Top Ten Lessons Learned: 2012-2013 Edition

For the last two years, I’ve written Top Ten Lessons Learned blog posts at the end of the school year. (You can see them here and here.) This time I’ve struggled with it. It was a rough year, really rough. From serious health crises in my circle of family and friends, to unnecessary turmoil caused by poorly designed and poorly delivered professional development initiatives, to the crumbling of the Illinois pension system when I’m less a year away from retirement, this year has delivered more than its fair share of whacks. Does that mean I haven’t learned anything? Heck, no. I’ve learned a lot! The challenge is to express with positivity the learning that derived from negative circumstances. The name of this blog is What’s Not Wrong. Let’s go.

1. Sometimes students can’t come to school. When that happens, we need to deeply empathize. They may have issues going on that we would never want happening in our own homes and families. Some things—many things—are more important than our next unit and assignment. We are teachers. When we show compassion and empathy, we teach compassion and empathy.

2. Even though the mandated professional development model is still thriving in some places, it’s a zombie. It’s dead but just doesn’t know it. How do we deal with a zombie? Give it the attention it demands. Then let it go on its way.

3. Self-directed professional development is flourishing! Opportunities are popping up everywhere for teachers to grow professionally in ways that directly benefit them and their students. Online networking is still huge, and the edCamp model is morphing in all kinds of interesting ways to bring teachers together in authentic professional collaboration. (If this concept is a new one for you, go to your favorite search engine and put in edcamp or technology playdate.)

4. The keys to helping students develop as independent readers are choice, opportunity, and positive reinforcement. It’s that simple. Let students choose the majority of their books. Give them time to read those books. Lay the groundwork for positive reinforcement of their reading habits. (A really good way to provide that reinforcement is through comments on student-written book blog posts.)

5. When it comes to providing students with feedback on their writing, I’ve experimented with a lot of methods. Nothing is better than face-to-face conferences. Finding the time to do it is tough but worth it. I’m looking for ways to expand this.

6. When students use digital media along with more traditional text, they wrestle with complex rhetorical ideas: What is the best design approach? When and why should I use words? When and why should I use an image, video, or widget? How do these elements affect each other and my audience?

7. As testing replaces curriculum in our schools, we need to be selective about what is truly important and preserve it. This is becoming more difficult each year. We may not be able to prevent that curricular hijacking, but we can make hard decisions about what we keep and what we can best afford to abandon to the hijackers.

8. Teachers can never be satisfied with their level of learning. Learning is our area of expertise, and if we’re not continuing to learn, we’re not really the experts that our students and communities deserve. What am I still trying to learn? Here’s a short list: (1.) How does using digital media affect the composition process? (2.) How can I better balance efficiency with empathy? (3.) What is the narrative of my classroom, and how does it affect my students?

9. When I lose my temper at school, it gets some attention, but it doesn’t solve anything. (I never lose it in class. Each episode was more of a grown-up thing.) That happened twice this year. It won’t happen at all next year, guaranteed.

10. One reason I’m the luckiest guy in the world is because I get to do this job of helping young people become better readers, writers, thinkers, and learners. There are other reasons too, but this is one of them.

Your comments are always appreciated. If you posted a year-end reflection somewhere, feel free to put a link or URL here. Thanks.


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8 Responses to Top Ten Lessons Learned: 2012-2013 Edition

  1. Deborah Will says:

    As always, I enjoyed reading your insights. You are truly a professional role model for all of us, and I’m very glad that IATE brought us together. :-). (And I think you’ll love the unit Genevieve and I are presenting this year if you like conferencing and allowing students to self select reading!)


  2. I love every one of these, Gary, as each speaks to much of my experience in the last year as well. I can’t believe you are only a couple months away from greeting your last batch of students. I hope they all know how lucky they are to learn from one of the greats. Thanks for hiring and inspiring me. It’s not just your students who learn from you.


  3. Glenda Funk says:

    Love it X 10. Especially #2, which made me LOL! You are an inspiration, and I’m really sorry about the pension mess in Illinois. We have a strong system, but I worry about what might happen when our bag of nuts gets wind of how teachers have been treated in your corner of the country. Don’t know if you saw it, but my reflection is in the form of a tribute to departing colleagues, among them my best friend who is on her way to Florida at the end of the month. I’m worried about being lonely next year w/out her.


  4. I have to tell you, I wish I was as positive as you are. I think I’ll take your positivity and try to internalize it. I had a rough year in the classroom also, but I’m ending the year looking forward, not back. Thanks for the reminder.


  5. Delores Robinson says:

    “When we show compassion and empathy, we teach compassion and empathy.” A vital sentiment expressed beautifully — and an example of a learning outcome that cannot be measured by any of the mandated tests. Thank you for your blog!


  6. You’ve got me thinking about my 10…still reeling from my first lesson, though. Too many preps, too little quality.


  7. Lady Magpie says:

    So many of these resonate with me – thank you so much for sharing. Your blog has so often kept me believing in this profession, despite so many things trying to push me out of it.

    I’ve been doing a version of “lessons learned” after each term (here in Australia, the end of the year isn’t until… well, the end of the year). I’m new to this gig, and my reflections are nowhere near as profound, nor even remotely as sensible, as yours – and for that matter are hardly generic so not really useful to others. But for what it’s worth, these are from my first term:


  8. Great list here, Gary, and I think this blog is an example of your #8, how you never stop trying to learn. Your #5 has really got me thinking. I too am looking for time to individually conference with students, for both reading and writing. I don’t exactly know how that is going to fit in to the school year coming up, but I know I need to make time for it. I’ll probably be tracking you down to see how it’s working for you. Thanks for the thoughtful reflection here!


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