The Signature of your Beliefs: Creating a Motto

TM Motto definition

The thing about being a teacher is that whatever I experience, whether it’s an activity, an article or book that I’m reading, or simply something observed, my mind thinks like a teacher. How could I use this in the classroom? What does this connect to? An overarching web extends deep and wide over all that I do, think, say and hear, such that I’m always in teacher mode searching for ways to make learning meaningful for my students.

Recently, I came across an article on Edutopia, a website for educators, written in a blog begging the question: Teachers: What is your Motto in the Classroom? In it, Elena Aguilar, traces how she developed her own teaching motto, which got me thinking about mine.

So often, practices are in place either instinctively or inherently based upon my own personal experience. When I actually put a name to them, they become part of my repertoire. Like teaching belletristic non-fiction. I knew what it was. I’d been teaching it as a form of creative and expository writing, but I didn’t know it was a thing until I came across Lynn Z. Bloom’s work that I could put a name to it in order to make it part of my knowing.

I know what a motto is. A motto is like a mission statement in the simplest of forms. “Just do it,” Nike: “I’m lovin’ it,” McDonalds: “It keeps going and going and going,” Energizer. I teach maxims and aphorisms as devices of literature and creative writing. The novel Wonder, R.J. Palacio, put the word “precept” in students’ vocabulary. Yet, I never associated the word motto with my own educational foundation. I’d always associated it with businesses or athletic teams.

Years ago, our school, as a collective effort, established a mission statement which we’ve been revising to remain relevant to the changing times. At first, “mission statement” equated to business, but quickly it’s evolved. When I read Aguilar’s article, it made sense to me to hone in on one statement, distinct to my classroom (not exclusive, but distinct), a premise all students can expect upon entering through my doors.

After 24 years of teaching, suffice it to say, I have a wealth of experience in goal setting. Over the course of this time, I’ve amended my own goals for my students based on a host of experience.

  • I’ve always been of the mind that teaching English (or any other subject) isn’t so much about the skills (yes, they are necessary to learn, but they are vehicles) as it is about finding oneself through many discourses, thinking critically about the world and our place in it, and, finally, developing the ability to communicate thoughts and ideas out to the world. In essence, it’s an exploration of self through various discourses: literature, non-fiction, visual media, the arts– in the world of teaching English.
  • One of the foundations of establishing this kind of exploration lies in creating a safe environment, a community of readers, writers and critical thinkers, who collaborate with and respect one another. I want my students to feel comfortable challenging themselves and each other in order to reach a deeper understanding of whatever it is that we are learning.

TM Blooms taxonomy

  • It is essential to learn to connect to people and to connect ideas to other ideas. In all of my classes, I teach students what Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy is in order to empower them to develop all of their thinking abilities. Moreover, I try to provide opportunities for each of them to refine their strengths and develop their weaknesses, inspired by Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences. Every single person has something to offer this world, a worth unique, but the trouble is that too often the model of learning in the public school system is the equivalent of trying to put a uniquely shaped peg into a square whole.

TM multiple intelligences

  • For even the unconventional students, those who seem lost in public school, those who just can’t or won’t subscribe to the rules of the game, I try to help them develop their voices. Communication is paramount to learning. In whatever career anyone eventually pursues, the ability to communicate, through a variety of forms, is essential to moving forward. Everyone has a voice. I hope to give all of my students the platform to not only develop it but to feel confident about what they have to say and how to say it.

So, in thinking about these goals, and in thinking about what I do to assist students in achieving these goals, I’ve decided my motto is simply this:

TM Motto

I’m going to make a sign of it to display on the door of my classroom and on my website and syllabus. I encourage you to create a statement for yourself whether you teach English or Social Studies or even if you are in another career altogether. Just a simple, catchy phrase that embodies the signature of your beliefs.


Teaching Through Tragedy

Izzy cards copy

It was the most draining week in teaching I’ve ever experienced. For, it reaffirmed for me that teaching is so much more than a job; it’s life, all encompassing. As teachers, we not only bring our jobs home, we bring who were are and the experiences we’ve had into the classroom to share with our students.

This week (DEC 15-19) marked the deaths of two 2014 alumni: separate incidents, different days. The first, emotionally close to me. The second close in proximity.

It was a Saturday morning in December when my son (also a graduate of the same high school) asked, “Mom, do you know Isabella G.?” Yes, I nodded. My kids ask me all the time if I know people because I seem to know so many after teaching in the town I also live in for thirteen years, now. “She died in a car accident last night.” Initially, shock sets in, as it takes some time to fully comprehend. He fills in the details, from what he knows — the beginning of the abundance of fact blurred with rumor from social media.

I recall, two years ago, finding out in fractured details from the internet, students relaying what was being reported on Twitter and other new sources about the Sandy Hook massacre, for it was the first tragedy of this proportion that I’d experienced hearing about via smart phones. At first, I dismissed it, until later I came home and the details began piecing themselves together. Teaching through the aftermath of Sandy Hook was also difficult. The next morning, there was a faculty meeting, before school, to talk about how we should handle it with the students, what resources are available and such.

SH 1

And before that, I was teaching on 9/11, as the unbelievable events unfolded until finally school was cancelled. The next day we’d exercise a day of mourning. There was no social media then, or if there was people didn’t access it so readily from their phones; news came from news stations, not Twitter. No morning faculty meeting to discuss how to deal with the event in the face of our students. Nothing like this had happened before. There was no protocol to follow.

But like the faculty meeting following Sandy Hook when protocol had been established, the same early morning meeting would be held for Isabella (Izzy). For neither, could I hold it together, as I would have liked to. While Sandy Hook was a horrific tragedy, I knew Izzy. My daughter knew her; she  looked up to her as a fellow athlete and friend. This one hit home.

