28 September 2014

Sunday Salon: What I Read Online September 14-28

The weeks are flying by with plenty of online reading. Here's what I've read the past two weeks.

Women and Girls
I'm committed to continuing my part in raising awareness about violence against women, and so I enjoyed the article Why Global Violence Against Women and Girls Must be a New Priority

I read this article about girls in Afghanistan who dress as boys to obtain an education.

Emma Watson's speech at the UN is worth watching multiple times.

My friend, Sherri, has been participating in a 30 day blogging challenge. This post where she shares her three strengths is one of my favorites.

One of my pre-service teachers wrote this great post about presentation styles as part of her reflection on our readings of Crafting Digital Writing by Troy Hicks. Check it out!  Dancing Around Powerpoint

Like many educators, my husband and I have been discussing the concept of Teacher Time. This Huffington Post article, Teacher Time by Peter Green provides food for thought.

Aritcles I shared with my sons
My soft hearted and thoughtful eleven year old and I have had many thoughtful conversations in the past few weeks because he's concerned about the people in Syria. This article was topic for one of our conversations.Three Million Syrian Children Not in School

My 11 & 13 year old sons were disappointed when they learned Microsoft bought Minecraft, and in this article, My Son Says He Won't Play Minecraft Again , by David Boyle I learned my boys are not alone with their concerns. 

Homework Saga Continues
My ongoing quest to explore homework practices continues, and I was encouraged to see yet another educator and parent also begin to question homework practices. Read Brooke's post here.

Celebrating the Freedom to Read

With Banned Books Week coming to a close, I thought I'd take some time to blog about what I've been reading. This past week I read Escape by Carolyn Jessop, a former member of a cult, who fled the FLDS with her eight children several years ago. While reading the book I was alarmed by several of the cult practices, including censorship of everything and the poor treatment of women and girls.  I'll explore only the censorship aspects of the book here because it would take another whole post or two to comment on the mistreatment of women and girls (another topic about which I care deeply).

One of my former students gave me this Banned Books bracelet
You might remember Warren Jeffs in the news several years back when he was arrested, tried, and imprisoned for sexual assault of minors. Carolyn Jessop, was the fourth wife of Merril Jessop, one of Jeffs' top men in the cult. Carolyn's strength throughout the book is phenomenal, and over and over again, she gives credit for her ability to get out of the cult to her education because it helped her learn to think for herself and to question the cult's practices she experienced her whole life. Carolyn was more fortunate than many of the women and girls because she actually graduated from both high school and college. Many girls in the sect are not permitted to become educated because "education was seen as a threat…making them too involved with the ways of the world (p 666)."

Jeffs' power and brutality elevated in the years Carolyn was married to Merril Jessop, and education became "one of the first areas where his [Jeffs] imprint was punitive and spiteful (p 529)." Very few individuals (women or men) were permitted to attend college. In the end Carolyn was fortunate; many others not. The lack of access to education "created a population that was even more isolated by its lack of exposure to reading, critical thinking, and the arts. It also meant there was a real shortage of trained teachers (p 529)."

Carolyn became a second-grade teacher who taught young children while also collecting a library of children's books she could secretly read to her own children.  At the same time, she says "It was very common to get textbooks with entire chapters missing because they'd been cut out." She was a well-respected teacher because she could teach any child to read.  This, no doubt, made her an even greater potential source of irritation to Jeffs and her husband because she questioned the decisions of the leaders. Carolyn knew her real threat was Jeffs and his self-appointed power and brutality over the people in the sect. "In a cult, you have two identities: your cult identity and your authentic self." Jessop writes about how she operated from her cult identity most of the time because it was the only way she could survive.

As Jeffs' power grew over the years,  people began to fear changes even as they sensed danger. Infuriatingly, husbands were seen as the lord and supreme master who held exclusive power over the lives of wives and their children. Carolyn became more and more involved with her position as a teacher in the school system because she knew "well-educated children might one day think for themselves (p 535)." Unfortunately, Jeffs' power extended even into the public school system, and he crushed Carolyn's dreams to work on a new school plan in the community. "For the fist time, I began to see how religion could suppress something positive and life-giving. Failing to educate our children was unconscionable (536)."  Jeffs also ordered all books be destroyed, so the other wives of Carolyn's husband found her secret stash of children's books and destroyed them. Carolyn was crushed and even more determined to find a way out of the cult. Eventually, she did make it out, and after many court testimonies and struggles later, she also had custody of her eight children and was able to begin building a new life with them. The people who helped her escape told her she was in a better position than many others they had helped escaped because she had a college degree and work experience. Carolyn says "freedom was something I had always been able to imagine. It was the opposite of oppression, slavery, and degradation (p. 932)." She concludes the book with "my children and I now know what it means to be safe. Freedom is extraordinary, and love a miracle (p 979)."

1. Page numbers referenced in this post are page numbers from my Kindle version of the book.
2. The Southern Poverty Law Center characterized the FLDS as a hate group in 2005.

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.