thriveI’ve read quite a bit lately about the many issues plaguing education. What a refreshing change to read a book by an author who understands all of that, sees through the morass, and cares enough about her profession to help save it one colleague at a time. Meenoo Rami’s new book Thrive: 5 Ways to (Re)Invigorate Your Teaching is for all of us.

For those who are having trouble connecting (or re-connecting) to the joy of teaching, Meenoo Rami tells how to take steps toward finding support and meaning. For those who thrive in the classroom but are troubled by other factors in their schools, Meenoo suggests ways to provide context and balance.

For those intrigued by the idea of empowering students but uncertain about how to proceed, Meenoo has it covered. “When students create content rather than just consume it, their engagement grows capaciously,” she says. If we want authentic engagement, and who doesn’t, the key lies in how students interact with our content–actively or passively, with compliance or with enthusiasm.

For those who are doing just fine but looking for ways to get better, Thrive is full of practical suggestions for how to connect to other educators, our subject matter and students, as well as our own internal sources of inspiration and motivation.

My favorite section of Thrive deals with how fear can affect our professional relationships, classroom behavior, and job satisfaction: “Students do not benefit from your true passion when that passion is hidden beneath layers of doubt, insecurity about being ridiculed, or fear of failure. The question becomes: How do we manage this fear to make it productive instead of corrosive?” The advice that follows this question comes from a deep understanding of what it means to be a passionate educator and a work-in-progress human.

No matter where we are in our career paths as educators, Meenoo Rami’s Thrive gives us inspiration, hope, and pragmatic clarity about how to move forward in creating or reclaiming the professional lives we’ve always envisioned.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Our Book Graffiti Wall

graffit signAs a big believer in the power of choice in nurturing young independent readers, I’m always looking for interesting ways to activate and motivate students in that direction. Donalyn Miller’s Reading in the Wild (Jossey-Bass, 2014) gave me quite a few ideas. One I’ve especially enjoyed is book graffiti. It’s a pretty simple idea: Provide a place for “selecting and sharing the lines and words from our books that stood out as remarkable or special to us” (Miller 114).

Although the pictures here show the story pretty well, I’d like to tell about the book graffiti wall in room 231. In the early days of second semester, I explained this idea to my student intern Nina. (You will quickly understand that Nina is indispensable.) Nina rounded up some light-colored construction paper and covered a large bulletin board in the classroom. We added some bookish posters that I had laying around. Then Nina and her boyfriend Danny made a cool Book Graffiti sign. Then Nina bought a bucket of markers to hang on the wall. On her graffiti wall Donalyn Miller added, “May the odds be ever in your favor” from The Hunger Games to spark student contributions. I used “Our thoughts are stars we cannot fathom into constellations” from John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars as the seed for our wall. (Actually, Nina wrote that quote on the graffiti wall so that it would legible.)

Here is how the book graffiti wall looked in its infancy.
graffiti wall infancy

Then I explained to the class that they were welcome to add any sentences they found in their books that they liked for any reason. And the quotes started to appear.

graffiti 1 quotes

The graffiti wall has now been active for more than twelve weeks, and I have never once seen anyone write on the wall, but the quotes and artwork are there. (We share classrooms in our school, so it’s not uncommon for students to arrive in the room before I do.)

graffit 2 quotes

After #engchat a few weeks ago I added a few QR codes linked to various movie trailers or other bookish sites. I was also delighted when one of the other teachers assigned to room 231 asked if her students could contribute to the wall.

graffiti 3 quotes

If I were re-doing this, I would like to have a bulletin board that is not behind the students. That would be difficult with the room’s configuration, but there is probably a way to make it happen. If we need more room to write graffiti, I can remove the posters. Because we started this halfway through the school year, that might not be necessary before the end of this school year, but if we need the room, it’s easy to do.

graffiti wall top

What I like best about this wall is the intellectual mini-voyage behind each contribution. Before a quote goes on the wall, a reader must say, “This–this right here–is a sentence that resonates with me. This is a big idea, or at least a funny idea. It must be shared.” In order to add an idea, a reader must respond authentically to something in a book, note its linguistic parameters, and then choose to share it communally. From individual response to communal contribution–that’s the kind of activity and attitude that strengthens independent readers.

I hope anyone else with a book graffiti wall like this will post a link so that we can see other variations on this idea.

