Friday, November 29, 2013

Forze Roma!

Tonight, with the assistance of our guide, Paolo, our group descended (literally) into 12th, 4th, 2nd, and 1st century Rome. Starting inside St. Clemente's Basilica, we walked down narrow, damp stone passages through the hidden treasures of Rome.

It seems that as Rome "grew up" it did not level buildings when the next civilization took over. The cheapest route was backfilling existing structures and building on top of the old structures.

As of today, four known levels of Rome have been found, but a fifth remains elusive--Nero's Rome. Remember "Nero sleeps as Rome burns." Well, it seems it did...and he did perhaps. Irrespective of the particulars we do know this--all original trace of Nero has been erased from Rome.

As a matter of fact, in the place where the Coliseum and surrounding neighborhoods now stands, Nero's golden palace was leveled. Every image and etching of his name was chiseled into dust.

The only two remaining traces of the existence of Nero on Rome are two public busts ordered by Mussolini. 

Otherwise, asta la vista, Nero.

And that is exactly what amazes me about Rome and Italians in general--so much here, in this country, is anchored in the ages. When you are Rome, you are for all eternity. And when you piss them off, you are gone forever. No in-betweens exist for, I am starting understand fragments of who I am.

One learns quickly why Rome is known as the "Eternal City."  

Yet, at the same time, the passion of Italy is dyed withon the atoms of everything in this country. We have met people who have worked their jobs with pride and precision and without any sense of personal pretense or baggage--whatever is "home" feels left at "home." Additionally, Italians love being in Italy.

Italians, and Romans in particular, are forever in the moment. They take incredible pains to enunciate every spoken syllable--it is exhausting to speak Italian! It is a full-time physical embodiment to be Italian.

What a commitment!

We met Italians who were proud of their landscape, food, history, and art--that is to be expected, eh? But beyond that we met a city that begs no thing from no man while it's people live so patiently as every second of every day ticks away with painful clarity and beauty. And no one worries. They wait patiently for the next espresso.

When you are named The Eternal City it is for a reason.

Here, in Rome, thinking, real thinking, was revealed. When we visited the Coliseum, or the Duomo in Florence for that matter, or the canals of Venice, we felt more than a pulse of passion--we felt the circuitry of brilliant minds still resonating throughout centuries.

I hasten to say that we know no equivalent of such thinking today. Even with the incredible advances in technology and medicine, the brilliance found in this country is almost beyond words. What is so cool about it is that it is brilliance paired with an aesthetic quality. 

Disciplines of the mind and the heart are not mutual exclusive. The details of life (numbers, emotion, fact, and imagination) all work together. It's amazing.

So much math is adorned in beauty.

So much practicality is buttressed by the laws of physics.

So much brutality is complemented by love.

While I stand today as a product of culture ruled by plastic and nanotechnology, I am most impressed by the stone and water (ok, and wine) of Italy. Italians have tamed time with those two main forces of life.

At forty-five, I have travelled to a country that has much to still teach me. I have books to read, for sure, but I have more Roman streets to walk and people to listen to.

I love Rome. 

Rome stands peerless. I am humbled by it.

With no offense meant to other worlds, I am for Rome. 

Rome is full of...

fountains, churches, and shrines to the Blessed Mother.

300+ churches.

2000+ fountains.

10,000 shrines to the Blessed Mother.

One can't walk down any street and not see at least one of these things--often one sees all three.

The shrines to the Blessed Mother have been up for centuries. When candles lit the Roman streets, citizens placed paintings of the Virgin Mary behind them to help light their way.

Each painting is different and can be found on the corners of buildings or near the closest intersection of narrow Roman streets.

In the picture included here, the color of the building is typical of a Roman building. No one is allowed to alter much if anything even if you buy a building in Rome. When restored, all buildings must be kept their original color. Walking Rome, we see the colors available so long ago: the earthy tones of yellows, oranges, and browns. Occasionally, one might find a pale blue structure--a sure sign of wealth. In order to make "blue" the lapis stone from the Middle East was needed. As a matter if fact, some frescoes in St. Francis' Basilica have scratch marks all over them from commoners scraping the blue with their fingernails--they could collect it and resell it.

What I am noticing about Rome and any of the medieval cities we pass on the road, is a transition of a black and white world to one where color emerges. 

Imagine living in a time where the only color seen might be on a fabric of a wealthy merchant or politician or painted on the walls and ceilings of churches.

The 10,000 shrines to the Blessed Mother may have lit the way for Romans to walk from street to street, but they also began to lead the world into a state where color was seen by everybody, everywhere.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

And I will die here

We met Giuseppi today.  He was born and raised in Assisi.

Like the patron saint of nature, Giuseppi loves animals--he keeps dozens of cats, doves, a donkey, a goat, and other animals. In some cases, he finds a home for the animals after going to great pains to ensure that the family will take good care of the animal. Otherwise, he rescues and helps everyone that crosses his path.

As he led us up the long, stone road that zigzags upward into the 10th-century town, a grey cat scampered by us. He said, "Hello, Ivan!" with affection glowing in his cheery red cheeks.

Inside the Basilica of St. Francis, Giuseppi treated us to a moving lesson. As he shared the particular facts about the basilica--stone, frescos, stained glass--he gave us time to visit the bones of St. Francis. Solemn-eyed nuns knelt and prayed by the tomb. A lone man sat in a dimly-lit corner with an open book--he seemed to reflect on the book and the place all at once.

Giuseppi led us from the basilica and into the church. Damaged from an earthquake in 1997,  many frescos were gone or had partially crumbled into dust.

Two remained unscathed. Giuseppi taught us about them.

