15 September 2014

Building Strong Teacher-Student Relationships

Post #2 in a written conversation series between husband (PhD and first year high school English teacher) and wife (NBCT English teacher w/11 years in HS classroom and currently trying to impact the profession from outside the classroom)

In our last conversation, Chris, you referenced the stress of always having “to be on” as you maintain classroom order and you even acknowledged classroom management being a non-issue in your college classrooms. Since classroom management tends to be a big concern for first year teachers, I’d say you are not alone in your pursuit to determine the best way to maintain an environment conducive to learning. In fact, I remember my early classroom days well at Cherokee when I entered my first high school teaching assignment to teach a class that had been taught by a substitute for several weeks before I was hired. I had been warned of potential chaos and was told to be prepared. Well, I was prepared as I could be, and I also knew that my approach to classroom management would be based on building relationships with the students. Equipped with my student teaching experience in a Foxfire program, I knew I needed to learn as much as I could about my students and their lives because that would be the best means for ensuring an environment where we could all learn. Five years later, my reputation as a teacher who cared and held high expectations was well established, just in time for us to move to Kentucky and for me to begin at a new high school. Again, I was warned that the students could be unruly, and again, I planned for learning about my students and for building relationships. From reading their personal narratives, to attending the football games and school plays, I made it my job to know my students so that we could all learn together.

It’s exciting for me to see you taking this same approach. Instead of ruling with an iron fist/Dr. Boss knows everything approach,  I see you spending time getting to know your students and building relationships with them, and I’m encouraged because all the best teachers I have ever known use this positive approach. Clearly, it’s much more complex than just building relationships, but this is an important first start.

So, yes, I think that I don’t know as much about Dewey as I should, but I totally buy into the pragmatic philosophy of life and teaching. That is, to be very pedestrian about the whole thing, I do what I see will be the most practical way to get my students engaged. In the climate that I teach, that involves showing them that I care about what is most important to them. So, my students are super involved in school sports. To show them my interest, I had them sign my shirt on the Friday of a game with the cross town rival. I’ve worn the shirt since then, and the students made comments suggesting that they really liked being able to do that. They got the sense that I cared and that I was willing to get over myself for the sake of their self-expression. I mean, who really wants to walk around with a shirt filled with student signatures. You get funny looks in public. But, it was totally worth it because I believe it helped me build relationships with them.

I’ve also found that being able to reference rap lyrics has been effective in building street cred with my students. I quoted Notorious B.I.G. the other day and I heard side comments like--”man, he even quotes the lyrics.” So, it’s just a way to connect. And students at this age need to know that you can and WILL connect with them.

In addition to your willingness to go to great lengths to build relationships, even when it means doing fun and silly things sometimes, I also enjoy hearing you tell me stories each evening of times you tell your students they have to read texts carefully and write essays because you care about their education. I believe your high expectations are also earning you a deeper respect from your students.

They often enter class and sigh when I tell them we have work to do. Work I assign isn’t a set of worksheets; rather, it’s work that causes them make connections and think for a while. One day last week, they said, “C’mon Boss! You’re killing us. It’s Free Friday.”  I said, “Oh, my bad. I’m really sorry that I really care about your education and that you develop your mind.” I said that and I saw a couple look at each other and say something like “man, this guy’s funny.” I think the students want to know that we aren’t assigning work just because it’s “school.” They are really interested in knowing that what we are assigning is meaningful. And, so, if we are truly engaged in the work, and if we only assign work that is meaningful, I think they ultimately get that and on some level appreciate it--even if they come across as uninterested and “too cool for school.”

14 September 2014

Sunday Salon: What I Read Online September 8-14


Since I was preparing for a conference presentation on re-imagining homework, I must have read at least thirty different articles and blog posts about homework this week. I'll share just a few here.

Cathy Vatterott wrote Re-thinking Homework, a publication by ASCD that I read a couple of years ago, and I revisited the book this week. You can read chapter one, The Culture of Homework online here.

Canadian educator, Joe Bower, has an entire section of his blog devoted to posts about homework.

Ultimately, in my conference session, I advocated for more wonder and curiosity, and since curiosity was on my mind, I read this post at Psychology Today.  The author provides three strategies for staying curious.

Connected Educators

At Connected Principals, George Couros blogged about the need for courageous leadership and with this connectedness that brings together an entire community--parents, students, and faculty at a school. What I liked best is the focus on not portraying an image that the principal and faculty want the school to have but focusing instead on what the students experience and feel about their experiences at a school.

