Why I Run

Why I runA few years ago, my friend Todd told me that he and another friend had started training for their first half marathon. They had just finished a Couch to 5K program and were looking for a new challenge. As I listened to my friend, I realized I was jealous. My friend was getting in shape and I wasn’t. He was taking care of himself and I wasn’t. In fact, I was headed in the opposite direction, and I needed to do something about it. School was almost out for summer so I bought some Nike running shoes at the nearest outlet store, downloaded a #C25K app for my iPhone, and hit my neighborhood streets. By the time summer ended, I was ready for a 5K race and feeling better about my physical health.

I started running for health reasons. I needed to lower my cholesterol; I wanted to lose some weight. I hoped it might help me live long enough to escort my daughter down the aisle at her wedding. My motives were primarily selfish, but they got me out the front door to the street each morning. They helped me accomplish a few goals and brought others within reach.

So I was running right along somewhat proud of my accomplishments when I realized something: I’m a terrible runner. I’m not being humble. I’m really not. I wish I were just being hard on myself, but I’m not. I suck at running. I’m awful at it. I’m slow–painfully slow, and it doesn’t bring me lots of joy the way it does many of my runner friends. Instead, I see running as really hard work and on most days I’d rather crawl back under the covers when my alarm sounds at 4:30 AM.

Races are usually discouraging. More people pass me than I am able to pass, and my personal records are beyond my reach these days. I cannot remember the last time I beat my best time at any distance.

I’ve also become injury prone. I suffer from bad knees and take supplements to relieve the joint pain. Last year, when I complained to my doctor about some neck and upper back pain, he noticed my shoulders are somewhat asymmetrical. X-rays confirmed a mild case of scoliosis so now my recovery from long runs often includes taking a muscle relaxer, and I hate the way it makes me feel.

Running is hard. I suck at it. It hurts, and I find it completely discouraging. So, why do I run? Why put myself through it? I run because I suck at it. I suck, but I keep trying to get better.

I’m competent at most of what I choose to do in life. I’m pretty confident in all my roles. For example, I’m a pretty good teacher. I know how to develop my students’ thinking. I know how to design learning experiences and how to manage a learning environment. I also know my subject well. I love reading and writing, and I know what it takes to be a good reader and writer. I’m able to develop strong relationships with my students and my colleagues. And I’m able to leverage these things to continually improve my practice. Being in a classroom is “in my wheelhouse.”

However, I know the same isn’t true for all my students. For many of them, being in a classroom is hard work. School is discouraging. When their alarms go off each morning, they want to crawl back under the covers and not get up for school. They may find my class to be painful or uncomfortable. They may think they “suck” at reading and writing. They may have learning difficulties to overcome each day, and they may get tired of learning always being so hard.

So I run. I run to empathize. I run to better understand. I run because quitting isn’t always an option. Running is hard, but I’m a better teacher having ran.

Chief Instagram Officers

InstagramLast year I wanted to involve my students in sharing the learning taking place in my classroom. I decided to try this by creating a rotating “executive office” I dubbed the Chief Tweeting Officer (CTO) for each class. After recognizing (and giving in to) the growing popularity of Instagram, I decided to add another executive office this year, our Chief Instagram Officer (CIO). (So you know, I also have a Chief Operating Officer (COO), a Chief Distributions Officer (CDO), and a Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) on my rotating executive staff. I serve as the CEO.)

Our class Surface tablet is still designated for use by our CTO. Instead of having both social media executives share the tablet, the Chief Instagram Officer uses my iPad 2. I wasn’t completely comfortable with this idea at first. I use my iPad quite a bit, and it syncs with all my email accounts, my Evernote, my Google Drive, and all my personal social media accounts. I love and trust my students, but I’m not sure I want them to have that much access to my information.

