I Am My Words

ID-10094137My SmartBlog on Education article for 12.04.14

As a child, any report to an adult of another child saying mean things to me was met with the adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Those adults were so wrong. Words in the hands of the right person can be weapons of mass destruction.
As a teacher, I am acutely aware that my words have the power to uplift or destroy. An entire year of progress can be undone in an instant. This was reinforced for me recently when I attended the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention. I saw many of my students’ favorite authors speak and a common thread emerged. In their early school careers, many of these authors were in the classroom of a teacher whose words and actions left them deflated and hopeless. They began to believe that they had no worth as a student, or more importantly, as a person.
So what changed the trajectory of failure for these authors and prevented these damaging words from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy? One teacher. Each of them could point to the one teacher who saw them as a person with individual gifts and talents and did not penalize them for not fitting a preconceived mold. That one teacher got the message across that they were worthy and this gave them the will to become their authentic selves.

These authors put into words what I wanted as a child and what I want for my students. This is my idea of the perfect classroom — a place where every student feels acknowledged, validated and cherished. They need to know that they have value solely for who they are.
My classroom climate is based on this ideal. I want every child to know that I see them. I hear them. They matter to me. I am extremely careful with my words and actions and I am quick to apologize and try to make it right if I ever do realize that I have hurt a child. My words have power, and I must use that power for good.
A few years ago I received one of the best compliments I’ve ever been given by a student. She told a peer that the best part about my class was, “Every student is Mrs. Mizerny’s teacher’s pet.” I am proud of the fact that all of my students feel like my favorite, because they are. They and their parents have trusted me with their minds and hearts, and my main duty is to protect that like the precious gift that it is. Hiam Ginott, who pioneered the idea of supportive conversations with children, said, “If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.”


Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.com

Finding the Gift in Every Student

ID-100281002My SmartBlog on Education article from 02.19.15

While scrolling through my Twitter feed, I saw a Rick Wormeli slide someone shared about “What Doesn’t Motivate?” posted from his presentation at the 2013 National Conference on Differentiated Instruction. The last bullet point on the slide struck a chord with me: “Students spending the majority of their day working on their weak areas, being reminded of their deficiencies.” As a former special education teacher, this is a practice I have fought against my entire career. Sadly, with the added emphasis on standardized testing, this soul-crushing practice has become even more common. Is it any wonder that many students are disenfranchised? There has to be a better way. I believe one large piece of the motivation puzzle lies in emphasizing children’s strengths — not dwelling on deficits.
Educational researchers have extensively studied how students learn best. Many of the best techniques we know of are now primarily used with students identified as gifted. Herein lies my frustration. If these are our best teaching practices, why are they not used with all of our students?
I am known to say that I teach all of my students as they are gifted with learning differences. While this is meant to be facetious, it is somewhat based in my truth. I believe that all students can be successful in a classroom designed with them in mind. I saw how students who were all but written off by their general education teachers because they could not memorize basic multiplication tables could perform incredibly well on complex problem-solving tasks in algebra with some basic scaffolding. We do our most challenged learners a great disservice when we leave them mired in the depths of repeatedly failing at rote learning tasks. They may never be able to memorize those facts, but they are more than capable of rising to the challenge with proper support. By not providing critical thinking and problem solving opportunities for all students, we are holding them back and we may never discover their unique intellectual gifts.
In Carol Ann Tomlinson’s 1997 article, What it Means to Teach Gifted Learners Well, she states,
“What it takes to teach gifted learners well is actually a little common sense. It begins with the premise that each child should come to school to stretch and grow daily. It includes the expectation that the measure of progress and growth is competition with oneself rather than competition against others. It resides in the notion that educators understand key concepts, principles and skills of subject domains, and present those in ways that cause highly able students to wonder and grasp, and extend their reach. And it envisions schooling as an escalator on which students continually progress, rather than a series of stairs, with landings on which advanced learners consistently wait.”
In short, this is a student-centered classroom that addresses individual needs. Although this article is nearly 20 years old, its core premise still rings true. My philosophy of teaching encompasses all of the above criteria, but I believe it is common sense to get all of my students onto that escalator instead of leaving any waiting on the landing.There are no easy solutions to providing needed support to struggling students while not simultaneously killing their love of learning, but there are better ones. My educational goal is lofty. I want to develop the “just right” Goldilocks class for my students and myself. I want to reach every student where they are and take them to new heights. I constantly strive to uncover the giftedness in all my students, regardless of labels. Providing rigorous, engaging instruction to all students, I believe I can achieve this goal.


Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Low-Tech Learning as a Novel Concept

Today’s students have never known a time when computers didn’t exist. What’s more, they have the ability to carry a ridiculously powerful computer in their jeans pocket. Funny enough, even while having an electronic appendage with instant access to the world, I am noticing more and more that students appreciate being exposed to low-tech experiences.

I introduced the concept of Genius Hour (which I call Passion Projects) to my sixth grade students last month. They were given the option to learn a skill, create something new, or find a way to help others. I was quite surprised that, when given completely free reign, less than 15% of my students chose anything that involved technology. Instead, they wanted to learn how to do handicrafts such as knitting, cooking, cake decorating, and sewing. Also popular were model building, designing, and creative writing. Over a quarter of them are designing fundraisers to help charities close to their hearts. I did not expect that they would eschew technology. When I thought about this a little more, I realized it is because technology isn’t new for them. It is completely integrated into their daily lives so when given the task of choosing something new to learn, they opted to stray from their beloved technology.

Then it happened again. The middle school where I teach has an advisory period and a couple of days a month, this time is devoted to teacher-led clubs from which the students may choose. As each of the teachers introduced his or her club, the ear-splitting cheers were for clubs such as board games, knitting, eco-art, brainteasers, and the like. Although there were several clubs involving technology that will no doubt be equally as popular, I was again struck that students were also excited to learn hands-on skills or participate is low or no-tech activities.

The following week, at an assembly on the history of our school, the presenter showed pictures of girls in home economics classes cooking and sewing. This led to a classroom discussion about the “olden days” when students were required to take either home economic or shop classes. As I described these classes to students (because I took them), they were full of questions as to why we don’t still offer this kind of education because it sounded so “cool.” They were clamoring for the opportunity to cook and sew. Who knew this old-fashioned class would sound so interested to today’s students?

As a PD junkie, I come across dozens of articles each month lauding the use of technology in the classroom and detailing the myriad ways that technology can replace the old-fashioned classroom assignments. Don’t get me wrong—I am in no way anti-technology. I am as addicted to my devices as the next girl. However, I don’t find that students are nearly as engaged in most educational uses of technology as adults would hope. I’ve even heard students complain about too much screen time in school. Perhaps this is because some of the crafty, not necessarily pedagogically sound, projects that teachers are enamored of have merely been replaced by digital versions of equally dubious merit.

I think that perhaps one of the reasons so many teachers of all ages have jumped on the digital bandwagon is that we feel it is something that defines us as current or means we are teaching 21st Century Skills. It could also be that the use of technology in school is exciting for the teachers themselves because many weren’t exposed to much when they were in school. I know that I am often excited when I see the classroom possibilities of a new app or program. My point is not that technology doesn’t belong in the classroom, it does. It is that we may be overestimating the amount of engagement bang for our buck that tech provides. Not everything in our classrooms needs to be digitized and our students will appreciate the chance to experience the excitement of analog learning in a digital world. Excuse me while I go read my book (on paper, of course.)

Toward a Culture of Collaboration, Not Competition

The following is the text of an article that I recently wrote for SmartBlogs on Education.

As I read education blogs, news editorials, and twitter, I am struck by the “us vs. them” mentality I see between veteran and newer teachers. The purpose of this article is not to demonize or laud either one of these groups, but rather to promote the idea that teachers should support one another instead of tearing each other down. We all got into this profession for the same reason and I suspect we will find that we are more alike than we realize. What’s more, both veteran (which I am using to describe those in the profession for 10 years or more) and newer (those with 5 or fewer years’ experience) teachers have valuable, unique skills and perspectives and could learn a lot from each other. In the end, we all want to do the right thing for our students.

Veteran teachers can offer wisdom and assistance based on their years of experience. They have already developed curricular materials for their subject area and should be willing to share these with teachers entering the profession. The first couple years are tough enough without having to reinvent the wheel. Those who have been in the classroom for a long time also have the benefit of knowing how best to deal with the nuances of parental communication which can be one of the most difficult parts of the job. Another area of concern for many rookie teachers is classroom management and this is generally an area where an experienced teacher can provide valuable tips. Finally, veteran teachers can share the “need-to-knows” with those new to the district. They know who to contact about special classroom needs, the building climate and norms, the political history, and who makes the best coffee. Newer teachers will appreciate this kindness and it will go a long way in easing their stress.

