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.

Ms. Koyama’s Classroom Library

This summer I undertook an enormous project with an inspirational, equity-focused, growth-mindset colleague. We labeled, organized, catalogued, and PIMPED OUT all the books in her classroom library.

I say “all.” When I say “all” I mean “on the way to all.” She has a bazillion books, many acquired from a retired teacher, and we’ve still got a dozen or so boxes that we’re continuing to process.

This is me with Ms. Emily Koyama, taking a break from crazy room setup at the end of the summer. Emily inherited a mess of a room, through no fault of its most recent inhabitants (the talented and much-missed Shauna Iseri and Bree Howle). She was hired three days before students came to Wildwood in September 2011 and signed a one-year temporary contract, so she wasn’t really at liberty to clear out the room.

So she had books. They were everywhere. And yet nowhere at the same time, because they weren’t effectively getting into kids’ hands.

Emily is a strong woman. She isn’t afraid of big change. Or big projects. Or insanity. So this summer, we decided to give her library a makeover.

First we needed to know which books were hers. We put her name in every book. All of them. Hundreds of them. We recruited students. We returned missing library books to the school library (oops) and borrowed books to their rightful owners (oops).

We had a bajillion piles. Here’s what Emily’s room looked like. Sort of. A visual for the tl;dr crowd.

We had an assembly line.

1. Books lived here when they weren’t ready for any of the following steps because they needed their hardcover dust jackets laminated. We’re poor. We didn’t have book covers. So we laminated them. And then taped them on.

2. Here were the books that needed old owner’s name crossed out and Ms. Koyama’s name added. Neatly. Legibly. Kids get super excited to help and before long, you can’t read anything. Or spine labels are stuck on the wrong side and the books are taped closed. So, as always, setting expectations and creating exemplars is critical.

3. Books stayed here until one of us could find the AR level. Now. Before you scream at me, Wildwood uses AR. Although I admit that it’s a flawed system, I see NO PROBLEM in giving kids ONE tool to help them zero in on POTENTIAL good-fit books.

4. Books that were already leveled and taped (or didn’t have an AR level) waited here for Emily to enter the ISBNs into Booksource.

5. Books sat on a table off to the side while they waited for AR tape.

6. After everything was labeled and catalogued, I sorted the books by genre, series, or author.

Finally, we made book basket labels, numbered the backs of the books so they matched their corresponding baskets, and straightened everything up!

One wall of books.
Closeup of book buckets.

For a more detailed(!) account of setting up a classroom library, check out my sweet five-part series, culminating in a tour.

Classroom Library Instructional Series
Part 1: Supplies
Part 2: Getting Started
Part 3: Filling the Shelves
Part 4: Library Upkeep
Part 5: Adding to Your Collection

Classroom Library Tour

Oh, also, I just rediscovered this tip video for library book sales.

Phew. What have you found that works in your classroom library streamlining process?


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…

NCTM Reflections: Day 1

Yesterday marked the first (half) day of the NCTM conference. I am SO very glad I took the extra day to fly in.

I can’t say enough good things about the Belmont Hotel folks. The shuttle service was low-drama and speedy, and everything I’ve inquired about has been answered kindly and efficiently. My greatest discovery was locating the blow dryer. Yessss.

Most of Wednesday was spent sleeping and doing final tweaks on my presentation. I ate delicious food at SMOKE, the restaurant connected to the Belmont (hangar steak salad, BBQ beans). I slept some more, then I headed down to the convention center.

The opening keynote was Scott Flansburg, the Human Calculator, a dropout savant who spent most of his hour-and-a-half presentation name-dropping all the TV shows he’d been featured on and all the famous people he met. The presentation was pretty mediocre, and I was forced to depart early due to excessive cologne application by my neighbor (who was three seats away). I found myself longing for a return visit from the brilliant and charming Jane McGonigal, who was our opening speaker at the Title I conference.


Trundled back home, ate dinner at SMOKE (mac and cheese), read books, watched Sherlock, slept poorly. The only thing that kept me from freaking out about my lack of sleep was marathon guru Hal Higdon’s advice. He says that you probably will get an awful night’s sleep before the race (or presentation), so it’s actually more important that the two nights leading up to the night before the race are solid. Seeing as how I slept through most of Tuesday and Wednesday, each time I woke up, instead of panicking, I was able to tell myself, “Aren’t you glad you slept so much before?” 

Have I publicly mentioned how much I adore Skype? Because I adore Skype. In addition to the tremendous potential it has in my classroom, it’s also really freaking amazing to be able to see my sweet husband’s face before going to sleep when I’m away feeling insecure. Also, I got to see my kitty cat. Who is admittedly cuter than my husband. And equally furry, given the current unshorn state of Toby’s beard.

Book of the Week: A is for America

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!

A is for America, by Devin Scillian

I love pretty much anything published by Sleeping Bear Press, and the bazillions of alphabet books they’ve printed are, by and large, pretty wonderful. We have a mentor text copy of A is for America ready to go in the bookroom.

You can access an extensive activity guide for almost every Sleeping Bear Press book here.

The author of this book is also the nightly news anchor for Channel 4 in my beloved Detroit, and it’s pretty awesome to see a “celebrity” author who can write pretty darn well.

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

  • Back up and reread. This is a pretty dense text. I actually intended to post this lesson two weeks ago, but since then, *I* as a teacher have had to back up and reread the book several times. In the past, I’ve used Sleeping Bear Press alphabet books over several days, reading two letters (and reviewing each of the previous letters using call-and-response). Often, we talk about backing up and rereading if the text is CONFUSING, so it could be important to talk about backing up and rereading if the text is just plain DENSE.

  • Use dictionaries, thesauruses, and glossaries as tools. In my time away from teaching social studies, I forgot about the fabulous tool hidden in the back of our textbooks known as the Gazeteer. A “geographical dictionary,” isn’t that brilliant? I know I often tell students to not worry if they can’t pronounce a proper noun in text, but wouldn’t it be great to give each student a letter from the book and have them investigate each of the locations featured in their letter?

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!


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.

Book of the Week: Er-lang and the Suns

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!

Er-lang and the Suns, Retold by Tony Guo and Euphine Cheung

Er-lang and the Suns: A Tale from China is a text from the SFA Roots program. There should be one master copy of the Roots lesson plans in the bookroom. There are check for understanding questions on post-its throughout at least one of the three teacher copies.

This is an origin story covering how the Earth finally got reprieve from its seven suns that shone nonstop. There are plenty of other origin stories to compare and contrast with. As always, pre-read these texts before sharing them with students, as they are appropriate for different ages.

The end of the book contains a brief history of China and the Han people.

As mentioned earlier, there are three copies of this book if you want to use them as a grade-level team mentor text.

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

  • Make a picture or mental image. At the end of the book, there’s a brief passage that talks about how the illustrations were designed to match the tone of the story. Ask students to pick and sketch 5-7 of the most important images that they think are critical to telling the story. To take this a step further, then have them write a brief caption for each picture. Huzzah! They’ve now also used the strategy of…
  • Retell the story. See above.
  • Compare and contrast within and between text. See above for plenty of other origin stories. Perhaps students could select their favorite and document the similarities and differences with Er-lang and the Suns.



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!


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?