My solution to this problem is to lock the iPad to just the Instagram app using Guided Access. I love the way the Guided Access works because I can “gray out” any area on the app that I don’t want students to use. So far it is working pretty well. I introduced the role by talking about the need to share our story of learning over the course of the year. We discussed how pictures help tell stories and what types of things we could capture and share about our learning. We also discussed the things we shouldn’t share and talked about the need to represent ourselves, our class, and our school honestly and respectfully. I’m sure we’ll continue those discussions all year. You can check out the stream here.

I’m not sure if there are other middle-level classes using Instagram, but I’m hoping we’ll find a few to connect with and follow. I’m interested to see how the role will develop as the year goes and see what my students decide to share. I’m already finding it interesting and informative to see the pictures the boys capture and to read the captions they write. I’m learning much about their perspectives.

Here are a few of my favorite images so far:


 
 

One logistical thing I changed from last year is that my officers serve for a full week at a time this year instead of changing daily. This gives the students more time to grow comfortable in the role and to become more adept at using the tool to share our learning.

So what do you think? What questions or feedback do you have about the idea? I’d love to read your thoughts. If you are an educator, we’d love to connect with you or your class. You can find us sharing online here or here.

Cleaning Up Collateral Damage

collateral damageMy day started early. The alarm chimed at 4:45 AM, and I rolled out of bed fumbling for my running shorts and shoes as I headed toward the bathroom. On the way I grabbed my phone hoping to check a few emails and do some multi-tasking for school while I prepped for my early morning jog.

Ugh. I saw the name in my inbox and knew this wasn’t how I wanted to start my day. Emails sent from parents in the middle of the night are never a good thing.

I considered waiting to open it. I started to close the Mail app, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to think about anything else during my run. The unknown contents of the message would haunt my entire workout. With a deep breath I opened the message.

Mr. Cummings,

*Todd came home very upset today about a conversation regarding his makeup work. Todd has missed 4 days of school due to illness last week. He had fever and felt terrible. He was very weak all weekend and could barely keep his head up during dinner tonight! The full school day exhausted him. There was evidently a test  scheduled in your class today, and Todd stated that you expected him to take the test because “you knew what the homework was, Todd; it was online.” I’m not sure how you feel when you are sick with fever, but Todd couldn’t even lift his head to drink enough let alone think about schoolwork.  He certainly wasn’t checking homework on the computer nor was he reading.

He went on to say that you conceded by allowing him to read tonight and take the test tomorrow. He knows he has quite a bit of work to make up, and we are making sure he gets caught up while continuing to do his daily work. He is still not 100%.

This week his PE time is already taken up with other academic commitments so he has no extra time at school. Thank you in advance for  your understanding and allowing him adequate time to get caught up. I can tell you now that he cannot take the test tomorrow as he went straight to sleep after dinner.

Sincerely,

Todd’s mom

Yikes! I’d totally blown it. Todd was a great kid and a wonderful student. He always gave his best and did quality work. I had known he’d been out sick, but I hadn’t realized how sick he was. Truthfully, I wasn’t even upset that Todd wasn’t ready to take the quiz. He just caught me at the completely wrong moment. When he walked up to speak with me about his situation, I was already frustrated by another matter. I was having a lousy day. Todd innocently walked into my frustration with horrible timing, and he’d received the brunt of my exasperation. I’d made a sick kid feel worse.

Looking back, I recognized immediately my first reaction to Todd was wrong. That’s why I quickly reconsidered and offered to let him take the quiz the next day. I think I intended for the modifying of my expectations to be an olive branch offering to Todd for my inappropriate response. Todd didn’t need an amendment; he deserved an apology. He deserved a teacher humble enough to own his mistakes. He deserved a better me.

I wrote Todd’s mom the following message:

I will apologize to Todd today. He bore the brunt of some other frustration and that wasn’t fair. Todd is a good student, and he is conscientious about his work. I really didn’t mean to speak harshly to him or make him feel bad. I was irritated over another matter (not related to Todd), and he walked into it unfortunately.

