Why Do We Accept the Negative Aspects of Education?

As we round the bend toward the end of a challenging school year, we educators hear so much about the negative effects of remote and hybrid learning on students and families this year. Is there anything positive that has come from it? Yes.

At the very least, we have qualitative and quantitative data available to help us address the issues inherent in our education system. With such data, we can change priorities and eliminate policies that do not work.

After this year and the final quarter of last year, it is not enough to say, “This is the way it has always been done.” We need to add to that statement, “This is the way we are going to do it from now on.”

Follow the Data

In previous posts about the hidden curriculum and questioning everything, I emphasized the opportunity to reimagine educating our youth. We can learn much from our recent history. What worked? What didn’t?

What Can We Learn from Project Management Practices?

In project management, reviewing what worked and what didn’t is called a postmortem. The team reviews the project’s progression, changes process and procedure to support continuous improvement, and builds new processes and procedures to function more effectively next time. Although schools are not businesses, project management principles are so logical and methodical that I highly encourage adopting those that would work for education.

Teachers are born project managers, in my opinion. We adjust each lesson and unit to “meet the students where they are,” within the guidelines set forth by administration, the district, and departments of education – for example, state standards and Common Core considerations. We know that each new group of students will require accommodations and modifications to what we have planned. What worked in the past might not in the present. As we approach a new unit, we ask ourselves, “How will this group of students manage this unit? What can I add or take away to ensure success? What type of instruction will work best?” Let’s extend that process to the entire education community.

Since teachers do strive to “meet the students where they are,” I argue teachers have adjusted their instruction for pandemic teaching, whether it be hybrid, fully-remote, or another method. What was “tried-and-true” in the past (with adjustments, of course) was put aside for methods we thought might work. This school year was one long, complicated, and exhausting experiment for all concerned. Next year should not be. What did we learn?

Teachers Need More Support. How Can We Get the Support We Need?

Teachers need more time for effective and timely professional development, and more just-in-time support. If there is anything we can learn from corporate personnel development, the delivery of PD and JIT support should be among those lessons.

How can we support that? We need to hire more teachers and instructional coaches. We need more co-teacher arrangements and more constructive feedback from observers. Our PD, which sucks up precious time, needs to be worth it and needs to address our current predicament. We also need more time, a commodity that always seems to run out just when we need it most.

How Can We Finally Address Inequity?

Teachers have not only struggled with new and complicated technology to benefit their students, many had to struggle to help students who were unfamiliar with the technology too or could not access that technology.

Many districts implemented several solutions for students who do not have tech at home with help from corporations, but it wasn’t enough. For example, Internet providers made Wi-Fi free for those who needed it, and students in need were provided personal hotspot devices. Devices that did not normally leave school made their way home, too.

Still, many, many students were technology deprived. The problems exacerbated what was already a significant disparity in education. What did we learn?

School Districts Need Equal Funding. How Can We Achieve That Goal?

School districts need equal funding. Period, full stop. Every student in this country should be funded at the same rate, no matter where they reside. Every student should have the same technology, resources, etc. The minimum threshold for funding should be equal to the richest district in the country, not the poorest. We need to redefine what FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education) means to specify that each student is equally funded.

How Can We Regain Students’ Interest?

Each year, some seniors in high school suffer from senioritis. They want out. They’re done with school. They need to move on with their lives. They’re planning to decorate their dorm rooms in October, as soon as they have asked for the recommendation letter. Some already have jobs to go to once they have that diploma in hand.

This year, senioritis has infected some students at every grade level. The symptoms are recognizable: disinterest in content; a belief that nothing they are doing in school matters; disengagement; and even rudeness. The students stop saying good morning, or decline to acknowledge teachers and staff in the hallway. They go into their shells and their friend pods. “Just get through the year,” they seem to say.

The hardest part of teaching those with senioritis must be facing the hostility from some students. It’s a bit mind-boggling.

This is boring. What’s the point? How is this going to help me with the job waiting for me, because I’m not going to college and I don’t need to know about theme, characterization, setting, etc.? How is this going to help me, because I’m going to major in business and no one in business cares about literature? (That’s not even close to true, but they don’t believe me.) This is supposed to be an easy year.

You’re “harshing my mellow.” Kids probably don’t use that phrase, but it was the first to come to mind.

Despite my valiant efforts to answer the question, “Why do we have to learn this?” some students have not responded the way I hoped they would. I’ll keep trying.

On a yearly basis, I wonder why some students are so anxious to get out of school. My senior year was full of so many challenging and intellectual experiences that I did not want it to end. I felt like I was finally hitting my stride that year, so I can’t relate to the anxiety and, yes, the anger I sense coming from them.

This year, I’m still perplexed, but also more understanding. The fact is that some students cannot imagine having an experience like mine, and this year of pandemic teaching has only heightened their dislike of, and disdain for, schooling.

What can we learn from what is happening this year? These questions might help us ground our investigation.

  1. Why do some students dislike school? Specifically, what happens to students along the way that leads to them disliking it?
  2. How curious and risk-taking are children when they start school, and how does the curiosity and likelihood to take risks diminish for some as the years go by?
  3. What messages are we sending year-on-year, by way of standardized tests, grades, and competition? How do those messages reflect our values related to learning? How do these messages affect the students?
  4. Why are so many kids afraid to be wrong? What messages are we sending to students about being wrong? What messages should we send to students about being wrong? How do we change evaluation systems to reflect the value of learning from mistakes and taking risks?
  5. What aspects of the curriculum should change to reignite curiosity and the need to know something in some students?
  6. Does personalizing learning, as it has been implemented, actually work?
  7. Are we listening to students? Are we really trying to meet them where they are?
  8. How large should classes be? Are we doing our students a disservice with large class sizes? (Y’all know the answer to that one.)
  9. How many classes should students take in a given semester/marking period/trimester? Are there too many classes on a student’s schedule? Have students run out of bandwidth because their schedule is so heavy?

