Lift your chin-call it exercise

From Rudy Francisco’s Complainers

Jess Lifshitz, a phenomenal educator, extended an invitation to bring a poem with us into 2022. In the past, I have had resolutions and then shifted to goals and then dreams and then plans and then and then and then. I loved the idea of a poem guiding my thinking heading into the new year. I have sat with this poem, I have written this section up in my gym. Things are so hard right now, in the world, there is so much weight. I have been guilty, for the last few months, of allowing it to weigh me down. So it is time to stand up straight, lift my chin- and call it exercise.

I still have plans, goals, dreams, and intentions for this 2022 and years going forward. I want to continue working out and getting into better shape, I want to continue to better myself as a teacher, I want to steal time to read and find that part of me again because aside from student work and school reading and researching I have had very little bandwidth for joyful reading. So I will be taking that back.

The last thing this poem really made me consider is that while there is a lot of bad there is also a lot of good. I am blessed. I am wicked strong. I can stand under this weight, I can lift it. I need to recognize that more and complain less.

Life is hard

Life is heavy

My burdens are mine

I am training to lift them

Stand up straight, lift the chin-call in exercise.

Happy New Year

Chase after what brings you joy. We all deserve it.

Taking a dive

I got to spend some time with teachers talking teaching and books last week. I think it is my favorite thing to do outside of working alongside students in the classroom. We talked about ways to help students expand their reflections on texts, and how using these strategies can help students develop into deeper thinkers and writers.
I started the day reviewing Notice and Note with them. I have used Notice and Note since attending PD with Bob and Kylene years ago. I love it so much. I think a common stumbling block teachers face with Notice and Note is helping students move beyond just identifying signposts and surface-level reflections. The anchor questions that are provided serve as a great starting point to dig but the only way dirt is being moved is with the exploration of those questions. With my students last week we modeled this with David Robertson’s The Barren Grounds. Morgan, one of the main characters, is a young girl in the foster care system. She has moved around to many different homes after being removed from her birth mother. A result of this is a general distrust and seeming dislike of most everyone, especially her foster parents. As we read students identified the volatile nature of her personality. At one point early in the story, the students identified a Contrast and Contradiction when Morgan is kind to her new foster brother Eli after attempting to leave him behind. Later in the story, another moment of cruelty directed at her brother had students out of their seats. Talking about what they had decided was her jealousy that he had a connection to his family and culture that she never got to experience. Students didn’t just notice this shift in behavior they wanted to discuss their thoughts on the cause. We had great conversations with many hypotheses shared. Ultimately these discussions and the signposts that mark the start of them helped students to gain a better understanding of characters and their actions as the story progressed.
The second piece that I shared with teachers was another tool from Kylene and Bob’s greatest hits. We discussed ways to expand student thinking when organized in the Book-Head-Heart framework that is introduced in Disrupting Thinking In the past I have used poems and picture books as a means to elicit a response. Books like Love by Matt de la Pena and Loren Long or a short selection like Mama by Jaqueline Woodson. These lessons have always done well to introduce the concept but the thinking largely remained at the surface, especially when we got to the heart category. This time around I considered trying things a little bit differently to see how responses and discussion went. I decided to work through multiple pieces of texts as scaffolds for each other. Building and developing background knowledge that supported the next piece of text. Starting with an image students practiced writing in the BHH framework.

We then discussed potential ideas. The conversation was good and students thinking and impressions of the image were varied. We then moved to another piece of text while I read the first few pages of Nikki Grimes Garvey’s Choice. If you haven’t read it I highly recommend it. As I read students recorded their thinking. The impact of the apple image followed by the first few pages of the text had students recording a ton of thoughts and feelings and our discussion grew. Students who often didn’t participate jumped in with thoughts, the phrase “going off what X said” was used more times than I have ever encountered before as students built off one another thinking. The best part was that we were not done yet. As a final piece, we watched a Disney/Pixar short entitled Float. This film is hard-hitting. I gave additional instruction for the kids to pay attention to the production elements of the film. As we watched and wrote you could hear the gasps as elements of the film stood out to the students. The conversation could have lasted an hour with so many thoughts pouring out. It was the best BHH generated discussion that I have been able to facilitate. I can’t help but think that the additional scaffolding and background knowledge that our discussions established brought much-needed additional depth to student responses.
Over the course of the PD with teachers, we discussed a lot of things. DIfferent ways students could represent that thinking, how to build more efficient conference into our timetable, but mostly we just talked about helping students increase the depth of their answers.
Too often I think teachers, myself included, forget about the building blocks because our thinking is focused on the tower. As I work with students to go deeper into texts I know that I need to provide the tools for the dig. This past week we looked at ways to ask better questions, read alouds, think alouds, multimodal representation, class discussions. No tests, no worksheets. Thinking, sharing, talking, learning, growing, digging. This is the work we are taking the time to do together, slowly and purposefully because rushing through everything seems to be getting us nowhere fast.

