Engagement or Strategies?

This is a response to my colleague, Pernille Ripp’s, post about literacy interventions: How Do We Best Do Literacy Interventions?

What came first: the chicken, or the egg? What comes first: engagement in reading or literacy skills? As it may be, I have theories on both answers, but I’ll stick to the second one today…

Do students need to be first engaged in reading in order to acquire literacy skills? Or do they need to have reading strategies in order to be engaged in reading?

In general, I tend to lean more on the side of engagement but reasonably, these things are integrated and occur simultaneously. Let me ask this: Is it not possible for acquiring literacy skills to be engaging? Can we, as creative, free-thinking human beings, not create lesson plans for our students that engage while teaching literacy skills?

Now, I have been mocked in the past for “acting” when I was working to engage students. My passion for learning and for the skill I was teaching was criticized and I was accused of faking excitement. Who ever said learning had to be boring in order for it to be genuine learning? Excuse me for connecting with students in a genuine and meaningful way!

While I do recognize that some of us can acquire new skills without the entertainment value of an engaging lesson, I don’t believe it is the norm or necessarily reasonable. Today, our society and the changes it throws at our youngest generation of learners makes it very hard to develop genuine intrinsic motivation. But if we want students to develop intrinsic motivation, we must give them reason. We must show them that it is valuable and meaningful to their life. We must show them that they are valuable and meaningful.

Engagement does not devalue the acquisition of skills. In fact, I believe they are codependent, having a cyclical relationship: students must be engaged in order to acquire new skills and students must be successful in acquiring new skills in order to be engaged.

So, I stick to what I know is true about teaching:
“No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.”
-Dr. James Comer
The relationship you build with your students. And the relationship you foster between your children and the content.

How about you? Do you teach the student or do you teach the skill?


I’ll Never Find Another You

There ought to be a word describing the despair you feel after devouring a book so good, you doubt you’ll ever be able to love another. How do you move on from a love like that? Try these few tips:

1. Explore other “types.” If you always go for that romance novel, try something totally different. Switching up genres might be your answer. It’ll make it harder to compare the two titles!
2. Stick to the tried and true: your “type.” Here’s what I mean by that: visit the book section at Target, identify your heart-breaker, and look to the left. You’ve seen the signs: If you liked this title, try this one! Check out whatshouldireadnext.com or look for similar titles on Goodreads!
3. Rebound. You know, reread it!
4. Catharsis. Get it out! Write about it. Talk about it until nobody wants to talk to you anymore. Find some way to find closure!
5. Try a different format. If you read a physical book, try an e-book or an audiobook, perhaps a graphic novel. Find a different way to engage the senses.
6. Take a break! Allow some time for YOU, girl! You know what they say, time heals all wounds.

What are your tips and tricks for moving on from a great book?

2016 Reading Challenge

Happy New Year! Time to reflect and set new goals…

Recently, I finished Donalyn Miller’s Reading in the Wild, which was incredibly inspiring and compelling. Miller’s insights prompted me to reflect on my own identity as a reader so that I could best guide my students’ in discovering their own identities as readers. In her book, Miller prompts readers to challenge themselves and to recognize their own “gaps” in exposure to certain types of literature. So, I set a goal on Goodreads to read 52 books this year (already 5 books deep-woop!). In addition, my principal has invited our school to participate in Modern Mrs. Darcy’s 2016 Reading Challenge:


Here are my thoughts for this list:

a book published this year: this shouldn’t be hard as I generally love to get my hands on the newest books. I’m looking forward to the release of Glass Sword by Victoria Aveyard, the second book in the Red Queen Series (Feb. 9); Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys (Feb. 2); or maybe I’ll really challenge myself to read some Sharon Draper–Stella by Starlight (Jan. 6).
a book you can finish in a day: I did this yesterday with April Henry’s The Body in the Woods
a book you’ve been meaning to read: all of them?! Maybe a professional development book…Choice Words by Peter Johnston or The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman.
a book recommended by your local librarian or bookseller: Luckily, I know that my librarian will suggest some historical fiction, which is an area I need to up my game!
a book you should’ve read in school: I was a perfect example of how the whole-class novel deterred me from reading–though I loved to read, I would not allow myself to read “for fun” until my assigned reading was done…and I hated being forced to read something when the timing wasn’t right for me, so I simply didn’t read. This may be a good time to read 1984 or Brave New World?
a book chosen for you by your spouse, partner, or sibling: For Christmas, my sister picked out My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Frederik Backman for me to read. She called me from the bookstore: “Have you read anything by Frederik Backman? (No.) Well don’t look him up.”
a book published before you were born: 1991. I’d love to hear your suggestions! I do currently have a copy of Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me, originally published in 1980 (love True Crime..). I’m also interested in The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, orginally published in 1985.
a book that was banned at some point: Since I’ve read a good majority of the most frequently challenged books of 2014, I’m anxiously awaiting the list for 2015.
a book you previously abandoned: This is going to be hard because I can never allow myself to abandon–too much pride! The only book I ever let myself abandon was Flat Water Tuesday by Ron Irwin. There have been a few books I’ve had to return to the library before I could finish…I could look forward to finishing Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty.
a book you own but have never read: I’ve got stacks of ’em.
a book that intimidates you: Moby Dick? War and Peace?
a book you’ve already read at least once: Perhaps I’d like to re-read Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun? Or maybe I’ll track down that mystical yet obscure book from my childhood, Afternoon of the Elves by Janet Taylor Lisle.

I love this list. I plan to complete the challenge and track my progress, reflecting along the way. I also plan to complete this challenge without killing two birds with one stone…meaning, I may not cross off more than one item on this list from a single book. In addition, I hope to challenge myself to read some of the younger-YA books that I’ve been neglecting but really should read (cough cough…Diary of a Wimpy Kid…), continue building a list of books with male protagonists, and experience genres I generally avoid (historical fiction, poetry).

What are your reading goals for 2016? I’d love to hear your suggestions! Happy Tales!

Don’t Be a Book-Burner: Redefining “School Appropriate”


Recently, I’ve been having conversations with colleagues about “school appropriateness” and censorship in books we provide to students via our classroom and school libraries. Here’s some of what I’ve heard thus far: some teachers are very concerned about the (lack of) maturity in our middle school students and about the mature content in some of the books published in recent months for middle grade readers. Some are concerned that these books are not “school appropriate.” But I think that comments begs the question, what does it mean to be school appropriate?

To me, school appropriate means keeping our students at the center of “school.” Students first.

The youth of today are facing much different challenges than most of us teachers faced during our youth. Our students deserve books that reflect those experiences. They deserve books that validate them. They deserve books in which the can see themselves. They deserve a platform on which to discuss these subjects. School-approporiate: providing those opportunities

Believing that students are not mature enough does not express high expectations for all learners. Ignoring their experiences does not make those experiences go away. We are simply perpetuating the book-burning tendencies of a white-washed education. I could go off on a nice little tangent on the representation of Thanksgiving and Native Americans in literacy and in our society right here, but I digress…I’m going to let Donalyn Miller wrap this up for me:

“Reversing the lack of accurate, inclusive, affirming portrayals of diversity in children’s literature is long overdue, but writing and publishing more diverse authors and stories only takes us so far if children never see these books. As a global community, we cannot continue to accept or perpetuate inequities limiting children’s open access to books….

Access means all children have books to read. Access means all children have books that accurately reflect and acknowledge their experiences, and the experiences of people with different stories to tell. All children deserve access to their full promise through the improved opportunities literacy provides.”

The House That Reading Built, posted on the Nerdy Book Club blog

With all of that in mind, I brainstormed this list of books that hit some of those “tough topics” we ought not to deprive our students from confronting.

Books That Are SO. IMPORTANT.

1. The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin This book tells the story of a young girl coping with the death of her best friend.

2. Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt Schmidt eloquently tells the story of 14-year old Joseph, who is sent to live with a foster family after trying to kill a teacher. This is the story of Joseph desperately searching for his daughter and finding family on the way. This one is a tear-jerker though. I’m still reeling.

