Regarding My Time Out of the Classroom

I’ve spent the last two days out of my classroom.

Yesterday, I was looking at the ELA Common Core standards on a committee that’s looking to identify power standards and learning targets. We’ll see how that goes. For now, we’re still looking at the anchor standards themselves, and I’m glad our facilitator is relying pretty heavily on the excellent book Pathways to the Common Core. We’ll continue to meet through the spring.

Today, I served as a union representative on our district’s evaluation committee. As part of its application for Race to the Top money, Washington state passed legislation that rolled out a new teacher and principal evaluation system. The Race to the Top folks didn’t think our plan was rigorous enough so they didn’t give us the money BUT! We still get to implement the new evaluation system! So there’s that.

Now. You could argue that the purpose of having each of the aforementioned committees is wrong, either because standards are a bunch of malarkey or because union business is a mess no one wants to touch with a ten-foot pole or because district admins have no clue of what’s actually going on in schools so it’s a waste of time to talk with them.

And all that’s fine, but I’ve actually been thoroughly impressed with the folks facilitating and populating the committees I’m serving on. Federal Way is doing a lot of really great things that have KIDS in the forefront, and I’m glad to be a part of it.

Right, you say, but the bottom line is that I’m still out of my classroom. And that means I’m not providing my students with high-impact instruction. Oof. So that’s bad, several people have told me.

Now, I’ve thought about this a lot, and if our motto this year is “WE ARE WILDWOOD,” then I think it’s important to have a representative from our school on these committees, advocating for OUR children and OUR high-poverty population and OUR common concerns. I’ve actually had two teachers in the past week come up to me: “Thanks so much for going to these meetings — I really am glad you’re the one there for us; I’d have no clue what was going on.” “The way you say things makes so much sense, so you’re totally the right person to be on that committee.” I take those comments not only as kind compliments to me personally, but also as a reinforcement that sometimes, the critical work DOES happen outside of the classroom.

Believe me, I know the impact being out of the classroom can have on kids. During my third year of teaching, I took long-term disability to grapple with depression. So I wouldn’t have to explain to well-meaning (but gossipy) staff members that I was taking medical leave, I missed school a few days at a time spread out over the course of several months rather than being out for one chunk of time. My classroom was a mess. My students were a mess. And my weekly absences, combined with me not really “looking” sick, led to some stress with my colleagues as well. One particularly organized teacher put together a tally sheet where she kept track of the number of days I was out.

So with that as baggage in my past, why do I continue to serve on committees, even when they pull me out of instructional time with my kids? I’ve narrowed it down to four main reasons.

Teaching is hard. It takes a lot of brainpower. In the day-to-day maelstrom that I wind up getting caught in, yes I do reflective processing and TONS AND TONS of casual reading, but not the kind of deep academic thinking that makes me all tingly and excited and energized to continue to carry on with this huge undertaking called public education.

I mean the kind of REAL thinking and problem solving that happens when you’re trying to work through dense academic language or trying to make sense of a legal document. The kind of processing that happens when you synthesize a team’s ideas. My brain NEEDS the kind of thinking that happens on these committees.

I’m a white, middle class woman. I’m fully aware of my privilege (and my occasional all-consuming white guilt). But although Federal Way tries pretty hard to focus on equity, issues of social justice don’t always make it past the lip service stage. I’m part of an amazing group of educators at Wildwood who are committed to SHIFTING THE DISCOURSE and having the difficult conversations we need to have to close the achievement gap and ensure a rigorous educational experience for all our students.

The National Equity Project has been working closely with Wildwood, and they have absolutely shaped my thinking. Every committee I’m on, I make sure my comments and ideas are always given through an equity lens. I also try to make sure our gifted students get a voice, and lately I’ve been trying to speak up more about educational technology, although that’s really more Cheryl’s passion than mine.

With all my aforementioned baggage related to absences, I asked a few former students what they thought of me missing school for committee meetings.

Me: When I’m out of class, even for a few days in a row, did you think that I was avoiding you or that I didn’t want to be teaching?
Sam: Um, noooo. I mean, it’s not like you’re out there having a great time without us or anything.

So apparently meetings are universal for “dull, necessary evil” even to 11-year-olds. Despite what my kids think, I do get good information from these meetings.

