Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Appropriate boundaries create integrity. 
                                    - Jewish Proverb

In a chat with a dear friend, she told me her first grader came home from school today abuzz with questions about what "The Biggest Loser" is, and what bootcamp means, and what a trainer does, and how and why you would do squats. After the litany of questions was over, it became clear that her son's teacher had been talking about her new weight-loss plan.

In high school psychology, my classmates gave me the job to ask kindly about our teacher's divorce at some point every class. This lead her to go on and on and on about her divorce, and was probably why when I took Psych 101 in college, it was all new.

I've been thinking about this post for a while based on this and a few other interesting conversations I've had recently with new teachers. Many new teachers have a difficult time drawing clear boundaries with students.  This can be especially difficult for young teachers of high school students, when there is not much of an age difference between teacher and student. It is in these situations, however, that boundaries become all the more crucial.

There are physical boundaries that must be drawn, obviously. And social networking boundaries. But less easy to figure out is finding the line between relationships and friendships in the context of the classroom. Remember, your goal is to be respected as a teacher, not liked as a friend. There were many times early in my teaching that I realized I over-shared with my students. I'm a talker. It happened. Luckily, unlike the way my teacher's divorce superseded the curriculum, what I shared was pretty harmless. But this did not help craft my pedagogy or improve the learning in the classroom. It was just poor judgment. A good strategy I learned to use is to stop and think, "Is this necessary for my students to know and respect me as a teacher?" If not, then it probably doesn't need to be shared. A colleague offers this to consider also: "Why do I want to share this with students?" Perhaps it is to appear hip and relevant to your students. But again, that isn't likely to improve teaching and learning in your classroom, and isn't a valid reason for divulging a personal story.

Does this mean that you shouldn't tell your students that you have children or a passion for horses or like to snowboard? Of course you can. Especially in the context of new things that you're learning or ways that you draw on skills you've honed over years of practice or what gets you really excited about life. Those are very important. But they don't need to know about your dating life or where you went out on Saturday. I didn't give out my home phone number often, but here's an article to help you think about that decision.

I still catch myself in diarrhea-of-the-mouth in the classroom (and out of it!) at times, needing to take a step back and regroup. "Is this necessary?" "Why am I sharing this?" Setting boundaries takes some time to figure out, but in the end, is an essential part of finding your identity as a teacher.

What boundaries are you struggling with in your role as teacher?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

the power of the exit slip

Every day in a classroom is a learning opportunity. Not just for our students, but for us as teachers too. Our students know better than anyone how things are going in our classes, what is confusing, what they are excited about, what is working and what is not. We ALL have plenty to learn about planning, instruction, assessment, and students, no matter our experience.

Something I'm pretty sure you all experienced as students in your teacher prep programs, and perhaps all through your schooling, are those quick check-ins at the end of class: the exit slip. Exit slips provide an opportunity for students to write anonymously about their experiences in your classroom. Prompts can refer to questions about content students have after class, the "muddiest point" of a discussion, concerns about group interactions, pacing, anything really. For example, if you ask students to write down the most important point from social studies today and you are faced with blank stares or off-the-wall suggestions, you can use that information to regroup the next day.

Exit slips take little to no time to prepare (I often go into a class with a planned question for an exit slip, but sometimes I decide on the spot that I need to gauge where the group is). I used them with 4th graders and I use them with college students. As long as children can do some writing or drawing, they can participate in exit slips. They are easy to forget about planning into your instruction, especially since there are so many other things to think about as you start teaching! But regular exit slips can really help students see the communication lines are open, that you are interested in their feedback, and that you care about them enough to modify your plans to best meet their needs.

This informal form of ongoing assessment can really help new teachers learn about the needs of their students. Give it a shot, and let us know how it goes!

Friday, September 16, 2011

books for boys

English/Language Arts and Reading teachers know that finding the right books for readers can be challenging stuff. What one reader likes, another doesn't. Once a reader finds an author, series, or genre, they can get stuck and struggle to find other books to read once they've made their way through their favorite series.  This can hold especially true for boys. As a field, we've made a lot of strides to engage boys through the books we carefully select and by giving kids choice in their reading material. But there's always room for improvement.

I had a request for some resources for books for boys, particularly for middle and high school readers. This is an excellent topic, and my plan is to periodically review new books being published to introduce you all to what is out there. But let's start with some great organizations and some suggested titles.

Guys Read, an organization started by author/illustrator Jon Scieszka, is a a web-based program devoted to help boys become life-long readers. There are some great book lists with suggested titles, and there's a place to submit suggestions of other titles. Those of you in the Twin Cities might know that Hennepin County Library has teamed with Guys Read, and HCL has some great resources linked on their website.

Other web resources that are my go-tos for ideas include:, a great website with tons of book lists, author information - including authors reading sections of books on podcast and video, helps for starting a book club, and regular newsletters.

There's Guys Lit Wire, a great blog for book resources for boys.

The Children's Literature Network also has some great book recommendation lists.

YALSA is a big one for me too.

The blog Reading Rants, and the Blue Ribbon Awards from The Bulletin at the University of Illinios are good resources too.

The International Reading Association has a special interest group (SIG) devoted to middle school reading, which has some great book lists and newsletters.

