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


Passion Project Serendipity

My SmartBlog on Education article from 01.09.05

Passion Project Serendipity

One thing I have learned in over 20 years of teaching middle school is to expect the unexpected. When the unexpected surpasses the original plan: serendipity.

This fall, I had high hopes that implementing Passion Projects would accomplish several lofty academic goals. My classroom is student-centered, meaning I believe in choice and inquiry-based learning. I do not spoon-feed information to my pupils, but rather encourage them to seek answers on their own. Their learning experiences should be purposeful and authentic to the extent that this is feasible. For better or worse, a world full of information is at their fingertips. This, coupled with adults who often don’t allow children to grapple with challenges, means that many of our students don’t have practice with critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. I wanted to spark their curiosity as well as inspire them to work beyond what comes easily. As an English teacher, I also wanted students to practice their verbal communication skills and thought that a presentation on a subject about which they were passionate would be the best avenue. The end result was full of happy accidents and completely exceeded my expectations.

To introduce Passion Projects, I asked my students to contemplate the following three questions: 1) What do you want to learn how to do? 2) What would you like to create? or 3) Who would you like to help? (I allowed them to combine two of the three.) When they submitted their project proposals, I was a bit concerned by the results because I wasn’t sure if they were overreaching their abilities or how they would be received at home. Fortunately, I worried needlessly, because things worked out surprisingly well in the end.

The first unexpected result was that many of my students chose Passion Projects that involved little or no technology. Their plans involved old-fashioned “domestic” pursuits such as knitting, sewing, needlepoint, crocheting, or cooking. Others selected technical projects such as building architectural models, crafting organizational products for school lockers, or constructing an LED lit umbrella. A few elected to explore the arts through photography, creative writing, painting, and paper sculpture. What’s more, almost all of these involved learning the skill from a parent or grandparent or actively involving them in the execution. I had anticipated neither the desire for traditional, hands-on experiences, nor the wish for family involvement. The feedback I received from the adults thanked me for the opportunity for bonding time at a time when it is the child’s natural instinct to pull away. The students themselves stated that they enjoyed getting to spend the extra time with their parents or grandparents to create what became keepsakes or new family traditions. Many marveled at the level of skill involved. I was touched hearing their stories during their presentations and was even inspired to replicate a couple of the projects with my own family.

The second fortunate happenstance was that I had forgotten about the natural altruism of middle school students. I was completely surprised that so many chose to complete projects to benefit others through causes close to their heart. Many designed fundraising opportunities for charities such as animal shelters, medical research, domestic violence shelters, or the homeless—to a great degree of success. Some even received public recognition for their contributions. During the Passion Project presentations, their pride in their accomplishments brought me great joy.

One final, completely serendipitous, result of the Passion Project experience was that it naturally promoted a growth mindset. On their written reflections, students unknowingly expressed growth mindset tenets such as “it was really challenging and we had to work past our limits,” “it taught me a work ethic—I didn’t want to quit,” “it pulled something out of me that I might not have discovered otherwise,” and, “we didn’t need a teacher to hold our hands—just to stand beside us.” The parents provided similar feedback marveling at the maturity and inspiration they saw in their children.

Even though Passion Projects began as a way to provide real-world research and fun public-speaking opportunities, they evolved into so much more. Now that I’ve seen the power of their passion, I look forward to repeating these projects. Who knows what surprises lay in store?


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.


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How NOT to Kill To Kill a Mockingbird: Reviving the Whole-Class Novel

(Disclaimer: The main title for this post, How NOT to Kill To Kill a Mockingbird, was a gift to me from a talented teacher, Kevin English. Check out his wonderful blog: English’s Education.)

"It's a sin to kill a mockingbird."     ~Harper Lee

“It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” ~Harper Lee

First things first. I have to get this off my chest: I like teaching whole-class novels. There, I’ve said it. I know it is not a popular point of view in the current English teaching world, but whole-class novels have been good to me. Over the years, I have found the whole-class novel to be an incredible community building and learning process for my students and I have come up with some ways to make it a worthwhile experience. You don’t have to commit Readicide so that all you’re left with is a beaten, bloody carcass of what was once a perfectly fine work of literature. Students will engage with a text if given the opportunity, guidance, and support they need.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Ariel Sacks who put her approach to teaching whole-class novels on paper in Whole Novels for the Whole Class. This opened the door for the rest of us who also want to share. If you’ve read her great book, you will see that many of the things she and I do are similar, but there are a few differences. What follows is a brief overview of my thoughts and of my process.