It is my contention that students are telling us what they need, even when they seem to have “checked out.” That act alone speaks volumes. This year, some students are telling us not to accept the negative aspects of education anymore. They are telling us to re-imagine education.

How Can We Change the Way Society Treats Teachers?

To be fully effective, we need to be taken seriously. Teachers are dedicated professionals. Many do not consider this just a job, but a vocation.

Unfortunately, some of these dedicated teachers now find themselves at the end of their teaching journey and are moving onto other fields because the state of our educational system is in dire need of repair. They are exhausted, emotionally and physically.

This year has been brutal for teachers in so many ways. I shake my head daily as I read about how teachers are being treated. It needs to stop. It is not enough to preface the criticism with, “We all know teachers want to be back in the classroom.” People don’t hear that part; they hear everything that comes after it.

I have been fortunate thus far, supported by an administration that accentuates the positive and works tirelessly to get resources to its students and staff as its default position. Many teachers, however, have not had the same experience. Many of them are saying, “This is not what I signed up for.”

When I signed up for this position, I knew I might have to take a bullet or sustain other life-threatening wounds to save my students. I signed up willingly, and without hesitation. I have had desks tossed in my direction, watched students punch holes into my classroom walls, broken up fights, been cursed and laughed at. I’m still teaching.

What I did not anticipate was being fearful that I would bring a virus home to my family that could kill them. That responsibility is way above my pay grade. So, if folks want to be upset with me or any of my colleagues for not wanting to risk their loved ones’ lives, so be it. It’s terrible, however, that society is demonizing teachers for loving their families and wanting to protect them.

How Can We Finally Feel Safe?

Follow the data, if you would like to understand why teachers are still concerned about going back to full classrooms. You will notice that surges happen just when everyone thought it was safe. It’s the worst horror movie I’ve ever seen, in which the character opens the door while a chorus of other characters cries to keep it closed, over and over again.

The Bottom Line

Instead of accepting the negative aspects of education, we need to start actively listening to all stakeholders involved to effect change. Others need to start actively listening to all of us, too. Everyone needs to do better. All of us deserve it.

Let’s Unhide the Hidden Curriculum

According to The Glossary of Education Reform, the hidden curriculum “consists of the unspoken or implicit academic, social, and cultural messages that are communicated to students while they are in school.” This year, the hidden curriculum isn’t so hidden, which is for the best, because the focus on the academic, social, and cultural challenges facing all stakeholders in education can be helpful. The absence of the hidden curriculum, or the inability to implement aspects of it, has shown how important it is, for better or worse.

What Does That Mean?

This year especially, I have been wondering about why education needs to be so mysterious. Indeed, some mystery has been taken out of learning from when I was a child and teachers didn’t tell us WHY we were learning something. It was awful, spending years wondering why I needed to know anything math-related when all I wanted to do was be a history professor. When would I use math with that?

Aside: If I had known then that I would end up working as an administrative assistant for a couple of years before transitioning into training, and would need to use Excel daily for all sorts of tasks, I might have been more inclined to try harder in math class. You see, the dream of becoming a history professor needed to go on the shelf for a while. Perhaps when I retire from teaching English I will work on that goal.

The point is, we did not get to hear the teacher expound upon the value of anything we were learning unless it was a higher-level class. For example, in “Philology and Linguistics,” Dr. Phillips would lecture about the beauty of investigating the history of the English language, and the development of language within human beings. Those classes were inspiring; each student left class in a deep intellectual fog. It was great, Dead Poets Society great.


I could use a few lectures from John Keating this year.

In other classes, we needed to infer that for ourselves. We did not even know that we needed to infer, frankly. Here’s a book. Read it. Love it. Learn it. Regurgitate its contents for the test. Move on.

Today, we teachers do talk about the importance of our subject area, and we definitely teach the importance of inference and implication. I will not speak for anyone else when I say I need to go further and have been trying to go further, but I don’t think I’ve done enough. I’m not John Keating or Dr. Phillips… yet.

Why Am I Not Like Dr. Phillips?

Time. I never have enough time. “Philology and Linguistics” was an elective, so he had all the time in the world to show us how important the ideas of the course were. There was no standardized test at the end. His teacher evaluation was not contingent upon test scores. (Dr. Phillips was a teacher god, so it did not matter what he did. He was just that good.)

Today, I am beholden to those dumb tests and to standards. While standards-based grading is great in theory, in reality it doesn’t work with all the other demands on teachers.

I also find myself in grade hell. I wish I could get rid of grades altogether and let students build portfolios of their progress instead. For the record, grades are poor motivation to learn anything except how to play the game of school. During this time, cheating has become more prevalent than ever, simply because grades mean more than learning and kids don’t have time to wonder. They are too busy trying to survive a terrible time.

What Aspects of the Hidden Curriculum Need to be Unhidden?

How about all of them? Why not just tell the kids everything? I promise you, they can handle it. They probably crave that information, to be honest.

Do you think students would be more engaged with the content if I said something like this to them at the beginning of the unit?

“We are going to work on a novel for the following reasons. First, to explore its themes, syntax, diction, [insert important elements here], but also to practice critical thinking skills and time management skills. With certain activities, I am stressing the importance of being prepared for class, too, because you’ll need to be prepared for activities for the rest of your life if you want to have a prosperous future. I am going to ask you to take risks while we work on this novel, during which you might even fail. Why? Well, failures are learning opportunities. If we spend our lives afraid of making mistakes, our growth is stunted. If we take risks and make mistakes, we learn and grow. Finally, we are practicing our collaborative and cooperative skills with activities related to this novel. It’s not all about the content, it’s also about the connections you can make from the study of the content to how to manage your life.”

