Teachers: Tear Down That Data Wall

I was involved in a Facebook group discussion recently about the mandated use of classroom data walls. I was surprised by the strong angry and emotional reaction I had to the conversation. The end result was that I realized that such a mandate would cause me to become publicly vocal and perhaps even be a deal-breaker. (Disclaimer: after 20 years of teaching in public school, I now teach at an independent school, so this is not an issue for me—yet. But that tide may change at some point as I have heard some discussions about data.)

Truly, I thought this hurtful practice had died out after the huge push to implement several years ago, but I see classroom data walls are back with a vengeance. Even to the point being given fun names like Bump it Up wall. A Pinterest and a Google image search reveals thousands of ways to make “cute” data walls. One search for classroom data walls, limiting the results to the last year, yielded hundreds of results. Contrary to the public push against these a few years ago, many are now defending, and even celebrating, this practice as a viable path to improvement. This baffles me.

Because there was so much parent push-back a few years ago, especially from parents of children with exceptionalities, teachers came up with what they believe to be work-arounds such as posting collective data or averages of the entire class. But even displaying data in this form, such as how many pages the whole class has read or how much the class average has improved on a skill, do not do enough to protect the child who is the lowest on these measures. It can even serve to make the child a target of the more accomplished or competitive peers who just want to “win” at all costs—including the feelings of a classmate. Even if you believe they can’t identify the lowest performing child or that every child will feel a sense of accomplishment this way, trust me when I tell you they know the truth. Kids are not so easily manipulated.

As a former special education teacher, I saw myriad ways teachers humiliated students who were having difficulty grasping a concept. These data-shaming walls are just one more way to break a child’s spirit. Imagine if your teacher evaluation score were posted on a public chart—even with an alternate identifier—in the teacher’s lounge where you would see it every day. Even if your name is not on the chart, you and your peers know who falls where. How long do you suppose it would take before you avoided the teacher’s lounge or got that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach every time you entered? You would feel completely demoralized. And you’re an adult.

I got into this profession to teach, not humiliate, children, but I have seen it happen all too often. To this day, I vividly remember in third grade seeing charts displayed with who passed our weekly timed multiplication test. If you passed, you were allowed to free read during the weekly re-test. This went on for weeks until everyone passed. Imagine how that poor child felt who had to take that test for half the year before he passed. It’s unconscionable. How many schools implement the practice that a child who has some work to do or needs remediation must stay in from recess or miss an enjoyable school function or class? How on earth does that motivate a child?  I had secondary school teachers who posted the class test scores and or passed papers back in order of highest grade to lowest grade. I saw friends hanging their head the longer it took for their paper to be handed back. How was that acceptable? These are but three of countless examples of these kinds of practices. In the end, these encourage, not only resentment, but needless competition between students. There is absolutely no educational value to this.

All of this being said, I am not opposed to data tracking and PRIVATE sharing of information with individual children for the purpose of setting personal SMART goals or the like. The issue is the baffling need to publicly display this information under the guise that it will motivate students. As an educational psychologist who has extensively studied and taught about motivation, I guarantee you that this serves absolutely no valuable educational purpose and serves only to dishearten.

Classroom data walls are yet another uninformed, ridiculous mandate stemming from misguided, often NON-EDUCATOR, educational reformers being sold to administrators as another way to demonstrate a “quick and easy” way to improvement. (This data displayed in the classroom is not the same as a school-wide data chart used privately by teachers to make educational decisions, although I question the value of these as well.) Aside from the fact that classroom data walls, even using masked identifiers, skirt the edges of legality (see FERPA law), there is little to no empirical evidence that classroom data walls promote improvement. As teachers, we need to band together to fight against these destructive data walls.

For those of you in the unfortunate position of being required to implement a data wall, I am providing several resources you could use to formulate your opposition. Some are research based, and some are opinions. I will add to this list as I find more resources to support this view.


2011 http://larryferlazzo.edublogs.org/2011/01/28/the-best-resources-showing-why-we-need-to-be-data-informed-not-data-driven/

2014 https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2014/02/14/how-data-walls-in-classrooms-can-humiliate-young-kids/?utm_term=.999a45ce8be7

2014 http://curmudgucation.blogspot.com/2014/02/up-against-data-wall.html

2014 https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2014/02/21/how-some-school-data-walls-violate-u-s-privacy-law/?utm_term=.5b52e036576f

2014 http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/16276/massachusetts_teachers_knock_down_data_walls

2015 http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/nov15/vol73/num03/Are-We-Motivating-Students-with-Data¢.aspx

2016 https://exceptionaldelaware.wordpress.com/2016/05/22/delaware-public-schools-you-have-until-thursday-to-get-rid-of-your-data-walls-or-i-start-filing-ferpa-complaints/

2016 https://blog.kiddom.co/tear-down-that-data-wall-53d3eef90d33

2016 https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/05/19/data-walls/?utm_term=.06ca325f562b

2016 https://www.studentprivacymatters.org/data-walls-must-come-down-we-will-help-parents-do-so/

2017 http://melulater.blogspot.com/2017/06/data-walls-why-you-will-never-see-one.html



Short Stories, Picture Books, and Video Clips for Notice and Note

Those of you who have read my previous posts know that I am a huge fan of Notice and Note by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst. I started using it in my sixth grade English classes and saw levels of analysis I had never achieved when using traditional methods of close reading. Their concrete, user-friendly strategy made even the most difficult texts accessible to all.