One of the paintings was a favorite of Pope John Paul II. St. Francis, already a saint, appears in the clouds and reaches down to a group of Muslims. Each religion is shown as respecting and acknowledging the other. Giuseppi said the Pope often reflected--if people could come together in the 12th century, then why not today?

Giuseppi asked, "Where did the idea for such a painting come from?"

In the other painting, St. Francis, alive and well, travelled to Egypt to meet with the Sultan Malik ai-Kamil. Each man intent on converting the other to his religion.

Neither converted.

And here is the lesson imparted to us by Giuseppi: each man, each religion, came to understand and respect the other.

Not tolerate

We have it wrong in many spaces today where we say we teach "tolerance"--we might tolerate a rash or a stone in our shoe, but we should not anchor ourselves to "tolerating" religion or people.

Giuseppi said that every four years, the leaders of all of the world's religions gather in Assisi to pray for peace...through respect and understanding.

At the last gathering, three-hundred and fifty religions were represented.

Three-hundred and fifty!

When I think about that number, I think of how many good people are in the world. And it redefines for me just what religion is: peace, joy, and generosity. Being good to one another.

My experience in Assisi was moving and humbling. As Guiseppi shared, "respect, and understanding, and peace cannot come from any one person--we all must play our part."

I felt happy about that space and the bones of the man we visited and the voice of the man we listened to. Religion, like skin color or gender or age or language, didn't matter as much as goodness.

Giuseppi asked, "What makes one man good and another not so?"

And then, with that question in my heart, our tour was over, and we exited the church beneath a fresco of St. Francis loving and talking to the animals. Giuseppi said goodbye to our group on the wide, stone patio--wet from a mild snowfall--and posed for some photos.

After the group thinned out and broke away for lunch, we remained with Giuseppi for a long time. This clearly peaceful, happy man talked with us about his animals and listened to us talk about ours. He and my wife shared pictures of pets and he asked questions and made a fuss over each.

As they bonded, I asked him if he was born and raised in Assisi. He said yes, but then added one thing--"and I will die here."

He was so happy to say it. He had no fear in those words. If anything, he spoke with satisfaction and pride.

We traveled to Assisi to become acquainted with a saint but met a living man today who reflects everything one could want from another human being: respect, understanding, and peace.

Above the Rest

Because it is late November, we have benefitted from the low season in several ways. Crowds are minimal--the longest we have waited in a line to enter a building is five minutes. We have had our pick of restaurants. Traffic has been typical of what one would find in any major city. And our access to the greatest works of art by the Italian masters has been unimpeded.

Yesterday, I walked right up to Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus" and orbited Michaelangelo's "David" as if it were in my living room.

"David" radiates.

Well, the original radiates. Three can be found in Florence. The original stood outside for three centuries before being moved indoors. Three centuries in the elements and no flash photography permitted today! (The image included in this post is a bronze copy overlooking Florence)

The original stands 17 feet tall, 4 feet wide, atop a massive pedestal at the end of a row of his unfinished sculptures--which are equally impressive. By viewing these works on the way to feet of "David" one gathers a sense of how Michaelangelo worked. He didn't start at the top or at the bottom. He started everywhere. He chiseled and filed all over a human form--slowly allowing it emerge from a block of marble as if it were some beast forcing it's way out of the rock.

And then, don't capture him. David has a presence. He glows. It stunned me. 

Our guide shared that while Michaelangelo and Leonardo daVinci were contemporaries, neither liked the other. Leonardo, the mathematician, went out of his way to criticize sculpture as an art form--it was dirty, hot work and closer to the work of a baker than being close to God. Michaelangelo, moody and friendless, countered that anybody could paint--painting is easy--you make a mistake and you could scrape it away or cover it up--but in sculpture there can be no mistakes. You must be immersed in your work to such a degree that you take no notice of sweat, or sunshine, or dust--you are as close to God in that moment, in the creation of beauty and perfection, that can never be replicated with cold paint and numbers.

It is common knowledge to say that Italy is filled with great art. I can appreciate much of it on its own merits.

But one piece stands above the rest.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Dipping Cookies into Wine

Several days into our journey, we're finding that people like to ask, "what do you think? Is it what you expected?"

I now realize, I never know what to expect from life until it is lived.

Every experience here adds one more touch--it makes me say, now that really made the trip."

The charms of Venice appear around each bend and bridge. Since then, we spent a day travelling by coach alongside the Alps and through the Appenine mountains into the rolling, slumbering hills of Tuscany. 

The views made the trip.

Having stopped at a Tuscan winery to sample seven wines and a shot of stinging grappa, we were treated to a feast of simple, luxurious Italian staples: handmade pasta in a light sausage sauce, salami, sopressotto, cheese, olives, sun dried tomatoes, crusty bread, bruschetta, and tiny biscotti to dip into one particularly sweet wine.

Dipping cookies into wine--that made the trip.

Afterward, we visited Pisa. Turning the corner into Miracle Square, the leaning tower made us gasp--the icon of all icons. Perhaps I did not carry an expectation--the gasps of our other 42 travel partners makes me think that none of us knew what to expect.

Is Italy what we expected? No--rarely do I imagine a place where each experience can be labelled, "that made the trip."

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Center of the Universe

We hear that even Italians flock to Venice.

Inside the Doge's Palace, we saw an enormous portrait on a ceiling of Venice personified as a queen. Relaxing in a throne, Roman gods worshipped at her feet. On a nearby wall, a large clock that has run for 700 years still kept perfect time. Another clock, outside in the marble facade, operated more as a calendar, but the single arm was moved by the center mechanism--the earth. All around it, stars, planets, and the sun revolved around the earth--built in the 15th century, the earth was the center of the universe.

And, in many ways, Venice presents very much like the center of that earth in the center of the universe. My gosh, two Ventians travelled to, retrieve...the bones of St. Mark from Constantinople. St. Mark as in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John...that Mark.

