Empowered learners: What a student’s project taught me about education

I co-teach a new, interdisciplinary English III/US history course with my colleague Chris. When we designed this class, we knew our kids needed more than what they were getting to prepare them for a world where critical thinking, problem-solving, computational skills, collaboration, creativity, character, and citizenship are valued far greater than fact knowledge and regurgitation. We knew that research proved that teaching our subject-area content and skills cohesively would be more effective than teaching independently. We knew it would be challenging to create a course that personalizes project-based learning, but we also knew it would be rewarding, and let me tell you: It’s been way more of both challenge and reward than we could have ever imagined. We also knew that we had absolutely no idea where to begin.


Image from Empower by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani (pg. 7).

But it’s amazing what happens when we give kids a voice in their learning. The longer I work with design thinking and PBL, the more I realize that true, meaningful learning doesn’t really happen without giving kids the main voice in it, and their voices — all 60 of them in one room — have been the driving force behind almost every decision we’ve made this year. And for as much as our kids have grown and thrived this year, I have loved becoming a learner again alongside them. They’re teaching me incredible new skills and content through their projects, but their voices and questions and ideas are teaching me even more about myself, both as a person and an educator.

Our very first personalized PBL unit of the year was American History through Education. The kids thought about problems they saw in education and then created essential and supporting questions that they thought might help them arrive at solutions for the individual issue about which they each felt most passionate. They had one-on-one conferences with Chris or I to help them talk through those thoughts and questions. Once they researched and felt they understood that problem deeply and had thought critically about potential solutions, they created a project proposal that investigated the history of the problem, the type of writing/speaking they felt would best help them share their message (informative, persuasive, or narrative), the medium they thought would best help them deliver this message, and an authentic audience with which they should share this message upon completion. After that conference, they were free to start creating their individual projects.

The following video is one of the projects created through that very first unit. Watch what Emily, a junior in our course, developed to encourage educators to allow student voice and develop personalized learning experiences in schools.

For me, this video is both something I celebrate and something that hurts. I celebrate it because I am proud of the way Emily used the design thinking process to develop the concept and product from start to finish. I am proud of how she integrated research and interviews to develop such a strong message in this project. I am proud that she took a challenge posed and conquered it to share an important message with members of ICE and FutureReady as her chosen authentic audience. But it hurts because the faces and voices on that video are my kids. In my classes. And they aren’t the exception to the rule in our schools. If our kids don’t see value in what we’re doing, and if we can’t offer them the pace and challenges suitable for them, we’re going to have a tough time engaging them in learning and empowering them to take the driver’s seat.

Their thoughts weren’t rehearsed or coerced. Emily simply asked them the question, and their responses flowed so easily and naturally. How often are we doing what Emily did, which is asking our students exactly what they need? When we do, how often are we providing for those requests?

And more concerning to me: Why are they waiting to be asked? Why don’t they feel comfortable telling us without being prompted? Are we teaching kids how to advocate for themselves? To see learning as not only their responsibility, but more importantly, also a passion worth fighting for? Why aren’t they telling us — their teachers — what they need from us? Why haven’t we created spaces where that is the norm?

These are questions with which I’ve been grappling all year, and I can see that our course is giving kids those opportunities to discover and explore passions. But it is one course, and it’s not the only course I teach. I have so much more to learn. I have so much more that I want to improve. I’m so glad the experts — my students — are helping me along the way, using their voices to change the narrative of their educations.


Today I gave my students permission to walk out of my class #IMMOOC

This week I attended and presented at #ICE18. It was an incredible conference as usual, filled with lots of passionate educators sharing their ideas and building networks of support. One of the best things about being an adult at a conference (or at an EdCamp) is that if what you walk into isn’t what you thought it would be, you have the freedom to get up and find something that suits your interests, passions, or needs better. No one batted an eye when participants showed up late or left early. In fact, those actions are not only welcomed but are actually encouraged if it means growth is happening. I was thankful that as a student in those sessions, I had the ability to decide for myself.

Then last night as I listened to George Couros, Katie Martin, and AJ Juliani talk about innovation and compliance in schools during season 4, episode 1 of the #IMMOOC, I had an epiphany. How many of my students would walk out of my room if they weren’t worried about the repercussions of doing so? What would it tell me as a teacher, and how could it help me change my practice if that were an option for them?


