Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!

Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!
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Teaching is the profession that teaches all the other professions. ~ Author Unknown

My goal is to reveal one teacher's humble journey of self-reflection, critical analysis, and endless questioning about my craft of teaching and learning alongside my middle school students.

"The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called 'truth'." ~ Dan Rather

Friday, December 31, 2010

Summer Vacation May Not REALLY Be All It's Cut Out to Be??

Many thanks to an old friend of mine for passing on this article in Newsweek from this past summer. It spoke to me, as my eighth graders are in the midst of presenting persuasive speeches on an array of controversial issues, including year-round schooling. 

Looking forward to getting away from it all? Brace yourself: the daydreaming you do now may be the best part. Studies show that there’s no difference in happiness levels between people who get away for a week and people who have to stay at work.

Wait -- should I be concerned my current winter vacation will only leave me more depressed? Let's hope not! Enjoy! Teachers, beware!!

Why Summer Vacation Won't Make You Happier - Newsweek

The scientific data are in. And they’re a real bummer.

From an informal and highly unscientific survey of friends and colleagues, I can report that the reasons for not feeling happy after returning from vacation include: the flight home (red-eye to New York); realizing what they just did to their credit-card balance; getting back to work; wondering if they should have gone somewhere different; sharp memories of kids fighting constantly in the back seat of the rental car; and sadness that the next vacation will not arrive for months, typically around the end of the year, making them wonder over and over, How am I going to hold out until then?

I, in contrast, not having taken a vacation this year and with none scheduled, am positively euphoric compared with these dour souls: I have something to look forward to and a world of possible destinations to fantasize about.

Anecdotes do not equal data, as scientists say, but in this case the anecdotes about vacations failing to give us a post-trip mood boost match the results of years of research. Studies point to an inescapable conclusion: “Generally, there is no difference between vacationers’ and non-vacationers’ post-trip happiness,” as the authors of a recentpaperin the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life put it. One interesting exception is the period just before taking a vacation, when about-to-be travelers report feeling happier than nonvacationers, possibly because the anticipation puts them in a good mood.

But the holiday aftermath is a different story, and a glum one. One small study in 2008used text messages from vacationers during their holidays to assess how happy they were, and then compared these real-time missives with how people recalled their holiday moods once they’d returned to real life. Vacationers were, overall, happier on holiday than in their normal lives. So far, so good. But once home, they stank at remembering how happy they had been while away, consistently recalling higher levels of happiness than they had reported at the time. That suggests two things: we will ourselves to recall being happy on vacation (if we weren’t happy, why did we just spend all that money?), but by comparison real life feels grimmer. 

Another small study, from 2004 in the Annals of Tourism Research, measured the effect of a vacation on post-vacation mood more directly, having people fill out a questionnaire that assessed their levels of happiness right before going on holiday and then when they returned. (Nontravelers also filled out the questionnaire, with results confirming that about-to-be vacationers indeed experience an anticipatory high.) 

The carry-over effect of a vacation on happiness was so small, the best the researchers could report was that vacations are “not causing individuals to feel any worse off than before traveling.” I don’t think we’ll be seeing that sentiment on tourist Web sites any time soon. (“Come to the Caribbean: you won’t feel any lousier than you did before vacationing here!”)

Even the small positive effects last about as long as a sunburn. Sure, take a vacation in hopes that it will relieve your burnout, but within three to four weeks people are feeling as stressed out as before, found a 2001 studyin which the authors concluded: “Vacation alleviated perceived job stress and burnout as predicted ... [But we found] a return to prevacation levels [of burnout] four weeks later.” That may be one reason the sense of happiness fades as well: if you feel just as much burnout a month after returning from vacation as you did before, no wonder you’re grouchy. This result isn’t from just a single study, by the way: a 2009 meta-analysisof seven reached the same conclusion about the post-vacation letdown.

Why? For one thing, holiday trips are not 24/7 bliss. There are missed flight connections, disappointing hotels, bad food, and illness. Looking back on all that, once we’re back home, can understandably put a dent in our happiness. Also, what’s called the peak-end effect can affect post-trip mood. The most intense experiences (peak) and those that occur as the vacation is winding down (end) leave the most lasting impressions. If we fail to pack a few ultrahighs into a trip (swim with the dolphins one day, climb a volcano another) and instead have a lot of so-so pleasant experiences—or start the trip with a bang but end it in a letdown whimper—then post-trip happiness will suffer.

Although scientists generally find no correlation between length of a vacation and post-trip contentment, there is one argument in favor of shorter vacations. Say you get 10 days of vacation a year. If you take them as three vacations (of 4 days, 4 days, and 2 days), you will have more final days (3), when fun experiences have the strongest carry-over effect, and more pre-vacation anticipation highs (3) than if you took two 5-day trips, let alone a single 10-day trip. (The above does not hold if, like me, you find vacation planning so stressful that the very thought of doing it three times a year is enough to make you a workaholic.)

The latest study of vacations’ effect on happiness has the virtue of studying a large number of people (1,530). Scientists in the Netherlands had participants answer a questionnaire asking if they had recently “enjoyed their daily tasks,” had recently felt “unhappy,” or had recently felt “gloomy and dejected.” Possible answers were “never,” “almost never,” “sometimes,” “very often,” and “always.” The study compared responses of the 556 people who did not go on a holiday with those of the 974 who did, controlling for things like personality (extroverts tend to be happier and might vacation more, so you have to subtract this effect from the happiness levels of vacationers).

Result: vacationers were happier before their trips than were nonvacationers, confirming the anticipation effect or suggesting that people able to take trips might have more happiness-boosting characteristics (good health, money, friends and family to travel with) than nonvacationers do. But “post-trip happiness did not differ between vacationers and non-vacationers,” the scientists found. The travelers’ happiness edge had actually disappeared. 

Even more sobering, happiness levels post-trip were little different from what they had been before. Even people who had had the least stressful vacations experienced this happiness fadeout, with their sense of contentment falling to pre-trip levels eight weeks after their return. “The benefits of a ‘very relaxed’ holiday trip last maximally for two weeks,” write the scientists. “A holiday trip does not have a prolonged effect on happiness,” and “length of stay is not associated with post-trip happiness ... Returning home involves a swift return to pre-trip happiness levels.” Memo to husband: I’ll be on the patio.