He is symbolized by the winged lion--which is seen everywhere throughout Venice, yet never feels overdone or out of place.

The center of the universe plays by different rules than the rest of us.

Today was relatively clear, and we could see the snow-capped Italian Alps towering in the horizon. On the other side of that natural boundary are Germany and Austria. We learned an unspoken agreement saved Venice from the bombs of WWII--even though many bombs lashed across Italy in the 40s, daVinci's "The Last Supper" missed obliteration by a whisker--yet, Venice was spared.

Among the hundreds of bridges here, one is it's most famous: the Bridge of Sighs. And, according to the Italians, it isn't even a bridge--just a corridor connecting the Doge's Palace to the prisons. The passageway has four small windows (we looked through them) and, from this perspective, prisoners were offered their last glimpse if Venice...and they would sigh. These men were headed to torture and beheadings...and the legend embraces their sighs.

It sounds like a bridge one might celebrate romance, but it isn't. Even the brutal punishments for crime carry a charm and a smile. People can't take enough photographs of The Bridge of Sighs...or the ghosts of dead men walking.

From the water, the architecture, the narrow walkways and dark, stony passages to the pastel stucco, the marble facades, and the aged brick crumbling into the lagoon, one can't take two steps without breathing her history. If you rush, you miss decades of little touches--there are stories everywhere.

For the center of the universe, this old girl did not disappoint. We will miss this place. And I fully expect to catch my wife sighing tomorrow as we leave.

The Rumors are True

The rumors are true. Italians are expressive by nature--it lives in their hands, eyes, and by the tilt of their head.

On a ferry, I watched a woman in her late twenties share a story with her friend. On the other side of a pane of glass, I could only see her conversation.

Her hands cupped the air; they squeezed into hard, tight fists; ten fingers spread wide, raised together, then rested for a beat on her knee before one--arcing and turning palm up--rose towards her friend who stood and gazed down on her. Her knuckles were red with cold, and her desperate-for-understanding eyes layed a background music to her story that came to rest with a tilt of her head.

The vendor, a male in his thirties, locked eyes with me after selling Karla a hat and gloves for twenty-five euro. The guilt was behind his eyes; he worked hard to look expressionless, which lonely allowed the guilt of gouging an American tourist seep out like melting gelato.

A moppy-headed man stood while the plane was landing. We were only a few hundred feet from touching down and he beat the rush by pulling his bag from the overhead compartment several rows ahead of him. He hustled back to his seat and winked at his friends in front of us.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Inspired Teacher-Heroes of 90/90/90 Schools

By all tests and measures, the school I am blessed to work with is full of students who achieve in the upper regions of every grid and graph imaginable on a consistent basis. Even when splitting hairs and taffy-pulling the numbers by any variable a mathematician could dream up, our kids achieve.

In the past, similarly-vested schools would visit our middle school to see what we did and how we did it. I've sat in meeting rooms with my colleagues as educators from other schools poked at prodded at our system with their questions. That hasn't happened for several years.

This week, our principal asked me a question in a casual conversation in the hallway: had I ever heard of a 90/90/90 school?

I hadn't.

Astonished, I listened as he explained this anomaly: 90% free and reduced-price lunch, 90% minority, 90% high achievement. There are schools out there succeeding in spite of its social spite of everything we know about the correlation of poverty and education.

There are heroes in education. And there HEROES in education. I hope this blog finds it way to some in those schools--I admire you and want to know more about you so that I can be better.

In an email that night, my principal shared an article with me about 90/90/90 schools. It lays out exactly how they have functioned, High Performance in High Poverty Schools: 90/90/90 and Beyond.

As I read, I thought back on our conversation in the hall as my principal wondered aloud how interesting it would be to visit these schools in order to learn from them--to cull from their practices in inspiring student growth. And we wondered aloud, if any schools from communities like ours (blessed by all standards)  has ever visited such a school? We are so used to comparing ourselves with schools in similar communities and social environments.

What if we paused to listen to schools with a far more arduous road to climb?

In my search for some names of 90/90/90 schools, I stumbled across some criticism of the 90/90/90 claim. As a matter of fact, a blog on Education Week by Justin Baeder is titled The 90/90/90 Schools Myth. In it, Baeder attacks the data. Additionally, when he asked Reeves for a list of these 90/90/90 schools, he received a few located in Milwaukee, but he was also reminded that such a request was racist:
When The Bell Curve (Herrnstein and Murray, 1994) was published with the widely accepted assertion that children who are black and poor perform badly on academic achievement tests, I cannot recall a single instance of demands for the names of students who were subjects of the studies cited. When I have demonstrated that poor and black children perform well, I am inundated with demands for verification. These demands speak volumes about our expectations of children based on their appearance and economic status.
Irrespective of the criticism, reading Douglas B. Reeves' article will be a more thorough procession through how 90/90/90 schools operate, but I cobbled together the following list of the top ten messages a 90/90/90 school promotes to its community:

  1. The consistent message of the 90/90/90 Schools is that the penalty for poor performance is not a low grade, followed by a forced march to the next unit. Rather, student performance that is less than proficient is followed by multiple opportunities to improve performance... 
  2. They “write to think” and, thus, gain the opportunity to clarify their own thought processes.
  3. ...these schools developed common assessment practices and reinforced those common practices through regular exchanges of student papers. One teacher would exchange papers with another teacher; principals would exchange papers with another school; and in one of the most powerful research findings, principals would take personal responsibility for evaluating student work. [How about THAT for leadership?]
  4. ...these schools are achieving their success without proprietary programs...None of the 90/90/90 Schools used a specific “program” or any other proprietary model in order to achieve their success.
  5. ...the schools devoted time for teacher collaboration. This was not merely an exercise in idle discussion nor at attempt to get along in a friendly and collegial fashion. Rather, collaboration meetings were focused on an examination of student work and a collective determination of what the word “proficiency” really means.
  6. To break the mold in student achievement, these schools discovered, they had to break the schedule...[not] to over-emphasize literacy because they disregarded science and social studies, but rather because they knew that literacy was essential for success in every content area
  7. Teachers meet together to review student achievement data at a deep level, including the sub-scale scores. The discussion is not that “math scores are low” but rather that “the sub-scales reveal that we need to work in particular in fractions, ratio, and measurement.” This leads the music teachers to develop activities in which musical rhythms reveal the relationship of whole-notes, half-notes, and quarter notes. Art teachers work on perspective and other representational art that makes explicit use of scale. Physical education teachers allow students to choose to run either a millimeter or a kilometer, and when they make the wrong choice, it is a lesson most students remember well.
  8. It was noteworthy that the schools that had the greatest gains did not eliminate special area courses, such as music, art, physical education, and technology. Rather, these courses were explicitly a part of the academic preparation of every student... Each of these teachers incorporated some of those language arts and math standards into their daily lessons.
  9. ...the principal was personally involved in the evaluation of student work. The building leader regularly met with students and parents to discuss student achievement in specific terms. Moreover, the principals personally administered common assessments every month in language arts and math. By giving up faculty meetings, the principal helped to provide additional time for collaborative scoring of student work. 
  10. The principal also encouraged every teacher to display proficient and exemplary student work in a highly visible manner. The result of these displays was that every student, parent, and teacher had a clear and consistent understanding of what the school-wide scoring rubrics meant in practice. 

Reeves' article is humbling and grounding. What I take from it is not a debate on poverty or race, but from the perspective of my building and community (being at the top for so long), we often note how little room is left for us to grow.

I don't know how true that statement is anymore.

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Seven Greatest Truths about 8th Grade Students

Author's note: the following is a mentor text of informative writing that I developed while writing alongside of my 8th grade students. As my topic is about 8th grade students, I used several of my kids as primary sources and quoted them throughout the essay. I only included first names for the sake of honoring their privacy.

Once upon a time, a teacher stood, firm with confidence, and proclaimed to the sea of students before him, “we are preparing you for the high school.”

And the wind went out of the childrens’ sails.

For ages, adults have reminded adolescents that something greater looms on the horizon...and the time to prepare is now. While there is nothing wrong with teaching kids that the work will be harder in the near future, we can not forget about their unique needs in the present moment.

It seems like a reasonable statement, doesn’t it?

We are preparing you for the high school.

However well-intentioned, that sentiment can row the ship in the wrong direction. Quite frankly, an eighth-grade student is not in the high school and, as we’ll see through their words, being prepared for something in the future is the furthest thing from their minds.

So, I wonder, what happened to teachers focusing on 8th graders having a rich experience this year? Perhaps, taking a step back and reading what 8th graders say about themselves will help us remember the role we should be playing in their lives:

1. “Emotions are temporary, but they feel like forever.” --Amit
Perhaps no psychologist could articulate the emotions of a middle school student any better than 8th grader Mark when he writes, “Emotions lead our mind and tell us what to do, think, and feel." As a teacher, I have to take this into account every day, because, at any moment, one student may be counting on my empathy and not my desire to train them for ninth grade. They depend on us to help them in the moment by being with them in this moment. Suchi reminds me, “Though we are constantly attempting to mask our emotions, we never truly will be able to. Our emotions shine through, no matter what.”

2. “Every second counts.” --Jane
When polling my second period class, Alex notes, “How do we enjoy the year with all of this homework?”Older middle school students begin to realize the value of habits because so many opportunities arise in their lives--they want to do everything, but often can’t. Even at the age of thirteen, Melissa knows, “Procrastination comes back to bite you.”

3. “We can make decisions by ourselves which can propel our little sailboats forward or backward.”
In the subtitle, Amber paints a metaphor of adolescents as boats in the enormous sea of life. And eighth grade students love the openness of that metaphorical sea. They seek control over their lives for the first time in their lives. “We are more mature now,” writes thirteen year-old Elaine, “and we can handle some things by ourselves. But we actually think we can handle anything the world throws at us, which isn’t true.”

4. “My friends are my second family. They are the world.” --Rebecca
According to student, Caroline, “Losing a friend is worse than getting your heart cut out.” Classmate Anna agrees when she writes, “Friendship is more joy than anything else, but losing it hurts more than anything else.”In this stage of life, adolescents exhibit an awareness of the value of a good friend, and often recognize the special qualities of friendships from their younger years, even if that friendship no longer exists.

5.”No one is exactly the same as you, and perfection is nothing but a thing of our imagination."
Ashely's inspiration for the subtitle of this section, reminds me that when we take the time to listen to our students, we raise our awareness as to just how in-tune they are to the world around them. In this case, Cierra offers a perspective all of can appreciate, “We are all different. Different grades, hobbies, friends, lives. But we shouldn’t judge each other by our differences but connect with our similarities." Similarly, Farris notes, “Difference mean so many things, where we come from, what is our religion, and how we are. But that shouldn’t change other people’s perspectives of us. We are ‘US’--don’t try to change us, because you can’t do it.”

6. “Going against society’s perspective...we’re all beautiful, not in how we look of what we say, but in what we are.”
An 8th grader begins to learn to accept themselves and find the goodness inside, as Laura, student, suggests in the subtitle. Other students follow that encouraging perspective. Ellie writes, “A self-image isn’t a mirror image of yourself. It’s ideas and beliefs that make you you.”