What I should be saying to the kids.

Academic Skills

In the hidden curriculum, the messages sent to students about academic skills and priorities are embedded in what is taught and how it is taught. Another important consideration is what isn’t taught, but that is a subject for another post.

Teachers let their students know what they value through their teaching. For example, if assignments demand a certain level of self-responsibility and independent thinking, we are sending the message that we value the release of responsibility to students and their development of critical thinking and problem solving skills. We may not actually express that (although I don’t understand why not), but it’s true, nonetheless.

This school year, those of us fortunate enough to teach in tech-ready schools have been teaching many technology skills our students need to do well in school (and life) right now. I’m not sure how many teachers are explicitly making those connections for the students, therefore these skills could be part of the hidden curriculum. So many teachers are learning them while also teaching their established curriculum in a strange context. The technology training has been so light, but, again, that’s a subject for another rant…er, post.

That said, here are several examples.

  • We stress digital citizenship as students practice discussion posts.
  • We practice different time management techniques using calendar software.
  • The LMS itself reinforces navigation and search skills that apply to most complex sites these days.
  • Collaboration software, like digital whiteboards and shared documents, help students hone those digital cooperative skills that will lead to success in later years.

When we tell the kids what’s going on, take the mystery out of it, it’s my contention we serve them better. During this crisis, they need that information to re-engage with school, to understand its purpose during a time in which more practical matters seem more important.

Socialization Skills

In the classroom-before-COVID, socialization skills were embedded in lessons, too. Teachers and students enjoyed the time together, working through problems, collaborating in small groups, doing think-pair-share activities, building word walls together, acting out scenes from Shakespeare, figuring out science labs with a partner, and yes – having that time before the second bell to talk.

Then, COVID-19 came along and many of us went home. Those of us who remained had to keep six feet apart and face in the same direction. Masks obscured facial expressions. Until we got used to the masks, it was difficult to understand people when they talked.

Some teachers experimented with breakout rooms online as a way to develop the rapport that group work used to support. For a little while, that worked in my room. However, it stopped working as more students went into isolation mode, and then we went to a fully-remote model during which breakout rooms just did not seem to work anymore. That was my experience; I’m sure other teachers have found great success. I want to figure out how to build that rapport again while students and I share a virtual classroom, not a physical one. I have ideas.

Many reports have indicated students’ overall socialization skills have degraded or not developed sufficiently this school year. Some children have even regressed in their toileting and have gone back to diapers. More children are spending too much time in bed, not showering or changing their clothes for days. Due to despair, suicide rates have increased, as have reports of domestic and drug abuse.

Some students’ eating habits and exercise habits have changed. They are eating more convenience food and leading more sedentary lifestyles. Obesity rates among young people are up as a result. It’s not their fault. There’s nowhere to go. There’s no recess. Gym class is modified for the COVID-19 era. Athletics is limited. Even being able to walk from class to class daily has ended for most.

We can, and should, address all aspects of the hidden curriculum related to these issues. We could reimagine the curriculum to explicitly address socialization and mental health issues in the time of COVID. Perhaps our content needs to change. Here are some ideas.

  • Our gym classes have been modified to include walking at least 5,000 steps a day. I love this; it’s brilliant. We need more of that.
  • A teacher I met recently, who teaches French, has emphasized getting out of the house and exercising by taking videos of herself on a rail trail and in other places. She explains what she sees and what she is thinking about, in French, at least once a week. She invites the students to explore the same space and to think about what she said during the video. They can even play the video and listen to the audio while they walk, if they have the proper technology.
  • Make virtual breakout rooms work with more explicit directions about how to be successful. Encourage them to take risks, like turning on their microphone and webcam. Many students are still hesitant about doing that. However, turning on the webcam may help get the kids out of bed and into the shower before school each day.
  • Provide students more opportunities to complete assignments using paper and pen/pencil, to get their eyes off the screen for a while. Let them be creative, use colored pencils (or pens, or watercolors), doodle, and receive the credit they deserve for thinking critically and creatively about something.
  • Let students wonder and consider by providing longer-term assignments that afford them more time and the chance to practice time management, like creating a schedule for those assignments.
  • Use software like FlipGrid so students can record themselves tackling the content. This particular idea terrifies me because I would hate it and I think many of my students would as well, but I just mentioned risk-taking, so here it is.

Other Issues


Attendance has been a concern throughout this pandemic. Often, it’s not the child’s fault. Instead, poor attendance can be blamed on various factors, including poor technological resources, the need to help support the family by helping younger siblings or by getting a job, illness within the family that requires the child’s attention, mental health crises, and the list goes on from there. Our need for physical and emotional security will always supercede other pursuits.

That said, there are students who have completely “checked out.” Every year, teachers deal with senioritis, but this year, senioritis has extended across most grade levels. Some are frustrated by remote learning, and those tales are heartbreaking. They give up. Others find learning from home too distracting. Those who have worked from home can relate. I learned recently that there are students who sign in and go back to sleep. It’s too comfortable at home, no matter what guidance we provide about how to set up for remote learning.

Participation Concerns

Following on attendance is the concern about participation in the remote classroom. Those students who sign in and go back to sleep are not participating, obviously. There are others, though, who aren’t participating even though they are present and awake. In the distant past, we chuckled about the black hole into which our classes have fallen at times, or how it’s like a seance, but it became a serious concern shortly after that. In in-person classrooms, we can reach more students through proximity. I’m still wondering how we can do that in the remote classroom in a more effective manner.

Do you have other ideas? I would love to hear from you.

Thank you for reading this post.


