Archive for the ‘Education, schools, and teaching’ Category

I have tried three times to write what I want to say today and deleted it each time. I have so many things that I want to say but cannot for a list of reasons that is too long for words. Instead, let me simply say these things: Fellow teachers, you are loved and respected more than is ever shown. The voices of the critics are loud, but they become background noise when you have a single parent thank you for the knowledge you have imparted to their child. Parents of children with special needs, you are not alone. Maybe there are support groups in your area, or maybe you are figuring it out as you go along. Just remember that you are doing the best that you can for your child and it’s alright to feel frustrated. It’s a long road and you and your child are mapping out the path together. Writers, being published or getting sales does not make you a writer. The moment that you put pen to paper and converted your thoughts into words, you became a writer. Pride should not come from the success of those words, but from the existence of those words.

We are soon to bring the old year to a close and begin a new one. I do not make New Year’s resolutions. If you could not make yourself do it in the middle of the year, why would you do it at the beginning? I do, however, believe in looking back upon the old year for wisdom that you can bring forward into the new one. So along with what I have already written, I add this wisdom from one of my favorite movies:  “I don’t care what you believe. Just believe it!”

Happy New Year



feature image via letter


Any Language Arts teacher on the planet will tell you this: our vocabulary seems to be shrinking. It isn’t that we aren’t exposed to new and descriptive words, it is the fact that we don’t use them once we are exposed to them. Am I exaggerating? Does it really matter? Forget the cowboys, I want to know where have all the synonyms gone? (Sorry for the old music reference!) Well, that is what I decide to try and tackle with this video blog.

I got together with a couple of other writers the other day as an impromptu “writer’s group” and the first thing that the organizer had us do was five minutes of free writing. She said just to write whatever you want for those five minutes. I thought that I might share what I wrote. I guess that it shows my anxiety over the end of the summer.


I didn’t know what to expect. I never know what to expect. Of course, that’s what makes life interesting, isn’t it? And terrifying. You never know if the next event is going to change your life or just be another in the countless moments that disappear into the vagueness of memories. I know a lot of people that live for that uncertainty. It excites them. It gives them an adrenaline rush. I’d had enough of uncertainty. It doesn’t give me adrenaline. It gives me heartburn. Of course, life doesn’t give you the option to just stop where you are, so I opened the door, walked though, and announced, “Welcome to class. I’m your history teacher.”


Looking at it, it seems small for five minutes of work, but I can guarantee that I couldn’t have written any faster. How about you? If you had to write for five minutes, what would it say?

Writers and artists of various sorts always talk about their inspirations. It might be another artist or an event or the sun set just perfectly while they were walking their pet wombat through the swamp on the winter solstice…I’ve heard some interesting ones. Inspiration is something that we all need. Maybe it is inspiration to convince us to do something. Maybe it is inspiration that brings about a new idea. Maybe it is inspiration to push ourselves to be our best. No matter how much intrinsic motivation someone has, extrinsic inspiration is always a factor in ones actions and choices (I really just wanted an excuse to show that I could use the terms “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” intelligently!)

Anyone that knows me or that has read enough of my blogs knows that my grandfather has been a huge inspiration for me. So has my wife, son, parents, and many of my students. However, every once in a while I will stumble upon a new inspiration. These inspirations might not be life-changing, but they give you something new to look up to for a while. This happened to me just a couple of years ago. I was in a Master’s degree course talking about grading using a rubric, and we were given a rubric on how to grade someone’s public speaking presentation. We were then given a link to a video showing a young lady, about 12-13 years old, who was not only giving a public presentation, she was giving a presentation at a TED Conference. All of the students were amazed. The content of the presentation was excellent as was the style in which she presented it. I have taught students her age for fifteen years and I don’t think that I have ever taught one that could have presented with such poise and confidence in front of such an audience, and I have taught some talented folks. To make matters more interesting, she was already a published writer. I have to admit that this was inspirational to me…mostly because I was annoyed that it took me until I was in my thirties to become a published writer! The nerve of some overachievers…

Just a couple of days ago, I stumbled upon another TED talk by this same young lady, although she was older (maybe 17-18), and she spoke very intelligently about the inaccuracy of using test scores to judge a student’s merit (if you are a teacher, you are probably nodding your head vigorously right now.) Once again, she provided a great speech and made excellent points. I was impressed.

So what does any of this have to do with inspiration? Well, I have to say that this young lady has inspired me in a couple of ways. First, as a writer she has shown me that talent knows no age and that words do still impact the young. For a time, I think that we were all frightened that the internet would kill reading. As a teacher, she has inspired me by showing that there are those out there that understand what some of the true problems are in education, and that they aren’t all the fault of teachers. As both a teacher and a writer, she has also inspired me with hope that writing and teaching to a higher level than reality television even thinks exists will still reach my students and readers. Watch the speeches of Adora Svitak yourself and tell me what you think.

What about you? What inspirations have you found?


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I write the following as the personal opinion of a citizen.

