Empowering Kids

Image result for black and white images of school  By the time kids strut, slink or otherwise traipse into middle school classrooms like mine, the social tiers are mostly set and the stratification we see is often neither pretty nor kind.

Middle school might be Ground Zero for the lonely heart, but the battle for social control starts much sooner.

Image result for black and white images of kids in school  As early as first grade, primary level teachers report seeing the emergence of a “popularity hierarchy.” Self appointed big fish begin calling the social shots: who is worthy of a prime seat on the bus, cafeteria and recess playmate assignments, clothing assessments, the early childhood grapevine.

Our littlest ones navigating the new, vast–and sometimes scary– world of school are perhaps most vulnerable to exclusion and least able to self-assert.  It is hard enough to remember if you are buying lunch or what to pack up at the end of the day. You are learning to read, to add and subtract. Talking back to a strong, confident peer? Not on the list of things to do today.

And speaking up only gets more difficult as kids transition to the uncertainties of middle school where alliances shift between periods, where acceptance can be as elusive as an algebraic equation, where hearts seem meant to broken.

Image result for images of social hierarchy    If Abraham Maslow was correct,  immediately after securing basic physical and safety lifelines, all humans crave a sense of belonging. Everyone needs to feel she is among friends, with people who accept and love her for who she is. We all need groups where we can contribute and be valued.

Image result for emoji of power    What Educators Can Do   Image result for emoji of power

Words As Tools

Image result for black and white images of word walls  Words are power. Teachers model this every day intuitively when we choose our speech carefully, when we praise kids for effort, when we subtly reword misunderstanding to lead kids toward more precise responses. Teachers interact with kids and with each other knowing that all eyes are on us. Words can create a shared language, empowering kids to find appropriate means to self-assert. Little kids–and even not-so-little kids–are often neither fluent nor confident enough to articulate feelings. We can help them use words as tools to set personal boundaries and speak for themselves and their peers. Word Walls support content area literacy. Word Walls can also help kids say what they want–need–to say about themselves to others. Examples include common phrases of courtesy–please, thank you, excuse me and the more focused vocabulary of self assertion–I respect what you say, butI need a little more time to thinkCan you help me?…I don’t think you mean to be unkind, butthat is a great idea…      

Make Instructional Time Do Double Duty  Math, Symbols, Blackboard, Classroom, Lesson, Pie Chart

There is power in sharing ideas. Use content area instruction to simultaneously promote critical thinking and character education. Getting kids to think beyond names, dates, formulas, plot lines enriches lessons and can support their personal growth as well.  What are our responsibilities as citizens of Planet Earth? Should individuals and nations share knowledge and innovations freely for the common good?  How much courage did it require to help Anne Frank or stand up to Yertle the Turtle?   What are the benefits of genetic engineering? Evaluate Truman’s decision to use atomic weaponry. When kids consider content area concepts in personal and ethical contexts, they own the material. They also have opportunities to see the value and consequences of individual actions.

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Monitor Collaborative Activities

There is power in learning together. Through structured lessons, individuals become contributing members of groups, simultaneously developing both academic and social skills. Clearly established ground rules and roles ensure that every pupil interacts with both the material and with peers. It requires planning and foresight to create balanced groups and to uncover ways for every child to bring his strengths to the table. Continuous close monitoring prevents exclusion or domination.  Because kids cannot police themselves or each other, adults must be alert to subtle signals of marginalization or a power grab. Despite the additional work lessons like these call for, the ROI (return on investment) is great: confidence, satisfaction, acceptance, respect.


Create Community   Image result for images of learning communities

All of these efforts lead to the ultimate goal: a learning family created out of accidents of proximity. As in any family, each individual is an integral part of the whole, valued and also responsible to his kin. Embedded in this “family” are security, safety, and acceptance. Kids will learn more effectively under these conditions, but they will also grow into themselves, finding courage to speak up, finding confidence to explore their strengths, finding reasons to be kind, responsible, generous.