Thanks for reading.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Guest Blogger: Blythe Baird on Filming DIVERGENT

Blythe Baird

Blythe Baird

One of the best-known and best-liked members of our school’s Class of 2014 is Blythe Baird. Although Blythe has never been in one of my classes, we have worked together on various aspects of our school’s Writers Week. I admire the way Blythe thinks big and makes things happen, all while being one of the friendliest people you could ever meet. Blythe appears in the new hit movie Divergent, and I thought readers of this blog would enjoy hearing about what led her to that experience and what happened on the set. I greatly appreciate Blythe agreeing to share her story here. Please visit Blythe Baird’s web site and follow her on Twitter at @blythe_baird.

In elementary school, I was quite the force to be reckoned with. I was loud, opinionated, outspoken, and sometimes a compulsive liar for the sake of precious entertainment value. I believe I actually hold the record for most detentions acquired in a calendar year at that school. Maybe it’s because I’m a Leo, or maybe it’s because I have a severe case of youngest-child-attention-craving syndrome. I sorely lacked athletic ability. On the softball field, I was the chump playing with anthills in the outfield. My parents, determined to find an outlet for my ruthless spunk, ignored my protests and enrolled me in every sport in the book–swimming, basketball, golf, track, you name it. To say the least, I was a poor excuse for a team player.

After much begging and prodding on my part, my folks finally agreed to let me do community theater. I got hooked. I did every musical or play our local park district offered. After my first show, I started getting leads. I would pore over my script for hours, highlighting my lines and penciling in stage cues. The whole process was enthralling and fascinating to me. However, after years of grueling rehearsals, tech weeks, backstage drama, and itchy costumes, I wanted a change. At age twelve, I set my sights on television and film.

The first phase of action was research. I checked out every website, column, and book at the library about acting for the screen. I learned the qualifications for the Screen Actors Guild. I learned that if I wanted to get anywhere, I needed an agent or manager. I presented my parents with a PowerPoint presentation regarding these goals. Their response was less than I’d hoped. My father said, “I ain’t payin’ for nothing.” I mythbusted that real quick. I explained to them that agents and managers only get paid when you get work. They only represent talent they believe will bring in money. Still, my parents were unconvinced. I stuck with junior high theater but didn’t give up my lofty aspirations. I knew Chicago, only a forty-minute commute, was a growing venue for on-camera work. I submitted myself for casting calls online, but my chubby (okay, borderline obese) childhood frame was often rejected for being “too big.” This didn’t bother me. I kept at it.

Freshman year, I booked a cameo appearance as a young shoplifter on the USA network series “In Plain Sight.” I flew off to Albuquerque, New Mexico to get dolled up in hair and makeup, wardrobe, and eat meals with the cast between shooting takes. When I came back home, my parents noticed my grades had been slipping, so I had to slow my roll and focus on school for a bit. The summer going into junior year was when everything changed. I lost sixty pounds and dyed my hair back to blonde, after a horrendous but brief ginger stint. I self-submitted for a lead role in a short film shot in Chicago called “Disconnected.” To my utter delight, I booked it. It was so different from the things I had done before. In theater, you have to be huge and gregarious because you’re performing all the way to the back row. I had to unlearn that. In film, the camera is right there, front row. You have to be meaningful, subtle and not cheesy. Less than a month later, I got a call from a crew member of the film asking me to be in a 121 Help commercial they were shooting, providing hotlines for children in danger.

Shorty following all of that, I got signed by my wonderful management company followed by my equally wonderful agency, MbM and Big Mouth Talent. I started going on downtown auditions frequently, and going into my management to film audition tapes for sending to Los Angeles casting offices to be considered for bigger parts. One day I was at school when I got the call from my manager–“We got you a part! It’s a feature film shooting in Chicago this summer!” I freaked out. It was for Divergent. I had known about the Divergent book series because the author, Veronica Roth, had come to speak at my school for Writers Week that year.

In Tris's choosing ceremony, Blythe Baird is on the left at Shailene Woodley's shoulder.

In Tris’s choosing ceremony, Blythe Baird is on the left at Shailene Woodley’s shoulder.

When I went in for my Divergent costume fitting, they immediately placed me in Amity, the hippie faction. Typical. It was amazing to see the skeleton of this huge production–the costume holding place was about the size of Costco. I was floored. A few weeks later, we were told that a couple of featured extras–extras who had representation were given priority screen time–would be picked for a special cameo role in the choosing ceremony. It was intimidating, to say the least. A group of about fifty of us had to mime getting our hand cut and walking for the director. From that, a smaller group was selected and we had to stand in a line. One by one, Neil Burger looked us over and had us turn to the side, then back to front. He tapped some of us on the shoulder and said, “Thank you. You can go.” When he got to me, he said, “Step forward, please.” They then did the same with two of my friends, young actors from the Candor and Abnegation factions. We were to be the chosen kids who would go up and have a special part in the ceremony. They even gave us names since they would be called during the scene; mine was Erin Quinn. When we filmed it at this beautiful Scientology church in downtown Chicago, we got to go up and do our thing and close-ups every shot. It was awesome.