3. House Arrest by K.A. Holt Written in verse, House Arrest is the court-mandated journal of Timothy, a young boy who got caught using a stolen credit card to purchase meds for his baby brother Levi, who has severe medical needs. Poignantly written, tackles the age-old philosophical question of whether or not it is ethical to do wrong for a greater cause.

4. The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern I really connected with this book. It is about a young girl whose father is diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, the stress and anxiety it causes her, and how she copes.

5. Wonder by R.J. Palacios This book has become extremely popular, and for good reason. Wonder tells the story of Auggie, a young boy with a facial deformity, as he begins his public education. It hits on bullying, accepting oneself, and empathy.

6. Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper This book is about a girl with cerebral palsy finding her voice.

7. Double Exposure by Bridget Birdsall Wisconsin represent! Birdsall tells the story of an intersexed teen whose troubles move her from California to Milwaukee, WI. George by Alex Gino got a lot more hype, but I think Double Exposure not only is better written, but also looks at the individual as a whole person with interests and needs and not just as a transgendered person.

8. All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely This book is so relevant right now: police brutality, racial tensions, #blacklivesmatter, white allies.

9. Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate This book has been a hit in our school. It explores homelessness and imaginary friends. Applegate does not disappoint.

10. The Saturday Boy by David Fleming This list wouldn’t be complete without a book depicting the experience of a military dependent!

11. Panic by Sharon M. Draper Though I have not gotten around to reading it yet, a student whose book recommendations I value and trust deeply, recommended this book to me. It hits on a topic not often discussed—sex trafficking. Listen, it is happening. Here. In Smalltown, USA. To our girls. This is not “somebody else’s problem.” Let’s educate our girls and our boys on the dangers that are often concealed as generous boyfriends at the shopping mall. Would be paired nicely with Sold by Patricia McCormick (story of a Nepalese girl sold into sex slavery, written in verse). For more information on sex trafficking, Girls Like Us is a great nonfiction read, a well.

12. Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead Just finished this one. Though the writing style might be confusing to some, the topics are incredibly relevant: sexting, friendships, divorce, recovering from trauma/accidents. One of my biggest problems with this book is that, though it was published in 2015, only references outdated sitting-duck intruder drills.

13. I Hadn’t Mean to Tell You This by Jacqueline Woodson Another one I haven’t read yet but has become relevant in my classroom because of its discussion of familial sexual abuse.

My message for you: Don’t be a book-burner. Be courageous. Confront reality and have these discussions in your classroom! I’d love to hear what books you recommend I add to this list! Comment below 🙂

How Serving Those Who Serve Us Made Me a Better Teacher


Friday cross-country flights. Time zone changes. Long layovers. Short layovers. Unplanned workouts from A3 to F74. Delays. Cancellations (United, I’m looking at you). Airport food. Lack of sleep. Weekends spent without family. No sleeping in on Saturday or Sunday! Work, work, work all day. Long hours. Yet never enough hours. Angry kids. Sad kids. Confused kids. Oppositional kids. Can you blame them? kids. Hasty good-byes. Wondering about those angry kids, sad kids, confused kids. Sunday night flights home. Turn into Monday morning flights home. Have to get to class, work. Exhaustion.

That was my life for two years. Compared to the sacrifices of the servicemen and women and their families, my sacrifices were minuscule. And yet my reward was great, because each weekend I returned home a better person because of it and because of them. While I no longer travel the country to work with military youth, it has shaped me to become a better person and a better teacher.

On this Veteran’s Day, I dedicate this post to the men and women who have served, are currently serving, and will serve in the armed forces to protect my freedom, and their families, and to my own Project YES! family who continually uplift me, challenge me, and who continue to serve those who serve us.

