Reflecting on 35 Years of Teaching Writing

Teaching and using writing to explore, to expand, and to explain is what we do; how to use writing is what we teach. With this in mind, “writing is best understood as a complex intellectual activity that requires students to stretch their minds, sharpen their analytical capabilities, and make valid and accurate distinctions” (National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges, 2003, p.13). Thus, I teach with writing.

As both a student and a teacher, I have lived through numerous trends and theories of writing instruction. As a high school student in the early seventies, I methodically wrote the assigned five-paragraph essays about literature; then in college, used the same basic format to approach the longer papers assigned. When I entered the credential program at UCSB in the early eighties, I entered the world of Peter Elbow as I participated in Sheridan Blau’s South Coast Writing Project. Suddenly, writing shifted from form to freedom. Commenting on that time period’s emphasis on social values of individualism, personal expression, equality, and freedom, D. Bowden observes that “outlets for self-expression in writing were suddenly highly valued” and “that both the process movement (which paid attention to how writing was produced) and voice (which privileged the expression of emotions, passions, ideals, and a writer’s inner character) not only took hold but also became quickly entrenched (Clark et al., 2003, p. 287). When I began teaching, I faced a tug-of-war between teaching the form by which I had learned to write for school and avoiding what Macrorie termed Engfish, “standard academic writing in which students attempt to replicate the style and form of their professors” (Clark et al., 2003, p. 289). My early years as a teacher produced many standard English, five-paragraph essays because frankly, I could more objectively explain grades to students, parents, and colleagues. In the early nineties, I met Rae Jean Williams who invited me to work with the UCLA Writing Project. Through that involvement with colleagues, sharing experiences and theories, I discovered freedom in using writing to teach, as opposed to trying to teach writing.

One of the most important lessons I learned from Rae Jean is that students need a reason for writing, that writing is a response to some stimulus, a means to an end rather than the end. Some may disagree, and in fact, in my early years of implementing writing workshop in my classroom, I believed that the objective was simply to get kids writing. My writing workshop followed the usual protocol of encouraging students to write frequently and allowing for students to work on several pieces at a time, keeping every piece of writing, from notes to outlines to rough drafts to final copies, in their English folders. As students completed rough drafts, they spent time with me during a conference session discussing possible revisions. These rough drafts were not graded, in order to motivate revision, rather than create frustration. Students were required to submit revised pieces as part of their final exam grade — these pieces were graded on revision work shown. Two days a week in class were Writing Workshop days during which students worked on their own writing, shared writing with peer groups, and individually conferred with me about writing problems. I encouraged individuals to write about topics that interested them personally; I rarely assigned one topic to all students. I challenged students to experiment with various modes of writing such as autobiographical, poetry, journaling, short story, persuasive, and observational. The basic workshop approach provided a safe environment for writing, which does motivate as “they had ownership over the learning activities,” but did not provide a reason to write (Shellard & Protheroe, 2004, p. 13).

A better use of writing workshop provides a safe environment to approach the writing tasks presented in students’ core classes. Research indicates that one of the problems with the romantic rhetoric approach of my initial workshop is that it was “based on the idea that writing has only one purpose, self-exploration. However, in reality, it has multiple purposes” (Williams, 2003, p. 66). Because reading and writing are so integrated, students need to understand the use of specific genres of writing for specific purposes, not only as readers of text but as responders to text. When teaching the use of writing, teachers need to understand that “writers and readers use similar kinds of knowledge…in the act of making their meanings: knowledge about language, knowledge about content, knowledge about genre conventions” and help students make those connections (Langer & Flihan, 2000). Correct grammar can signal skillful writing – correct structure does indicate a sense of organization and coherence. “Correct” writing, however, is often boring and according to a recent study:

Teaching students the grammar raises tacit knowledge to a conscious level in ways that interfere with the efficient language processing necessary in writing. In other words, students…probably were thinking more about the grammar rules than they were about writing, with deleterious effects. (Williams, 2003, p. 50)

Here, once again, is the tug-of-war between personal and academic discourses. However, when I ask students about audience, purpose, and the key question of “so what?” I help students learn how to use those formal elements of style to elicit the answer they desire.