Todd can make up the reading and take the quiz sometime next week (the book is very short). I really wasn’t upset or frustrated with him. He just caught me at the wrong moment on a bad day, but that’s really no excuse. I’ll speak with him today and try to make things right. Again, I’m sorry; please accept my apology. My reaction wasn’t intentional, but it was an over reaction and wrong. Thank you for letting me know I upset him so that I can fix my mistake. He’s a great kid, and I enjoy having him in class.

Thanks-

Philip Cummings

Later that morning, I met Todd at the top of the stairs entering our class hallway. I apologized for my behavior explaining that I was wrong to treat him that way and that I really wasn’t frustrated with him. I thanked him for being such a dedicated hard-worker and told him that he had more than enough “deposits in the Mr. Cummings bank” to make a few withdrawals when needed. Todd smiled, accepted my apology, and appeared to understand. His parents were gracious enough to accept my apology, too. I appreciate such grace.

As a teacher (and as a parent), sometimes it’s hard to acknowledge my mistakes—to admit when I’m wrong, when I’m petty—to admit I’m fallen and broken. I want to be the best teacher I can be. My students deserve the best, and on some days, my best may just be an apology.

 *Todd is not the student’s real name.

An Idea: ELA Quads

Rectangle ABCD
by Illustrative Mathematics licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

One of the changes we’ve made in 6th grade this year is to combine our English and reading instruction into one English Language Arts (ELA) class. We still have two teachers and two classrooms. Marjorie focuses on writing instruction through Writers’ Workshop while I focus on reading through Readers’ Workshop, but instead of having separate classes and separate schedules. Two homerooms are scheduled to have us during a two-hour English Language Arts block. This is a step towards developing the humanities class we are planning to shift to in the future. I’m excited about the shift to (ELA) because it allows Marjorie and I to collaborate more closely integrating our teaching and it allows us greater flexibility and more control over individual student schedules.

With thirty-eight boys scheduled for a two-hour block of ELA at one time, we’ve been imagining ways to play with how our classes will flow and how boys will shift between the two workshops. We considered a block schedule grouping the boys and having them spend both hours with one teacher on alternating days, but we decided for now we prefer the boys both to read and write daily. We also prefer to divide up having our boys travel by homerooms.

In wrestling with these constraints, Marjorie and I designed a plan. Each boys will be assigned to an ELA quad. Within the quad each boy will have a reading partner and a writing partner, but their partners will differ depending on the workshop. The quads will travel together to the different classrooms and work together for small group lessons for the entire first trimester. The quad consists of boys A, B, C, and D. A and B are reading partners, and C and D are reading partners. A and D are writing partners, and B and C are writing partners.  The whole quad also doubles as a small group. At the end of the trimester we will “turnover the fruit basket” and place the boys in new quads with new partners. Because we are still getting to know the students and their personal learning needs, our first quads will be of mixed ability levels. However, we may adjust how we group the students as the year goes along.

I’m excited about the idea and the flexibility it affords us while providing some structure for the students. Our plan is to name each quad after an NFL team during the fall trimester, after an NBA team during the winter term, and after an MLB team during the spring third. (We want to avoid having groups of bluebirds and red birds.)

What do you think of the idea? What else do we need to consider? I’d love to receive your feedback about the ELA quad idea and ways we can make it better.


This is a pomodori post. My pomodori posts stem from my use of the Pomodoro Technique. I spend the first 25-minute interval writing a post and a second interval polishing, editing, formatting, tagging, and scheduling it. At the end of the second interval, the post is done.

No Victory Lap

birth storyI awoke at 2:37 AM. I know because I looked at the clock next to my bed. I heard the shower running in our bathroom, and Debbie was no longer lying beside me in bed. I stretched out my ankle like I always must after sitting or lying for a long time, then I went to the bathroom and poked my head inside the shower to ask Debbie if she was okay.

“I think my water has broken,” she said calmly. She’d been through this before three different times.

“What should I do?” I questioned.

“Go get dressed, pack your bag, grab the baby’s diaper bag, and get her dress and blanket.” My wife is always very patient with me.

