Instinctive practice, with a lack of terminology

Fortunately or unfortunately, I do not have an education degree. I have an English degree but am alternatively certified as a teacher in Oklahoma. I felt really inadequate at first, even though I had teacher after teacher tell me that they don’t really teach you anything in those classes anyway – you learn it by doing it.

I learned it by doing it – and by reading about it. And by networking with other teachers everywhere. And by talking with my students and reflecting on what works and what doesn’t.

Educational lingo used to make me feel dumb, but I figured out I’m doing most of it, just not labeling it the same.

Collecting and analyzing data:

There was this one time, I stood before my class of intro to journalism students and had just gone over ten different types of feature stories. I had described each and given multiple examples and they could see these for reference in their textbook. They were to be brainstorming ideas – three of each type – AND NO ONE WAS WRITING ANYTHING DOWN. OK, a couple of the students had managed to write down an item or two, but by and large, these kids could not think of, or would not chance coming up with, ideas of their own for this feature story idea brainstorming task. Under 10 types, at three per, a real go-getter would have come up with close to 30 ideas. Some kids had four or five ideas; half had nothing at all. One or two had maybe a dozen.

We ran out of class time as I tried to encourage them to think of more ideas. I made it homework, but even the next day, no one had come up with anything more.

I mentally collected data: Kids cannot/will not create story ideas.

I mentally analyzed data: Kids are so used to bubbling scantrons, they do not know how to create ideas. Or, they are afraid of being shot down for having the “wrong” answer.

Possible solution: Provide more opportunities to practice creating. DO NOT shoot down ideas. Build confidence. Model, model, model.

This collecting and analyzing of data was not done with exams, scantrons, reports or meetings, but it was done.

Providing formative feedback:

OK, so in the beginning of my career, formative feedback was
1. verbal: “Yes! That’s right!” or “Close, it was …” or “Not the answer I was looking for, but you make a good point.” or “Tell me what you mean.”
2. Physical: pat on the back, high five, air knucks, thumbs up, pointy finger to lips in a “shhh..”, subtle shaking of the head in a “no”, standing beside a perpetrator so that my presence was felt.
3. Written: I loved writing notes in the margins! The first assignment for my English 1 freshmen was to tell me about themselves, and I could always find a connection to make note of in the margin. It wasn’t until later I realized most couldn’t read cursive. Ah, well. I did same with their formal paragraphs, essays, even tests, to explain what might have been misunderstood or ask a question of them that might clarify where they went wrong. In news and yearbook, this was the method we used for editing story drafts. After two or three editors had done the peer editing, I took a run through it, using proofreading marks and margin notes, noting things that worked well and ideas for improvement.

Then along came Google docs and our world was changed forever. For some reason, either because I am maturing as a teacher or because the commenting feature makes it easier to do so, I do not usually correct errors so much as point them out. Typing is so much easier than writing in margins, so I explain why it needs to be what it needs to be or why another option might be better. I get nearly as wordy there as I do in blog posts. I can be witty, too. But I can easily comment:
its=possessive; it’s=it is;
or another favorite: everyday=one word as adjective “my everyday shoes”; or every day= two words, as in “every single day”.
I’ve heard kids from across the room go, “Oooh, I get it.” I even go on lengthy descriptions about run-ons, trying to teach the concept in the comment feature.

Guidelines for peer feedback:

I had someone ask me in a chat this week about my guidelines for peer feedback. Guidelines? I’d never thought about it. The kids figure out how to give feedback to each other by how I model giving feedback. In publications classes, drafts must go through a few staffers/editors before I see it. And I tell them that I’m mainly there to keep us from getting sued. I want the editors to take on the responsibility of good editing. Of course, that has to be built, and some years are stronger than others. I start from scratch in my intro to journalism classes. In the intro classes, when they begin peer edits, the comments are inevitably “it’s good,” or “great job,” or “I like it.” It takes a little work from me, a little preaching about how anyone’s work – including mine – can be improved, and we’re all here to help each other get better.