Teaching is so much more than being an expert in your field.  It is more than test scores and data. I wasn’t yet a teacher when Christa McAuliffe said, “I touch the future; I teach,” but in the years since, I have come see that as our challenge. Not only are we helping kids become scientists and scholars, we are creating the next generation.

















The Importance of Early Childhood Education

Image result for school children's images clip art                                                                              Image result for school children's images clip art

Last week, I had a chance to speak with a teacher dedicated to our youngest students. Her energy and enthusiasm are contagious; her vision for a risk-free, child-centered learning space will inspire both kids and instructors. Kudos, Ashley!

And then, over the weekend, our grandchildren chattered excitedly about school: fun, friends and learning. We learned of the symmetry of butterfly wings and the writing process.  Their teachers are embedded in their tales of Pre-K and first grade: knowledgeable, patient, creative souls.  When these kids grow up, it will be the magic of these teachers they will remember as their earliest introductions to the classroom.


Image result for images of math equations This all reminded me of the huge debt that we–as secondary teachers–owe colleagues like Ashley and those who teach our grands each day.  Without them, there would be no source-based argumentative essays, no DBQs, no chem labs.

Colors and shapes,  letters, the number line give way to sight words and greater than and less than which brings kids to us, to Hamlet, the civil rights movement, algebra and laws of motion. What kids learn in 7th grade or 10th or 12th is built on the foundation established in Pre-K and K. (NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio is onto something in his push for universal Pre-K.) Early childhood educators have the tools–and foresight– to create lessons that will support vertical consistency. As instructional expectations for the littlest pupils continue to expand, delivering content area instruction has become an increasingly challenging task.  Bless those who continue to work so hard at this job!

But perhaps equally important are the social and personal skills early childhood educators must develop in their students. Everyone knows about early lessons on sharing and waiting in line. But kids also have to learn to follow spoken directions and transition from one activity to the next. They have to feel safe enough to ask questions.  They must learn to use structure and routine to discover self-discipline and understand that mistakes are part of the learning curve, not signs of failure.

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The tricky part in all this? Holding onto innocence, to childhood. Finding ways to fine tune these skills that will determine future success without dampening the boundless curiosity that defines first graders.  Helping kids learn to laugh at themselves.

A good friend who sits in those little chairs in the district where I once worked, will be that teacher, the one kids will remember, the one who held their hands, dried their tears and set them back on their feet for the next day, the next challenge. Terry, long after kids have moved on to other classrooms, they will remember when you brought math and science to life, when you gave them room to be kids and the skills to be adults.

Image result for images of thank you     So to Terry and Ashley and all the other early childhood teachers out there prepping kids for what they will see in middle school and high school, thanks!  Teaching truly is a team sport.  You might not always see your work after kids leave your nests, but what you do makes all the difference.



Hard Work…it really is good for kids!

Image result for images of homework

In a district where I once worked, middle school homework was the instructional equivalent of the Great Butter Battle. Though during my early years there we were told we weren’t assigning enough homework, trending conversations have been about too much.

Turned out that homework was just too hard. Kids had too many other activities: sports, acting lessons, cooking classes, voice training. And when they did finally get settled in their rooms–where they had access to computers, smart phones, televisions, and video game consoles–they were simply spent.

Image result for images of a clock face Fueled by parent concerns– likely fueled by tween complaints– the superintendent responded by limiting homework to ten minutes. Ten minutes.

Ten minutes is an eternity when Dr. Tim is drilling your back molar. When your express train is delayed ten minutes, making you unfashionably late for a meeting, it can be kind of a big deal. But not much happens in ten minutes for a 7th grader planning an analytical essay or solving for x. And what takes Johnny ten minutes to complete might take Susie twenty. So the Ten Minute Rule temporarily put homework out of its misery.

