The Power of Words


Books Together

I’m a work in progress–both in and out of the classroom.

Outside the classroom, I’m still trying to survive navigate each stage of child-rearing, which I’ve decided is only mastered after my own two children have moved on to the next phase of development.  But that hasn’t stopped me from trying. Like breathing, I have always turned to books. These authors, after all, are experts in the field for a reason. However, despite having read virtually every book on the subject, on most days, I’m one hot mess.

And in the classroom, I’m not much different–I just disguise it more stealthily. A few years ago, with the shift in curriculum, initiatives, and state standards, I found myself at a crossroads in my career, bordering on becoming one of Those Teachers who complained about, more than took pleasure in, the day-to-days of teaching.  In my defense, even at my lowest point, I never grew tired of my students, and being with them reminded me why I entered teaching in the first place. However, the additional demands that teaching now requires were giving way to resentment. (Don’t forget: These demands were stockpiled atop of the already-existing 4 AM wake-up calls, the absence of weekends, and the myriad of missed family activities.) And while I am more “seasoned” than many of my colleagues, I was still too young to become The Curmudgeon. (My biggest fear has always been devolving into the teacher for whom my colleagues have to apologize: “Oh, [insert Student Teacher Name here], steer clear of that one; she just needs to retire!”) 

So, again, I turned to books. Like Newton, I, too, stood on the shoulders of giants, teacher-authors like Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, and Donalyn Miller. In sharing what worked for them in the classroom, these titans injected the very shot in the arm that this teacher needed. I was reborn. Refocused.

I had gotten so myopically lost in my To-Do lists that I had forgotten the very reason I entered teaching: to foster a love of reading in my students. Who didn’t read. And openly admitted to fake reading. That’s when my class library project was born.

class library
I’m (affectionately?) known as the Crazy Book Lady.
Of the 2,200+ titles in my library, 100 of them were generously gifted to me from the Book Love Foundation‘s grant, which Penny Kittle and her husband, Pat, began in 2012. As a grant recipient, an amazing Skype session with Penny turned into the brand new Book Love Foundation Podcast series, produced by Kevin Carlson over at The Teaching Learning Sessions.

In Episode 6 of the series (which just aired and of which I am a part, along with Episode 2), Penny Kittle reminds listeners of the following:

We can’t wait for someone else to develop us. We are in charge of how we grow. Teaching is always a draft–always an approximation–but just like with the young writers we teach, we want each draft to show evidence of revision and improvement … After 31 years of teaching, I’m always hoping next year I will be a better teacher–next week, even.

I. Love. This.

And not just because I have an unhealthy affinity toward all things Penny Kittle an amazing collegial respect for Penny Kittle. But because a fellow educator who has literally written the book on reading and writing still sees room for growth in her own practice.

She articulated my recent mid-career crisis beautifully:

Happiness and contentment in teaching comes from the work itself:  We commit to something big and significant. Sometimes that’s leading your colleagues to study reading or a personal mission to bring rich reading experiences to every student in the school…It is the sense of moving forward that makes you a leader.

As I race to finish my twentieth year in teaching (even though I’m only 25), I am Happy and Content in the Work Itself. Am I still daunted by the weight of preparing my students for the High School Hereafter? Absolutely! Am I incessantly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of additional grading that each new initiative brings down the pike? You bet! But am I still Happy and Content in the day-to-day that surrounds the Work Itself?  You better believe it!

In his book Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care (1945), Spock (of pediatrics, not the Enterprise) assuages parents: “Trust yourself; you know more than you think you do.” I think this wisdom applies to teaching, too–on most days.

But when you’re having one of those other days (years?), grab a book.

You’ll be glad you did.

The “Real-World” Midyear (& Final)

standardized testing

It sounds like an oxymoron. After all, what is “real-world” about taking a midyear exam? Outside of taking the LSAT or sitting for Boards, when in life do we adults ever have to take an exam covering the events of the last 5 months? Or worse, a cumulative test on all of the events in the last 10 months?

As a working mother of two, I’ll be the first to admit: I. Would. Fail.

And yet, this is exactly what we are asking our students to tackle twice a year. Every year. To prepare them for the real world–which is largely void of these kinds of assessments.

Some will argue (as I did for years) that traditional midyears and finals prepare our students for college. And isn’t education about college and career readiness? However, the next time you talk to a college student, ask what his midyears and finals look like.

My colleague Chris and I did.