Feeling Capable, Competent, and Valuable

Usually, my blog posts address educational topics immediately. This post will be different. Just as we teachers have found our personal and professional lives blended out of necessity while we teach from home, my blog post today will address something personal and tie it to my professional context. By sharing my experience, I hope to help other teachers who may also be struggling to feel capable, competent, and valuable.

Today, I learned about the cognitive triangle, a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) concept that I wish I had known about half a lifetime ago. A person’s thoughts spark certain feelings, leading to certain behaviors. Around the triangle we go, sometimes going back and forth a while, over and over, for better or worse. Habitual ways of regarding ourselves form this way.

That said, however, learning about this theory has revealed my psychological and emotional mindset to be malleable, not set in stone. I don’t have to feel the way I do about myself. It’s a habit to consider myself the way I do, one formed as I traveled along the sides of the triangle, fearing to leave the path. Now, I know I can practice something different, but it needs to be deliberate practice, intentional practice.

It’s Been Like This for Too Long

Frankly, I am tired of perceiving myself as a problem child who needs to be tolerated. There may be people who are surprised to read that, but most folks who know me would say, “No surprise there.” The moment I make a mistake, I crawl back into a figurative hole into which I have dumped every negative thought I’ve ever had about myself. It’s pretty crowded in there. I’d like to close it forever and walk away with my head held high.

I’ve tried my best. That should be enough.

My triangle usually includes thoughts about being a problem, incapable, incompetent, and of little value, which lead to feelings of deep and utter sadness, confusion, and hopelessness, which culminate in behaviors that include tears, the tell-tale hunch into a semi-fetal position, and self-isolation. It’s exhausting, and has been for many, many years.

I’m tired. I’m also ready to be happy. Time to build a new triangle, a better triangle, a more productive triangle.

Could You Use a New Cognitive Triangle?

It’s hard to change, and during this health crisis, trying something new is harder than ever before. Everything seems to take longer, including self-care. Therefore, something as simple to remember as the cognitive triangle might help those changes become permanent.

It all starts with thoughts, with changing the thoughts that lead to terrible feelings that culminate in negative behaviors. Change the thoughts and different feelings emerge. Just like taking a deep breath when reaching a summit, filling the lungs with clean air, changing thoughts and feelings forces the shoulders back, and raises the head to face the horizon, both observable behaviors that reflect the intangible.

Image from Pixabay

Perhaps, if you have read this far, you could use a new cognitive triangle too. Perhaps you realize you deserve clean air and to view the horizon.

As I said before using different words, there are no quick fixes. How do we eventually succeed in having a positive view of ourselves? Step-by-step, moment-by-moment, and day-by-day, I imagine. Having a positive view of myself is something new to me; it’s actually frightening. Hudson Therapy, in White Plains, NY, explains the challenge ahead very well.

It is not until we bring light to this process and begin to interrupt the cycle that any change occurs. This is where a lot of work in therapy is focused. The change doesn’t happen easily, rather it is hard. Our brains become accustomed to the way we have always done things, and it takes a lot of active and consistent work over a long period of time to disrupt this cycle and instill more healthy ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving.

Hudson Therapy

A New Cognitive Triangle for Everyone!

When I took the time to decide how I wanted to perceive myself (as capable, competent, and valuable), I compared that to how I actually see myself. The negative thoughts had a deflating effect, like letting air out of an air mattress. To truly devise a new paradigm for self-reflection, those negative descriptors need to be pushed aside rather forcefully. One way to keep them at bay is to make manifest the positive thoughts, on paper, on one’s lock screen, etc.

A New Lock Screen?

This is something we can teach others to do. We aren’t psychologists, but this concept is not difficult to share with others and we aren’t engaging in therapy, just sharing a tool they can use. As a literature and creative writing teacher, it is a tool I can embed in character analysis with no problem at all.

For example, this week in AP® Lit, we start King Lear. There is a treasure-trove of psychological issues in that play, starting with the first scene. Lear thinks his daughter, Cordelia, is diminishing his worth by not giving a grand speech about her love for him. He feels angry because he thinks his favorite daughter has betrayed him. He acts by disowning her. A good question for the students: How does that compare to what you might think about Cordelia’s response?

In Creative Writing I, we have been working on creating a character we can use in a short story. We can make the character believable using the cognitive triangle. If the character thinks “x,” then what would the emotional response (“y”) be? How would that translate to behavior (“z”)? Figure that out and create a believable character.

In English 10, we are reading Ethan Frome, and Ethan and Zeena are both psychologically wounded, but Zeena – a hypochondriac – is easier to figure out with the cognitive triangle method. Zeena thinks she is sick, she feels sick, and she tries to find cures for her various “illnesses.” Ethan’s report to the narrator about her decline makes it obvious that Zeena is more depressed than ill, and everyone living through this current health crisis knows that depression can manifest itself physically. The pain is real, but its origin is not in physical decline, but in the mental struggle. A good question for the students: Can we apply Zeena’s cognitive triangle to how some people feel today?

Finally, in English 11, we are reading All Quiet on the Western Front. This is a story about German soldiers in World War I, many of whom died or became part of the Lost Generation, suffering from what we now know as PTSD. My goodness – again, there are many connections among thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to explore. A good question for the students: Can you trace the progression of the cognitive triangle through the narrator’s characterization?

The need for SEL (Social and Emotional Learning) is legitimate. This is one way I can incorporate SEL into my lessons. If you teach in a different content area, what thoughts do you have about incorporating the cognitive triangle into your curriculum?

Thank you for reading.