We don’t GET professional development at our schools. I mean, we get PD time, but it’s inevitably filled up with required business and other garbage. News about the evaluation system probably won’t be rolled out to teachers until next fall. Depending on their building’s administration, it could be even later than that. I know about it NOW. I mentioned during our meeting today that in SIX YEARS of teaching, I have received ONE HALF-DAY of training on writing, ONE DAY of training on science, etc. That’s insane.

Plus, I get plenty of amazing information when I pick the brains of other passionate educators. I mentioned before that Federal Way has some incredibly talented people. A brief list of appreciation: Angie Neville, Shawn Smith, Cindy Black, Christine Corbley, David Brower, Jerry Warren. I get stir crazy when I’m in my four walls too long, even when my four walls contain brilliantly flexible children and hugely supportive fellow teachers. I need to get out. And…

I’m not looking toward a future as an administrator, which is the path many talented (and less talented but overconfident) teachers take when they want to have an impact on a larger number of students or educators. But I still want my work to have a more wide-reaching, global impact. So I’m creating assessments and rubrics and exemplars and contributing to district-wide recommendations. I’m at meetings telling the assistant superintendent that AmeriCorps is a service our district MUST continue to invest in. I’m THOROUGHLY not satisfied with the current state of public education, and I do see myself as a leader, but I see myself as leading from within, not as an “official” leader.

Teacher-leader is my personal favorite new buzzword, because it acknowledges that I’m taking impassioned steps to help staffs shift the discourse, but I am still, FIRST AND FOREMOST, a teacher.

Both inside and out of the classroom.


I’ll start with a quote that resonated with me so I can begin on a positive note. Despite my best efforts at having positive intent, this conference unfortunately didn’t meet many of my needs.

“We need to stand up to the politics of learning that do nothing to benefit kids.” ~Roger Fisher

I started off my day with the stereotypical edtech presentation that Dan Meyer talked about at #nctm12. You know the presentation I mean.

It’s the one that starts out with the picture of the baby with the iPad next to the picture of students back in the dizzay looking tortured by their lives in the dark ages. Then there’s a video with sinister, throbbing music or heartbreaking overly calm music that incites panic that we’re JUST NOT DOING ENOUGH.You know, like this one:

Then the edtech presentation goes on to hit all the overworked, oversimplified tropes that education presenters like to trot out when they want a quick burst of laughter or nodding heads. You know, things like:

“Not all of us can have the technology that Bellevue has.”

WAT. Please don’t assume that schools in a wealthy area automatically have every resource necessary.

The presentation goes on to grumble about charters and questionable instruction methods.

The presentation then continues to say that Common Core doesn’t address thinking strategies, and he then went over Marzano’s strategies and said all sorts of “isn’t this a shame teachers can’t do this.” Well, MAD PROPS, FEDERAL WAY, because this is crazy-old news to me because you’ve been focusing on these strategies for the past three years. So this last bit was good information, I just happened to already have training in it.

And then, the end of the presentation.

I don’t need more negativity at conferences. I don’t need sarcasm and snark and negativity from PRESENTERS at conferences. I get enough of that during my everyday interactions with disgruntled educators. I came here to channel our collective energy into something effective. Diane Ravitch told me that public education is a negative place, and I kind of need to suck it up and just accept that, but I don’t believe that avoiding destructive negativity means I’m keeping my heads in the clouds or avoiding big issues. Anyway.

Then there were speed sessions, where we had a chance to talk with folks from other schools. I didn’t move around because I wasn’t ready yet. So I stayed at my table with my district folks. It wound up making me want to barf because of comments such as “none of my kids are actually gifted,” “I don’t even have kids who are able to do any work.” Thankfully, MY PEOPLE get me and they helped me not scratch any eyes out.

“A gifted child is JUST AS DIFFERENT from “the norm” as a severely handicapped child.” ~Roger Fisher.

Next session. “10 Things Students Should Know about Math and Science.”  Actually, I only got through two of the ten things before I had to evacuate. Our presenter was excellent at reading his slides out loud. I had an opportunity to read many Dilbert comics and plenty of cartoons of Albert Einstein. Then I saw this!

