Tag Archives: Teaching

What to Expect When You Have Expectations

One thing I don’t ever want to hear my students say is, “I can’t.” That’s the kind of toxic language that too many students have internalized too many times. Too many hopeful, eager students have been turned sour by disbelieving, uninspiring adults. Too many promising minds have been lost to too many negative mouths.

A little boy in my class came to me from a less restrictive environment a few months ago. The poor kid was floundering, lost in a tide of confusion and self-doubt. He looked – and was – miserable. Distant. Blank.

At first, he started coming to me just for reading. He got a special seat right next to me and, little by little, started coming out of his shell. Though he’d sometimes cry, “I want to go back to my real class,” I remained firm with him about all the reasons he should – no, must –  embrace his new class. One of my most gregarious students took him under his wing, and I made sure to do the same. On more than one occasion, I made it crystal clear to him that in my class, he was expected to conduct himself – socially and academically – in certain ways. That meant trying things that were hard, learning ways to manage them, and eventually, succeeding at them. He needed sensitivity and caring, but he needed to be pushed, too.

It may have been tough love, but he got the message (and learned to take pride in a new way of being). Before long, the boy was leaping out of his chair every time I came to his room to bring him to mine. His dazzling smile spoke words he was unable to: “I’m learning. I’m improving. I’m gaining confidence. I’m capable. I’m smart.”

Soon enough, his family agreed to move him into my classroom full-time. His network of new friends expanded, as did his academic knowledge and his understanding of his own potential. During the first full week in my class, he produced math writing that impressed his classmates, me, and the administration. He proudly took his polished, if not perfect, work to the common bulletin board all classes share on my floor, and hung his paper there himself, an enduring trophy on display to remind him of his ability. Each day when we passed the bulletin board after lunch, his new friends and him would beam just knowing it was there.

Those who believed in him from the start were thrilled with his new zest for school, love of learning, and newfound confidence. “You see? I told you he could do it!” came from one colleague. When I told the principal about the way he races into class announcing to me he’s here and ready to learn, she said, “That gives me goosebumps.” Those of us who believed in him relished in his newfound, humble pride. Those who never took the time to try found no joy in seeing they were wrong all along.

But the proof is there.

On previous math tests, he averaged in the 40s. On his first test in my class, he scored an 80. Today, finishing up the second test, he scored an 88.

This boy, who barely could get a word down on paper at the beginning of the year, now uses outlines to write topic sentences, supporting details, and a conclusion.

This boy, who spent more time looking at his fingers than worrying about books, now listens to complex texts and discusses them with partners.

Don’t tell him what he can’t do. Don’t make him think he’s less than awesome. He deserves better.

This isn’t only about me. Plenty of teachers have high expectations and powerful beliefs in their students’ abilities. But too many don’t give their students a chance. That pisses me off. We are meant to teach the students in front of us: not just the easy ones, not just the ones who retain and understand everything.

Saying a child can’t do something, or promoting that belief with actions toward the child, is poisonous. Poison injures, sickens, and defeats. If you think the kids don’t know they’re being poisoned, just consider the difference my student has enjoyed. Coming from a culture where the bar is set low and students are encouraged to crawl under it, going to a culture where the bar is set high and students are implored to jump over it, he sees it’s not about what you can’t do, it’s about what you will do. And you will do it.

I firmly believe that our students will only rise to the challenges we present to them. If we set a standard of busy work being acceptable, confusion being typical, and belittling being preferable, we will surely lose our kids. Do they deserve that? It makes me angry to think there are people who don’t realize they don’t.

Counter those expectations with challenging work, clarity, and emotional support, and just like the little boy’s smile, all students will have a chance to shine as they were meant to.

What it Takes

What does it take to be a teacher? Many know. Many think they know. I’m not above admitting that, seven years in, I’m still figuring it out. Here’s what I’ve learned this year:

Consistency is key. My students, like many others, need a lot of repetition to internalize ideas and concepts. That means they need the work in a given unit modeled for them in a certain way. Then they need to practice with guidance in that same way. Then they need to practice independently in that same way (and be held accountable when they don’t).

Here’s some real world application. We are coming to the end of a unit on 2-digit addition, which at times requires regrouping. There are several strategies to demonstrate two-digit addition, all of which require several steps. One of my big takeaways this year is just how difficult it is for my students to remember steps to math problems. That means lots and lots and LOTS of practice.