How “Serving Those Who Serve Us” Made Me a Better Teacher

1. Trauma Informed Practice Often our nation’s military youth go undetected in the school system if they are not enrolled in a Department of Defense Dependents School. This demographic of youth have unique strengths and needs that deserve our addressing, but many educators and service providers are simply unaware. Likewise, our civilian youth often bring extra baggage to school that often goes undetected. By being aware of the possibility of trauma and how to deal with it, I better service our nation’s youth by considering what unmet basic needs prevent students from engaging in learning, providing a safe space to learn, and connecting students and families with community resources.

2. Classroom Management As a Staff Intern then Team Lead for Project YES!, I would sometimes oversee as many as 120 youth and 10 Staff Interns. Staff Interns are asked to effectively manage a (sometimes less-than-ideal-sized or set-up) room of dozens of high-energy youth, most who have never even met, right after they’ve been told that a loved one is deploying. For the third time. In their nine years of life. Besides from facilitating meaningful activities, this is a challenge in and of itself. Any Staff Intern becomes a pro at being aware of what is going on in the 360 degrees surrounding us. We’re like owls. In addition to having necks that rotate to unnatural degrees, we know how to group youth and lead them through the stages of group formation. Finally, we know that engagement is key to classroom management.

3. Listening to my Students During debriefs, YES! interns lead students through a series of questions which inform deeper thinking. These questioning techniques scaffold the information for the youth so that they can generalize their new learning to real-world experiences. Though we may have these scaffolds in place, the youth truly control the direction of the conversation. Any teacher knows that improvisation is key in the classroom and that a student-centered classroom celebrates student input. Students will tell you what they need, if only you give them the platform with which to tell you.

4. Creative Problem-Solving Many of the activities facilitated by Project YES! Staff Interns pose specific challenges for youth to overcome through creativity and collaboration. And the same is expected from Staff Interns. Eighty-nine youth show up for an event in which 14 youth registered? No problem. In addition to the two hula hoops, six paper plates, and blue painters tape I packed (essentials for a YES! event), I also have this water bottle, a banana, and some socks. So we’re good. We can make an activity out of that. The best part of welcoming creative problem-solving is that kids are pretty darn creative, if you allow them that flexibility in your agenda. And when you ask them how they’d like to challenge themselves next, they always think of something you never would have thought of and it is often a sincere challenge. In schools today, creativity is often squelched by standardized testing, standards to achieve by the end of the year, etc. However, creativity is a critical 21st Century skill. Time is not wasted by encouraging creativity in the classroom, as it supports other critical problem-solving skills necessary for academic and future success.

5. Resiliency Finally, working with military youth and their families has inspired such immense gratefulness in me. Though the struggles military families face are very very real and are not recognized as much as they ought to be, they remain resilient for the sake of our freedom. They are grateful for the opportunity to serve and that gratefulness spurs their resiliency. I am honored to serve those who serve us and am excited to continue serving our nation’s youth through public education.

What a beautiful thing Project YES! has created. There are people, YES! participants and facilitators, who have now dispersed across the nation that have been bettered because of this experience and who continue to practice what they gained while serving those who serve us. Who ever thought its influence would be so far-reaching?

Thank you, Vets!

You exist SO HARD.

“We are all connected-like it or not, our responsibility is to care for these connections.”
Aimee Meredith Cox

My school has this awesome chunk of time every day called Connections. In Connections, we teachers facilitate “Circle” in which there is a greeting, sharing, activity, and closing; provide time for students to read independently (I also like to use this time to show a book trailer, conduct book talks by myself or my students, introduce my students to reading tools such as Goodreads, etc.); teach emergency drills; provide some character education via the PBIS Cool Tool, etc. The theory behind Connections is based on some of the latest brain science that tells us the brain is a social learner. Dr. David Rock says, “There is a large and growing body of research which indicates that people experiencing positive emotions perceive more options when trying to solve problems, solve more non-linear problems that require insight, [and they] collaborate better and generally perform better overall.”

Now, I know some of my colleagues don’t love Connections. They’re under pressure to do more and are vying for any additional instructional time they can get. That’s not my flow. And here is why:

Two weeks ago, my 7th grade students were preparing for a Courage Retreat put on by Youth Frontiers in which they would 1) identify personal fears and understand that everyone has them, 2) commit to acting with courage to make our school a better place, and 3) deepen relationships with classmates to break down social barriers. Although I was only able to attend for a few hours (in which I ran into a high school classmate who now facilitates Youth Frontier retreats–what up Hannah!), I was delighted to see some of the payoff, which I will share with you here.