In the workshop setting, students can look at form and structure of an essay, for instance, as the “basic outfit” that needs personal identity. In groups, or individually, students can consider how the writing can be improved by adding elements of style specific to their purpose, personal choices made by each writer including the choice of genre that best addresses their needs. Depending on students’ background knowledge, students can be asked to add their own style by adding rhetorical devices, varying sentence structure, changing passive voice to active; this is best achieved by break ing this into steps and modeling, rather than direct instruction/drill of grammar. We may discuss, for instance, rhetorical devices and then students add one device to a piece of writing on which they are currently working. When we look at sentence types, I can then lead students to adding a periodic or cumulative sentence, for example. In this way, students develop understanding of grammar and rhetorical structure in the same way they look at what their favorite performers are wearing, choosing to add the elements they like best to their own personal wardrobe. Referring back to where I began, with writing, I teach students to use writing to achieve their purposes, to generate the answers they desire to the questions they and/or their teachers ask, to write meaningfully.

Teaching with writing applies to all content areas because it is teaching students how to use writing as “Powerful discourse…discourse that makes a difference; has a rhetorical purpose; and informs, persuades, or moves an audience from their present state of mind to a new one” (Clark et al., 2003, p. 296).


Clark, I., Bamberg, B,, Bowden, D,, Edlund, J., Gerrard, L., Klein, S., Lippman, J., & Williams, J. (2003). Concepts in composition: Theory and practice in the teaching of writing. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Langer, J., & Flihan, S. (2000). Writing and reading relationships: Constructive tasks. Retrieved April 28, 2008, from

National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges. (2003). The neglected R: The need for a writing revolution. Retrieved April 28, 2008, from

Shellard, E., & Protheroe, N. (2004). Writing across the curriculum to increase student learning in middle and high school. Arlington, VA: Educational Research Service.

Williams, J., (2003). Preparing to teach writing: Research, theory, and practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

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Modeling Leading to Transfer

2543351480044258467fFzOdb_fs   As an academic success counselor, teachers will often approach me about particular students. Sighing heavily, a teacher laments that the student cannot read or the student does not read. Students who are not engaged or appear unable to meet the academic expectations of the course do discourage teachers who are experts in their subject areas and who are eager to share that expertise with their students. J. Guthrie (2001) observed that “student engagement affected teacher involvement as much as teacher involvement influenced student engagement” (Guthrie, 2001). If this is true, then we need to look closely at the inter-relatedness of teacher involvement and student engagement in order to reduce the frustrations of teachers and students related to reading. As a result of reading and researching, I am convinced that we cannot continue to assume that students know how to read by the time they reach our middle and high school classrooms if we desire their engagement and involvement in our classes (Alvermann, Phelps, and Ridgeway, 2007, p. 4). We must actively, explicitly teach our students pre-, during-, and post-reading strategies that will help them read to learn, to make connections, and to more deeply engage with us and our content.

April Nauman, Ph. D. (2007) observes that “high school students must read, comprehend, and remember information in a variety of high-level content area textbooks, which are packed with new concepts and vocabulary…these expectations occur at a time when students’ motivation to read tends to decline” (p. 31). As I have worked with students struggling to read sections in their history text, I have observed that teaching them to use specific strategies aids not only their comprehension, but also increases their motivation to read. The history text presents two columns of text, at least one chart, and an inset box per page. My students tend to gloss over the pages, skimming for what might be on the quiz that their teachers will inevitably give the day after the pages are to be read for homework. A difficulty that I face as a Learning Specialist is that I cannot choose the assignments and the means of assessments that my students encounter in their classes; I can, however, use those assessments as literacy teaching tools. For example, when a student points out difficulties he faced in responding to questions based on history text reading, I can use that experience to show the student how to actively read the text to learn. Vacca (2002) points out that “continued literacy development is of critical importance because it helps to shape the core strategies by which adolescents learn to negotiate meaning and think critically about the texts in their lives, whether in the context of school or the world outside of school” (p. 186). Students need to see this type of thinking modeled, as it is not an intuitive skill that they activate simply because the learning task demands it.

I have learned that this modeling and guided practice means that I am actively thinking out loud as I read with my students, and that I offer my students a variety of strategies. For example, I can show my students how to use strategies such as KWL charts or SQ3R to set a purpose for reading. I particularly like the SQ3R strategy for use with my students’ history textbook because the students learn to look over the chapter, change section headings into questions, and can at the same time, set up Cornell Notes (two-column notes) or a 5-W Chart (who, what, when, where, why) to use as they read to answer the questions. The most important step in this strategy for my students is the question phase because they tend to not even notice titles and subheadings. Yet, each title, when rephrased as a question, becomes the guide for determining the main ideas in that section of the reading. For some of my students, reading has always been a passive activity, either due to family background (lack of education, lack of involvement, lack of emphasis relative to other activities) or perhaps due to educational experiences (poor instruction, behavioral issues that masked reading difficulties left unaddressed, moving from one school to another preventing engagement promoting reading). For these students, learning how to take notes, summarize, and draw inferences are new skills requiring much guided practice which I can give them during our meetings.

