Middle School Ninja Warrior

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I love middle school.

My high school teacher friends think I am slightly crazy and my elementary colleagues don’t understand. But it is true.

Middle school rocks.

As I take my place in that hormonal primordial stew seasoned with Axe and bravado, I know I am home. And there is no place like home. It isn’t always smooth sailing and there is typically more than one person  ready to tell you what you do not know. But home is where the heart is and as devoted middle school teachers will tell you, there is no shortage of heart among their students.

Middle school kids still laugh at the obvious. They may have one foot in childhood and the other in the grown-up world, but they are still young at heart. Their  unbounded energy is contagious. They are exploring their interests and their capacity for empathy. They are beginning to make the essential link between work and success. They are old enough to be responsible and simultaneously young enough to care.

Yes, they are a volatile potion of combustible elements. Yes, they are a fragile package of contradictions. But there is also unmatched enthusiasm, life and curiosity resulting in passion, animation, and discovery.

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Success in middle school isn’t necessarily quantifiable. The data doesn’t always reside on a spread sheet. Success in middle school is measured in moments, those tangible experiences when kids find their voices, discover their talents.  Facilitating the journey into adolescence is as rewarding as it is exhausting. It is a lot like mastering the obstacles on American Ninja Warrior. You need to be smart, flexible and strong. You must effectively manage your allotted time. Above all else, you need to be committed to being the best you can be every day.  Middle school, like the warp wall, is not for the weak.  It can be all consuming.

It’s a work out. But then you hit the buzzer. And suddenly, it is all worth it.





Getting Your Child Off to a Successful First Day of School: People to Thank

What a great first day salute from a fellow blogger! thanks!

The Nothing Expert

Looking out my living room window at the kids and their parents waiting for the school bus, I am remembering my own first days—as a parent, and as a teacher. No one has asked, but I am prepared to say, “Thank these folks.”

  • School Staff who are also parents of young kids: Many of them left their own kids in the hands of spouses, grandparents, and neighbors so they could be there for your kids.
  • Those wonderful spouses, grandparents, and neighbors who stepped up for all working parents.
  • The Boss who said, “It’s OK to come in late. Bring in photos!
  • The municipal workers who protected my child.
  • Your school’s: aides, nurses, social workers, office staff, janitors, bus drivers, crossing guards, and those truly wonderful cafeteria ladies.
  • The school’s administrators, who got about an hour of sleep last night, if they were lucky.
  • Your school’s teachers who are experiencing “the…

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Making Summer Reading Relevant

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Summer reading.

For as long as I can remember–as a student, as a parent, and as a teacher– summer reading has remained a mysterious entity. In theory, the value of summer reading is clear.  It makes sense that kids should be reading over the long summer break: it slows summer slide, it presents the challenge to take on a text independently, it offers topics that kids might not otherwise explore.  A kid can read at her own pace and can discuss what she reads with her family. Educational studies support summer reading.

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But like most things in life, theory doesn’t always sync with reality. Kids often wait until the last possible minute to actually do the reading. Then it is rushed and becomes far less meaningful than it could be. Parents  sometimes end up having to nag their children to get to the reading, so instead of those rich conversations, summer reading becomes a source of family contention. Teachers frequently do not know what to do with the reading kids have been asked to do while out of the classroom and it ends up–at best– an add-on to existing instruction, a tacit game of Make Believe: kids pretend they have carefully read the assigned texts and teachers pretend to believe the kids. Then everyone moves on.

But there are ways to make this reading relevant.

First, the texts must be explicitly embedded in curriculum, chosen for the value added to instruction. They must be simultaneously challenging and accessible, no easy feat. Finding the right readings demands attention to curriculum design. The texts then become the first unit of study, seamless entities of the year that is to unfold.  On this note, I would also limit the assigned texts to one for middle school students, two to high school kids.

Second, teachers have to be willing to devote more than passing acknowledgement of the texts. Again, this is no simple task given the increasingly complex instructional demands teacher face annually.But with the right text and well-designed exercises, summer reading can support Common Core state standards.  This means allowing for two to three weeks of meaningful activities that can be vehicles to introduce/review themes of the year. This is why choosing texts becomes so important. If the assigned reading is going to be a lead-in, an organic element of instruction, then the time involved is productive. This also means that at some point every student will need his/her own copy of the text.  In a middle school English classroom, if treated as a unit of study, summer reading can take kids back to the five basic literary elements: plot, setting, conflict, character and theme. Summer reading can allow chances to explicitly apply reading comprehension tools and activities: graphic organizers, annotation and close reading, word attack skills. With the right text, summer reading is the threshold into the academic year.

