Category: teaching

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Recommended Reading: “I’m Gonna Rise Above What I Was Doing”

favicon If you teach students who will be the first in their families to go to college, or if you teach urban students, this photographic interview, “I’m Gonna Rise Above What I Was Doing,” is important to read.

“Chicago taught Tavaris Sanders how to survive among gang members. Is there room for him to thrive at a liberal-arts college? Jonah Markowitz photographed Mr. Sanders throughout his freshman year at Connecticut College. Now a sophomore, he spoke about the photos with Mr. Markowitz.”

Tavaris — who earned a 4.2 GPA in his Chicago high school — experiences intense challenges, both academic and social, in his first year of college. The photograph of him checking his phone in the cafeteria is particularly startling. So is his resilience.

Source: (via Pocket). The Chronicle of Higher Education. You may also find this article in this Thursday’s edition of Iserotope Extras, a curated newsletter of my favorite articles about teaching, reading, and technology. favicon

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TEACHER VOICES: Michele Godwin, #11

“All parents love their children.”

favicon Wednesday, 9/16 – 8:30 pm
Having dinner with a friend and fellow teacher. We are complaining about our jobs, as we are wont to do when we get together. I bemoan how much work it takes to get my students to do anything, how being in a room with them is like herding cats. I can’t tell them, “Everyone needs to work on their EOP (Educational Opportunity Program) essays. Get to work!” because they aren’t at all self-sufficient. I go on and on about how exhausting it is to spend a mere hour and a half with them twice a week. I describe it as a game of whack-a-mole, where I’m helping one student fill out a college application online (“What does ‘D.O.B.’ mean?”), begging another to please PLEASE register for the next SAT (“I’ll do it later,” he tells me for the fifth week in a row, as he thumbs through a copy of Watchmen), and lecturing three others about making up their lost homework/missing quiz/failed test. Random students from other advisories walk in and out of the room for no apparent reason. And all the while, I’m flapping around with my whacker, trying to solve problems and whack moles and help them see their future.

I am frazzled just describing this scene to my friend, and I realize I’m slipping into the “teacher-as-martyr” mode that happens so often when teachers talk to each other. I finish the tirade with my usual gush: “They drive me crazy, but I love them so much!” And I mean it. My love for them is the only thing that keeps me sane.

My friend, who works at a private school, wants to know more about the craziness.

“Why are they like this?” she asks. “Do their parents just not care?”

This is a common refrain in our culture: Where are the parents? When young people behave badly, or fail out of school, or don’t behave, many of us are quick to look to the parents. When my students are not doing as well as they should be, I call the parents. Of course!

I’ve met with many parents in my 15 years of teaching. I’ve met with doting parents, overbearing parents, and seemingly clueless parents. I’ve seen parents get angry at me, at the school, at the principal, at their kid’s friends. I’ve seen plenty of parents get mad at their own kid. I’ve seen parents cheer, yell, cry, and shrug their shoulders. I’ve seen lots of responses from parents.

I’ve never met a parent who didn’t care about his or her child.

M’s parents struggle because her family is still reeling from her mother’s stroke a few years ago. Mental illness runs in their family, and right now, the whole family is trying to keep its head above water. That doesn’t mean they don’t care about her and want what’s best for her. It means that they struggle. A lot.

K’s mom works all day cleaning houses. E’s mom is supporting the entire family, including her sister’s new baby. A’s mom goes to visit her husband in jail when she’s not at City College, working toward a certificate in child development. D’s mom is flying back and forth between San Francisco and her hometown, so she can take care of her own, elderly parents. All parents have a lot on their plates; some parents have more than others.

But all of them love their children. favicon

Ed. note: Michele Godwin is in her 15th year of teaching high school. She’s back at Leadership High School, where she taught from 2001 to 2008. An English teacher by training and experience, Michele has changed her focus to build a library for Leadership. In addition to her fundraising and library organizing, she is an 12th grade adviser. These are her musings from the past few weeks. Please donate so Michele can buy more books!

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On teachers and classroom libraries

favicon Today I visited with Nancy Jo Turner, a good friend and former colleague, at Realm Charter School in Berkeley.

We chatted and talked about life and about teaching, and I was reminded of her beautiful classroom library and her commitment to independent reading.

Beautiful: Clean design, covers facing outward!
Beautiful: Clean design, covers facing outward!

Hanging out with Nancy Jo also reminded me how hard it is for teachers to maintain robust classroom libraries. (She’s doing it, though, very well.)