I remembered an email Izzy sent me during her junior year, the year I had her and her friends in American literature. It touched me. It spoke to who she was beneath her tough,  teenage exterior. While in the email, Izzy asked for me to keep it anonymous, I wanted to put it out there ( I put it up on Facebook, my daughter shared it to Twitter) because I thought Izzy’s message was so poignant that I wanted others to be affected by it, as I had been. In fact, I was so moved by it, and other sentiments from students over the span of years, that I referred to it in a blog post I’d earlier written about teaching NOT being just about imparting wisdom, producing intelligent, skilled children, but rather about teaching the whole child, recognizing them as people and giving them the skills to be better people.

TTG status


I went to school on this Monday with a lump in my throat. Trying to address something like this, while navigating through my own emotions does not come easy to me. My students have seen me cry. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. However, I never want my own emotions to impede the messages I try to deliver to them. This, like the day after Sandy Hook, would be one of those days.

The morning started off not so bad. It seemed the kids welcomed the distraction school had to offer as much as I did. Mid-morning, when advisory came, however, a shift occurred. We were directed to give our students the opportunity to make condolence cards for the family; we were provided with the materials to do so. It was an important thing to do. And in the midst of the mayhem of selecting the perfect colors, and shapes, and supplies, I recalled two years before. It wasn’t a directive on that day; in fact, one of the students suggested we make cards for the families of the Sandy Hook tragedy. It may have even been Izzy; it certainly was her class. I took out my art supplies and we did. It was a cathartic way to deal with our grief and sadness, for we wanted to do something and this felt purposeful. A memory, so vivid, that I could see Izzy sitting at her desk with her supplies, laid neatly in front of her, frantically searching on her phone for the most appropriate inspirational quote. She kept reading them aloud. “How does this one sound?” she’d ask.

TTG status 1

That is when I lost it. My students looked frightened almost, not knowing what to do. Their teacher stood before them and just sobbed. I couldn’t articulate what I was thinking or feeling, but I muttered that I was okay. Later, I composed myself and shared the poem, “Remember” by Christina Rosetti, I’d written on the petals of the flower I had cut out because Izzy was referred to as a “Flower Child.” I also wrote a letter to the family, sharing my experience.

TTG poem

In the next two classes, there were students who had been close friends with Izzy. We reminisced together, cried and hugged too. More students made cards. And, at the end of the day, I felt good. We’d made it through the day.

The next day was better, while pangs of sadness came and went, productivity occurred.

Then, in the afternoon, at home, I heard a bevy of police sirens close by. Minutes later, her phone in hand, my daughter called out, “Someone’s been shot on Cornwall” (the street around the corner from mine). A few minutes later, “Two people have been shot.” It was evident that another neighbor knew who it was from his cryptic messages on Twitter. In less than thirty minutes, my daughter revealed a name, a troubled boy from a troubled family, He’d had a history of drugs, and he, too, graduated from the same class as Izzy. Various reports from news media were revealed in addition to speculation on Twitter and other forms of social media. It wasn’t until midnight did we get the facts, and more would pour in the next day. A email came out from both the superintendent of schools and the principal, also cryptic, for they were not at liberty to identify the victims or reveal the facts, but another faculty meeting would be held first thing in the morning.

I didn’t know this boy, even though his family lived in my neighborhood; I know others who know him and his siblings. His name is Chris, and he was shot and killed by his father, who turned the gun on himself and committed suicide. Chris’s sister is a sophomore at the high school. I don’t know her either, but I teach students who do, and I am her class’s adviser.

TTG status 2

On this morning, the lump in my throat was bigger than two days before, for I had difficulty making sense of not only the incident but still hardly adjusting to the news of Izzy’s death. I went to school with a reserve that it would be another one of those days, and it was. A somber mood blanketed the school, evident from the moment I walked in the door to the moment I left.

From the first class to the last, I tried to ease my students’ minds by sharing my own confusion about the week’s events to let them know they were not alone. We discussed the different ways people grieve and being responsible for one’s words and actions out of respect for how others might be feeling. We also talked about the misinformation that was delivered over social media and in the news– a very real fact of their generation, something they could now learn from, firsthand.

Therapy dogs were brought in. They visited classrooms and legitimately brought a smile to anyone’s face who saw them or petted them. The first time I’d seen therapy dogs was in the aftermath of Sandy Hook.

Good things do come from tragedies. Lessons learned. New ways to cope. The importance of communication as well our responsibility to be sensitive to it. Coming together as a community. Discovering the processes of grief and healing.  Lessons that, sometimes, take us a while to realize. Mine is this. After 9/11, after Sandy Hook, after this week, too, I’ve recognized the ability to teach my students lessons that can’t be taught from books. I’ve learned that I am a model for them of what it means to be human, and even those not close to the events of this week, can learn something very valuable from our collective experience.

SH hope12

Messy Learning Inherent to Great Teaching

GT Wordle final

Teaching is a challenging profession, no matter what the political pundits would have you believe. It takes a great deal of time (education, preparation, planning, assessing, reflecting, adjusting…), energy and experience to embody all of the characteristics of a great teacher. And, lets face it, there are a lot of great teachers out there.

Two sources have encapsulated for me the definition of great teaching.

A TVO Parents Presents video: What Makes a Great Teacher?

GT Edutopia

And an Edutopia article: “Embracing Messy Learning” 

In watching the video, a few quotes stood out to me as part of my definition.

GT quote 1

Great teachers are not born. While, true, I do believe teaching does and should come naturally. There needs to be an innate sense of loving working with others, compassion and kindness, in addition to having a passion about the discipline one is teaching; moreover, good teachers continue to hone their craft over time. This comes with the desire to motivate others, a strong work ethic to do one’s best, always, whether the task is building curriculum or finding ways to implement it that is meaningful and relevant for the students. It’s not only about doing the work, it’s also about reflecting on what worked and didn’t and why. It’s about being open and flexible to change which means looking within, observing, collaborating and never giving up the desire to learn and grow as a professional.