For the last two years, I have used a combination of the examples given in the book and short stories to teach each signpost before we applied them to whole class novels. (See previous posts.) This year, I decided to add picture books and video clips to the mix. Because my classes are only 45 minutes long and I have to teach all of ELA in that time, I don’t use as many books and videos and I would like (or as are available), but the addition of these two things made the signposts even more valuable to my class. They had no trouble finding them when we read our first novel, Walk Two Moons.

Below are the resources I used this year. I always began and ended with a short story and showed the video and read the picture books in between. After we had learned all of them, I had them search in my many picture books for more.

(NOTES: I currently teach at an all-girls’ school, so the short stories reflect that. See my previous posts for more examples of stories to use. There are also numerous other picture books that have great examples of signposts. Also, I purchased the Pixar shorts DVDs.)


Short Stories

  • Thank You, Ma’am by Langston Hughes
  • Priscilla and the Wimps by Richard Peck

Picture Books

  • My Teachers is a Monster (No, I am Not) by Peter Brown
  • Julius, Baby of the World by Kevin Henkes

Video Clip

  • Tin Toy – Pixar Shorts Vol 1


 Short Stories

  • Tuesday of the Other June by Norma Fox Mazer
  • Who Are You Today, Maria? by Judith Ortiz Cofer
  • Flowers and Freckle Cream by Elizabeth Ellis

Picture Books

  • That Is Not A Good Idea by Mo Willems
  • One Word From Sophia by Jim Averbeck

Video Clips


Short Stories

  • The Richer, The Poorer by Dorothy West
  • A-Ha Moment by Julia Alvarez (from Oprah Magazine)

Picture Books

  • My Rotten, Redheaded Older Brother by Patricia Polacco
  • Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown (he’s a class favorite author)

Video Clips


Short Stories

  • Eleven by Sandra Cisneros
  • Charles by Shirley Jackson (also has a good A-Ha moment)

Picture Books

  • Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes
  • I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen

Video Clips


 Short Story

  • My Grandmother’s Hair by Cynthia Rylant

Picture Books

  • Aunt Flossie’s Hats (and Crab Cakes Later) by Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard

Video Clip

  • Time Travel Mater – Pixar Shorts vol 2


Short Story

  • The Third Wish by Joan Aiken

Picture Books

  • Bully by Patricia Polacco
  • The Three Questions by Jon J. Muth (based on a story by Tolstoy)

Video Clip

  • La Luna – Pixar Shorts vol 2
  • Partly Cloudy – Pixar Shorts vol 2

Many of the other Pixar shorts would be great to use as well, but in the interest of time, these are all I had the opportunity to use this year.

For example:


For the Birds for A-HA MOMENT


There are also numerous collections of award-winning shorts available on YouTube.

My goals for next summer are to find some more animated shorts and also add in songs, poetry, and art. I am also going to ask the students to find some examples of these themselves this spring when we do more literary analysis.


Thank You, Captain Obvious

I just saw yet another article on my social media feed by yet another expert proposing that a decline in free, unstructured play can lead to depression and anxiety. I have also seen many articles purporting that a lack of play can lead to hyperactivity and loss of attention. Do we really need professors to spend time and money to “prove” what seems to me to be self-evident? How could we adults think that scheduling every minute of a young child’s day and never allowing them to play without an adult hovering over them would NOT have consequences?

I am not a parent, so I have no qualification to give parenting advice. But I have taught thousands of children in my career, so I do feel qualified to speak to what I see in the classroom. In the last several years, I have seen a dramatic increase in students with severe anxiety and depression as well as increasingly short attention spans. What’s equally as worrisome is that they seem to have lost some of their ability to persevere at problem solving, negotiate social situations, and entertain themselves. Schools have even gone so far as to have to “teach” grit and resiliency because they have seen it so sorely lacking.

I don’t understand how well meaning adults cannot see the obvious benefits of free play that I see.

I grew up in the 70s and 80s playing outside with all of the neighborhood kids participating in invented games and loosely organized sports. Yes, we argued sometimes over who was safe in kickball or tag, but we worked it out—generally without any violence or tears. It taught us how to get along with other human beings and negotiate our place in the world. We saw natural leaders rise to the top and creative geniuses invent the most fun games. Personally, I learned that I could be bossy (still can be) and that I needed to temper that instinct if I wanted to have friends. Unstructured group play also taught me that I was not good at everything and I would not always win—and that it was okay. None of these are things I could have learned in a book or class.