It’s (at least) a part-time job:

– Encouraging students to read,
– Checking books out to students,
– Conferencing with students,
– Finding money to purchase new books,
– Checking in returned books,
– Re-shelving returned books,
– Keeping track of completed books,
– And more, of course.

I honor the work that Nancy Jo and other teachers are doing across the San Francisco Bay Area to ensure that students have immediate and ongoing access to high-interest books.

It is also praiseworthy that teachers celebrate the reading of their students. Here’s just one of the ways that Nancy Jo does this:


When I visit teachers in their classrooms, it gets me inspired to continue thinking about the best ways to build reading cultures in schools. It’s not easy work, but it’s worthwhile work.

After all, when students make reading a habit, and when they start liking it again, and when they’ve completed several books, there’s something big that happens. Conversations improve. There are more hopes and what-ifs. And students start building a bigger life that is their own. favicon

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TEACHER VOICES: Heidi Guibord, #1

Building Community Through Snacks, Art, and Conversation

Heidi GuibordEd. note: Heidi Guibord teaches Art at Island High School in Alameda. This is her first post for TEACHER VOICES. Heidi has practiced the visual arts for more than 30 years. Please check out Heidi’s website, which includes galleries of her art works. Indeed, Heidi understands art, teaching, and young people.

favicon The common denominator for young people who attend continuation schools is that they have been unable to navigate their power successfully in other schools. The more specific reasons are complex, layered, and unique to each student.  Most do not want to attend and would rather be back at their old school.  They have had difficult relationships with teachers and administrators, and as I have learned, are reluctant to trust adults.

My first month teaching was rough: new location, new art teacher, new students, new system for me to learn. Former colleague Jessica Gammell once told me that in order for students to respect teachers, there must be trust. In order to build that trust, teachers need to hold high standards and be as consistent as possible. Although I was trying to get basic classroom routines set while trying to figure out school behavioral and academic norms, I needed to build better classroom culture. I also needed to get to know students better, and 55-minute periods don’t always serve that.

At the beginning of October, I started an after-school class that meets 1-2 times a week. Initially designed to serve as an option for credit recovery, the after-school art class has also served to be the place where community has blossomed. I bring in snacks, since students are hungry at the end of the school day. We work on class projects or try new materials.

Just as important, we have conversations. I have listened while my students have shared why they are at a continuation school, what they are frustrated with, and what their plans are after high school. We have discussed whether ouija boards really work, if Lil Wayne is, indeed, attractive, and what the best breakfast cereal is. We’ve also created paintings that will be shown in a holiday presentation through a local business.Those who attend come to my regular class a little more bought into the idea that I care about their education.

So far, 15 students have attended, with seven students earning credits toward graduation as a result of consistent attendance. This is a good start. In looking at the data, I have realized that six of these students are close to graduation. Starting next year, I plan to reach out more to students who are not as close and figure out what projects would get them to attend.

I need to find organizations to help donate snacks, as that seems to be a crucial component. In terms of the power I have as a teacher, I also want to listen with more intention to students and respond with support and opportunities for them to feel empowered in their high school years — and beyond. favicon

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Recommended Reading: “The Day I Knew For Sure I Was Burned Out”

favicon Sometimes you read something about teaching and say, “Yep, that’s exactly it.” Ex-teacher Ellie Herman has written such a piece.

In “The Day I Knew For Sure I Was Burned Out,” Ms. Herman perfectly depicts what it feels like to teach in an urban public school.

I really want you to read this article — I wish Ms. Herman were a contributor to TEACHER VOICES — so I’ll share with you a few quotes:

No matter how fast or long I worked, I could not get everything done. I developed a body memory of exactly how much I could accomplish in five minutes, in one minute, in thirty seconds. I was always in a panic because I had limited control over my circumstances. Everything felt like an emergency.


There were literally days when I did not have time to go to the bathroom. What else could I cut out of my day? Breathing?

“The day I definitively and conclusively gave up, it was after six o’clock and I was making 100 copies of 11 different scenes for my Drama class. I’d been at work since before 7 a.m.; it was dark when I arrived at school and dark now. Since our school was mainly windowless, and we were always too busy to leave the building during the day, I had not seen sunlight for three days.”

