our history and ourselves, and helping each other cut through all the noise?
  4. Can we finally stop death-by-testing? Have the powers-that-be noticed that testing is uber-stressful and a waste of precious class time?
  5. Can we finally adopt more authentic forms of learning and assessment? Wouldn’t it be better if students created more, and we created less?
  6. Do education leaders recognize that ownership of learning is more valuable than playing the GPA game?
  7. Have the education leaders realized that teachers are ready to lose their minds? Are they prepared to review all the plans around the country and call out those that are insane? There are many.

Thank You!

Someday, I will end my blog posts better. For now, please accept my thanks for reading this post. It did help me to overcome my writer’s block.

It Will Get Better, Right? Takeaways from In-Service

Day One: Nerves Drive Me to Reminisce

Today is the first day of in-service. I think I am prepared, but I am also very nervous. As always, when I am anxious, I write. Here we are. 

This post may not make it to the blog, and that’s all right. It is an exercise in self-care. Teachers need to practice self-care in any situation. How many of us grade papers late into the night, on weekends, and over vacation? Too many, I’m afraid. Do we make time for ourselves, walk or ride, read for pleasure, or listen to music? Many of us don’t. We hear the call to teaching, day and night. We shoulder the burden of our students’ progress. We think their lack of success is our failure, and their success is their achievement. 

Those feelings do not emerge without reason. We are trained to feel this way, to think that we need to assume so much responsibility. Just like managers who consider themselves servant-leaders, we are trained to ensure our students experience success. Is the effort appreciated? I hear that it is, based on conversations with a handful of students and parents. Other students and parents may not express it. They may not know their feelings would be appreciated. 

When I was in high school, I was trained not to say anything to a teacher, good or bad. When given feedback, I took it and processed it, but did not question the teacher’s opinion. I was lousy at math, and there was no hope for me, so why was she going to waste her time? I was destined to be a historian, so she expected more of me, but she never said so. I just knew. I didn’t ask her because that would be a mistake. I was failing chemistry, so the teacher ordered me to join her for lunch and let her help me, as my performance was so different from 9th grade that she was concerned. I appreciated it and never even thought to question the edict. 

I wonder if my teachers felt as I do or thought a student’s failure was theirs alone? That is how it appeared, but since we never had a real conversation about academic progress, how would I really know? 

Day Two: Solid Takeaways from Day One

I have no idea why I ended up writing what I wrote yesterday. Perhaps it was my way of calming my nerves a bit.  I am curious as to what your thoughts are, dear reader. That’s a nod to Charlotte Bronte, by the way. Please feel free to comment.

Yesterday, I made my room ready to receive students. The seats are labeled so that students are distanced six feet apart each period and that odd-period students sit at odd-numbered seats and even-period students sit at the even-numbered seats. This gives me a chance to clean and disinfect desks before they arrive and finish up while they are getting settled. Books and paper are out of the way, to protect them from the misting machines. My room looks a lot better, in my opinion. 

My Newly Arranged Room

Perhaps that is a useful takeaway from our preparations for the students’ return: We get to start over with a clean slate, almost literally. We are embarking on new teaching and learning methods, reflected in room arrangements and health-and-safety procedures. Our physical world reflects our intellectual world. Yes, that is a positive and hopeful takeaway. It calms the nerves a bit.

Before the end of the week, I have to create a “Meet the Teacher” night video that will replace the usual face-to-face meeting. Parents are not allowed to come into the building, except to pick up students, so the typical meet-the-teacher night will not happen. I have to create a video for each prep, so what I am thinking of is creating one with a table of contents that will guide them to their student’s class information. What I have now works for all classes; I have to add class-specific details. 

There’s so much to do! Time to get to it!

The Days Flew By…

Days three through five are a blur, even now, after I have had some time to review. I can’t remember what happened on Wednesday. I can remember what happened on Thursday and don’t want to. Friday passed so quickly because I was obsessed with creating that video I mentioned earlier. Instead of creating a video for each prep, I added one slide to the end for each class and called it a day. I also struggled with the right platform to produce and publish the video. It was a mess.