GT quote 3

Audience is important. In fact, it may be at the top-of-the-list important. Essential to good teaching is knowing one’s audience. Taking the time to get to know students as individuals, both as people and as learners, is the key to successful teaching. If students don’t buy in to what a teacher implements, learning is not possible. Gauging the audience as a whole is also important. No two classes are alike, each has a pulse all their own; picking up on that and responding to that are among some of the fine attributes of good teaching. Also, of paramount importance, allowing students a voice — being confident enough to hand over the reigns to them, to listen and respond, helps them build confidence and adds dimension to lessons.

GT quote 2

“Embracing Messy Learning” gives project based, authentic learning an interesting name. Learning is messy work. When students learn a new concept, they are so focused on what’s in front of them, that other skills previously learned fall by the wayside, but that’s a good thing. It means they are focusing on new learning and how it should interact with their prior knowledge. Flexibility is the key to this kind of teaching/learning. Teachers giving up the rights and the wrongs in order to instill creativity, critical thinking, exploration and discovery. I’m of the “Less is More” school of thought. The less instruction I give them, the greater their struggle, the more learning happens. True teaching, in this kind of learning, is to be their guide through the process. To probe and prod them to find their own solutions. Some of my best teaching has come out of such projects which allows them choice and personalization, in allowing students to make meaning through their own methods and process. Inevitably, the feedback is “Wow, that was the hardest project I’ve done, but I’ve learned so much!” The challenge for teachers with project-based learning is to raise the bar enough so that it is doable with enough parameters to guide students but not too much to prevent their own original thought. Teachers need to ‘buy into’ implicit teaching/learning approach for this to work. Teachers also need to get students to ‘buy into’ failure being an inherent part of the process. Success doesn’t happen without some degree of failure.

GT quote 4

There is no greater challenge than building a student’s confidence. Often, teachers have no idea what their previous experiences with education have been or what their personal situations are. Yet, the job of a teacher is to develop growth within each student and the icing on the cake is that each leave a classroom with a ‘CAN DO’ attitude. Confidence is the single most empowering motivator. This circles back to teachers knowing students. Working individually with students is the best way this can be achieved. Moreover, asking students to journal about the process of learning, so they can read back and actually see their growth unfold before them is powerful. It’s something they’ll take beyond this class into the future. And as teachers, isn’t that what we want? For students to grow, feel good about their growth which will empower them to seek growth in the future.

camp student4

GT Messy quote

GT Leo Bas

My ‘sort of’ mission statement for my teaching is something that has not changed since I’ve begun teaching nor is it something I foresee changing, in that I believe it with my whole heart.

Teaching English, for me, isn’t as much about reading and writing as it as about discovering oneself through the process. Do I want students to walk away from my course with an appreciation of the subject matter I’m teaching? Absolutely, it’s what teachers hope for. Do I want them to walk away more skilled than when they first entered my classroom? Of course, and I believe each and every one of them will. But more importantly, I want them to know themselves a little better than they did when first walking through my classroom door. I want them to learn to think critically about their world and their place in it, to decipher meaning from discourse (written, visual, media, humanity…) and to communicate what they think and feel effectively in a variety of ways. I want them to see themselves as doers, thinkers, collaborators, community contributors, entrepreneurs.



RandomKid Profoundly Proves Holden’s Relevance

catcher in the rye poster copy

I’ve been teaching The Catcher in the Rye for years. I believe every American should read, if nothing more, these three classics: The Adventures of Huck Finn, The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye. Over the past years, the enthusiasm for Catcher has waned. Students complain it isn’t relevant, the language is dated, Holden is nothing more than a whiner; students, today, claim they are more mature and self directed…

They just don’t see themselves in Holden. I beg to differ.

RK student quote 1

In an effort to get students to delve deep into thinking about Holden’s characterization (as we approach Holden from a psychological perspective, later on, and go on to compare him to one of the characters in The Breakfast Club), I host Socratic Seminars.

RK Breakfast Club

This is how it works. For homework, the class is given a reading assignment and they must write questions gleaned from it and important quotes in a Double Entry Notebook format. In class the next day, I divide the number of students in half. Half form a circle at the center of the room for a fishbowl discussion, while the other have form a larger circle on the outside. These students sign into a class chat room, hosted by Today’s Meet, where they hold a parallel discussion to what’s going on orally in the fishbowl.

For the last 10 minutes of class, I post the discussion thread from Today’s Meet up on the Smartboard to open the discussion to the whole class. On a normal day, the discussion becomes lively, even heated sometimes. While students on the whole often have difficulty connecting to Holden in an explicit way, they demonstrate just how connected they are (even if they can’t see it, at the time, themselves) by the way the discussion evolves.

On this particular day, I instruct the class to sign on using their own names (so I can give them credit for their questions and comments: I’m taking notes throughout the lesson, making observations, noting the levels of thinking they demonstrate with their questions and responses to contribute to a cumulative grade at the end of the novel) as I always do.

Only, today, one wise guy signs in as RandomKid. When I ask who it is, he or she (I’ll use he for the purpose of this story) responds:

RK Its Me copy

I laugh it off and ask him to sign in as himself, which he does; only, unbeknownst to me and the rest of the class, at the time, he doesn’t sign off as RandomKid. He must be using two monikers/screens simultaneously because I can account for everyone in the chat room plus RandomKid. A stir ensues because the class just wants to begin, so we do. I’m thinking RandomKid doesn’t realize I’m monitoring the discussion on my IPad because he continues to post. I’m thinking he does so for the element of surprise during the last ten minutes when I share the thread with the whole class. What he doesn’t anticipate is that I’m seeing the nature of his comments escalate because he, apparently, isn’t getting the attention or response from the students he was hoping for within the chat room.

Here are his posts:

RK posts copy

I stop the discussion in a grandiose fashion when he uses the “F” word. Not only does it go against my classroom policy, it goes against the school’s policy and the responsible use policy for technology. I tell them if “they” are too immature to participate in this forum, they can read silently for the remainder of class.  Needless to say, I’m angry, the students in the fishbowl have no idea what’s going on, and those in the chat room are upset that we have to cut short the discussion. After several pleas for RandomKid to come forward (from both me and his classmates), so the whole class doesn’t have to deal with the fallout of this incident, he, to this day, has not. I’m not surprised, but I am saddened.