The language given to the students has to be consistent. The procedures and thought processes have to be, too (steps written on a chart help). When drawing pictures to represent numbers, I’m learning the placement of each ten and one has to be consistent, too, down to the number of ones I will allow in each column. When we all speak, write, and draw in a common language, everyone has a better chance to succeed.

Just throwing material at the class and hoping it sticks is a fool’s errand. Sadly, there are people who haven’t yet learned this.

Students want to be challenged, and even more so than they realize. Not until last year did my principal observe that my lessons were up to the “rigorous” standards we are expected to uphold. She also told me I need to push the students more and expect they could do more. I always felt I had high expectations, but this year I have really ratcheted them up.

They’re only in second grade, but a colleague and I began teaching our classes how to use outline templates to prepare to write an opinion piece. The outline is such that they have to look at abbreviations and remember what to do in each section. They have to remember that solid lines are meant for full sentences and dotted lines are for key words. Then, they have to transfer their work to paragraph form.

You’d be amazed at how they’re doing.

With all the consistency mentioned above – repetition, common language, practice – tomorrow the class will write their own outline about something they want, as independently as they have in the last two weeks. It’s exciting to see them using a tool that I probably didn’t know about until fifth grade. They love the structure and predictability of it, and they understand that their work is improving.

I know more than I knew, but there’s still more to know. Maybe once I was a brash, cocky, 24-year old know-it-all who rode into my school thinking my graduate studies and natural genius had me prepared to teach at a level yet to be seen. Nearly 7 years later, having been humbled many times by administrators and colleagues, but most importantly, by my students, I know that it’s on me to work my fanny off to make sure they’re receiving the full benefit of their education (and that I’m meeting the demands of my job).

While I’m happy to offer suggestions to others and share “what works,” I also am happy to take a colleague’s great idea and make it my own. I’m not beneath running across the hall or next door and saying, “I need help with this.” I’ve learned that teaching is an infinitely humbling experience, and there’s no room for cockiness. No matter how well things might be going at any given time, there often seems to be something that will come along and make me rethink, reassess, reevaluate and ultimately, regroup. It keeps me fresh, energized, and motivated.

Kids need to be challenged and stimulated, but they need to be able to do it without being chained to their seats and desks. I’ve always believed it is perfectly okay for students, without asking, to get up to access materials in the room, get a better view of the board or demonstration, stand while working, lay on the floor while working, whatever. Too often, kids think the classroom is the teacher’s, not theirs. I think it’s important to make it clear to them they don’t have to feel restricted to their designated spot.

To go with this, it’s okay with me that kids need breaks. I mean, hey, they’re seven. (Perhaps when my parents read this they can let me know if they think I could have sat the way kids are expected to now when I was that age.) Sometimes, my students put down their pencils and I say, “What’s up?” “I need to rest a little.” “Okay, no problem. Is a minute good? I’ll let you know when a minute’s up.” A minute later, if I say the minute’s passed and the child says they’re still not ready, I have no problem saying, “That’s fine, take another 30 seconds.” By then they’re ready to go again.

I do have a lovely little tool I like to bring out at least once every morning and afternoon, and I’m going to insist you go sign up (for free) so your class can benefit, too. There’s a brain break site called GoNoodle, and we love it. The kids get a movement/singing/dancing break through Zumba and other interactive videos. It’s always a highlight of their day. A few great things about GoNoodle: 1) the kids love it, 2) it’s very fun to watch them enjoying it, and 3) they get themselves right back to business after a break.

That’s about the sum of what I’ve got for tonight. It’s been a good year so far, with lots of learning experiences (only a few of which are listed here). It’s the learning that helps me continually strive to improve.

Out with the Old Word Wall, in with the New

Now that it’s been EXACTLY five months since my last post on this blog, here I am with some fresh thoughts for the new school year. But first, how was your summer? And, since I haven’t been here since March, how was your spring? Has it been that long. Yep, it sure has. Last year’s class really took a lot out of me and I struggled to find much to write about. Or, I struggled to find the energy and enthusiasm at the end of the day. Or both. For whatever reason, this blog – and all of you, dear readers – fell to the wayside. I’m sorry and I’m going to try to do better.