“Everyone has different standards; stick to yours." --Jonathan
Bombarded with the lessons and demands of parents and teachers, 8th graders begin to define, for themselves, a sense of what is right and what is wrong. “Fairness is something to learn, but everyone has a different idea of what it is,” writes Shuhan. Eighth grade students need to exercise the “fairness muscle” in their brains today as their sense of justice transitions from an egocentric or childish perspective to one that allows them to live in, and handle, the moment.

After twenty years in the classroom, I have learned that “preparing 8th graders for the high school” is neither a thirteen year-old’s most pressing need nor my priority. Thirteen year-olds come to us with a specific set of skills, needs, and desires. Each year they come into our lives open and optimistic that this is the year that they can depend on a teacher to take care of them, not just be another adult who tells them what to do because we know better.

Working with what makes this year unique, teachers should build every day around what is needed today. Take care of them.

In the end, few will ever remember what we taught, but many will remember how we made them feel.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Same Sin, Different Girl

Included in most lists of weak or dead words are very and any form of get. As a middle school English teacher, a thirteen year-old's leap from very to a more accurate word is often confused with mild adjustments: incredibly, extremely, really, and hugely.

For instance, instead of very happy a student might revise their text to really happy. I try to help students understand that if a writer suggests that something is more than happy (very happy) or that degrees of happiness exists...then a more accurate word or phrase exists. I have seen gaskets pop out of young heads when suggesting, "perhaps a simile or metaphor would be more helpful to the reader?"

Very, in all of its forms, stagnates writers--and it allows young writers to develop lazy habits. Really happy is no better than very happy.

Same sin, different girl.

In the case of get, I find students paralyzed by it. When challenged to invoke a stronger verb in its place, students think in terms of precision bombing their text rather than carpet bombing it. They think of the pen (or keystroke) as a surgeon does a scalpel--cut out the ugly growth, stitch up the wound, and perform a little plastic surgery.

Unfortunately, revision is not that clean. Revision, even of singular words, can be messy. I want kids to see writing, and the revision of writing, as more like playing in the mud and less like performing surgery.

This is the opening of an essay by a student currently in my class:

A lot of people in less developed countries don’t get many chances, unlike the people who get advantages. We are those people, and are educated, get a decent meal, and clean water, some things that those people desperately need. But the fact is, that we overlook those things.
While it is a solid thought marred by some structural issues in the second sentence, my eyes only see three words: get, get, and get. I want her to revise this--but the common knee-jerk reaction by students would treat get like a blemish and seek the best product to cover it up. In this case, my student might revise:
...countries don't receive many chances...
...people who receive advantages...
...receive a decent meal...
For many years, students have asked, "How do I find that many different words for get?" So, they settle on the one word that camoflauges the problem.

Same sin, different girl.

After twenty years in the classroom, I finally feel confident in articulating how help students beyond suggesting find a better word--which is misleading and feeds into a student's sense of a writer as surgeon. My hope is for my current students to understand that they need to disentangle their text from those words.

Get and very, in all of their forms, are not a writer's words. They are words reserved for speech. We speak those words because time is a variable when we talk. When our brains grapple for the right word, we pause, stutter, or stall. In most cases of speech, our brain settles on the lightest words: get and very. And that is acceptable to most. I imagine less than 1% of the population would halt someone  during conversation and ask, "--get? what do you mean by get?"

As an aside, while such a person might be booed and hissed out of society, the intentions deserve a closer look. The Oxford-English dictionary lists well over 250 possible definitions for get. Quite simply, get is one, vague verb.

As writers, we have a commodity that does not exist when we speak--time. We have the time to open a dictionary or a thesaurus; we have the time to confer with peer; and we have the time to put our writing aside, and think about what we would like to write. Imagine being midstream in a reply during a conversation with a friend and walking away--to mull a better combination of words other than very happy.

No one would do that.

Yet, when we are writers, we must. Teaching students to avoid these weak words is more than a practice in developing vocabulary. We are teaching them patience and perseverance, and, more importantly, we are teaching them to stretch themselves--to not be satisfied with the first, and often lightest, word grasped. Yes, those weak words are fine during the draft stage. Yet, as a regular part of the final stages of our surface revisions, help young writers by pressing them to dig to disentangle the weakest words from their text.

And remind them, writing is more like playing in the mud then performing surgery.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Podcast: A Boy's Life - Episode 3

The third episode of my podcast series, A Boy's Life, on my adolescence in Philadelphia in the early 1980s.

While my first two episodes focused on the grittier bones of being a kid (bullying, fighting, and competition) I also tried to frame images of Philadelphia that have really stuck with me.

This episode is a little lighter. It pulls together four vignettes about dancing.

I was in no way a dancer, but it was interesting to think back on all of the opportunities for dance. It was (and is) a bridge from childhood to adulthood...a way for young people to play at being approach the opposite put aside childish things.

The four vignettes:

  1. my being forced to dance with my mom in the middle of my aunt's living room 
  2. our parody of the Village People for the 8th grade talent show
  3. the 8th grade dance contest 
  4. the local dance show "Dancin' on Air"
A Boy's Life is available for free on iTunes, but the third episode can also be accessed here: The Dancer.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Funeral for the Five-Paragraph Essay

Friends, Romans, 8th graders, lend me your eyes…and common sense. From a young age, adults instruct us not to hate. Yet, some things affect us so deeply that we are challenged to find the words to adequately define it. The word hate rises from the steam of our boiling blood and is exhaled in one hot breath and explodes.

The term five-paragraph essay boils my blood.

Taught at the younger levels to help children see the parts of a composition as one sees a hamburger, it does little to draw adolescents any closer to the real-world writing they need in their lives.  The five paragraph concept was developed by a teacher over fifty years ago and has lingered over many decades for two reasons: it is easy to teach a part-part-whole structure, and it is easy to grade.

