Yes and… Be the Amy Poehler of the Classroom

Amy Poehler.  Tina Fey.  Rachel Dratch.  Mindy Kaling.  These people are my idols.  Though their lives’ work is called comedy and mine is called teaching, there is one rule that unites our professions.

Yes, and… is a rule of thumb in improvisational comedy which states that one comedian should accept what another comedian has said and then expand on that line of thinking.  It is the opposite of “No, but…”

If you’ve ever watched Saturday Night Live, you’ve seen improvisation comedy in action.  You know the kind–the jokes they make up as they go.  They’re always the funniest.  But the entire show is not improv.  They’ve practiced very hard to get where they are at.  They prepare laboriously for the week leading up to the show.  It’s all of the hard work and practice put in before airtime that allows the actors to be responsive on stage.

In many ways, teaching is like SNL.  We plan lessons late into the night.  We research best practices and find ways to implement them into our classrooms.  But the best teaching happens when we are responsive and flexible–with our colleagues (actors on stage with us) and with our students (our audience).

Domain 3e:  Instruction–Demonstrating flexibility and responsiveness in The Charlotte Danielson Framework is the Yes and… of the teaching world.  It encompasses:  teacher making a major adjustment to a lesson successfully, teacher seizing a teachable moment to enhance learning by building on a spontaneous event, and teacher using an extensive repertoire of strategies and resources to persist in making learning accessible to students who need help.

Yes and…, this idea of flexibility and responsiveness has enriched my teaching practices in ways I could not have done on my own but were only made possible by validating the voices of my students and colleagues.  For example, when a student interrupted my lesson to ask me what kind of eye shadow I was wearing and whether or not it was Sephora’s Naked Palette, we took some time to investigate and calculate the price per eyeshadow color in the Naked Palette, graph our data, and write a linear equation for our graph.  Voila, lesson on linear relationships!  When two of my very competitive students arrive to class with a sheet of paper containing their Yahtzee scores, we used the scoresheet to practice mental math strategies for addition in order to determine a winner and mental math strategies for subtraction in order to determine how large the winner’s margin was.  Yes and… also lead to the renaming of the transformation strategy for subtraction to the “VooDoo Doll strategy.”  I easily could have written off my student’s weirdly dark comparison of the transformation strategy to voodoo, but instead we investigated the history of voodoo dolls (did you know there is really no link between voodoo dolls and the Haitian or Louisiana Voodoo religions?) and practiced the transformation strategy using this comparison. (For example:  43-18 can be transformed into 45-20 by adding 2 to the subtrahend (voodoo doll)  so that it is easier to subtract mentally.  Therefore, the minuend (victim) must also be transformed by the same amount.)

What could Yes and… do for your teaching?

To your co-teachers and colleagues, Yes and… conveys I trust you with our students.  I respect you.  I am willing and excited to work with you.  I will support your teaching decisions.  I will look for ways to collaborate with you even when we disagree.  We are a united front.

To your students, Yes and… conveys Your voice is heard.  Your voice is valued in this classroom.  I’d like to honor our differences.  This learning is yours to own.  Your curiosity will be rewarded.  What is important to you is important to me, too.

Try Yes and… in your classroom.  If it doesn’t work, it’s possible you could still explore a career in improv comedy.



What My Book Abandoners Taught Me About My First Year of Teaching

Like a puppy at the pound, I’ve seen many books abandoned by my middle school students this year.  Thankfully, I work in a district that supports positive and productive strategies to work through book abandonment.  Instead of forcing students to finish a book (aka forcing them to fake read), we have discussion about it.  We analyze our reading habits.  One strategy I found to be effective this year was to keep a story arc clipped to my clipboard I use for conferences.  When I confer with a reader and they are contemplating abandoning a book, I pull out the story arc and ask them to show me where they are in the book.  When they realize the best is yet to come, they sometimes hang onto the book for a while longer.  (Next year, I’d like to take this strategy one step further with my habitual abandoners and have them mark with a X where they are when they abandon a book.  I predict that those Xs will often be crowded in one area.)