Although, I realize my students may not see their history reading as fun, I have learned that “teachers can affect student motivation to read through explicit reading strategy and reading comprehension strategy instruction and practice” and do so when they “show how, practice, tell why, and tell when” (Mccrudden, Perkins & Putney, 2005). My students need to learn for instance, that “note taking is not simply a way to record facts; it also leads to deeper student engagement and reflection” (Fisher, Frey, & Williams, 2002, p. 72). Metacognition, or thinking about thinking, is the goal of during-reading strategies and therefore, teachers must make a conscious effort to “teach comprehension strategies that empower students to internalize the strategies and to develop a conceptual framework for understanding content area topics” (NASSP, 2008). With this goal in mind, and understanding the difficulties that my students have reading their history textbook, I use active reading strategies that guide their reading. For example, the RAP strategy teaches students to read one paragraph, ask what it says, and put it into their own words before reading the next paragraph. The emphasis in this approach is helping the student recognize that reading the history text book involves new skills which he is in the process of learning and that he actually understands more of the text than he believed he could. My students benefit from looking at the reading assignment in chunks, rather than pages, with each section read to answer a question seen as a chunk of text to be understood and summarized. The notes taken affirm to my students that they have understood what they read; so often they have lamented reading the “whole chapter” but not remembering or understanding anything they had read.

I integrate the use of the RAP strategy with another strategy, Questioning the Author, moving students beyond facts to thinking about why those facts are important. My students have written many reports during their years in school, all of which asked for facts. Now, in high school, it is not enough to know the facts and just the facts. Students have to analyze the facts, relate those facts to prior knowledge, consider how those facts might relate to the future, and develop an understanding of the significance of those facts to their own lives. According to its creators, “Questioning the Author begins by taking stock of what we want students to learn from a text and noticing what might interfere with that understanding,” then “prompts student response to text through such queries as, ‘What is the author trying to say?’, or ‘What did the author say to make you think that?'” (Beck, & McKeown, 2002). To implement these strategies together, as they seem a natural pairing, I first preview the text, noting sections that may pose interruptions in comprehension and preparing questions that will help students over the bumps. As we read the text together, I ask the students questions to engage them in interacting with the text and to monitor comprehension. I may begin with an active comprehension question such as ‘What would you like to know about this chapter’ after reading the title and the first paragraph; then after reading further, I may pose a questioning the author query such as ‘What distinction is the author making here’ at a point where the students may not infer what is needed for full comprehension. This active reading encourages students to “respond to queries by contributing ideas that other students and the teacher may build on, refine, or challenge” (Beck, & McKeown, 2002). In addition, students not only think about the text as I am asking questions such as ‘What do you think the author meant by saying that…,’ but they also observe when I choose to ask the question. I want my students to understand the text, but I also want to model how to think while reading. Ideally, students learn to ask questions themselves while reading. This approach leads my students to an understanding of how to apply the strategies on their own; “modeling, coaching, and fading” provides my at-risk readers “with the scaffolding necessary to incorporate the procedural and conditional knowledge they were learning into their own repertoire of reading strategies” (Dole, Brown, & Trathen, 1996, p. 73). Research emphasizes that the key to effectiveness is to model and guide students through the process; showing students just once and then expecting them to apply any strategy is idealistic, if not simply unfair. Fisher (2001) points to “significant improvement in student quiz scores after graphic organizers had been implemented with teacher guidance” (p. 116). This guidance is on-going and repeated; Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock (2001) caution, “simply directing students what to do, however, is not the same as showing them how to do it” (p. 32). Dole, Brown, and Trathen (1996) further remind us that “with its emphasis on making abstract cognitive thought processes explicit, strategy instruction can be difficult for students to understand, especially if the instruction is not sequenced clearly and systematically” (p. 67). This instruction, meaning modeling and thinking-aloud to show students the process is worth the effort and the time; “long-term instruction of sophisticated comprehension strategies clearly improves student understanding and memory of texts that are read” (Pressley, 2002, p. 291).