[An important note: Choice reading and read-alouds (of short texts, not whole novels due to time constraints) are also components of my balanced literacy classroom. As I have stated previously, I believe there is a place for all three.]

1. I believe in teaching the READER, not the READING. I use whole-class novels as a community building and learning experience, not as a means to formally assess students. Because we read the book together, we have a touchstone to refer back to in future class sessions. Not every student loves every book we read, but they all experience growth and gain some appreciation for the author’s writing ability.

2. I also want my students to read like writers so we use our study of the text to explore the writer’s craft. We talk about WHY the author may have written what he/she has and HOW they have structured the novel to achieve their desired goals. We appreciate their use of the language and try to emulate our favorite parts.

3. I have a short attention span, which greatly benefits my students. I do not spend any more than 3 weeks (possibly 4 if there are vacation days involved) on a novel. What’s more, we only read one per marking period. This means that in my current situation of teaching 6th grade in trimesters, we read 3 community reads for a total of 9 – 11 weeks which leaves plenty of time for other activities and choice reading throughout the year. When I taught in quarters to 8th graders—we read four books per year but the last one was in small book clubs with each group reading a different book of their choice.

4. I provide lot of “framing” for the text such as historical context, current examples of the theme in the world, the author’s background, and topic floods to eliminate possible barriers to understanding. Often students will say they don’t like a book, but that is because they don’t always understand what is going on. Imagine trying to appreciate Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry without a knowledge of Jim Crow. My students read a wonderful book called Ties That Bind, Ties That Break, but it necessitates that I teach them about Confucius and about foot binding.

5. I structure the discussion around essential questions and themes. This makes the book, no matter the genre, easily relatable to other material because the themes are universal.

6. I choose a book that is at the reading level of the majority of my students, but is also an engaging work of literary merit such as a Newbery honor/award book. I don’t always go for the most popular books because many of them read these on their own. I choose a book that I think they might enjoy, but might have passed over, or a book that is a little older that they may not have heard about. For those for whom the text is a bit of a stretch, I incorporate many scaffolding and support techniques including audio books, partner reads, read aloud, parent involvement, and guided study groups to ensure that they can access the material. I disagree with the criticism that those students who are not as challenged by the book are getting nothing out of it. For me, rigor is the depth of thought involved in the process and not the decoding of the words on the page. Most of what we do is open-ended and they take the discussions to incredibly insightful levels.

7. I divide the book into chunks and provide a reading calendar of when the class discussions will happen. I always allow for at least a day in between readings due so that we may explore other aspects of the novel as well as incorporate writing. Some of the discussions happen through online avenues as well, but I generally prefer face to face whenever possible. This allows them to piggyback on their peers’ responses in a more immediate way and I can keep them going if they encounter a roadblock or get too far off on a tangent.

8. I allow students to read ahead so long as they do not do “spoilers” during the discussion. They have been very good about honoring this policy. If we get partway through the book and some just could not wait to finish (as often happens), I will allow them the time to work in a small group to discuss things that happened after the chapters the rest are discussing.

9. I find a literacy focus and learning target for reading. Students can’t hit a bullseye if they don’t know the target. For me, the magic bullet in making sure all students can explore and appreciate the novel in depth has been incorporating Notice and Note into the mix. I cannot say enough about how much I adore this book and have written several posts about it. (This one primarily addresses Notice and Note with regards to whole-class novels.) Ariel Sacks reaches the same degree of thought using using three levels of questioning: literal, inferential, and critical. Jeffrey Wilhelm has some great ideas in Fresh Takes on Teaching Literary Elements and Chris Lehman and Kate Robert write about Lens, Patterns, and Understanding in Falling in Love with Close Reading.

It doesn’t matter which method you use to help your students to understand and appreciate the text as they all have merit. However, you will notice that none of these authors advocates the use of study guides, comprehension questions at the end of the every chapter, the memorization of vocabulary words out of context, and endless worksheets. You want students to appreciate the tree that was killed to print such a wonderful work of art, not the tree that was killed in making a blizzard of worksheets.

10. During class discussions, honor their thoughts. There is no one right answer. Nothing bugs me more than teachers who ask questions about a novel and will allow for anything but the answer they have hidden in their head.

