Category Archives: Education and Teaching

How to ensure that your talented articulate child will not reach her potential.

Some of the details of this account have been changed to protect the identity of those involved.

A few months ago a new student came to my class. From the minute she walked in I could tell that she was very intelligent and articulate, a view shared by her parents. On the other hand, within half an hour she was involved in an altercation with one of my students who has behavior issues. At first I wasn’t concerned, because this other student is known for zeroing in on new students and causing problems. However within a few days it was clear that the new girl had difficulty getting along with a wide variety of students. For the next month I struggled to find a way for her to participate in group activities without problems. I eventually ran out of options and then spent most of my time during group activities monitoring whatever group she was in to try to teach some group work skills.

All of this is part of teaching. It would have been manageable, and this student (I’ll call her X) might even have made some progress in learning how to get along, if only the parents had supported my efforts to help their child. Instead, the constant message this child heard (and still hears daily) when recounting her day is, “The students are all bullies, the teacher is unfair, and you, poor thing, are entirely in the right.” Her arrogance and disrespectful attitude have grown steadily since she arrived. When the parents objected to phone calls about problems in the classroom we met with them and agreed to send home a daily behavior report with three goals: Have positive interactions with other students; have positive interactions with adults; focus on learning without talking out of turn. She was scored 3 times each day on a scale of 1 to 3 (with occasional 4s reserved for exceptional accomplishments). Here are a few excerpts from the comments the parents wrote on the form on a day when she scored two 2s and the rest 3s:

  • “I am getting sick and tired of X coming home upset and making me upset with what’s going on. You have no right on this planet and life to call X a liar…”She will not be push around by so called “Bullies” and “Teachers”. You need to stop coming up with false accusations about X. I am not playing around with it and I will not take it anymore. One thing you better know, X is not a liar and this matter is going to the DPS administration.”

It is clear from this that the word “liar” is a hot button for these parents, a point we have been very clear on since our first meeting with them. For the record, I have never called this student a liar (I’m not into calling my students names) and have even avoided the use of the word “lie” since that meeting. Here is my first piece of advice for parents who want to keep their daughter from reaching her potential: make sure you are in complete denial about the issues she needs help working on, and then take away the language she needs to use when others are trying to help. X has several times denied doing something that reliable witnesses (including myself) have seen her do. She does sometimes change her story when faced with the evidence. At one point, when she had owned up to something I asked her what words I should use when talking to her about a situation like this. My thinking was that in families where “Shut up,” is considered highly offensive language an alternative (i.e.  “Please be quiet.” ) is offered for situations where someone is being too loud or saying mean things. X got a rather desperate look on her face and finally said, “I can’t call it that.” She knew exactly what it was, but she will never be able to ask her parents to help her work on it because it is a taboo subject. This must be having an effect on her self esteem, too, to know that she does something that is so terrible that her parents can’t even utter the word.

My second piece of advice for parents who want to prevent their child’s success it to be sure that your child knows that her problems are always everyone else’s fault, because she is so wonderful that she would clearly succeed if only the rest of the world would get out of her way. That way she will never learn that the only person’s actions she can change are her own. She will spend her life achieving far below her potential, unhappy and frustrated that the world is against her.

That is a pretty depressing prognosis, but I don’t believe it is inevitable. This student is as capable of learning social skills as she is academic skills. At the moment any attempt to teach her is undermined by her parents’ need to believe she is already the person she is capable of becoming. My hope for her is that a future teacher or mentor will be able to help her learn accountability in spite of the undermining of her parents. Because she is so intelligent she may at some point realize that her current patterns aren’t working and be motivated to look at her life in a new way. Once she starts on that path there will be no limits to what she can accomplish.


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Stress at the end of the school year.

Six more weeks of school to go. For me this is one of the most stressful school year endings of my career. Some of the factors:

  • Teacher bashing is prominently featured on the news at least once a week. Some of it, like the amazingly resilient idea that somehow teachers and other public employees are not taxpayers, is laughable. Much of it, though, is just disheartening to those of us who spend days, evenings, weekends, and “vacations” trying to meet  the needs of every student in our diverse classrooms.
  • In the national and state legislatures’ version laws are passed that require us to take weeks of instruction time each year to test our students. Then, when they don’t do well it is obviously because of poor teaching. Now we are designing ways to assess teachers to ensure that they are performing at a superhuman level. Denver’s new teacher evaluation system (LEAP) is a case in point. Though it has some good features and many good intentions, my experience of participating in the first pilot year is that it is unrealistic on many levels. First, every teacher is to have four formal observations each school year, two from a school administrator and two more from an outside observer. Though we are asked to focus on two major areas, in each observation we are scored on 28 pages of detailed “Best Practices” observable behaviors. Several of our best teachers have scored below “Effective” by this measurement, even teachers whose students have exceeded their expected progress on the state tests. Would the legislators like to be held accountable in the same way? This process is also unrealistic for the administrators. Since the program began in January I have only had one of my four observations, partly due to my principal’s lack of time. When we made budget decisions for next year we cut our RTI coordinator, who has been instrumental in helping teachers plan instructional interventions for students who are not progressing, in order to hire an assistant principal to help with the teacher observations.
  • As the end of the year closes in regular curriculum is pretty much out the window, which makes me wonder what my last three observations will be like. Besides end-of-year field trips and practicing for the  “Continuation” event, we are trying to fit in Young Ameritowne (a great program, but it requires almost two months of daily curriculum), Family Life (aka sex ed), We the People (a U.S. Constitution curriculum culminating in a mock legislative hearing), and of course more formal testing.
  • As if all this weren’t enough, we were just informed that our principal is not returning next year. Two days later we learned that one of our fourth grade teachers, who has been battling cancer for two years, passed away.