Finally, as students learn to preview the text, read for a purpose, asking questions as they read, they are moving toward deeper comprehension that will be demonstrated through the use of post-reading strategies. Our history teachers use an acronym “GRAPES” (geography, religion, achievements, politics, economy, and society) to indicate what students should know about each people-group studied, and this could easily be applied with the Compare and Contrast matrix. The basic idea is that “readers compare and contrast the target concepts listed across the top of the matrix according to attributes, properties, or characteristics listed along the left side” (Vacca, & Vacca, 2005, p. 402). By completing the chart, students focus on the items their teachers are highlighting, and in addition, they create for themselves a study guide for use when preparing for tests or essay assignments. Another post-reading skill that I want my students to develop is the ability to summarize notes and what was read. I, again, use a modeling approach with the whole class first, asking students to contribute sentences, as we summarize a text together. I take an active role and encourage active learning.

Galda and Liang (2003) note that “educators who want to capitalize on the potentially rich experience that seems to motivate students to read…need to carefully orchestrate the questions, tasks, and tests” (p. 270). I take an active role in “planning instruction; establishing the structure necessary for successful implementation; observing, assisting, and guiding students and groups as they work; and assessing and adjusting the process” (Ruddell, 2004, p. 107). As freshmen in high school, my students are no longer learning to read, but as noted earlier, reading to learn, “a matter of meaning-making, problem-solving, and understanding” (Jacobs, 2002, p. 59). Because I work with what content area teachers assign my students, I do not get to choose the students’ textbooks; my explicit teaching of reading strategies, showing and not telling, though, may help my students navigate texts with greater success and confidence.


Alvermann, D. E., Phelps, S. F., & Ridgeway, V. G. (2007). Content area reading and literacy: Succeeding in today’s diverse classrooms (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Beck, I. L., & McKeown, M. G. (2002, November). Questioning the author: Making sense of social studies [Electronic version]. Educational Leadership, 60(3).

Dole, J.A., Brown, K.J., & Trathen, W. (1996). The effects of strategy instruction on the comprehension performance of at-risk students. Reading Research Quarterly, 31(1), 62–88. Retrieved February 11, 2008, from

Fisher, A., (2001). Implementing graphic organizer notebooks: the art and science of teaching content. [Electronic version]. The Reading Teacher, 55, 116.

Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Williams, D. (2002, November). Seven literacy strategies that work. Educational Leadership, 60(3), 70–73.

Galda, L., & Liang, L. (2003). Literature as experience or looking for facts: Stance in the classroom. Reading Research Quarterly, 38(2), 268–275.  Retrieved February 8, 2008, from

Guthrie, J.T. (2001, March). Contexts for engagement and motivation in reading. Reading Online, 4(8). Retrieved 01/04/08 from

Jacobs, V. (2002, November). Reading, writing, and understanding [Electronic version]. Educational Leadership, 60(3).

Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D. J., & Pollock, J. E. (2001). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Mccrudden, M, Perkins, P, & Putney, L Self-efficacy and interest in the use of reading strategies. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 20, Retrieved 1/12/08, from

NASSP, (2008). During-reading strategies. Retrieved January 30, 2008, from National Association of Secondary School Principals Web site:

Nauman, Ph.D, A. (2007). Reader’s Handbook, Grades 9-12, Research Base. Retrieved January 4, 2008, from Great Source Web site:

Neufeld, P. (2005, December). Comprehension instruction in content area classes. The Reading Teacher, 59(4), 302–312. Retrieved February 13, 2008, from

Pressley, M. (2002). Metacognition and self-regulated comprehension. In A.E. Farstrup, & S. Samuels (Eds.), What Research Has to Say About Reading Instruction (pp. 291-309). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Ruddell, M. R. (2004). Engaging students’ interest and willing participation in subject area learning. In D. Lapp, J. Flood, & N.Farnan (Eds.), Content area reading and learning: Instructional strategies. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Singer, H., & Donlon, D., (1989). Reading and learning from text. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Vacca, R.T. (2002). Making a difference in adolescents’ school lives: Visible and invisible aspects of content area reading. In A.E. Farstrup, & S. Samuels (Eds.), What Research Has to Say About Reading Instruction (pp. 184-204). Retrieved 1/12/08 from .

Vacca, R. T., & Vacca, J. L. (2005). Content area reading: Literacy and learning across the curriculum (8th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

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Hidden Hurts

I typically use this place to write about pedagogy and how kids learn. Today, it’s about how kids hurt. A mom just dropped in to “say hi.” I invited her to sit and chat — five minutes later, her eyes filled with tears, she’s sharing about her son’s hurts. I haven’t seen her son in a while — he worked with me during his freshman year, developed his independent learning skills, and moved out of my program. He’s a senior now. And he hurts. And she hurts. And no one here knows. She wanted advice — who to tell, how to move forward, how to believe that he’ll be okay. There’s a past. There’s that genetic history. There’s that shadow of what if he also…. How does a mom’s heart hold all of that hurt? How has his heart held all of that hurt…and for how long? … And of course, it all reminds me that he’s not alone. Others like him walk through the halls, past our room doors, into our classrooms, sitting beside us or across from us…with hidden hurts. And if we’re astute, or if they’re reaching out for help, we notice the red cries when the sleeve gets pushed up or we hear the pleas in the leave-me-alone silence. I am once again reminded, also, that I am not a savior. But I believe in hope and in prayer. I am thankful that this mom sought me out today…not because I have answers but because I care and can offer to help carry the hurts as she seeks out the professional support for her son — and there is healing for hidden hurts over time.