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I was fortunate to see Briana was enjoying her session a few floors down, so I hustled to join her. Surprise! Presenting was Lisa Van Gemert, Gifted Youth Specialist for Mensa. She covered lots of information about how gifted kids’ minds work. It bolstered what Dani and I had been saying earlier in the day when we were freaking out about the perception that “you can just put gifted kids in a gen ed class and all they need is harder work.” WAT.

Thankfully, Cheryl Steighner came and rescued us and took me to delicious soup.

The lunch keynote was another fascinating PowerPoint-let’s-read-the-text endeavor. I don’t remember what it was about.

I entered a session about “real-world high-level independent projects,” but then saw expensive binders bursting with color photocopies of a student’s pretend application to U of M, and an educational trip to Washington, D.C. Not really my bag. Not really my students. So I left.

I’m glad I did because I saw a pretty solid presentation by Adam Brock called The Beauty of Independent Technology Projects! The presenter was nervous and admitted to as much, but he had GREAT information! Rock on! Present again! “This is authentic, this is authentic, this is authentic!” Dani says. “I needed this session really bad.”

I doubt that I’ll attend WAETAG next year, or if I consider it, I’ll definitely take a much closer look at the presenters. Bring Brock and Van Gemert back and I’ll be back.

Anyway. More reflection to come. Did I leave with some new learning? Yes, but I had to dig really hard to get there…

Continents and Oceans

Thanks for your patience — I’ve finally had a chance to post our sweet “Continents and Oceans” song!

I’m a little disappointed they only used Robinson projections in the video, though. You already know my favorite projection, the Dymaxion map.

Raleigh Edition Dymaxion Map

I’ve already discovered a pretty rad geography video to share with you next week! Wheee!

Reader’s Workshop Trading Cards

I recently led a mini-PD on reader’s workshop for my district’s new highly capable teachers. I was concerned about making the material relevant for them, as I knew they were already familiar with a five component model of literacy instruction.

I also know that personally, when I receive a handout on white paper, it will get lost. If it’s hole punched, that chance is reduced by about 30%. So I try to make sure any information I give out is either on nonstandard-sized paper or is on colored paper.

Back when I did SFA, I shamelessly bribed my students into being interested in texts they’d already read 289365 times by making and handing out trading cards related to the books they were studying. So the day before the HCAP training, inspiration struck! Literacy resource trading cards!

The document is available here: HCPguidedreading

They’re not the most beautiful cards ever, but they suited my purposes just fine. I was also able to use them as a mini-assessment when I asked teachers to hold up the card they were most excited about using and a card that didn’t strike them as particularly useful.

Let me know if these were helpful! Comments make me smile.

Classroom Update

I’m still working in my classroom. It still has lots of boxes, but at least I’m finally moved completely out of Room 103. To see what my room looked like last week, check out the post here.

Door to my classroom.
As you enter the room and look to the right. Still lots of boxes, but now there’s a cheery carpet!
Center of the room, pretty much the same as in the last post.
Front and center of room. ALL OF THE PURPLE BULLETIN BOARDS. You’ll notice I cropped out most of the remaining boxes.
CAFE board is ready to go. Also, letter and poster from Bill Thomson, and C.R. Mudgeon from Julian Hector!
Leonardo, all up in Lucy’s business. Also, rad ecological calendar.
Close-up of my math teaching corner / my “desk.” I need to fix Oodvar, my broken wooden stool. :(


Book of the Week: Bats — A Nature-Fact Book

Every Monday, I highlight a book from our school bookroom along with lesson plan suggestions. I hope you find this useful, and please leave a comment with any suggestions or additions!

BONUS! This week also features all sorts of Common Core activity goodies! Wowie!

Bats: A Nature-Fact Book, by D.J. Arneson

At first glance, what a totally inaccessible book. The text is small and dense, there’s no organization, and the book itself is small and not ideal for a mentor text.

BUT! Each page is a different topic, so it’d be really easy to photocopy and enlarge a page, then have students break it apart. You could even do a class jigsaw, with different groups picking different sections. Look! Now you have a complex non-fiction text for students to read deeply, just like Common Core suggests!

Speaking of Common Core, why not extend this lesson and make it 23894678 times more interesting by including this story about a boy who used echolocation because he was blind. AMAZING! There’s a bunch of additional information and resources here. A gent named Dan Kish uses echolocation too:

Congratulations! Now you’ve provided your students with the multimedia resources CCSS encourages.