So today, I shared that reflection with one of my classes, and I gave them the permission to leave my room if they needed me to change. Here are the parameters:

  • They have to physically walk out of the room. For one, sometimes kids look disengaged when they aren’t, and other times they look interested when that couldn’t be further from the truth; the visual of their leaving the room leaves nothing to be assumed. On top of that, no one has to raise his/her hand and say, “This is boring, Mrs. K.” Yes, I want to teach my kids to ask politely and appropriately for what they need, but I also think it might be a better approach to allow them to challenge my practice silently at first so that when they return, I can be the one to start that dialogue and help them frame a response.
  • They have to come right back. This is where the conversation between George and AJ comes in. Last night, George mentioned to AJ that there is certainly a place in education and the world for compliance. He said something to the effect of, “You can’t submit your taxes to the IRS on Google Slides if you feel like it.” Likewise, kids can’t just leave school. I want to help facilitate their learning, and at the end of the day, all kids want to learn. Both entities want the same thing, and walking away wouldn’t be the best way to accomplish that.
  • They have to tell me what I’m doing wrong and contribute ideas to make the activity better because that conversation is the key to a solution. We’ll redesign in the moment together so that the kids have a say in their learning, and hopefully, that empowerment will be a motivating factor for them as well as a great opportunity for me to improve for them.



For me, this is an innovation. I’ve asked for feedback before, but this is new because I’ve gotten that previous feedback when I ask for it. Instead, this change allows the kids to give me feedback at any time, which is far better because I’ll actually get that feedback when they need the change; however, there are also parameters with which they have to comply because life is filled with situations where compliance is necessary. They’re not allowed to come and go from school as they please (yet), so I’m trying to innovate inside the box (and still push it out a little bit).

The economy of a school

I currently teach an interdisciplinary US History/English III course with my teaching partner Chris. Developing this course and co-teaching have been the two most incredible challenges I’ve faced in my time as an educator, but they have also been of the most rewarding experiences because the thinking and creating we get to witness from students on a regular basis is nothing short of inspiring.

Let me go ahead and admit that not every day is awe-inspiring. (We’ve even had a few days that could almost be called awFUL.) But after over a term together, we’ve found our way — all of us — and we’re seeing together just how much can be accomplished when we take a risk and try a different approach.

One of those beautiful moments came on the second to last day of this past unit. As a wrap up before the kids presented their Company Consulting Projects in our Economics unit, we asked them to:

Read:I, Pencil” by Leonard Read
Watch: “I, Pencil, the Movie”
Respond: How many people does it take to make a pencil?  What does that have to do with the economy/markets?

It was a pretty open-ended question, but overall, we were hoping they would make the connection that economies are complex and influenced by many factors, from major entities like governments all the way to the individuals who take part in producing and consuming goods and services.

One student’s take on the material and the link of human capital to successful economies was particularly noteworthy to me, as a teacher:

All the people whom have something to do with the creation of a pencil work towards making it. That is what it has to do with economics. Every job which someone performs has an influence on an element of the world. A teacher has an influence on a student. That student may be working at the supermarket and has an influence on the customers of the supermarket. That customer goes home to his/her family and has an influence on them. …[Those kids and parents] go to their work [or school] and they have an influence on their coworkers. On and on and on.

My point is that everyone has an influence on something. Just by talking with someone we are changing the world, and we do not even know it. That is why the waitress, who gives the woodworkers coffee, has an influence on a pencil.

She had other things to say related more closely to the unit, but for our purposes today, there are two major takeaways from these words, I think.

For one, our students see that interactions matter. The other day I read a post shared on Facebook by Jennifer Gonzalez who authors the popular Cult of Pedagogy blog. The article, titled “Why Aren’t We Rude to Grown-ups the Way We Are Rude to Kids?,” is more than worth the few minutes it will take you to read through it. In it, writer Ben Martin points out that we often speak to kids impatiently or even rudely. He reflects honestly, which helps the reader, specifically this teacher, think about all the times I may have been impatient or acted frustrated with students. And while my students often joke that it’s hard to take me seriously when I need to be stern because I’m often pretty smiley, I know there are times I’ve said the wrong thing and negatively impacted a student.

According to my very own student, our actions, reactions, and interactions mean everything, and continue to impact our students long after they’ve left the room. That’s a responsibility we can’t afford to take lightly.