I’m very conscientious about not criticizing things in my profession. However, my wife asked me about something today that suddenly made me realize that I needed to say something. I realized that I needed to speak as a citizen, parent, and educator about something that everyone knows, but that so many with the ability to change things have ignored. Testing is killing teaching. Testing is killing creativity. Testing is killing a love of learning. Yet, sadly, testing isn’t going anywhere.

My wife asked me if I knew about some sort of international recognition day that had to do with creativity. To be honest, it wasn’t something that would have been likely to come up in my middle school class. It sounded like something that would have been used in younger grades. However, after she asked me, I realized how little creativity I have been making use of in my class over the past several years. It isn’t that my class is intentionally unimaginative. What has become the problem is that the results of the high-stakes testing towards the end of the year has come to be so important that creating lessons that don’t conform to what is likely to be on the tests hurts my students, my school, and myself. When your student’s ability to take part in certain classes, or your school’s reputation, or your own income or job security are based largely on the results of a single test, you don’t dare to try and do anything outside of the realm of specifications for that test. This results in almost robotic adherence to exactly what you see on practice test questions or the precise words of the standards. The wiggle room is gone.

There are lots of political footballs and buzzwords that have dealt with this topic. Sometimes the number of tests are attacked. Other times, people try to blame new sets of standards like Common Core. Still others say that teachers are spoiled or lazy and just don’t want to be held accountable in their job. The truth is that none of these are the true problem. Cutting down on how many tests or practice tests is certainly useful, but it doesn’t get rid of the end-all be-all importance placed on the test results. Common Core isn’t to blame. Teachers have always had to teach from a set of standards, and those standards have never been able to please everyone. After fifteen years in the profession, I can say that any true teacher that I have worked with has never complained about true, reliable accountability for their work. That brings us back to the weight placed on testing and the changes that it has brought to the classroom.

At this point, some of you may be asking what you can do about it. Well, there have been a few things that I have seen that are counterproductive. If you are a parent, trying to “opt out” of testing won’t change things. In many places it isn’t an option and it doesn’t send the right message to the people that can actually change things. If you are a teacher, trying to publicly point out the problems with testing won’t work either. It just looks like employees complaining about their job. The difference can be made by showing that we care long before the tests are put on the desks of the student.

We must get involved early. It starts with elections. Teachers and administrators do not make the tests or give them the weight that they do. Elected and appointed officials are the ones that make the difference. Some of this is done at the national level, but most of the decisions come from the local and state level. Study, get involved, and vote intelligently. After election day, stay involved. Standards, bills involving education, and even the textbooks used in the schools are all open to public discussion. Get involved in those discussions. Something that has happened with educators, parents, and even officials is that they don’t point out the problems with a situation until after it has already been discussed, voted on, and approved. The old horse is already out of the barn when we try to close the gate.

I want to start being creative in my assignments again. I want my students to start being able to use their inherent creativity to enjoy learning more. I want the students to stop feeling the crushing stress that becomes a normal part of their day in the spring. I know that I’m not alone in this. We must act intelligently to bring a love of learning back into the schools and into our students’ lives.

I started a new regular assignment in my classroom this semester. They are Essential Questions. At the beginning of each week, I present the students with a series of questions that will be answered in class throughout the week. These are key points that I want to make certain that they learn. We check the questions for a grade at the beginning of the following week. Essential Questions make certain that the students catch the most important parts of the lesson (and not just my goofy, off-topic sidebars) and they also make certain that I cover the important, necessary topics. I started thinking, why not apply Essential Questions to writing?

Think about it. How often have you started working on some piece of creative writing with a pretty good idea of what you wanted to say, only to look at the finished product and realize that you haven’t ever gotten around to covering the idea that you intended to? Also as likely, you may have wound up with a story of a completely different tone, attitude, or even genre if you happen to start getting away from your original thoughts. Why not take a lesson from school? Write yourself a list of Essential Questions that someone reading your writing should be able to answer by the time they have completed the story. The questions do not need to be highly specific, and they shouldn’t be trivial either. The questions should cover some of the broad themes or general lesson of what you are trying to write. Once you have written out those questions (3-5 questions should be plenty), then you start writing your story. Periodically check back with the questions as you are writing to see if you are still on the same track. Once you are finished with your first draft, go back and double-check to make certain that all of the questions have been answered to your satisfaction. Then you are free to start revising with the knowledge that you have remained true to your original ideas.

Now I am someone that believes in flexibility. I know that my stories will change as I write them and new concepts occur to me or new traits emerge among my characters. That’s fine. Feel free to change your questions if you find that another approach opens new possibilities. The Essential Questions shouldn’t be a straightjacket. They should, however, be like a GPS. You may wind up taking a different route now and then, but they can help you recalculate to still guide you to your original destination. Just an idea of mine. Let me know if you do anything similar or if this works for you.

I apologize for not having a new blog entry yesterday. Been a busy time in my household. I have a question for you all. I’m considering trying to do a video blog once a week. Do any of you follow a vlog or do one yourself? What do you think about them? 

I wanted to share a positive outlook that only a teacher can have. One of my coworkers recently said “I had one student that had so much difficulty on a test that I stopped marking things wrong and started circling the things that they got right. That way when I gave it back to them I could say, ‘Here’s what all you got correct.'”