Now, as my first year of teaching comes to a close, I am compelled to analyze my own story arc.  This was originally shared with me by my mentor in the district at the very beginning of the year and has pushed me forward during the rough times.  Often, we see teachers within their first five years make the decision to leave the profession, much like my book abandonders I discussed earlier.  If you are considering going into teaching or are considering leaving the profession, consider where you are on this continuum.

1.  Anticipation:  key characteristics involve romanticizing the teaching profession and perhaps being a little idealistic.  I believe the key here is to maintain your hope and optimism while balancing reality.  Allowing yourself to find joy in the small breakthroughs will help you get through the low patches.

2. Survival:  this is the feeling of drowning, when you don’t have time to reflect on what got you there.  The good news is that sometimes adrenaline can push you through this phase–we have the hope that the turmoil will subside as long as we “just keep swimming.”

3. Disillusionment:  this is where we start to question our competency  and commitment.  This is where we start catching all the sicknesses.  This is where every waking thought is about our students (and let’s be honest, they show up in our dreams, too).  This is where learning gets messy and classroom management becomes our biggest undertaking.  This is where we need grace and flexibility, thank you Lord! This phase can be the longest, slow-moving phase.  So take your Vitamin C and be gracious with yourself, please!  Caution: Don’t make any life changing decisions while disillusioned!

4. Rejuvenation:  Ah.  Breath of fresh air.  We’re finally getting into the swing of things here. We understand the procedures, we are accepting the realities of teaching, and we are finding some success somewhere.

5. Reflection: we begin looking back over the highlights of the year and planning for the next (in fact, I’m out of the classroom today doing scheduling for next year!). We are reinvigorated with a new vision.   Spring is in the air!

This framework helped me tremendously in understanding my own journey and giving me the language to process through what was happening amidst the circus that was my first year (seriously, so much fun, a little chaotic, and I got to wear lots of hats).  I was invited to speak on a panel for first-year teachers and I do believe this arc provides a nice framework with which to design better programs to guide the transitions that come with being a new teacher.  It’s a huge undertaking!  Hats off to all of you who have made it through your first year and good luck to you whether you decide to keep teaching or share your passion another way!


Reflections from the First Year of Teaching: From Wisconsin to D.C.

It’s been about a year since I’ve flown on a plane.  It’s been about a year since I started my first teaching job.  It’s been about a year since I said, “See you later!” to my awesome colleagues at Project Y.E.S!, an internship that allowed me to travel all around the country with fellow leaders and work with military families and youth, and “Hello!” to my new colleagues here at a middle school in South Central Wisconsin.  Though we’ve spread throughout the country and we’re now separated by many miles, I still feel so connected to my Y.E.S! colleagues thanks to the strong relationships we’ve built with each other and thanks to technology.  And today I want to talk about one of those connections:  my colleague, Patrick Harris.  Patrick, who still travels with Y.E.S! is also a first-year teacher.  He teaches in the southeastern region of Washington D.C.  He is also a part of the 2% of black male educators that make up our national teaching force.  Patrick is very active on Twitter (@PresidentPat) and also hosts a very entertaining and often inspiring Snapchat story.  Earlier this week, he posted a story reflecting on his first year of teaching.  I found it to be very thought-provoking and was also amazed at how much it resonated with me, despite our teaching situations being incredibly different.  The following three bolded points were spoken by Patrick, and my own reflection follows.