So, it’s a new year, and that means it’s time for a new outlook. The good news (or perhaps the best news) is that for the first time in a long time, I only have one grade in my class. Please stay that way. The other best news is that, also for the first time in a long time, I don’t have a testing grade. Though I do love third grade (the math is so fun and the kids are really developing as humans), I’m excited to be back in second. Really, it’s my first year as a full on second grade teacher, but I’ve had bridge classes with second graders three times. It’s a transition and a challenge, but it could be a lot harder. It’s also in my favor that service providers and previous teachers have given me such positive feedback about my incoming class. The reviews are in, and they’re fans.

My plan is to expand on all this and more throughout the school year (as I used to so steadfastly in my younger years), but for now, I’m going to focus on what has emerged out of the blue as one of my big initiatives for the year.

I won’t lie: for a variety of reasons, I strongly dislike having a sight word wall in my room. My room is teensy tiny, and devoting a wall to 26 letters and a growing list of words under each just overwhelms my space and sensibility. The thing becomes hard to look at after a while. A mishmash of sentence strips doesn’t do much for anyone. Biggest, perhaps, is that the kids mostly don’t know how to use the word wall. It’s basically there because it has to be. I’m not a fan of that kind of thing.

In our classrooms early this morning to work on setup and organization (school starts next week), a colleague and I shared a conversation over the dilemmas of the sight word wall. Although my to-do list had on it, “Put up word wall letters,” based on our conversation and brainstorm, that WON’T be happening. As a result of our discussion, the sight word wall space has been repurposed, converted into two separate but related boards, and the sight word wall itself is being moved to a more appropriate, convenient place (or places, if you prefer). It’s a lot to take in so let me walk you through it.

First off, the sight word wall, despite the garish display it tends to be, actually can serve a value when properly utilized by teacher and students. To be sure, my students absolutely need to have the words as a reference. So, the sight word wall will remain, but it will be in a different form. Rather than be up on the wall lording over all the little readers and writers, each cluster of desks is going to have a word wall displayed atop it. This way, everyone has words right in front of them. It will have to be updated weekly, which can become a management issue, but as it’s a new concept, that’s something that needs to be fleshed out. In addition to the communal ones on the tables, each student will have his or her own word wall. It will contain the words of the week as well as any words taught in guided reading, or that the student wants to include. (Differentiation and student choice alert!)

Next, the space formerly occupied by the sight word wall will continue life as not one word wall, but TWO. Wow. Since the texts we read are so crazily complex, we think it’s best to move ahead with word walls full of delightful vocabulary that come from the texts. And instead of being there just to be there, they’ll be there as major foci for our students.

Why two, you wonder? Well, on one side there will be words for everyday use (little nuggets of gold like, “ideal,” “usual,” and, “plenty.”) The hope – and, to be fair, the expectation – is that students take these excellent and valuable words and transfer them to all facets of their literacy. Hey, that reminds me of the superb job my students did last year with just that sort of thing. On the other side will be words for content. These are words students need to understand in order to understand topics about which we’re reading, but that may not transfer too well into the rest of the world. As an example, last year, we read a book that used the word “culvert.” It didn’t make sense to expect students to use this word outside of book-related topics, but it was definitely important to their comprehension of the story.

The word wall will look something like this, and it’s possible, if not likely, that each wall will be sectioned for nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives. I’ve got a bug/garden theme going this year so I’m saying, “Our Vocabulary Grows.”


Click to enlarge.

There’s no secret here. I am a word nerd and I love when kids get excited about new vocabulary. I can really envision this new setup taking off and benefitting the students more than any old sight word wall will.

For more inspiration:

10 Great Word Wall Strategies for Classrooms

Let the Games Begin! and Let the Games Continue!

The Most Miserable Time of the Year

It’s a sad scene when kids who can’t read are forced to take standardized tests they have no reasonable chance of passing.

It’s even sadder when they know it.

Here’s one who has made considerable reading improvements thus far this year but still has no clue what he’s doing. (“I’m so confused,” he said.)

Here’s one on a kindergarten reading level who this year finally learned all her letter sounds. She goes through each word sounding out every s-i-n-g-l-e letter and considers it reading. When she gets to the questions, she says in her developing English, “I no know.”