Because the movie is already so long, they ended up cutting a lot of the original shots out. All three of our little features were nixed. However, you can still see me in the choosing ceremony and the scene where Jeanine is lecturing the factions. It was a great experience. Shailene Woodley is a genuine sweetheart, Kate Winslet is a goddess, and everyone was just very down to earth on the whole.

Post-Divergent, my world opened up. I booked the lead in an Auslynn Films indie feature that’s set to release on Netflix, iTunes, and DVD in May called The UnMiracle, in which I play a teen hippie princess who struggles with substance abuse. It’s definitely my grittiest role yet. I also appeared on the premiere of NBC’s latest hit show, “Crisis.” In the past year, things have really been taking off and I love it. I have a fascination with the science of on-camera production. Hopefully, this is something I’ll be able to continue doing for the rest of my life. My plan is to go to college next year, of course, but follow wherever life takes me in terms of film and television. Que sera, sera.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

What’s Not Wrong? April 3 Edition

Whatd-not-wrong-blueyellowEvery so often my classes do a little activity called What’s Not Wrong? It takes about four or five minutes. The idea is to forego thinking about all of our problems and simply write down one thing that is absolutely and incontrovertibly not wrong. Then I read them aloud anonymously, and we enjoy a breeze of positivity in what might otherwise be a gloomy day–like today.

Today’s list provides some testament to our brutal Midwestern winter, as well as on-going concerns with food, college, homework, and quite a few other things. In several cases more than one student wrote exactly the same word or words, even though they may have been in different classes.  Those are indicated in parentheses.  Here is today’s What’s Not Wrong list compiled from five classes.  Enjoy.

I have my pencil.
4096 tile
It rained this morning.
Roll Tide
How I live my life
Apple pie
Summer (2)
My family (2)
My college decision
God (2)
Food (3)
Off to college soon
Using your phone on a test
The practice of religion
Being happy (2)
It’s almost summer.
School’s almost over. (2)
6-hour baseball games
Having fun
Food of any kind
Baseball is back.
Basketball (2)
My job
Being pretty
Comfy chairs
It’s thunderstorming outside. Yay.
I farted just now and no one knows.
It’s getting warmer.
Life (2)
I volunteered at CARE yesterday.
Eating snacks before dinner
I got into the college I wanted. (2)
Tomorrow’s Friday. (5)
Today was a rare day where I managed to have no homework and nothing (that I can remember) after school.
Homework tonight, 0
Mr. Anderson’s 8th period English class
Some damn good food
Got a new workout plan and it’s awesome.
The rain today because that means it’s getting warmer
It’s only going to get better. Even though I stumble I’m still breathing. It’s one thing to walk the line, but it is even better to have a sense of direction.
My wifi being fixed
My book
This class
I’m here early.
My spring break baseball suspension is over.
Chicken wings
Sleeping in
Cubs are 0-2.
Expository Composition
It’s Thursday.
I beat 2048.
My grandma made peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies.
There is a form of cryptocurrency called the doge coin.
There are, as yet, no sub-quantum irregularities that might cause unusual things to happen, like spontaneous conversion into an unfortunate hard-shelled reptile.
It’s raining.
I’m Batman (maybe).
The disappearance of snow
Stopping for pedestrians
Summer is coming.
My god-like body! and Culver’s, Shamrock Shakes, and food in general
Leda and Mario
Man United tying Bayern Munich in the Champions League
My quarter grades
Career Treks
It’s a rainy day.
When your family says they love you
High school is ending!
It’s not winter.
My health (2)
Being able to relax after school
My friendships
On track with last class
Documents got in
Teachers that care
I only have history homework.
We get finals off.
My best friends
Having a good time
Getting accepted into college
Giving to charity
My phone works.
Weather getting warmer
I’m leaving for California today at 12.
Captain America 2 comes out tomorrow.
Blog posts
Hardwell is in 7 days.
Hardwell in 8 days
Even through recent struggles, I am satisfied with myself and my life, and I’m writing a pretty good poem.
Nerd-ing out with friends
Dog Frisbee
Going to see Captain America: Winter Soldier at midnight tonight
Hour-and-a-half practice
Rain, rain, rain, rain
Rice cookies
Hot showers after working out
Co-ed sleepovers (2)
I only have studying for homework tonight.
Dark chocolate
Banana smoothies
It’s finally spring!!!
2 more months of school
Fun !!!!