Even using the microphone from the robotic camera, my videos are not as good acoustically as I would prefer them to be.  The HVAC system is to blame for that, but I would rather have it circulating air constantly. Wouldn’t you? Besides, students and parents need to understand how the physical environment is going to function.  Advice from teachers in other districts is to have everyone bring headsets or wireless ear buds and use them to hear me and each other better while everyone is logged into the conference. This makes sense. I will try connecting my wired headset that claims to be noise-canceling and see if that works. That’s another cord…

I’m Not Going to Look Like a Duck.

There is an old saying about a duck looking calm and peaceful above the surface, but furiously paddling beneath the surface. I’m not going to look like a duck. My feelings are written all over my face. They always have been. Perhaps that is what terrifies me. I doubt that any advice I receive is going to help that, I’m afraid. 

I’m also trying to ignore the fact that parents are going to see me in real-time. What if I break down in front of them and they call to complain? What if I do something wrong? I’m going to push that thought from my mind. 

Final Thoughts

I want to wish everyone in the learning community the best as we embark on this journey together. Please give yourself and your teachers grace while they become accustomed to this new situation. We can get through this together.

2 Ways That Waiting for the First Day of School Is Nerve-Wracking

Some Advice to Help Calm Your Nervous Mind

Photo by Deleece Cook on Unsplash

I was recently honored by a request to do an interview as a teacher representative of my district regarding school reopening. It was a surprise for many reasons: receiving the invitation the day before; receiving the invitation at all; having only an hour to get my disaster, otherwise known as my classroom, into shape before the reporter arrived; and having to demonstrate a lesson among them. Fortunately, it was a relatively painless process. During the interview, Alyssa Kratz asked me if I was nervous about coming back to school.

“I’m nervous, I am,” I said. “I would hate to think that anyone would get sick on my watch.” I have said this numerous times before. It’s just the first reason why waiting for the first day is so nerve-wracking.

1: We Don’t Know What Is Going to Happen

As I have been running through the scenarios in my mind, the only conclusion I can come to is: We don’t know what is going to happen. That said, I have also decided that I am going to have faith in the learning community. After the interview, I said I have faith in everyone.

“I’m going to believe that everybody is going to do their part and we’re going to get through it. Because we’re going to take care of each other, and we’re going to take care of ourselves,” added Edick.

To have that faith is the only way I know to quell the fears I have about something going horribly wrong. 

Therefore, my advice is to have faith. Be kind and patient. Give grace. Additionally, you can be kind and patient while also being firm and consistent with rules that protect everyone’s health and safety.

2: Teachers Aren’t Counselors, So How Do We Address Our Students’ Trauma?

Over the summer – indeed, even before the last marking period of 2019–2020 ended – numerous members of the education community sounded the alarm about student trauma. We heard some terrible stories, including those about domestic violence increasing during the “stay-at-home” period. We heard stories about parents losing their jobs. We heard stories about older siblings caring for younger siblings, having to sacrifice their learning to support the younger children. We heard stories about students’ frustration with a new learning model thrust upon them. 

Then, we heard about the inequities of education in this country. So many children and teachers did not have the tools to transition to virtual teaching and learning. They had to make do with what they had, and everyone suffered. I hope the education community will address these inequities, as they have been a problem in education for too long. Funding disparities should be eradicated. Everyone should have equal access to the excellent tools available, not just the fortunate districts who can afford them. 

The most heartbreaking news focused on food insecurity. My district and many, many others provided lunches to families each day during the last marking period. They will continue to distribute lunches to those who chose virtual learning this fall. I am so proud to be part of a district that considers addressing food insecurity to be a priority.

When I told my son about the lunch program in our district, he said, “How is it that in this rich country we have so many hungry people and so much money in so few pockets?” 

As Cassandra Fox said in her brilliant article: “You’ve got to Maslow before you Bloom.” A learning team cannot work on teaching and learning until all members feel physically and psychologically secure.

Teachers were traumatized too. Many teachers have young children they needed to teach while also teaching their students. Teachers struggled with the new instruction model. We were working with changes to policy daily. Some teachers, I think, also had to deal with domestic troubles, and may have partners who lost their jobs. It was difficult all around.