As Dr. Peter Gray states in his TED talk on the subject, “It is hard to find groups of children outdoors at all, and, if you do find them, they are likely to be wearing uniforms and following the directions of coaches while their parents dutifully watch and cheer.” While organized sports are valuable, in my mind, this is an incredibly sad turn of events. By having all of their physical activity monitored, protected, and governed by rules, children are loath to take risks and learn valuable life lessons. Adults bemoan the lack of children to go outside their comfort zone, but when do they allow them to do so? In fact, adults seem to take great pains to make sure everything in a child’s life is within their comfort zone. While I understand the desire to remove all strife from their child’s life, never allowing a child to struggle does them a great disservice.

I also spent childhood time alone, away from a screen, occupying my time with my favorite activities such as reading, drawing, cooking, or singing. I learned how to determine what I liked to do away from my peers and where my talents and interests lie. I was rarely bored because I learned to rely on myself for entertainment. Children gain confidence by doing that at which they are successful. The odds of this increase dramatically if they choose the activities which to pursue. Schools have realized this, but instead of increasing the amount of play, we have added “revolutionary” learning opportunities such as inquiry learning, gamification, makerspace, and educational video games to replace what kids will do naturally if left to their own devices.

Most importantly, play made me HAPPY. I enjoyed getting to do what I wanted and gained a great deal of satisfaction interacting with my peers and negotiating my way without adult intervention. Hovering over children every waking moment deprives them of any delight they could get from just being. Live should be joyous and fully experienced.

For the love of childhood—let the kids play!

Most importantly, play made me HAPPY. I enjoyed getting to do what I wanted and gained a great deal of satisfaction interacting with my peers and negotiating my way without adult intervention. Hovering over children every waking moment deprives them of any delight they could get from just being. Live should be joyous and fully experienced.

For the love of childhood—let the kids play!

Is Your Tech Integration Mostly a Garnish?

My MiddleWeb article from 5/17/15

During my college years, I worked as a server at several restaurants to pay my rent. At the swankiest of these, I recall the chef once telling his sous chefs to take their time plating neatly and to remember the garnish. He was fond of saying, “Do you know the difference between a ten-dollar dinner and a fifteen? Parsley.”

In the current educational climate, where any lesson that utilizes technology is considered superior, I can’t help but notice that a lot of what is being done is just adding parsley.

chef hat parsley 330Don’t get me wrong. I am in no way anti-technology. I am as hooked on my devices and what they can do as the next user. What I am is anti-bad pedagogy. One may be able to get away with outdated teaching practices using a tech-free lesson, but any flaws or faulty methodology become enhanced when technology enters the picture. No amount of parsley can compensate for a tasteless sauce.

The limits of “cool”

Exposed to decades of modern education research, teachers are well aware of best practices. We know that modern classrooms should incorporate 21st century skills, be student-centered and brain-based, strive to reach all learners, and provide authentic learning opportunities. My fear stems from what I have observed happening in the last several years.

Whereas during the NCLB years instruction was driven by what was on the state test (much of it rote learning), now curriculum is influenced heavily by what app we want to use just because it’s “cool.” The problem with this thinking is that cool fades—learning sticks. No one ever fondly recalls the delicious taste of the garnish.

computer tablet etc with app cloud 310All too often, I see teachers get excited about a new, fun app or device and immediately start to think about how they can incorporate it into their classroom.

They are more concerned with the trimmings than the entrée. Teachers need to determine what is to be taught before they decide what technology to use. The task at hand should influence the choice of technology and not vice-versa.

It’s been said before, but it bears repeating, that technology, whether in the form of a device or an application, is but a tool in our teaching toolbox. It needs to be an integral and vital part of the lesson, and must truly improve the instruction.

You want students to be able to answer the question, “What are you learning?” and not, “What are you playing with?”

New fangled drill-and-kill

Another issue is that a great deal of the incorporation of technology occurs at the most superficial level and only serves to replace current practice rather than improve upon it. Teachers should be focusing on what students can do with the addition of technology that they could not do without it before. Too many apps are just animated drill-and-kill exercises.

While some rote memorization is necessary in school, especially as one is developing the foundation for more advanced skills, if the only thing you do is replace one monotonous practice with another, you are not getting much bang for your technology buck. Research shows that focusing solely on rote tasks does not promote understanding or long-term retention of information. A digital worksheet is still just a worksheet.

hands swiping talblets or phonesI have also seen brilliant uses of flipped classrooms, but many times flipping classrooms is nothing more than putting some digital garnish on an ineffective lecture or confusing homework and sending it out the door.

“Sit and get” at home is not better than “sit and get” in class. We know that active rather than passive learning is a worthy goal. It is imperative to keep in mind that teaching should be brain based, not screen based. We know that too much screen time can lead to isolation, when what we should be encouraging is collaboration and higher-order thinking. Screens should only be an addition to our lessons if they are truly enhancing students’ learning.

Why tech motivation is extrinsic

Good middle school teachers strive to keep their students engaged and productive. They want to make the best use of their precious few minutes of time with the kids. However, using technology for the sole purpose of increasing engagement is a very short-sighted goal. Alfie Kohn and Daniel Pink have devoted considerable effort to sharing the science of what motivates us. If we’ve paid attention, we know that by focusing only on engagement without purpose, we will never achieve true mastery of content.