Newer teachers offer enthusiasm, energy, and ideas. Because they have recently been in school, they tend to have read the most current professional development materials and are aware of innovative teaching methods. Teachers fresh from college can be more familiar with the seemingly endless variety of technology applications and how they can supplement more traditional lessons. Finally, they have the benefit of their idealism because they have not been demoralized by the media who seem content to place the blame for school “failure” squarely on the shoulders on the veterans.

None of this is to say that veteran teachers cannot be well-versed in technology or that rookie teachers are unable to control classroom behavior. I am speaking in generalizations and know this is not the case. Rather, this is a call for us not to be threatened by, but to reflect on our own best practices and collaborate with one another. We will all be stronger teachers for it and our students will reap the rewards.

Collaborative Constructivism in Language Arts Class

At several professional development sessions I attended this year, the speaker reminded us, “The person doing the talking is the one doing the learning.” This hits home for me because I am a constructivist at heart. It is one of my core beliefs that adolescents need social interaction in order to engage with the material and discovery to cement the learning. To that end, one of the instructional techniques I use nearly daily is that of Gradual Release of Responsibility (“I do, We do, You do” process), but I usually begin with the step: “You do together.” I find that the students are very motivated by the challenge of “figuring things out” and end up retaining the material better.

An example of how I use collaborative inquiry is with grammar, usage, and mechanics (G.U.M.) instruction. We are studying the characteristics of a personal narrative so today’s lesson was on dialogue punctuation rules. Rather than going through a book, worksheet, or power point, I had the students open up their choice reading books to a page with dialogue. Working as a group, they determined the rules of how to use commas, quotation marks, capital letters, paragraph breaks, and dialogue tags and wrote their responses in a chart. After they finished, we shared and they all added any missing information to their chart. Finally, I gave them the actual rules for punctuating dialogue and they determined which ones they had gotten correct (resulting in lots of cheering) and which ones they had overlooked. The culminating practice assignment was to write a properly punctuated conversation between themselves and another person (real or fantasy/positive or negative) with each person speaking at least three times. The feedback from the students was that the assignment was great fun and all were fully engaged in writing their conversations.

This same process works well with other topics such as capital letter or comma use, but I also use this technique for lessons beyond G.U.M.. For example, last week, I distributed a stack of eight brief memoir mentor texts to each group. Working together, they each read a couple and then attempted to determine the commonalities between the texts. I was pleasantly surprised at their rich discussion and the resulting list of qualities and characteristics of personal narratives they compiled. They hit the nail on the head and I didn’t have to lecture once. I am excited to read what they write as a result.

Practicing What I Preach

I just participated in an invigorating NCTE twitter chat http://www.ncte.org/community/nctechat about the Teacher as Writer. It was very thought provoking and I wanted to get my feelings down on paper while they were still fresh.

I believe in the power of the right mindset in achieving one’s goals. I encourage my students to take risks and I don’t penalize them for mistakes. I want them to practice in a fun, low-stakes environment in order to improve their reading and writing skills. I have designed the class so that they share their work with others often. I often tell them to “write what you know.” I remind them that they all have a story to share that others want to hear. Why, then, it is so difficult for me to internalize my own advice? Why do I find the act of writing for others so intimidating when I expect my students to do so on a daily basis?

I have had a varied and rewarding teaching career and have always shared what I have learned with others and learned from them in return. I took on leadership roles at school and have taught teacher candidates at Eastern Michigan University. I’ve enjoyed these experiences, but always had a desire to write a book on student motivation and engagement. However, I’ve never been able to follow through on this and put the ideas on paper. A large part of this is my own insecurity about sharing my ideas with a larger audience. I am very sensitive and am afraid I would respond badly to real or perceived negative criticism. I guarantee several of my students can relate and I have empathy for them.

I met several members of the Nerdy Book Club http://nerdybookclub.wordpress.com at the Michigan Reading Association conference in March of this year. After experiencing their passion and enthusiasm for literacy, I was inspired to start blogging my own ideas about teaching and learning, but was still a bit terrified of taking the leap. But I knew I must be that role model for my students, so I started writing.