The problem was that we were proud of our status as a high performing district. We were sending our middle school kids to compete in demanding high schools, where by all measures, they arrived academically very well prepared.  Image result for images of homework


Homework was giving our kids a three-fer: content review, skills practice and while the stakes were still low, an intro to personal time management.  Image result for images of a bargain

But Wait…There’s More

And now experts who know about these things suggest that time spent on academics can keep kids from discovering more dangerous pastimes.  An article in Monday’s New York Times by Austin Frakt cites a paper published by the Journal of Health Economics that concluded hard school work is actually good for kids. Who knew? https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/30/upshot/worried-about-risky-teenage-behavior-make-school-tougher.html


The paper focuses on advanced math and science classes, but it isn’t difficult to make the leap into the humanities, too. Deconstructing transcendental poetry, communicating effectively en espanol,  defending Truman’s decision to use nuclear weaponry can be every bit as challenging as derivatives or the periodic table.

In states where tougher academic standards have been phased in, statistics suggest that kids seem more able to avoid cigarettes, alcohol and drugs. Image result for say no to drugs


And we thought homework was just a three-fer!

The simple story here is kids who are busy with homework have less time to sniff out dangerous activities.

But it is also about setting kids up for success down the road. In middle school, where it is oh-so-safe to commit the occasional age-appropriate faux pas–and who among us doesn’t remember doing that?–kids facing the challenges of reading, writing, speaking, computing and listening are developing positive habits while navigating around bad ones. It doesn’t require an advanced degree to know that good habits are that much harder to form once the bad ones have taken root.

And if this isn’t enough, when we send kids the message that they are responsible enough, they are capable enough to do the work we ask them to do, we are telling them we believe in them. When we stay with them, even when they mess up–as they and we certainly will–we tell them they are not alone on this journey.

The Ten Minute Rule eventually faded away–as did the superintendent who decreed it–but the homework conversation continues. Kids hate it. But kids often hate spinach and flu shots. Poet Shel Silverstein envisioned technology that could take the bad taste out of homework, but as yet, science has not produced a homework machine:

The Homework Machine/ Oh, the Homework Machine,/ Most perfect/Contraption that’s ever been seen.” 





Education At The Tipping Point


Oklahoma teachers and parents rallying for funding

If you have been watching the news this week, it is likely you have heard the sound bytes of Oklahoma teachers protesting for higher salaries and increased funding. Schools statewide have been shut down. An AP English teacher prepping students for the upcoming exam, held class in front of the statehouse.

Oklahoma schools are ranked 48th in the nation. Teachers there have been working with outdated textbooks and in poorly maintained facilities. Like their colleagues across the country, they purchase school supplies using their own money.  Oklahoma teacher salaries have declined since 2000 even as the cost of living has continued to rise. Oklahoma spends almost 4% less on education than the national state average.

So what?

47 states are doing a better job schooling their youth. That’s good, right? Yesterday’s textbooks were fine for the previous generation.  Most teachers willingly admit that they never entered their profession expecting to make a million.  Besides, those teachers, you know, they have it pretty easy, don’t they? Working 8-3, 184 days a year? And they knew what they were signing on for when they took seats in their first ed course.

Make no mistake. This isn’t just a labor dispute. This is a fight for the future of public education in America. 

A Turning Point

Public education in America is at a crossroads. We have reached that tipping point when we either put up or shut up. Amid abundant lip service of the importance of good schools and teacher competency, funding lags.

Federal policy is currently determined by an education department led by Betsy DeVos, a self-serving bureaucrat with zero public school experience.  Her inability to answer simple questions about public education earns her an ineffective rating on the Danielson scale.  Yet, she holds some of the purse strings for an institution she knows so little about. Her appointment and confirmation speak volumes about what we really think about the importance of education.

    And while we continue the incessant chatter about school as central to future success, respect for educators declines. You wouldn’t try to remove your own appendix. A lawyer who represents herself has a fool for a client. Yet teachers enter classrooms daily in defensive postures. Everyone, it seems, think she could do this job and do it better than the pros.