Source: (via Pocket). (Credit to Clare Green at Impact Academy in Hayward for sharing this article with me.) You can also find this article at Iserotope Extras, a curated list of my favorite articles about teaching, reading, and technology. favicon

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It’s never too late (and it can’t be): Helping struggling readers in SF and Hayward

51m9xce9QGL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_favicon Students entering high school are all over the place when it comes to their reading skills. Some read at the college level already, while others struggle. In general, though, they’re 1-2 grade levels behind where they need to be.

For the average student, who is a little behind, we know what works. Care about reading and invest time teaching it. Teach specific strategies of skillful readers with challenging texts, while at the same time encouraging students to read voluminously books of their choice. It’s hard, but it’s easy.

My colleagues and I have had moderate to strong success with this Reading Apprenticeship + Independent Reading approach. For students who read above, at, or slightly below grade level, the program has helped students read better, feel better about reading, and build their reading lives.

Unfortunately, what works for 70 to 75 percent of our students has not worked consistently for the lowest quarter of them. We’ve found that students who read at the third through fifth grade level do not improve at the same rate as their peers. Teacher Pam Mueller calls these students “lifers.”

This year, my colleagues in Hayward and San Francisco are working together, in different ways, to do something about this problem. Here’s a quick summary of our two approaches:

+ San Francisco: Reading Lab
After looking at the data last year, the thoughtful principal recommended built-in reading and Math intervention classes for incoming ninth graders. These small classes (about 15 students each) resemble Ms. Mueller’s class as outlined in Lifers: Learning from At-Risk Adolescent Readers and follow WestEd’s Reading Apprenticeship framework, which allows for additional reading practice and dedicated time for reading.

So far, the three sections are going very well. Last Spring, when the teachers began preparing the curriculum, they expressed concern that students would feel stigmatized being placed in Reading Lab. Not so! At all. There’s tons of joy, and so far, the students are joyfully serious.

I can’t wait to tell you more stories from Reading Lab. Social Studies teacher Marni Spitz, contributor to TEACHER VOICES, is one of the three English teachers involved in this project.

+ Hayward: Reading Cohort
Today I attended this year’s first meeting of a teacher-led study team on reading, founded last year by teacher-leader Tess Lantos. This year’s goal for the cohort, which includes the principal and teachers from all disciplines, is to learn how to meet the needs of the school’s lowest-skilled readers.

The teachers will look at the results from the reading diagnostic, which students took a few weeks ago, and each identify five focal students. Then, the teachers will administer the Qualitative Reading Inventory to gain insights about exactly where each student struggles in their reading. From there, the interventions will begin, either in small groups or individually.

I’m very excited by this approach, too, particularly because the cohort includes Social Studies, Math, Science, and Spanish teachers. It’s not a normal thing to see non-English teachers working earnestly to improve their reading instruction.

I am fortunate to work with smart, skilled colleagues who care deeply about their students. My colleagues really get how important reading is for a student’s academic success and overall well-being.

What do you think? Do you have comments or questions? Please leave a brilliant insight! favicon

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Another easy way to promote reading: Make public a list of who’s reading what

favicon Here’s another quick and easy idea to promote reading from the classroom of English teacher extraordinaire Tess Lantos at Impact Academy in Hayward.

Post what students are reading. Make it public. Make it big and put it up on a wall. Like this:

Status of the Class

Tess tracks what her students are reading in a Google spreadsheet. Then, she gets huge paper and prints it out. Simple — and very effective!

With this tracker, students can check out what they’ve read, what their peers have read, and which books are most popular. It also helps Tess recommend books to students and push them to new reading levels.

The tracker also highlights how students tend to read “the biggies,” particularly at the beginning of the year. If you’re a ninth grader, you’re reading John Green, Coe Booth, Allison van Diepen, James Dashner, Luis Rodriguez, Suzanne Collins, and Stanley Tookie Williams.

It’s always better to have more copies of popular titles than a classroom library with wide selection but little depth! favicon

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Not easy: Getting books and Kindles back

kindlekeyboardfavicon The school year is almost over, which means it’s time for teachers to get their classroom library books (and Kindles!) back from their students.

Because everyone is so busy and tired, it’s easy to say something like this: “If I don’t get my books back, at least I know that they’re in good hands.”

This is the wrong approach! You have to get your books back! But that’s easier said than done.

Here are a few things to do:

1. Start early. May 1 is a good start date. Even though you want your students to read up until the end of the year, it’s a good idea to begin the book-returning process a month early.