Check out 🙂

This I believe

I was originally going to title this post I believe in Dr. Gholdy Muhammad, but it is an assignment for University and I was not certain that my Professor would think it fit the assignment. We were asked to follow the model of the “This I believe” essay from NPR to express a belief statement of our own. This is what I settled on. Grateful for Dr. Gholdy Muhammad and her work and message that inspires my practice.

This I Believe

I believe the children are our future (Houston, 1986) 

I laughed when I thought about starting this assignment with the great Whitney Houston. While it is true, I think ultimately at the core of my beliefs are students and their unique genius. I believe that all students are genius, and it is our job as teachers to nurture and support that genius. My thinking on this shifted the first time I listened to Dr. Gholdy Muhammad speak. As she outlined her incredible framework for learning, she said regarding our students, “We must start their stories and identities with their excellence.” This phrase hit me so hard that I wanted to keep the reminder with me all of the time and it now sits above my head in my classroom. So, we start the year talking about our excellence. 

Too often, our students are viewed for what they can’t do, not what they can. The testing culture of society wants our students to fit into the same box, and when they can’t, we subject them to interventions. We forget about all the things they can do because of the things they can’t. Their story becomes one of deficit and failure.

I believe we must focus on their genius. 

Dr. Asa Hilliard said, “I have never encountered any children in any group who are not geniuses. There is no mystery on how to teach them. The first thing you do is treat them like human beings and the second thing you do is love them.”

How simple and powerful. But we lose sight of that simple truth through all the noise. 

The student who creates brilliant pieces of art in response to simple lines from text, genius. 

The student who teaches his classmates about the intricate workings of a tractor, genius.

The student lost in his drawings, genius.

The student who sings, genius.

The student-athlete, genius 

The poet…genius. 

When I made the shift in my classroom to recognize the genius first and foremost not only did my instruction change but the whole environment did.

 Last year I had the most beautiful class; scheduling made it necessary for me to teach English 10-1, 10-2, 20-2, and 20-4 classes all together at once. At first, I didn’t know how I would deliver instruction to 4 different courses with different curriculums in a way that served all my students. Then I asked them, “what do you want to learn about?”

We explored so much as they discovered their genius. Students blogged, created picture books, wrote chapters of novels, crafted incredibly heart-wrenching poems. We explored multimodal work. Words turned to images. Students took risks. 

Beyond just academic growth, something else started to happen. Students began to see and celebrate the genius of others. Students began asking if they could present poetry or show off their creations. We so often talk as teachers about how we can inspire our students. How do we help them shine? I think I have the answer.

            We stop telling them what shining must look like.

Ultimately, I believe in the individual genius of all students.

I believe in their excellence.

I believe it should be celebrated


In my favourite movie, Stardust, as the climax is reached and it seems like all hope is lost, Claire Danes character Yvaine proclaims, “What do stars do? They shine!” 

I believe that when we trust in our students’ genius. When we see it and give them the space to grow, they too will shine. I have seen this in action. I have witnessed the impact students who see their excellence and genius validated has. In an education system that sees countless students unable to achieve a standard, we need to start asking ourselves about the standards we are setting and how we measure success rather than asking students to fit inside a box. 

Like Gholdy says, 

“We must start with their genius and their joy.”

This I believe.

Book Clubs in Room 157 (updated with NCTE slides)

A few weeks ago I shared that we had started our Book Club rotation for this semester. I would love to do multiple rounds but I make sure we get in at least one round of book clubs. Book Clubs in Room 157 are not a labor-intensive task. Really, when we boil it right down to the basics we read, we share, we create. I am not knocking the practice of Literature circles or students having a number of tasks to complete each day. What works for one classroom might not work for another and I know some are bound but having to record grades every day or every few days. This isn’t my situation but as I lay this out I hope to provide some ideas for folks wanting to try book clubs but see it as too big of an undertaking.