If we want the best for our kids–and most of us agree that we do–we have to be willing to pay for the best and the brightest. We want innovators in our classrooms, challenging our kids to think, to act.   As the cost of college and required graduate school degrees continue to rise, kids with other options will opt for more lucrative professions. Can you blame them? If teaching means holding down two, sometimes three jobs to pay the rent, top candidates will take their talents elsewhere.

We have to be willing to buy the basic supplies, provide access to advanced technology and find ways to keep American kids competitive with their peers across the globe.

People who know about these things predict teacher strikes will spread. Clearly we are about to see changes. Where these changes will lead us is still unclear. What isn’t in question, however, is the importance of education. An educated populace is central to a functioning democracy and for prosperity.




Walking Out on Gun Violence

    On Wednesday, kids across the country used their collective voices to call attention to a problem that we, as adults, have been unable to solve: school shootings.

Kids are scared. They are sad and they are angry.

In a planned protest intended to coincide with the one month anniversary of the Parkland shootings, they walked out of their classes. They walked out in Seattle. They walked out in Brooklyn. They walked out in Montana. They wanted us–grown ups– to know they have seen enough death. They walked for the kids who died in Columbine, Colorado and Paduka, Kentucky and Blackburn, Virgina and Newtown, Connecticut and Parkland, Florida. They walked for survivors who live with fear and guilt.  They walked for themselves and their friends. They walked for their future.

Kids are scared.

Some adults derided the protest as a stunt, a means to escape conjugating verbs or solving for X.  For sure, some kids went along for the ride of a seventeen minute break from the argumentative essay.  But just talk to these kids. And listen. Most of them have done their homework. They will give you statistics about gun violence. They speak passionately about lives cut short and their own fears.

Others called the protest an inappropriate expression, suggesting that rather than walk out, they should “walk up,” that walking up would prevent the marginalized shooters from taking aim. The flaw in the “walk up” argument is it shifts blame to the kids–the victims– for violence. Do I think kids should be nicer to one another? Of course. Kindness, civility, humanity are lacking not just in schools, but in our social fabric.  But to tell kids that preventing the next school shooting is on them is just wrong.  The kids who turn guns on their peers and teachers suffer from complex disturbances that no sixteen year-old should feel responsible to settle.

Kids are sad.

From veterans returning from combat, we accept the long term effects of trauma. Kids who have survived a school shooting suffer similarly from PTSD.  Loud noises, unfamiliar faces, even the sulky kid in the back of the room all take on villainous significance. They wonder why they are alive but the kid who sat next to them in chemistry is dead.

And even kids whose schools have thus far been safe from gun violence are changed by what they have seen and heard.  Kids have been shaken. Adults mistakenly think kids believe themselves to be invulnerable, immortal. Talk to a few kids. You’ll see how far from the truth this stereotype is. There is a deep sorrow embedded in kids’ daily lives, a sadness they articulated in their protests.

Kids are angry.

And they don’t believe the maxim that the answer to “a bad guy with a gun” is “a good guy with a gun.”  This seems to be universal, even among kids who have grown up with guns, even among kids who support gun ownership. They want us to hear them, to have a plan and they will tell you that the plan they hope for isn’t about more guns.

Talk to kids. They will tell you the truth. They want us, the adults in the room, to do something. They don’t want this issue–an issue that affects them so personally– to continue to be buried in the political battleground that currently defines this country.

Wednesday’s walk out should have woken us up, should have expanded the conversation, should have moved us closer to action.  But in so many cases, grown ups have just expanded the abyss, deepening the divide as opposed to finding solutions that actually work. Everyone seems to want to hear himself talk when what we need to do is listen.




Guns in Schools? Just Say, “No.”

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So, in the years after the tragedy of Sandy Hook, we are still hearing about arming teachers as both a deterrent and solution to school shootings.