As I provide feedback, “good lead”, “run-on”, “no first- or second-person”, “watch the editorializing – who’s opinion is this?” “read aloud – doesn’t make sense”, they begin to offer similar advice to each other. In Google docs, I can see the comments they’ve given each other, and when I see good edits, I praise the editor. When I see a story go through with a “good job” and it’s full of fragments and uncapitalized “i”, I look to see who commented and I ask her how she let that go. Doesn’t she want to help her classmate get better? Eventually, they catch on, and I hear the kids thanking each other. Thanking each other.

Once they are on yearbook or newspaper staff, I hear editors telling new staffers that they need more sources or asking where they got certain information. I see an editor leaning over the shoulder of someone laying out a page and explaining headline hierarchy and how he needs to align with the rails and my heart pitter-patters.

Guidelines for peer editing? Nah. I just model what I’d like them to be able to do. I praise when I hear it done right, and I talk to them privately if it’s not going right and offer suggestions for improvement.

Projected Outcomes:

Um, OK, again with the modeling. Even in the early days, I instinctively knew I needed to provide a model if I wanted students to produce something. I like models so I know what’s expected of me. Why wouldn’t they need the same? “This thing here? This is what I project you will come up with – or something similar …” If I want creativity, I show them several that are vastly different, so they know they have room to explore.

This year, though, experimenting with Standards Based Grading and then leaning toward Feedback Instead of Grading (known by some as TOG, or Throwing Out Grades), I developed what I’m calling Target Sheets. One thing that seems handy is for the kids to know, not only the product they are to come up with (feature story or seven photos that exemplify rules of composition), but the standards they are trying to meet or exceed. Whether I “grade” them or have them assess themselves, it’s fair to show them what we are all shooting for. So I developed these target sheets that describe the project, indicate essential questions the assignment should address and show the standards, with a 4-0 rubric, that the assignment will be assessed on. I provide the target sheet at the beginning of the assignment so kids can see what the requirements are. They are to hang on to that so they can refer to it throughout the project (doesn’t happen much yet), then turn it in with the finished product (rarely happened, and I found myself having to print additional copies). In some cases, we assessed some of the standard(s) together in a mini-conference. In some cases, due to time or the project, I assessed, but provided written feedback and the opportunity to rework the project. Some did; some didn’t. I do realize most didn’t because there was already a grade on it. I blame time constraints and the fact that I was under some pressure to put in so many grades within a certain time frame.

My main point here is that I worked to make the students aware of what the project outcome was as well as what their skill/standard outcome was. I believe that was an improvement over what I used to do.


I’ve always instinctively dwelt upon absolutely everything. Little did I know that we call this reflection, and that it’s good for you, like spinach. I’m always rethinking and reinventing wheels. Now I try to do it a bit more formally, and I encourage my students to reflect as well. In fact, I require it to the extent possible. In an effort to avoid the subjective and punitive nature of grading, but still meet most of the demands of my job, I had my publication students weekly 1. project outcomes (make goals on a daily log) 2. note on that log what they did daily. 3. reflect (did he do all he set out to do? what could have gone better? what was he proud of?) and assess (based on guidelines we set earlier in the year, what grade does she give herself for the week in productivity?).

Some really did reflect, and I was proud of what they discovered about themselves when they did that. They often set new goals or adjusted how they approached certain tasks. Some just jumped through the hoops and wrote something that might satisfy the teacher. I’m hoping they get it at some point. In my network of lead learners, I have resources for teaching reflecting that I will lean heavily upon for the coming year. It’s not instinctive for everyone. It must be taught, and I will spend more time teaching it, which will be worthwhile.

In my constant quest to get better at my job, I’ve lined up a good reading list for my summer, and I offer it to you:

Role Reversal by Mark Barnes

Assessment 3.0 by Mark Barnes

Digital Student Portfolios: A whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Assessment by Matt Renwick

I also recommend a couple of Twitter Chats and a Facebook page:

#sunchat, Sundays at 8 a.m. CT

#TTOG, Teachers Throwing Out Grades, ongoing slow chat (also Facebook page)

#DI4all, Differentiated Instruction for all, next chat July 6, 7 p.m. CT

Follow these Tweeps:





What are some of the wheels you would like to reinvent? What are some conversations you would like to join or start? Feel free to start here.

The power of the fork

"A fork in the road. Which way should I go?" by Nicholas Mutton via CC ShareAlike 2.0

“A fork in the road. Which way should I go?” by Nicholas Mutton via CC ShareAlike 2.0

The fork is thought to have originated in Ancient Egypt. However, the proverbial fork in the road probably originated with Eve.