And the data we gathered was staggering. (We teach in a Level 1 high school, where approximately 90% of our graduates pursue college, ranging from community college to the Ivies.) Our recent grads said their midyears and finals look nothing like what we had asked them to do in high school. We figured that certainly their more largely populated, freshman-level courses consisted of those pesky multiple-choice tests. Those courses didn’t either. Instead, our former students are creating end-products that demonstrate the application of their learning (Can I get an “Amen”?), rather than completing lengthy, multiple-choice tests that rely heavily on recall–the kinds of midyears and finals I administered, for years, to “prepare my students for college.”

In his Chronicle of Higher Education piece entitled “Stop Telling Students to Study for Exams,” David Jaffee asserts, “Authentic assessments involve giving students opportunities to demonstrate their abilities in a real-world context. “

Last year, Chris and I set out to create an authentic assessment that that would assess a myriad of standards while giving our students opportunities to demonstrate the speaking and listening skills our learners will need for the rest of their lives. And the Midyear/Final Exam Book Clubs were born. Here is what they look like.


  1. GROUP.  Chris and I create thoughtful groupings of four students–two from his class and two from mine. Ideally, each group consists of two high-achieving students and two students that require more growth. Our schedules don’t perfectly align, so Chris and I have given exams in which sophomores partner up with juniors and/or inclusion students with honors students. And it is beautiful. The entire exam is outside of everyone’s comfort zone; however, we invite students who are extremely anxious to see us privately, so that we can pair them with students of their choosing. Of the 200+ students we assessed last week, only two students took us up on this.
  2. MODEL. Depending on the class, Chris and I sometimes model each of the Speaking and Listening standards one at a time. With my students last year, we closely read a poem (which was already on the docket) and then processed it via fishbowl discussions. (Small groups took turns discussing the poem, each one modeling a different speaking and listening standard). This year, Chris and I have reconfigured our classrooms so that our students have been practicing these standards–in small groups–all year long.  And last week’s midyears felt much more organic as the students were doing what they always do–but with two new group members.
  3. PREPARE. Chris and I share a Book Club Discussion Guide ahead of time, which is divided into three parts. Part One includes break-the-ice questions about the students’ reading journeys (Remember: Our goal is to foster a love of reading), their reflections on Goodreads (which Chris and I both use in our classes), and their experiences with the ten minutes of choice reading with which Chris and I begin every class.  Part Two requires our students to “integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse media or formats” (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.2). (This year, the topic was education, and students synthesized the aforementioned article by David Jaffee, the video “Why I Hate School but Love Education“ by spoken word artist Suli Breaks, and the testing cartoon read ’round the world.)  Prior to the exam, students annotate the pieces, extracting textual evidence to which they will refer in their Book Clubs.  Part Three asks students to discuss the various components of a recent favorite read, demonstrating that they can analyze literature while enjoying it, too!

On testing day, Chris and I meet in our respective classrooms to ensure that everyone is familiar with the three texts. We then head to the media center, get into our groups, and watch the magic happen.

Screenshot 2016-02-05 at 1.31.24 PM

I wish I could tell you that Chris and I lose ourselves in these rich conversations; and while we are definitely enjoying seeing our students demonstrating HOTS (Higher-Order Thinking Skills), alas, grades still need to be reported out. So, armed with clipboards and rubrics, Chris and I pop in and out of these groups, joining the conversations while jotting down notes.


Once the exams are over, Chris and I meet to share our findings about each of our students. With numbers as large as ours, it has proven to be impossible for both of us to join each group.  We made a conscious decision that we would work from different sections of the room and that we would trust each other’s feedback regarding the students. Quite often, a student who has under-performed in one of our classes has proven to be a vibrant contributor when set into this context. Talk about growth!

If you’ve made it this far in this post, know that Chris and I do not have all of the answers. We administered our third round of Book Club Midyears last week and are constantly refining the process to make it better. However, we do know each time we assess our students this way, we get to witness rich, vibrant learning.

And that is exactly why we do what we do.


“Make a Legal U-Turn, If Possible.”


2015 was rough. While I still functioned reasonably well on the outside, it entailed a lot of smoke and quite a few mirrors. Even if we’re grieving over a loved one, Standard RL.2.1 still needs to be taught. And regardless of our backlog of essays, Common Assessment #2 still needs to be administered, collected, and assessed. As a result, I spent much of the past year stapling “lost” signs onto poles while canvasing the neighborhood for my sanity.

And then I stumbled onto the Taoist adage, “If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” Gulp.  After a year with one unpredictable GPS, I kind of wanted to go home. 