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Today I see the small steps — the step to meet with a teacher rather than pretending help is not needed, the step to list three main points from the history reading rather than skipping the reading altogether, the step to read a chapter in the assigned novel rather than trusting Sparknotes. These small steps, so few, may lead to the next step and the next, and I recognize and value them. Each struggling student who takes a step is to be encouraged — and I cannot let any of us get mired in the journey by entrapping our feet in the mud of “but why don’t you…” or “still you need to…”

Today I see the small steps — the step to speak with gentleness, the step to affirm first, the step to value all steps.

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Response while viewing “180 Days: A Year in an American High School” (PBS) because I can’t just watch…

How does a kid deal with this…losing his mom to cancer, evicted the following week because dad has no job, so much loss…yet, he’s in school…and someone cares and talks with him…gosh, is there anything more rewarding than just talking with a kid like this and being there for him?

Test scores…always the shadow behind the teacher, behind the student…

She’s great! This senior who has dreams, goals of college, doing what some might say she couldn’t…because of the school’s test scores.

Yes, what is it about…what is the bigger picture…how does a parent with 9 kids have a dream for her children … and yet, she’s there, she’s listening, and she’s proud of her daughter who set her goals and is going to get a scholarship.

Picking colleges to apply to based on which will be least expensive or give her the most financial aid…so different from the experiences of the students at my school…what must it feel like to have choices defined by more external factors than internal factors, to feel that you have so little control over your life and your future? So many of the students at my school are so blessed, and so unaware.

Teachers concerned…realizing that their kids need a “dream-come-true” prom experience…the kids deserve it.

“Tough, visionary, reformer”…improved test scores, “yet still…” and always the “yet still…”

What’s worth fighting for? Kids, first. Kids who need more choices, more options. Kids who must be so weary fighting for themselves. Kids whose mom or dad or both fight for their kids to have futures by simply staying with them, and doing what they can.

300 kids dropping out an hour…why? Those kids are worth fighting for…how can I fight?

What’s most important in changing the lives of these students? Teachers discussing this question. Teachers agreeing that relationships are the most significant change agent in their kids’ lives. I agree.

Still, having to have a pep rally for a standardized test…”Pass the …” and yet still, the kids are … well, the cheerleaders were…but the majority of the kids look…bored and apathetic or nervous and worried…and aren’t both responses similar at the core…the “what if” fear that shadows their next move?

What a gorgeous smile…she looks up at the admissions counselor taking her on a group tour of the college…she’s hopeful…I’m prayerful…I want her to get there…

Wow, one-on-one meetings with an admissions counselor, that includes hearing on the spot whether or not they are accepted and hearing about scholarships awarded! These kids need that immediate hope for the year after graduation. The kids around them need to witness their joy and hope…to prompt hope in their own hearts about their own possibilities.

Spring break…principal tells staff to get rest and stay hopeful…there’s that word again…hope…foundation, fortification, future…all because of hope

And then the return after break and the countdown to the test…competitions, groups practicing together, teachers cheering and coaching and high-fiving and guiding and rewarding and nurturing a sense of community to create and sustain the kids’ conscious efforts to score well as a school, together, for the sake of all…yet really, teachers doing this for the kids…teachers who know their school’s future depends on these scores…yet still, I believe they care more that the kids learn because they see the skills for the test as skills for life…a life with hope.

Setting target goals…with the kids ‘in-the-achievement-gap” in mind…the kids who fall into the economic, racial divide that they see in their school…like the kid who has 72 absences…when she’s not in school, where is she?…where is her hope when she’s not in school?