  1. When there is a space for innovation, creativity, and critical thinking, results will always follow. Student ownership is key to learning that lasts.  Allowing students to create and construct their learning and be meaning-makers, and providing rich tasks to provoke creative problem solving will ensure that students learn.  Really learn.  It is our job to make learning “stick,” right?  If it’s going to be “sticky,” expect a mess, but know that results will follow.  Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.  You know what they say:  with great risks, comes great reward.
  2. No job is worth compromising your values and who you are, especially if it is as the expense of the people you serve.  Patrick lives this everyday, and I can see it.  He is unapologetically himself, which is truly honorable in a system that was built to bring him, and others like him, down.  It is so obvious that teaching is in his blood.  As is social justice.  Patrick brings his heart to the classroom everyday and that’s what his students benefit from most.
  3. When you are living out your purpose, the very thing you were created on this earth to do, there is nothing that can stop you–no bad policy, no bad law, no bad procedure, nothing!  As teachers, we assume a lot of risk by signing up to be a part of a deeply flawed institution.  We knew the risks.  We need to face them and attack them at the classroom level.  Changes in education policy often take up to 30 years to change.  If the average teacher quits before year 3, what good did they do?  Don’t allow your passion to be extinguished due to poor policies.  Instead, let it ignite your purpose so that you can carry out what you were meant to do.  Burn bright, don’t burn out!

Thanks, Patrick, and thank you to all of our fellow teacher leaders that live these three points every day.  To quote my fellow educator, “Go out there and be great today, let’s do something different, let’s do something new!”

Our Students are Not Commodities

I just completed my first-year cycle of the Educator Effectiveness process.  I collected baseline data, analyzed the results, hand-selected a target population, determined a student-learning objective, developed differentiated lessons, taught the lessons, was observed, reflected, changed my teaching practices, monitored progress and, eventually?  Wrapped all of that up with a pretty little number that is supposed to summarize my effectiveness as a teacher.  Okay.

I promise you my job is so much more than what is reflected in that number.  Albeit, my number wasn’t so bad for a first year teacher.  In fact, it was pretty darn good.  But do I feel like it is an accurate depiction of me, as a teacher, as a person?  How do I even answer that?  Though I don’t have an answer for that, I am asked to answer that, for my students.

Listen, I do think there is a ton pf merit to the Educator Effectiveness process, if you dare to put effort into it.  I believe in reflection.  I believe in accountability.  And I love data just as much as the next person.  I could pore over charts and graphs for hours.  But the truth is, not matter how much data I collect on one of my students, data will never give me a complete picture even if I do consider multiple data points.  Because my students are human.  Humans are multidimensional.  Humans are in constant flux–growing, regressing, changing, affected by the most minute details of being human.  They are complex.  They are worthwhile, every single one of them.  And they are not commodities.

During one of the meetings meant to analyze my EEP data, my principal stopped and asked me to explain what I had written at the very end of my SLO document.

“Though I highly value the SLO process, I did feel that, at times, as connected as I was to my students, it made them feel like commodities to me.”

This was a hard thing for me to admit.  I value my ability to connect with kids and to make them feel known.  But the disappointment I felt when a student who had been working so hard failed to meet the student learning objective I had set for them was deep-a little too deep.  Had I turned into an SLO monster?  Had I started to become exactly the person I didn’t want to be–someone whose focus is laser-pointed at the data instead of spotlighted on the student?

How do I prevent myself from becoming that?  From seeing my students as commodities?  I don’t have the answer completely.  But I have some thoughts.

  1. Provide more opportunities for students to take ownership of their work.  Engage my students in more goal-setting and self-reflection.  What matters to you?  Where do you want to push yourself to?  How have you grown?  What would have helped you grow more?  Involve them in the goal-setting process and it becomes more about them than any number.
  2. Be more intentional with lesson objectives.  This will keep me in check as well as aid student learning. Welcome the “Why does this matter?” and always be ready for the “When will I use this?”.  Check in at the end of each lesson with “How did we move towards achieving this objective today?”  How did we make growth rather than the yes or no question, did we make growth?
  3. Don’t bog my students down with data, but be transparent about it.  Celebrate growth without attributing the proof of it to any one point of data.  When they ask to see their test scores, make sure that they are in a reflective place first and always show them more than one data point, especially if seeing their score can be destructive to their future success.

Hopefully these strategies will help me create a healthy relationship in my classroom between being data-driven and student-centered.  What are you suggestions?