I shot back into the bedroom, threw some clothes in a backpack, dressed, then changed clothes again before returning to the bathroom to ask Debbie if I should wear pants or shorts to the hospital. I was afraid it might be cold in the delivery room.

She replied, “It doesn’t matter, but you need to call Mom and Dad to come watch the boys while we go to the hospital.”

I dashed back to the bedroom, called my father-in-law, then continued scurrying about gathering belongings and throwing things in the mini-van. After a few minutes had passed, I noticed Debbie leaning against the van.

“If Mom and Dad don’t get here soon, we’re going to have to leave the boys alone.” Her voice was serious. Her look told me she was in a great deal of pain. I ran back into the house for one last item, and as I returned her parents had just arrived in the driveway.

I jumped in the driver’s seat, and Debbie climbed in the front seat next to me. I noticed she had placed a towel on  the seat beneath her. I backed out of the garage and sped down the driveway. Debbie told me to call the hospital so I dialed information for Germantown Methodist Hospital as I raced through our subdivision. From our door to Highway 70 is approximately one mile. When we reached the highway, Debbie told me I had to HURRY! I stepped on the gas, and we careened westward toward Germantown Parkway. I spoke to the hospital, and they told me they would be waiting at the door. At the light at Highway 70 and Germantown, I barely braked to make the turn, and Debbie was annoyed that I slowed at all.

Less that .10 mile down Germantown, Debbie informed me that we needed to change our plans. We weren’t going to make it to Germantown Methodist, we’d have to go to St. Francis-Bartlett instead. I again picked up the cell dialing 9-1-1. Then, I accelerated to approximately 90 MPH and turned on my hazard lights. There was only one other car on the road, and it was heading toward me. I knew it was a Bartlett police officer, but Debbie warned me not to slow down for ANYTHING! We were NOT GOING TO MAKE IT! The cop passed me, made an immediate U-turn, and chased me with lights flashing (I don’t know about the siren). I never slowed except to turn.

The 911 operator was less than helpful. (You don’t ever want to have an emergency in Memphis!) As I explained my wife was in labor, we were switching hospitals, and I was presently being chased by the Bartlett Police, the operator told me I’d have to call the hospital myself to let them know we were coming. There was nothing she could do to help me. I thanked her for not being at all helpful and promptly hung up the phone. MEMPHIS!

We slowed slightly to make a curve in the road, and then raced across the parking lot to the St. Francis-Bartlett Emergency Room entrance. I slammed the car in park and dashed through the hospital doors screaming, “Come help! Come help! My wife is in labor, and she’s having the baby now!”

Nobody moved. Apparently, husbands tend to overreact when their wives are in labor. Unfortunately, I wasn’t overreacting. What Debbie had failed to relay to me was that while we were racing to the hospital, the baby had crowned.

“HURRY!” I screamed. “She’s having the baby NOW! This is her FOURTH baby!”

Suddenly, everyone moved. Three or four nurses came running out to our mini-van. One was pushing a wheelchair. (Behind my van sat the Bartlett police officer. When he saw me enter the emergency room door, he patiently waited in his car. When I returned with medical staff in tow, I yelled to him that my wife was in labor. His only response was “Okay then, I’m gonna go.” He put his cruiser in reverse and was never heard from again.) A nurse instructed Debbie that she’d have to get in the wheelchair. My wife’s response was that she couldn’t–the baby was already crowning. The nurse told my wife that she had no choice, and they would look at her as soon as she got inside.

The nurses helped Debbie into the chair and wheeled her inside but not before getting the chair stuck on the door. They rolled her directly into triage. A nurse lifted up Debbie’s dress to see how far along she was and shrieked, “THE BABY”S COMING NOW!” (Duh!) They rolled her behind the first curtain, and the admittance attendant asked me to go with her to get Debbie checked in.