Sharon Begley is NEWSWEEK’s science editor and author of  Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Kids put it all in the RIGHT perspective....

The Giving Trees Author: Kathleen Dixon

I was a single parent of four small children, working at a minimum-wage job. Money was always tight, but we had a roof over our heads, food on the table, clothes on our backs and, if not a lot, always enough. My kids told me that in those days they didn't know we were poor. They just thought Mom was cheap. I've always been glad about that.

It was Christmas time, and although there wasn't money for a lot of gifts, we planned to celebrate with church and family, parties and friends, drives downtown to see the Christmas lights, special dinners, and by decorating our home.

But the big excitement for the kids was the fun of Christmas shopping at the mall. They talked and planned for weeks ahead of time, asking each other and their grandparents what they wanted for Christmas. I dreaded it. I had saved $120 for presents to be shared by all five of us.

The big day arrived and we started out early. I gave each of the four kids a twenty dollar bill and reminded them to look for gifts about four dollars each. Then everyone scattered. We had two hours to shop; then we would meet back at the "Santa's workshop" display.

Back in the car driving home, everyone was in high Christmas spirits, laughing and teasing each other with hints and clues about what they had bought. My younger daughter, Ginger, who was about eight years old, was unusually quiet. I noted she had only one small, flat bag with her after her shopping spree. I could see enough through the plastic bag to tell that she had bought candy bars - fifty-cent candy bars! I was so angry. What did you do with that twenty dollar bill I gave you? I wanted to yell at her, but I didn't say anything until we got home. I called her into my bedroom and closed the door, ready to be angry again when I asked her what she had done with the money. This is what she told me:

"I was looking around, thinking of what to buy, and I stopped to read the little cards on one of the Salvation Army's 'Giving Trees.' One of the cards was for a little girl four years old, and all she wanted for Christmas was a doll with clothes and a hairbrush. So I took the card off the tree and bought the doll and the hairbrush for her and took it to the Salvation Army booth.

"I only had enough money left to buy candy bars for us," Ginger continued. "But we have so much and she doesn't have anything."

I never felt so rich as I did that day.

To my fellow teachers -- Have a healthy, happy, and well-deserved winter break! Rest, love, and be happy! 

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Differentiated Instruction – A Peer's Self Reflection

A friend and colleague recently shared a paper with me for a class on Differentiated Instruction she is taking this semester. I think many of you may be able to relate to her words. Please note that she incorporates sarcasm and humor throughout her writing, so please do not be offended!

I once sat in a meeting with one of my assistant principals and my principal, the purpose of which was to discuss a class that I was experiencing a lot of challenges with. My principal asked me, “What makes this class different than any other class?” As I sat there, reflecting, I could not help but think about my regular Wednesday night sessions spent learning about differentiated instruction in the classroom. In my head, I was thinking, “Yeah, what is different about this class?” Then I realized that not only was this class different from each of my other classes, but that each of my classes present a unique and different blend of individuals all with their own personalities, skill set, and experience. Furthermore, I boldly stated to my principal (for at this point, the voice inside my head had started to speak loudly enough for all present in the room to hear), all of my classes are different in their own unique way from any other class that I had taught during any other year previously. I then considered informing my principal that the idea behind differentiated instruction is that each individual student gets what he/she needs in order to succeed, even if that doesn’t mean doing the same thing every day and for every class, but I got the impression that perhaps she would not share the same sense of enlightenment as I just had while realizing that, yes, I actually can and need to apply the principles of differentiated instruction into my everyday approach to teaching. 

Now I don’t want to give off the impression that I have been one to pooh-pooh the concept of differentiated instruction in the past. I haven’t. I know people who have. They claim it’s the latest new age/new wave fad in the teaching profession. They say it’s an author’s highway to being a best-seller in the “self-help for teachers” category. But I don’t believe that.  Although I’m not going to say I’ve never been cynical. Anyone who went to school just ten years ago (and some teachers were in school a way longer time ago than that) will tell you that there wasn’t a whole lot of differentiating going on back then. The book was assigned, every night you were told to read about fifty pages for homework and answer about a million questions, the tests were all multiple choice, and if you screwed up on a test or had a bad day the teacher might laugh at you for asking for a retake. And forget about the whole 50% rule that MCPS is so (in)famous for these days. Believe it or not, after taking this class on differentiating, even I am a proponent of that rule now. 

The thing I came to realize about differentiated instruction is that it doesn’t have to mean doing a ton of extra work (although you know those people who can make extra work out of anything –  but I’m not one of ‘em). Anyway, the thing I love about differentiated instruction is that it gives teachers a chance to “shake up” what goes on in the classroom. One thing I’ve noticed about using more differentiating strategies is that I’m a lot less bored when I teach – and I can get bored quickly. My students seem to be a lot less bored, too. I’ve actually managed to implement some differentiating practices that are pretty simple, quick, and require little to no additional preparation, yet break up the monotony of a continuous lesson based on direct instruction into a more engaging and thought-provoking experience for my students.  Doesn’t that sound great? Well, don’t congratulate me just yet. I didn’t say that I was differentiating instruction perfectly.  I’d say more like near-perfect (okay, not even close to that but I’m a work in progress).  There are still plenty of days that my lesson falls flat or that the mojo just isn’t there. The difference is that on those days, rather than being discouraged when I reflect on what didn’t go well, I also reflect on how I can “shake things up” and differentiate more in the next day’s lesson when I re-teach what I didn’t convey to my students that day.