What’s In a Name?

When I was a sophomore in high school, a new student moved into our district from the Philippines.  This student knew little English and was faced with the huge task of learning a new language via immersion.  That’s not to say he knew nothing.  Because he did know something very important:  his name.  His peers, however, had one new word to learn but failed miserably.  So much so that he eventually started to respond to any near-pronunciation of his name.   Even at that time, I thought to myself, What a tragedy.   Straight up Romeo and Juliet tragedy.

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose,
By any other name would smell as sweet.                                                                                           

Am I being dramatic?  I don’t think so.  The mispronunciation of names happens often to our students of color and students learning English as a second language.  And it’s implications are much larger than you may think.

Why was it such a tragedy?  What a question to unload.  I’ll do my best.

Parents labor over picking the perfect name for a child, sometimes waiting a few days after the birth so they can get the name just right.  It’s highly symbolic.  It’s identification.  Ignoring their identity is to “render them (their family, their history, their culture) invisible.”

Mispronunciation of a name is often only the first slight that these students receive on their education journey.  It sets the stage for their future connection to school and to education.  Students of color are already at a disadvantage when you consider their connection to school:  rarely do they see themselves reflected in the teachers and administration they see everyday.  Mispronouncing their names affirms the message, “You don’t belong here.”

If we want equity for all students, we must stop mispronouncing and Anglicizing their names.  This means we need to take a few extra minutes to get the pronunciations down.  We need to stop asking people to choose an “American” name (seriously, I’m not going to call you GREG if your name is JaeWon).  We must put the emphasis on the right syllables, recognize how an accent will impact the pronunciation of a name, and pronounce that soft C instead of the hard C even if it feels unnatural to us at first.  And we must teach our students not to accept the mispronunciation of their name, either.  As we know, Juliet was tragically wrong in the end.


To read more about how mispronouncing names and other racial microaggressions impact learning, read this article.

To see a list of picture books about the importance of a name, see this Goodreads list (my favorites are The Name Jar and My Name is Yoon).

For tips and resources on how to pronounce students’ names correctly, visit this quick guide put together by EdWeek.

For more information and resources, please visit My Name, My Identity.

How I Became a Math Person

“You’re going to be my math person.”  These words?  Terrifying for someone like me (yes, a teacher) who almost failed 6th grade math and inexplicably skipped 8th grade math and took Algebra independently, who always asked “But why does it work?” and never got answers, who bailed out on taking the AP Calc test the day-of and was totally okay with paying the $15 it took to send the booklet back because it saved me from that misery, who had to take calc again in college (the most dropped class at my university) with a professor whose first language was Spanish and whose second language was calculus and whose third language was English.

“You’re going to be my math person.”  These words were spoken by my amazing principal, who had faith that I could be a “math person.”  Who would depend on me to be a “math person.”  Though I had somehow managed to salvage my interest for math despite very negative experiences with it, I have always considered myself a “literacy” person.  Turns out, there are a LOT of “literacy” persons, especially in my school.  It’s a wonderful atmosphere, one that I hope remains for good, but attitudes about math tend to be very different from attitudes about reading.  Sure, you’ve probably heard, “I don’t read” or even “I don’t like to read.”  But we all know that reading is an essential part of anyone’s everyday life and that, even if we don’t prefer to do it in our spare time or even if it takes us a little longer to do, we are capable of becoming better readers.  But math?  Nah, you’re either a math person or you aren’t.  Right?  WRONG.

This idea of either being born with math ability or not is a predominantly Western belief–it is not pervasive in Eastern countries like Singapore or Japan.  A Western belief likely not helped by standardized assessments, an obvious lack of women leaders in mathematics, poor mathematics instruction (forced timed tests and algorithm-before-conceptual-understanding methods) and negative math self-talk by parents and teachers alike.  A Western belief that ignores brain science that tells us our brains have an amazing capacity to change and grow.