I’ll agree that breaking things down into parts is an effective teaching method. The method carried me through a coaching career that started in middle school, moved to high school, and then through college. I succeeded teaching young men to play a specific position by breaking everything down into parts every day long before the larger plan was executed.

However, the time comes for people to move on from the parts. Entering the 8th grade, students should be challenged to no longer lean on the five-paragraph essay because it will do more harm than good to their writing. Too often, students come in being trained to ask how many words or how many paragraphs they need to write. Focusing on the number of words or paragraphs one needs to write does little to make someone think about and develop their writing.

Five paragraph essays can both constrain writing and dilute writing. What if I can express my point, powerfully, in two hundred and fifty words? Writing an additional two hundred and fifty does not guarantee any deeper thinking--more words does not equal more meaning. Conversely, what if my chosen topic is focused and vast? What if five paragraphs just isn’t enough to allow me to find meaning, make connections, and show the reader why something matters? Sometimes, the restrictions we build as teachers can prune a student’s potential too closely to the bud.

Young writers need the skills for deeper revision. Focusing on the numbers (words or paragraphs) drives writers to worry about milestones, not message.  Good writing is not incumbent on hitting five hundred-words or any other marker. Yet, some adolescents remain distracted by these markers.

I would rather read two hundred words that says something.

I would rather read eight thousand words that says something.

So, I apologize to you if you came here expecting me to praise Caesar, not bury him. You will not find any trace of the five-paragraph essay out there in the real world or in my classroom, for the five paragraph essay is dead.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Preparing a Draft for English Journal

While crafting my portion of a collaborative draft for English Journal, I asked for student feedback to help guide my writing. As part of a team of five contributors to an article, I have taken on the theme of teachers positioning themselves as writers for the benefit of one's pedagogy.

So, I asked my students for honest, written feedback through the following prompt:

What difference(s) or effect(s) does it have when you see me as a writer?

The following 8th grade student feedback is in their own words, spelling, and punctuation. I don't include it as a gratuitous reflection of me, but as the support and value of teachers bringing writing into their personal and professional lives. Any I did not copy into the document were almost verbatim repeats. Our of 125 students I had one who gave me what I would consider negative feedback (and something I need to follow-up on) when he/she wrote, "I do not feel I have improved as a writer."

The word cloud reflects the common words that the students used the most. The words beginning to stand out to me are comfortable, encouraged, and like. So many began a thought with "I like"...


  • When I see you as a writer, I feel as though you are connected with me as a writer better as well as a student. (JC)
  • Your writing has affected me because it has made realize that good writing doesn't have to come from a published author. Also, it takes time and effort to develop a well-written essay or piece. Your writing allows us to see who you are and in a way lets us in your life. It helps keep the idea of you being our mentor. (SJ)
  • When I see you as a writer it works. It works because I can come to ask you questions and it is easier to ask you. (MW)
  • I believe that seeing you as a writer has a great effect on me. It makes me feel like you're going to be completely honest with your feedback for me.
  • When I see you as a writer it's easier to understand how I can become a better writer...I hear what sounds good and it's just easier and there's less pressure. (DH)
  • When you be a writer with us it makes it seem like arent judjmental. (CK)
  • I like it that you show us your writing. I see the way you have combined words to make it sound really neat, and I try to remember that to use it in my own writing. It also makes me feel more connected, like you are not just another teacher in my life, but a fellow writer. (Anonymous)
  • I like the fact that you are not only our teacher, but a writing mentor. It makes me feel like you aren't just saying what's wrong or right because we all have a style. (ES)
  • It makes me want to learn from you more and makes me want to write like you. (MD)
  • When I see you as a writer it soothes me. (Anonymous)
  • I think it would impact me more if you shared some of your novel. (NW)
  • Seeing you as a writer actually makes me more comfortable sharing and writing on my blog. It inspires me to try. Try harder and maybe even step outside my comfort zone sometimes. (EM)
  • It makes me more comfortable sharing my writing because I don't view you as someone who will judge me, but more as someone who will help me grow. (Anna)
  • 2nd period feels more like a connected, close-knit group where we can share or bring up anything. (Anonymous)
  • When I see you as a writer your so deep and in the zone kind of. When you read your writing I like I know what/who/where your talking about. (IU)
  • It gives me lots of emotion. It gives me lots of encouragement to keep going with my writing. (AA)
  • It makes me feel connected because when we write in our notebooks, you write, too. (HB)
  • I feel inspired by you as a writer and I really like that you are very involved with us when we are writing...makes me feel comfortable, like you care that we become successful. (MC)
  • I see you write, often, in class, and when I see the final product I am inspired to write more.
  • I feel that it lets me be connected to you on a more personal level. I would feel more comfortable talking writer to writer rather than writer to teacher for feedback... (Ryan)
  • Seeing you as a writer makes me see that this isn't just your job, but that it is your passion (DK)
  • Seeing you as a writer has effected me in a positive way...It allows me to be connected with you and improve my own writing through yours. (LEJ)
  • The effect of your teaching has encouraged me to write things I have never written before. Also encouraged me to dig deeper in my thoughts. (V.V.)
  • I like it when you share your pieces because I feel like since I know who you are I can be more connected to class. I like seeing your work. (C.A.)
  • I learn by experience and visuals. It's like we're reaching for the same goal, to become a better writer, all together. (S.P.)
  • I have more appreciation for writing in general and it also makes me look deeper into my own writing. I would also make me more comfortable with confrencing with you about my writing. (M.B.)
  • You make everyone in the class feel like they're the students and you are too. (C.Y.)
  • It makes me feel like I have the ability to become a great writer someday. (E.S.)
  • I feel like you actually know how to write and how the little things can change your writing (Leah)
  • You effect me by making me feel as if we are all the same level of writer. (KL)
  • It's easier for me to figure out what the assignment is and what the expectations are (S.P)
  • It makes me feel more like you understand writing and it is as or more important to you as it is to me. (RL)
  • It helps me see what is important to you and what some of your thoughts are. (HN)
  • I think that seeing you as a writer encourages us, since it shows us how good of a writer we can be if we practice. (BN)
  • I truly think it helps. It creates a stronger student vs. teacher bond. (Alex)
  • Well, you give me inspiration on how I should write my own things. (MK)
  • It gives me greater confidence. (DL)
  • (it) encourages me to write more interesting and detailed sentences. (FH)
  • I think that it helps me because it makes me more comfortable to write honestly. (Melissa)
  • I feel encouraged about writing and read more. (ZH)
  • I think it has encouraged us to write more openly. I think seeing you as writer, a person, that is honest and is comfortable with showing something more personal, helps us feel more comfortable. (Ethan)
  • It's nice that you try to connect with us, most teachers don't, but it just is what it is. (KG)
  • I already have respect for you because you're my teacher and all, but when you share your writing and things with us it gives me so much more. It's nice to know that you actually want to share it with us. (Maddie)
  • I feel like you are a part of the class when you write with us. (JL)
  • When you write with us it shows us that you are experienced and that you care. (MC)
  • It is easier to ask someone questions when they are a writer, not a teacher. (SS)
  • When you are a writer, it makes me feel connected with someone who writes. (BK)
  • Having you as a writer feels very supportive. (MS)