But back to the gym…pep rally, cheer competition…that community spirit again that builds resiliency…school team wins…I’m in tears…resiliency through relationships…even cheerleading bring hope

Wait, the admissions counselor made a mistake…added the wrong numbers…full scholarship rescinded…mom, daughter…is there hope…there is no more money…can she score higher on the SAT to get more points for another scholarship…she was “hoping on that, but now…”

The arts…a “great refuge” in addition to opening doors for kids…absolutely…I love this school’s administration…they are hands on and minds in and all for the kids’ learning and experiencing…life, academics, and the arts…look at this admin mentoring the guitar teacher on pedagogy…effective teachers help kids to be effective learners…he wants to give these kids what they need…they are what is worth fighting for…and he’s doing it.

And then there he is again, no mom, sitting with his tunes…cousin shows up at school…legal guardian…withdrawing him from this school…from this community of hope…tears again…why…he’s worth fighting for…he’s fighting for himself…he’s “doing fine” where he is…someone’s fighting for him…but what can he do…legally there’s nothing they can do…they, his hope, now his possibly his past…and another loss in this kid’s life…3rd school in one year…where is his hope…how resilient will he be?

You “take ownership” of these kids…principal cares.that kids grow…doesn’t want any one of them to leave “half done”

Test day…moving…shadows linger…but ‘I achieve” shirts encourage…”You may begin…”…with hope? Testing ends…”You have 10 minutes to transition…” …transition back to school days now only shadowed by waiting for scores

And then the budget…and which of the faculty have hope of another year…who will be included and who will be cut…faces looking like the kids in the gym listening to the explanation of the test…same “what-if fear”…more shadows…

Engagement…it’s there in their eyes…they’re connecting…because he is connecting…he, who doesn’t know if he’ll be there…waiting for scores on a piece of paper written by a principal who mentors and clearly cares…yet still…evaluation time…budget shadows…this is reality everywhere now, even at my school

“Impact” score…does that equal hope?

Faculty lounge…they are mostly young…coincidence…where are the veteran teachers…where are the teachers who may be older…reflective of the budget shadow or reflective of a society that values youth or reflective of the veterans moved to better schools…I am a veteran…I would want to be in this school…shadows frighten…yet still…I hope

Love this counselor…reading email from college admissions counselor over the phone to mom, daughter…reconsidered…scholarship returned to student…community celebration…hope again

A mother’s tears…grateful that she’s alive to see her daughter succeed, to see her daughter get to college…mother’s joy, daughter’s hope…resiliency

Budget shadows…prom…senior celebrations…can all celebrate…will some be left in the shadow…community…staff, teachers, partners…creating prom experience on campus…because no one should be left in the shadow… hope…resiliency…relationship … my tears, again…and their smiles

Love it…kids are kids…”I don’t know how to slow dance” … felt the same way before my prom…ah, Angelou knew it…”we are more alike, my friend, than we are unalike” in our humanness when you bring us out of the shadows

Graduation…how many days left…who has hope? “3 classes short”…keep coming to school…take summer school…will he? Does he have enough hope to do it?

“Letter of non-reappointment”…she did so much…she cared…she mentored…she hoped… now we’re all crying…another loss…for her…for the kids…for the kids…for the kids…it was always about the kids…and resilient, she says “we will be fine” and she says let’s finish strong…”we have kids to graduate”…can’t give a score to relationships…can’t quantify how much hope you’ve given in a year…and who is giving her hope now…the kids, and still, the kids.

What’s worth fighting for? They will fight for their principal, their mentor…who are they fighting? Don’t know…he stayed in the shadows…but their voices are visible and they ask, and they demand, and they point, and they show, and they attempt to pull him into their world, their loss…but he stays invisible, unheard because he never spoke…one large shadow.

One person inside the school telling you can do it…can speak louder than a bunch of people outside telling you that you can’t do it…the kids

And again, the veterans…yes, we know we cost schools…we often aren’t even considered because we “cost too much”…some of us would take less than what the scales say we cost…just to give hope…that’s worth fighting for…to “sift through the stuff and get the kids committed to their education”…yet still, when the sources of hope are moved, are lost…stability is needed

Graduation…no shadows for this moment…hugs, celebration, community…results of resiliency and hope…and then, each one moves on…

…I will remember this view, this passion welling up within me, this hope I have for these kids and this community of educators, for those I’ve not seen, for the ones I’ll see tomorrow…








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“Inexperienced” and “Dumb” Are Not Synonyms, but…

Think about your first day at your first job — desperately trying to not look “new” and yet, hoping to spot a face in the midst that could be the source of support you might need? We don’t like being new, because when we are new, we often are also inexperienced — and that can cause us to feel “dumb” (a word I hate, but it best describes the feeling I’ve had when I’ve been this person). We quickly learn from experience that “inexperienced” and “dumb” are not synonyms, and that we need to seek out support systems if we want to succeed. Continuing my look at Langston’s 6 Success Attributes, I want to share about how I’ve considered the presence and use of effective support systems in my work with high school kids.