The second takeaway is about the importance of teachers specifically. No where in this unit did we discuss schools, and yet, my student’s example of an economy began with the influence of a teacher on not just her/his students, but as a result, on the world. Let that sink in for a minute. You matter. A lot.

The economy of a school is determined by the educators in it. How will you contribute to the strength or growth of a stronger “economy” in your school?




Does the wind fan your flame or extinguish it?

img_0379This year so far has been my toughest yet. I am co-teaching a combined English/US History course designed with personalized project-based learning. My teaching partner and I are building the curriculum from the ground up, and because I am in love with writing curriculum around voice and choice, I allowed my enthusiasm to cloud the reality in front of me: 1) This new (required) course would be very different from what our incoming students had experienced before, and 2) a good number of people don’t share my sentiment on change (which is more “Growth is impossible without change” than “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it”).

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when there was pushback from kids and a parent or two, but I was. And it hit me. Hard.

I felt like I was standing alone in an field while a tornado slowly developed around me, and there was nowhere to go. Every time I thought the storm was nearing its end, another wave rolled in, determined to knock me down, and I almost let it. It was hard for me to hear the type of criticism I was hearing. I was hurt, confused, and felt defeated. How could people not understand?

Well, friends, they didn’t understand it because we didn’t make it clear. We thought we’d given some pretty clear information in the e-mails we’d sent home, but as I reflect back, there were a lot of steps explained in those rather than purpose explored. We looked at specifics before they grasped the big picture. And while we had sent home written communication, a meeting with the entire class last spring that we had hoped to hold slipped through the cracks as end of the year activities piled up. We didn’t suggest a parent meeting due to a pilot program in another grade level that we felt needed more attention. All the things that we KNOW are critical to the success of mindset and culture shift were pushed to the back burner as the immediate needs of planning and logistics presented themselves. What I truly understand now that I thought I knew before is that communication and relationships are the MOST immediate and necessary components for success. It wasn’t our course or teaching that failed, it was our roll-out.

This reflection for me has been so powerful. For one, looking at what we could have done differently has made it easier for me to empathize with those who have been what I like to call “less than supportive,” but even more than that, reflection has provided us with a solution. After a pretty honest conversation with the kids and a carefully-designed activity where they got to feel some pretty immediate effects of learning, failing, and growing, we’ve noticed the overall demeanor change completely in the past week. They all understand the purpose now, not because we told them, but because we allowed them to feel it and live it while we supported them along the way. Weeks of frustration and struggle were mediated in one week with parent conferences and a few tweaked lessons and conversations.

I’ve got a flame that burns bright for kids and for learning, but I was flickering at best in those few weeks. Instead of allowing myself to be vulnerable right away and using that negative feedback to help guide my way forward, I put up a wall for a minute. Even though I knew what we were doing was good for our kids, I almost let my frustration with the push-back extinguish the fire completely. I let the overwhelming wind of a few loud voices drown out the breaths of quiet positivity that, come to find out, many of our students and parents shared. And honestly, I am glad I didn’t know, because my purpose in my career is to serve ALL, not most, and I am so thankful for this experience to help me do better for every stakeholder in the future.

But none of this growth would have been possible without my teaching partner, tech directors, principal, superintendent, and countless others in my PLN who have provided guidance and support along the way. I am so fortunate to have forward-thinking leaders who truly know me and can see when I need them and then show up for me.  Outside my school walls, the IMMOOC community produced blog posts that I needed to read (especially one from my PLN friend Annick Rauch), and Season 3, Episode 5 with George Couros, Katie Martin, and Dwight Carter came at the exact moment I needed it.

The three most important things I hope to share are these:


  • Hear, reflect, and adapt. Notice that respond is not included there. Respond implies that you are speaking, and while communication is obviously important, words are just words until you do the changing. When you adapt for others in your actions, though, you send a louder message than any words could project.
  • Reflection = solution. If you want to find solutions to the problems you face, you have to be willing to reflect — truly reflect — and take ownership for your role in the problem, yes, but more importantly, your role in the solution. It may not come right away, but eventually, you’ll move in the right direction.
  • You need a community inside and outside of your building. My PLN fuels me in ways I have never been fueled before, and they all know where I’ve been. They reach out when they see me struggling and encourage me to stay strong and stay kind (Thanks, George), which are both reminders I desperately needed then.


From now on, I will direct the wind to fan my flame rather than allow it to be extinguished. I’ll hear, reflect, and adapt even as the winds come, bending with the wind so that I don’t break. And I’ll lean on the community that continues to fuel my flame and keep me ignited for kids and learning.