Monday, September 23, 2013

Podcast: A Boy's Life - Episode 2

The second episode, The Boxer, of my (experimental) podcast A Boy's Life is now available for download. My intentions are two-fold. First, working on a monthly podcast is giving me a better handle on what I can realistically expect from an 8th grade student--producing a podcast is not easy. Second, it gives me someplace to revise and publish many short pieces I have written about my adolescence.

This episode is about the fighting and violence I was exposed to on regular basis from about 6th grade through my Junior year of high school. Fighting was just a matter of life. Behind the narratives are the decisions we made as kids--to start a fight, fight back, to stand and take it, or to run. It has been interesting to look back at that social order taking shape--in some respects, aspects of it were really quite dangerous and threatening.

As far as the technical side of podcasting is concerned, I have learned just how deliberate sound is. My struggles run the gamut from decisions on music (how much; when do I lead it in; when do I fade it out) to creating an easy delivery--trying to sound conversational while reading from a script does not come naturally.

Writing for sound is also a very different animal. While composing this episode, I found myself writing in two voices--the style I have come to develop as a writers, and the persona (a work in progress) who comes out as a reader. Suddenly, my voice takes on an edge and my old speech patterns from those days returns.

The music has become one of my favorite parts of writing and producing the podcast...and it isn't even mine. National Writing Project Fellow, and friend, Ben Smith is a young, brilliant musician. He teaches high school English by day, and must spend a large portion of his other life immersed in music. I enjoy his style and voice, and had to laugh when he suggested his song "I Recognize Your Fist" as the music for this episode.

Use the link below to access a direct link to it:
A Boy's Life: Episode Two - The Boxer

Or subscribe to get each monthly episode through iTunes
A Boy's Life Podcast (iTunes)

Folders of the Week (FoWs)

Considering many teachers have adopted the Article of the Week (AoW) format for classes, why not try using a Folder of the Week (FoW) concept if you have access to technology?

FoW builds on the model I learned about through Kelly Gallagher's challenge to his students to read more than novels:

To help build my students’ prior knowledge, I assign them an "Article of the Week" every Monday morning. By the end of the school year I want them to have read 35 to 40 articles about what is going on in the world. It is not enough to simply teach my students to recognize theme in a given novel; if my students are to become literate, they must broaden their reading experiences into real-world text.

Concepts built on digital read and writing is not an either/or proposition, but an also/and shift in education.

My use of a digital folder on Google Drive includes short videos, articles, podcasts, and infographics. This morning I cobbled together a folder on Somalia for any students who wanted to read and explore this issue.

The idea gives students additional exposure to various models and mentor texts of expression and information. As Troy Hicks puts it in Crafting Digital Writing:

To help Instead, I argue that the types of craft elements we insist our students create in the alphabetic texts can be complemented--or, better yet, extended--by the types of craft elements we can use given the availability of digital writing tools.

Of course, anyone who teaches or studies writing knows, Hicks' assertion includes into digital reading as well. Good readers are good writers.

These types of digital texts brings real-world issues to students where they have some control to explore and access the information in an order that best suits their needs. I have seen and heard this encourage further exploration. Students have told me that by looking at an infographic or two that they are more inclined to perform a close read of an informative or persuasive article of the same topic.

As the FoWs are becoming established in my classroom, I will encourage students to contribute their own polished products to the folders (blog entries, essays, videos, presentations, etc). So, if you subscribe to any, you will see the folders grow with a combination of professional and student-generated texts throughout the year. Currently, students are writing about the issues in their notebooks or on the classroom blog--these options will expand and grow throughout the year.

So far this year I have created FoWs on P.E.D.s in baseball, issues with the coral reefs, and Syria. Access to those are listed below--feel free to use the links for yourself or your students.

List of Folders of the Week


Coral Reefs


Baseball and P.E.D.s

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Let it Come

When I adopted Dublin in the spring of 2000, it came with a price that I had not anticipated.

Found along the side of Route 7 in Delaware, he suffered from malnourishment and several bruises. He had been abused and left for dead.