Hindsight has allowed me to look at this from a different perspective, and I’d like to share, here, the letter I’d write to RandomKid if I could:


Dear RandomKid,

While you think you may have been acting rebelliously to get a laugh out of your classmates, put me on the spot, or even express your frustrations with this class, this novel or school in general, what you have done is demonstrate what a modern-day Holden Caulfield would do.

He’d pretend he’s someone he isn’t. He’d mask himself under the guise of a screen name and run, if the case may be. He’d protest the rules of society without having the confidence to express his thoughts as himself. You call him a liar, well so are you if you can’t come forward to own your actions. He’d call people phony behind their backs or talk behind doors about what an injustice it is that there are penalties he’d be held accountable for (such as no longer being allowed to use a chat room or being expelled from school).

RK student quote 2

You see, RandomKid, this is part of your development. It’s an aspect of coming of age and teen angst, all the things we discuss in class, that you are so adamant you are far removed from. You question authority. You defy it, even. You think you’d like to live in world in absent of rules, where you wouldn’t have to attend school or take this class or read this seemingly irrelevant book.

The truth is that if you admitted to seeing yourself in Holden, you’d have to face pieces of yourself that you don’t like very much. Perhaps, it’s your apathy for life in general or your utter disdain for all things that equate to authority. But, what I think, RandomKid, is that you’re scared. I think you’re afraid to grow up, just like Holden– afraid to lose your innocence because, let’s face it, it’s a scary prospect. It’s difficult to feel confused about who you are and all things this life represents that you couldn’t possibly understand. It’s far easier to think you’ve got it figured out, to pretend you are mature and have direction because, after all, if you could fool yourself, you could fool everyone else, right?

As your teacher and as a person who cares about what you think and feel, moreover, as a survivor of your stage in life when all things are uncertain, I’m here to tell you, you will survive. You will grow from even this (seemingly insignificant) immature act of posing as RandomKid.

Growing up isn’t about not making mistakes; in fact, it’s just the opposite. It’s about trying personas on to see what fits (I hope yours as RandomKid isn’t the one that does).  Making mistakes isn’t what defines you as a person, recognizing them demonstrates your true character. Having the ability to look inside, authentically, and communicate honestly is what growing up is all about. It’s from taking an incident like this and not just feeling wronged, somehow, but learning from it. I’ll leave you with these words from Catcher:

RK catcher quote

Thank you, RandomKid, for reminding me of one such lesson; moreover,  when you see a lesson coming back at you, you’ll recognize it, confidently, appreciatively, to acknowledge it as such, and realize you really were never just a random kid, in the first place.


Your Teacher

RK BC Quote

Paying it Forward: My Role as a Mentor Teacher

Student teacher Mentor

Mentoring student teachers is one of the greatest pleasures of my job. I’m not on of those who looks to it as an opportunity for a break in my course load, and, if one is a good mentor, the work load certainly multiplies instead of diminishes. I enjoy many things about working with new teachers– chief among them is their enthusiasm. I recall what it was like being a new teacher when so many possibilities were ahead of me, especially the unexpected twists and turns that my career has taken along the way.

I’ve had the good fortune of three very different stages in my career, as an educator, which I share with my students so they know that the traditional path isn’t the only way. When I graduated from college, my idea of being a teacher was having my own classroom, and a class– a cohesive unit of kids who were excited to learn– to share my wisdom and enthusiasm about learning with. That ideal notion was quickly expelled when I couldn’t find a job and had to “settle” working for Adult Education, under the guise of working with adults, but, in fact, most of them were anything but. I say “settle” because it certainly was not what I had planned, but it turned out to be the best thing for me because, there, I learned that each student/learner is an individual with his/her strengths, weaknesses, interests, obstacles…. Most had not been successful in the traditional classroom, so I needed to find new ways to get through to them, tapping into their individual learning styles. My next job I would classify as one that taught me the essentials of teaching writing, reading and critical thinking, interdependently, along with learning how to build a cohesive course threaded by connectivity. I learned that everything in life is based on making connections. The next stage in my career brought me to what I early on referred to as the Shangri-La of teaching– a small suburban, upper/middle class community that put priority on education. Well, I’ve come off of my cloud a bit, but I certainly have learned a great deal about teaching in a traditional, public school setting.

So, how did I get where I am, today? Not to negate the hard work, the passion , the rewards, but if I had to point to one thing that consistently got me to where I am– I’d have to say it’s been my mentors. They have been supportive and have taught me hard lessons. They have been role models, allowing me to develop my own sense of uniqueness and individuality. They have opened doors, very generous some of them. They have coached and cheered. And some of them, I’m sure, didn’t even know their influence on me at the time.

I’m a pay it forward kind of person. So, each opportunity I have to work with a young teacher, I take it. Some have been the most rewarding experiences of my life; while others have been excruciatingly painful. But isn’t that what education (microcosm of life) is? It’s all about the experience, and there is, in fact, learning to be had in each and every experience.

Student teacher Wordle

Student Teacher/Mentor Pedagogy:How I approach this experience…

A Reflective Process

First and foremost, student teaching should be a reflective process for everyone involved. There will be highs and lows, teachable moments, and moments you never want to relive as a teacher, but at the end of the day, the teacher needs to look back to ask: What worked? What didn’t work? Why? And  how does all of this play a part in how I’ll do it next time? The ability to reflect on a lesson, all of the tangibles and intangibles, is essential to good teaching– for mentors and mentees, alike.

The Role of the Mentor

As a mentor, one needs find a balance of being directive by establishing parameters that will promote a successful experience while allowing the student teacher creative license to shape his/her student teaching experience. In my department, we encourage student teachers to work with two teachers to gain a more diversified experience. It helps if these teachers are already adept at collaborating. The best situation, as far as I’m concerned is a complimentary one where mentors differ in some way, but work well together, thus, modeling a team approach.