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

A Letter to My Mentor

Gary Anderson:

Re-posting this might seem a little self-serving, and maybe it is. To whatever extent that’s true, my apologies. But while I’m deeply honored by what Rachel wrote, there is something here that goes beyond one teacher and one student.

Many teachers hear constant negative messages about our profession. We are frequently told that the work we do is not good enough, or it’s not important unless it is quantified. (Then when it’s quantified, it’s often labeled as not good enough.)

Please, let’s define our work in human terms. Let’s judge our work based on all kinds of results, not just charts and graphs.

Many teachers feel powerless in the face of all of the media and political criticism. But we are not powerless at all as long as we take the time to encourage, motivate, and authentically communicate with the young people we are privileged to learn with each day.

Each of us knows exactly how to make a difference. Although we may not all be thanked with eloquence like Rachel’s, we should have no doubt that we’re doing something very important when we let students know that we value, understand, and admire what they do.

Originally posted on City Girl With A Country Heart:

Dear Mr. Anderson,

I know this may seem unconventional, writing a letter to you via blog rather than sending you a real letter. I will send you a letter, I promise I will. After all you’ve done for me, I think you deserve all of this on paper, but I also want as many people as possible to know just how amazing you are. I think its safe to say that I’ve never been conventional when it came to writing, but I wouldn’t be where I am without you. I’ll try to keep my tears to a minimum as I type this, but I’m already getting a little emotional, so just be glad I’m not reading this out loud.

To truly understand how much you mean to me, I have to tell you a story.

When I was in the fourth grade I had an awful teacher named Mr. Tomczyk…

View original 1,419 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Seven Short Book Reviews

The Summer of Letting Go by Gae Polisner

summer of letting goFrancesca’s life is complicated. She has a crush on her best friend’s boyfriend. She blames herself for the drowning of her younger brother, and her father may be having an affair with their neighbor. Gae Polisner’s excellent story-telling gives us what starts off seeming to be a breezy, summer-at-the-beach romance, but turns out to be a heartfelt exploration of how to recognize what lasts forever and how to let go of the things that cannot be kept. Every character in The Summer of Letting Go is authentic, and while some of the coincidences are at first hard to accept, that turns out to be the point—we cannot always make rationale sense out of the surprises that life gives us, but we can respond to the surprises with compassion for everyone involved, including ourselves.


That Shakespeare Kid by Michael LoMonico

shakespeare kidWhen Peter is accidentally thumped on the head with his mom’s massive Riverside Shakespeare, he suffers a mild concussion and suddenly can only speak lines from Shakespeare plays. In Michael LoMonico’s clever novel That Shakespeare Kid, we see Peter effortlessly speak the language that bedevils so many students. At first, other students think he’s faking it, and then they become annoyed. But when Peter appears on The Today Show and later performs as an especially convincing Romeo, his classmates begin to change their opinions about both Peter and William Shakespeare. Although I admired and enjoyed this story, it also seemed to be saying, “Notice here how Shakespeare should be presented to young people.” I tend to agree with the book’s approaches, but the pedagogical tips took me out of the story a couple of times. That Shakespeare Kid will appeal to many readers, especially those familiar with Romeo and Juliet.


Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design by Chip Kidd

go kidd designChip Kidd is the graphic designer of more than a thousand book covers, including Jurassic Park’s iconic black-on-white T-rex. Kidd’s Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design is an entertaining and enlightening trip through graphic design principles that will have readers closely examining the ways that images and typography mix to grab our attention. Abundantly illustrated with examples from his own work and those of other graphic designers, Go is relevant, interesting, and useful for young designers working with both print and digital designs.


Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

beautiful ruinsAlternating between a tiny Italian coastal village in the early 1960s and present-day Hollywood, Beautiful Ruins gives us the story of a young American starlet who didn’t quite make it big, a young Italian hotel owner with dreams of the big-time, a washed-up rock musician, and … Richard Burton. Author Jess Walter artfully blends all of these plot threads in a bright, entertaining, and sometimes devastating drama that stands in contrast to the fabulous fiasco of the Liz-and-Dick Cleopatra movie and a misguided unmade film about the doomed Donner party. Although some of the dialogue and situations seems a little too much in places, Beautiful Ruins is a captivating novel about the kinds of choices we can make when things get messy, as they inevitably do.