“How do I teach now?” – Lessons from the Classroom after an Insurrection

On January 6, 2021, I was working with a student during office hours when my husband came into the dining room to tell me that people had stormed the U.S. Capitol. My mouth dropped open. My student’s mouth dropped open. After my husband apologized for interrupting the meeting, he went back downstairs to his office to watch the incident unfold live. Once my schoolday was finished, I joined him. I missed about an hour of what was happening, but I have since watched many videos that frighten me sufficiently.

Later that evening, I checked Facebook. A fellow teacher had posted, “How do we teach now?”

The responses indicated the resilience and commitment of teachers across this country. Lesson plan after lesson plan was posted by hundreds of teachers. Each focused on truthful and/or positive aspects of this country; none had a focus on violence or rebellion. I chose to do the following with two of my classes.

AP® Lit: “America” by Claude McKay

Thank you, Poetry Foundation

In AP® Literature and Composition, the plan was to write an essay on a sonnet “For That He Looked Not Upon Her,” by George Gascoigne. With what happened the day before, on 1/7, the plan changed to feature Claude McKay’s sonnet, “America.”

I explained to the students: “Yesterday, something happened in the U.S. Capitol that rocked me to the core. We were going to work with a sonnet written by a contemporary of Shakespeare, but now we are going to use a sonnet written about America. Any objections?”

Hearing none, we proceeded.

I chose this poem to illustrate the complicated and complex feelings that many have about this country, this “cultured hell.” It gave me a chance to talk about the Harlem Renaissance, too, and how the artists, musicians, and writers of that movement demonstrated to everyone that Americans are resilient, beautiful, brilliant, and determined.

The turn of the sonnet describes how the speaker assures the reader that although the nation has fed him “bread of bitterness,” sunk “her tiger’s tooth” into his neck, and overwhelmed him with her power, he is not afraid. He stands up to her “cultured hell” as a rebel would face a king. The turn shows us that the speaker is a persistent individual with foresight, one who knows truth.

The last four lines, however, were those I hoped the students would pick up on. My interpretation: If we continue – as a country – along the path we are on, we are in big trouble. The sonnet was written almost 100 years ago, but the message resonates today: We must be vigilant, protect the American Experiment, strive toward improvement of life for all, and not be fearful of those who would prefer the United States fail, even those within our borders.

The students’ responses blew me away. I’m so proud.

Creative Writing: Langston and Martin Luther King, Jr.

In Creative Writing, I developed a final project for which students create a story from a poem. As a sample, I created a draft using “Harlem,” by Langston Hughes as its foundation. A line from this poem provided the title for the play A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, which I had been working on with another English class. Therefore, the poem was on my mind. We had just finished reading “I Have a Dream” in that other class, so it just seemed natural to me to have Langston pay MLK a visit in August, 1963, before the March on Washington.

On 1/7, I introduced the students to their final project. I presented my draft to them and read a bit of it. This time, I did not tell the students that 1/6 rocked me to the core. Instead, I focused on the Civil Rights Movement and, again, the Harlem Renaissance. Several of the poems I provided for the students to pick from were from diverse voices, too, and the students have gravitated toward them, especially “Perhaps the World Ends Here,” by Joy Harjo, our nation’s first Native American Poet Laureate.

My message: Our nation is beautiful. Our nation is resilient. Our citizens are brilliant. We will overcome challenges to the American Experiment.

I look forward to seeing what they come up with.

Other Classes

I have a few other classes, and they wanted to talk about 1/6. I did my best to explain how I, as a citizen and an American, had thought I was witnessing the end of our country while I watched “priceless treasures” manhandled and listened to chants threatening the lives of long-time public servants. Until such time as the Capitol was cleared and secured, I worried that Congress would be overrun. I was mourning those who had died in the insurrection, also.

They were somber conversations, but also truly focused on the feelings we have about 1/6 as Americans. Forget partisanship, put aside differences of opinion, and think about how close we came to not having a country anymore.

My Secret Hope

Well, it won’t be much of a secret when this is published, but my secret hope is that these future leaders will reaffirm their commitment to a nation once a beacon of hope and a leader among those who espoused or aspired to democracy. There needs to be, just as every sonnet needs a turn, a turn toward something brighter and beautiful. We need a Renaissance.

Will my “kids” lead us there?

“How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat yer meat?”

Repurposing a famous line from Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” to highlight a positive aspect of education.

From Veggies to Meat

In my last post for Medium, I wrote about ed-tech “veggies.” That was one of my favorite posts to write. If the resources I mentioned are those that transform remote learning into something more meaningful, providing “fiber,” “vitamins,” “color,” and useful “calories,” then what is the “meat” or “protein” (if you are vegetarian) part of this delicious plate?

Why am I seemingly obsessed with this metaphor?

“Another Brick in the Wall”

This song tells a harrowing tale of Roger Waters’ experiences in school. It was a hit among educators at the time, even though its depiction of the teachers was not positive. Essentially, the teachers all become part of the wall Rogers’ character, Pink, builds around himself as he slowly isolates himself after multiple traumatic moments in his life. Thank you, Consequence of Sound, for that information.

It may seem odd that I have chosen a line from this song to talk about a positive aspect of education, but for some reason, I’ve always agreed with the teacher. I was raised to clean the plate and to know that getting dessert was contingent upon finishing dinner. So, whenever I hear this line, I usually think to myself, “What’s wrong with saying that?”

What’s the meat (protein) and what’s the pudding?

The meat in this metaphor is the “good question,” and the pudding is the “answer.” Therefore, how can you find the answers if you don’t know how to ask good questions?

Just like protein is the building block for strong muscles, good questions are building blocks for a well-developed cognitive process. Sure, some might overdo it on the protein because – in the US, at least – “more is better,” but others may not get enough. They may always want the dessert, the pudding – the answer.