Be the Change for Kids #IMMOOC

The other day, my mom called my daughters and they couldn’t stop staring at the black screen. “Where’s Nana?” they asked. “We can’t see her!” Facetime is their normal. Connection no matter the distance is their expectation. I couldn’t have imagined that as a two or five year old, but I am so thankful that when we lived thousands of miles away from our families, my kids were still able to see and know them with so much ease. This new and better way of communication provides an opportunity for deeper relationships that didn’t exist before.

By George’s definition, innovation is making something new and better, and it is my job as a teacher to learn and try new and better ways to make learning more accessible, applicable, and meaningful to my students and their realities. But I think the real takeaway from this week’s YouTube Live with Jo Boaler is that the process of innovation in the classroom is the part that’s most important, and it’s important for two reasons.

  1. Innovation leads to failure, which leads to deeper learning.  Jo explained that when we fail, our brains actually grow more than when we get an answer “right” or succeed, so we’re learning more from a failure than from a success, and that failure can push us to a more complete understanding and more probable success in the future (not to mention the ability to see a problem from multiple perspectives). It helps us change the narrative that failure is to be avoided, but instead is meant to be celebrated as a springboard for success.  Isn’t that what we want for our kids: to be motivated, learn from their choices, and ultimately be successful and fulfilled in their lives? Isn’t that what we want for ourselves?
  2. Modeling the process makes them more comfortable as reflective learners. Designing new and better ways of learning for my students and sharing that learning (i.e. my planning, experiments, failures, adjustments, successes, and reflections) with them not only provides more opportunities for them to learn content and 21st century skills, but more importantly, it provides them a model for engaging in the process of innovation/learning that they can improve upon and take with them to use for the rest of their lives. Innovation doesn’t just make new and better things; it makes better people.

My favorite part of Jo’s talk was when she said that “learning something new changes your identity.” Of course, I want my students to learn to read and write, but what I really want is to teach them how to be empathetic, thoughtful, engaged, open-minded, and accepting humans through the things we read and write together. I want them to see the struggles of others and jump up to help. I hope for them to solve the problems of the world even if some of those problems don’t affect them very much or at all. I want them to feel deeply that they are needed in this world because so many of them don’t see that yet. A multiple choice test isn’t going to accomplish or even slightly contribute to those goals, but giving them opportunities to impact others in their community and beyond with their thoughts and their words will. Innovation will help them to change their identities for the better. And I know this because that’s what it’s done for me and for every other educator I’ve met who has grown passionate about improving their practice for kids.

Is it always easy? Absolutely not. I will never forget a lesson I planned after starting the first round of #IMMOOC when my seventh graders nearly revolted because I let them choose their path to the product. Some of them instantly valued the newfound freedom that Jo explained this week that teachers and kids all want, and in time, all of them grew to appreciate and crave this type of learning. But kids are the easiest to win over because it’s their education and learning. They are the primary stakeholders. Adults are not as easy, and I continue to have colleagues, friends, parents, and even strangers challenge my change in practice. Not everyone will see the value, and that’s okay, but we have to keep in mind that it is the kids who matter. We got into education to make a positive difference in kids’ lives. It’s absolutely crucial to them that we follow through.

be the change

photo from wikimedia commons

#IMMOOC: The gift that keeps on giving

In my relatively short teaching career, I’ve experienced a lot of changes. Before I was certified, I taught a reading lab at a university in Tennessee, then became certified in Texas, and early in my first year teaching there, I found out my husband had received orders to Illinois. When I started teaching here in the Land of Lincoln, I can’t tell you how many times I said both to myself and to others that I was thrilled not to have to undergo any major changes for a while. Little did I know the biggest changes were yet to come.

Fast forward a year. Our district Instructional Technology Director, Joanna (@joannacarroll96), came into my room raving about this new book The Innovator’s Mindset. She said just reading the intro gave her chills. I believed her, but also believed that if I took on one more work-related thing either my head was going to explode or I might have to reconsider my career choice. It sounded like a great book, but I filed it away into the folder in my mind labeled “Hope to get to; probably won’t.”

Joanna is persistent, though, and she’s good at her job. She made sure to mention it periodically, and when the author, George Couros (@cgouros), announced that he and Katie Martin (also amazing – follow her at @katiemartiedu) would be moderating on open, online course about the book, she not-so-subtly encouraged me to do it with her. I’d join and lurk, I decided, but it only took half of the first chapter to realize that I wasn’t going to be a lurker.