Day 1:Introduction-Book Choice

Some of our selections

For this particular book club we focused on Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s work regarding books as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Students read with the lens of looking for those connections for themselves. To start the class I first talk about the analogy, we go over the expectations of book club (will talk about those later), and then students spend the period looking at the different books available. After students have read through the book jackets and maybe the first few pages they rank their choices. I consider their ranking and potential group dynamics and then assign a text-based on those criteria.

Day 2: Discuss requirements

To begin day 2 book club groups are revealed. Students are asked to gather to set a few norms for their groups. Things like discussion schedule, pages to be read each week, what people will agree to bring to meetings, and other things are discussed. My requirement of the kids is to use their notebooks for questions, wonderings, golden lines, visualizations, and any other things that pop up. They also have a multimodal element to include and an essay at the end. They are told about this prior to the start so they can best schedule for themselves.

To help them with the question generation and thinking I provide them with some sample questions and The Lifting Literacy toolkit that contains different reminders of strategies we have used or thought and question stems. Both are available on the site under “Teacher stuff” if they are useful by all means please use them. To practice the question asking and notebooking we tend to use a full class picture book. This year we practice our visual literacy skills using Matt de la Pena and Loren Long’s Love.

We have taken over the theatre lately. Makes for fun read-alouds 🙂

Day 3: Introduce Identity Maps

For this particular book club, I want students to explore identity. Both their own and the characters of their books. We are a relatively rural area and the majority of our students are white and would identify as Christian (largely LDS but not everyone). Over the years I have noticed that students really struggle to make connections when the characters live lives so different from their own. A few years ago I made a shift to have students break things down into character traits and examine those rather than focus on the big differences. This shift really helped students to see similarities in characters and make connections. While the experiences were difficult to connect with the humanity was not. To assist in this we looked at Sara K Ahmed’s “Being The Change” and activity around Identity Maps. Students wrote up rough maps for themselves before getting into the reading.

Day 4 -21: Reading-Discussing-Writing

I am not a believer in teaching books to death and am not a fan of books taking 6 weeks to get through. With that in mind, we set out everything they will need to accomplish. We have mini-lessons on strategies and for the next few weeks, we dedicate all our time to reading, discussing, and writing. Students use their notebooks to track thinking they schedule times to meet or they read together and once they finish the books they work on different types of responses.

Freedom to explore

The biggest success that I have enjoyed from this process is seeing students explore new ways to represent thinking. Their reflections as they experience things unfamiliar to them and reflect on the mirrors they find through identity work and windows that are presented to them are really a joy to learn from. Book Clubs for room 157 are almost a break as groups become engrossed in their books, we try to keep the day-to-day work elements light and the final responses simply a culmination of their notes and thoughts. I am blessed to have the freedom to grade less and enjoy learning more. That said I know not everyone has those experiences. A simple status of the class/notebook check/group check-in could supply teachers with those pesky numbers they are required to report. Heck sitting in on book clubs is part of the fun so if you have to report something every day join in and enjoy the discussions with the kids.

Gatekeeping Greatness

I started this school year promising to do things differently than in the past. I am teaching English 30-1 which is the Alberta equivalent of Senior English, I guess. In the past, this course has been primarily test-focused; students spent most of the time learning to take a high-stakes test at the end of the year. The year consists of Critical Analytical essays, reading comprehension, reading Shakespeare (not that it is a bad thing), and minimal opportunity to explore what interests them. Time is such an issue. This year I decided that I wanted the students of room 157 to have the chance to dream with me, to explore what interests them, to approach learning in new ways. And we are. We have started looking at multimodal representation. Students are taking time to explore different ways to respond to text. We are writing about ourselves and exploring essays outside the traditional examples. Ultimately we are exploring learning.

A hand painted response to Jason Reynold’s For Every One

Students have been creating brilliant pieces of work, and all I have had to do was tell them it was ok. This week, students asked me if they could still submit a multimodal response to a book we are reading even though it is not a “required” assignment. They want to write and perform a song inspired by The Great Gatsby. A few weeks ago, another student made a time-lapse video making bread and attempted to make artisanal designs in it to represent her dreams. The bread didn’t work out; however, the true meaning of the work she responded to came through. Dreams don’t always work out as we intend, but that doesn’t mean we give up on them.