11. Gradually release responsibility as the year goes on. In my class, for the first novel, the students lead the discussion of each chunk of text based on Notice and Note signposts they have found. The only writing during the reading required is a one sentence summary of the main event of each chapter. I find that this helps them in the future when they want to refer back to the text. For the second novel, we focus on a couple of signposts, the chunks of text are larger, and students bring in their own questions to ask of peers. During the third novel of the year, students are grouped in Book Clubs to allow for more discussion time. These students determine their own deadline and chunks of text for each discussion. (Note: I teach sixth grade. When I have debriefed my process with students at the end of the year, they have told me that they don’t want to begin discussions after they have read the entire book because it feels like too much. They prefer breaking the novel into thirds because they want to make sure that they understand everything along the way. They also don’t want to wait to talk about what is going on.) Each student brings in things they “noticed” in that section as well as topics for discussion. I appoint a discussion facilitator and let them go to it. They love it and there is no down time.

12. I incorporate writing assignments and active experiences that tie to the book and complement the text. For example, we read Walk Two Moons and there is a chapter where the mother explores the importance and origin of her name. We then read “My Name” by Sandra Cisneros and “Isn’t My Name Magical” by James Berry and they write their own creative piece about their name. You will not that these are not what Donalyn Miller calls “Language arts and crafts.” No dioramas, no character drawings, no book jackets, no travel brochures. I use authentic, meaningful, relevant writing experiences to draw them deeper into the text as well as allow for personal connections to be made. In this post, I gave examples of some of these experiences I used when teaching The Giver.

13. I grade almost nothing during this time. At the end, there is a reflective writing piece as well as some kind of literary analysis writing, but they are ready for this based on the rich discussions they have experienced.

There is no perfect system for teaching everything I need to teach in the limited amount of time I am given, but this way of teaching whole-class novels allows me to achieve my teaching objectives without killing the novels and/or monopolizing the entire school year with these experiences. Give yourself the freedom to try teaching the novel as a reading experience and not as a 9-week worksheet. I think you will enjoy the change. I know your students will.

image courtesy of: freedigitalphotos.net

Whole-Class Novels vs. Student Choice Reading–Why Not Both?

As I’ve said before, I am a PD junkie. Even though I have been teaching for over 20 years, I read every new book that comes out on teaching English. I feel the same way about these books as I do about attending professional conferences. If I gain one new, great idea, then it was worth the price. Plus, I face the same challenge as many of my secondary colleagues—I have to teach reading, writing, speaking, grammar, usage, and mechanics in a mere 45 minutes a day. I guess I figure that someday I will find the Holy Grail book that will give me the answer to how to structure my “Goldilocks” class. So far, I haven’t found it, and this blog is my attempt to work through this challenge.

Through my reading, I found one curricular tradition that has taken a huge beating in the last several years is the teaching of the whole-class novel. It almost feels as if a gauntlet has been thrown down and English teachers are forced to take the side of continuing to teach whole class novels or of an entirely student choice model. I don’t believe it has to be either-or. I find a balance of whole-class novels, free voluntary reading, and read-alouds to be the trifecta of a winning reading curriculum. Erica Beaton also calls for a balance of these concepts and did a fantastic series of posts on her blog that I encourage you to check out: Whole-Class Novels vs. Choice-Only Reading.

What I believe most people hate about whole-class novels is that they are continuing to be the main source of reading instruction in schools, and they are being taught very, very badly. If we address those two issues, we could achieve a winning formula for engaging reading instruction.

I am not alone in my thinking. Many of my professional mentors such as Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, and Cris Tovani still teach whole class novels, but not as the backbone of their curriculum either—whole-class novels are but one component. Ariel Sacks has written an entire book devoted to teaching the whole class novel, Whole Novels for the Whole Class. I agree with much of what she says in the book, and I also facilitate a student-centered class. I have been teaching similarly to Ms. Sacks for several years (ever since I read Readicide and the Book Whisperer) and I am happy to see her book become so successful because it means that there are like-minded teachers out there. Even those who believe all reading in a class should be of a student’s choice incorporate the reading aloud of novels so they are, in effect, also sharing a group reading experience with their students.

I have written about this before (Channeling Goldilocks: Attempting to get it “just right” ), but wanted to go into more depth and also show how useful Notice and Note by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst has been in refining how I use whole-class novels. Stay tuned for my next post: How NOT to Kill To Kill a Mockingbird: Reviving the Whole Class Novel.

Genius Hour for the Greater Good

ID-100254843It is a wonderful thing to be in the position of being in awe of my students. Last year, I dipped my toe into the Genius Hour concept by having my sixth graders complete a mini-research project on the topic of their choice. They truly enjoyed this process and presenting their findings, so I knew I could push it further this year. After learning everything I could from Joy Kirr, Paul Solarz, and Angela Maiers, I took the plunge on Genius Hour this year—with a twist.

I threw out three questions to my students: What do you want to learn how to do? What do you want to create? or Who do you want to help? and told them they could combine any two. Because of the personal nature of the projects, I chose an alternative name for Genius Hour and they became Passion Projects.