How do we deal with all the trauma then, while also staying in our lane? We are not licensed counselors. Before I was a teacher in traditional K-12, I taught at a residential facility for those in the juvenile justice system and with an alternative education program. One of the first things I learned was to report observable facts, not try to diagnose the person, and never dispense advice. As a teacher, it was my job to report what I could see to the appropriate personnel. 

My advice on this is simple. Prepare the tools and develop the routines you will use to demonstrate compassion and caring. Ask the students every day how they are doing, but teach them not to share too much personal information. Deal in adverbs and adjectives, rather than details. For example, they can share they are feeling down, and request to see the guidance counselor (which should be arranged immediately). Alternatively, they could share they are feeling hopeful today, or they are feeling better than yesterday. Perhaps create a form with suggested “feeling words.” At the end of the form, ask them if they would like to get an appointment with the guidance counselor. Make sure the form is private, so other students cannot see the responses. 

You can also integrate some Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) activities into your curriculum, but I advise that you are very careful and use activities from reputable sources. There are many such sources out there. Don’t try to create activities unless you are experienced with SEL. In fact, I would look to your district for guidance on SEL activities.

Show you care about them by being you. Teachers enter the profession to help others. You are a wonderful person: caring, kind, generous, thankful, and loving. Show them yourself, gain their trust, and develop solid relationships with your “kids.” 

If you have these tools and routines in place for the first day of school, you will feel more secure.

Final Thoughts

I would like to thank everyone in the education community for their response to the crisis and their continued efforts to, essentially, reinvent education as we have known it. There are so many brilliant minds involved. We can make this work and we will if we take care of each other and ourselves.

Best wishes to everyone for the best school year ever. 


I Did It Again. I Made Something Too Complicated.

The novel study portfolio project I have planned needs a lot of work to be effective for the students. The project should be fun, thought-provoking, and memorable – not painful.

Holy Post-It® Notes! This is what I did to a very good book.

To introduce the novel study portfolio project to my AP® Lit students, I decided to create one of my own. I’m glad I did because I saved myself and my students a great deal of frustration. I saved myself a good deal of embarrassment, too. In the image above, I captured how the book I’m reading, Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, now looks after I used almost an entire pack of Post-It® Flags to help myself remember everything. My husband actually laughed at me when he saw the book.

My husband said, “Heather, your kids aren’t in graduate school, and you aren’t either.” He still remembers my days on end in front of the computer, researching, writing, and having NO FUN AT ALL.

Fair enough. We are supposed to help students find joy in reading great literature, not induce panic attacks. Besides, my hand hurts and the image below shows why.

My hand hurts from writing and rewriting these notes.

I love this book. I posted in an AP® Lit teacher’s group that I’m exhausted thinking about it, but that I am in love. My approach to these things, however, is not going to work for 16 – 18 year olds. I will end up making what should be transformative into something that reaffirms why they don’t want to read: It’s too hard.

What Was I Trying to Do, You Ask?

AP® Lit is hard and there is not a lot of time to do anything. To expose the students to a variety of novels, I created the novel study portfolio project that the students will complete three times, once every three units. Meanwhile, in class, we will complete units on short fiction, poetry, and longer fiction. The longer fiction units will focus on drama instead of novels, because it is better to work on drama together, I think. At the end of the longer fiction units, students will submit their portfolio.

The portfolio has several components:

  • Reader’s journal (the second image in this post shows my attempt at a reader’s journal)
  • An annotated bibliography for three articles about the book . These articles need to be from peer-reviewed journals.
  • Two responses to Free-Response prompts. We have a document of prompts used in past exams from which the students can choose, which is cross-referenced with a list of novels used in past exams and the years in which they were used. These responses will be drafted, revised, and edited. Peers will then evaluate the responses and use the rubric to assign a score. Before turning in the responses, the students will create a final draft using feedback from their peers.
A Refocus on the POINT of This Exercise

What’s the POINT?

As I was bike riding today, I revisited this assignment and asked myself what I really want the students to do and WHY. I was thinking about the unit planning acronym I’m using this year called POINT (Purpose, Objectives/Standards, Indicators of Learning, Negotiables, and Tasks/Steps). Thinking about what and why also reminded me of literary analysis and annotation of texts. What are we looking for when we annotate a text? We are looking for the WHAT, the HOW, and the WHY.