I’m not saying that giving or finding the answers is unnecessary. Instead, I’m saying what my grandmother said about life in general: “Everything in moderation.” I’m saying that getting or finding the answers without learning how to ask good questions isn’t as healthy as learning how to ask good questions that get you to good answers.

By the way, Grandmom Graber was raised by the owner of several bakeries, so to say you can’t have dessert was anathema to her. It is to me as well, especially now that I know what that sweet stuff represents in my head. It’s the treat that tickles the taste buds, concludes the meal, wraps up the activity.

If questions build the brain, answers give it that warm-and-fuzzy feeling, that sense of relief from knowing something new or re-affirming something known. Right?

Serve up a balanced plate

So, how do we, as teachers, serve up a balanced plate?

  1. Authentic lessons – These are the carbs of the meal, which supply a steady stream of energy to the body. Authentic, meaningful lessons, with a healthy balance of skills, concepts, and connections leads to higher engagement. Don’t forget to have an answer ready for this important question: “Why do we have to do this?”
  2. Explicitly-taught questioning strategies – Close reading and interrogating the text come to mind immediately for me, but that’s because I teach ELA. The questioning strategies for your subject area are probably much different. Use the strategies often to model and guide the students through the process. Consider modeling to be the “awesome sauce” that goes on the meat featured in that day’s meal. The sauce (modeling) entices the diner to sample the meat (questioning) because it just seems so yummy!
  3. Ed-tech resources – Use ed-tech resources wisely and consistently. Ease into using new tech. I’m not going to say wait until you feel comfortable with it. I don’t. I tell my students, “Well, this is an experiment. Let’s see if it works!” When students see me struggling with something new while still smiling, then they don’t feel so intimidated and want to try it themselves.
  4. Self care – Be yourself. Love yourself. LIKE yourself. Trust yourself. Have fun!

So, eat your meat, your veggies, your carbs, and your dessert. But, as Grandmom Graber said, “Everything in moderation.”

Thank you for reading.

What a Semester!

Semester One of 2020–2021 is either over or almost over. How are you feeling?

Back in September, I created a post asking when we would get used to this new normal. When I wrote it, I thought that surely, by December, our new routines would no longer be strange, and we would all feel better about this way of teaching and learning. At the time, I was teaching in a hybrid scenario. Today marks day 22 of fully-remote learning, round two. It still does not feel comfortable.

It’s Not All Bad

It is better in some ways. For example, I don’t have to deal with the dreaded robotic camera because I am not in school. That is a plus! Next time around, I would recommend making a better investment: Buy every student a printer, ink, and a couple of reams of paper. If students could print materials, they could take their eyes off the screen for a while, which would help many students who — like their teachers — are suffering from eye strain.

The iPad that comes with the dreaded robotic camera could be useful, but I felt odd taking it home without a protective case, so it stayed in school.

Another Plus: A Chance to Reinvent My Delivery

Instead of using that little iPad, I use my iPad Pro as a digital document camera. I can share my iPad to the Google Meet, and with an app called Good Notes, I can bring images and PDFs to the iPad and annotate them live. That has been very helpful. My son showed me how he was using his iPad to annotate the lecture notes his professors shared with him, and that was all I needed to give it a try.

I had forgotten how much the very acts of doodling, circling words and phrases, and annotating texts support my thinking process. Reflecting on my metacognitive strategies, I can say that this addition to my teaching toolbox is significant.

Writing Newsletters Again

When I was in the corporate space, training adults to use software, I wrote newsletters to the staff with announcements, words of encouragement, and “Did you know?” sections. It was quite enjoyable. Now, I write newsletters for students and families.

Included in the newsletters are sections that instruct students and families on how to use our LMS to check their grades, send messages, and monitor their calendars for assignments — among other things. The meeting codes for conferences have featured prominently, as well as the high school bell schedule. I also offer words of encouragement and emphasize communication.

Finally, I usually embed an Easter egg in the newsletter that links to a Google form. Lately, this form has included a quiz they can take to receive extra credit points based on their score. It’s like sending a gift each time I do it.

For me, the newsletters have helped with lesson and unit planning as well. It’s a chance to reflect on what has been and what’s to come. Yet another metacognitive moment! Nice.

Still Needed: New Ways to Communicate in Real-Time

Students at the secondary level had little experience being self-directed before we ended up here. Therefore, they may not know how to plan, and they may not feel comfortable advocating for themselves. Many give up due to being overwhelmed. Trying to reach them seems near impossible.

The other day, a student sent me a photo of her screen so I could “diagnose” an issue she had with a site we have to use for career exploration. I saw her unread email count: 191. Holy moly. Talk about being overwhelmed.

In the business world, whole seminars are devoted to controlling email. Although we aren’t in the business world, this is a crossover topic that we should consider spending time on (a newsletter topic!). How many emails are students receiving a day? With seven classes, possibly eight, there could be up to 10 emails a day.

How else do we communicate with them, though? If we teachers were to call each student every time we needed to share information with them, we would never get off the phone. Should we ask them to install another app like Remind on their phone? What about those students who do not have a phone?

Because my district is a 1:1 district, I’m back to email. (You know, this happens a lot: I write myself into a new topic. Yet again, I am reminded of my metacognitive processes. Hooray!)

Happy Holidays to You and Yours

I hope everyone has a joyful, marvelous holiday. I hope you have a chance to unwind, relax, and enjoy one another. Happy holidays.

Image Credit: Photo by Artem Podrez on Pexels.com

Building Community with Breakout Bell-Ringers

AKA – Breakout Bell-Ringers, Part II

Last week’s article was about a plan for a new type of bell-ringer assignment called “Breakout Bell-Ringers.” In that article, I detailed how I was going to implement the idea in one class. This week’s article reveals the result of the experiment.