Being engaged with the fun aspect of technology is a form of extrinsic motivation, and outside rewards do not lead to internal desire to learn material. Educators must not trade a true wish to make meaning of information for a short-term distraction to keep students occupied.

cameras etc 300 1Years ago, education was primarily dedicated to the acquisition of knowledge, but needs have shifted and today’s students must be more focused on the application of knowledge. They must go beyond what they can memorize and replicate.

As the saying goes, we are preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, and so we need to prioritize the 21st century skills of creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking.

Our classrooms need to be student-centered and incorporate authentic learning tasks. We don’t need to make the same old entrée look better; we need to reinvent it or prepare it in a completely new and improved way.

1:1 equals student to teacher

Students need to reflect on what they are learning, be able to demonstrate it in myriad ways, and share what they have learned with others. All of this will never happen by just swiping a screen.

Critical thinking requires significant mental effort, but this is the only way we can make meaning of the tremendous amount of information available at our fingertips. Students must have a sincere motivation to master the material, and that begins with relationships to the teacher and purposeful action, not just deciding which app they get to play at school today.

large parsley 320Every generation believes they will discover that one revolutionary tool to change education as we know it. But if the use of these tools is not supported by sound pedagogy, then we will never achieve the desired result: students becoming self-directed, lifelong learners.

I’m not saying don’t use technology. Please use it! But incorporate it mindfully and purposefully in order to reap all the potential benefits. Try to make sure your dinner is truly worth $15 and not just the same old $10 dish with a pretty, yet unmemorable, throwaway.

Channeling Goldilocks, Revisited

Smartbrief published a modified version of my Goldilocks post on June 8, 2015

As a naturally reflective person and educator, I am on a never-ending quest to design the “just right” English class experience for my students. Unfortunately, I am becoming convinced that no such animal exists, as I realize that it is the end of the school year, and I haven’t accomplished everything I had planned. Worse, I am growing weary of striving for perfection. I’ve been trying for several years and have not yet found the magic formula that will allow me to address everything. I wish to teach it in a mere 45 minutes per day. I have tried every new idea that sounds exciting to me, but it is always at the expense of something else I’ve loved teaching in the past. Is the “just right” class a reality or a fairy tale?
Here’s my problem: I am addicted to professional literature and development. I want my students to love literature like Penny Kittle’s do, to write as much as Kelly Gallagher’s, become life-long pleasure readers like Donalyn Miller’s, and to enjoy active engagement strategies from Dave Burgess and Jeff Wilhelm. I have read all of their work and had the pleasure of meeting most in person. I am simultaneously inspired by their ideas and insecure that I will never be able to measure up.
I also attempt to go to at least one national literacy conference per year. I consider these endeavors successful if I can gather one new strategy, concept, or resource from each session. This doesn’t even include the fantastic ideas I get from weekly Twitter chats. Trouble is, these add up. Every single experience yields at least one great technique I want to implement the very next day. At this point, I have an extensive list of approaches I’ve tried — all of which produced great results. The problem is that I struggle to incorporate all of them in one school year, and have never once done so.
Here are some of the things I learned from the greats and loved doing with my students:
Genius Hour
Reading/writing workshop
Book clubs
Article of the Week
Independent, choice reading
Whole-class novel study
Student blogging
Book talks
Read alouds
TED-style talks
Author visits
Community service
and many more
The difficulty is that I haven’t found a way to do everything in the short amount of time I am given, but I don’t know how to prioritize what to eliminate. I get frustrated because I know all of these add value, but whole-class novels (the foundation for my school’s curriculum), choice reading, and writing workshop are my non-negotiables, so I have to cut things that are not part of this trifecta such as read alouds. I know this is not good, especially when I hear experts I respect tell me how they could not imagine an English class without read alouds. I nod because I know the research backs up this practice, and I would love to share this experience with my students, so I try to find a way to put it back in the mix. Unfortunately, it means I must forgo something else. Thus begins the cycle of beating myself up for not being able to do everything I want and need to do in my class.
Whenever I get down on myself, I pull one of my favorite books out of my professional library and sit down hoping for some sort of magical inspiration. This never works. I usually end up becoming more discouraged because I want my class to look like that in the text — every single day. Yet, it doesn’t, and probably never will. I, like all teachers, have to function under the parameters of my current teaching situation. For me, my limitation is that I have 45 minutes per day with my students to teach them reading, writing, speaking and listening. No small feat, indeed.
In an effort to cheer myself up, I remind myself that we all have challenging teaching situations. Many middle-school teachers have much longer classes than mine — some are even double in length. True, they have their own constraints and obstacles, but I know that I could do so much more just going from 45 to just 60 minute class periods. I can’t foresee a time in the near future when I will miraculously have all the time in the world with my students, so I keep trying to get the porridge to just the right temperature.
Logic then enters and also helps ease my mind. I tell myself that most of the authors I read focus primarily on the topic in their writing and often don’t wish to include every other great idea out there because they have been incredibly successful with their own methods. They have one passion and they are great at it. Sure, I would love to be Penny Kittle and do equal justice to both reading and writing in my classroom, but I am not her, nor do I have her situation. The best I can do is to incorporate the portions of her brilliance that I can, and forgive myself for what I cannot. I guess that is the key. I have to be okay with being the best teacher possible within the parameters I am given. And I have a pretty fabulous teaching situation right now. The only thing that would allow me to make it “just right” would be having more time.
I eventually find solace in the fact that many of the other great teachers I know are in the same boat and also fret over not being able to squeeze in every great idea. Many of us communicate on Twitter and try to put our brains together and figure it out. We haven’t yet, but I am relieved that I am not the only teacher who loses sleep over trying to be better. So, while comforted, I remain frustrated searching for the perfect balance of activities. I may never achieve Goldilocks status in my classes, but I will continue to try. In the interim, I will keep utilizing the wisdom of others and refining my own practice. I may eventually get to the point where I have a structure with which I am completely satisfied — but I doubt it. It’s part of the quest for the classroom fairy tale.