Deterrent? That presupposes rational thought. Someone who takes an automatic weapon into a school clearly isn’t rational. Before advocating arming teachers, the president himself declared this shooter was mentally ill.

Solution? You would think that losing 20 first graders and six of their adult caretakers would have jarred us into the recognition that the answer to gun violence isn’t simply more guns.

It would be arrogant to pretend to believe in a quick and easy solution to this deadly and swelling problem. However, with 25+ years’ experience in NY public schools comes insight into what teaching entails and why adding marksmanship to our professional duties is not an appropriate response.

Image result for classroom images   A good teacher makes what happens in a classroom every day look easy. Learning flourishes through a series of choreographed procedures and high expectations. Reading. Writing. Mathematical calculations. Critical thinking.  Kids learn to share and take turns. As members of a well-oiled learning community, they learn to see themselves as part of something bigger than they are.  They learn to take academic risks, that mistakes don’t equal failure, that success isn’t defined by the number of times they mess up, but rather by how they respond to error.

Teachers differentiate instruction to meet the needs of a reluctant scholar. Teachers create lessons to capitalize on inquisitiveness. They are expected to turn in positive standardized test scores. They communicate with families, file paperwork, grade student work. In many parts of the country, teachers are working with finite budgets, doing what they can with severely limited supplies.

And embedded in those daily routines are hundreds of unpredictable distractions. Sick kids. Angry kids. Frustrated kids. Hungry kids. Lonely kids. Most teachers know their work isn’t just about content area instruction. Good teachers understand they have to shift gears to address issues as they arise. Great teachers do it all seamlessly.

Anyone who thinks this all happens easily has never been alone with 25 third graders after recess or introduced the classical source-based argument to middle schoolers or set sophomores lose in a chem lab.

In any profession, what happens behind the scenes is not always apparent to an outsider. This is simply a description of the job teachers choose because it is what they love to do.

Which brings us back to the question of arming teachers.  

The idea of arming teachers is a knee jerk reaction, a quick tweet if you will, that raises more questions than it answers. It is the response of an outsider whose understanding of what happens in a school, in a classroom, is limited to a few characters in social media.

What kind of professional development would teachers be given to carry a concealed weapon?  Please don’t tell me this will be about those already trained.  A weapon in a classroom is not like a gun anywhere else. Schools are not sparsely inhabited forests and despite the potential for unexpected violence, schools are not battlefields. A teacher who hunts, a teacher who has handled guns all her life, even a teacher who has been deployed is not—is not—qualified to manage a fire arm in a school.  Unlike the TV shoot-outs we see, the accuracy of even the most carefully trained marksmen in emergency situations is far less than one hundred percent.

And then there are the variables that inevitably arise: What if the shooter is a student the armed teacher knows, has a relationship with, likes? What if the teacher kills a child through friendly fire? What if police mistake the armed teacher for the shooter? Does the armed teacher leave kids unprotected in her own classroom to find the shooter?

This argument does not even begin to take into account the purpose of schools.

Arming teachers is not the answer. Limiting access to weapons of war is a start. Private individual do not need an AR 15. These are military guns designed for one goal: killing a lot of people quickly.  Gun control is not about taking guns away from people. It is about common sense and societal responsibility. The fact that controlling fire arms has devolved into a political argument speaks to the current state of our nation.

Image result for guns in schools   Longer term, as a society, we need to be looking at the whys of this phenomena. Why are so many young men—it is primarily boys who commit these acts—doing this? Why aren’t we doing more to support these kids before they kill? Why has our cultural climate led to repeated gun violence?


The kids of Parkland, the kids around the nation represent hope. Kids are demanding that adults quit the obstinate fight over gun rights and make some changes.  As a teacher, I see hope for the future in this generation. As an adult, I am listening to them.

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Enriching Reading in Secondary Classes Via Selected Non-Fiction Texts

Image result for images of kids reading black and white The Common Core has rightfully taken a good deal of heat. Rushed implementation. Invalid exams. Student scores tied to teacher evaluations.  Families and schools soon showed signs of test-fatigue.  Eventually, public criticism led to test boycotts and demands for reform.