As the attendant and I made about five steps down the hallway, I heard a nurse scream, “OH, MY GOD! She hit the FLOOR!” I turned to see nurses scattering in every direction. One in particular had her hand covering her mouth s if she’d  just witnessed something awful. I raced back to see what had happened. I didn’t know whether Debbie had collapsed, the baby had been dropped, or a nurse had fainted. My heart leapt. It was 3:04 AM.

Reaching the curtain, I saw my daughter, purple and crying, on the floor in the corner of the room. Blood was everywhere. Debbie was crawling onto the gurney, and the nurses were frantically trying to move the wheelchair out of the way to get to the baby. I ran to the other side of the curtain and jumped over a trash can to try to get to Debbie’s bedside. I shouted, “Are they okay? Somebody, tell me they are okay!”

Nobody said anything. They were as panicked as I. They looked at me, and someone gave instructions for somebody to get me a chair, but I leaned against the wall and declined. I just wanted them to take care of Debbie and the baby.

The attendant, who had followed me back to the curtain, reached out, grabbed me by the arm, and said, “Dad, we have to get them admitted. Can you please come with me?” I reluctantly obeyed.

Within five minutes, Debbie’s paperwork was in motion. She and the baby were moved to room 228. The attendant asked me a few really important questions like: “Is Church of Christ still your religious preference?” and “Do you know if your insurance covers our hospital?” Meanwhile, I still needed to know whether the two most important women in my life were okay.

Soon, we’d finished. The attendant led me to Debbie’s and the baby’s room, and Debbie quickly reported that she was okay. The nurse was examining the baby who appeared to be undergoing her first tanning appointment. I asked the nurse if my little girl was okay, and she responded that as far as she could tell the baby was fine.

For the next 30 minutes, I bounced between Debbie’s bedside and the side of my tanning newborn. Debbie explained that when they tried to move her from the wheelchair to the gurney, the baby had entered the world by falling to the cold floor and sliding under the wheelchair into the corner. The umbilical cord had snapped. Apparently, my daughter is a natural break dancer. Over the next two hours, the baby was thoroughly poked and prodded, and Debbie finally delivered the placenta and was feeling much better. By all accounts, mother and child were doing just fine. In fact, one nurse mentioned they were perfect.

Debbie was ready for another shower. So as the grandmothers, who had just arrived, together with the nurse and my bride made their way to the shower, I sat in the window seat, held my daughter close to my chest, thanked God in my heart, and bawled like a big ol’ baby.

I’d love to say that in the middle of all the chaos I had the faith to immediately drop to my knees and pray, but I don’t have that kind of faith. My faith is more of a “do-what-you-can-as-best-as-you-can-and-trust-that-God-is-here-somewhere” kind of faith. Saint Peter wrote, “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith–of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by pure fire–may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory, and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” I have no idea why my heart and soul were put through the ringer during that little girl’s birth. However, as I hold her, I am trusting God will watch over her because I KNOW there’s no way I can. That’s already proven true.


This post was originally written on August 22, 2007 following the events of August 21. I’ve posted it a few times before, and I’m sure I’ll post it again. Today Evelyn turns 7. I asked her if she’d just stay six for another year and consider it a “victory lap.” After all, she’s gotten pretty good at being six. She responded, “Nope. I’m going to turn seven, but it’s okay because I still like to snuggle.” I’ll take it. Life is good. Life is most definitely good.

Prioritizing Thinking

See/Think/WonderPerhaps the most important thing my students need to know about me and our class as we begin the school year is the value we will place on thinking. Our class content focuses on reading, but the primary learning goal is to become more thoughtful–to be better thinkers. So on the first day, we start by prioritizing thinking. I don’t want our focus to be on procedures, rules, or even our classroom community. Those things are important, but the main core of everything we do is with the goal of becoming better, more thoughtful thinkers.