Real Revision:  Authors’ Strategies to Share with Student Writers by Kate Messner

revisionKate Messner’s Real Revision is filled with ideas for motivating young writers to engage in meaningful revision. Many of the activities are focused on developing fiction pieces, but Kate clearly shows how to apply them to other genres. Both pencil-and-paper and more tech-savvy approaches are included. Using the ideas in this book will help students (and teachers) see revision as not just something a writer does artificially at the end of a writing project. Revision is how we clarify our own meanings, to ourselves and to our readers.



hyperboleHyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh

Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half is a collection of stories, self-therapy sessions, and advice about dogs. Brosh’s artwork looks like it was drawn during electrocution, while the writing is hilarious in places, reflective in others, and always self-deprecating and honest. Each of the pieces in this collection hits its mark. Hyperbole and a Half is a unique, rewarding reading experience, as is the blog of the same name.


Stitches : A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair by Anne Lamott

stitchesI’m a long-time admirer of Anne Lamott’s writing and outlook. While Stitches features her appealing trademarks, it also seems shallower and less insightful than her other recent books in this genre. It pretty much boils down to “Sometimes life is hard. You can get through it though.” I can never dislike an Anne Lamott book because I respect her reflective capacity so much, but I like this one a little less.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

A Few Baseball Books: Spring Training Edition

With the 2014 baseball season rapidly approaching, I’m a little behind on posting my annual assortment of baseball books. Here are four picture books, one middle-grade novel, and six nonfiction works that baseball fans might enjoy. A couple of these reviews appeared in slightly different form on Goodreads or elsewhere on this blog.

MiracleMud_JacketMiracle Mud: Lena Blackburne and the Secret Mud That Changed Baseball by David A. Kelley. Miracle Mud gives us the true story of Lena Blackburne, a mediocre player who concocted just the right mixture of New Jersey to rub on baseballs to remove the shine. Baseball has so many niches to explore, and this book delves into an angle I didn’t know about.


piratesattheplatePirates at the Plate by Aaron Frisch. Pirates take on cowboys in a game that gets out of hand. The illustrations are entertaining, but to be truthful, I didn’t get much out of this picture book. Maybe I need to be eight years old again.


somethingSomething to Prove: The Great Satchel Paige Vs. Rookie Joe DiMaggio by Robert Skead. Another one of those niche picture books, this one gives us a glimpse of two legendary players facing each other for the first time as Negro League legend Satchel Paige is brought to town by the New York Yankees to see if a young prospect named Joe DiMaggio is ready to face big league pitchers. In addition to capturing the character of both players, Something to Prove provides useful background on baseball’s segregated past.



Take Me Out to the Yakyu by Aaron Meshon. Although the narrative is thin, Take Me Out to the Yakyu compares American and Japanese baseball through the eyes of a boy enjoying baseball with his two grandfathers, one in America and one in Japan. This book’s has an appealing graphic design and would work well for exploring the concept of comparison.


Screaming at the Ump - Audrey VernickScreaming at the Ump by Audrey Vernick. This middle-grade novel’s narrator is sixth-grader Casey Snowden, a baseball-writer-wannabe whose father and grandfather run the third best (out of three) umpiring schools in America. The supporting cast of Screaming at the Ump is one of its appeals, along with interesting perspectives on the training of umpires. For young readers interested in baseball, Audrey Vernick provides authentic insights that go beyond the cliches found in most sports books.



 A Drive into the Gap by Kevin Guilfoile. This little book is about baseball, and stories, and fathers and sons, and how three bats were involved in Roberto Clemente’s final at-bat.  This gem has everything I want in a baseball book, all in 70 pages.


is_this_a_great_gameIs This a Great Game, or What?: From A-Rod’s Heart to Zim’s Head–My 25 Years in Baseball by Tim Kurkjian. Josh and Brad–friends and good baseball guys–both recommended this book to me within 24 hours. They were right. Tim Kurkjian draws on his 25 years as a baseball writer to give his views on various quirks and crannies of the game. Each chapter includes interesting anecdotes, most of which I’d never heard.


bullpen gospelsThe Bullpen Gospels: A Non-Prospect’s Pursuit of the Major Leagues and the Meaning of Life by Dirk Hayhurst. What is life really like in the minor leagues? Other books have explored that questions, but usually the answer is filtered through a sportswriter. The Bullpen Gospels is the first installment of Dirk Hayhurst’s memoirs of life in the minors, with brief stops in the majors. I highly recommend this one for its authenticity, honesty and humor.

pg2_e_drivingmrypgi_200Driving Mr. Yogi: Yogi Berra, Ron Guidry, and Baseball’s Greatest Gift by Harvey Araton. Former Yankees Yogi Berra and Ron Guidry are best friends. This charming book tells the story of two players from different eras who eventually forge a unique friendship long after their playing days. Yogi Berra stories are always entertaining, and this book is full of them, although we also see Yogi in declining health as he approaches his ninetieth birthday.


victoryThe Victory Season: The End of World War II and the Birth of Baseball’s Golden Age by Robert Weintraub. The Victory Season focuses on major league baseball’s 1946 season, notable as the first post-World War II campaign and the beginning of what some call baseball’s golden age. Some star players who went to war returned for the ’46 season in excellent form, like Ted Williams and Bob Feller. Other players returned with less skill than before the war. Of course, still others paid the ultimate sacrifice and did not return at all.