A new reader’s journal idea was born, and I think it’s better. A sample entry shows in the image above. Below, I have included an image of a blank chart. Students can hand write or type their notes. I prefer to take notes by hand. Students may actually want to take notes by hand, too, if only to take their eyes off the computer for a while.


WHAT – What happened? Briefly describe what happened that struck you as important.

HOW – How was the “what” conveyed? Include your “quote jimmies”! I’m from Philadelphia, so they aren’t sprinkles. “Quote jimmies” are a few words, not entire sentences or paragraphs that can be woven into an analyst’s original sentence to prove a claim.

WHY – Why is it important to remember and process the WHAT and HOW? In other words, try to answer the question, “So what?”

At the top of the page, I included the codes for the Big Ideas of AP® Literature: Character, Setting, Structure (Plot), Narration, Figurative Language, and Literary Argumentation. We will be visiting these Big Ideas continuously.

What Do YOU Think?

Am I on the right track? Will this new format help students deepen their love and appreciation of literature, which will help them better understand the human condition and their place within the human family? Please feel free to comment below.

Teaching a Hybrid Class? Bell Ringers Might Save Your Sanity.

Last year, bell ringers featured prominently in my instruction for about a month. This year WILL be different. Right? 

What Are These Bell Ringers of Which You Speak?

Most teachers will already know the term, but the explanation below is for those who might know it by another name. Please comment below if you know it by another name. I would be willing to adopt a new term, as I am not a fan of this one. I am, however, a fan of the idea, so please read on.

A bell ringer is an opening activity that students complete without assistance while teachers are transitioning from class to class. Teachers need time to take attendance, for example, so they fill that time with something that will keep the students productively occupied. Each minute is precious in live instruction, and teachers try to fill each minute with something pertinent to the curriculum.

Bell ringers in ELA could include reviewing the previous day’s instruction, vocabulary activities, grammar exercises, or mini-lessons on topics like theme. Last year, I used sample questions from the Keystone exams as bell ringers, vocabulary learning, and grammar exercises. I will do that again this year and use the rest of the instructional time to address more particular student needs and the curriculum. Diagnostics and benchmarks will tell me what those needs are.

Plan Your Bell Ringers 

A Google Slides or PowerPoint presentation would be perfect for this. Create one slide for each bell ringer, share the slide within the conference, and use a projector. If all your students, no matter their location, join the conference, you do not need to project. (On a side note, teachers already in the classroom are finding that students cannot hear them over the HVAC blower and because of the mask they have to wear. They are asking all students to bring earbuds with them and join the conference, thereby eliminating this problem. It sounds odd, but I recommend you try it.)

Here is an example of a Google Slides bell ringer I used last year.

You could also use a service for vocabulary and grammar instruction There are numerous flashcard services available now. Students can work on vocabulary during the bell ringer using a link provided or by signing into your LMS (learning management system) classroom. Some services make grammar exercises fun. Well, as fun as grammar can be.

Another idea is to produce a video of yourself introducing the topic of today’s lesson. Students will get to see you without the mask. There is recording software available, free to teachers forever. Other software is low cost. Students would sign into the LMS, play the video using their earbuds, and then be ready to learn. At some point, I will edit this post to include an example of a video introduction.

Be Consistent

Considering the rollercoaster ride we are going to be on most of this year, I am imploring myself to be consistent. A former supervisor of mine gave me sage advice: Make sure that everything you plan to do is sustainable. Therefore, the question I put to myself is, “Is this plan sustainable?” Since I lasted a month last year, can I last longer this year?

Be Helpful

The next question I’m asking myself: “Is this going to be helpful?” Is the activity relevant, or just busywork? Reconsider assigning busy work at the beginning of class, as it might tire or bore the students. That does not bode well for the rest of the period.

Be Concise

When planning your bell ringer, be sure to plan something that is short, well-explained, and within the students’ ability to complete independently. 

What Do You Think?

Please comment on the post. Thank you for reading!