With that in mind one of the first activities we did is a See-Think-Wonder about 6th grade reading and our classroom. I gave my students a few Post-It notes and asked them to spend a few minutes exploring the classroom and writing down the things they saw. We talked about the need to gather evidence and pay attention to details. (These are skills we will use to help us become better readers, too.) The whole room was open to the students. I encouraged to explore every facet of the classroom including the closets, bookshelves, filing cabinets, and drawers. I challenged them “to research” the room thoroughly. After a few minutes, I called them back to their seats to complete their lists and share what they found.

Once we talked  about their “I See” lists, I asked them to begin interpreting, drawing conclusions, and making inferences about the things they noticed (Again, these are skills we will use to grow as readers, too.) They developed a set of “I think” statements. I gave them a few minutes to come up with as fluent of a list as they could; then, I dared them to come up with a few more. Their conclusions fascinated me. As they shared their thinking, I reinforced how important it is to base our conclusions and inferences on evidence by asking, “What makes you say that?” so that had to support their reasoning.

Finally, I challenged the students to take their thinking to a deeper level. We discussed that best way to push our thinking is to ask good questions. We talked about the value of questioning and concluded that “good questions” inspire us to think deeper–to explore our ideas further. (Yep, a skill we will use to further develop as readers.) “Good answers” can be helpful sometimes, but they tend to curb thinking more than deepen it. I asked the students to consider their “I think” statements and take them to a deeper level by developing “I wonder” statements about their original conclusions.  Again, we shared our thinking with our partners and with the class. Then, we prominently posted our thinking where it can be seen by everyone in class and any visitors we may have.

Again, the goal was to help the students understand (from the very first activity) their thinking is highly valued. Here are a few random pictures I captured of different students’ thinking about the class, our space, or me:

I see. . .

See 1 See 2 See 3

I think. . .

Think 3 Think 2 Think 1

I wonder. . .

Wonder 3 Wonder 2 Wonder 1

I’ve written previous posts about this first-day activity in past years. You can read those posts here and here.



This is a pomodori post. My pomodori posts stem from my use of the Pomodoro Technique. I spend the first 25-minute interval writing a post and a second interval polishing, editing, formatting, tagging, and scheduling it. At the end of the second interval, the post is done.

To Be a Better Teacher, a Better Person

a better personI live an extremely privileged life. I know I do. My life hasn’t always been easy, but it certainly has been privileged because of things I’ve had little or no control over. I’m male. I’m white. I’m heterosexual and married. I’m upper-middle class, and the majority of my education has been in private schools. My current employer is an independent, Christian school for boys. As I mentioned, I’m privileged.

The news out of St. Louis last weekend that an unarmed, young black man was shot multiple times and killed by a Ferguson police officer has angered and frightened me, and it has made me extremely sad. I haven’t followed the unfolding story as closely as I should have because what I have seen and read has been gut-wrenching. It’s been easier to focus on the first week of school–to think and talk about something else. Honestly, I just don’t want to accept the world is the way it is. I want all to be joy and peace and love.

And yet. . . we I need to think about it. I need to SEE, HEAR, TASTE, and SMELL the realities of racial prejudice. I need to FEEL the injustices so many face (and that my life of privilege protects me from). I must KNOW the fight of those less privileged. I must UNDERSTAND the friction they regularly face. I must EMPATHIZE with the fears and frustrations they bear. I must find a way to fathom all of this, so that I can FOSTER CHANGE.

There are several people who help me do this. They not only make me think; they help me see the world through a different lens. A lens I need to look through regularly. Their words and stories are immensely valuable to me, and I want to amplify their important voices. You should give them a read:

Jose Vilson – When Can We Talk About Race? and Adults, Please Get Out of the Way

Rafranz Davis – Conversations with My Son Regarding the Mike Brown Murder and The Dehumanizing of Black Boys at School

Chris Lehman – What Do We Teach When Kids Are Dying?

John Spencer – If This Is the Goal of Education . . . 

There are others I probably should mention, but these folks, in particular, challenge me and make me consider the world differently. They shift my understanding. They make me a better teacher–a better person. And my students deserve a better me.