Ideally, mentors should have the opportunity to converse with the student teacher before taking him/her on as a mentee. During this conversation, mentors should gain a sense of the potential mentee’s background, strengths, challenges and goals. A good working relationship is key to the success of a student teaching experience.

Next, mentors should meet to work out possible schedules for the student teacher, with the goal of providing choice while taking into consideration the content of the courses as well as variant levels and not too many preps. A conversation with a potential student teacher early on will help guide this process. It is my belief that a good schedule, one that includes content which can showcase the student teacher’s background/knowledge/interests coupled with the challenge of working in a subject that the student teacher is less comfortable with provides a good foundation. Moreover, it’s ultimately up to the student teacher to choose which schedule will be most conducive to his/her learning goals. One note of importance is that when working with two mentors, it’s essential to have a common prep when all three can meet to debrief on lessons (planning, preparation and implementation).

Letting Go

As a mentor, I feel it is imperative to let go in order for the mentee to get an optimal experience. This means, making the student teacher aware of my own goals for my students for the year, offering him/her choice in what to teach within the parameters of the curriculum, while keeping in mind my overarching goals. This means, that he/she might choose to teach something I normally do not, so long as it adheres to the curriculum, which is something I fully support if not encourage. I see my role as a guide, so my own curriculum/units/lessons/activities are available for my student teachers to use in varying capacities. Some teachers will literally take my lessons and implement them as is; these are often the teachers who lack confidence or the creative prowess to develop their own. While others go to the completely opposite extreme, making units/lessons their own from the start. Most fall somewhere in between. Regardless the type of teacher, I feel it’s my job to point them in directions but not dictate how they use the material. And the goal for each student teacher is autonomously to develop & implement a unit from beginning to end before the end of the student teaching block.

Observation Period

During the first two weeks of a student teaching block, the student teacher’s role is to observe, engage, and begin planning for his/her own first unit/class. In class, I invite the student teacher to jump in, to take part in what the class and I am doing, to work one-on-one and in small groups with students to create a smooth transition. After observing one or several of my classes, I conference with the student teacher, asking him/her to identify what they thought my goals were, based on a given lesson, and to assess whether or not and how those goals were met based on the behavior of the students in the classroom. I also ask what I might have done differently or what the student teacher would have done differently. This way, we begin to dialogue about the connections and scaffolding that occurs within a lesson and from one to another. Modeling is a very important part of teaching, as is reflection, and it all begins, here in these early conversations.

Grading Instruction

As part of the observation period, I ensure that a student teacher observes an essay lesson from beginning to end. As a proponent of the process writing school of thought, we do a lot of writing in class for that first writing assignment, especially, which is good for a beginning teacher to see. Upon its conclusion, I copy a handful of papers (attempting to collect an array of levels of writing). I send one set home with the student teacher to grade & comment on while I grade and comment on the same set. Together we go through the papers one at a time discussing the grade choices/comments we made. It’s a good exercise for me to see the thought process behind the assessment and for him/her to see mine. This will help me determine the level of attention I need to pay, moving forward, to his/her ability to assess the students. Further, we discuss grading policies (weighted vs. percentages) and rationales behind determine what assignments are of what value.

Unit Building

This is the foundation for good teaching. I call it unit “building” because scaffolding is very important. And I don’t just consider the unit as an entity unto itself, prior knowledge is key to determine which unit should be taught first, second, and so on and why.  As mentioned earlier, I share my overarching goals for each class for the year with my student teacher, pointing out how what he/she observes works toward achieving those goals.

Once the student teacher establishes the content of his/her unit and can articulate how the instruction of this unit “fits” into the big goals for the year, I ask the student teacher to consider what his/her ultimate goals for the unit are.  In other words, you should know where you’re headed before you determine how to get there. It all boils down to one question: what is the end product and what skills are you looking to assess from that product? Once that’s established, I direct them to work backward from there in planning the daily lessons.

Is it easy? For some it comes naturally. For me, it is one of my favorite parts of my job. But my goal is two-fold: for the mentee, I need him/her to become at least proficient in unit building and to recognize how the construction of a unit is a microcosm of the construction of a course. Once those two things are clear, student teachers have the foundation they need for good teaching.

The Part that Can’t be Taught: Presence

Unfortunately, in my experience you either have it or you don’t. That isn’t to say it can’t be cultivated. And certainly, even the most dynamic teachers have grown into their role. It’s all about confidence, really. You have to know more than the class, first. Second, you need to give into the fact that you don’t know everything. And finally, you need to be flexible. You need to allow for the daily mishaps that occur in a classroom to happen, and pick up with grace and carry on. When students sense a teacher who is shy, or tense, or ill-at-ease, they can be ruthless in trying to expose it. I share this with my student teachers before hand: “the students will test you in every way possible, like it’s their job.” The thing about teaching is that you have to be “ON” constantly.

As an exercise to develop the presence of a teacher in a classroom, what I think works best is during that observation period to set up as many observations as you can in an array of classroom settings– in other disciplines, even. As the mentor, choose teachers’ classes for your mentee to observe the best of the best and those who seriously need improvement. Accompany your student teacher on these observations if you can. It makes the dialogue so much richer. Give the mentee a heads up to pay attention to classroom management, teaching style, and how the teacher responds to what occurs in the classroom. By having this shared experience, when the mentee faces some of what was observed, you as the mentor can go back to that … “remember when we saw Student throw a wad of gum across the room… how did TEACHER handle that?” It’s all about modeling, making connections and reflecting. All of teaching is.

All Kinds of Observing

It’s the role of the mentor to guide her student teacher.  I love this quote:

“The essence of education is not to stuff you with facts but to help you discover your uniqueness, to teach you how to develop it, and then to show you how to give it away.”
-Leo Buscaglia

I think it really applies here because I see my job as one who guides the student teacher in becoming the best TEACHER he/she can be.

If, as the mentor, you dictate what you want of the mentee, than flying won’t be so easy when leaving your nest. Just like teaching, student teaching is a trial and error experience. Sometimes a student teachers want to do something that I can see in the planning will probably not work, and so long as it isn’t harmful to the students, I let them go with it in order for them to discover how and where it went wrong on their own.