Following the Courage Retreat, I asked my Connections class, “What is one of your fears and what courage step will you take so that that fear does not control you?”

I will admit, some of the kids did not get it. Their biggest fear was losing their dog, so they were going to be extra careful when they opened the door to go outside. Their biggest fear was spiders so they were going to try really hard next time to be the one to bring the spider to the “waterpark” i.e. the toilet instead of moving to a different level of the house. Fine, whatever, we have some work to do.

But the greatest answer came from the last student. You know the one. The one who reads during the share-out. The one whose behavior is so antisocial that none of the other kids want to be around him. The one who is working so hard to just be here.

When it came his turn, he held the talking piece and whispered that he could not possibly share just one fear. Go ahead, I said, if you can’t share just one, share three, share more, we’ll listen. Finally, he mustered,

“I’m afraid of people treating me poorly, treating me like I don’t exist.”

That was the most honest and vulnerable answer we’ve heard. Thank you for sharing. Why don’t you tell us one small courage step you are going to take so that that fear doesn’t control you.

“I think I just did it.”

And, I kid you not, my entire Connections class began to applaud and cheer him on. One little lady even stood up and said, “You exist, Jace.* You exist SO HARD.”

mic drop

Thank you, Youth Frontiers, for spurring this beautiful connection. It is our responsibility to care for these connections. Let’s make it happen.

*this is obviously not his real name

When a book takes you down


I’ve always struggled with keeping a journal. When I was younger, I would enthusiastically start a journal, making sure my handwriting was neat, word choice was precise, grammar and mechanics were correct, and that my voice was collected and mature. Undoubtedly, I’d give up journal writing after that very first entry, overwhelmed by the daunting task of masking my vulnerability with perfectionism.

I had a twinge of that same feeling when I logged on here after a few months. In my last post, I had written a list of books I planned to read over the summer. Since I am a math interventionist, I did the math and found that I had only read less than one third of those books. This is despite the fact that I had many of those books in my possession for weeks, just waiting to be read.

The guilt.

But why?

Listen, I read a lot. And heck, I’m a pretty good reader. So, why wasn’t I able to tackle this modest list of books over a period of three months in which society thinks I do absolutely nothing? How did I become a book abandoner??

I’m glad you asked. There are many reasons why.

I found other great books to read.
I had to finish that series.
I just wasn’t feelin’ it.
The cover didn’t do a good enough job of drawing me in.
I wasn’t in the right season of my life for it.
I needed more of a challenge.
I needed a break from the seriousness: a beach read, or a candy book as my sister would call it.
I wanted to read something about people my own age, instead of young adults.
I was tired of reading about privileged white people in New York, etc.

And guess what? That’s ok.

My incredible colleague, Pernille Ripp (how many times have I mentioned her in the three posts I’ve written?), recently wrote a blog post about guiding our fellow book-abandoning students. She asks us, as educators, to share our own abandonments, log it, ask “why?” then ask “now what?”, and practice total honesty. That’s what I’m doing here. Being vulnerable and honest about my own journey and identity as a reader.

Our students ought not to feel guilt and fear upon abandoning a book. Instead, they should feel compelled to ask themselves why? What next?

And it starts with us. Model the way. And don’t forget the grace.

Summer 2015 Reading List

summer is for reading
I love summer because summer has this magical quality that allows me to stay up all hours of the night reading books and still never feel tired in the morning. Maybe a tiny part of the reason why I chose to become a teacher was so that I could have summers “off,” although if you talk to any teacher about their summer “vacation,” they will laugh at you. Vacation or not, I find summer to be a great time to catch up on some reading. Here is my rough and tentative list of books I plan to read over this summer.