2. Have a good circulation system. If you know which books are out, and if your students know which books they have, then getting books back is much easier. It doesn’t matter if you use a computerized system or a simpler paper system. The most important piece is that your system is accurate and dependable. Again, this isn’t easy to do. Some teachers employ student librarians to make sure everything is accurate. Other teachers have more elaborate systems. Whatever you do, it’s worth it to make sure that your check-in / check-out system is strong.

3. Don’t relent. Your students may say, “I returned that book.” Don’t believe them, but not because you don’t trust them. Often students don’t remember that the book is underneath their bed. The key message is that you’re following the records, and the account says that there is a book checked out to the student. It’s up to the student to take care of it.

4. Emphasize the concept of borrowing. Yes, you loaned all your books to your students, and you loved it when they became real readers. But they’re your books, not theirs, and it’s important that the books are ready for your students next year.

5. Take data, make deadlines, and remind often. Publicly display how many books are still out. Give students individualized reports about which books they need to return. Have deadlines throughout May, and after each one, remind students what they need to do. If necessary, call parents.

youngmanwithbooksHere are a few things NOT to do:

1. Don’t get angry. By mid- to late-May, you may become frustrated that you’ve reminded a student two or three times to return a book and nothing has happened. Instead of getting angry, have a plan. What are you going to do after the first reminder? the second? the third? Stick to this plan and communicate it to your students.

2. Don’t forget the public library. Make sure your students have a library card. Go to the library with them. Many students fear the library because they think the librarian is going to detain them for outstanding fees. As a result, many don’t have current library cards. At the end of the year, it’s important for you to help students make a transition between your classroom library and the public library. It’s the same thing, really, only bigger. If you help convince students that the public library is a safe place, then they’re much more likely to grow their identity as readers.

3. Don’t wait too long to do book bills. Fill them out a week or two before the end of school. This will give time for students to find the book or come up with a different solution. Often, students don’t begin looking for books until there is a penalty fee attached.

There’s my list. Good luck getting your books back! Do you have other ideas about how to encourage students to return books? If so, please leave them in the comments. Thank you! favicon

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Get Your Students to Love the News, #6: The New York Times Upfront is awesome!

favicon Hey, this little series, “Get Your Students to Love the News,” is becoming a real thing! Today is the sixth installment. When you have time, be sure to check out the other posts, too.

A few posts ago, I emphasized that when it comes to reading the news, there’s nothing like the real thing: an old-fashioned newspaper or magazine, preferably in print (though that’s not a requirement).

But this is not exactly easy to make happen.

Reason #1: It’s expensive. Let’s say I get a class set of The New York Times in print, weekdays only, from September through May. That’s $3.50 a week, 35 weeks, 25 students, or $3,062.50. Impossible.

Reason #2: That’s a lot of paper to recycle! Unfortunately, most newspapers won’t deliver just once a week. A good alternative would be to try a weekly newsmagazine, like Time. But it’s still not cheap. Twenty-five copies at $35 a year runs you $875.

Reason #3: Newspapers and magazines might be too hard for struggling ninth graders to read. Sure, we should challenge them (with individual articles that we find), but it’s also a great feeling for students to be able to read on their own.

Despite all those reasons to give up on print periodicals, please don’t! I have a great solution for you. It’s called The New York Times Upfront.


A Scholastic publication, Upfront takes real articles from The New York Times, modifies them for middle- and high-school readers, and reassembles them in a tidy and colorful magazine format.

What’s also great is that Upfront comes out 14 times a year. That’s a good number of issues. Not too many, not too few.

The articles are done well. Let’s take a look! Here’s one from January after the death of Nelson Mandela.

NelsonMandela2 And here’s one about the anniversary of Tienanmen Square:

Tienanmen Square


Upfront does a good job adding key maps, timelines, and images to help students gain background knowledge, a crucial ingredient in nonfiction. (Kelly Gallagher says so, and so do I!)

Also, Upfront is affordable. A class set of 25 copies will cost you $275 for the year. That’s a doable price.

One of my esteemed colleagues in San Francisco, Marni Spitz, is using Upfront this year with her ninth graders. She’s an excellent Global Studies teacher who believes deeply in the power of reading. Marni loves Upfront!

To be sure, Upfront is not perfect. I want to get my students — even the really struggling ninth graders — to the real version of The New York Times as soon as possible. And I do! But until that happens, Upfront is an excellent scaffold, a great way for students to find success.