How to Become a Tween-Centered Teacher

My Middleweb Post from 7.07.15

Teaching middle school is unlike any other level of education. Early adolescents are not just large elementary school children, nor are they small adults. They are a unique animal with their own quirks and characteristics. Psychologists and educators realized this and it is for this reason that junior highs were abolished in favor of the middle school concept. For those of us who are able to appreciate the distinct nature of what the job requires, teaching middle school is a true Magical Mystery Tour (no offense to the Beatles).

As teachers use their summers to plan for the following school year, it is important to keep in mind that early adolescents need classrooms tailored to their specific needs and aligned to their developmental stage in order to be successful in school. The challenge for middle school teachers is that the changes in their students occur rapidly and are widely varied. Dealing with these changes can feel overwhelming, but it can also be exciting. One key to help students achieve is to design your classroom and instruction with tweens in mind. The benefits of designing a tween-centered learning environment are students who are actively engaged and invested, are responsible for their own understanding of material, have learned strategies to become lifelong learners, and are proficient in social interactions.

Middle school is a time of tremendous growth and development—more so than any time since infancy. Students are struggling with the expectations of adults, in addition to the confusing changes in their own bodies and emotions. The child who begins in sixth grade is almost unrecognizable as the one who enters high school. If teachers can meet the physical, intellectual, social, and emotional needs of their students, they will provide a great service in helping these tweens become fully functional young adults ready to succeed in high school.


Teachers have all been through the puberty process and I don’t want to stir up any horrible memories, but I hope they keep in mind how truly out of control they felt most of this time. Tweens are acutely aware of their physical growth and changes, and how they respond to this can change day-to-day, sometimes minute-to-minute. Teachers can help students deal with these changes by providing learning experiences that help students feel more comfortable in their own skin.

  • Provide ample opportunities for students to move about the room freely, without having to ask permission (although you can discuss with them appropriate times to do so). Sometimes getting up to grab a tissue, sharpen a pencil, or throw something away can dissipate their excess energy.
  • Allow them to go to the bathroom or get a drink more often than you may feel is necessary. As you well know, the point of these trips is not to use the restroom or hydrate. If their minds are distracted by some new sensation or a comment about their appearance by a peer, they are not going to be able to fully attend to instruction anyway, so let them go without too much of a fight.
  • Incorporate emotionally safe ways for students to use their new bodies. For example, don’t single out one student to come to the front of room, but rather allow students to do so in groups or ask all students to stand up and perform a movement. Additionally, use physical body movements as part of learning a topic.
  • Even though we tend to think of them as something primarily for younger children, incorporating brain breaks can be extremely useful in regaining their attention.
  • Over the course of a unit of study, students will learn and remember more if lessons include using all five senses. Music is especially motivating for young adolescents.


While scientists once thought of our brains as fully developed by this age, they now know this is not the case. Growth and changes abound and exciting things are happening. The best teachers take advantage of these changes.

  • Students at this age are gaining perspective on their own thoughts and emotions as well as those of others. Use this as an opportunity to incorporate many opportunities for exploring topics from various perspectives as well as those requiring empathy.
  • The thought processes of early adolescents are moving away from the concrete toward the abstract, but will require significant scaffolding to clear this hurdle. When students are learning new material, provide models, visual aids, prompts, templates, and coaching to ensure they understand the information. My students love my graphic organizers and often tell me they are one of the most helpful tools I provide. Many even return in subsequent years to ask for blank copies. As they become more proficient, these supports can gradually fade.
  • One sensational, and often untapped, ability of tween brains is that they are becoming more flexible. They are able to manipulate information so as to understand metaphor, allegory, symbolism, and hypothetical situations. They also enjoy deductive reasoning tasks. I regularly incorporate all of these in my class and am pleasantly surprised with the depths of insight that result.
  • Students at this age are curious and imaginative and enjoy tackling “big ideas.” Middle school is the perfect time to incorporate essential questions and real-world inquiry and problem solving tasks. It is a time ripe with divergent thinking and dissent. Encourage these creative tangents and provide the time, space, and materials for these explorations. Whenever possible, incorporate an authentic issue for them to grapple with. The results they achieve may surprise, or even delight, you (and them).
  • While providing predictability and structure is crucial for this age range, novelty within these parameters is a huge stimulus. A wide variety of learning experiences and techniques enables students of all talents and backgrounds to shine. It also keeps them excited to come to your class every day.
  • Aristotle said, “To find yourself, think for yourself.” At this age, tweens are becoming capable of understanding how their own brains work. This is the ideal time to introduce metacognitive strategies. Model your own thinking in front of them as you work through a problem, have them develop plans and monitor their own learning, show them how to visibly demonstrate their new knowledge, and help them deeply reflect on what they did well and what they can improve upon. Show them when to use the new strategies you’ve taught and what to do if they experience challenges. This is the key to them becoming proficient, lifelong learners.