1. The Good Girl by Mary Kubica
2. This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki
3. Left Neglected by Lisa Genova
4. Paper Towns by John Green (2nd read)
5. Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling
6. The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae
7. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman
8. Choice Words by Peter Johnston
9. The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller
10. Redeployment by Phil Klay
11. I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
12. The Migraine Mafia by Maia Sepp
13. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
14. Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith
15. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
16. If You Find This Letter by Hannah Brencher
17. Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
18. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
19. George by Alex Gino
20. The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney
21. How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon
22. El Deafo by Cece Bell

And I’ll likely throw in some Jacqueline Woodson, Chris Cutcher, Alfie Kohn, and many many picture books! What are you reading this summer? I’d love to hear your suggestions.

Big news

It was a busy semester! EdTPA, two online classes, student teaching, working weekends, traveling to 5 different states, getting married (Mrs. Burton now, class!), and now….drum roll please…


Finally employed. I am absolutely thrilled to announce that I will be joining the Oregon Middle School staff as a Reading and Math Interventionist! I am looking forward to serving the youth of Oregon and collaborating with awesome staff!

Go Panthers!

oregon panthers

The suspense is over!


I apologize for making you wait three unbearable weeks to hear the riveting prose of my novice attempts at being a teacher. (Does this give you any indication how busy the life of a student teacher who is simultaneously planning a wedding, taking classes towards a Master’s degree, and interning is? I need a nap…) However, since I understand the value of reflection, I’ll sacrifice a few more minutes of precious sleep to update you on my progress towards becoming a real-life, honest to goodness teacher.

At the very beginning of my education to become a teacher leader, I was asked to write down 10 statements I believe to be truths about teaching. After my first few weeks of student teaching, I feel the need to add a few and reiterate some truths on that list.

1. 8th graders do not want to be seen with the Spec Ed teacher.
Last week, one of my students was late for my class. Before she finally showed up, another student told me that the tardy student purposely arrives late to my class so as not to be seen walking into my classroom. A pull-out ELA/History classroom.
This. Is hard for me to accept. It’s something I’ve never experienced before and I believe in making genuine connections with my students, so it’s hard not to take it personally. This experience, however, has exemplified, for me, the need for inclusion in our schools. The connection I have made with this student is not enough. She feels marginalized by her placement in my class, even though I believe she is brilliant and hard-working. Because that’s not what others see when they see her walk through my doorway. I need others to know that she is bright, talented, and driven. The best way to teach them this is to teach them in the same classroom.
2. Children are inherently good.
Sure, they may be annoying, or dirty, or a little strange. But they are inherently good. And if you no longer believe this, you better get out of the profession.
3. Hope.
As a teacher coming into the profession during the governance of Walker, I face a lot of discouraging testimony and situations to navigate and it’s hard not to get bogged down by all of the hoops to jump through. But I can’t give up hope now. There are students who need me.
4. Sometimes you have to explicitly teach social norms.
And it’s going to be awkward at first. Actually, I haven’t quite gotten to the point where it’s not awkward anymore. Updates yet to come….
5. Warm, but firm.
It’s all about balance. Your students need to know that you deeply and genuinely care for them in order to for them to feel safe enough to flourish. We all know that learning hurts, and it can be embarrassing at times. Students need to feel that they are not being judged, but being encouraged to take risks. Students also need to know that you believe that they can achieve great things. Holding your students to the highest standards is important for their confidence, motivation, and future success. If you believe they can, they’ll believe they can.
6. You must establish rapport and classroom expectations at the beginning of the year…and maintain them!
As a student teacher during the 2nd semester of the year, I am faced with the particular challenge of jumping in to a classroom whose routines, guidelines, and expectations are already established…and have already begun to slip. Once this happens, it is twice the work to get your classroom back to where it needs to be. I definitely don’t believe in not smiling until November, but expectations need to be clear from day one.
7. There is no such thing as teaching, but being a teacher.
Teaching is not just a 9-5 job you go to each day. Being a teacher encompasses your whole being. I’ve even been having dreams (nightmares?) in which I am planning my lessons for the next day. It never stops.

And neither do I. Off to school!