My job is to observe and help the student teacher walk through a reflection. I provide both commendations and recommendations based on the mentee’s own reflections of a lesson. My observations range from very informal (just eavesdropping really while tending to some of my own work) to both planned and unplanned formal observations. Sometimes I script everything from the class which tends to be an enlightening experience, even for a seasoned teacher, because, as much as we like to think we are, we are not omniscient. We can’t see when a student is doodling or texting or passing notes or pretending to work when really they’re daydreaming. And sometimes an observation is very focused when I’m just looking to report on a specific goal the student teacher has.

Conferences with the mentee are a must after each observation, no matter the kind or purpose. They always open up with me asking: “So how did today’s lesson go?” Then, depending upon the mentee’s response, I move to questions like these: “What were the strengths?” “What would you change and why?” “What did the students not get that you need to continue working with them on?”

Hands-Off Approach to “My Students”

As teachers, we are a little possessive over our students; I’ll admit it. Each year, I always say, “I have 123 kids and three of them are my own.” So, it’s hard to give up one’s own students to a student teacher, especially when the student teacher comes later in the year after bonds have already been formed. Having said that, it’s imperative to have a “hands-off” approach to a class of students that a student teacher is presiding over. Imperative. The teacher cannot gain credibility if you allow your students to come to you instead of the student teacher. It’s like children in a parental situation– when a child plays one parent against another– if you allow it to happen, it will. It’s the job of a child to test authority. If lines are made clear, the child feels safe. I make it clear to my classes the shift in authority when a student teacher begins his/her teaching. I reinforce that each time a student asks me, “Can I go to my locker?” “Can I work with Student A instead of Student B?” “Can you look at this essay, Mr. So & So gave me a C but I think you would have given me a B.” No. No. And no. Go see Mr. So & So. The worst thing a mentor can do is undermine the authority of a student teacher. Now, having said that, it’s the job of a mentor to ensure that the best interests of the children are being met at all times in addition to the best interests of the student teacher. It’s a balancing act, but as teachers we’re fantastic jugglers.

An Ongoing Relationship and Letting Go

Like preparing a child to leave its nest, teaching,  like parenting, is ultimately about letting go. Some students come back time after time while others are never to be seen again. We don’t know how our words will or will not resonate with them long after they’ve gone, but it sure is nice to hear when they do.

I recognize each of my own mentors, some of whom I keep in contact with, today, and some whom have become an important part of my past. I’ve thanked some personally and, to others, I’ve sent random letters of thanks. It’s important to say thank you to some one who’s affected where your journey leads you.

When student teachers leave, particularly those I’ve had a strong connection with, I try to leave the door ajar, just a little. It’s important to empower each of them with how far they’ve come, and some come farther than others to be sure, but everyone has his/her own path. I hope, in the end, a few of the teacher tricks I’ve passed on will be of help in the future– that my reach will not end with the student teaching experience. And, more so, I hope that I’ve instilled the idea of paying it forward in my student teachers, that one day, when they are confident enough that they have wisdom to share with others that they do.

Teaching Jung

A Window of Opportunity with The Great Gatsby Release

Gatsby tickets

Amidst lots of hype, a delayed release, The Great Gatsby debuts, FINALLY. Besides being directed by one of my all time favorites, Baz Lurhmann, the cast is amazing: Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire. I’m predicting, now, this will be Leo’s ticket to Oscar, also long overdue.


I’ve been teaching this novel to junior high school students for years. There are not too many American literature novels that I love and none that I love to teach more than Gatsby, written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a timeless classic that defined the Jazz Age and makes us all question love and the American Dream. The language of the novel is challenging, and the subject matter difficult for high school aged students to relate to, but it’s a classic and I’d feel remiss if I didn’t at least expose them to it. So, since I heard about the remake of this film (done earlier with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow in 1974  and again with Toby Stephens and Mira Sorvino in 2000, neither of which I liked), I’ve been conjuring up excitement and anticipation in my students that mirrors my own. I even went so far as to invite them to join me with the promise of doling out some extra credit. But even without the dangling extra-credit carrot, I do believe most students are excited about it. They’ve seen the trailers. Some, who I have as seniors who did not read it as juniors, have even asked to borrow the novel to read before they see it on screen.

Gastby Novel cover

Just as I approach any adaptation of a novel, I am cautiously optimistic that it will somehow enrich all of the beautiful imagination the words on the pages have conjured up in my mind. This adaptation of Gatsby did not disappoint. With twenty six junior high school students in attendance, myself and my former student teacher, we sat in the theater wide-eyed and immediately entranced by the soundtrack. One cannot speak of this adaptation without addressing the modern-day flair given to old school jazz through Jay Z, Beyonce, Lana Del Rey, Florence & the Machine… just to name a few. I was literally swaying in my seat. Further, the cinematography, propels the viewer into the scene (and I didn’t even see it in 3D); Lurhmann is masterful at making the viewer feel like part of the experience and, like Nick Carraway, a voyeur.

Among my favorite scenes was the party scene in New York, set in a high rise amidst the Valley of Ashes. There is a sax player sitting out on the balcony doing his thing while Lurhmann takes us on a ride of windows popping out at the audience to show us exactly what’s going on inside. Nick Carraway, after an exhausting journey of alcohol and drugs and sex, like he’s never been accustomed, as he admits, delivers one of his famous lines,

Gatsby Quote 1

Another of my favorite scenes is when Daisy is on the floor below Gatsby sitting on his bed while they are caught in the midst of laughter as Jay is throwing down an array of  colored, silk shirts upon her from the balcony of a closet above. It’s a scene of innocence and opulence all at the same time until Daisy’s laughter turns to tears and we feel her regret at every having let Gatsby go. The thing about this scene, that I must have read a hundred times, is that, in this moment, Lurhmann brings it to life for me. Previously, I’d rushed through description after description of the shirts, but in seeing it, the idea of what might have been resonates within me.