The last week of the #IMMOOC, I blogged that the end was really just the beginning. In that post, I reflected on the change I experienced over those few weeks:

Over the last few weeks, I have noticed a huge change in myself, both as a person and as an educator. It is amazing what fueling your passion can do for all aspects of your life. I have had more energy for my family, for my students, and for myself, and it hasn’t been an energy burst — like the kind I need for a week or two when I have a lot going on. That type of energy isn’t sustainable, and when the busy weeks are over, you’re left feeling empty — drained. The energy I feel now fills me up and keeps me constantly pushing for more. If I was asked to explain what innovation does for a person, that is how I would describe it: fulfilling in innumerable ways.

I had been so worried about what the book study might take away form me: time and energy. Instead, it only gave: fuel for my passion, permission and encouragement to be the educator I’d been fighting to be, a growing PLN to learn from and share with, and an energy I’d never known before. And those gifts keep on giving a year later. Before beginning, the thought of one more change in my life exhausted me. After five short weeks, this was what I had to say about change:

Sometimes we are scared to change our ways for fear that that means we’ve been doing it “wrong,” when in reality, we need to see every iteration of what we do as a step towards something better, even if that something better is always changing. That doesn’t mean we’re “throwing out the book” of our past experiences and successes. It just means that the book is a living document and we get to add to it all the time.

I’m not exaggerating when I say The Innovator’s Mindset and #IMMOOC changed my life, and minus the cost of the book, it’s FREE! If you’re even considering signing up, please read Annick Rauch’s post about what the book study entails (and to answer your question: Yes, I “met” her through #IMMOOC!). If you’re ready, you can go straight to the sign up!

And if you do sign up, please comment to this post or tweet me @MrsKrolicki_phs with your Twitter handle and blog so that I can follow you! I can’t wait to get started on round 3 with you!


Technology isn’t the problem. We might be.

I realize that title sounds harsh, but the experience I’m about to relay highlights the unintended (and kind of terrifying) lessons we might be teaching our students, not just about technology, but also about life.

image1 (1)

A week and a half ago, George Couros, author of The Innovator’s Mindset and The Principal of Change blog came to speak at Peoriapalooza, the Peoria County teacher’s institute. Somewhere in his speech, he mentioned a school where access to online resources was so locked-down that the teachers went to the students constantly to access useful content from which they were restricted. Everyone laughed because: #truth.

Except that when it happened to me this week, I wasn’t laughing at all.

This past Friday, my kids edited an uncapitalized, unpunctuated version of this Dear John” letter as an anticipatory set to help them see purpose in punctuation for meaning. They loved it, grappling especially when they finally figured out how to make it a love letter, and I explained that now, they’d need to make it a break up letter. Their wide eyes and dropped jaws let me know that they didn’t see how ONLY changing punctuation and capitalization could make this happen. “We can’t rearrange or delete words?!” They didn’t think it was possible, but they figured it out, and all agreed that punctuation could be a game-changer. Of course, I was on cloud nine: the hook had worked!

The next part of the lesson was a content primer, so I had shared Terisa Folaron’s “Comma Story” and three other videos about sentence structure for a project my students are beginning. In slow waves as they finished notes on the first three videos, students started coming up to my desk to tell me the fourth one was blocked. Without thinking much about it (because this happens all the time), I e-mailed the link to our system administrator asking for it to be unblocked. But a few minutes later when they had just moved on to the next step, I wondered why they hadn’t used their usual tricks to get the blocked content.

My next two classes came in, and the same situation occurred. I let it unfold much the same, but when they started coming to my desk in the second class, I asked them to solve the problem. “Have you asked for it to be unblocked?” some asked. I had, I explained, but sometimes the system doesn’t update right away. They walked away and moved on to the next step.

When I finally asked if they knew how to get blocked YouTube videos, they all hesitated, but said that yes, they did. So if they knew of a tool to get content the school felt they shouldn’t be able to access, why wouldn’t they use that same tool to get content they knew their teacher had approved and wanted them to have? Cue the crickets.

I spoke to several groups of kids after that, and I’ve concluded that some of them didn’t use the tool to unblock the video was because they were scared to use it when they knew I was watching. They wanted to protect their tool so that they could continue to use it to get what they valued more: their music. And I can completely understand that thinking.