Let me get back to that particular class I was telling my principal and assistant principal about.  Just to give you perspective, this isn’t a story with a happy ending – yet. I say yet because this meeting happened earlier this week. And this class will be my class for another six months (but who’s counting?). Anyway, this group of talented and unique individuals lends itself to, in fact begs for, differentiation. And what I’ve come to learn about differentiation is that it’s as much a game of matching strategy to students, and students to learning style, and learning style to lesson format as anything else.  In fact, coming up with different activities and modalities of presenting information and “shaking it up” is what I really get a kick out of.  It’s figuring out what’s going to work best for who and when, and what I do for those who may not learn best a certain way on a particular day, that drives me crazy. So maybe differentiating is like cleaning house in that I love the way my home looks and feels when the floors are mopped and the bathrooms are clean, but getting to that point takes a lot of work, not all of it enjoyable (i.e. scrubbing toilets). So I’d say that I’m in the “cleaning house” phase with this particular class.  I am digging in my proverbial differentiation back of tricks and trying to figure out what works for me and for my students and how best to incorporate these things into my lesson. It’s a growing process that lends itself to a tremendous amount of self-reflection (and, if I’m being honest, probably a slight increase in nightly wine consumption).

In trying to determine how best to practice different aspects of differentiation with my classes, I have come to realize a few key things: 1) Rome wasn’t built in a day, so I’m not going to become the “mix-master” of differentiation in just a few weeks, 2) There are factors beyond my control which, as a teacher, I just need to do my best to work with despite the additional challenges they pose, and 3) I need to match my level of readiness when it comes to incorporating differentiating to my students’ level of readiness. When I collected comic book hero trading cards (yes, I was one of those kids), I was always too impatient to actually collect the whole set by getting a few at a time and would, instead,  save up my allowance and buy the entire set at once. Not surprisingly, I’m also the type of person who gets so excited by being presented with a bunch of new ideas and new strategies that I want to go out and try them all at the same time on the same day. Well, if that’s not a recipe for chaos, I don’t know what is (refer to #1 on list in the beginning of this paragraph). Patience, so I’ve been told, is a virtue. Turns out that when it comes to differentiating in the classroom, that couldn’t be more true. I have learned that in order to become proficient with using a particular strategy, I need to learn how to use it effectively before it can officially be added to my arsenal (oops, I mean bag of goodies) that I choose from in the classroom.

Accepting that there are things beyond my control that any and every child may deal with outside of my classroom is imperative to being able to effectively differentiate instruction. I have to be able to accommodate my students’ needs, and they don’t all have the same needs. This requires building relationships with my students, being explicit in stating my expectations of my students, and helping them to realize the important of what we are doing in the classroom. The good news is that this is what differentiation is all about. By differentiating instruction in the classroom, I might reach a student and he/she might open up to me about themselves rather than remaining seemingly distant and aloof.  A student who would otherwise fail my class, not turn in assignments, and not participate might excel, succeed, and become actively engaged in classroom discussions and activities because of “mixing it up” in the classroom through differentiation.  When I differentiate instruction for my students, I can show the quiet girl who always sits in the corner and hopes to go unnoticed that she is smart, she can figure out the answer, and she is an important member of our class. Differentiation allows me to reach out to all of my students, if I am just patient enough to let it.

Being someone who likes to try new things, likes to stay moving, and gets bored easily, I need to be careful about matching my level of readiness to my students’ level of readiness when it comes to implementing differentiating. We’re not all equally comfortable with taking risks.  Some people need more preparation and guidance than others. I’m prone to jumping in the deep end of the swimming pool without thinking about the possibility of having to tread water while there are plenty people out there who want to cautiously start in the shallow end and wade their way down towards deeper water. Some people don’t even know how to tread water or swim at all and the last thing I want to do is cause my students to drown (figuratively speaking, of course). So all metaphors aside, I have learned that although I may be the one leading the show when it comes to differentiating in my classroom, it’s not something that I can just spring on my students without somehow preparing them for it.

Just as I needed time to take in and process the information I have learned about differentiation, students need time to do the same when they encounter new ideas and ways of doing things. They need to make sense of something and to understand its relevance before truly buying in. Unless they understand and accept instruction, they will lose the ideas I’m trying to teach them or I will only succeed in confusing them. By working towards becoming a practitioner who incorporates differentiated instruction in my teaching, I am doing my best to be proactive in my teaching and to focus on the quality of instruction. Differentiated instruction allows me to approach content, process, and product in multiple ways and it is centered on my students and their individual needs and learning styles while simultaneously being a blend of whole-class, group, and individual instruction. I’m not going to claim that I successfully differentiate instruction to my students every day. I don’t. But I’m sure going to do my best for the rest of my teaching career.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Bikram Yoga = Sanity + One Happy Teacher!

It certainly has been a crazy semester. Aside from various challenges at school, I also struggled with finding a physical balance with my running (ie: my well-known and documented marathon addiction). Chest pains and exhaustion left me sidelined much of the fall, though I was able to finish the NYC Marathon (my 18th!) last month in my second fastest time of the year. I guess the body DOES respond well to rest and cross training!

Just when I thought I was back to full health and ready to resume regular running again, I ended up with an unknown foreign body in my left foot that two visits to the dermatologist could not cure. In fact, last week, he threw in the towel and insisted I see a podiatrist (I am tomorrow!). While the pain has now subsided, I couldn't walk well for days and had to stop running for over three weeks (which is like a death sentence for me!). I had to get creative in my physical pursuits, enjoying plenty of biking, swimming, stretching, strength training, Elliptical-ing, and, of course, my new favorite activity, Bikram yoga, which I tried for the first time two years ago. 

Since I am an intense, hyperactive person by nature (like most middle school teachers!), I like to sweat during my workouts, something that Bikram yoga more than offers. It is, after all, a 90 minute, 26-pose intensive yoga class in 105 degree heat. Sound horrible? Quite the opposite. In fact, I hate the heat but have come to LOVE this class. I recently started my practice up again at a new yoga studio, which is conveniently located at the end of my commute home (SO key!). Last week, I went to four classes and will hopefully get three more in before winter break. Every class, as hard and demanding as all of the postures are, I feel the stress of the day literally dripping off my body and leave refresh, renewed, and ready to tackle whatever the rest of the day -- and week -- has in store for me. This, of course, was something only running could fully do for me before.