Normally, I would separate these two categories, but they seem to be intertwined at the middle school level. Just as play is the primary job of early childhood, socialization is the duty of early adolescence. For these children, due to biological and environmental influences, emotional growth is heavily influenced by social experiences. The following ideas incorporate both facets of tween development because the curriculum needs to reflect sensitivity to both emotional and social issues.

  • As tweens strive to develop their social identity, they often begin to express self-doubt and teachers will hear a lot of negative self-talk. For this reason, it is important for them to have a sense of self-efficacy, self-determination, and self-worth. It is crucial to help them understand how their actions can directly influence the results, how they are capable of being responsible for their own learning, and that they can experience success somehow. This is the ideal time to teach about a growth mindset and the benefits of failure as a learning tool.
  • It seems as if middle school students need to talk as much as they need to breathe. If you design your classroom to focus on quiet, individual tasks, you will constantly be fighting their natural impulses and the result will be frustration on behalf of all involved. Instead, develop ample and “legal” ways for them to talk to one another and explicitly teach them effective communication skills along the way. Cooperative learning, Socratic seminars, role-playing, simulations, debates, skits, etc. are all valuable learning tools, but also satisfy the urge to talk.
  • Early adolescents are now capable of appreciating multiple perspectives on an issue and to accept those of others. Curricular materials and experiences that allow students to express admiration, feel empathy, or explore morality are very interesting to students at this age because this kind of thinking is so new to them. I tap into their natural altruism whenever possible as well.
  • At the time in their lives when group affiliation is paramount, individual differences can begin to feel most noticeable, divisive, and uncomfortable. It is very important to honor the diversity of your students and encourage them to explore, accept, and be proud of their own cultural identities. I am very careful to use multicultural materials in my classroom, as well as those that reflect the students’ own interests and talents.
  • Even though they may be trying to navigate life themselves without adult intervention, they still greatly need the approval of teachers and they truly want to please. Help them understand that mistakes are part of life, that you forgive them, and that they are worthy in your eyes. Help them reflect on their choices and determine a new course of action for the future.
  • Finally, the concept of fairness is foremost in their minds. Try to administer any consequences (positive or negative) in a fair, consistent manner. Tweens can sniff our favoritism from a mile away, whether it be real or perceived. It will pay off to be hyper vigilant in ensuring that your students feel you have treated them well and fairly.

I am aware that a lot of this sounds like common sense and “just good teaching.” However, I am constantly surprised at how many teachers focus on “preparing kids for high school” and “teaching them how to be adults” without taking into account that they are not developmentally ready for either of these experiences. They treat them as tiny adults and are perplexed by how poorly their students perform. By exploiting the very things that make tweens who they are, you will allow your students to experience the magical journey that is middle school and will save yourself a few headaches along the way.

Sixth Grade Summer Reading Recommendations

I asked my sixth grade students to do book talks on their favorite novel of the year. The only caveats I gave them were that the books must be appropriate for their age range (middle grade) and not have been made into a movie in their lifetime. I loved the choices they made!

Abbott, Tony Firegirl
Anderson, Laurie Halse Fever 1793
Asher, Jay Thirteen Reasons Why ***
Bauer, Joan Close to Famous
Bradley, Kimberly Brubaker The War that Saved My Life
Burkhart, Jessica Canterwood Crest series
Byng, Georgia Molly Moon series
Clements, Andrew Things Not Seen
Condie, Ally Matched series
Constable, Cathryn The Wolf Princess
Costew, Lori Sherpa’s Adventure
Craw, Gloria Atlantis Rising
Dashner, James Maze Runner series
DeStefano, Lauren Wither
DiCamillo, Kate The Tale of Desperaux
DiCamillo, Kate Flora and Ulysses
Dionne, Erin Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking
Draper, Sharon Stella by Starlight
Draper, Sharon Out of My Mind
Erskine, Kathryn Mockingbird
Funke, Cornelia Inheart
Gemienhart, Dan The Honest Truth
Graff, Lisa Absolutely Almost
Green, John Paper Towns ***
Gruener, Gruener, and Gatz Prisoner B-3087
Haddix, Margaret Peterson Among the Hidden
Harrison, Lisi Revenge of the Wannabes
Henkes, Kevin Junonia
Hiassen, Carl Flush
Hunt, Lynda Mullaly One for the Murphys
Kessler, Jessica Has Anyone Seen Jessica Jenkins?
LaFleur, Suzanne Eight Keys The Lions of Little Rock
Levine, Kristin
Littman, Sarah Darer Backlash ***
Lord, Cynthia Touch Blue
Lu, Marie Legend series
Martin, Ann Rain Reign
Messner, Kate Wake Up Missing
O’Dell, Scott Island of the Blue Dolphins
Palacio, R.J. Wonder
Patterson, James Maximum Ride
Riordan, Rick The Lost Hero
Russell, Renee The Dork Diaries series
Sloan, Holly Goldberg Counting by 7s
Spinelli, Jerry Stargirl
Stein, Garth Racing in the Rain, My Life as a Dog Drama
Telgemier, Raina
Telgemier, Raina Smile
Turetsky, Bianca The Time Traveling Fashionista series
Van Draanen, Wendelin The Running Dream
Verne, Jules 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Woods, Brenda The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond
Zusak, Marcus The Book Thief