The Great Gatsby Featurette

The ever present green light, looming, on Daisy’s dock. The 3D eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, watching. The orgiastic parties of music, libations, dancers, confetti…celebration and sin. The stark contrast in Nick’s humble cottage as compared to Gatsby’s grandiose mansion, polarizing the two men. The seediness of the Valley of Ashes mirroring Myrtle and George, the darkness within them. The hope that sparkles in Gatsby’s eyes when he delivers the lines:

Gatsby Quote 2

The film is like a majestic tapestry culminating the symbols and themes and characters that Fitzgerald so poignantly put into words.

In my experience, viewing an adaptation as a substitute for the original never works because it always falls short of the imagination. But in viewing an adaptation as it’s own work, a representation of the original, a viewer opens himself up to a whole new experience.

Gatsby Quote 3

As the credits rolled away, I sat for a moment, overwhelmed, for I’d been completely satisfied. Out in the lobby, I was met by twenty six students who, wide-eyed and expressive, couldn’t wait to share how much they’d enjoyed the film. I remembered how they’d grumbled when we’d begun reading it in class. “It’s too hard,” “It’s old,” were among the early rumblings I heard. But when we heard it would be a film, there was a shift, suddenly the fact that it was relevant enough to put on screen called attention to it’s worthiness as a piece of literature. So, if this is my window into the classics, for these kids, I’m going to take it.

Great Gastby Jay

Camp NaNoWriMo Frenzy (with STUDENTS!)


camp cover photo

As if participating in NaNoWriMo during the month of November (and WINNING!) wasn’t a lofty enough task to take on, I’ve decided to invite my students to take the ride to CampNaNoWriMo during the month of April. While some had entered my second semester Writers’ Workshop class relieved to hear that November and the opportunity to write 50k words in one month had passed (after hearing of some of the first semester achievers and defectors), others were clearly disappointed.

Only last week did I hear of the Camp and the opportunity to write in whatever genre you want and set your own word count. So I put it up to a vote in my class. Two thirds elected to take the journey with me; majority rule, so even the unenthusiastic need to embark. I offered to set some guidelines as to how it will equate to a grade– as for many, that is always the bottom line. We came up with a 25k word count as a good goal to begin with (B-ish grade) and word counts in excess of  +10k will be in the “A” range and less thAn will be in the “C” range, so on & so forth. In addition to word count, they will need to submit a representative excerpt to be included with the grade along with a written reflection speaking to the process and what they’ve learned. I’d say, we’re well on our way.

camp lesson photo


So two weeks is NOT a lot of time to plan a novel; hence, I’ve condensed my usual fiction writing lessons and morphed them with some of the NaNoWriMo Ready, Set, Novel! Writer’s Workbook activities.


Lesson 1: The Inception

I. Brainstorm ideas, drawing from personal experiences, reading that resonates with you, fracturing stories (whether from novels, television shows, movies…).

II. Next, decide what genre your story will be told  in (fantasy, mystery, sci-fi, romantic, historical, literary fiction or non-fiction) and how you will tell it (linear/non-linear narrative, point of view, short/long chapters, exposition/dialogue/combination…).

III. Finally, create a loose timeline of how you see your story playing out (no details, just yet).

IV. Come up with a summary, perhaps a one sentence tag-line that you might use to sell your story.

camp dialogue

Lesson 2: All about Character

I. I provide my students with a four page dossier for them to fill out everything from what their protagonist looks like to his/her life experiences to what matters most and his/her worst nightmare, to how he/she cuts their toenails (I’m not kidding, it’s that specific). It needs to be. Every writer needs to know everything there is to know about their major characters in order to understand what motivates him/her and determine what choices he/she will make.

II. I throw a bunch of baby name books on the table and ask them to choose a name for their character that is symbolic to who he/she is.

III. Create a day-in-the-life agenda to learn what the typical actions of the character is

IV. Create a time line for the character’s life including where he/she lived and major life experiences

V. Write dialogue from your character to at least 3 other characters whom he/she might come in contact with to learn the nuances of character.

VI. Form the same knowledge of other characters in the story

camp conflict

Lesson 3: Creating the Story

I. Decide what your character wants. Every character is driven by conflict. Determine what conflicts (major and minor) your character needs to overcome to make a change.

II. Determine your story arc: inciting incidents, climax, resolution

Camp Plot arc

III. Make a more detailed outline of the events of the story including all major and sub-plot points

camp pt of view

IV. Determine the point of view your story will be told by experimenting with different points of view (ie. write part of it in the 1st person, then write the same part in 3rd person omniscient, repeat with 3rd person limited, then change the character…). Experiment, consider the pros and cons of each choice, and go with what feels right.

camp setting

V. Set the story where it needs to be. Consider your story arc. What will the major settings be? How will they be necessary to the character and your plot? Understand how setting affects your character and the story.


Lesson 4: It’s all in the Details

I. Given time, do some research on your situation. For example, the protagonist in my most recent novel is a 20-something young woman who hates her job and wants to find love. She’s a social network guru, so I needed to become one, as well. I researched blogs written by ppl. looking for the same as she in her demographic, I visited dating websites, I researched current relationship topics, I talked to people who are in similar situations… you get the gist. Uncover as many stones as you can; knowledge is power.

II. Write from what you know. Infuse aspects of your own experiences to make the writing rich and real. Not necessarily in the literal sense, but think about how you or people you actually know or know of would make decisions or behave in like circumstances.

III. Figure out the logistics. There are 30 days in April. Decide on a word count goal, divide by 30 to determine your daily minimum and stick to it, and, if one day, you fall short, plan on compensating the next day. Also figure out where/how you will keep all of your notes so they are readily accessible when you’re writing.

camp 5 senses

Lesson 5: Ready! Set! Go!

I. Now, feel confident that you are ready to begin. Feel the adrenaline pumping in competition with the fear. It’s all there and it’s all good.

II. Just write… even write through the mundane and acknowledge when you’ve written something good! Your writing will ebb and flow. Expect it, never losing sight that you can go back later and make adjustments; in fact, editing LATER will be necessary. But, for now, don’t give into the urge to edit.