I’ve had to change and grow in my current position.  I’ve had to take on implementing a math intervention program at our school.  And it has been one of the most fun (yes, challenging) things I’ve accomplished.  I’ve had to re-evaluate my beliefs and mindset about math.  I’ve had to relearn the 7th and 8th grade math I simply didn’t in 7th and 8th grade.  I’ve had to break myself of algorithmic thinking and consider the conceptual backgrounds of algebra.

And because of it?  So.  Many.  Opportunities.

So, can you become a “math person”? Yes.

Because one day, someone said to me:  “You’re going to be my math person.”

And, here I am.  Your math person.

And there you are.  A math person, too.

Summer of Series

Even though we have a month left of school, we are already deep into preparing for the next.  I will be taking on a new role in my district (8th grade Special Education-math emphasis!) and have a ton to look forward to.  And, although I will be keeping busy this summer by teaching science, contributing to our district’s new Equity Team, and orientating incoming 7th graders to our building, I’ve also built myself a nice little list of books I’d like to tackle.  I’m calling it:  The Summer of Series Series.

Besides for Harry Potter, The Series of Unfortunate Events, the Divergent series, the Hunger Game series, and, yes, the Twilight series, I’ve pretty much stuck to stand-alone books.  I’ve recently gained interest into books written in series and will share them here with you.  We’ll see how many I’ll get through this summer!

  1.  The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer*
  2.  The Dorothy Must Die Series by Danielle Paige
  3.  The Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo (because I really can’t wait to read Six of Crows!)
  4.  Pivot Point Series by Kasie West 
  5.  The Mara Dyer Series by Michelle Hodkin
  6. A Court of Thrones and Roses Series by Sarah J. Maas* 
  7. The Chaos Walking Series by Patrick Ness 
  8. The Death Note Series by Tsugumi Ohbata                                                                                           
  9. The Mortal Instruments Series by Cassandra Clare 


*Do you think maybe I love fairytale retellings?

What was your favorite series?  What is a series you’ve been too intimidated to read?  Happy tales!

The Power of the Messy Bun

Monday afternoon, a student enters my room, ready to complete an assessment that’s been looming over his head for quite some time.  Before we began, he said to me:

“Mrs. Burton, I think you should’ve done your hair a different way on Friday.  It looked weird.”

I’m serious.  An 8th grade boy was giving me hair advice.  And he had clearly been so disturbed by the messy bun I donned while competing in a school-wide dodgeball tournament on Friday that it haunted him over the weekend and on to Monday.  I joke because honestly, I could have been hurt by his comments (seriously, I can be such a crybaby about things–teachers have feelings, too!).  Instead, I learned a very valuable lesson.

Because, at it turns out, this same student had been bullied for his new haircut even though you 1) never would have guessed he did it himself and 2) never would have guessed it was done with farm equipment (really, he uses a cattle shears).

Middle school deals out so many cringe-worthy and awkward situations.  We need to embrace it to survive.  It’s actually kind of inspiring to see how brave my students can be as they experience the growing pains of middle school on such a public platform.  Their vulnerability and their courage as they stumble around, trying to find out who they are and to be comfortable with it should be admired!  They are unapologetically themselves, even as they try on different hats, different personalities, different styles and face criticism and judgment for doing so.  And they need role models who aren’t afraid to do the same.  So, when that student came into my room, plopped down onto a chair, and offered unwarranted hair advice?

I could have scolded him for being rude and demanded an apology. I could have stoically ignored the comment and told him to be silent and take his test.

But instead, we had a good laugh.  I threw my hair up into the same messy bun and said, “If this is too distracting for you while you take that test, I can put my hair back down.  But I kind of like it up there; it helps me think.”  He granted me permission to keep it up and went on to perform amazingly on his assessment.*

This morning, I passed that student in the hall.  I flipped my hair and asked, “How does it look today?”  He smiled with approval, but I highly doubt he really cares about my hair.

messy bun


*power of the messy bun, see?