The Serious Business of Classroom Fun

The text from my SmartBrief article on April 13, 2015

I’ll admit it: I enjoy being known as one of the “fun” teachers in school. I get a little lift when they walk in and the first thing they say is, “I heard English was fun today. I’m excited.” It gives me great satisfaction to know that my students enjoy coming to class and that they often share what we do with their parents when they get home. This doesn’t happen by accident. I consciously work to present material in ways that are not only effective, but also enjoyable. It gives me infinite pleasure to hear their giggles in the middle of an activity. It’s one of the reasons I continue to love my job even after all of these years.

Unfortunately, not every teacher shares my philosophy. Some are under the misconception that students enjoy a class because it is fun and no real learning is involved. They don’t believe that students can possibly be engaged in rigorous educational endeavors if they are laughing, moving and talking. This is absolutely not the case. Just because it’s fun doesn’t mean it’s easy.

To some teachers, rigor — by the way, I hate that word when applied to education — just means hard. It means worksheet packets or excessive problems assigned every night, including weekends and vacations. It means the teacher drones on and on while requiring students to take copious amounts of notes. It means rote learning and very little critical thinking. It means they are not allowed to “help” each other learn. It means the child’s interest in or connection to the material is irrelevant. It means assignments that might be beyond the reach of their students. It means that many students fail their tests. This is why so many education writers speak of “grit.” It would take real fortitude to tough it out in the classroom described above. Children wouldn’t need grit if the task weren’t such drudgery. The bottom line is this: If many students dislike a class, they are not learning as much as they could be.

I strongly believe in what two of my edu-heroes say about rigor. Both Kylene Beers and Harvey Daniels say that there can be rigor without rigor mortis. The first time I heard each of them say that, I wrote it down in my notebook with a huge exclamation point next to it, and I’ve never forgotten it. It truly speaks to the essence of my teaching.

How do I achieve a high level of rigor without killing the love of learning? Simple. I put myself in my students’ shoes. I figure that if I am bored while designing learning opportunities, they will surely tune out. Every time I sit through a mind-numbing professional development day, I vow to keep this at the forefront when outlining a unit. I think about how I would want to learn and what keeps me interested.

In my experience, there are several facets to “edutainment” and the best lessons incorporate as many as possible.

  • Humor: No one is asking teachers to become Jon Stewart, but he does present challenging material on a nightly basis in an entertaining way, albeit on an adult level. By finding the humor in what the students consider mundane, teachers will be able to engage as well as inform. While humor cannot be found in every topic we teach, the more often we can find the fun, the more effective our instruction.
  • Novelty: It is true that children thrive on structure. In my class, that translates to our sacred 10 minutes of silent reading at the beginning of every class. Beyond that, I rarely do the same thing two days in a row. Students get a little thrill in not knowing exactly what comes next. I’m not the only one who believes this. When I read Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess, I was invigorated by the various “hooks” he presented as methods to engage students and ignite passion in both the teacher and the kids. Similar to Howard Gardner’s Entry Points, Burgess provides techniques for incorporating art, drama, story, and movement to introduce new material and keep the students on the edge of their seats wondering what the teacher will do next.
  • Ownership: Earlier this year, I had tremendous success with student-designed Passion Projects. These self-directed research and design projects held their attention for several months. In the feedback I received from students, many said it was one of the most enjoyable things they had ever done in school. It took very little preparation on my part. All I had to do was give them the opportunity and time. They had a blast and learned valuable skills in the process. It was such a hit that we are beginning round two next week. It doesn’t only apply to something as a long-term endeavor. To the greatest extent possible, I incorporate choice into every lesson we do.
  • Relevance: Provide some sort of real-world connection to the material. This works especially well if the examples are bizarre, hilarious or shocking. When the students see how the concepts they are learning have application to their daily lives or are evident in the world around them, they get much more excited to complete the necessary work to be successful.
  • Collaboration: I teach adolescents. That means I would constantly be fighting a losing battle by forcing them to keep to themselves and remain quiet every day. Human beings are social by nature, and none more so than teens and tweens. By incorporating “legal” opportunities for them to chat, I find that, when they do talk in class, they are mostly on task. Between small group and whole class discussion, they talk much more than I do, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
  • Activity: The school days when I am most miserable are the days when no students are present– professional development days. It is not that I don’t enjoy the learning; I do. It is the act of being forced to sit in a hard, unforgiving chair for 8 hours with very few breaks that makes me want to act out and be disruptive. Imagine how awful it is when we ask beings with the metabolism of rabbits to sit still, be silent and avoid playing with things at their desk. I’m not saying we need to incorporate a calisthenics program, but allowing them to move from station to station, cross the room to look at a display, use hand movements to reinforce concepts, or even just rotate seats, will go a long way toward releasing some of the pent-up need for movement. On the days when sitting still is required, at least provide some sort of fidget toy for them to expend some of that energy.
  • Critical thinking: Some of the most enjoyable times I have in class are the days when we do collaborative inquiry lessons. Students work together, using inductive and deductive reasoning, to determine solutions to the task at hand. An added bonus to this type of learning is that the material is more cemented in their minds because they were active participants in the learning.