This book features an !!!OFFICIAL!!! FWPS lesson plan focusing on text features. The book actually doesn’t HAVE nonfiction text features, but the lesson explains that it can then be contrasted with Vampire Bats & Other Creatures of the Night published by Kingfisher. The lesson also encourages students to create their own table of contents for the book.

There is a CAFE menu included with this mentor text, and I’ve highlighted these as suggested lessons:

  • Use dictionaries, thesauruses, and glossaries as tools. Because there is no glossary included in the text, this might be a good time for a dictionary lesson. Alternatively, you could take the lesson in another direction if your dictionaries aren’t complex enough to include bat-specific terms. In which case you could talk about when it’s faster to look something up online and when it’s faster to use a hard copy dictionary.

Please add any lessons or supplemental materials to the book bag so future teachers can utilize your good thinking!

Comments and constructive feedback are always welcomed. Please let me know if these lessons were useful in your class!


Room 103 –> Room 202

So I’m moving across the school, and it’s a bit of a chore, considering the vast amounts of crap I have accumulated in the past five years. But I’ve been inspired by Mr. Schu’s updates of his enviable library environment, so I figured I’d share how things are going on this side of the country.

My new classroom faces the front parking lot and is pretty close to the office, which will mean an increase in foot traffic outside and inside the hallways. Which means I will need to have freaking inspiring book advertisements/displays posted everywhere. All in due time. Here’s what I have so far. My new classroom is basically a mirror image of the room I vacated, which you’ve seen featured here. Although apparently it gets hotter than my old room, which is pretty bad news for a prolifically sweaty teacher like me. Yech. Anyway:

View looking into my room from the inside hall doorway. I started putting out a few table groups… I have 26 students this year, so I need more desks.
If you walk in the door and look to the right, this is the end of my fiction book buckets and all of my nonfiction buckets. Plus textbooks. And teacher reference materials that need to be unpacked.

The next few photos are taken from my vantage point standing in front of the laptop you see in the first picture and turning 360 degrees.

Me standing at the laptop, looking at the inside hallway door where I took the previous two pictures. The bookshelf on the left has all our writing materials, plus folders for our anthologies and Letters to Ms. Houghton.
Turn to the right from the previous picture, and this is my new teaching space for literacy. CAFE menu will be on the righthand bulletin board, student writing and vocabulary and integrated unit goodies will be on the big bulletin board. The table on the left side of the frame is our sewing machine, used to repair student uniforms. My fiction book boxes start on the righthand bookshelf.
This is the “front” of our room, featuring my teammate Emily Koyama covered in some of the books I’ll be using the first week of school. Also, SLANT. We’re an AVID school. I post goodies from authors and illustrators on the thin bulletin board strip above the whiteboard.
Our new classroom meeting place / math carpet spots. This is where I will teach my math small groups, because we inevitably need all sorts of manipulatives. Books related to our science/social studies unit will go on the blue book rack.
A few tables for small group work. Last year, my kids ADORED the little table by the radiator. The stilts are a prezzie from Mrs. Burn, the best teacher of all time. More fiction books on the left and center of the picture. Larger green bins are for Caldecott winners and Battle of the Books titles.
Back of the classroom. Tea steeping on the back counter. Our huge yearlong timeline will live on the upper border of this wall instead of on the whiteboard.

I hope this was interesting/useful. I’m still not entirely moved out of Room 103, so there’s plenty to still be done. What’s your favorite book that you catch a glimpse of in the images?

Book of the Week: Red-Eyed Tree Frog

Every Monday, I highlight a book from our school bookroom along with lesson plan suggestions. I hope you find this useful, and please leave a comment with any suggestions or additions!

Red-Eyed Tree Frog, by Joy Cowley

Nic Bishop is a brilliant photographer. Joy Cowley does a nice job of using pretty basic text to create a quick narrative of a tree frog’s day. There aren’t any text features, but there is a “Did You Know?” section in the back.

There’s an !OFFICIAL! FWPS lesson plan around main idea and details included in the bag. It focuses on activating prior knowledge.

I love everything Anita Silvey does, and you should definitely check out her Red-Eyed Tree Frog essay.

If you yearn for the days of scripted minute-by-minute lesson plans, this might be right for you.

Additionally, there’s some extra content available on Houghton Mifflin’s website.