The Story of Learning, Part 2

story of learningAs mentioned in my last post, I’ve struggled as I consider the question “What will be the story of learning in your classroom this year?” I’m a sucker for a good story. It’s why I love good books, great movies, and skilled teaching. All involve good storytelling, and I can get lost in a good story for hours and hours if time permits. I want our story of learning in my classroom to be a great story. It has to be a great story. My students deserve nothing less. But…I’m not sure I know exactly what that story should be yet. After all, I haven’t met most of my students yet. How can I possibly know what our story should be?

It’s important to develop my students’ voice. It’s important they have choice about their learning and have ownership of it. Their thinking matters. I know what skills, concepts, and dispositions they need to develop, but this isn’t really my story of learning. It’s theirs. As I’ve thought more about this question (while running 14 miles this past weekend), I’ve decided my students and I need to plot the story of our learning together.

Good stories don’t happen by chance. They have important elements that come together to create a powerful story. We need to consider those same elements as we plot the story of our learning. Here is a quick list of some questions I plan to work through with my classes as we develop the story of our learning together. We’ll start contemplating and discussing these together during the first few days of school.

Setting: Most of our story will take place in Room 218 at Presbyterian Day School in Memphis, Tennessee. Nevertheless, I want my students to consider the type of environment we want our classroom to be. What will be the tone and ethos of our room? What should we do to make the most of our space? What pledges do we need to make to each other to create the environment we want?

Character: What types of learners do we need to be? What attitudes and behaviors should we adopt to create a great learning story? How should we treat each other? What do you see as your strengths as a learner, as a reader? Where do you want to improve?

Conflict/Rising Action: What are the problems we want to solve? What questions should we explore? How will we handle disagreements among us? What are the internal and external conflicts that might get in the way of our learning? How should we address them? What will we do when we struggle or when things are hard?

Climax: What would be the greatest thing you could do this year individually? What do we want to accomplish as a group? What aspects of learning and school matter to us the most?

Falling Action/Resolution: What would need to happen in order for you to say you had a successful year in this class? When you look back at 6th grade, what do you think you’ll remember?

Theme: What is the main goal we want to achieve this year? What are the “throughlines” that tie all our learning together? What are the big questions about conflict (our grade level theme) we need to consider?

I’m out of time to write. Does any of this make sense? What other questions should my students and I consider as we “plot” our year together?


This is a pomodori post. My pomodori posts stem from my use of the Pomodoro Technique. I spend the first 25-minute interval writing a post and a second interval polishing, editing, formatting, tagging, and scheduling it. At the end of the second interval, the post is done.

The Story of Learning, Part 1

The Story of LearningBeginning the school year is incredibly hectic for me and my wife. We are both teachers working in different schools in different systems. We also have four children—in four different schools. Each with its own unique start of school schedule, traditions, and expectations. In addition to this, I’m shifting to a Readers’ Workshop approach to my classes this year, and I’m once again training for the St. Jude Memphis Marathon. It’s Friday morning. I’m tired and feeling overwhelmed. My students arrive next Wednesday, and I’m not ready—not even close.

At one of our first-day meetings, my instructional leader asked us to stop and reflect for a moment. She asked, “What will be the story of learning in your classroom this year?” The start of a new school year is an opportunity for a new start. This is my fourth new start teaching sixth grade reading, but Susan reminded me my students only get one sixth grade year. They only get to be a sixth grader one time.

As I sat there trying to reflect on the learning in my room, my mind was blank. What will the story of learning be in my classroom this year? I had no idea. All I could think about was the lists I need to complete, the schedules I need to coordinate, the books I still need to read, the forms I need to make, the files I need to organize, the shelves I need to rearrange, the lessons I need to create, and the planning I need to start. I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t picture the story of learning. I wanted to see it, but I couldn’t.

I want to stop all of this craziness. I want to spend some time dreaming and wishing—imagining what our year of learning in sixth grade reading will be like. I really do. I cannot think of anything I’d rather ponder, but I’m overwhelmed by the start of school. There’s too much to do. My checklists runneth over.