Please don’t misunderstand: My heart still quickens when the classroom door latches behind me, and few things excite me more than watching my students escape into their choice reading before the bell even rings. However, the you’ll-never-catch-up-even-using-all-three-personal-days-for-grading pit in my stomach has grown exponentially over the last few years.  And it is taking its toll.

Accordingly, so that I don’t end up where I’m headed, I’ve resolved to shift my focus for the rest of the year. I can’t change most of my stressors, so I’ll concentrate on what I can change. Below are five U-turns to which I am committing in the coming year.

  1. SLOWING DOWN. Trying to effectively teach in a classroom that incorporates PARCC, CCSS, DDMs, PLCs, PLNs, PBL, and any other education-related acronym is distressing for even the seasoned educator. (I wonder if I’d make it to November if entering the profession now.) However, rather than stressing over all I’m asked to do, I commit to slowing down and providing in-depth coverage of whatever it is my students and I are exploring together. 180 days is a long learning cycle, and a lot of in-depth, real-world learning can happen in that window. There’s no need to rush–especially if authentic learning is the casualty.
  2. DOING MORE WITH LESS. Our math teachers were on to something when they switched from assigning all sixty problems to assigning just the evens.  They knew we could demonstrate our ability to solve for X regardless of how many problems we were assigned. Likewise, I commit to assigning fewer but richer tasks–tasks that allow for more analysis, creativity, critical thinking, real-world learning, etc.  Why assign, for example, a reading check quiz three days in a row (which only assesses plot) when a Socratic seminar on Friday can assess all of the week’s readings on a much deeper level, while honing speaking and listening skills, analytic prowess, and textual evidence gathering?
  3. STAYING CURRENT. In two decades, I have developed the most as a professional from other greats in the field. Tweets, blogs, Facebook groups, and industry sites and texts have shaken up my teaching more than any hour-long session on a half day. This is not to say that my local offerings are not high-caliber. Instead, when the one-size-fits-all training whets but doesn’t satiate my appetite, I begin looking in other places to grow even more. On my own time. (Isn’t this the very lifelong learning we aim to ignite in our students?)  The temptation is to begrudge having to do this on my own time. So, if (when) that thief-of-joy resentment creeps in, I commit to shifting my perspective back to my students. Regardless of how many heapings are on my teaching plate, it would be reckless of me not to stay current. In the same way I wouldn’t want an obsolete doctor operating on my children, I don’t want to be that kind of educator for someone else’s.
  4. COLLABORATING. Part of what sustained me last year was being surrounded by enthusiastic colleagues who take risks in the classroom. As a result of others’ enthusiasm, this old dog has learned more new tricks than she ever thought possible. Sometimes the tricks–in my paws–are disasters, mind you; other times, they edge near educational magic; but all of the time, they force me out of my comfort zone and into the role of a lifelong learner. And if, say, two (or three or ten) educators dream up something together–and split the workload, twice as many students benefit and for just 50% of the individual teacher’s energy. It’s a win-win. I commit to continuing to collaborate with the fabulous lifelong learners in my midst.
  5. CONSIDERING THE SOURCE. While I love healthy collaboration, I can sometimes fall prey to the few naysayers in the mix. I blogged about that in June when, after perusing my end-of-the-year student surveys, I wrongly fixated on the few outliers.  Now, whether it’s a critical student, a pessimistic colleague, or an insensitive friend, I commit to not exactly ignoring the negative feedback–as I can grow from that. But I will consider the source of the negativity, rather than dwell on it. 

I still love my job; I just don’t like the effect it has had on me as of late. So, in an effort to not end up where I am heading, I resolve to make a legal U-turn. I want to stay fresh for, remain committed to, and be focused on the 125 students who just might become lifelong learners (and readers!) because of what I accomplish in the classroom. They also might not.

But I have 180 days to try.

‘Twas the Night Before Progress Reports


Teaching is a lot like childbirth. If we told teachers-to-be the truth about their futures, education majors everywhere would take their college loans and head for the hills.

Instead, we use educator Newspeak, gingerly telling these trainees that “no textbook can fully prepare them,” that their first year will be “baptism by fire,” and even that “it’s a lot of work but so incredibly worth it.”

I heard these same euphemisms as my cape-clad self sauntered into my first classroom. In those early years, the only time I took off my pinkish-hued spectacles was to polish them.  Pollyanna or not, I entered teaching to inspire young minds.

Twenty years later, I’m feeling anything but inspiring. Don’t get me wrong: I still honestly love what I do and adore the time I spend with my students. However, tonight is Progress Report Eve, and as I choke and gasp and flail in this sea of grading, I know that most of it will have little to no effect on my students’ term grades. And none of this paints the whole picture of my students’ growth.

If I were completing a progress report on myself, I would use William Arthur Ward’s aphorism as my barometer:

“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”

I used to tell like nobody’s business. With sage-like wisdom, I would tell my students what the symbols were in To Kill a Mockingbird and would even count to five behind my back while they recorded said wisdom. A lot of my telling was housed in beautifully photocopied, created-from-scratch, novel packets. The way a new mother takes pride in making her own organic baby food, I prided myself on the fact that I didn’t photocopy already-created units or scavenge online sources. Instead, I was thinking for myself–the way I wanted my students to approach the texts. (Ironically, now the phrase “smarter not harder” comes to mind.) However, I was still telling my students what to think and how to think it.

In those early years, despite the fact that I only saw daylight through my classroom windows–only to do even more work at home (which I don’t recommend for a young marriage) and despite the fact that I carried, like a badge of honor, the largest school tote L.L. Bean had to offer (the more essay leg room, the better) and despite the fact that I purchased every classroom poster available (er, I may or may not still do this) and despite the fact that I wasn’t sure in April whether or not I wanted to return to a second year of teaching (it hardly felt worth it), Ward was right: I was positively mediocre. Even though I worked so hard.

A few years later, I had blossomed into Ward’s “good” teacher that explained. I don’t know how effectively I explained, mind you; however, I do know that I did less “X is symbolic  of Y” and more “Authors use symbolism for many reasons.” I was still telling but was at least supporting my generalizations with textual evidence–the same skill I was asking my students to employ.

Then came the age of “superior” demonstrating, during which I began modeling and using exemplars in my teaching.”This is how you look for symbols in To Kill a Mockingbird. Your turn.” This I-Do-You-Do approach, according to Ward, is the mark of a superior teacher. Now we were getting somewhere. These teachers, Ward asserts, are superior–or at least better than those teachers who simply tell and/or explain. However, they are still not great.

And neither am I.

I  don’t play the coquettish teacher very well–the one who feigns humility but knows full well the impact she has on her students. Because I don’t honestly know if I’m leaving an impression on them or not. I  desperately hope that I inspire them–or at least that I present literature and life through a fresh, new lens.  However, I am definitely not there yet. While I have come a long way baby, I cautiously navigate each new, detour-laden day with a crumpled-up map in one hand and a correcting pen in the other.

With 125 progress reports still left to complete tonight, I take comfort in knowing that each year in the classroom has brought with it growth–both for me and my students.  And that’s what I call progress.


Charming Gardeners


With Thanksgiving comes reflection, and this year my thinking was informed by French novelist Marcel Proust: “Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” And while my family most of the time naturally brings me a world of happiness, as do my friends, there are quite a few “charming gardeners” in and around my classroom.  

First, the disclaimers. I am not a doe-eyed, fresh-out-of-grad-school teacher out to change the world. My eyes were never doe-like, and my Myers-Briggs type told me that changing the world was simply impractical. On the contrary, I am an old a seasoned teacher who still finds joy in what happens after the bell sounds. That alone (well, that and my kids’ future college tuition bills) tells me that I’m not ready to move on just yet.

Instead, I find myself reflecting on those who have made my soul blossom. Here are just a few* of the charming gardeners who have contributed to my field. 

TILL.  Jenn was in my class last year. The day after her state test scores arrived this fall, she swung by to thank me. If you aren’t in education, you might not fully grasp the magnitude of this.  But in almost twenty years, I can count on one hand how many students have done this. While I know there are a myriad of factors that played into her increased scores, the fact that she took time out of her day to say “thank you” absolutely made my soul blossom. 

DIGAfter hearing about how much choice-reading Kayla would be allowed to do this year, she asked, “But what if next year’s teacher doesn’t let me? What if it goes right back to nightly chapter reading and reading check quizzes and multiple choice tests and [insert gasp] even busywork?” (Donalyn Miller’s Reading in the Wild addresses this very question.) I told Kayla that next year most likely will look a lot different–and that it’s not necessarily a bad thing. I love the autonomy in teaching: We are all tasked with teaching the same skills but approach the teaching of them differently. I am thankful that Kayla is excited about this year but also that her instruction looked different last year and will look different again next year.

PLANT.  When I started Project Classroom Library last year, David asked, “Why are you buying all of this stuff?” When I seemed confused, he clarified, “I mean, no offense, but why are you buying all of this stuff with your own moneyfor us?”  I explained that the classroom library was my personal goal and not the district’s goal. Building this classroom library was something I wanted to do–but it came at a cost. And I am thankful David recognized that.  

WATER. John is a colleague with whom I work, off of whom I bounce ideas, and from whom I openly accept feedback. He leads as an educator first and remains immersed in the classroom. Refreshingly, he knows the struggles and triumphs that I face on a daily basis because he is in the trenches right alongside me. He also has read–and taken to heart–the same literacy texts that I have and knows the importance of creating authentic, lifelong readers. None of this would have been possible without John’s tolerance support of my educational risk-taking. He keeps me grounded, for which I am incredibly thankful.

HARVEST. Ella Wheeler Wilcox reminds us that “with every deed you are sowing a seed, though the harvest you may not see.” And because we teachers only have a 180-day sowing season, we won’t be privy to all of the greatness our students will actualize.  However, I am thankful for them today.

And I can only hope they’ll have books on their nightstands tomorrow.

*All names have been changed to protect the fabulous.





The Classroom Library (Yes, Even in HS!)


Classroom Library
I’m officially the Crazy Cat Lady–but with books.

My husband says I work for free–although, if we’re counting this past year, I may have actually paid to come to work. The reason? You’re looking at it: the classroom library.

After being inspired by the likes of Kelly Gallagher (Readicide), Penny Kittle (Book Love), and Donalyn Miller (The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild), a colleague and I set out to reintroduce our students to the love of reading. The three biggest paradigm shifts included allowing our students to read anything during the opening ten minutes of class (every day), letting the students choose at least 50% of their texts throughout the year, and, in my case, surrounding my students with books. Lots and lots of books.

We have a fully functioning school library nearby, and our media specialist enthusiastically supports the literacy work we are doing in our classes. Both libraries function in tandem, but in the same way that the ELA teacher could never recreate the magic of a full media center, the full media center could never do some of the things that a classroom library can. Heather Wolpert-Gawron’s  Edutopia piece affirms this notion.

I believe that a classroom library is the heartbeat of a teacher’s environment. It is the window into an educator’s own personality, and it reflects the importance of literacy in the classroom. I believe that every teacher — no matter what subject he or she teaches — should have one.

And I couldn’t agree more. So, last year, as I awkwardly clamored my way onto the shoulders of giants, I began building my library. After all, I want to convey to my students that reading is the absolute most important thing we will do together all year. Plus, countless studies have shown that reading will more effectively improve my students’ reading, writing, vocabulary, communication, and usage skills–and more so than any kill-and-drill worksheet or warm-up exercise ever will.  (The ten minutes of reading alone exposes these readers to approximately 1,000,000 words in a year, and they are more apt to return to their books later in the day–exposing them to even more words, because “Ms. Hughes always stops us right at the good part!” Keep in mind, these are the same students who have fake-read their way through much of middle and high school.) What better way to sound this message than to surround my students with books?

It started with a handful of books from home that I placed on a lonely bookcase, and it has exploded into twelve bookcases (which I found at second-hand stores and on Craig’s List) that house over 2,400 books! While some of these texts were generously donated (including 100 titles from Penny Kittle’s Book Love Foundation grant), 95% of them came from library sales, Amazon, eBay, and second-hand shops. (And if you’re trying to do the math, I’ll tell you what I tell my husband: “Let’s not ruin a good night.”) The texts are arranged alphabetically by genre, and are organized and signed out to the students via Booksource.  Seeing what my students are reading–whether it is via Booksource or Goodreads–allows me to perform what Teri Lesesne considers the educator’s most important job:  “leading our students from where they are [as readers] to where we’d like them to be.”

The result? Every student last year read more books during the school year than they ever had!

Every. Single. Student.

While it wasn’t entirely due to the classroom library, many students shared in their exit interviews that the classroom library indeed played a role. It was impossible, they said, not to find something engaging to read. (They realized they didn’t dislike reading; they just disliked how we teachers have been assigning it over the years.) And for those reluctant readers–who would never grace the doors of a library, having a collection of differentiated texts within arm’s reach made all of the difference.

Every student learned to become a reader last year–even if it was just during English class with the Crazy Book Lady.

That’s a pretty great start.