My supervisor of 7 years at is now headmaster at a school in Oregon this year, and he is working to establish means of supporting students at his new school similar to how we support them at the school I am continue at as Learning Specialist. He called me one day to ask me what seemed to make the biggest difference in whether or not a student progressed and succeeded in my program. At first, I said something that was pretty general and vague because I hadn’t really thought about it. Later that night…well, in the middle of the night because I couldn’t sleep and I was still thinking about his question…it hit me – it’s relationship! Every student who has succeeded in becoming an independent learner is one with whom I had developed a close, trusting relationship. When I couldn’t connect with a student, I lost him – and felt like I had failed. I know that we can’t connect with every kid, but in my particular school environment and being the only one in this role of Learning Specialist (not tutor), I feel that I need to connect and help each student who is referred to me because I want each one to develop the big picture skills of metacognitive thinking and strategies, rather than just leave with a finished homework assignment. The key goal of each session, in terms of my work, is to “focus on islands of competence” and maintain a positive, safe environment for my students (Ficksman & Adelizzi, 2010, p. 35). The most important message I need to convey to my students is that they can trust me enough to be honest with me. If something I suggest doesn’t work for them, then they can tell me and we’ll try something else. Early on, this is difficult for kids to do – there is a lot of “nodding and smiling” during those first sessions and then a lot of “nothing gained” as a result. Once I’ve gained the student’s trust, however, and have a rapport with him, they will tell me, “you know, I hate having to write stuff into a planner just because the school gave me a planner; can’t I use an app on my phone?” We weigh the pros and cons of each system and the student tries out the app for a week, and then lets me know at the next session if it worked better for him than the planner book.  When I see a student has a backpack bulging with loose papers, I joke about it and then offer to help “toss and file.” Some are hesitant, but usually with a few more jokes, I can get them started, and we start piling, and filing, and tossing, with me explaining the how-to’s and the why’s of the process as we each score “free-throws” into the trash or recycling baskets.

What I try to be is what Langston describes as the “Charismatic Adult” in each of my student’s lives. Langston believes that “the charismatic adult does more for a child with a learning disability than just offer support, foster good self-esteem, and help discover the child’s strengths. The charismatic adult teaches that child the power of human relationships. That child realizes that to make it, he or she will have to continue to partner with other people.” Just as I partner with my student to help him toss and file, my student can learn to partner with others to tackle tasks and activities and to engage with others socially. This relates to our discussion of pro-activity because helping students recognize when they need help and how to accept that help means that I often serve as a “bridge” between a student and the source of help so that student gains confidence in the help offered and learns to trust that others will support him.

Sometimes, as a bridge, I connect students to each other for support. This past year, I worked with two students who are autistic. Both of these students, Matt and James, struggle socially, so the first action I took was to introduce them to each other because they both like video games. I scheduled their meeting times with me for the same period so that they would have time to talk with me, but also to have time to talk with each other. After each seemed more comfortable with informal conversation, I introduced them to a third student, Cameron. Cameron, a senior, had worked with me for a couple of years so he knew why Matt and James were meeting with me, and not only that, he also played video games. As it turned out, Cameron was also in two of James’ classes and they ended up working on group projects together. When James needed to get involved in a community service activity for graduation requirements, Cameron encouraged him to join the Interact Club, and he did! I loved coming in one Monday and hearing James tell me about how he, Cameron, and the other kids made care packages on that Saturday at one of the kids’ homes. I believe that all of this happened because Matt and James learned to value each other’s support and social acceptance as we worked together, and because for Cameron, I was an adult whom he knew he could count on so he visited my room often, and he was willing to support two of my students because he understood the need for support from his own experience.

Look around…someone in your midst, whether a colleague or a student, may feel inexperienced in some area, and as a result, may feel “dumb” — I encourage you to be that source of support, that “charismatic” person in someone’s life.

