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.   

Saturday, April 14, 2012


During spring break I took some time to redesign my blog (I finally figured out how to make my own background).  Ruth and Stacey chose a new look for their Two Writing Teachers blog and I liked the idea of freshening things up. 

I even got my husband involved in a redesign idea for the workspace in which I create my blog.  I had these photo clips from 7gypsies for which I wanted to find a use, he had some scrap wood in the garage, we had chicken wire leftover from a rustic furniture project a few years ago, and I had some desk clutter that needed to be dealt with.  So, I came up with this bulletin board idea and my husband ran with it.  

One of the things I appreciate most about my job as a teacher is the opportunity I get to reflect, refresh, and redesign like this.  I know that many people outside the world of education believe that we teachers take paid vacations and escape to the tropics to enjoy the breaks that they believe motivated us to become teachers in the first place.  But they have no idea. 

During spring break, I haven’t only been redesigning my home and virtual workspaces.  I have been redesigning my approach to teaching and assessment for the last few months of the school year.  I have been reading articles, rereading professional books, following link after link in my twitter feed, all to rediscover my passion for teaching, my beliefs about instruction and assessment, and my self-worth as an educator. 

Monday I will return to the classroom with the feeling of complete and utter failure behind me.  I will forge ahead with a solid plan to engage and challenge my students, with several back-up plans on deck…just in case my students have other agendas for our time together.  And I will do it all because I was allowed to take a week “off.” 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


Sometimes you just need a break. 

This week is my spring break.  So far it has been filled with just the things I needed, like:

Finding myself in someone else’s well-crafted words like these:
“There’s part of me that wants to discuss my past, why I don’t talk much, outer space even, everything, but it’s like my mind is a fist and it’s always clenched tight, trying to keep the words in.”

Working with my husband in the yard on mowing, mulching, and straightening our river rock borders.

Taking exceptionally long walks with my dogs along the nature trails behind the Village Hall near our house.

Running into Becky Anderson of Anderson’s Bookshops while shopping at Trader Joe’s and stopping her to tell her I just finished Cracked by K.M. Walton per her recommendation at the Illinois Reading Council Conference in Springfield. 

Laughing with my sister-in-law and my nieces on Easter over our overuse of the phrase, “That’s out of hand!”

Watching old episodes of Quantum Leap since the concept of the show Touch and Scott Bakula’s role on Desperate Housewives reminded me what a cool show Quantum Leap really was. 

Getting a phone call from my mom, instead of having to call her, because she doesn’t have to worry about taking time away from me on a school night. 

Indulging my love of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Ice Cream (in moderation, of course).

Shaking words loose from the tight grip of the fist in my mind that has been holding them in so tightly. 

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Two Writing Teachers and Me

I think it was about 5 years ago when I discovered the Two Writing Teachers website.  It was before they were located at this current Wordpress blog, I know that much. 

I believe I googled Nancie Atwell blog in attempt to find others who were implementing her ideas in their classrooms.  I was searching for support.   I am sure one of the posts from Ruth popped up and followed the link to read more.  I liked what I read, so I bookmarked the Two Writing Teachers blog in my toolbar. 

Before long, I realized I was returning to the site daily to read each post.  And I was actually using the ideas I gained.    This may not sound significant to anyone else, but in my world, finding a like-minded mentor or guide outside of professional books was beyond significant. 

So, for probably about 2 years I continued to read the blog and the comments other people made, excited to have found such an incredible resource, but afraid to jump in and sound stupid.

Finally, I decided to try out the slice of life challenge.  The first year, I started my own blog with the best of intentions, but I blundered so many things that I am surprised Ruth and Stacey even allowed me to participate the following year!  I was a disaster.  I struggled to find time to write, so I often missed the Eastern Time Zone deadline.  I didn’t understand the term “specific URL,” so Stacey had to redirect me multiple times.  I read lots of slices about which I never commented because I couldn’t think of something clever enough to say.  I eventually gave up and chalked the first year up to experience. 

That experience I gained as a first-time slicer made me braver about making comments, made me hunger for my very own writing life, made me reach for more.

It is hard to believe that three years after my first attempt at slicing, I make rambling comments without giving it a second thought, I have my very own writing life—one I share with my husband, and I am grateful for the “more” in my life for which I have Two Writing Teachers to thank. 

I am not sure it is even possible to trace all of the aspects of my daily existence that are impacted by the Two Writing Teachers and the community they have created.  I know that snippets of blog posts, hints of ideas about which I’ve read, enter my mind throughout my days.  I know I make minuscule shifts in my teaching, my writing, my living based on these nuggets of inspiration.  Each shift becomes a ripple that has a lasting effect.  

I wonder if Ruth and Stacey had any idea when they embarked on this professional growth endeavor of blogging, how BIG it would become to so many people.  Their dedication to sharing their professional knowledge and personal writing lives is an enormous gift to the world.  An enormous gift to my world.