The joy that quietly moved through room 157 while students worked on their self explorations of theme was palpable.

This year’s class is not the first that I have explored multimodal work, choice writing, and inquiry. Last year the class that we all affectionately referred to as “The Patchwork” because it was a mix of students from different grade levels and abilities, created masterpieces in both writing and design. They were my inspiration for this year’s journey. Sadly, it seems that so many kids in their shoes would never have had this opportunity because this kind of work is often reserved for the top achievers. There sadly seems to be some bias established that only the best students should have access to freedom to explore. That students who struggle and need help or “intervention” can’t possibly benefit from work that is not the traditionally accepted form. That “enrichment” is reserved for the top students or whatever label you crown them with.

There is gatekeeping in education where students who struggle to succeed in the traditional setting seem to be locked into it until they either give in to it or give up on themselves. The secret that I have discovered is that allowing all students to explore learning together levels the playing field. Last year the Patchwork kids wrote some of the best poetry I have heard; they pursued areas of interest. They also started writing better and reading more. We probably wrote more than the “high achieving” classes. We trusted each other and embraced our strengths lifting each other along the way.

The dreams I have for education are fluid ones. They move with the bumps along the way. But I will keep jumping and hoping things work out because the alternative means I am not serving all my students.

All students deserve a chance to explore and learn and celebrate who they are. Not just as people but also as students and learners on their journey. Shame on those who lack the belief that all students have greatness just waiting to shine.

There is room in Room 157 if you want to join us, heck we just moved to a Theatre.

Learning Alongside Them

Theatre Learning

I spend a lot of time dreaming of changes in education. The more and more those dreams start to slip away I wonder how long I will continue with this work. Teaching is really hard; It has become harder because of the pandemic and the related fall-out. When Covid started, I thought maybe there was a chance we could make some big changes. Sadly education just fell back on what was comfortable. The tests, the data, the reduction of kids to numbers and labels. But I am going to continue dreaming.

I started this year with the dream to reimagine how to teach English. Student focused, Grade-less*, Multi-genre and Multimodal. Leaning on the brilliant words of others to inspire use. I invited my students to dream with me. At first, I think they doubted me. Maybe doubted my commitment to this dream, maybe doubted themselves.

We watched Jason Reynolds perform For Everyone and I asked the student to pull lines that had some kind of impact on them. From there I talked to them about multimodal composition, exploring different ways to represent our thinking. Then I asked them to jump. Just to try it. This week the brilliance that silly tests won’t measure shined bright as assignments started coming

This week I have listened to and read poems, viewed works of art, and been moved by stories of bread. Freedom to dream and think about ways to allow our students to show their whole self is what will fuel this year.

I am choosing to focus on the brilliance that comes from these almost adult humans because I have lost faith that the test driven systems see them at all.

When we jump

Earlier this month I had the honour of sitting in community with shea martin and a few others as shea talked with us about dreaming. I have not really considered the power of dreaming before listening to shea and another brilliant educator, lizzie fortin, a few summers ago. Now I think about it all the time. I dream of better schools, I dream of better opportunities for my students and myself.

Over the last few years Covid has really wreaked havoc on aspects of the education system. A lot of promises to reimagine or change the way things were done were made. Most didn’t happen, however one change, at least for two years, was excellent. No standardized tests. That coupled with a grade-less, learning centred approach really had a positive impact on my students.

Slowly students took chances. The weight of failure removed, kids discovered they were writers, creators, and poets. They created, they explored language. We dove into multimodal composition. These were the Patchwork kids, a class who didn’t know it when we started but realized pretty quick they were joining a dreamer. This little class was a mix of 3 different classes. Schedules and numbers made it necessary but the freedom to explore made us a community. I loved that class and the work that came out of it inspired me to keep chasing after this little dream I have.

This year the tests are back. I have had some folks tell me that I wouldn’t be able to teach the same way. That test preparation needs to take the place of dreaming big. “Do you really think you can get them ready for this?” This being a test. The question caused me to doubt myself for a bit. I still doubt myself. But I never doubt the kids.