For those of you wanting more information on this practice, check out the description taken from my studio's website (

Yogiraj Bikram Choudhury is the founder of the worldwide Yoga College of India™. Born in Calcutta in 1946, Bikram began Yoga at the age of four with India's most-renowned physical culturist at that time, Bishnu Ghosh, the younger brother of Paramahansa Yogananda (author of the most popular book on Yoga, The Autobiography of a Yogi, and founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship in Los Angeles).

Bikram practiced Yoga at least four to six hours every day at Ghosh's College of Physical Education in Calcutta. At the age of thirteen, he won the National India Yoga Championship. He was undefeated for the following three years and retired as the undisputed All-India National Yoga Champion.

At seventeen, an injury to his knee during a weight-lifting accident brought the prediction from leading European doctors that he would never walk again. Not accepting their pronouncement, he had himself carried back to Bishnu Ghosh's school, for he knew that if anyone could help to heal his knee, it was his teacher. Six months later, his knee had totally recovered. Ghosh was a celebrated physical culturist and the first to scientifically document Yoga's ability to cure chronic physical ailments and heal the body.

Bikram was asked by Ghosh to start several Yoga schools in India. The schools were so successful that, at Bishnu's request, Bikram traveled to Japan and opened two more. He has since brought his curative methods of Yoga therapy around the world.

Pretty cool, huh? I think Bikram yoga is the PERFECT compliment to any person's busy, hectic, sedentary life, especially teachers. It offers peace, physical challenges, serenity, solace, and the opportunity for true harmony between the body and mind. I feel so thankful that my random foot injury lead me to this practice once again and that I can easily get to a studio to bring peace to my day and balance to my body and mind. Go out and try it today!! 

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Gift of Being Different...

Like many teachers, it's no secret that I am a sucker for heartwarming and inspirational stories like the one below shared with me by a colleague. Let's all get into this Christmas spirit!

True Story about Robert May .... Heartwarming!

A man named Bob May, depressed and brokenhearted, stared out his drafty apartment window into the chilling December night.

His 4-year-old daughter Barbara sat on his lap quietly sobbing. Bob's wife, Evelyn, was dying of cancer. Little Barbara couldn't understand why her mommy could never come home. Barbara looked up into her dad's eyes and asked, "Why isn't Mommy just like everybody else's Mommy?" Bob's jaw tightened and his eyes welled with tears. Her question brought waves of grief, but also of anger. It had been the story of Bob's life. Life always had to be different for Bob.

Small when he was a kid, Bob was often bullied by other boys. He was too little at the time to compete in sports. He was often called names he'd rather not remember. From childhood, Bob was different and never seemed to fit in. Bob did complete college, married his loving wife and was grateful to get his job as a copywriter at  Montgomery Ward during the Great Depression. Then he was blessed with his little girl. But it was all short-lived. Evelyn's bout with cancer stripped them of all their savings and now Bob and his daughter were forced to live in a two-room apartment in the Chicago slums. Evelyn died just days before Christmas in 1938.

Bob struggled to give hope to his child, for whom he couldn't even afford to buy a Christmas gift. But if he couldn't buy a gift, he was determined to make one - a storybook! Bob had created an animal character in his own mind and told the animal's story to little Barbara to give her comfort and hope. Again and again Bob told the story, embellishing it more with each telling. Who was the character? What was the story all about? The story Bob May created was his own autobiography in fable form. The character he created was a misfit outcast like he was. The name of the character? A little reindeer named Rudolph! Bob finished the book just in time to give it to his little girl on Christmas Day. But the story doesn't end there.

The general manager of  Montgomery Ward caught wind of the little storybook and offered Bob May a nominal fee to purchase the rights to print the book. Wards went on to print,_ Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer _ and  distribute it to children visiting Santa Claus in their stores. By 1946 Wards had printed and distributed more than six million copies of Rudolph . That same year, a major publisher wanted to purchase the rights from Wards to print an updated version of the book.

In an unprecedented gesture of kindness, the CEO of Wards returned all rights back to Bob May. The book became a best seller. Many toy and marketing deals followed and Bob May, now remarried with a growing family, became wealthy from the story he created to comfort his grieving daughter. But the story doesn't end there either.

Bob's brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, made a song adaptation to Rudolph. Though the song was turned down by such popular vocalists as Bing Crosby and Dinah   Shore , it was recorded by the singing cowboy, Gene Autry.  "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed  Reindeer" was released in 1949 and became a phenomenal  success, selling more records than any other Christmas song, with the exception of "White Christmas."

The gift of love that Bob May created for his daughter so long ago kept on returning back to bless him again and again. And Bob May learned the lesson, just like his dear friend Rudolph, that being different isn't so bad. In fact, being different can be a blessing.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Hope for this year's budget?

We have to take every email from the Superintendent's Office either with a grain of salt or by holding our breath. Hopefully, this email is different. I read some HOPE between these lines. Is it TOO good to be true??

I have left off the name of my district to protect confidentiality.

To my colleagues,

Today, I am submitting my recommended operating budget for Fiscal Year 2012 to the Board of Education and wanted to take this opportunity to give you a quick overview of my request, and to encourage you to stay involved in the budget process.

Ultimately, our budget is a statement of our values. Fortunately, this is a community that values education and understands that a strong school system is essential to our future. Year after year, our citizens have willingly invested in our schools and, thanks to your outstanding work, they are getting a tremendous return on that investment.

Your excellence has been nationally recognized twice in the past few months. As a recipient of the 2010 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, our district has been recognized for performance excellence through innovation, improvement, and visionary leadership. As a finalist for the Broad Prize for Urban Education, our district has been identified as one of the five best large districts in the nation and honored for improving student performance while narrowing academic achievement gaps.

Our investment is paying dividends, and that investment must continue.

Today, I am recommending a 2.8 percent budget increase that will fund 2.3 percent growth in enrollment. It will also allow us to recover $40 million of the $54 million in federal stimulus funds we will lose. This budget meets the state’s “maintenance of effort” provision, but more importantly, it represents a maintenance of our commitment to the children of our district. We cannot back away from our obligation to provide a world-class education to every student. This is our children’s only chance for an education and we must deliver on our promise in spite of the slow economic recovery.