III. My best advice: never end a writing session at the end of something (the end of an event or a chapter), always end in the middle, so you know, upon the next session, where to pick up. This will help alleviate writers block. And I find what while in the writing zone, the flow maintains itself, at least most of the time.

IV. Expect to feel both euphoria and frustration. Experience it. Embrace it. Share it with your cabin mates; that’s what they are there for.

V. Expect the unexpected. Allow your story to deviate from your original plan. Writing should always be an organic process. Trust it and yourself, as a writer.


And so, we are ready to begin. For one month, we will give in to literary abandon. We will become novelists, writing each class that we meet, and outside of class as well. As I mentioned earlier, I took the NaNoWriMo challenge in November and it changed me as a writer. I ended up far exceeding my 50k goal by the end of the month and writing well past that to complete a draft which ended up being 134k words that I’ve been editing ever since. When I sent my what-I-thought-to-be polished and edited draft to an agent, he said I’d need to cut 40k from the draft before he’d read it. So my goal for CampNaNoWriMo is to cut back and revise instead of write, and equally intense, perhaps more difficult process. Together, we will take this journey, whatever the outcome, supporting one another as writers.

Teaching English isn’t about just letters…

I’m not great w/ #’s, but I always tell me students to challenge themselves, raise the bar, so this is my attempt at practicing what I preach.

I’ve been teaching for 22 years
I’ve taught approximately 1690 students
I have 3 of my own children whom I have been teaching for 7315 days
On average, I correct 2550 pages of writing a year (this does not include homework, tests or quizzes)
I am at work for 37.5 hours per week, 1200 hours per school year, but I spend at least an additional 392 hours of unpaid time doing work for my job– which is a total of 1592 hours per year.
I make under $40 per hour after having 18 years of education, 1 diploma and 2 degrees, and 22 years of experience, and 720 hours of professional development hours
I can listen to approximately 8 conversations at one time and can carry on 3 conversations at a time
I hear my name called approximately 40 times per day
80 students pass through my door on a given day, 400 in a given week
I spend about $300 in class supplies from my own funds per year
I average 6 minutes in the bathroom a day (that’s 2 trips– between classes)
I write out about 10 passes per day
I can work on 3 tasks at a time, w/ efficiency
I receive approximately 25 emails a day that need to be addressed in some way
I speak to parents about 16 times per year about their children’s performance (or often lack thereof)
I teach 36 units per year (ranging from 2 weeks to 8 weeks in duration)
I have talked to about 20 different alumni per year
I receive 5-10 thank you notes per year from students

I’ve written up to 24 college recommendations in a given year

I mail out approximately 150 letters to students 4 years after their graduation (writing personal notes to about 100 of them)

I get 1-2 prep periods per school day (more often than not, not in my own classroom)
I have over 150 conferences w/ students about their work each year
I have read 4 different books concurrently
I have taught in 9 different schools
The longest I’ve taught in one place is 11 years, the shortest was 2 years
I have been inspired by 14 teachers/professors that’s in addition to 18 who are/have been colleagues
I have written thank you notes to 5 of them

Most days, I don’t know how I do what I do in a day, but every day I make a real connection w/ my students makes it all worth it.

What I Make…

I was inspired today upon seeing this video of Taylor Mali’s inspirational poem cleaned up a bit (aka censored) for a teacher’s in-service audience.

“What I Make”

Somehow, we [teachers] always feel as if we need to defend ourselves and our profession to justify the moderate incomes we make. I’m not sure why because every day, I’m confident I’ve made a difference in my students lives (in one way or another)…

Today I made a difference in Austin’s life because the assignment was to memorize and dramatically perform a poem (Poetry Out Loud) in front of his classmates as in-class lesson on performance, dramatic readings, a confidence builder in speaking before an audience and as a preliminary round in the school-wide Poetry Out Loud competition. For weeks we’ve been working on this. Austin has been very vocal about NOT wanting to do this assignment because he was afraid he couldn’t memorize the poem (a fairly challenging piece) and he would “suck” at performing it in front of an audience. So over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been giving him some extra attention to help bolster his confidence.
I allowed students to volunteer to go to the head of the class today for their performances until the eager ones (or those simply who wanted to get it over with) had all volunteered. About half of the class still had yet to perform. “Last chance for volunteers,” I said, “before I begin calling out names.” Not one single brave soul. So I thought let me MAKE Austin go, just get it out of his system, get it over with, so he could breath for the rest of class. “Austin,” I call out making direct eye contact. “Oh, seriously, Mrs. Carbone?” I replied, “Go on, Austin, I’m doing you a favor.” The audience giggled a bit, I think nervously for him. He begins, shyly, barely making eye contact. His voice is low, but commanding. He’s even using inflection, I think to myself. He gains courage as he continues– he’s got the whole audience in his grasp. His voice grows louder, more confident. He looks up, purposefully, owning his moment. The whole audience claps w/ vigor. Austin smiles and returns to his seat, back erect– smile planted on his face. At the conclusion of all the performances, I ask students to raise their hands to nominate those who were commanding and passionate about their readings– those they felt would be successful in moving forward to the school-wide competition. The third person nominated was Austin; I write his name on the white board. He’s smiling. After about 8 out of 24 names go up on the board, I allow students who really are not interested in the competition to decline before a class vote. Austin is 1 of 2 students to decline. He apologizes to me and says, “It’s really not my thing, Mrs. Carbone.” I could tell he felt as if he was letting me down a bit. “Austin, it’s okay, I’m just so proud that you did it and found out you were better than you thought you could be.” He smiled again, “Yeah, Mrs. Carbone,” he said, “I did it.”
I can’t take credit for Austin’s performance because he accomplished that all on his own. But I can take credit for providing him w/ the opportunity, one he was clearly uncomfortable w/, as well as coaching and encouraging him. I MAKE students step outside their comfort zones in order to challenge themselves. I Make students realize they can be successful. No amount of money can be placed on that accomplishment. None.