Let’s start on Friday, because that was the day I asked the students if they wanted to continue using breakout bell-ringers or if they wanted to return to the other type of assignment. It was a pleasant surprise to realize that 90% of the students were interested in continuing the experiment. That meant I had a lot of work to do over the weekend developing the next slide deck! Wait until they see it. It combines vocabulary instruction with poetry.


On Thursday, the students completed a self-assessment using a rubric for Harkness Discussions that I found on Katherine Cadwell’s site. This assessment was for survey purposes only, and I stressed with the students that they should be as honest with themselves as possible.

The responses were honest. Almost every student either acknowledged a need for improvement, or explained in detail why they thought they were successful. While reviewing the responses, something struck me. While many high-achieving students look for affirmation from their teacher, none of the students did in this assessment. They were focused on evaluating themselves. Even though I had supported this idea by saying, “The only way you will improve is to completely honest with yourself,” before the assessment opened, I did expect some kids to write something that sounded like they were seeking some encouragement from me. Instead, they promised themselves to do better the next time. That isn’t a testament to my teaching. That is a testament to their maturity.


On Wednesday, I noticed that the groups seemed to be in a rhythm already. Even before I opened the breakout rooms, students had the slide deck open and were collaborating. I didn’t open the breakout rooms until the second bell sounded so that everyone was in the main conference and could go into their breakout room simultaneously. By Wednesday, the students were taking full advantage of those few minutes reserved for travel time to complete their task for the day.

Note that this was only the second day of breakout bell-ringers, so I find that pretty impressive.


The first day was, of course, a little awkward. Some students did not know fellow group members, but leaders emerged in a couple of groups and took over coordinating the discussion. According to one response to the self-assessment, the group leader for this student’s group used prompting to help the other students contribute. It seemed natural, this student said. The leader came up with a topic sentence, a riff if you will, and then the rest of the group riffed off of that.

I like that word: riff. I know it is used in music a lot, but isn’t a conversation sort of like a series of jazz solos where each musician takes his or her turn, sharing brilliant notes with the world based on a central phrase that supports them all?

I noticed that the two groups were already forming well. During a debrief with the class after this first assignment, I made note of how these groups were forming. On Wednesday, the other groups attempted to work together similarly.

It Worked!

The students were successful. They had the opportunity to meet and collaborate with other students. Hopefully, the sense of social isolation for some was lessened somewhat. Hopefully, we are becoming a team of teams.

We are building a community, one short assignment at a time.

I would love to read your comments or answer any questions you may have. Thank you for reading.

Breakout Bell-Ringers Part I

Featured Image Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

One strand of the ELA curriculum that gets neglected sometimes is “Speaking and Listening.” In the virtual learning/hybrid learning environment, students are – interestingly – hesitant to speak. They don’t want to turn on the microphone and contribute verbally, which astounds me. Since many of my students are active on Instagram and TikTok, so I expected them to want to speak instead of type or remain silent.

Bitmoji Image

I was wrong. I know, it’s shocking…NOT.

I suppose it’s because I am there, speaking and listening. Why? It’s regrettable that kids are somewhat scarred by the wrong-answer penalties levied against them most of their academic careers. The kids I know have learned you cannot take back a wrong answer. Once you provide a wrong answer, it spreads like a stain upon the fabric of the content. Each wrong answer blots out the truth and makes learning more difficult. Students feel they need to silence themselves, fade into the woodwork – or risk more failure.

Why does it bother me that students feel they must silence themselves? It’s simple. Communicating verbally is an important skill we must nurture and develop. Geographical dispersion currently hampers our need to socialize, to vocalize. Not being able to speak with others increases the sense of social isolation we are all feeling, so if we can socialize online using our voices, we may feel more connected.

Addressing the Students’ Needs

So what would happen if I put small groups into breakout rooms and encouraged them to discuss something? Would they continue to type all their responses or remain silent?

I plan to find out.

Hypothesis: For a day or two, some students may continue to be intimidated and reluctant to turn on their microphones, but others are going to speak right away and encourage the other students to participate verbally. The other students will join the conversation verbally, although they may need another day or two.

The Plan


This week, one class is going to transition from bell-ringers to breakout bell-ringers. Below is a screenshot slideshow of the slide deck I’m using to introduce the activity.

On Monday (oh boy, that’s TOMORROW), the students will view the introductory PDF, and I will answer questions. They will open the slide deck to verify that they can access it. On Tuesday, it’s game on!

Tuesday – Thursday

When students arrive, in-person on virtually, they will join the conference and go to their breakout room. Those in the physical classroom will collaborate with those at home to address the questions on their slide of the day. For the first deck, those questions focus on how students navigate their world.

We will spend the first 10 minutes of class on one slide per day, Tuesday – Thursday. The students can add the group’s thoughts into the speaker notes pane of the slide. Meanwhile, I can monitor progress easily because we will all be in the same slide deck.

Here is my first slide deck, with the students’ names removed.

On Thursday, the students to complete a self-assessment on their speaking and listening performance over the week. They will reflect on what they did well, what they could do better, and what it was like to work in a group.

What about Friday?

Friday is Novel Day. These students are reading, independently, a novel from a selection of novels written by Black, Latin-x, or Indigenous writers. Since they all learn from home on Friday, this is a chance for them to put their feet up and get away from the computer for 30 minutes. So far, it has been working well.

The Results

My next post will detail the results of this experiment. Specifically, I will let you know if:

  • The technology works.
  • Students felt more comfortable verbalizing their thoughts out of my hearing.
  • Students were able to generate good ideas in a short period.
  • Students enjoyed themselves.

Thank you for reading. Stay safe. Be well. Be good to you.