This one’s crying. That one’s been staring at the same question for ten minutes. This one’s coloring in the picture that accompanies the passage. That one’s finished almost as quickly as I am done reading the directions.

“Pointless” is not even a word that begins to come close to describing the value these tests have to me and my students. News flash: they’re all going to fail. News flash again: force me to sit for three days taking a five hour test on physics and I’ll fail, too. I can tell you this without even looking at the test.

If you need an assessment of my students’ readiness for the next grade, you might consider asking me. After all, I can tell you all the things a test can’t, such as the types of scaffolds that have enabled them to make some strides this year. Or how much greater the comprehension is when text is read to them. Or what else they need to learn to continue to move forward. Or how they’re “accessing” the grade level standards but, given all their deficits, it’s virtually impossible without a lot of support and guidance. Or who has involved parents and who pretty much fends for themselves once they get home. Or who may be being hit, or who doesn’t eat breakfast, or who brings chips and calls them “lunch.”

I could tell you plenty about these kids, and plenty about the tests.

The sorry thing, though, is that no one’s asking.

A Tale of Two Classes

If yesterday was the least stressful day of the school year thus far, today was one of the most.

A blizzard Tuesday threw roads and transportation in New York into chaos. NYC schools remained open the next day. However, for whatever reasons they had, many students and staff were not at school. I was, and in my class, 7 out of 12 were present. Later, 6 first graders were brought to me because their class had to be split up in the absence of so many teachers. So, my room was filled with me and 13 kids with disabilities.

I decided that, since these little first graders didn’t know me, or anything about the room or the floor they were on, that I should buddy each one of my third graders with one of them. I created a kind of big brother/big sister dynamic so the first graders would walk in line, raise their hands, and do some work on this unique day. The results were fantastic. My third graders took to their buddies and made them their responsibilities.

I had some math work for the little ones to do – basic single digit addition for practice (on a color by numbers picture for fun). I instructed my third graders to sit with their buddy and help them if necessary. Here’s what I saw:

  • Third graders teaching different techniques for adding.
  • Third graders instinctively getting supplies for the first graders.
  • Third graders teaching first graders basic multiplication facts.
  • Everyone working efficiently.

How nice that my students finally had an opportunity to say, “I am better at something than someone. I can really help.” It gave them pride – a feeling they seldom get to feel because the work they’re required to do is often ridiculously beyond their abilities.

While yesterday was a smooth day – with relative quiet, lots of smiles, and organized chaos, today was anything but. Students returned after their day off in the snow, and things were just off from the start. It didn’t help that for two hours to start the day, they had to sit for a benchmark math assessment that frustrated them to no end. It didn’t matter how many times I told them they hadn’t learned how to do something. Those familiar feelings of inadequacy and disappointment ballooned quickly.

In fact, little true learning happened in my class today. We started with the benchmark math test. Then, we had a period for reading in which I worked with my lowest group (all on kindergarten levels). With all their bickering over a game and their frequent interruptions during the lesson, it felt like we hardly accomplished anything. In fact, I had to very sternly remind them why they were in this reading group in the first place. They saw I was angry, and they settled down and resumed working. From there, students had to finish writing the next scene from the difficult chapter book we just finished. (It sounds fun and creative, but is very difficult to do). Some of them had to finish after lunch, and between routines having been disrupted by missing school or medicine, as well as that crushing frustration of not feeling good enough, the day was very dark.

I was reminded as I drove home that failure in school – actually, the sinking feeling that one can’t be successful – begets behavior problems. It happened today. It will continue to happen as long as students like mine are held to standards that don’t support their needs, and in fact insult them. What a shame that the goodwill they had with the opportunity yesterday to feel important, big, and special with their first grade buddies dissipated over things that, in their lives and even this year, will mean pretty much nothing.

Come See Failure at it’s Finest!

An open invitation to politicians, education “experts,” testing lovers, and other assorted nincompoops.



Come see LIVE, REAL-LIFE kids frustrated, angry, overwhelmed, disinterested, annoyed, and upset. If you’re lucky, you might see one cry! ALL TYPES OF CHILDREN with ALL TYPES OF DISABILITIES! Some can barely read! Some can barely speak English!


Taking tests: tests for baseline data, tests for post-data, tests for multi-billion dollar corporations to use as experiments, and more! Reading, writing, math, and more, MORE, MORE!!!