We have already started writing, the students are starting to discover who they are as writers and we will proudly walk into a test room ready to write. A student mentioned the other day how much they hate school because it tells you what to do and how to learn but they liked my class because I didn’t. I give them the room to explore.

This week I wanted to introduce the class to multimodal work. We watched Jason Reynolds For Everyone and students collected lines that moved them. Today they started creating blueprints of ideas to share those lines with our classroom community. So many cool ideas.

There is some kind of cool levelling of the playing field when we start to operate outside the standardized approach to education. That freedom to breathe without the expectations of a test sitting on our chest. I know the test is sitting in the shadows but for now we are going to spend some time in the light.

In For Everyone Jason talks about the ember of doubt. He also talks about the dreamer ready to jump. Ready to take that leap despite not knowing the outcome. I have asked myself a lot if my dreams are too big. If the ideas I have for creating an English class that honours the unique brilliance of all my students is something better left to classes without this test waiting in the dark. In the end I have decided with my toes just on the edge, as Jason puts it, that it is better to jump than let that ember of doubt grow and a fire consume this dream.

So we jump.

What Happens When We Lower The Bar

A few years ago I was listening to Kylene Beers speak about student achievement. One point that really stuck with me was around the role we play simply with our expectations. Today as I was talking to my class her words around students rising to the bar we set came back into my mind.

This summer this little narrative that I loathe popped up. Learning Loss became this buzz word. We saw educational companies and publishers lining up with ways to address it and the snake oil salesmen of the education world claiming how they had the answer to this “Learning Loss”. As the year started off I refused to acknowledge “Learning Loss” as anything more than the sales gimmick it was created to be. Preying on those who felt uneasy about how students did during this uncharted journey back and forth between online and in-person learning. See, we really have not had a lot of time to assess if learning was actually lost. A lot of folks assume it was but there isn’t a ton of data beyond opinion (that isn’t data).

See, in Alberta, in the first year of the pandemic our government established that due to the unprecedented nature of the pandemic students would not be held accountable for any learning after we shift to online, also they couldn’t fail. The bar was lowered. Students mostly stopped showing up. With the bar so low that even attendance and work was not required our students happily grabbed it. Last year was much of the same . Interruptions to the end of the year lead to the bar again being lowered. Students happily met these reduced expectations.

Decision makers lowered the bar, students happily obliged and became accustomed to this lowered expectation. Now we are seemingly obsessed with this imagined learning loss when really students just expect that low bar to continue to be offered.

Last week I told my students I expect their best. They are excellence and we need to remind people that when the bar is high they will rise to it because we are meant to be great. They doubt me.

Students did not lose out of learning. The opportunities were there. If anything students lost the faith that we, the adults, thought they could succeed even when the challenge was great. If anything they lost the sense that the adults would be there to support them when things got tough. Because largely many weren’t.

We chose the easier roads. We chose to not explore new ways to assess and measure the beautiful learning that was happening. We chose to isolate ourselves and not explore new ways to teach. We chose not to break the systems of inequity down and imagine better.

We chose, and now, instead of owning our mistakes, our shortcomings, our lowering of the bar, we are labelling the kids as learning lost.

You can do better. Maybe it is time we raise the bar for ourselves.

The Rules

A student sits at his desk responding to an essay we have read, writing his own piece. As I walk up, I see sketches sprinkled among the words. One of a small child, knees pulled to their chest, and head down; shadows shaded all around them the texts that wrapped the image, “I may be an artist, but I am no writer.”

I wondered in that moment before speaking where he got the idea he was not a writer? The words he had on the page, while unconventionally organized, painted a beautiful picture. He was writing about the importance of asymmetry as a metaphor for the importance of a community being made up of unique people. What better example of this uniqueness than a multimodal creation to tell his story? I talked to him about why he felt this way, and he spoke to the “rules” of writing and how he doesn’t follow them so well. It was not the first time I had heard “The Rules” since starting my first attempt at teaching a senior English class.

We started the year with free writing. I got a lot of, “How long does this have to be?” or “Do we write a 5 paragraph essay?” followed by, “Ok so if not what is the structure?”