Finally, and I know I will get hate mail about this part, teachers must be prepared for the fact that kids may not have read the texts or that if they did read, they didn’t necessarily “get it.” This is reality.  So it is important to create instructional activities that will give these kids a chance to catch up. When kids can read or re-read without fear of penalty, everyone gets off to a positive start. Activities that call for basic plot recaps can support all readers. Graphic organizers focused on conflict and character serve a similar purpose. The unit can culminate in Common Core style short and extended responses that provide base line writing samples to start the year.

It is true that when kids see that their work is valued they are more likely to respect the assignments.  This might be one way to validate summer reading. It is also a way for teachers to make productive use of this work.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

If asked to pinpoint our decision to try yoga, it would have to be when we just happened upon a couple of mats on sale for an impossibly low price at Kohls. A blue one for Dom, purple for me. We were in need of some stretching and structured exercise. Suddenly, two random, very fine looking mats had appeared in our path. Call it fate. Call it destiny. 

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It isn’t that we didn’t believe yoga was real work. We did, which is why we decided to give it a go. We talked about it for a month, then another month. The mats, still in the Kohls bag, still in the car, waited patiently. Finally, we googled yoga in Westchester, ready to pull the trigger.

Who knew there were so many different names for yoga? Or so many places to “practice” it? Web sites all whispered persuasively: peace, fitness, flexibility. We focused on those sites that repeated the mantra “Practitioners of all levels welcome.”  Each beckoned seductively through gentle color schemes, special introductory offers, free parking.

What’s a newbie to do?

“Check the reviews,” Dom suggested.

“OK, here is one,” I said with authority. It was close enough to home and the class schedule offered lots of options. Every review was positive: clean studio, friendly staff, private showers and even a little yoga shop where practitioners of all levels could purchase the necessary accessories of the discipline. What more could we ask for? Giddy, we unfurled the blue and purple mats and, as the site instructed, found a couple of colorful beach towels.

And when we showed up at our first yoga experience, a ninety minute Birkram class, we were sure we were on our way to inner peace and new found strength. What we didn’t know? So much.

The parking was free as promised.

As promised, every single person associated with the studio was nice, from the barefooted boy who gave us the senior discount even before we asked to the woman who would orchestrate our torture.

And though I never got to check it out, there was, as promised, a little shop of yoga, too.

The first clue that we were out of our league was the dress–or rather the lack of dress–of our fellow practitioners. A shirtless man with a German accent smiled so broadly that I almost didn’t notice he was wearing nothing more than a black Speedo. Sports bras and minimal spandex shorts, clothing that looked more like underwear than yoga wear. In gym gear, we were woefully overdressed.

It was when we opened the double doors to the studio, though, that we should have sprinted for the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts. One hundred and seven degrees. 40% humidity. If we accepted the sale on mats as our reason to give yoga a chance, we missed the equally obvious message that maybe Bikram wasn’t the yoga we were meant to practice.

But they say you see what you want to see and what we saw was downward dog, lotus flowers. The heat aside, I think we still believed we could fight the good fight. The first couple of activities were sort-of, kind of, do-able. But this was the tease, the baby stuff, a warm up for our descent into the fire and rain of hot yoga hell.

Instead of finding inner peace, my mind wandered and I wondered how many people passed out during a single ninety minute session or how many threw up. I tried to focus. But the challenge to grab a sweaty left ankle with an equally sweaty right hand was too much for me. I could see the clock in the mirror. I might have confessed to any number of sins or crimes if I thought that would make the clock read 5:30.

Then it was over. We didn’t puke or faint. On some level, there was temporary euphoria at having survived, at having passed this cosmic test of endurance. But I knew I would not set foot again in a hot yoga studio.

The lesson? Do your homework. Master the basics. Don’t quit.

Tomorrow, we return to yoga. When we open our mats, we hope to feel the burn, but not the heat.

When School Is Out Part One


A great friend and mentor once confided that teachers are always thinking about school:while  in line at the grocery store,while  unloading the laundry, during the seventh inning stretch at Yankee Stadium.  And, as she was about most everything else, she was right about this, too.