If you’ve used Upfront in your classroom, please let me know what you think! You know it’ll be enjoyable. favicon

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Get Your Students to Love the News, #4: There’s nothing like the real thing.

favicon If you’ve been reading this series, “Get Your Students to Love the News,” you’ll notice that I’m trying to suggest simple and easy and free ways that teachers can entice students to become avid readers of the news.

That’s my primary goal.

Journalism is changing, and the way that we find out about current events (Facebook, our phones, news aggregators, RSS feeds, Twitter) now is different from the way things worked last generation.

For that reason, it’s important to offer students digital and mobile options. As teachers, we don’t want to be fuddy-duddies.

But in my opinion, it’s still important to teach students the different ways that news is generated, and where news comes from, and that traditional news sources (like newspapers! wow, yes, they still exist!) play a crucial role in shaping how we understand the world.

The other day, I was reading a physical version of the New York Times, and a stranger stopped me and asked, “Hey, what’s that?” It was partly in jest, of course, but I saw his point. Print newspapers are, or might be, on their way out. This picture of a former student reading an actual newspaper (which Jenni from Berkeley, CA and and Denise from Alpharetta, GA donated) is rare.

Dezmond NYT - 2012

(Photo credit: Dezmond Oriola)

But I argue that we shouldn’t give up on the oldies-but-goodies. No matter what the studies say — they say that young people prefer reading on screens — there’s nothing like the real thing.

Here are a few ideas to keep print alive with your students.

1. Bring your newspaper or magazine to school.
If you subscribe to a print newspaper or magazine, bring it to school. Show it to your students. Talk about the different parts and terms of a newspaper (e.g., nameplate, headline, byline, above-the-fold, second deck, copy, photograph, cutline, article placement, newspaper sections, editorials, op-eds, and more).

Then ask your students: “How do you think these articles got into the newspaper? Who decides? Based on what criteria? Why this piece instead of another one?”

2. Have students compare publications.
Collect several publications (dailies, weeklies, monthlies) from friends and family and bring them all in. Let your students touch them and compare them. How are they similar and different? Which ones have better design? Which are easier to read? What topics does each emphasize?

Have students look at how different news sources handle the same current event. What’s the headline from the New York Times, and how is it different from the Wall Street Journal? Why?

3. Slowly introduce mobile apps.
Don’t skip to this step, and don’t go too fast. Remember, we want students to understand that news doesn’t come from thin air. Real people go out and report the news. They ask questions, do legwork, and write articles, which their editors read and revise before the piece goes to press.

Sidebar: Does my trust in old-fashioned journalism sound fuddy-duddyish to you? Do I put too much faith in today’s journalism?

Only after students have a sense that the Los Angeles Times is different from TMZ should you proceed. Have the class choose one news source that they all agree to download together. My vote: the New York Times (of course).

Then, let them choose one more for themselves. But don’t let them download a news aggregator. The rule is that it must be a real newspaper or magazine. (If you’re nice, I guess it’s OK to download the NPR app.)

4. Make sure they understand how to use the mobile app.
We assume that students, because they’re “digital natives” (a term I don’t like), know their way around mobile apps. That’s not always true. It’s always a good idea to do a little demo of the app for your students.

For instance, here are a few things that I’d show my students about the New York Times app. Here’s a screenshot to show you what an article looks like:

2014-05-09 03.40.30

You’ll see that the top is where the choices are. On the Android version, you can swipe left or right to go to the next article. Students will like that. Also, you can share an article (which I doubt your students ever do). It’s good to encourage sharing.

But then the real fun comes if you press on the “more” icon in the very top right corner. Sorry that I can’t take a screenshot of this menu, but your students will be very happy. They can:

  • Save the article on the app. This might come in handy if your students don’t use Pocket, Evernote, or a social bookmarking service (which is likely 100% true).
  • Add annotation. Digital annotation is all the rage these days (even though Diigo started the trend five years ago). The app lets students click on a paragraph and add (albeit rudimentary and clunky) notes and highlights, just in case they want to note something they’ve read.
  • Play the article or add it to a playlist. A robotic woman’s voice will read the article. This might be helpful for students who have trouble with challenging text. They can keep reading as they listen.
  • Change the font size. This is maybe the most important feature. I’ve found that cranking up the font size is one of the best ways for students to make reading more manageable.

All right, please let me know what you think. Do you think it’s important to familiarize your students with traditional news sources, or do you think that’s just a thing from the past? Please share your thoughts by leaving a brilliant insight. Thank you so much for reading this post! favicon