Thank You for Asking

Something nice has been happening that I reflected upon this week. Students online have been asking for permission to use the bathroom or to do something that might take them from their desk for a minute. This, combined with students increasingly asking me how my evening or weekend was before I inquire about theirs, warms my heart. I am grateful. It reinforces my notion that these students are aware of their roles in learning and that they are genuinely respectful and polite people.

I’ve been sure to say, “Thank you for asking,” each time students make these requests. I like to think of each class as a team, and such requests support that idea. Each student is a necessary member of our team, and through teamwork, we can help each other learn and master key skills and concepts they need now and for the rest of their lives. Their attendance is critical to their learning as individuals, too. If we don’t work as a team, we risk leaving a student – or students – behind. This year, it seems so much easier for students to be left behind.

Better Than Breadcrumbs: Collaboration

All our coursework is on our LMS and it is easy enough to follow the breadcrumbs and calendar to understand where we have been if one needs to catch up. We also spent two weeks working on tech skills – including how to use the LMS – while also doing coursework. Rather than having some students following those breadcrumbs, however, I believe in purposeful, thoughtful, and challenging collaborative activities that help all students to keep up with everyone on the team. We work better when we work together; all learning is social (eh, Vygotsky?).

This strategy supports students at home and in the physical classroom simultaneously. All coursework is online, which means that all my students have the same access to the material and instruction. The instructional bridge from the classroom to each online student’s home is the collaborative activity delivered synchronously or asynchronously. Each student has a role and can be held accountable. That’s not meant to be punitive; actually, people tend to want to feel purposeful when they are working. Accountability assigns a certain importance to a task, which suggests the performer of the task has a valuable purpose.

Collaborative activities also help mitigate feelings of social isolation that online students experience. As an online learner myself in the early 2000s, I can tell you that the loneliness can be unbearable. Even with the family around, interacting with classmates and the teacher was impossible, which is why I felt so lonely. I do not think I will ever forget that feeling. It still affects me today, on Fridays, when I am the only person in around in my hallway. All the teachers are home, as are the students.

To help my students (and, I admit, me) nowadays, I use polls, group annotation programs, breakout rooms, group slide decks, digital whiteboards, online discussions, quiz sites that allow for teams to compete, the microphone, and the webcam to demonstrate just how much I care about our little community, our little team. Yes, there are times when it must be quiet and students must work independently, but I try to bookend those tasks with community-building and team-building experiences.

Team-Building Tools We Use


Our conferencing system has a polling feature that is so easy to use. We have been fortunate enough to have an Internet connection in our class that hasn’t been too flaky lately. I ask the rest of the team in the physical classroom to join the web conference for two reasons: 1) it’s easier to help the students feel part of a team if they have an easy way to communicate and 2) I get to launch polls and get full participation.

Polls help conjure the feeling of a team, but they are also a good tool to check on student engagement. If students don’t respond to a poll, then I know something has happened. I still don’t know what happened, but I can tell the student isn’t participating and follow-up later. Most of the time, I can get the students back by announcing that I am waiting on [number] of students to respond. Sometimes, though, I have to send a message to the student to find out if all is well.

AP® Lit: Group Annotation

In AP® Lit, students learn how to annotate everything. I think students would annotate grocery lists if given the chance. Annotation is taught in the previous grades as well, but in this class, students learn how to do it as quickly as possible so that they can write complete essays in less than 40 minutes. It’s ridiculous, but it is what it is.

It is my opinion that students can learn how to annotate faster if they learn the skills together, studying and marking up the same document simultaneously. Each person will notice something the others won’t. They can debate the annotation’s veracity and usefulness to build their analytical muscles while also enjoying time together. This isn’t a time to compete, but to cooperate.

Breakout Rooms

I am not a breakout-room master by any stretch, so if you have suggestions for these monsters, please leave me a comment. I’ve used them, though, to facilitate discussions when there are multiple subtopics we are working on, like character and plot archetypes. Students report feeling different – positively or negatively – once they are in the room. Perhaps we need more practice. I know I do!

Online Discussions

Our LMS also has a sound online discussion feature. The students are learning and polishing their writing skills while also learning how to give collaborative, encouraging, and constructive feedback to their peers. These discussion assignments have helped our teams develop, and those who are reluctant to unmute themselves to talk in a conference demonstrate their understanding by writing paragraph after paragraph of their responses and replies to peers. I am truly impressed.

Group Slide Decks

Teachers benefit from using group slide decks, especially in Google Slides. With “grid view,” the teacher can watch the slides being edited in real time, so we can address misconceptions or encourage students to do more almost immediately. The kids are having fun, working together, and forming friendships. Additionally, they are really honing their skills with an important piece of software. What more could you ask for?

Quiz Sites

All I need to say about sites like Quizlet, Kahoot!, and Quizizz is this: Kids love them. If you want student engagement, launch a quiz for teams using this site. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

The Microphone and the Webcam

I saved these for last because they are so important. When I was a lonely, socially isolated online student, it was mostly because there were no synchronous activities. I read the material, completed discussion posts, wrote papers, and read feedback from the professor. Or, I worked with software to help you learn math, statistics, and project management. In other words, I was nothing more than a name to everyone else.

Then, one of my professors called me. His name is John Garot. He called because I emailed him to let him know I was struggling with a text, and he wanted to encourage me to continue reading it. There was a voice to go with the name on the LMS.

In another class, a professor could not take his own isolation, so he decided to hold “live lectures.” The school allowed him to do that, and I think you could hear the collective sigh of relief the first time we all logged in and heard his voice. We, as a team of teacher and students, were grateful for each other.

How do I know the professor needed that interaction as much as we did? Because after the professor asked us how we were, and we responded with something like, “Good, and you?” he said, “Good. Thanks for asking.”

Thank you for reading. Be well. Be safe. Be good to you.