In far more cases, though, it never occurred to them to use it for class-related content, which to me, is the concerning part. Are we demonstrating through our actions that only pre-approved tools have value in our classroom rather than signalling that all tools can have impact while focusing on positive use? Will our kids leave our classrooms truly better for having transformative tools, or are our practices holding students back from life- and world-changing applications?

Have we inadvertently taught our kids that breaking the rules is reserved for what is deemed “wrong” or questionable  rather than for doing good or even just learning? I know we certainly haven’t meant to, but the consequences are still the consequences — intentional or not.

Hug your students

…or give them a high five. Or a fist-bump. Or a pat on the back.


Every morning starts the same way for me. I drive my daughter and I to school, we drop my things in my room, and then I walk her over to her elementary school to begin her day. Then I walk back, smiling and wishing a good day to all the kids walking on the sidewalk or into their first classes. Somewhere in that routine every morning, I get a hug from at least one former student of mine. Every. Single. Day.

I feel like I need to stop to address the elephant in the room: Yes, I hug my students. If they ask for one, if they reach out, if they are crushed or sad and I have asked if they need one, I hug them. Sometimes it’s a high five (or an air high five) or a fist-bump or a pat on the back, but sometimes it’s a hug. I’m in the low-paying, high-need, extraordinarily rewarding, all-consuming, emotionally-draining, incredible business of education (aka relationships), and if a student asks for a hug, I won’t say no…

…because I don’t know what they just walked out of before they walked into my room.

…because some of them have told me that they hate the weekends because school is more stable than home.

…because it’s a compliment that they want to hug me.

…because they might not be able to remember the last time someone hugged, high-fived or fist-bumped them.

…because someday in the not-so-distant future, each and every one of these kids is going to leave our classroom and our school, and I want them to be kind, compassionate, empathetic humans who make others feel important and loved.

One day last year, one of my junior high students made an incredibly poor decision in the way he treated another student in our classroom when I was out for the day and had a sub. When I returned and heard about his behavior, my principal and I had a discussion with him that, although calmly delivered and threat-free, resulted in his breaking down in tears. Instinctively, I put my arm around his shoulder. In that moment, he was scared and he lied, but I stayed.

Later in the day, he came up to me and told me the truth: He had said the terrible things we asked him about, but he was scared to disappoint me any further than he already had. When he finally unloaded the real story, he said: “Thank you for comforting me even though you were disappointed in what I’d done and you knew I was lying. I just didn’t want you to be mad at me.”

That was the moment that I truly understood the power of a hug (or a high five or a smile or whatever you’re comfortable sharing with your kids to show them you care). It hadn’t even crossed my mind at the time, but what it showed my student was that he could count on me to be in his corner no matter what. I would continue to respect and care about him as he made mistakes and learned how to be a good person. I wouldn’t turn my back if he messed up; instead, I’d stand next to him and help him find a way to pick up the pieces.

In education, the importance of authenticity and relationships can’t be overestimated. If the kids know you care, their investment in your class increases. I share my faults with them, I admit when I’m wrong, and I apologize.. If I’ve learned anything from the educators I read and respect, it’s that the three most important aspects of education are relationships, relationships, and relationships.

I learned it from my favorite professor in my graduate program, Dr. Lynn Masterson at Texas Sate University, who modeled for us every day what a positive classroom culture and a culture of writing can do for students. I learned it further from Susan Shires, my cooperating teacher at Steele High School in Cibolo, Texas, who knew her students so completely and took the time to really know and invest in me. I continue to learn it every day from my current principal, Rich, who makes knowing kids and teachers his business, even when his other responsibilities as principal feel overwhelming. I learn it from people like George Couros, Adam Welcome, Todd Nesloney, Joy Kirr, and many more, who write incredible books and blogs that shift my perspective and strengthen my resolve to be the best teacher I can be for the students I serve.

And if you’re a friend, colleague, student, or acquaintance who has ever hugged me, know that you’ve impacted me positively through the care you’ve shown when I needed it. I appreciate you.



Engaged or empowered? Am I allowing my students to love and own what I teach?

A student writes a poem about writing a poem:


Standing in an hourglass,
Sand funnels beneath my heels.
I dig them in
desperately, frantically.
But swirling doesn’t stop,
only funnels faster,
down, down
to nothing.