The SPCA technician shared that the woman who pulled over in the rain first dragged his body to a safer distance from the flash and whirr of traffic. She had been only inches from him as she zipped along with the flow of almost bumper-to-bumper traffic.

As he recovered physically at the SPCA until he was well enough to be rescued, he showed all of the signs of a dog who did not know who to trust or believe. The staff laughed and shared their frustrations at trying to perform simple tasks such as giving him water or putting a collar around him. They reported he ran from people, or jumped into them full force, or writhed and urinated at any new approaching human. While I pet him in short clips with only the tips of my fingers through the cyclone fencing, the technicians pointed out his healing bruises, the paperwork detailing all the medicine and treatment that had gone into him, and then she detailed the growing issue--he was approaching being unadoptable.

His energy was unmatched and bordered on intimidating. In his SPCA pen, his frantic pace and frenetic yapping had turned all families away to other (deserving) dogs. But the longer I stared at him I saw things I hadn't noticed for the past thirty minutes.

His body trembled when he paused to sit or lay down for a moment.

He winced and cowered at sudden movements, a lift of an arm, or flick of a hand in conversation.

He sat in corners and only with his back facing humans.

And when I walked away, he stared at me. I felt his eyes on me. And I adopted the unadoptable.

Dublin lived with me for thirteen years. I estimate he just made it to his fifteenth birthday before succumbing to canine cancer--an aggressive tumor on his spleen and stomach. It appeared less than two months ago.

I think of the imagery of a locomotive in the distance--an old iron horse from the turn of the century--a single headlight burning--black smoke and white steam hissing and puffing--that is how I think of Dublin's cancer. It was the unwelcome machine in the garden laying its own track, cutting its path, coming for a dog I came to adore.

Dublin challenged me--to his dying breath he challenged me and often outfoxed me.

He learned to open a trash compactor by standing on the release and pulling at the handle with his teeth.

He opened the refrigerator--even unlatched a baby lock--and unscrewed jars of pickles and peanut butter; he unwrapped cheeses and meats--leaving the paper--and left no trace of meat or brine behind. For over a decade I had to block the fridge with a heavy kegerator.

Dublin opened pantries and the lazy-susan; he could unfasten bungee cords securing closet doors. Once, he opened an oven and used the open door to stand on to tilt the appliance towards him as a blueberry pie slid to the floor. I later found the pie tin perfectly polished, not a crumb remained. The only trace of blueberry pie was the deep blueberry stained tongue and the blue roof of the mouth he later smiled at me.

Once he experienced a home burglary; another time, he ran away in the morning to sit in the middle of a dozen elementary school children and their parents at a bus stop a couple of miles from my house. They pet him and fussed over him as only noisy young children could. He sat still and smiled and loved it.

Slowly, he recovered from his fear of sudden movements. But it took years. He flinched so much those first few years that I found myself comforting him as much as anything else. Obviously, for those who know canines, he suffered from separation anxiety--during good weather when I had the windows down in my car, I would hear him howl after I left the house and headed for work. 

He grew out of destroying things and loved clomping around the White Clay Creek when I had a Jeep and didn't mind how wet he got it afterwards.

When our black lab, Rain, passed away in 2010, Dublin looked for him for weeks. Whenever he went outside, he would stop and turn and look behind him--Rain often trailed Dublin in his later, slower years. 

He was a smart dog who was branded with issues he never asked for or deserved. I would tell students that even though Dublin had a tough first life, I wanted to be sure he had a perfect second life.

The price I had to pay for helping Dublin through all of that was saying goodbye. It was a hard one to pay, I'll be honest.

As I mentioned, saying goodbye to my first lab, Rain, in 2010 was difficult. He died at my feet as we discussed what to do in the vet's office--I hadn't seen it coming even though Rain was old.

This time though, with Dublin, I could see that train coming. The closer it chugged towards us the larger it became--and there was no avoiding it and no preparing for it.

I found him after work on Thursday with blood leaking down his back legs. A puddle had formed beneath him. He made it outside to walk beneath a tree where another one of our pets, Smudge (a cat), is buried. Dublin flopped down and stared at me.

He had not eaten anything for four days and had not taken a drink in over 24 hours.

He was suffering. I knew it. The train had come.

After speaking to the vet, and after my wife had a chance to spend some time with him, I scooped Dublin up like a child--his blood smeared all across my forearm and settled him in the back of my car on an old, clean sheet.  He laid down out of my vision and I talked to him out loud on the five minute drive to the vet. I told himself everything I remembered that we did together, and that I didn't think our current labs would ever be as smart as him--so we can unblock the refrigerator now.

When we arrived, two technicians helped me carry him in on a soft gurney. I laid down on the floor with him. A sedative calmed him even though he was not moving much--he seemed to relax his muscles and was more comfortable than I had seen in months. He folded his paws beneath his snout and his eyes fluttered, half asleep, half still with me.

When I nodded that the time had come, I started talking to him again. This time, a line from Jane Kenyon's "Let evening come" fell out of me over and over. It was a complete surprise, unrehearsed, and comforted me and I hope comforted him. Again and again, as I held his face by mine (the whirr of the instruments working on his rear leg out of my vision) I caressed his muzzle and face and whispered "Let it come, as it will, and do not be afraid. For God does not leave us comfortless, so let evening come...Let it come, as it will.."

I felt his breath on my face and recited those lines. I consciously held my face close to his so I could feel him breath and he could smell me. His exhales were cool and relaxed.

And then. Nothing.

His face was peaceful--so peaceful that it caught me off guard. The past two months had taken a toll on him, and my friend was tired. I had not realized just how tired he was.

When I stood, I thanked the vet and the technicians and left the building. I sent a text to my wife and my parents: "He's gone."

And then I drove home thinking about the unadoptable dog. 

And just how fast time truly is.