As you are aware, my recommendation begins the budget process.  There are many uncertainties surrounding the financial situation in our district and our state. I realize that all of you have made very difficult sacrifices over the past few years. I want you to know that I will do everything in my power to protect your jobs, protect your salaries and benefits, and provide you what you need to continue your outstanding work.

I look forward to standing with you in the coming weeks and months and advocating not just for this budget, but for our students.  I will update you throughout the budget process and I encourage you to stay involved. Once again, thank you for all you do to make our district a model school system for the rest of the nation. 


Superintendent of Schools

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The World's Worst Parent Teacher Conference

Let's face it -- we all love great YouTube clips, especially when they relate to our own lives in some sad or amusing way.

The video link I posted last week has graced the computers of thousands of fellow teachers, thanks to the word of mouth publicity it quickly got on its own website and presence on countless email forwarded messgaes. 

Today's clip is perhaps even more depressing but entertaining:

PLEASE don't let this be the future of parent/teacher collaboration, or perhaps can you already relate to this meeting?? Sadly, I sure can. Ahhhh!!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Choosing to Read & Other Great Tips for English Teachers

No newsflash here -- Reading continues to be a challenge for many of our adolescent students. One way to increase student engagement is to allow students to have some choices about what they read for school. We have many texts in our bookrooms that we just don’t have time to teach. Why not try a literature circles approach now and then, offering four or five different texts from the book room and letting students choose which they want to read and discuss? 

It’s also important to offer students texts that are diverse in terms of challenge, time period, ethnicity, gender, and interest. Check out the text list and instructional guides to see what titles are available at each grade level; now is a good time to ask your RT if there is money to purchase a new title or two. Finally, consider recommending a new text for approval in your school district or even joining the Evaluation and Selection committees (if offered where you teach). Chances are that your school district is always looking for new titles and new members.  Bringing new books into your class is a great way to keep things fresh for you, your colleagues, and—most importantly—your students.

The Choice is Yours: Literature Circles
When was the last time you read a book because it was assigned to you?  We like having the power to choose what we read, but students rarely get this opportunity in school. Here are a few reasons to consider trying literature circles with your classes:  
  • Students can explore the themes of the unit through a wider range of texts.
  • Rotating through roles allows students to practice different skills.
  • Generating their own questions for class (rather than coming in with answers) can be less intimidating to students.
  • You don't have to be an expert on every title on your list–let your students teach you something new.
  • Curious about newly approved texts?  Purchase in smaller quantities and let the students try them out.  
  • Imagine: not having to read 100 essays about the same book!
Some fun and creative websites worth checking out:
Hamlet and The Raven:
Wave Poetry: Erasures --

As final and semester exams approach, many of us wonder how we can best set our students up for success on these assessments. Don’t wait until exam review day to get your students thinking about preparing for the semester final. My colleagues and I have some recommendations and quick tips for you below:

How do I help my students study for their English exam?

  • Review all the genres that will appear on the exam. For example, do a close reading of a new poem to practice engaging with unfamiliar texts.
  • Review performance data from the formatives to focus instruction.
  • Have students do some quick journal writing, using their own evidence  to develop arguments on open-ended topics.
  • Let students review course terms in groups; identify the most difficult terms and review as a class.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Stopping Cyberbullying Before It's Too Late

It's no secret that as our students spend more and more time plugged into their computers, the potential for online Internet abuse, bullying, and harassment increases substantially. In fact, our new generation is much more likely to exercise their freedom of speech and easily post insulting and harassing remarks to their peers, without ever having to see the victim's face.

Cyberbullying has become a nationwide crisis with our adolescent students at the forefront of the battle, serving as both the perpetrators and victims. Recently, my middle school hosted an attorney from the state to discuss this issue and its dangers. He was engaging and effective, causing all students to engage in a lively discussion about online identities and Internet safety.

Last week, The New York Times published an interesting and effective article urging all parents to closely monitor their children's Internet usage, especially with social networking sites like Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, and Twitter. I urge all of you to share this important argument with fellow teachers and parents.