Weintraub tells all of their stories against the backdrop of a home front emerging from a war footing to face new realities, and how that environment affected the national pastime. For example, after leaving military service, Jackie Robinson spent the 1946 season playing a championship season for the minor league Montreal Royals, warming up for his momentous breaking of baseball’s racial barrier the following season. Baseball owners also depended on what was known as the reserve clause to control players’ salaries and careers. But in 1946, the reserve clause faced two challenges that would first soften owners’ iron grip and eventually loosen the reserve clause. A wealthy Mexican league owner lured away some top talent fresh from the military with salaries far above what they could earn in America, and union organizers began to make small inroads into clubhouses filled with modestly paid players, most of whom needed to work a second job in the off-season in order to have incomes similar to the fans who paid to watch them play.

The Victory Season is filled with baseball greats, and Weintraub’s story-telling brings them to life in their war-time and post-war incarnations: Williams, Feller, Joe and Dom DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson, Stan Musial, Eddie Stanky, Leo Durocher, Johnny Pesky, Red Shoendienst and on and on. My favorite “character” here is Enos Slaughter. Known as Country Slaughter throughout the league, his infectious carefree demeanor and rambunctious playing style exemplified an American attitude set free from the shortages and worries of the way years.

A quick aside: In the early 1990s I met Enos Slaughter at a card show. Then in his mid-seventies, Slaughter was wearing a flannel shirt and looked like any senior citizen you might run into at Home Depot or a local coffee shop. He laughed, smiled, chatted, and shook hands with everyone who stood in line for his autograph. His 1946 persona as presented in The Victory Season meshes perfectly with my own impression from more than four decades later.

The Victory Season will appeal to fans of the Dodgers, especially the Brooklyn version, as well as Cardinals, Red Sox, and Indians fans. But it’s really a baseball book that will satisfy history buffs and a history book for all baseball fans.


george willA Nice Little Place on the North Side: Wrigley Field at One Hundred by George F. Will. George F. Will’s Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball (1990) is one of my favorite baseball books, and probably the one that taught me the most. Now, almost a quarter-century after that book, Will turns his attention to one of my favorite subjects, Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs. A Nice Little Place on the North Side: Wrigley Field at One Hundred is part history, part sociology, and part grudging homage.

No one alive today has witnessed a Cubs world championship, a phenomenon last experienced in 1908. The Cubs’ last World Series appearance was in 1945 when they lost to the Detroit Tigers. Will makes the case that the Cubs and losing are part of a design that can be blamed directly on how Wrigley Field has been managed and marketed. Attendance for most professional sports teams varies with the team’s successes and failures. This, however, does not apply to the Cubs. Attendance at Wrigley Field is not affected by win-loss records. Through several changes of ownership, the Wrigley Field experience—and it is a wonderfully pure, nostalgic way to take in a game—has been marketed and cultivated more diligently than the on-field talent. The new owners show signs (no pun intended) of changing this tradition.

A Nice Little Place is at its best when the stories involve the colorful characters and episodes that have unfolded at The Friendly Confines. Still, some of the early material involving early 20th century business transactions is sort of colorless, and the history of beer in America section is too long. Because I read Will’s book in galley form, I’m reluctant to quote anything, but he had me chuckling in some places, and in other places contemplating the economic, psychological, and even spiritual implications of Wrigley Field and its effect on the Chicago Cubs.

A Nice Little Place on the North Side is available on March 25, 2014, and I recommend reading it before beginning the 2014 celebration of Wrigley Field’s 100th birthday.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Writers Week XX: Let’s Go

Tomorrow morning our school begins Writers Week XX, our annual celebration of writing. During every period of the day for an entire week our auditorium will be the setting for a session about what writing is and what it means to be a writer. This year we will learn from about 80 students, more than a dozen faculty members, and exciting professional writers from six states, including novelists, poets, journalists, a priest, and a songwriter.