I had greatly underestimated my students’ capacity for wanting to make a difference. Many chose to combine learning a skill with helping others or society. The variety of the projects and their causes was impressive.

Among their many projects are:

  • learning to crochet to make hats to donate to premature babies in hospitals
  • making and selling cupcakes to raise funds for scoliosis research
  • designing and building a vertical planter for urban gardeners
  • learning to crochet to make blankets to donate to a women’s shelter
  • research recipes and making organic dog treats to sell to raise funds for the Humane Society
  • writing and directing a video on how to prevent bullying
  • learning how to knit to make baby booties to donate to churches
  • researching and building a model of a “green” home with a living roof
  • holding a spaghetti dinner to raise funds to make hygiene kits for the homeless
  • designing and building locker items to help peers be more organized
  • making bracelets to sell to raise funds for a local animal shelter

NOTE: Although I didn’t allow for any monetary transactions at school, I was a bit concerned that several students would need to raise funds from friends and family for an organization close to their hearts. I generally don’t promote the idea of asking families for money, but I hadn’t anticipated that so many would choose to want to do so. I will be soliciting feedback from parents at the end of this project in December and may make adjustments next year that don’t involve money, but for now the parents and I are extremely impressed with their initiative. Many come from privilege and it is touching to see them realize this and want to give back.

My students are beaming with pride when they share their success with me. For example, Ella held a spaghetti dinner that had over 100 attendees and raised almost $2,000! She had estimated she would raise $800 to make the hygiene kits for the homeless and ended up being able to also purchase socks and laundry soap. She was recognized publicly at her church and her peers clapped for her when I shared this at school. She was most excited when she and her fellow congregants were able to distribute the kits. Madison, who has scoliosis and is raising awareness and fund with her project, make $120 with her first batch of cupcakes and is looking forward to her next batch. She is taking what was a life-altering diagnosis and making it into a positive.

The generosity and huge hearts of my eleven-year-old students has blown me away. They are setting a great example, exploring their passions, and feeling a real sense of accomplishment. What more can a teacher ask?

image courtesy of: freedigitalphotos.net

Plagiarism: An Ounce of Prevention

ID-10067793This is the text of an article I wrote from SmartBrief on Education.

I do not enjoy being the plagiarism police with my middle school students. For me, detecting plagiarism and determining consequences take more energy than investing time into proactively planning assignments that don’t lend themselves to copying.

Here are some steps I take and recommend to try to prevent plagiarism before it begins. I won’t claim that these will make the assignment plagiarism proof, but they will certainly make it more difficult.

  1. Discuss the idea of plagiarism on a personal level. Have a conversation about how annoying it is when someone copies them on a superficial level such as hairstyle, clothing, catchphrases, etc. Then, take it to a deeper level and discuss how they would feel if someone stole the product of their hard labor. Perhaps even share some current plagiarism scandals in the news.
  2. Explicitly teach the skills of paraphrasing and summarizing. It is not enough to tell students to “put it in your own words” or “don’t copy” because many don’t know what else to do. It doesn’t have to be boring. For example, they enjoy when I challenge them to take a couple of paragraphs of text and summarize them in exactly 12 words.
  3. Incorporate some form of collaboration, discussion, and feedback into the project. Also, add the element of publicly sharing their work in on online format. These encourage students to produce original work due to the social pressure of their work being read by more than just the teacher.
  4. Add a personal reflection component—either within the assignment itself, or thinking back on the process of completing the work.
  5. Connect the assignment to something you have specifically done in class. Incorporate a news article they read, a video clip you showed, or a class discussion into the final product.
  6. Break the assignment into chunks and have required check-ins regularly. Some students copy because they waited until the last minute and are rushing.
  7. Conference with the student throughout the process. This will allow you to determine to what extent they are understanding their topic. For instance, you could ask them what surprised them most from their research thus far. In addition, some part of the assignment should be completed in class with teacher supervision.
  8. Designate one specific source they must use (ideally a current one).
  9. Add a piece that cannot be copied. For example, students could interview an expert or design an oral presentation.
  10. Most importantly, design assignments utilizing higher-order thinking skills and creativity. When students are required to explain, problem solve, evaluate, hypothesize, or compare, it is nearly impossible for them to find this kind of assignment online from which to borrow. To illustrate: rather than writing a biography of a president (a sure recipe for plagiarism), have them write a mock letter to the post office or the White House persuading the officials to designate a new stamp or holiday to be held in that president’s honor due to his many accomplishments.

image courtesy of: freedigitalphotos.net