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Classroom Community

This year I have been blessed with one of those classes that has a strong core of friendly hard-working students who get along well and are able to take in stride the shenanigans of those we call “high fliers,” students who are always on the radar, getting attention in negative ways. However, as is common in the second half of fifth grade as emerging hormones collide with spring fever, the classroom dynamics are beginning to fall apart. Students who never get in trouble are starting to argue instead of discussing their group work, a student acting like the class clown gets a laugh instead of being ignored, and a new student coming in has turned the social dynamics topsy-turvy. Last week a guest speaker from the Denver Dumb Friends League told the starfish story that ends, “It matters to this one.” (One version of the story is found at I had been struck by one line of Obama’s speech at the Tucson memorial service which I also played for my class: “We may not be able to stop all the evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another, that’s entirely up to us. And I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.” It is at about minute 29 of his speech.  We talked about the meaning of these two messages, about how we, too, can make the world a better place, making a difference one small action at a time. I hoped that the class could get back to being a friendly caring community of learners. It didn’t happen.

After a very frustrating day yesterday in which I seemed to spend more time putting out fires than effectively teaching I decided to try again. In the process I gained a valuable insight into two of my students. I started by having the students fold a paper in fourths. I told them that we were going to think about our day yesterday, and that no one would look at this paper so they could write freely. In the first box I had them write at least one specific time they made a positive difference to someone yesterday. In the second box I had them write at least one specific time someone did something yesterday that made their day better. In the third box they wrote about a specific time they saw someone make a positive difference to someone else. As they worked I drew a symbol in each box of my model using stick figures and arrows to help them remember what each box was about. In the final box I drew an eraser and asked them to write at least one thing they did yesterday that they wish they could erase and do differently or do better. Then I told them to fold up the paper and stick it deep in a pocket. Throughout the day they could reach in their pockets and touch the paper to remind themselves to make choices that make a positive difference and to be aware of all the positive things happening in the world around them.

To close the morning’s exercise I had them write on an index card one specific example of something someone in the class did yesterday that made a positive difference to them or to another person. I told them that they had to think until they remembered something. “Nothing” was not an option. This card did not have the author’s name on it, but they handed it in.

In the afternoon we talked about the kinds of things they had written on their index cards. Then I had them repeat the entire exercise using things that happened today. The only change was that the person they wrote about on the index card had to be someone different from the person they wrote about in the morning.

Two students were unable to come up with a single time, either yesterday or today, that they had seen anyone making a positive difference, even after the thinking and discussion we had done. Every other student was able to write an example in the morning and  fill their papers with positive observations in the afternoon. Both of these students have trouble interacting with their peers. They aren’t my “high fliers,” who have really strong behavior issues, but they are the students who aren’t in trouble, but who aren’t chosen for teams, the ones who occasionally receive mean notes or are ignored on the playground. Having gone through the same day that all the other students went through, in the lunchroom, in gym, on the playground, and in the classroom, these two students didn’t notice a single time when someone was nice to someone else. Wow! Not only did this exercise give me an insight into these students’ personalities, but it gave me a clear place to start helping them change their attitudes in a way that does not judge them but that will help them see the world in a more positive way. This change in their perspective will, I hope, help them approach their interactions with others differently, and others will respond.

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Posted by on January 28, 2011 in Education and Teaching



The Status Quo in Education, or Test Scores and the Olympics

Colorado’s high stakes testing scores (CSAP) are out this week, and the Denver Post weighs in with an editorial on p. 12B. (Yes, I still read the print edition. It’s much easier to scan for what interests me.) CSAP scores are basically flat, with a slight improvement in a few districts. The Post states, “It’s also exhibit A in the argument against maintaining the status quo in Colorado’s K-12 education system.”