The Common Core isn’t all bad, though. English teachers have always loved close reading and supported argument.   And though initially, my literary heart broke when I was told that, by senior year, seventy percent of students’ reading would be non-fiction, I soon discovered integrating informational texts into curriculum maps could be a win-win.

My Confessions

Like many secondary English teachers, after seeing Common Core prototypes, I started out using non-fiction as test-prep. If kids were going to have to read about science and social studies on state exams, and if I would be rated on their performance, then everyone would benefit from a little structured practice. As a trusted colleague put it: “You wouldn’t take the road test without practicing a three-point turn and parallel parking.”  I found articles that seemed interesting and wrote multiple choice questions and created writing prompts to parallel our ever evolving state tests.

And for what it was worth, this worked. Reading about the science of climate change did sharpen comprehension skills. Practice answering multiple choice questions did make kids feel more confident. Timed writing rehearsal promoted efficient test taking. Scores improved.

But stand-alone test prep ate up too much class time. Random readings—as interesting as they might be—weren’t doing much to help struggling scholars crack the historical code in Act 1 of The Crucible or to challenge high fliers to test the science in Jack London’s To Build a Fire.

There Are Many Advantages

Integrating meaningful non-fiction into secondary English classes not only improves test scores and strengthen skills, but enriches the core reading experience for all kids. The key word here is meaningful. Texts have to contribute to an enriched reading experience. Non-fiction must correspond to core readings.  Thoughtfully chosen pre-reading texts, build a base of prior knowledge that supports all readers. Through informational texts, kids can dig into the setting of a literary text. They can experience the science of the conflict between man and nature.  They can evaluate historical or scientific accuracy. Post reading texts can provide information to confirm or refute messages in literary works, promoting critical evaluation.  Incidentally, prior knowledge and critical evaluation also contribute to higher reading comprehension scores on standardized tests.  You can use these texts as a vehicle for differentiation.  You can use these non-fiction readings as mentor texts, too.

Where to Find Informational Texts

Finding sound texts that actually go with the core reading in your classroom means you have to be an avid reader. Considering the amount of time teaching English demands, this is no small task. But good sources for non-fiction might already be on your nightstand or doorstep.

  •  Image result for images of the new york times  The New York Times—Contrary to popular belief, the Times isn’t beyond most secondary students. The reading level in the NYT has been estimated at seventh grade. Kids can learn to apply contextual cues to puzzle out unfamiliar vocabulary.  The Times features science articles, opinion pieces, human interest, travel, book reviews as well as current events.  If you search the archives, there is almost always something you can use with any core literary text.
  •    Image result for images of sports illustrated covers   Sports Illustrated—It may sound crazy, but the heroes in sports and the heroes in literature frequently share character traits: resilience, determination, endurance. The language used in sports reporting is colorful and engaging. Kids get reading experience with varied text structures.
  • Image result for images of national geographic  National Geographic (for both kids and adults)– NG can take kids to faraway places that can coincide with settings in literary texts. Brilliant photos can bring these places to life.
  •  Image result for images of historic documents  Historical documents—Social Studies teachers use primary source historical documents all the time. English teachers not so much. For literary texts centered on historical events, documents can be a link to the past.
  •  Image result for images of autobiography books  Autobiographies—Personal accounts often correspond to fictionalized stories. Students can extract messages about people/characters who have found ways to leave a  mark on their worlds.
  • Image result for images of science booksExcerpts from books in school and public libraries–Use these resources to fill in the blanks about science, history, economics, law.

Image result for images of kids reading black and whiteWhat constitutes “literature” continues to evolve. We have an obligation to prepare kids for life beyond tests, beyond our classrooms. Academic success lies in curiosity, in critical thinking, in self direction. Making informational readings organic elements of the secondary English class experience supports all of these.