We’ve been doing this since 1995. In 1995 we started small—lunch periods only, a handful of students, a couple of faculty writers, and some very generous local professionals, including science fiction master Frederik Pohl who lived a block away from our school. (When Mr. Pohl died last fall, we felt like we lost a friend.) More than two hundred authors have visited our campus since 1995, and we have featured more than a thousand student writers, as well as faculty members from every department in our school. I could go on and on about highlights from years past, as well as the value of this program.

Rather than dwell on Writers Week’s estimable past, I’d rather share some thoughts on how Writers Week XX looks a little different from the other nineteen “editions.” First of all, we have a slew of faculty members representing guidance, English, social studies, special education, physical education, administration, world languages, mathematics, and our media center. Each of these educators has plenty of other things to do, but each of them will take the time this week to say, “I’m a writer” and share their words with our school community.

Because twenty years seems kind of momentous, this week we are also featuring several alumni who have continued to produce significant writing since they were featured students at Writers Week at some point over the past twenty years. I wonder what role, if any, Writers Week played in forming their adult identities as writers.

Whether our current students participate in Writers Week XX by standing behind a microphone and speaking their truths, or whether they sit respectfully in the audience and soak in all the words, they will be learning important lessons. Some of those lessons involve writing, but a lot of life lessons flow from Writers Week too.

Writers Week XX is also special because it’s my last. At the end of the year, I’m leaving the school where I’ve worked since 1987. I’ve been told to expect some surprises this week, so I’m steeling myself for that. Although I will still care about and follow Writers Week, I don’t expect to be actively involved in any significant way. This program has been one of the primary focuses of my professional life for twenty years, and I’m happy and relieved to say that my energetic colleagues know how to carry on the traditions while looking for ways to improve. Writers Week is healthy and should be able to continue for many years.

One of the most gratifying things to come out of Writers Week in recent years is how other schools have successfully launched their own versions of it. (Here is a link to our 2013 NCTE presentation where we joined with colleagues from schools around the country to tell about Writers Week.) When teachers and administrators from other schools visit Writers Week and want to know how and why it works, we always try to say how simple it really is. Here are the principles that have evolved.
–Every school has student writers, and they are not always the kids who get As on papers. When we honor and respect young writers, good things happen.
–Teachers will collaborate when they have a shared mission and vision. Everything about Writers Week is voluntary.
–When we place authors on pedestals (or behind a microphone), students will read more and write more. Every class period of every day I see students reading books by authors who have visited our school.

Sometime this week a famous author will say something to a student that will change his or her life. Sometime this week a teacher will feel rejuvenated in the midst of a pretty rough winter. Sometime this week a student will be told by a complete stranger, “Hey, great job at Writers Week.” Sometime this week people at our school will be moved to write something new. Sometime this week students will realize that writing is more than something that is assigned. Sometime this week something will happen no one expects but delights everyone who experiences it.

So that’s it. Tomorrow we roll. You’re welcome to follow along. Information about Writers Week XX can be found here. The Twitter hashtag is #wwxx. Ustream will carry most of Writers Week XX live on this channel. Let’s go.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

To A New Teacher Struggling with Common Core

130After two months, I still think about her question every day: “What do you tell young teachers who are struggling with Common Core?”

The questioner was a pre-service teacher a few weeks away from beginning her student-teaching experience. The place was a National Council of Teachers of English conference presentation led by several literacy experts dealing with resistance to implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

Here was a new teacher, close to graduation, passionate about her professional goals, well prepared in her subject matter pedagogy, and eager to dig in with students. And now this.

After the session I talked to Dr. Kim McCollum-Clark, one of the session leaders and a leading teacher preparation instructor. I told Kim that I wished I had a good response for that young educator, and Kim basically gave me the assignment to come up with an answer.

So, here it is, my advice for new teachers entering the profession with trepidation about how the Common Core State Standards will affect their professional lives.

1. Don’t get fired over this. Ten years from now, I doubt that the Common Core State Standards will be as controversial as they are today. They will either be gone, or they will be the status quo. Either way, you’re not helping anyone if you lose your career in its infancy. Let the warriors fight the battle out front. Watch and learn from the sidelines as much as possible as you hone your craft and figure out the culture of your new school community. Take the measure of all you see, and make up your own mind about controversial issues like CCSS and the key players on all sides. The critical factor to notice is who acts in the best interests of students. There will come a time for you to speak and act, but wait until you are have a firm hold on your job. The veterans will understand your position. We’ve all been there.