If I Wasn’t a Teacher…

I’d be a detective.*

Or one of those people who record audiobooks.**

If I wasn’t a teacher,

I’d be an explorer***

or a gourmet chef.****

If I wasn’t a teacher,

I might find myself rescuing lost pups*****

or working with the homeless.******

I might find myself on an army base*******

or attempting to heal a broken bone********

or maybe broken hearts.*********

If I wasn’t a teacher,

I might be a party planner**********

or a party clown.***********

I might even join the circus.************

If I wasn’t a teacher,

I might be an ethnographer*************

or a cartographer,**************

a typographer,***************


If I wasn’t a teacher,

I might be a talk show host*****************

or a singing sensation. ******************

But because I’m a teacher,

I get to be all of these things.

*heh heh heh any student who thinks they can fool me should think again!
**seriously, though, how do I get this job?  I’ve had plenty of practice, hello read-alouds!
***oh man, the discoveries I’ve made as a teacher!  Call me Magellan!
****bottom drawer on the left…my students never go hungry!  Gourmet Ritz crackers, gourmet rice cakes, gourmet granola bars, gourmet fruit snacks…
*****on the first day of school, I helped a tiny tiny 7th grade boy standing awkwardly amidst the chaos who asked, “Are they going to tell us what to do?” as the bell rang.
******it is likely, if you are a teacher, that you in fact have students who do not have a permanent home.
*******some days it feels like this.  Also, students who come from military families are often not identified as such in public schools, despite their unique strengths, challenges, and culture.
********masking tape works fine in a pinch for a suspected broken finger or toe.
*********middle school love is real, this I believe.
**********I’ve been known to throw a nice end-of-quarter celebration but heck, every day is a party in my classroom!
***********I get things done.
************done and done.
*************every day is a new lesson in the culture and customs of middle school students.
**************a life map is what I make.
***************thank you Microsoft Word.
****************I probably learn a new slang word every day to be added to the official Burton Middle School Dictionary (wait, hold on, let me trademark that…).
*****************so I came up with this game that I’m thinking about pitching to Jimmy Fallon, inspired by a student who loves “deathcore” music:  listen to a deathcore song and try to interpret what the “singers” are saying.  I’ve tried this with my class.  Hilarious results.
******************Um so yeah, I’ve belted some Adele in my classroom.  It’s also hilarious to me when my students proclaim, “I can’t believe my teacher knows who Wiz Khalifa is!”

So you Work with anOther Teacher (SWOT)

Co-teaching.  It can be a beautiful, beautiful thing.  It can also be incredibly challenging.  Think of this:  two different people with different philosophies, different backgrounds and experiences, different communication and teaching styles, different places in their lives.  There could potentially be a lot of conflict, right?  (Right.)  However, with a shared vision, giving students what they need to be successful, even the most opposite of people can be united.

As a first year teacher, I myself have the opportunity to co-teach.  It has not always been easy, but great learning never happened without challenge.  Today, I’d like to share with you an analytical framework (often used in a corporate setting) that you and your co-teacher can use to collaboratively dialogue and discuss an idea, especially if you’ve encountered a conflict in opinions.  I like to call it “So you Work with anOther Teacher”, otherwise known as SWOT:  Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats framework.


*Our amazing principal guided us through this framework, so I’ll be sharing with you how she had us use it, which may be slightly different than how it is used in a business model.

First, think about your objective and the course of action you are considering (or disagreeing about!) taking to achieve that objective.  Begin by stating a strength or weakness that is seen with that particular course of action.  Now, with that strength or weakness, consider how it could be transformed into an opportunity and how it might be seen as a threat.  The idea is to consider all points of view so that you and your co-teacher can make the most informed decision.  By implementing a structure such as this, some of the emotion involved in conflict is removed and each side is able to see things more objectively.

Collaboration is hard.  And conflict can be messy.  But there are invaluable lessons to be learned through co-teaching!  Your students will benefit!

What are your strategies for effective co-teaching especially in terms of collaborative decision-making and conflict management?