How many times in a day are we met with such forks, decisions that need to be made, usually on the spot, especially if you’re a teacher?

“May I go to the bathroom,” says the student suddenly standing in front of me as I’m moving around the room helping the class with the writing assignment.

*Quick calculation: How far are we into class? Is this a student who takes advantage of me for bathroom privileges? Has she already left class more than once this week? Am I about to address the class with instructions? Make a decision. Yes or no.

I am approaching a student who is not on task for writing assignment.

*Quick calculation: What was his topic? Had he started already? Had he run into interviewing obstacles? What was the last interaction I had with him? Is he prone to accepting feedback or prone to frustration and potential meltdown with too much pressure? Make a decision. Gently ask about status or demand he get back on task.

That last one, I feel I’ve dealt with dozens of times daily the past couple weeks with a newspaper staff mid-production cycle and a yearbook staff sitting on one publisher deadline while another peers over the horizon. And with two intro to journalism classes learning feature writing and the art of interviewing, I’m checking in with all temperaments of students all day long.

Those are little forks. We also have bigger forks, forks that have the potential to make or break us.

Our district just hired a new superintendent. Those of us at the classroom level of the hierarchy wonder, how will this change things in the coming year(s)? Will this person be a top-down mandate maker, establishing rules and sending memos from headquarters like we see at government levels? Or will this person go into the buildings where the children and teachers are, see how things are going, build relationships and really get to know the people and what their needs are? Will this person fight the mandate-makers for what is right and best for the children? I’m hoping for the latter.

The law and mandate makers are so busy from their place on the hill, out of the trenches, trying to find ways to test and make sure teachers are doing their jobs (though no testing of students can accurately do that), make sure students are doing their jobs, that they are not only taking time away from teaching and learning, but they are taking the joy out of teaching and learning.

Students these days barely know anything but drill and test. I have found that students in this atmosphere largely fall into one of three categories:

There are the rebellious, who are tired of being told what to do, how to do it and what they are to think of it. They are given so little choice or voice in the place where they spend the majority of their day growing and developing, they are angry at the world and they are in your face about it.

There are the apathetic, who have given up. They’ve tried to be creative and let their inner artist have a say, only to be shut down and told they’re wrong. So left thinking they are inadequate, they’ve given up and do nothing.

There are the compliant who have followed the rules, studied, memorized, or marked C when they weren’t sure, they’ve colored in the lines and maintained their 4.0 to the best of their ability, but it’s done nothing for them. They await the next instruction because without that, they have no clue what to do next. The world will crush them.

We need that leader who will come in and see what is going on, who will ask those of us in it every day – and I mean everybody, from teachers and staff to students – what needs to happen in order for all of us to be successful. We need someone connected to other successful educators from around the nation and the world.

So I’m at one of the bigger forks in the road. I can worry and look for all the ways things are going badly and could get worse. Or I can keep doing my best, lifting up students while still trying my best to hold them accountable, and looking for all the ways things are going well. I can put my faith in the future and things improving in my district and in my state. It’s tough, sometimes, when all the other forks in the drawer get tangled, but I’ll do my best.

What fork in the road are you currently contemplating?

Together, we can provide a strong, educated workforce

Say Professional Development and watch teachers’ eyes glaze over. But February 17 wasn’t your average sit-in-a-crowded-room-and-feign-interest-in-speaker-while-scanning-social-media-on-your-phone professional development.

Monday was a collaboration between Duncan Area Economic Development Foundation, owners, directors and managers from several local manufacturing plants and high school faculty. It was their show and tell for us.

They proudly took groups of teachers on tours of their facilities as employees worked, and they explained what their companies produced and how they did so. More importantly, they explained what skill sets those employees needed coming out of school. That’s where we came in.


Duncan schools has taken on piloting a program in Oklahoma called Career Pathways under the Southwest Oklahoma Impact Coalition (SOIC). The development program is funded by a U.S. Department of Labor Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) grant and covers two economic development planning districts and 20 Oklahoma counties, of which Stephens is one.

Much of education’s focus has been on college preparedness. Indeed, it seems all the standardized testing and push to offer more AP classes is all directed at getting students to college, which, in turn, boosts our school grade A-F, keeps our doors open and teachers employed.