December 4, 2010

As Bullies Go Digital, Parents Play Catch-Up

Ninth grade was supposed to be a fresh start for Marie’s son: new school, new children. Yet by last October, he had become withdrawn. Marie prodded. And prodded again. Finally, he told her.
“The kids say I’m saying all these nasty things about them on Facebook,” he said. “They don’t believe me when I tell them I’m not on Facebook.”
But apparently, he was.
Marie, a medical technologist and single mother who lives in Newburyport, Mass., searched Facebook. There she found what seemed to be her son’s page: his name, a photo of him grinning while running — and, on his public wall, sneering comments about teenagers he scarcely knew.
Someone had forged his identity online and was bullying others in his name.
Students began to shun him. Furious and frightened, Marie contacted school officials. After expressing their concern, they told her they could do nothing. It was an off-campus matter.
But Marie was determined to find out who was making her son miserable and to get them to stop. In choosing that course, she would become a target herself. When she and her son learned who was behind the scheme, they would both feel the sharp sting of betrayal. Undeterred, she would insist that the culprits be punished.
It is difficult enough to support one’s child through a siege of schoolyard bullying. But the lawlessness of the Internet, its potential for casual, breathtaking cruelty, and its capacity to cloak a bully’s identity all present slippery new challenges to this transitional generation of analog parents.
Desperate to protect their children, parents are floundering even as they scramble to catch up with the technological sophistication of the next generation.
Like Marie, many parents turn to schools, only to be rebuffed because officials think they do not have the authority to intercede. Others may call the police, who set high bars to investigate. Contacting Web site administrators or Internet service providers can be a daunting, protracted process.
When parents know the aggressor, some may contact that child’s parent, stumbling through an evolving etiquette in the landscape of social awkwardness. Going forward, they struggle with when and how to supervise their adolescents’ forays on the Internet.
Marie, who asked that her middle name and her own nickname for her son, D.C., be used to protect his identity, finally went to the police. The force’s cybercrimes specialist, Inspector Brian Brunault, asked if she really wanted to pursue the matter.
“He said that once it was in the court system,” Marie said, “they would have to prosecute. It could probably be someone we knew, like a friend of D.C.’s or a neighbor. Was I prepared for that?”
Marie’s son urged her not to go ahead. But Marie was adamant. “I said yes.”
Parental Fears
One afternoon last spring, Parry Aftab, a lawyer and expert on cyberbullying, addressed seventh graders at George Washington Middle School in Ridgewood, N.J.
“How many of you have ever been cyberbullied?” she asked.
The hands crept up, first a scattering, then a thicket. Of 150 students, 68 raised their hands. They came forward to offer rough tales from social networking sites, instant messaging and texting. Ms. Aftab stopped them at the 20th example.
Then she asked: How many of your parents know how to help you?
A scant three or four hands went up.
Cyberbullying is often legally defined as repeated harassment online, although in popular use, it can describe even a sharp-elbowed, gratuitous swipe. Cyberbullies themselves resist easy categorization: the anonymity of the Internet gives cover not only to schoolyard-bully types but to victims themselves, who feel they can retaliate without getting caught.
But online bullying can be more psychologically savage than schoolyard bullying. The Internet erases inhibitions, with adolescents often going further with slights online than in person.
“It’s not the swear words,” Inspector Brunault said. “They all swear. It’s how they gang up on one individual at a time. ‘Go cut yourself.’ Or ‘you are sooo ugly’ — but with 10 u’s, 10 g’s, 10 l’s, like they’re all screaming it at someone.”
The cavalier meanness can be chilling. On a California teenage boy’s Facebook wall, someone writes that his 9-year-old sister is “a fat bitch.” About the proud Facebook photos posted by a 13-year-old New York girl, another girl comments: “hideous” and “this pic makes me throwup a lil.” If she had to choose between the life of an animal and that of the girl in the photos, she continues, she would choose the animal’s, because “yeah, at least they’re worth something.”
This is a dark, vicious side of adolescence, enabled and magnified by technology. Yet because so many horrified parents are bewildered by the technology, they think they are helpless to address the problems it engenders.
“I’m not seeing signs that parents are getting more savvy with technology,” said Russell A. Sabella, former president of the American School Counselor Association. “They’re not taking the time and effort to educate themselves, and as a result, they’ve made it another responsibility for schools. But schools didn’t give the kids their cellphones.”
As bullying, or at least conflict, becomes more prevalent in the digital world, parents are beginning to turn out for community lectures, offered by psychologists, technology experts and the police. One weekday night this fall, Meghan Quigley, a mother from Duxbury, Mass., was among the 100 or so parents who attended a panel featuring Elizabeth Englander, a psychologist who consulted on the new Massachusetts bullying law.
“I absolutely have to be much more techno savvy than I want to be,” said Mrs. Quigley, who does not know how to text, although two of her children use cellphones just to text their friends. “But it is overwhelming to me.”
These lectures typically combine technology primers so elementary that elementary-school children might snicker, with advanced course work in 21st-century child-rearing.
Dr. Englander reminded parents that while children may be nimble with technology, they lack the maturity to understand its consequences.
Then she demonstrated how to adjust Facebook privacy settings. Many parents peered at her slides, taking notes.
Don’t set too much stock in those settings, she said: “ ‘Privacy’ is just a marketing term.” A child’s Facebook friend, she noted, could easily forward the “private” information.
In a study last year of 312 freshmen at Bridgewater State University, Dr. Englander found that 75 percent reported that during a typical high school day they had used their cellphones for voice communication 30 percent of the time or less, preferring to use them for texting, sending photos and videos, and surfing the Internet.
This is not a “phone,” Dr. Englander told the parents who looked, collectively, shellshocked. What you’ve given your child “is a mobile computer.”
If their children get caught in a crisis, she said, parents should preserve the evidence, by taking a screenshot of the offending material.
A mother timidly raised her hand. “How do I make a screenshot?”
The Bully Next Door
Throughout the fall, the Facebook profile set up in D.C.’s name taunted students: “At least I don’t take pics of myself in the mirror like a homosexual midget,” wrote “D.C.” Also, “you smell weird.” And “ur such a petaphile.” At school, students would belligerently ask D.C. why he was picking fights on Facebook. He would eat lunch alone, and skipped some school, insisting that he was ill.
“I would always ask him, ‘Are you having a good day?’ ” Marie said. “So he stopped talking to me about anything at school. He was afraid I would make more trouble for him. But the real victim was being ostracized more than the kids who were being bullied on his Facebook page.”
She would call Inspector Brunault weekly. Last fall, the detective had to subpoena Facebook for the address of the computer linked to the forged profile. Then he had to subpoena Comcast, the Internet service provider, for the home address of the computer’s owner.