Yes. It’s our dirty little secret. Teachers are always in school mode, even when class is not in session.  Even when we are not correcting today’s papers. Even when we are not attending meetings, communicating with families, filing reports, running photocopies.  We are always thinking about the next great lesson.

My husband reads the morning newspaper to catch up on what happens while he’s busy living life.  Me?  I scour the op-ed pages for accessible and relevant informational texts to supplement my core readings.  Last week, I found a piece about the endangered Madagascar ecosystem to enrich the 7th grade whole class novel Once on this River by Sharon Dennis Wyeth.  I was on the treadmill–actively avoiding exercise ennui– when I caught a rerun of a clip about the Lost Boys, perfect to pair with A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park.

It is like watching the  scenery on the daily commute: you never know what you are going to see. But you have to be looking.

And it is not only me.  My middle school colleagues readily confess.  Road signs are signals, symbols like greater than-less than, the periodic table or middle C on a musical staff.  Cooking directions in Spanish is a  sequential use of authentic language.

And yes, this is because we love to teach. It is part and parcel of who we are.   But it is also because we love what we teach. We see the world through the lenses of our content areas; it is how we create meaning from every interaction, every day.


Why Taking Notes By Hand Is Better Than Taking Notes by Laptop

It is interesting how, as we learn to manage technology, we begin to discover the best ways to “own” it.  When I read this post, it struck me as relevant to the instructional value we attach to technology.

Diane Ravitch's blog

We have been told that buying a laptop or a tablet for every student is a civil rights issue. Vendors of new technology might find it awkward to make such a claim for their products, but “reformers” do not.

Lest the inevitable technology boosters complain that I am spreading doubt, let me iterate and reiterate that I love technology. Nonetheless, it is important to acknowledge its drawbacks.

An article in Scientific American warns, “Don’t Take Notes with a laptop.”

Why? Students using a laptop tend to transcribe the teacher or professor’s remarks verbatim.

“Obviously it is advantageous to draft more complete notes that precisely capture the course content and allow for a verbatim review of the material at a later date. Only it isn’t. New research by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer demonstrates that students who write out their notes on paper actually learn more. Across three experiments, Mueller and…

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Go Play!

It’s official. Kids need more time to play.


We didn’t need the Atlantic  [ http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/06/for-better-school-results-clear-the-schedule-and-let-kids-play/373144/ ] to tell us this. 

But wait. There’s a rub. It seems kids need more time to play… without adult intervention. 

What? No grown-ups?  It will never fly. Developmental anarchy. Instructional blasphemy. They are kids, you know. They need us; they really, really need us.   

They do need us, but not all the time.

Consider this.  For some kids, up to 90% of their time is spoken for. There are the non-negotiables like school, meals and sleep.  Figure in the play dates, gymnastics, music lessons, Little League, dance class, travel teams, AYSO, art lessons, swim practice, Scouts, drama lessons.  There isn’t a lot of time left over for make believe.  There is practically no time left over for trying out independence or making a stab at conflict resolution or practicing assertiveness.

Sometimes, kids need grown-ups to just butt out. Sometimes, we should MOOB: Mind Our Own Business. 

But we mean well.These activities can be great for kids and sometimes, they can even be fun. We want our kids to turn that double play and to play the Pachelbel Canon. Of course, they need to be able to do a front handspring and earn that orienteering merit badge. They must get those community service hours logged.  We can’t have our kids left behind. They will thank us later, when they present a rich and well-rounded resume in this uber-competitive world.  

And besides, they need us. Really. In so many ways. We can officiate, instruct, intervene. We are, after all, the grown-ups.

The truth is they do need us.  They need us to keep them safe. They need us to help them make sound choices. They need us to support their efforts.

 But they also need us to give them time to create an imperfect fort out of a refrigerator box.  They need us to allow them time to settle a disputed call at third base. They need us to let them make–and fix– a few social mistakes. 

They need this time to develop the individual self confidence that they will never pick up from an overly adult-directed childhood.  They have to learn to trust themselves, to figure what to do and how to do it. A small study conducted by three German psychologists suggests that the most successful among us are those who have had ample time for unstructured play. [ http://www.psmag.com/navigation/books-and-culture/value-unstructured-play-time-kids-81177/ ]

We won’t always be around–nor should we be–to right their wrongs and chart a perfect course for them.  Though it may be a tough pill to swallow, we have to understand that our job is to make ourselves obsolete. 

So let them go play!