Deanna Mascle blogs at Metawriting about her PLN, and she created an interesting visual to show all the ways she's connected.

Peter DeWitt writes about ways to engage parents in our schools, and what I like best is the part where he talks about really engaging parents in dialogue. Instead of an open house where parents go from class to class and listen to the teachers talk, flip it, and send a video and syllabus ahead of time so Open House can be spent in real conversations with parents!


A huge topic of conversation to get my thirteen year old son to talk is to chat about technology and gaming, so when I read that Microsoft might buy Minecraft, I had a great chat with my son who loves to talk about topics that interest him.

In this TED Talk Ali Carr-Chellman talks about using gaming to re-engage adolescent boys in learning.


Vicki Davis always has great blog posts, and this one is about her new book Re-Inventing Writing, but the post itself is about Note Taking Skills for 21st Century Learners.

Educator, Kevin Hogdson blogs about close reading and has a fantastic podcast of his poem about close reading for you to enjoy here.

I head this story this morning on the news, and then I just had to find it online because it was one of those give you chills kind of stories. A star football player, Malcolm Mitchell, at the University of Georgia entered college as a struggling reader, but he ended up joining a book club full of women ages 40-60. He improved his reading abilities and now says what he feels most proud of in life is improving his reading because it's something he had to work for, and football and sports always came easy. Inspiring story.

11 September 2014

Update on Our Homework Conundrum

As I prep for an upcoming conference presentation titled Wonderwork Replaces Homework, I'm visiting some of my previous blog posts on homework. My post at the end of last school year about not making my son complete a word search worksheet assigned for homework stirred some controversy, so I thought I'd take some time to address some of the statements that were presented to me after people read my post.

1)  "You should always make sure your child completes homework as a way of teaching him responsibility." We have never before supported our sons skipping homework assignments, and the only reason we supported it this one time was because we wanted our son to learn about consequences on an assignment that was not adding value to his life.  It was a meaningless word search worksheet that didn't require any thought--mere busy work.  At the same time, please recognize we have required our sons to complete busy work in the past as a minor way of supporting teachers and the school. 

2)  "Letting students determine if an assignment is meaningless is a slippery slope."  The definition of meaningless in our minds is any work that can be completed without thought and that is assigned with no intentional purpose.  A word search worksheet falls into this category because it's simply a search for random words in a scramble of letters.  In previous situations, we have required our sons to complete even these meaningless word searches. Again, it was this one time that we allowed our son to make the decision.  He made this decision not so he could spend time playing video games (we don't allow our sons to play video games during the school week).  He made this decision after returning home late from an athletic practice and after studying for a math test.  (For the sake of anonymity for my son and his school, I'm not mentioning which sport, which son, which school, or which subject assigned the word search.)

3)  "We all have to do things in life we don't enjoy."  It is true that we all have to do things in life we don't enjoy, but when school continually falls into this category, I believe we have a bigger issue to consider.  Why does school have to be un-enjoyable drudgery?  When this happens, we run the risk of having kids feel like captives in an inflexible institution.  I don't believe school should be viewed this way.  School should be a place where kids look forward to going and look forward to learning topics of interest, topics that expand their understanding of humanity, and topics that teach them skills they need to be successful in life.

4)  "How are you teaching your child high expectations?" We are not opposed to the concept of homework, responsibility, or high academic expectations.  We understand that the right homework can extend learning and can be a powerful way for our sons to practice skills they learned in school or to finish research projects or papers. We also believe in studying regularly for any unit exams because we know content stays with you longer if you don't cram at the last minute for a test.  On the other hand, homework should not be assigned just to raise standardized test scores or to prove that a school has high expectations.  Homework should be assigned if it's genuinely improving learning.

5)  "You are an educator, so you should support teachers and not question their assignments."  Actually, the fact that we are educators is precisely the reason we question assignments.  We believe assignments should move learning forward, and we don't believe a word search worksheet moves learning forward. We have learned over the years that flexibility is a key consideration with assignments.  Yes, there are due dates we should aim to reach and should reach on a regular basis.  However, when life and its responsibilities get in the way, flexibility from time-to-time helps students understand human nature and reduces stress related to trying to be perfect.  None of us is perfect (even though some of us have perfectionist streaks).  Fixed mindsets and harsh penalties do not help students; they merely make them think life is rigid and inflexible.