Facebook has since made it simpler to report malicious activity. Although Facebook declined to make its head of security available for an interview, a spokesman replied by e-mail that if Facebook determines that a report of an impostor profile is legitimate, “We will provide a limited amount of data that helps the person take steps to repair his or her identity.”
Finally, in January, Inspector Brunault told Marie he was getting close. He visited the home address supplied by Comcast. When he left, he had two more names and addresses.
A few weeks later, he called Marie.
Just before dinner, Marie broke the news to D.C. Two culprits were 14; one was 13. After learning the first two names, D.C. said: “Those guys have never liked me. I don’t know why.”
But the third boy had been a friend since preschool. His father was a sports coach of D.C.’s.
D.C. was silent. Then he teared up.
Finally, he said, “Do you mean to tell me, Mom, that they hate me so much that they would take the time to do this?”
Inspector Brunault asked the boys why they had done it. That summer, they replied, they had been reading Facebook profiles of people’s dogs, which they found hilarious. They decided to make up a profile. They picked D.C. “because he was a loner and a follower.”
Although the police did not release the boys’ names because they are juveniles, word seeped through town. In the middle of the night, Marie received anonymous calls. “They told me my son should just suck it up,” she recalled. “They said he would be a mama’s boy. They would rant and then they would hang up.”
Contacting the Other Parent
After Marie learned the identities of her son’s cyberbullies, she did not call their parents. She was so incensed that she communicated only through official go-betweens, like the police and prosecutors.
But some parents prefer to resolve the issue privately, by contacting the bully’s family. Psychologists do not recommend that approach with schoolyard bullying, because it can devolve into conflicting narratives. With cyberbullying, a parent’s proof of baldly searing digital exchanges can reframe that difficult conversation.
Parents who present the other parents with a printout of their child’s most repugnant moments should be prepared for minimization, even denial.
Maj. Glenn Woodson’s daughter, Sierra, has a shortened leg because of a congenital condition. One night, when she was in sixth grade, she received a text message showing a stick figure of her lying prostrate, eyes crossed out, another girl holding a bloody blade over the body. It had been sent by three girls in Sierra’s grade.
Major Woodson, who lives on an Army base in Monterey, Calif., contacted the military police. They had a stern sit-down with the families of the three girls. Teachers held a workshop on cyberbullying. Two families apologized to the Woodsons.
Finally, the mother of the third girl, the instigator, called. “ ‘It isn’t her fault,’ she said to my wife,” Major Woodson said. “The mom said: ‘I think this is way overblown. My daughter is being punished and she’s not the only one who did it.’ ”
The mother did not apologize.
What may be offensive in one household may be just a shoulder shrug in another.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, Christine, who, like many parents interviewed for this article asked that her last name not be used to protect her child’s identity, selected a school for her daughter largely because it eschewed technology. But when her daughter was in sixth grade, a classmate e-mailed her links to pornography sites.
Christine called the boy’s mother. “I asked her to get her son to stop,” Christine said. “She apologized, and her son wrote us a letter of apology. ”
But the boy’s father disagreed. “He refused to put limits on the kid,” said Christine, who works in marketing. “ ‘Oh, no, he needs total freedom and he can use his best judgment.’ ”
When well-intentioned observers intervene, they can find themselves scorned.
Jill Brown, a Westfield, N.J., mother who lectures on cyberbullying through her company, Generation Text, saw something online that disturbed her: a Facebook group sniping at a young girl titled “I Stalk (name deleted) And Her Junior Boyfriend.” The group had some 500 “friends.”
The mother of a group founder was a friend of Ms. Brown’s.
Ms. Brown suggested her friend look at the site. She asked her not to let her daughter know who blew the whistle. Her friend was polite but distant.
By the next day, “The girl had defriended me on Facebook,” Ms. Brown said. “I texted her mother seven times. She ignored me.”
Three weeks later, the friend stopped by Ms. Brown’s house for a trunk show. When Ms. Brown asked what had happened to the Facebook group, the woman airily dismissed it as an adolescent joke.
Parent-to-parent confrontations can also backfire against the child.
In a small Western resort town, Gerrie’s daughter, Michaela, 14, received an obscene, threatening text from a boy who was the star of her ski team. He accused Michaela of having told his girlfriend that he was secretly dating someone else and vowed to ruin Michaela’s life.
Michaela stared at the cellphone, tears rolling down her face. She had not informed on him.
Gerrie’s husband called the boy’s mother. After seeing the corrosive text, the mother took away her son’s cellphone for a week.
The boy made good on his threat. He spread a false rumor that his mother wouldn’t allow him to race, and that Michaela’s snitching was to blame. The news erupted on Facebook.
Ski team members ostracized Michaela. She rode the lifts by herself. Before team practices, she would quake and vomit.
“I did what I thought was right to help my daughter,” said Gerrie, an art teacher, “and I only ended up making it worse. But when your kid gets a text like that, what are you supposed to do?”
Dr. Sabella, the former president of the American School Counselor Association, says that parents should meet in public places, like the library or a guidance counselor’s office, rather than addressing the conflict by e-mail. And the reporting parents should be willing to acknowledge that their child may have played a role in the dispute. To ease tension, suggests Dr. Englander, an expert on aggression reduction, offer the cyberbully’s parent a face-saving explanation.
Her model script?
“I need to show you what your son typed to my daughter online. He may have meant it as a joke. But my daughter was really devastated. A lot of kids type things online that they would never dream of saying in person. And it can all be easily misinterpreted.”
When that conversation is handled deftly, parents can achieve a reasonable outcome. The 14-year-old daughter of Rolin, a Nashville musician, began a relationship with a boy in her church group. But soon his texts and Facebook comments turned sexually graphic and coercive. When she backed away, he tried to isolate her. At a church retreat, he surreptitiously sent texts from her phone to three of her friends, all boys, saying she didn’t want to see them again.
She had no idea what he had done: he had deleted the text messages.
Those texts stunned her friends. Rolin pieced together what happened and blocked the boy’s number on his daughter’s phone. The boy simply borrowed his friends’ phones. Rolin called the boy’s parents, who agreed to sit down with both teenagers. “It would have been easier to send an e-mail,” Rolin said. “And yes, it was sure awkward to be talking to this 14-year-old kid in front of his parents about what he wrote to my daughter. But we had the proof.
“My goal wasn’t to polish my shotgun. It’s not about a show of force but a show of presence. I said, ‘If you want to be friends with her, you can’t text her and you can’t use another boy’s phone.’ ”
The boy’s father said Rolin had been easier on his son than the father would have been, had the roles been reversed.
Eventually, the relationship cooled on its own. “But I still have his number blocked on her phone,” Rolin said.
When the Bully Is Your Child
After the police arrested the boys who usurped D.C.’s identity, the parents wrote Marie awkward apology letters. Only one mother phoned, in tears.
No matter how parents see their children, learning of the cruelties they may perpetrate is jarring and can feel like an indictment of their child-rearing.