The leaders we spoke with, however, maintain that college is not the best path for everyone. Many of the jobs we saw on our tour required vocational/technical training. That training can be formal at schools like our local Red River Technology Center, or at Oklahoma State University’s School of Technology with campuses in Okmulgee and Oklahoma City. Some high school graduates with the correct aptitude and attitude are trained by the company.

I never realized we had that many manufacturing companies in our area, nor that they employed so many. As three groups, we toured Halliburton Services, Cameron Measurement Systems, Southern Machine, MIC Group and Wilco Machine and Fab. It’s important to note that these companies, their owners and directors, didn’t just step up for tours for the day, they stepped up to be a part of this entire program. They are in it for the education of the students in our area, because those students become the local workforce. It’s good for everybody.


Each tour guide was proud of his company, spending some time on what they produced and how it all worked. But they also let us know that they not only employed people in manufacturing with welding, machine and fabrication skills, they also needed people in sales and marketing, in information technology, in accounting and finance, in human resources. In short, these “home-grown” businesses can and need to employ people with a range of skills, and the better they are educated for these real-world jobs, the better off we all are. The pay for a many of these positions was quite competitive with their college-educated counterparts, oh, say, teachers or journalists for example. Ouch.

They shared some of the skills they need to see, which they find with increasing frequency new employees do not have, at least at the necessary levels. They all mentioned communications skills, both verbal and written as very important. You can be a great idea person, but until you can convey those ideas so that they are clearly understood, it doesn’t really matter.  One guide mentioned that basic math skills are decreasing with students’ growing dependency on calculators. We were told some can’t read a tape measure.

It was on my group’s second tour, at Cameron Measurements, that I really started applying what I was hearing to how we would each – the math teacher, the science teacher, the English teacher, even the art teacher – apply the different skills needed in those jobs to the education of our students. Of course at a company that develops flow meters, measurement is everything, so the math and physical science are no-brainers. When our guide mentioned that new ideas had to be presented for additional funding and the go-ahead to proceed with the project, my English teacher brain kicked in. Maybe my students won’t get much out of writing about themes present in “Romeo and Juliet,” but writing proposals for a skate park? That could be helpful. And new ideas for flow meters? It probably helps if you can sketch the thing, art teacher. These ideas began forming before I took out my reporter’s notebook.

That happened at Wilco.

Yes, I always carry one. I teach journalism.

We gathered in the relatively small reception area to get ready for the Wilco tour, and President Brad Boles addressed the group. It was clear in a short time that Boles was passionate about his business, the Pathways program and about education. Having recently taken a position on the Marlow school board, he spoke to us from a familiar place. He seemed to get much of what educators in Oklahoma are up against.

The gentleman leading our smaller group, Brent Cole, pointed out work being done and fielded questions from teachers in our group about hiring and skills needed. Science teacher Katy Melton asked about metric versus standard measurements. What do the students need instruction in? Both, Cole told us. They need to be able to convert. Interestingly, Melton explained, Oklahoma standards mandate metric only. This was one isolated example of several conflicts between legislators, educators and the real-world workforce and is a valid reason for such important collaboration.

Cole, like Boles, gets it. He reiterated what we all know, what legislators seem not to understand.

“We need to accommodate the needs of local employers, rather than state mandates,” he told the group.

That, right there, that’s when I pulled out the notebook and pencil. That’s when I began my struggle for reading glasses under safety glasses.


After the tours, we met back at Halliburton for lunch and a panel discussion. The owners, directors and other company reps addressed their educator audience about how the state’s push for college readiness for all students might be misdirected, about how critical thinking, idea generation and troubleshooting are important yet are not areas that can be tested. They talked about soft skills necessary to be a good employee, dressing appropriately, communicating effectively, following directions, and being punctual. At one point a teacher accused them of preaching to the choir, everyone laughed and we got on with more discussion about what we could do: emphasize analytical thinking, presentation skills, and showing initiative. We talked about what they could do when math teacher Sharon Edwards suggested they had a captive audience in their own employees. Talk to them about the importance of their children’s’ education, about showing up, about reacting positively regarding math and other subjects rather than negatively. That was an “aha” moment for many.