On the day my first blog post went live, I was petrified. I was opening up my heart and soul in addition to my ideas and I didn’t know how I would be received. I was writing what I knew and wanted to tell my story. I truly didn’t care if anyone read the posts, but I wanted them to be kind in their feedback if they did. I have now posted several entries and can’t believe that people have actually read them and even commented. The response has been more than I expected and very positive. Even though it is a little bit scary, it is a bit of a thrill to know that something I have written may be meaningful or helpful to a fellow educator. Plus, I truly enjoy the forced reflection of the entire process. This is the feeling I want for my students so I must keep this in mind as I conference with them about their writing.

Once again, I am reminded that teaching affords me immense power and I must use this power to uplift and not destroy. I am sure many of my students are also frightened of having an outsider (even if it is just the teacher and classmates) read their writing. They may not feel they have a valuable story to tell. They may be afraid that it is not worth writing if it is not perfect. I understand how that feels and can relate. My role as their instructor is to be their coach as well as their cheerleader. I need to be mindful of the words I choose when giving feedback. If I do it right, they may experience the same joy in writing as I do now.

I guess my next challenge is to actually write that book.


Inspired by the Nerdy Book Club—Again

Last night I returned from a very invigorating “un-conference” called Nerd Camp Michigan. My brain is full and I am, once again, inspired by the people I have met through the Nerdy Book Club.

At lunch on the second day of Nerd Camp, I asked Donalyn Miller and Laura Komos if I could sit in one of the empty seats by them. Donalyn said sure, but told me that there were also a couple of teachers who wanted to sit by her to ask her some questions so we needed to save seats. My first thought was, “How cool is this famous author to give up her free time to, essentially, work?” My second thought was, “Woo hoo—a free consultation with Donlayn that I can eavesdrop on.” I knew her advice would be valuable, so I sat down.

The teachers asked Donlayn their questions and she graciously helped them with their dilemmas and assured us all that we were doing the right things for students. We all agreed that, in the end, we must perform to the best of our abilities given our individual parameters. This is one thing I have definitely learned in my teaching career—all we can control is our own classroom.

Besides this great lunch conversation, I sat in several Nerd Camp sessions delivered by phenomenal educators (and even horned in a bit on facilitating a session given by my friend, Kevin English. Thank you, Kevin.). In these invigorating sessions, it was easy to set goals for future learning. For example, I had not realized the full capabilities of Padlet and Evernote. I resolved to learn more and practice with these tools. My only regret at Nerd Camp was that I chickened out and didn’t volunteer to lead my own session as I had planned (which, coincidentally, was the exact topic that Kevin had proposed which is why I asked him if I could help in his session). I kind of beat myself up over that. Regrets stink.

I have an extremely rewarding career and love every minute of what I do. I’ve taught for over 20 years at all grade levels from first grade to university pre-service teachers. I have been a teacher leader and delivered many presentations to groups of teachers, student-teachers, and administrators. I know that I’ve put in over 10,000 hours, yet there remains this nagging doubt that I am not yet an expert. I always feel there is something I don’t know and can’t ever believe it when people want to hear what I have to say. Perhaps this is because I haven’t yet developed the “Goldilocks” classroom I wrote about previously. I feel that an expert would have had this figured out by now. Also, I have never quite managed to finish writing the teaching book I’ve wanted to do for years so I don’t feel I have credibility. It is for these reasons that I was too insecure to volunteer to lead a Nerd Camp session. I know I have a lot of knowledge and experience, but I don’t know that I will ever feel that I am talented enough to be one of “those” teachers who naturally inspire others like Donalyn Miller and the rest of the Nerdy Book Club. But in the true spirit of an Ed Camp, I am inspired to keep a growth mindset. I want to share what I have learned with others, but, apart from adjunct professor work, I don’t yet know the forum for doing so and this blog is my first step. I don’t feel that I’m an expert—YET—but I will get there. I’ll figure it out. I will keep blogging and tweeting and working on that book. One thing’s for sure–I will definitely sign up to run a Nerd Camp session next year. Thank you for the inspiration Nerdy Book club. I’ll see you on July 6 & 7, 2015!

Baby Steps towards Standards-Based Grading

The part of teaching I like the least is assigning grades at the end of a marking period. The problem is the cognitive dissonance between my grading philosophy and grading policies in the schools in which I have worked. Experts say that teachers should determine their beliefs regarding grades and assign accordingly, but it isn’t always that easy. Often, we must work within the system we have. Changing grading policies is a paradigm shift that not everyone is ready for. Baby steps.