My mind gets blanker –
blanker than the page
I’m forced to fill.
The timer goes off.
The last grain falls
and hits the pile,
loud, echoing.
I see lines and space between.
Failed again.

She hasn’t failed! I rejoice. She used metaphor, imagery, tone, great diction – I halt, suddenly aware. She hasn’t failed, but I have. The underlying meaning would be much different if her poem read this way instead:

The hourglass, my beach.CT, Italy
Sand funnels beneath my heels,
and light currents sweep me,
wave after wave, crisp and cool,
Words unending.

The page: an ocean of opportunity.
There’s not enough water
for a swimmer like me,
cutting, gliding through currents,
no need for air.
I am the wave. I am the page.
I have the words.



A New Recipe for Writing Instruction (with Only 3 Ingredients)!

I am a writer.

For years, I scribbled in notebooks or clacked away on a keyboard always hoping that one day, I would become a writer. Do you see the flaw in that thinking? I WAS a writer – I have always been a writer – but I believed I wasn’t. Because I was a student, because I wasn’t a professional, because I didn’t see my strengths, and because no one told me I was, I must not have been a writer.


Image from pixabay

How many of your students would say that they ARE, present tense, right now, writers? If your students are like many of mine used to be, my guess is that very few, if any, would describe themselves as writers if you asked. In contrast, how many of your students use writing as a means of communication daily? How many of your students will need to be effective writers/communicators in their futures? Yes, all of them.

Writing instruction is an area with which even English teachers struggle. Truth be told, most of us aren’t taught HOW to teach writing, and if we don’t see ourselves as writers we’re not likely to dip our toes in and try teaching it. But you don’t have to be professional chef to cook well or enjoy cooking, and the same is true for teaching writing. With a few simple ingredients, anyone can help make writers.

Ingredient 1: Choice

The other night I was reading Kids Deserve It by Adam Welcome and Todd Nesloney, and they quote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1950) when discussing leadership: “If you want to build a ship, don’t gather people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather, teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea” (Nesloney & Welcome, 2016, p. 53). This same philosophy could be applied to just about any subject, but it’s particularly relevant for writing.

Students will rarely truly care about, let alone enjoy, writing activities if they don’t care about the writing topic.  Caring about writing begins with caring about WHAT you’re writing. And if our goal as educators is to help students develop a love for reading and writing long-term, it doesn’t seem to make much sense in assigning them topics that feel irrelevant to them or even assigning them specific topics at all. Does this mean we ignore content and standards? Not at all. What it means is that we put students in the driver’s seat. And believe it or not, when students know we trust them and that they have the freedom and responsibility to choose their topic, they focus MORE because they know they need to evaluate their interests if they are to find the idea they’ll enjoy most. I don’t want them to stare at a blank page or plunk away on their keyboards dutifully; instead I want them to be so immersed in their writing that they are surprised when the bell rings and can’t wait for their next free moment to continue.

Ingredient 2: Conferencing (with peers and adults)

I once had a colleague ask me why I would use a fully processed written piece as a summative assessment. “It’s not a test,” she explained. “How do you know what a peer offered or what they would be able to do on their own?”

I understood her concern. It was something I’d worried about before I’d shifted to more authentic and less formulaic, rigid writing instruction in my classroom. But there are a few reasons that that thinking is flawed. The first reason is more logic than anything else: How many people do you know that want to complete someone else’s work for them? Right, none. But our kids DO want to help one another, especially when they are relying on others in the class to help them see their gaps in logic or errors that cloud meaning. Even as an English teacher, I rely on people all the time to preview my ideas or writing before I share them. That’s collaboration and communication at their finest, and we have to teach and learn those skills in context, not piecemeal or as part of a simulation type of lesson that isn’t true learning.

The second reason is more about curriculum. Common Core doesn’t exist so that we can teach students independent standards and check them off a list as students “master” them. The Common Core guidelines exist so that students learn skills in conjunction with other skills. Even in seventh grade, students should, “with some guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on how well purpose and audience have been addressed” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.7.5) because that’s what life looks like. It’s just smart to check with other people before you submit a proposal or present major findings, and it’s also what employers want future workers to be able to do: work together, take feedback well, revise, think through ideas, and polish a good product. That process is quality experience, and experience is an incredible way to learn.