6)  "How are you making your child accept responsibility if you allow him to skip an assignment?" Personal goal setting increases responsible behavior.  By encouraging students to set their own weekly goals, they can attend to issues that pertain to them individually.  For example,  if a student regularly turns in assignments late or not at all, that student could be encouraged to set a goal of completing all assignments on time for a period of time.  Meeting this goal would bring individual feelings of accomplishment.  Since every child is different, maybe another child should set a goal to be more balanced and less fixated on perfection.  Completing all tasks assigned on Monday when they're not do until Thursday might not be the best goal if it's bringing undo stress and causing a child to experience anxiety. 

Note: There have been more word search worksheets to come home this year, and we have required our sons to complete them because there are too many and we don't want them to fail a class over something like this.

07 September 2014

Sunday Salon: What I Read Online September 1-7

Homework practices

In this post Jason Bodnar talks about three types of homework and which one to avoid.

As a parent and an educator, I related well to this post by Donalyn Miller where she argues for more meaningful assignments and reading practices in language arts classes.

A Quebec elementary school is giving its students a year off from homework.

Teaching and Learning

Ashley Hurley, one of my Achieve EQuIP colleagues blogged about the ABCs of giving feedback to peers when they design lessons when she blogged for The Teaching Channel.

I, too, had the opportunity to blog for The Teaching Channel. It was a fabulous experience and opportunity to share ideas about how to calibrate on a rubric.

This excellent blog post by the National Paideia Center argues for more doing and less lecturing in our classrooms. I'm a huge advocate for the Paideia approach and like to use it in my class with pre-service students just as I did in my high school classroom previously. 

Lillie Marshall writes about effective uses for social media in teaching.

Sherri McPherson shares digital tools for providing feedback on student writing.

Sandy Merz deconstructs a teacher leadership cliche. My favorite line from this post is "like most clich├ęs, this one intends to stop thought rather than deepen it. To deepen thought one needs to probe challenging views rather than dismiss them."

Science and Math

Patrick Goff reflects honestly in this post about questioning and modeling in his middle school classroom.

Both Patrick and Tricia Shelton are leading science educators in Kentucky, and they are involved in national conversations about the new Next Generation Science Standards. In this post, Tricia encourages others to blog about their NGSS implementation and learning.

I appreciate this math 101 reading list for life-long learners, and I added a few titles to my to-read shelf in Goodreads.

Kelly Stidham shares innovative tools for implementing new math standards.

 Other topics of importance to me

Walking! Since I still can't walk, and my body and mind are begging for it, I enjoyed reading this article "Walking Helps Us Think" and dreaming about a day coming soon when I'll be able to walk normally again.

 With sadness, I continue to watch the events happening in the Middle East. This post by Sarah Shroud offers thoughtful commentary.

Don't resist looking at these 52 Powerful Photos of Women Who Changed History Forever

01 September 2014

Visiting Historic Fort Clinch State Park on Amelia Island

Standing atop an outer wall overlooking Cumberland Sound

I've pretty much been cooped up in my house for the past six weeks with my broken right ankle. Thank goodness for virtual technologies and the ability to work from home. However, this has also meant infrequent outings for business and even more infrequent outings for pleasure, and I am longing for a trip, big time. Travel is a need for me. As I usually do, I've been reading about far away places and even nearby places, and of course, this is all making me want to travel even more. With school back in session and my inability to drive myself anywhere right now, I'll have to settle for armchair travel. In fact, I think I'll spend some time in the next couple of weeks of my still limited mobility thinking and writing about a great places I've visited in the past few months starting with Fort Clinch State Park on Amelia Island.

Fort Clinch State Park is one of those must-see attractions you hear about when planning your family vacation, especially for families like ours who enjoy a mixture of learning and lounging. Though these cannons look impressive, we learned during our visit that no battles were ever fought at Fort Clinch, but it was occupied by soldiers during the Spanish American War and during the Civil War.

Interior Buildings

Shaped like a pentagon, the fort has outer walls and interior courtyards along with interior barracks.

Outer Walls at Fort Clinch

Officers' quarters were much more plush than the soldiers' barracks, and we enjoyed seeing both and listening to the historic reenacters from the Civil War Era. They explained to us why they were wearing Union uniforms. Federal troops controlled the fort for most of the Civil War (even though there was a brief take-over by the Confederates). In fact, the fort was mostly used as the base of Union operations, allowing the Federal troops to gain control over the Florida and Georgia Coastlines.
Soldiers' Barracks  

Officers' Quarters

We enjoyed climbing to the top of the outer walls and looking out over the Cumberland Sound, and we also enjoyed capturing interesting photos of stairwells and walkways.