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goal   In keeping with the sports world’s focus on the World Cup, this week’s post discusses “Goal-setting” and “Perseverance” – two more of Langston’s 6 Success Attributes. When my students look in the “mirror” of self-assessment, the natural next step is to set goals for moving forward. I shared this with a dozen 6th-graders taking my summer school “Study Skills” class. The first day, the kids completed an “Interest Survey” and answered the question “Why are you taking this class?” Kids are honest, and this bunch didn’t lie: “because my mom made me.” Okay, so do I tell them why they need the class? Nope, that’s not going to work. So I gave them a self-assessment sheet and they rated themselves on various academic strategies such as “I write my assignments on a calendar” or “I look up words I don’t know when I am reading.” After they finished their assessments, I wanted them to see their strengths, so I wrote on the board, “Academic Skills for Success.” I then asked them to put a “Star” by each item they had rated as “Almost Always.” I looked around the room to be sure that every student had at least one star, and then I said, “Okay, I’d like each of you to pick one of your starred items and write it on the board under ‘Academic Skills for Success.’” They eagerly raised their hands to volunteer, and after the first student wrote her skill on the board, I suggested, “If you do what’s already listed on the board, go ahead and put a check-mark by it before you write down your own starred item.” In this way, all twelve students recognized their own successful activities and those of their peers. The students were now ready to look at areas for improvement. The next day, I asked the students to review their assessments and choose one of the areas rated as “Almost Never” to focus on for the day’s activity. Using the acronym “SMART”, I explained that goals can help us improve if we make goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, rewarding personally, and timely. The kids shared their understanding of each of those words as each was presented, and I gave examples as needed. Then they wrote one Academic Smart Goal, and we put these goals on the board as our objectives for why we are in the class.

My Academic Success Program students are used to SMART goals, as we start the year in a similar way after they complete their self-assessments. I really like the 5-step process that Langston presents and plan to share it with my students. When they set that goal, we’ll note how they can also become educated on the best way to achieve the goal, then visualize taking the steps necessary to reach it, focusing on the path to getting what is desired), and then taking whatever physical steps are necessary to reach the goal. This process fits with the mini-goal setting we do each week, as well, when students look at upcoming assignments and tests. If, for example, the student has a unit test coming up in a week, we will look at the study guide and set goals for incremental preparation. I show the student how to determine what he feels most confident about and least confident about, and then how to break the guide down into manageable sections to work with over a period of days before the test, setting a goal date on his calendar for completing each section. My students by setting SMART Goals and incremental goals are able to as Langston points out, “distill small goals from a big goal and then educate, reinforce, focus, and act on each smaller goal that’s necessary to reach the big goal.”

Langston observes that “successful people with learning disabilities often possess the ability to learn from mistakes and pursue goals despite difficulties, as well as the flexibility to find alternate pathways to a goal or modify that goal as needed” and I capitalize on that when I meet with my students. When I meet with a student who has been knocked down so many times that he just wants to stay on the ground rather than try again, I can’t just say to him, “toughen up, cupcake” or “rub some dirt on it” – the kid is down. I need to get back to that first attribute of self-awareness. The student who is down is not self-aware of what he needs and what he can do; he is only aware that he has “messed up again.” One of the ways that I help these kids re-see themselves and revise their perceptions is by holding up the “mirror” again and showing them their strengths that we identified when we began meeting together. For example, in a school of gifted students, great significance is placed on grades. For many of my students at the end of each quarter, when grades come out, the need to look in the mirror proves essential to moving on into the next quarter.

I also created a “Strengths Evaluation” that I send to the teachers of each of my students at the end of the first semester. The form asks, for instance, the following:

Meaningfulness: Consider the following areas and check each area in which the above-named student exhibits strength:
Meaningfulness (emotions) Overview: Does the student find the learning interesting and/or meaningful? Does the student care about the content being learned? Does the student find the experience of learning valuable or worth the effort? Is the learning relevant?

  • Relates Content to Personal Interests/Experiences/Skill sets
  • Imaginative Thinking
  • Cares About the Content Being Learned
  • Other strength related to emotions

This is the type of strength that may not be evidenced by the letter grade on a grammar test or on a math quiz. When the first semester grades reflect deficiencies in achievement, I show the student the teachers’ evaluations of his strengths. When a student is aware that others see his strengths, he is reminded of them himself – then he is ready to persevere. At that point, we can discuss setbacks in terms of what can be learned from the experience. For example, when Brett, whom I mentioned in the first post in this series, came to me for help at the end of third quarter, he had many missing assignments in several classes. He could have given up. Instead, he knew from experience with me that when an assignment is missed, rather than reproving the student, I help the student trace back, through questioning, and determine what got in the way and then how to take steps to repair the damage. In Brett’s case, we saw a pattern of postponed assignments during the weeks he was involved in an extra-curricular activity. We could therefore identify the cause as a response to an external situation, rather than a response to an internal lack of knowledge or skills. At that point, Brett could put the problem in perspective and could work on setting goals and taking steps to complete assignments that would still be accepted and get on track with his current work, and persevere. And with that, Brett and those like him,


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