It is mind-boggling that the Post thinks there is a status quo in education. For over a decade they have been covering the extensive efforts at educational reform in Denver Public Schools and other Colorado districts. Classroom teaching today is very different from what it used to be: major standardized assessments several times a year, constant progress monitoring, RTI (Response to Intervention) programs that use data to drive instruction, a literacy program based on research and best practices, and a math program that approaches math in a way so different from traditional programs that parents need programs to learn how to help their students. Teachers have been working twice as hard as they did in the traditional classroom to understand and implement new programs and practices, often radically changing their teaching styles. What few seem to realize is that test scores are like Olympic records. Just because an athlete only beats an old record by a hundredth of a second doesn’t mean that they have been sitting around doing nothing. It takes a tremendous amount of work to gain that fraction of a second, and it takes the same amount of work to raise test scores across a district or a state by a few points. The big difference is that athletes are lauded for their gains, and teachers are blamed for not making more progress and accused of being recalcitrant whenever they express skepticism about a suggested reform. If the Post truly believes the slight gains aren’t enough, couldn’t they at least acknowledge that maybe some of the skeptics about the reforms we have been trying might have been at least partly right?

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Posted by on August 13, 2010 in Education and Teaching


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Getting students to dig deeper into their reading through accountable talk.

Today was the start of the new school year for me as I attended a workshop with Maria Nichols. She has written several books about accountable talk from her experience as part of a demonstration school in San Diego. She was literally a teacher behind the glass, teaching students half the day with a hidden audience of up to 200 teachers and administrators, and processing the experience with them the other half of the day. That is courage!

Much of what she presented was familiar, but there is always something new and useful if I am paying attention. Today’s useful tidbit sounds small but could have a very large impact on my teaching. When I ask students an question about something we have read and give them thinking time, maybe even “turn-and-talk” time, almost all of them will have an idea they want to share. In the past I have tried to give most of them a chance to share their thoughts. This takes quite a bit of time in a whole class discussion. Nichols pointed out that if we want our student to think more deeply about their reading we need to realize and teach our students, too, that growing an idea is more important than hearing everyone’s initial ideas. As a teacher I need to help students take one beginning idea and respond to it, digging deeper until the group has created something that no one could have predicted when we started. Students in turn need to put their energy into listening to each other’s ideas and responding to them instead of trying to keep their own first thoughts in their memories. If their first thought was an important piece of thinking deeper it will naturally resurface even if it is temporarily lost. Meanwhile attention to and interaction with the ideas of others will help them develop their ability to think critically, something the state of Colorado’s current politics shows is desperately needed! (Sorry for the political aside, but it is pretty crazy around here, and this is only the primaries.)


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Writers’ Workshop: Focusing my teaching

On p. 32 of The Writing Workshop Ray writes, “Where do we hope all the curriculum we offer [our students] will lead them as writers? What kind of people do we hope they will become as they are becoming people who write?” It is the second of Stephen Covey’s seven habits: Begin with the end in mind. What is the end to which I want all my teaching of composition to lead? I want my students to:

  • be able to write in a way that clearly communicates their ideas and experiences.
  • be able to write in a way that captures their audience’s interest.
  • become excited about sharing their own ideas and experiences and learning about the ideas and experiences that others share in their writing.

If I keep this end in mind our writers’ workshop this year will be a 100% improvement over the last time I taught the classroom curriculum. It’s not that I taught so badly before–my students were able to show substantial improvement on our state test–but I was uninspired and unfocused because I had not considered my end goal.


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Teaching Writers’ Workshop

As I once again return to the classroom (5th grade) the area I feel the most foggy about is writing. The only in-service class offered by Denver Public Schools is an introduction to Writers’ Workshop for new teachers. Since I have already taught the DPS 5th grade literacy guide two years I decided to get what I need from some professional reading instead. The first book I am reading is The Writing Workshop by Katie Wood ?Ray with Lester Laminack. I am currently halfwaythrough chapter 3. Here is one sentence that struck me:

p. 25, in talking about people who write to enrich their lives as opposed to those who write simply to maintain their lives, Ray says, “They’re the people…who write the stories of their childhoods because they just don’t want to forget.” The first genre in the DPS curriculum at every grade level is the personal narrative. By fifth grade students are often in a rut, writing essentially the same narrative at the same level as they did in second or third grade. Some are still stuck in a “dawn to dusk” listing of the day’s events. This quote and the letter my cousin Gib wrote my brothers and me about the summer he spent with our family gives me an idea to shake the students out of that rut. Instead of a prompt that asks them to write about an event that was important or fun or interesting, I can use Gib’s letter to show how detailed his memory of that summer is almost 50 years later. One of the reasons Gib wrote in such detail is that he kept detailed journals about anything related to flying and airplanes, but he also filled in other details. So the prompt becomes, “Think of something in your life that you want to remember 50 years from now, and describe it in a way that will help you remember everything about it and why it is important to you.”

More later. Since I just looked at my blog statistics and discovered that there is suddenly a great deal of interest in Dad’s World War II letters, I need to get started on the next month’s letters.


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