There was also agreement all around that the one group missing was legislators – the decision makers. I was surprised to learn that most of the panelists had already extended invitations to different politicians for facility tours, had already contacted different governmental entities on behalf of this and similar programs. They’re already trying to make a difference in their workforce and they know it starts with education.


DAEDF staff members, President Lyle Roggow and Jeannie Bowden, each stressed that others in the state are looking to Duncan to pilot this program. They’re watching to see how we make this work so they can consider how they may replicate its success. After meeting with the leaders I watched and listened to on Monday, I cannot imagine that this won’t be a successful program. I was amazed at the passion, the knowledge and the degree of intelligence and drive I witnessed when they all spoke to us. It was validating and uplifting.

Imagine such a program in your area. Manufacturing may not be the “thing” in your neck of the woods. In fact, the program here in Duncan will soon have educators interacting with the healthcare industry in a similar fashion. How could you make such a program work for your area economy and school system? What could such a program do for your local workforce?

He Apologized to Every Teacher He Ever Had: a review

Danza SM

I spent the last three days hanging out with Tony Danza.

Well, not really. But we have been swapping ideas about teaching English to high schoolers and how tough teaching is, in general.

Well, not exactly. It’s been more of a one-way deal. Danza’s been sharing the ups and downs of his year of teaching with me.

OK, it was all in his book. I read his 2012 book, I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had. It was a Christmas gift from my youngest son, one that I had requested.

Interestingly, my 20-year-old college sophomore has come full circle from being proud of me getting a college degree during a time he was old enough to remember it, getting a job as a high school teacher, seeing that job eat me alive, seeing that job take away his and his brothers’ time with me, to understanding why I do what I do and how hard I try to make a difference.

Danza echos this very thing throughout the book, the way teaching is all consuming and how little time and energy teachers have leftover for family. I believe him when he says that in his one year of teaching, he felt the same feelings. There is an awful lot of validation in knowing that it’s not just me. I’m not the reason this job takes so much from me. It’s not that I don’t plan well enough; it’s not that I don’t know when to go home or where to draw the boundaries with students. It’s not that I try too hard to make students feel heard, to give them helpful feedback on their work. It’s a universal thing that teachers wear many hats, and the good ones want what’s best for each of their students.

About the book

Early on, Danza had planned to be a teacher, but boxing and then acting pulled him away from that plan. Finding himself between jobs and at an age when many of us begin reflecting and wondering what if, he began toying again with the idea of teaching. Once spoken aloud, his two careers connected and a reality show was born of the union. Danza made sure though, that his first-born plan was not neglected; in fact, his stipulation was that the teaching, the students, were the priority.

Written from lesson plans, footage from the filming, and his notes – Danza is a very reflective teacher – readers are seated in the classroom before, during and after class, experiencing the jitters about whether the next creative idea to engage students will work, as well as the unbalance that results when students pull those unexpected stunts that endear them to us. Best of all, readers are there with Danza after class to debrief – what when wrong? What went right? How could things have been handled better?

And Danza’s classroom experiences mirror my own. The ambitious, smart kids are in the same class with the less-so, and are frustrated at the non-speed with which the lessons proceed. There are kids who WILL NOT TURN IN WORK. There are the regular tardies with whom you decide to choose your battles, but you know it burns the ones who are there on time. Kids get into big trouble when you think things are going well. Some have fairly sudden changes in demeanor and you wonder what’s going on at home. One day you hear the word guardian and other things fall into place.

He was in Philly; I’m in a mostly rural city in southwest Oklahoma. Northeast has a population of around 3,000, if I remember correctly; my school has around 1,000. Danza mentioned an on-campus police station, but we have our resource officer, who stays moderately busy. They seem like vastly different situations, but so much of the experience he shares is the same, the same.

Some parts too good to be real?

Playing the role of critic, I want to point out where I feel slighted by the book. Danza pointed out early in the chronology that he was against the idea of a reality show, and for good reason. I’ve never understood the popularity of reality shows; to me it’s obvious that much of it is set up. It may not be word-for-word scripted, but real life just isn’t like that, and drama doesn’t neatly fit a plot line convenient for a one-hour production, no matter the editing. Danza refused to let the network set anything up as far as interaction between the students and others on camera. He was adamant, and for that I respect him. For that, executives were disappointed in the product of their footage and the six-week run didn’t have the buzz or the impact they thought it deserved. But while I’m busy respecting that, another part of my mind has begun to wonder about the book.