I think I have said, “Let’s just start with writing” more times than in the entire time I taught Junior High. These rules that generally only exist in academic writing and more so in High School only exist in High School. I tried explaining that outside High School, writing happens without rules. Our paragraphs are not always five sentences, and our essays are not five paragraphs. Our first paragraph does not have to hit the reader over the head with the controlling idea; there can be nuance. Stories are powerful, personal ones more so.

This news has been really uncomfortable for many in the class to accept, which has shocked me. This need for rules and structure, this hesitance to explore the page with their pencil and ideas, has me confused. It is something I was not prepared for, but I welcome the challenge.

We started last week with Nawal Q Casiano’s piece for #31daysIBPOC, which can be found here  . We discussed the moves she made in the article, the lines that stood out, the themes they thought they noticed, and then I asked them to use this beautiful mentor text to guide their writing. Despite their calls for length minimums or how long it had to be, there were some beautiful ideas coming but the rules were getting in the way of finding themselves as writers. We are working on it, and I am grateful for beautiful pieces like Nawal’s that will guide my students to a bit of freedom from the constraints they have been working with previously.

I am not so much of a hippie that I don’t think structure and “rules” have their purpose, but when they put limits on creativity and tell our students that they must live within a box, I struggle. So we will learn, among other things in English 30-1 this year, that we can learn rules of writing while embracing the freedom of creating without them. Discovering and embracing who they are as writers, and we are going to write—a lot.

To the Classes of 2021/2022

As I sat pondering what I wanted to write after the Alberta Summer Literacy Institute the topics of all the speakers kept coming back to me. The thread that brought everything together, at least in the sessions I attended, was the importance of our students knowing themselves, honouring their identity and helping them to see and honour their genius and pursue their joy. With all the ridiculous conversations around Learning Loss and the mountains of advice people seem to have for teachers regardless of not being in the classroom themselves. The other day I saw a tweet from a brilliant educator that really helped me to frame my thinking more.

There are most certainly some folks that just want to dwell on the deficits. They are somehow stuck in some world where learning and expectations should not have shifted while the rest of the world did. I think the second sentence in the author’s first point really hit home the most. Our kids overcame odds that no one in schools right now has, and they did it is amazing ways. So often we see folks talk about resilience and grit until the kids demonstrated it in spades and now decision makers want to move the goal line. Using words like learning loss in front of our kids or even in meetings with other adults disrespects the work of our students, disrespects the work of our parents and disrespects the work of our teachers. So instead, as Dr. Gholdy Muhammad so powerfully reminded me this week, we are going to focus on students GENIUS and JOY. A letter to my students, maybe yours.

Dear Students of 2021/2022,

Some of you have never had a typical school experience, typical elementary, middle or high school but you have been expected to demonstrate learning like you have. You have missed out on experiences, field trips, parties, concerts and sports tournaments. So much has been taken from you and yet you have performed wonderfully. Rather than tell the story of the struggles Covid brought us and the lost opportunities I prefer to focus on your resilience and dedication. This is the story we should be telling.

You individually bring excellence to our classroom and this year while we of course work on skills I want our focus to be that. You and the genius you bring. The unique qualities and abilities that we can celebrate through the work that we do.

There will be voices that try and distract us from this learning journey with their nonsense about “being behind” or “lost learning” please remember they do not know you and do not matter. They are uncomfortable acknowledging that you have continued to grow despite the hurdles. We can’t measure your learning like the years have been typical because they have been far from it. We can measure how you demonstrate your excellence however. We can work on our community and we can build something great together.

Your parents also deserve much thanks and credit for helping us all get through the last few years as we learned to demonstrate our genius and joy amidst the noise.

We will of course address the skills we are assigned to cover, but we will be giving ourselves grace while we do it. We will explore who we are as learners and as people and we will honour that journey. We will not talk about Learning Loss or entertain the idea that somehow these last few years you did not demonstrate your brilliance. I look back on the work we did in a full pandemic year and I know it is not true.

See you all in a few weeks. I am looking forward to getting started.

-Your Teacher

In Closing

I spent the summer reading and learning. I am started a new journey myself and in a few weeks, new courses, new students and new discussions. I am excited. I am choosing to focus on our shared genius. I am choosing to see my students as whole people and not a test score. Shifts and growth that is the plan. Celebrate the Genius and Joy as Dr. Muhammad said. The rest will fall into place.