Any time they take a standardized test, be it formative, baseline, benchmark, summative, state, city, national, or otherwise. (Check your calendars – MANY days available for testing throughout the year!)


Special education and ESL classrooms around the country.


Damned if I know.


RSVP to your political representatives, school administrators, and peers.

But Do They Get It?

So, in a sense, we’re getting it. But, in a sense, are we really?

The literacy program we use mandated our current read aloud, and it’s a descriptive, wordy doozy. On the guided reading leveling scale, the book is a level O. My students’ reading levels range from C through M. It’s clearly a book that is way beyond – WAY beyond – most of my students’ independent reading levels.

But, it’s mandated, and so there’s no discussion. The point is, I, and every other teacher in New York City required to teach by the Common Core standards – those one-size-fits-all pie in the sky edicts that don’t account for ELL status, disabilities, development, home experience, or reality – have to figure out a way for our students to “get” this work.

In the current literacy unit, we are focusing on how characters’ actions tell us what the characters are feeling. The book, as all teachers should know, is the conduit through which we teach the skill. But in a class like mine, where the background knowledge is so lacking, and the language barrier between their own vocabularies and the book’s so distinct, it’s absolutely impossible to not teach the book unless I want a group of bored out of their skull third graders on my hands.

So I do teach the book, and I work through it slowly with them, stopping to explain, clarify, and answer questions. There winds up being plenty of talking during our read alouds. And fortunately, all our conversation enables us to get to a discussion about what the characters are doing and what this tells us about them.

This is all very teacher-led. The kids offer opinions and, with their best efforts, speak about what the characters do. But without my leading questions, prompting, and coaching, they would have great difficulty connecting all the dots and coming up with an inference or main idea about the characters’ feelings. Our conversations are enjoyable, though, and together we are able to work on understanding that characters’ actions tell us how they character feels. In that sense, we get it.

But come the time when the students have to read these level O texts independently, say, I don’t know, on some horribly unfair standardized test, there is little chance they will be able to make their own assessments and connections. Does that make me a bad teacher? Our lessons are going well, and they’re enjoying them. They’re learning the skill. But to transfer it to independence in texts that are, as I said before, WAY beyond their abilities, well that’s a whole different ball of gooey, muddled wax.

Which makes me wonder: is there a point to any of this? If there hands are forever held, do they ever learn to do anything on their own? Which makes me wonder: is this kind of work what we should be doing in my class? What’s the value in it past a decent conversation? I’m not sure I know.

The How and Why of It

Here’s a rundown on my class this year.

  • Kindergarten through second grade reading levels despite being in third grade.
  • For many, minimal, if any, parental support at home.
  • Witnesses to domestic violence.
  • Transient living situations.
  • Crowded living conditions.
  • Habitual lateness or absence.
  • Lack of accountability outside the classroom.
  • Medical conditions, disabilities, medications, and lack of proficiency in the English language.
  • Poverty and poor nutrition.

Take into account everything else that holds influence over school and what we do in my class. I ask:

  • How can my students be expected to pass the upcoming tests?
  • How can they prioritize them?
  • How can they be held to a standard that belittles their truths and realities?
  • How can they be made to feel they’re less than? Worse than? Not as good as? Not as worthy as?

The unfortunate, simple answer to the question, “How can they?” is, “Well, they just can.”

And so, the next question becomes, “Why?”

To that question, I’m still waiting for an acceptable response.

Some Try, Some Fail, and All Suffer

Over the past, literally, four days, I administered an end of unit reading and writing assessment to my class of 12 students with disabilities (11 of whom receive English as a Second Language services).

This assessment featured: two passages that were both two pages long, a bunch of multiple choice questions after each (some with two parts, where the second part built upon the first), a written constructed response for each, and a written extended response that required using both passages. Is it any wonder it took us, literally, over 4 hours to finish?

The reading was dense (regardless of me reading each passage twice). The questions were wordy. The writing prompts were confusing. Without even looking at the finished products, I’d venture that most, and probably all, of my students showed no understanding of what is expected (not by me, mind you, but by the geniuses who come up with this arbitrary and overwhelming stuff).