It’s important to note, too, that giving feedback is not giving answers. For me, giving feedback is asking a lot of questions to help students notice their own gaps. It’s commenting on strengths, and asking students if they notice areas for improvement. When students review their peers’ work, they look for different things depending on the writer’s progress at that point, but it’s important for them to think big picture early on and small scale late in the process. In a first draft, I usually don’t comment at all on grammar, usage, or mechanics because a rough draft is meant to be rough. Instead, feedback is focused on cohesion, logic, and purpose. Punctuation placement doesn’t mean much if the readers can’t follow the message! I often have to explain that revising takes more work than changing around a few things. It often means deleting, rearranging, and writing more, which takes a lot of time. With feedback from multiple readers, though, we can notice a lot and help each other find the best direction.

So writing instruction is mostly one-on-one or in small teams in my room now, and as a result, I spend very little time at the front of the room anymore. Small group instruction might happen when a group of kids is ready to learn more sophisticated transition techniques or needs a few more examples of citation. Individual conferences then allow me to spend my time working with struggling students on reading comprehension and analysis strategies (because even high school students need reading instruction) or with an advanced student who is ready to move on to higher level standards or just needs feedback. In both cases, I learn exactly what that student needs and provide as many students as possible with opportunities to ask initial and follow up questions without the pressure of a classroom of listeners. In addition, the responsibility is put on the students to then take that feedback and do the work to improve their writing, and that’s the hard part — the experience — that helps them improve their skills.

I often hear this question: How do you have time for that? Truthfully, it takes up the majority of my time. But simply put, it’s the BEST use I’ve found so far of my students’ and my time. I can SEE their learning happening, and it’s so much more rewarding than HOPING they’ll remember the lesson I just taught at the board enough to apply it in their own work.

Ingredient 3: Audience/Purpose

About a year into my marriage I learned that my husband loves carrot cake. He had been deployed to Afghanistan for almost all of our engagement (and even went back for a few months after we were married), and somehow carrot cake didn’t come up until we had moved again and were expecting our first child. Needless to say, our honeymoon period wasn’t typical, so when I found out he liked carrot cake, I was determined that my first attempt would be perfect for him. I researched recipes online and scoured the reviews to find the best one. I poured over the winning recipe to ensure I noticed all the important details. As it baked, I constantly checked its progress, and when it had cooled, I carefully decorated it with little icing carrots. It wasn’t perfect (in fact, as you can see, my decorating was a little lopsided), but it he loved it, and I was proud of my effort and product.


The carrot cake I made for my husband (over five years ago). 

The truth is, we work harder if we feel that what we’re doing is important or we’re passionate about it or we’re going to share it with someone else. George Couros, author of The Innovator’s Mindset (2015), talks often about the power of shared reflection through blogging. He says that knowing we will probably be read by others (some of whom we’ve never met before) makes us think more deeply about our message, and when we write with the purpose of informing or helping our reader, we naturally want to do well not for only ourselves, but more for our reader, so that he or she can understand clearly.

While I certainly think blogging is a worthwhile writing exercise to strengthen any writer, our students don’t necessarily have to blog to have a purpose and audience. But it is necessary that students have a purpose and share their process and product with an audience whether they make a video about the dangers of stereotypes to publish on YouTube or write a poem about the water cycle that they submit to a science-related publication. Even making a carrot cake can help us develop critical reading skills and attention to detail if we’re making it for someone we love.

Mixing it all together

After a year of writing with choice, purpose, conferencing/feedback, and for different audiences, one of my high school students reflected on her learning as a writer:

Not only have I learned in this class, not only have I experienced in this class, but I have grown. I feel like I have sprouted like a beautiful flower because someone finally gave me the chance. Academically, I feel like I write in such a more sophisticated sense from writing for the school newspaper. I also feel personal strengths of mine, like descriptive detail, emotional writing, poetry, and persuasive ideas, will only grow stronger from here.

This student changed lives through the writing projects she shared, and her confidence grew immensely because she finally had an audience to hear her and cheer her. She felt a purpose in sharing because she wrote about real issues in our school and in her world; she cared deeply about her message and she wanted that message to be well-received by readers, even if they didn’t agree with her. Most importantly, she found her voice and now knows how to push herself in the future. Isn’t that our goal: to help students develop an independent love for learning that lasts a lifetime?

Mixing it up might not be easy: Sometimes a new recipe is difficult to put together. But trying something new is usually a worthwhile adventure. And I can tell you from experience, this one is delicious.