2. You can’t just be against something. It’s more important to be for something. There is plenty of room for skepticism about the Common Core, and if you’re against it, you probably have good reasons, but what are you for? What positive actions can you take? If you ask me, the most important positive actions we can take on behalf of today’s schoolchildren are promoting literacy and ending poverty. When every American child is a proficient reader living comfortably, no one will be talking about Common Core State Standards. If anyone scoffs at these goals as too lofty, I say these ideals are no more impractical than imposing accountability for a standardized curriculum on a diverse nation. Maybe it depends on how you want to spend your idealism. I’ll spend mine on authentic literacy and economic equity rather than on corporate testing and Orwellian conformity, thank you very much.

3. Understand the difference between your job and your work. You need to do both well, but they are not the same thing. Your work is your mission, your passion, your drive to make a difference. Your job is a context for doing that work, although it’s possible that you may also do your work in ways that go beyond your job. That’s fine, as long as you do your job well too. If the Common Core or other problems on your job cause you anxiety, keeping that dichotomy in mind can be helpful. Your job may require you to compromise sometimes; your work cannot be compromised.

4. You may need to leave your job if any situation at your school, including Common Core implementation, becomes too much of a negative factor in your life. No job is worth living an unhappy life. The right job fit for you is out there, but it can be challenging to find. If your school’s philosophy is at odds with your own, you may need to move on and find another context for doing your work. (For an example of how to thoughtfully process difficult career decisions, be sure to read this blog post from my friend Beth Shaum.)

5. Although the Common Core is a national issue, remember that it plays out one school at a time. Not all schools have Common Core fever but many do. Some schools are staying focused on a rich, deep curriculum and downplaying the Common Core testing frenzy as much as possible. When test time rolls around, these schools are relying on this curricular focus to pay off in test results that will satisfy their accountability demands. Other schools do a lot of standardized testing, but their overall assessment strategy is so incoherent that the test results are not meaningful or useful. In those schools, Common Core is likely to be a distraction but not too much of an obstacle. Some schools have a pragmatic approach in place as they are aligned with Common Core in a more or less minimal fashion, while still providing innovative programming and a good balance of autonomy and collaboration in their faculty. If you are in a school that is locked on to Common Core and your school leaders talk about little else but testing, well, you can hope it will moderate in a few years, and you can try to play a role in that moderation, but it might not happen.

6. Keep your focus on your students. The best part of our job will always be our time with students, leading them toward new learning, helping them discover new possibilities, and shaping the future by inspiring their creativity and problem-solving skills. If we are blessed with wise leaders and dedicated, thoughtful colleagues, that’s a bonus, but it’s not a necessity. The ability to do our work on behalf of our students is a necessity, and by far the most gratifying part of our jobs. When things are at their roughest on our jobs, the saving grace is almost always in a classroom with our students.

As you hear more and more about CCSS implementation, you may wonder if the job you have prepared for is now worth the trouble and expense you have gone through in preparing for it. The short answer is Yes. It’s still worth it, at least for now, but you need to be smart, informed, and possibly even brave.

Whew. That’s it. That’s all I’ve got, Kim.

I hope others will offer their advice and suggestions in response to “What do you tell young teachers who are struggling with Common Core?”

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments


Unleasing-coverSome of the most frustrating experiences for educators result from pendulum swings—those predictable actions and reactions that come from programming launched in response to the weaknesses of a previous program that was itself developed to address the weaknesses of what came before. Another toxic dynamic frequently found in schools occurs when entrenched teachers and administrative bullies cannot (or will not) search for common ground when their philosophies seem to have mutually exclusive priorities.

Professional development expert Jane A. G. Kise shows how to unknot these situations in her newest book, Unleashing the Positive Power of Differences: Polarity Thinking in Our Schools (Corwin, 2014). Using some of the most polarizing education issues of our time as her examples, Kise shows how “both sides are right. A more appropriate phrasing might be that both sides are accurate, but each is also incomplete.” Kise provides a framework for recognizing the positive and negative aspects of each side of a polarity and then arriving at actions that are most likely to provide outcomes agreeable to both sides.

Kise applies her model to grading controversies, teacher evaluation policies, knowledge vs. problem-solving approaches to math learning, choice reading vs. whole-class novels, and other common school-based conflicts. In each case, she shows how school personnel can first agree on a shared goal, and then set about designing programs that combine the best aspects of each perspective while keeping a watchful eye on the downsides of each perspective.

The first part of the book explains how and why mapping these polarities is possible. The second part provides a detailed toolbox for using polarity mapping in professional development and with students. Richly explained with anecdotes and research, Unleashing the Positive Power of Differences can change the trajectory of schools mired in philosophical differences, and show educators how to talk to each other in ways likely to bring about agreement rather than dissent.

Doesn’t that sound good right about now?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment