a quote from my favorite author

“The most solid advice, though, for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell, and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”

-William Saroyan, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Researcher Storyteller Brené Brown said, “Maybe stories are just data with a soul.”  Her words resonate with me.  Ever since the slice of life challenge this March, when someone posted a video of her TED talk as a gift to the rest of us slicers, this quote has been tumbling around my brain trying to plant itself and grow roots—roots so deep it would become part of my being instead of a tumbling idea to chase around.

I have always believed that there has to be some connection between the stories of student growth that fuel me as a teacher and the numbers administration and lawmakers demand as evidence of student performance.  So, this idea of bridging the two—stories and data—that Brené Brown suggested excites me. 

This year, I have been teaching a secondary intervention class that I designed, proposed, and got approved.  This class is a regular 8th grade language arts class, meaning it doesn’t take additional time out of these students’ schedules.  We purchased Alfred Tatum’sID program for the class, but I have not been using the program, since not all the components work for this group of students.  So, this turned out to be a no-cost intervention as well. 

Although I am not exactly as far along as I had hoped to be with these students at this point in the year, my teacher gut tells me what I am doing matters. 

D, who was described by our school counselor as being so disengaged at one point in the year that his eyes looked ‘dead,’ crumpled to the floor, his shoulders wracking with sobs when he told me his father was in jail.  His latest poem contains the line, “I hope I never have to see my father go to jail again.” 

A, who sent me an e-mail to let me know she cares about school even though she doesn’t show it in her body language or attitude in class, has purchased (and read) 3 books from the store this school year because she thought they looked good.  This is the first time she has ever asked her parents to spend money on her reading habit.

R, who had stopped coming to school because he was tired of being continuously bullied by other students in the same class, agreed to each lunch with a couple of his friends and me to work out a plan.  Even though all 3 students were terrified (and although I didn’t show it, I shared some of their concern) that the bullies might flip over desks and go nuts if we confronted them during class, we did just that.  R spoke up for himself during that confrontation and declared that even though he goes along with name-calling, it really does hurt him.  And the students who were involved in the bullying stopped. R hasn’t been absent since and in his most recent piece of writing he said, “I learned to love school this year.”

N, who never used to smile, shared with the class that her mother has stage four liver, kidney, and lung cancer.  She said she felt empowered and safe after sharing what she had been carrying around with her.

C, who walks into class day after day looking for any way to get attention for himself from across the room, responded by stepping up today when I asked him if he had any ideas for motivating M.  C took M from a student who said, “I don’t want to do this poetry thing.  I don’t know where my notebook went.  I can’t do this.  I have nothing to say in poetry,” to a student who at the end of class was bragging about the lines of poetry he created. 

These are only 5 stories out of the 25 students in this class.  When I think of these stories, I believe in my heart of hearts that what I am doing matters. 

But.  What about the numbers?

I can’t shake the feeling that my success in the eyes of the powers that be will be measured in MAP® (Measures of Academic Progress®) test scores (reported in terms of RIT score). 

So, I finally decided to open my eyes and take a peek at the numbers.  I have had my students’ fall and winter scores for a few months now.  I have seen which students’ scores dropped, which stayed the same, and which increased.  However, I had yet to find meaning in all of that. 

The only data I could figure might be meaningful to me, that might actually give me feedback as to whether what I am doing really matters when measured in standardized testing units, was the average growth (or regression ) of each class.  So, I calculated the change in each student’s score from fall to winter, added the total, and divided by the number of students in the class.  I decided that to really make meaning, I would have to collect this data for all three of my 8th grade language arts classes.

In my regular co-taught language arts class, the average change was +3.5 points from fall to winter.  Given that the highest expected typical growth for the entire school year for any of my students is 4 points, I was pretty happy with that number.

In my honors class, the average change was +3.6 points from fall to winter.  Given that their expected typical growth is even lower (since their starting scores were higher), I was also happy with this number.

But by far, the best news of all comes from the intervention class, which had an average change of +6 points from fall to winter! 

I’ve always known that stories matched data in Nancie Atwell’sworld, but now I can rest easier knowing the data in my humble corner of the world has a soul.   


  1. Oh, my goodness. I also loved this video/quote shared this March! These stories are touching and amazing... and, if I may say, typical of what can happen when committed, expert teachers meet students where they're at with a clear vision of where they can go. I also wonder about data points such as attendance, positive feelings about school, time spent reading outside of school... I want to find the data in the soul of my teaching stories, too. Thanks for this. (And still loving this new theme!)

  2. I think this is AMAZING and so are YOU!! How many teachers would step up and ASK to teach these kids. I hope they know how lucky they are to have you in their lives. And if they don't have them email me I'll tell them! I especially love that you were able to put their progress into that lovely data all administrators (and some of us) seem to love.
    AMAZING! Congrats!

  3. Christy--Jaw dropping post. First, the stories you shared of the five students are heartbreaking, mind numbing, astounding....what else can I say. I admire you so much for creating (literally) this safe harbor for them. What the test doesn't show is so wonderful--the confidence you have given them is a true gift. BUT 6 POINTS...Holy Cow. You are a magician too!

    So proud of you....

  4. Wow Christy! The numbers are amazing, but the story of change in your kids blows me away! This seems to have been a hard year but you have made such an impact in these lives. I'm reaching out to give you a happy hug. So cool!

  5. I still prefer your powerful stories, but if we must, I will celebrate your students' improvement in the data too. In order to be respected in school, their scores do have to improve because they are judged that way. You have helped them doubly, Christy, shown them that they can learn & like it, & that teachers can help, & you've shown them they can take a test & do well. What gifts you have given, what a grand teacher you are! (Of course we all already knew that!)

  6. I've had that TED talk bookmarked since March and just have never taken the time to view it. I'm ready to now. Thanks for the 'nudge.' Also, your stories --er, your students' stories are uplifting and hopeful. It does go beyond a number - for goodness sake, we work with people. Little people. Big people. Little problems. Big problems. One test on one day is just not fair, but we do it. I love that you shared the stories of change and growth and then pushed yourself to compare the data too. What change and growth! Congrats to you and your learners! Just know that you are making a difference.

  7. Wonderful. What you have done for these students is far greater than average +6. I hope that you celebrate the growth in persons and numbers beyond this writing community. I hope that you will feel appreciated. Your gut feeling is so right - what you do matters.

  8. Congratulations! I love the list of descriptions of students that your "teacher gut" proved you had reached. So wonderful. Your idea of "data with a soul" is just the perfect image of what we should be striving for. Well done!

  9. I read a poem Mary Lee Hahn wrote on A Year of Reading (http://readingyear.blogspot.com/) and thought about you.


  10. I heard Tatum speak at NCTE a few years ago. He is one of the most inspiring people.

    Wonderful stories (and data)! Thank you for sharing these with us!