There is a CAFE menu included with this mentor text, and I’ve highlighted these as suggested lessons:

  • Use main idea and supporting details to determine importance. As mentioned above, there’s a pre-designed FWPS lesson plan for this in the book bag. You might also talk about how nonfiction books are sometimes intended to be read out of linear order — for example, reading the Did You Know section at the end of the book first won’t spoil the story like it would if a fiction book were being read.

  • Cross checking… Do the pictures and/or words look right? Does it sound right? Does it make sense? Because the comprehension lesson is about activating prior knowledge, this might be an opportunity to explain a time when cross-checking might NOT work. If a student has never seen or heard the word “katydid,” for example, no matter how many times they look at the text and picture, it won’t magically make sense.
  • Flip the sounds. There’s a point where the frog is stalked by a “hungry boa snake.” If students pronounced the word correctly on the first try, ask how they knew they didn’t need to try flipping the sound first. Explain that as they become better readers with more strategies, the slower, more cumbersome strategies like flipping the sound won’t be as critical for them on a regular basis.

Please add any lessons or supplemental materials to the book bag so future teachers can utilize your good thinking!

Comments and constructive feedback are always welcomed. Please let me know if these lessons were useful in your class!


Perceptions of Science

I’ve been thinking a lot these past few days about science and people who consider themselves to be “not science people” or “not math people” and how that winds up playing out in educators and education. The response to the Higgs Boson discovery has been huge and wonderful, but these New York hipsters show us we still have a long way to go.

In my musings, I owe much gratitude to Chip Brock, who has always been willing to answer my random, rapid-fire e-mail questions. My lifetime favorite question is probably when I sent him a message from my internship at The Gazette in Colorado Springs asking how much pressure it would take to blast off a manhole cover. Yessssss.

I owe a lot in advance to Kendra Snyder, who is a science publicist for the American Museum of Natural History. I say “in advance” because I plan on picking her brain plenty in the future, although before yesterday, I hadn’t seen her since we graduated together from MSU in May 2005. Which is an absolutely tragedy, because she is brilliant and wonderful. We didn’t hang out much outside of SNews functions at MSU and our sweet 2003 study abroad, which is a shame.

I was trying to figure out yesterday morning, as I was brain barfing to Kendra, why my passionate interest in lay-person’s science advocacy has been on the sidelines for so long. Maybe it’s because I’ve found science-loving friends in Toby’s coworkers at Cheezburger who made me think that the rest of the world was more into science these days. Maybe I was lulled into a false sense that science was becoming more widely recognized because of popular shows like Mythbusters and Alton Brown’s Good Eats.

But I’m probably really thinking about how most people respond to science because of the reaction most people have when I tell them I’m writing a children’s book about Buckminster Fuller. There are three main forms these reactions take. I am including photos for ease of interpretation.


1) Delight. “OMG Awesome! The geodesic dome! Buckyballs! What are you writing about him?”

2) Dismissiveness. “Oh, SHANNON, you’re such an overachiever. Don’t even tell me, I know I wouldn’t understand.”

3) That Look. “That Look” also goes along with “That Voice,” the tone that people use when they talk about science being beyond their grasp. You’ve heard every single TV and radio personality using “That Voice” when they lead into a story about the Higgs discovery. It’s oftentimes meant as a compliment, I’m sure, like “Now we’ll hear from a brilliant person who understands the mysteries of the universe,” but I actually take it as an insult. When you use That Voice and give me That Look, here’s what I actually think: If I am failing to communicate in a lucid way how certain processes work, you are actually calling me an incomprehensible jerk incapable of communicating clearly.

I don’t want you to tell me I’m smart; I want you to ask me questions so I can help you understand too! I want you to be able to see the beauty and majesty and wonder in how science shows us how the world is put together.

How can we get people to be more comfortable and interested in science, especially in a time when NASA funding is nonexistent, education is floundering, and there’s a gross permeating feeling of anti-intellectual sentiment that I can only seem to shake when I’m with the brilliant educators they keep tucked away in the district office?

Well, I can tell you one strategy that probably WON’T work:


I’ll be continuing to ponder this further. But for now, I’ll leave you with inspiring words from Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who actually works out of the American Natural History Museum and might have been in THE EXACT SAME BUILDING AS I WAS yesterday.