Another blog I look to is David Barr Kirtley's, who writes science fiction and has linked to a ton of free online stories in that genre for teens. He has a list of books for boys here.

Boys who like sports will likely enjoy Mike Lupica, Carl Deuker, and John Coy.

Local MN author Geoff Herbach wrote Stupid Fast (about an unlikely football player) which has been really popular since it's recent publication, and he has a sequel coming out soon.

Gordon Korman is also quite popular with boys who like adventure stories - his Son of a Mob is interesting.

Walter Dean Myers' books are great for boys too. I like most of them - particularly Monster, Sunrise Over Fallujah, and Lockdown.

The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins is really popular lately with both boys and girls (and adults like me!) - especially with the movies coming out in the spring. If kids really liked The Hunger Games, you could also point them to Japanese novel Battle Royale by Koushun Takami, and they'll be anxious to talk about the parallels between the storylines. And Collins' Underland Chronicles are also well-liked.

Nancy Farmer's science fiction and fantasy books are good ones for boys too.

I haven't read the series that start with The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud, but know it's also popular with boys who like the fantasy genre.

I'm a recent convert to graphic novels and their power for teaching literacy to teens, liking American Born Chinese, Ghostopolis, and Sandman. You can find lists of graphic novels at YALSA too.

Some other suggested titles include:

Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card
The Airborn series by Kenneth Oppel
The Unwind series by Neal Shusterman
The Dark is Rising and series by Susan Cooper
Looking for Alaska, by John Green
Whistle!, by Daisuke Higuchi
Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II, by Robert Kurson
Hero, by Perry Moore
Feed, by M.T. Anderson
Headlock, by Joyce Sweeney
Godless, by Pete Hautman
The Trap, by John Smelcer
Lowboy, by John Wray
Going Bovine, by Libba Bray
We Beat the Street: How a Friendship Pact Led to Success, by Sampson Davis, George Jenkins, Rameck Hunt and Sharon Draper
Bait, by Alex Sanchez (a gay author, he maintains a website devoted to books for gay teens)
Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America by Steve Almond
Hikaru No Go, by Yumi Hotta
Dark Sons, by Nikki Grimes

Happy Reading!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

take the time

Week 2 (or maybe 3 or 4!) is done. Phew, you made it! You're likely exhausted and under a pile of paperwork, grading, planning, and organizing. And if you're like me, you have plans to work most of the weekend. I've been teaching for 13 years, and I still take home work most nights and weekends. But, in reading English teacher Jim Burke's Letters to a New Teacher, a book I'll return to soon in another blog post, he says it well:

This work of ours will never get simple and never... get under control. We work in the midst of barely controlled chaos. You must set aside time for yourself on the weekends and each day during the week (even if it's only fifteen minutes!) to tend to your own needs. This is how I began reading poetry again. It's why I listen to books on tape. Because our work is never done, we can always be working. And then it consumes you and the next thing you know you lose the joy of teaching, and you join the ranks of the 60 percent who leave the profession within the first five years. You must teach yourself the habits that will allow you to sustain not only your love of teaching, but your love of life... You must, as hard as it can be, give yourself permission to get up from your desk and go into the garden, out to the beach, over to a friend's, or out to dinner for conversation about things other than teaching and school. This is essential for your personal and professional health. (p. 12)

You might not find an exact work-life balance (I still struggle with that), but you need to try. From experience and from watching many others suffer through it, if you are not happy and healthy, it won't make a hill of beans difference how late you stayed up to grade that last math quiz or make that new bulletin board. You have to do those things too, of course, but find some time every day for what nurtures you - work out, make a nice dinner, read Hollywood gossip, chat with a friend. You do have time. And it will pay off in the end.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

9/11 teaching resources

With the 10th Anniversary of September 11, 2001 upon us, some of you may be interested in addressing the anniversary of the attacks and the aftermath. There are lots of resources available online for teachers interested in lessons regarding 9/11. The New York Times has some great resources here.  The National Council for the Social Studies also has 9/11 resources available here.  4 Action Initiative, an NYC project started by families of those who died in the attacks on Sept 11 and jointly sponsored by the Liberty Science Center and the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education developed a curriculum and resource guide for teachers to use.  Scholastic has some lesson plan ideas on their website too - check them out here.  Dickinson College compiled lesson plans and teaching resources for Kindergarten through college level classes, available here. Pearson's Online Learning Exchange also has free teaching resources available here for both elementary and secondary level students.

Another great place to start is Larry Ferlazzo's blog. He's an ELL teacher, and his blog has lots of posts with good resources for teachers. He has compiled links to all sorts of 9/11 teaching resource pages, from videos and photo galleries, newspaper articles and lesson plans.  His list in 2008 has tons to look at, and he's added more this week in a couple different posts.

It's hard to believe it has been 10 years, and that most of you are teaching students who don't know what the world was like pre-9/11. Wow.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

back to school

I can't tell you how excited I am for you all, dear readers! Your first year of teaching is like nothing else - the realization of so many hours of hard work.

Hope today is a wonderful first day. Don't forget to breathe, make sure to eat lunch, and it is ok if you go to bed at 8:30 tonight because you're exhausted.

Welcome to the 2011-2012 school year!