One afternoon two years ago, Judy, a recent widow in Palm Beach County, Fla., who had been finishing her college degree, helping a professor research cyberbullying, and working in an office, got a call from the middle school.
“Your daughter is involved in a cyberbullying incident,” the assistant principal said. “Come down immediately.”
Her daughter and two others had made a MySpace page about another middle-schooler, saying she was a “whore,” with a finger pointing to her private parts. The young teenagers printed out copies and flung them at students.
Judy rushed to school. Her daughter, a sweet, straight-A student, was waiting in the guidance counselor’s office, her arms crossed defiantly.
“I said to her, ‘This is a human being,’ ” Judy recalled. “ ‘This girl will be destroyed for the rest of her life!’ And my daughter just said: ‘I don’t care. It’s all true.’ And I bawled while she just sat there.”
The school suspended Judy’s daughter for three days.
“I did not call the target, I’m ashamed to say,” Judy recalled. “I didn’t know how to get hold of her. The school wouldn’t give me her name, and my daughter wouldn’t talk to me.”
Once Judy got over her shock, she said, “I had to accept that my daughter had really done this and it was so ugly.”
Judy took away her daughter’s computer, television and cellphone for months. She tried talking with her. Nothing. There were weeks of screaming and slammed doors.
Meanwhile, the girl’s grades dropped. She was caught with marijuana. Judy realized that her daughter had long been bottling up many family stressors: illness and death, financial worries, her mother’s exhausting schedule. In reaction, the girl had been misbehaving, including doing the very thing her mother found so abhorrent: cyberbullying.
In time, as Judy took long walks with her daughter, the girl began to resemble the child Judy thought she had known.
When her daughter’s grades improved, Judy bought her a puppy. “A lot of people will disagree with me,” Judy said, “but I thought, this is a way for her to be responsible for something other than herself, something that would be dependent on her for all its needs.”
The girl doted on the puppy. One day, Judy asked: “ ‘Would you want anyone to be mean to your dog? Throw rocks at Foxy?’ ”
Her daughter recoiled. Judy continued: “ ‘How do you think other parents feel when something mean happens to their children?’ Then she broke down crying. That’s when I think she finally understood what she had done.”
Supervisor or Spy?
Should teenagers have the same expectation of privacy from parents in their online accounts that an earlier generation had with their little red diaries and keys?
Software programs that speak to parental fears are manifold. Parents can block Web sites, getting alerts when the child searches for them. They can also monitor cellphones: a program called Mobile Spy promises to let parents see all text messages, track G.P.S. locations and record phone activity without the child knowing.
Parents who never believed they would resort to such tactics find themselves doing so.
Christine, the Bay Area mother whose daughter was sent links to pornography, struggled with how to supervise her daughter online. The challenge was compounded because students in the girl’s grade were playing sexualized Truth or Dare games. Her daughter had a leading role.
Christine cut off her daughter’s Internet access for months, mandating that she write schoolwork by hand. Over time, the girl earned back computer privileges. Christine also moved her to a parochial school. Then her daughter went on Facebook.
“We didn’t know much about Facebook,” said Christine, “but we set up serious monitoring.” One program limited computer time; another blocked certain sites. Christine even had her daughter’s Facebook password, so she could read the girl’s private messages.
That was how Christine discovered 82 exchanges between her daughter, a freshman, and a popular senior boy at the school. Her daughter offered him oral sex if he promised not to tell friends. The boy wrote back, “Would it be O.K. if I tell friends but not the ones at school?”
Christine’s daughter now sees a therapist. Christine herself uses a keystroke logger, software that records everything her two daughters write and see on their home computer. “It’s uncomfortable,” Christine said. “But my older daughter has demonstrated less than zero common sense. The level of trust between us is much lower than I’d like it to be. But I also think she was relieved that we caught her.
“My younger daughter calls me a stalker. She says we mistrust her because of what her sister did. That’s true. But my eyes are open, and I won’t go back.”
Studies show that children tend to side with Christine’s younger daughter. Last April in an omnibus review of studies addressing youth, privacy and reputation, a reportby the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard noted that parents who checked their children’s online communications were seen as “controlling, invasive and ‘clueless.’ ” Young people, one study noted, had a notion of an online public viewership “that excludes the family.”
Conversely, studies show that more parents are heading in Christine’s direction. A recent study of teenagers and phones by the Pew Research Center Internet and American Life Project said that parents regard their children’s phones as a “parenting tool.” About two-thirds said they checked the content of their children’s phones (whether teenagers pre-emptively delete texts is a different matter). Two-thirds of the parents said they took away phones as punishment. Almost half said they used phones to check on their child’s whereabouts.
Anne Collier, editor of, a parenting and technology news blog, noted that stealth monitoring may be warranted in rare cases, when a parent suspects a child is at serious risk, such as being contacted by an unknown adult.
But generally, she said, spying can have terrible repercussions:
“If you’re monitoring your child secretly,” Ms. Collier said, “what do you say to the kid when you find something untoward? Then the conversation turns into ‘you invaded my privacy,’ which is not what you intended to talk about.”
Experts do not agree on guidelines about monitoring. But most concur on one principle:
“There is no one technology that will keep your kids safe,” said Dr. Larry D. Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills, who writes about raising a tech savvy generation. “The kids are smart enough to get around any technology you might use.”
Dr. Englander installed keystroke logger software on her family computer. She uses it less as a monitoring device than as a means to teach her sons about digital safety. The Post-it on the family’s computer reads: “Don’t Forget That Mom Sees Everything You Do Online.” She does not, in fact, check frequently. She just wants her boys to think before they hit the “send” button, so they understand that there is no privacy online, from her, or anyone.
Last spring, the Essex County, Mass., district attorney’s office sent the three boys who forged D.C.’s Facebook identity to a juvenile diversion program for first-time nonviolent offenders.
If the boys adhere to conditions for a year, they will not be prosecuted. According to a spokesman, those conditions include: a five-page paper on cyberbullying; letters of apology to D.C. and everyone they insulted in his name on Facebook; attending two Internet safety presentations; community service; no access to the Internet except to complete schoolwork. Their computers must be in a public family space, not the bedroom.
Marie, who reports that D.C. has a new circle of friends and good grades, is reasonably satisfied with the sentencing conditions.
But compliance is another matter. She believes that at least one boy is already back on Facebook.
Overburdened school administrators and, increasingly, police officers who unravel juvenile cybercrimes, say it is almost impossible for them to monitor regulations imposed on teenagers.
As with the boys who impersonated D.C. online, a district attorney’s spokeswoman said, “That monitoring is up to the parents.”
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