I was so very impressed with the ideas Danza used to teach certain units (my copy has sticky notes marking pages), engage readers and review for tests; I was almost too impressed. For a first-year teacher, one who hasn’t just come out of an educational program, or networked with lots of other teachers, those were some pretty snazzy ideas. I don’t think the ideas came from teachers he worked with, because he seemed to be the only one setting up scavenger hunts with stations on baseball fields. Where did those ideas come from? Maybe I’m just jealous, but thinking it a bit unbelievable that he did come up with so many creative, successful ideas on his own, it makes me wonder about the credibility of other parts of the book. I’m stealing, regardless. Hollywood Squares for review? You bet.

One of us

So Danza had a little help with lesson plans – I’m assuming – and he had an assistant, and he had a mentor teacher who was usually in the class with him, and he taught only one section. He still went though what we all go through, and he recognized that the other teachers had to teach five sections and didn’t have the backup he had. He did plenty of extra duties and got some new things started. He got to do some things many of us wish we had the time to do. At the end of the year, he saw that he had made a difference in the lives of a classroom full of kids. Isn’t that what we all want?

The prologue of the book was poignant. As if he hadn’t already been forthcoming enough, Danza seemed to lean in a bit closer across the space between us to update me on events since he finished the year at Northeast. He’s kept in contact with several of the educators and many of the students he friended that year. It’s clear as he updates the reader on who’s retired and which kids have done what since he left that he really cares about them. It’s clear as he talks about the real issues in education that he really cares about what is happening and how we can make a difference. For all the chapters in which he said that he cried, the prologue is where I teared up, just knowing someone with a foot outside the education field and with some influence gets it and feels it all as strongly as I do.

One thing particularly true of the book is that Danza connects to the reader. When he talks about his fails and his wins, you feel his disappointment, his exhilaration, just as you yourself have felt it on similar occasions. You want to pat him on the arm or bump fists, because it’s like you’re there in the room with him. It’s like you’ve been hanging out with Tony Danza for the past three days.

On soapboxes and tirades

One would think I was a soap distributer for all the metaphorical soapboxes I’ve been perched upon this past week.

Most memorable was the one about testing. My pronouncement from it was unexpected and I remember waving my arms quite madly to make the point.

But let me back up a smidge. My intro to journalism classes were learning about writing the staff editorial, so I broke them up into groups about the size of an editorial staff. Their mission was to generate a topic on which they could voice an opinion of the critical, commendatory, persuasive, explanatory, or commemoratory type.

One group chose testing, and they weren’t even referring to standardized testing. They were simply frustrated by the ways in which teachers got them ready for regular tests over units of study. The more they discussed their topic, however, the more I realized they weren’t talking about reviewing for a test the day before; they were talking about learning the material throughout the unit, but they considered it preparation for the test.

I asked them why they thought they were learning that material in the first place.

“So we can pass the test.”

I let my frustration show. Gave ‘em the speech about learning for learning’s sake, learning for knowledge, learning how to learn so you can learn other stuff. They stared wide-eyed. Of course, that could have had to do more with the crazed look in my eye than the novelty of the idea of learning to know something.

I hope I planted a new perspective on that topic.

I finally stepped down from the soapbox, and the bell rang.

In the days since that exchange, I’ve thought about how often I test – not that often. I’ve thought about how I refer to tests. In that intro class, rarely. In my newspaper and yearbook classes, only at midterm, when I’m required to have some sort of final grade, so I usually tie a final grade to a story or project they do for that purpose or one they’ve already done.

In my English classes, it’s a different story, but I’m still not a test-Nazi. I do hear myself saying, “You might jot this down. It could show up on a test.” Of course it will. There will be a unit test. But more and more, I try to make my tests about how to use the knowledge rather than recall the information.

How we teach, how students learn – or don’t, how we assess the whole education system and who does that assessing – it’s a HUGE soapbox of an odd shape, one I’ve been jumping around on a lot lately. I might as well sand it down, make some comfortable spots, throw on some pillows and personalize the darn thing, because I’m going to be spending some time on it.