A fun classroom does not mean that students aren’t learning. It means that they are learning in the ways that meet their needs. It also doesn’t mean that only natural comedians will be successful teachers. It merely means designing lessons with the kids in mind. The side effect is that kids have a great time and maybe even learn something in the process — no grit required. So the next time you hear laughter coming from the classroom of the teacher next door, please don’t assume the students are goofing around. Mine aren’t.

5 Ways to Make Kids Hate Your Class

The text of my article for Middleweb from March 24, 2105

We’ve all read the rhetoric from self-styled school reformers perpetuating the myth of schools full of bad teachers. This has not been my experience. Most teachers I know are consummate professionals constantly striving to improve their practice.

Nevertheless, there are some ways that even the most talented teachers can undermine their own effectiveness. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to slip into these bad habits that make kids hate coming into your class. The best defense is a good offense, so it pays to be mindful of these ineffective teaching behaviors and avoid them when you can.

teacher-giving-orders1. Kids hate it when you over-control them

Because teachers are the dominant force in sole charge of a classroom of children, it is easy to become controlling. Furthermore, when so much else in our day feels out of control, we tend to clamp down on the things we can manage. However, leading with a heavy hand causes resentment among students because they feel helpless.

If you want to make sure kids dread your class:

  • deny them access to the restroom or a drink of water
  • keep them after class causing them to be tardy for the next one
  • get into power struggles with them in front of their peers
  • yell at or punish the entire class when not all of them were causing a problem

2. Kids hate it when you neglect or ignore them

boy-left-outTeachers are human beings, so it is only natural that we are drawn to certain students more than others. That being said, it is never appropriate for this to be known by the students. Even if you think you are treating children equally, they are very sensitive to real or perceived slights.

If you want to make sure kids dread your class:

  • give preferential treatment to obvious “favorites”
  • don’t bother to learn a child’s name or how to pronounce it
  • call on the same children all the time without giving others a chance
  • spend class time on your phone or computer rather than teaching

3. Kids hate it when you teach them badly

boy-puzzledTeaching in an all-consuming, exhausting profession. At any given time, there are a million other things we could be doing rather than getting our teaching just right. However, there is no excuse for forgetting the reason you are there—to teach the children to the best of your ability. Every time.

If you want to make sure kids dread your class:

  • impose a strict deadline, yet take an inordinate amount of time to grade or return their work
  • be easily distracted and go off on an irrelevant tangent instead of covering the material for which they will be responsible
  • come to class unprepared and disorganized
  • don’t accept responsibility for poor teaching and blame them for not studying
  • give grades with little to no feedback or explanation
  • use the same materials for years on end, regardless of the needs of the current class

4. Kids hate it when you blindside them

boy-hard-at-workThere are already so many times in a child’s life when they feel powerless. School should not be one of them. There is no place in school for “gotcha” teaching and grading practices. Think about how you as a teacher would feel if an administrator did equivalent things to you.

If you want to make sure kids dread your class:

  • put trick questions on a test to “separate the As from the Bs”
  • include material on a test that you did not cover or mention in class
  • take points off of their work for minor infractions such as forgetting their name or a spelling error
  • call on them when they appear to be off-task
  • single them out in front of everyone

5. Kids hate it when you damage them

cartoon illustration of a boy talking with his mom isolated on whiteThis is the single most important thing to remember about teaching:You are trusted with the ultimate treasure – a child’s heart and soul. It is your solemn duty to protect this gift. Too many times, we forget that these are just children with fragile egos, and they can be severely damaged by something that seems insignificant to an adult.

If you want to make sure kids dread your class:

  • use sarcasm regularly
  • participate in any kind of shaming (e.g., stapling fast food restaurant applications to a low-scoring test)
  • compare them to other students, classes, or siblings
  • reveal confidential personal information in front of their peers
  • publicly berate them for small infractions such as not having a pencil
  • tease them over sensitive issues

I can’t imagine that teachers do any of these things to their students intentionally, but they do happen. We are not perfect, but we can be cognizant of our own behavior. None of us wants to be the teacher kids hate.

When we chose teaching as a profession, we did so with the implicit understanding that we would not only teach but protect and nurture the hearts and minds of our students. Keeping our classroom practices positive and supportive will go a long way in achieving that life-long goal.