I’m not dismissing Susan’s suggestion. I’m holding on to it. I woke up with it early this morning hoping I could  steal a few minutes to sit and reflect—to zoom in on what I truly want for my students. And yet, my lists keep calling to me. Here in the quiet of this morning, I’m still being pulled toward a more visible form of productivity. So for now, I’m just going to keep carrying the question in my heart and mind: What will the story of learning be in your classroom this year?


This is a pomodori post. My pomodori posts stem from my use of the Pomodoro Technique. I spend the first 25-minute interval writing a post and a second interval polishing, editing, formatting, tagging, and scheduling it. At the end of the second interval, the post is done.

Prepping for Back-to-School

back-to-schoolMy back-to-school in-service starts Wednesday. I’m looking forward to the new school year and everything a new beginning signifies. Over the past few days, I’ve reflected on how my approach to the start of school has changed through the years. A video shared by Hugh McDonald on Twitter and the discussion that followed sparked my thoughts. While this teacher has made some choices I wouldn’t make, I appreciate the passion and excitement he’s bringing to his work. He want san inviting space for his students and I can appreciate that. However, I was somewhat surprised by the comments of several on YouTube who equated his decorating with his teaching. Those are NOT the same thing. I’ve sat in rooms with four bare walls and learned from some extraordinary teachers. I’ve also sat in some beautiful rooms where the teaching was awful and the learning absent. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for an inviting space, but I see no correlation between one’s ability to decorate and his ability to teach.

Here’s the video Hugh shared:

I’m reminded of myself as I prepped in my first few years teaching. As a rookie teacher, I would start working in my room weeks before the students arrived. I’d spend hours (if not days) arranging desks, decorating walls, writing names in textbooks, creating lists of rules and procedures, and ensuring I outlined and explained it all in a typed, class syllabus handed out the first day. This wasn’t necessarily a bad use of my time and energy. After all as a single guy with few responsibilities outside my job, I had the time, and I had plenty of nervous energy about each upcoming year, too. But I’m not sure it was the best use of my time either.

After fifteen years, I don’t spend too much time decorating and arranging the space before the students arrive. I do break my room into two primary sections. I arrange one part as a reading/living room area and the other part as an instructional side complete with desks in pods to ease conversation and small group work. The only things I put on the walls are the posters required by my school (standards and language of thinking) and the visible thinking anchor charts we use most often. The only real decorating I do is outside my door where I creatively (and tediously) display the names of my homeroom students. We post and share student thinking (usually on Post-It® notes or written on the IdeaPaint™ wall) on the rest of the board and wall space in my room.

During in-service, I try to spend most of my “room work” time planning and reflecting on the learning that I should happen in my class. I don’t spend time considering rules and procedures. The students and I work together develop these in the first weeks as we get to know each other. One of my goals is to have a student-centered, inquiry-driven classroom, where each student knows his voice and choice matters. Obviously, there are a few non-negotiable procedures we must follow (like what to do during emergencies), but when I can include the students in making decisions, I do.

As a husband and parent, I have demands on my time I didn’t have when I began teaching. My vacation time from school is valuable time with my family, and it’s important I be present with my wife and children investing in my relationships with them. Summer is time when I can truly focus on them. Therefore, I don’t spend much time at school in the weeks before in-service. I understand why some teachers do, but I don’t. Sure, I still read professional texts and work on my professional goals during the break. Summer is a great time to reflect on my work, but you will no longer find me spending the last few weeks in my classroom burning the candle at both ends and trying to get my classroom perfectly decorated and my syllabus appropriately typed.

What about you? How do you spend the weeks leading up to the start of school? How has your prep for the start of school changed through the years?


This is a pomodori post. My pomodori posts stem from my use of the Pomodoro Technique. I spend the first 25-minute interval writing a post and a second interval polishing, editing, formatting, tagging, and scheduling it. At the end of the second interval, the post is done.