I believe in supportive grading practices. By this I mean promoting a growth mindset, providing feedback during the learning process, and grading based on the standards. However, I work in a school with a more traditional system where most teachers grade based on averaging scores, use a straight points rather than a weighted system, and incorporate behaviors such as missing or tardy homework into the final grade. Therefore, I am doing what I am able within the system we have in order to reconcile my beliefs with the final grade the student receives at the end of the marking period. Baby steps.

First, I use weighted categories. Summative assessments account for 90% of the students’ grades and formative assessments are only 10%. Most parents and students believe that homework and classwork are very important, so I lend credence to that by incorporating them into the final grade. Ideally, I would be using a standards-based grading system and formative assessment wouldn’t count at all, but I am not there yet. Baby steps.

Second, I accept late work. I don’t give assignments that are busywork and all of them meet specific standards. Therefore, it is important to me that students complete these assignments. I allow students to hand in work late with a minor penalty (a flat score of 75%). Students and parents appreciate this as a kindness and I generally receive nearly 100% of student work—eventually. On the rare occasion that I do not receive an assignment, I record a score of 50%. (There have been numerous articles written about the idea of 50% instead of zeroes, so I won’t go into it here.) All of this may sound like a gift to some who adheres to traditional grading practices, but remember that formative work is only 10% of their final grade, so I am not giving them anything, but rather encouraging them to do the work and to learn. Baby steps.

Finally, I do not accept extra-credit, but I do allow for test corrections or redos/retakes. However, because my school does not adhere to standards-based grading, I must respect that. As a compromise, students in my class are allowed to redo, correct, or retake an assessment, but only for a maximum score of 73%. This does not make me entirely happy, but it is better than allowing a child to fail my class if they are willing to work to learn the information. I take partial responsibility for low scores and am willing to work with students to help them understand and accomplish what they missed the first time. At the end of the quarter, I do have a grade distribution and not everyone receives As, but no one receives Fs either. Baby steps.

None of this means that I am an “easy” teacher, that my students don’t have to do the work, or that I inflate grades. For the moment, this is my method of staying true to myself while working toward a standards-based grading system. I even managed to get everyone on my team to attend a Rick Wormeli (http://rickwormeli.net) on Effective Grading Practices. Change is slow, but I am confident that it will happen. Baby steps.

Maya Angelou–A Phenomenal Woman Who Taught by Being

“I would like to be known as an intelligent woman, a courageous woman, a loving woman, a woman who teaches by being.” ~ Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou died today. The news of her passing hit me unexpectedly hard. Though we never met, she was a presence in my life through her words. What a loss. In my mind she was a phenomenal woman who lived up to the standard she set for herself in the quote above. I, too, would like to be known as these things to my friends, family, and students. I hope to be the kind of teacher she has encouraged us to be. Below, I explore some of her words about education that inspire, challenge, and motivate me.

Angelou has said that the influence of teachers is greater than “the most broad, the most wide, the deepest, the most profound influence you can imagine.” I take this responsibility seriously. Whenever a student I taught a decade or more ago seeks me out to thank me, to share happy news, to ask for advice, or to inquire about my well-being, I am reminded of the impact a teacher can have in a child’s life.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,” is perhaps one of Ms. Angelou’s best known quotes and one I remind myself of often. I know that I have the power to uplift or destroy and I want to be sure to use my powers for good.

Angelou encouraged teachers to “Teach because it’s your calling. And once you realize that, you have a responsibility to the young people. And it’s not a responsibility to teach them by rote and by threat and even by promise. Your responsibility is to care about what you’re saying to them, to care about what they’re getting from what you’re saying.” Teaching is not only a calling, it’s an incredibly tough job. To be effective requires more effort than I would have thought possible as a young, idealistic undergraduate. Moreover, teaching is both science and art and it takes years to feel on top of your game. Although I am confident in my level of expertise, I am not complacent. After 20+ years, I am still learning of new ideas to implement and refining my practice because I want to do right by my students. Because I do care about both the information and the child, I refuse to teach by rote and threat or even promise. I want to enrich their minds and their hearts in the brief time we have together in our classroom. This requires constant vigilance and plain old hard work–and I love every minute of it all!

Finally, a quote that appeals to the English teacher in me (and a topic that I’ve written about in a previous post): “Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him.” It is my fervent hope that the reformers who make education policy will eventually involve teachers in the process and realize that we are killing children’s love of learning—especially in the area of literacy. Please, let them read!

Rest softly, dear Maya.