31 August 2014

Sunday Salon: What I Read Onlline August 25-August 31

 Posts from Kentucky that Matter Beyond Kentucky

Because she knows I'm interested in improving as a writer and blogger, my boss shared this woman's website with me. Suzanne Gray lives in Frankfort, Kentucky and writes about creativity and art and has this beautiful website not to be missed.

You may have heard by now, but Kentucky is seeking feedback to make changes to the Common Core State Standards in KY.

This week we celebrated the anniversary of a woman's right to vote. Read this blog  by Heather Watson to learn how women from Kentucky played an important role in passing the 19th amendment.

Jason Linden, a public school teacher in Louisville, writes about homeschooling his daughter because the school system places too much emphasis on test prep. I can relate completely, even though my children still attend public school. If you read my blog, you know how much this issue matters to me!

Lexington teacher, Liz Prather, writes about why it's important to pronounce students' names correctly.

Speaking of Lexington, my city made the list of top cities to live for a quality life.

Health & Well Being

Since I was having my cast removed this week, I was eager to read this article about when I might be able to use my right leg again and drive. When I visited the doctor, he confirmed what I read in this article--12 weeks after the break. Well, I'm 6 weeks down with 6 to go...

Helen Bamber, a therapist to torture victims, died this week. Read about her life here.

24 August 2014

Sunday Salon: What I Read Online August 18-24


This important blog post from our state commissioner, Dr. Holliday, discusses possible hindrances to innovation in our state because of new USED action that infringes upon our state rights. A topic of huge concern is that the USED now expects Kentucky to test students on old science standards in the spring of 2015. We've been excited about the new Next Generation Science Standards and our students learning science in more innovative ways, and as it stands now, the USED expects Kentucky to assess students on old standards using a ridiculous multiple-choice test.

In Lexington, where I live, one of the middle schools across town created a new mentoring program for incoming sixth graders. Read about it here.

 Since I've long been passionate about pre-service teaching programs and also teach one class at the University of Kentucky, I was interested in reading about this e-mentoring program for teacher candidates offered by a neighboring city's university. 

I am thrilled to be working in education for a non-profit aimed at encouraging and supporting innovative practices in schools. Also exciting is this upcoming education summit our organization is hosting.


In "Building Better Teachers" Sara Mosle writes for The Atlantic about teacher time to collaborate--something American schools don't provide. If you've read some of my own posts this week, you will know this is a topic my husband and I are exploring in our new written conversation series.

Since I now have two middle school sons, I was interested in this article by Michelle Icard, because she offers tips for letting middle school students take risks.

For some time now, I've been following the work of Josh Boldt because he writes about the plight of adjuncts, and for so long, that was the world in which our family lived as my husband worked as an adjunct for years before deciding to become a high school English teacher. In this post, Boldt write about why he, too, left the adjunct gig behind.

The Common Core debate continues, and I was excited in this post to see praise for Kentucky's implementation. Indeed, we have many hard working teachers and leaders who have striven for successful implementation with teacher voices leading the way. The post isn't all about Kentucky though, so read for yourself to see how CC is playing out in various places.


The New Yorker writer, Dani Shapiro, shares thoughts about writing memoirs versus sharing Facebook status updates.

I'm contstantly reminded lately of the importance of stories, so I was excited to learn about this new book, Minds Made for Stories, that's been written by Thomas Newkirk

If you're looking for a new book to read or if you want to share book suggestions with your students, check out Malala Yousafzai's suggestions here.

As a woman who's been advocating for education for women and girls around the world, I was excited to learn that Malala Yousafzai's mom is learning to read.


For a couple of weeks now, I've been following the story of the killing of Michael Brown, and my heart has ached as a mother and as a teacher. In this post you read about how hard his mom worked to keep him in school. He graduated just weeks before his death and was planning to attend trade school.
Issues of inequality keep me moving as an educator because I can't stand to see students treated differently or offered different schooling options because of their race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. In this New York Times article, I saw hope because one of the largest school districts in America is aiming to reduce the arrest rate in their schools.

I can't help but feel for the family of James Foley. This post honors his life.

Just when we're feeling down about many dire situations in our world, we are reminded by Gwyn Ridenhour that there remains hope for the future.
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