They all told me it was too hard. Some of them asked me what they had to do. Many of them told me they didn’t know what to write. A lot of them copied straight from the passage (regardless of how many times I said, “Make sure you put it in your own words.”)

And three of them cried.

On day one, a boy refused to even take a guess at a multiple choice question. “I’m scared,” he said. “Just put anything, it doesn’t matter,” I told him, to no avail. His eyes reddened and welled with tears, and the tears dropped onto the floor as he looked down. His neighbor leaned over and said, “Come on, just circle A, B, C, or D.” Hoping to show him that everyone was in the same boat, I told him to watch as I surveyed the class: “Who thinks this is hard?” It didn’t matter to him that all hands went up. He was crippled by anxiety.

On day three, my student who is by far the most significantly behind in reading and writing, refused to write anything. “I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m doing.” Regardless of how many times my para and I told her or encouraged her, she wouldn’t do anything but put her head on the desk. In the end, she cried as well.

Today, I wised up and had the students highlight what they needed to do. I read the prompt to them several times and directed them how to turn back to the passages. One girl repeatedly said, “I can’t,” and “I don’t know,” and, “I need help.” I explained to her it was like a writing test, so I couldn’t help. “But it’s hard!” “Yes, it is,” I agreed. Again, I polled the class to see who thought it was hard. All hands went up. Then I said, “Put your hand up if I’m helping you.” No hands went up. It didn’t impress her. She wrote nothing and will take a zero on that part of the assessment.

What did I learn about my students from this? Nothing I don’t already know. The notion that they are asked to do work that is totally inappropriate to their current abilities was clearly reinforced.

What did my students learn? Maybe what they’re going to find out eventually anyway, as long as our education system doesn’t adapt to valuing all abilities and the differences among our students: They’re worthless.

Why do we do this to them?

Main Idea: The Details are In the Bag

In my school, one of the big pushes this year is helping students analyze what they read to understand main idea and details. In reflecting upon my past as a student, I can’t say I remember ever receiving explicit instruction in determining main idea and details, and that being able to analyze them came about as a result of experience as I grew.

Be that as it may, for students so young (like mine) and with so many challenges (English language learners, disabilities, texts above grade level and certainly way above theirs’), explicit teaching is necessary. But the skill is challenging to master independently, and so, non-traditional approaches to teaching it are necessary.

This all came about from a brief in-house PD I attended this week. We were presented with a variety of tools to help students conceptualize main idea and details. Included, of course, were the usual graphic organizers. They help, but they’re too abstract to start with. So I was happy to see a couple of new and concrete ideas that I could use to help my students begin to tackle this crucial literacy skill.

By far, my favorite idea was one that necessitated a hands-on approach. It was visual and helpful and served as an engaging entry – and subsequent anchor – for our work on main idea and details.

The premise is simple and it makes sense. A large zip-seal bag represents the main idea. Inside the bag are items with something in common. For my students, I showed them a bag with a marker, a highlighter, a dry erase marker, a pencil, a colored pencil, a Smencil, and a pen. They realized these are all writing utensils. So, why were all of those items – a.k.a. details – included in that one bag – a.k.a. main idea? Because the details all tell us about the main idea.

A plastic bag represents the main idea, and all the items inside are details that go together with it.

A plastic bag represents the main idea, and all the items inside are details that go together with it.

From this very concrete representation, with my charges on board, I began to segue into something still somewhat concrete, but requiring a bit more thought and effort. We read a chapter out of our book and I emphasized that all the details in the chapter would relate back to specific main ideas. After reading, I started them off by telling them the main idea of the whole section: “Roots grow underground and do many things.” From here, we were able to pick apart the details of each paragraph and arrive together at a consensus as to what the main idea they supported was. A small bag represented each paragraph’s main idea, and we placed each bag inside the big one to show that all the information we read related back to one overarching main idea.

Nesting cards with details inside small bags helped students visualize paragraphs' main ideas. Placing the small bags in the large bag helped them see how the paragraphs all relate to the main idea of the chapter.

Nesting cards with details inside small bags helped students visualize paragraphs’ main ideas. Placing the small bags in the large bag helped them see how the paragraphs all relate to the main idea of the chapter.

We’ll continue doing things like this, exploring other ways to understand how details work together to support main ideas. The hope is that with enough varied exposure to the concept, students will internalize the skill. That’s the…idea.