Show Up and Dig In

Last summer while my literacy team was planning for the school year, our administrator liaison suggested we get the school normed on a common rubric. She had been doing some reading about successful schools and the conversations that happen at schools with common language and common grading practices has proved to be successful in making improvement. I had never worked super closely with this administrator before, so stupidly I sort of chortled and made some snide comment like, “Yah, right.” Thinking to myself, “That is never gonna happen.”

The way I remember it, is that once I chortled and got it out of my system, she turned to me and said something like, “No seriously. This is how we will start conversations that are real about student writing. This is how other schools have become excellent, and I think we can do it too.”

Well…we did it. We normed our entire staff of just under 260 people on a common rubric. We began last August when we developed common language across discipline areas. We use the language claim, evidence, and reasoning to talk to our students about writing anything that can be considered argumentative: lab reports, math problems, data based questions, you name it.

This really magical thing happened when we did this. I can walk into any classroom and students know what I mean when I say, “Write a CER about X topic.” They get to work, and their questions are not so much about the writing, but about the content they are grappling with.

How powerful is that?

So on Friday when we normed our entire staff on the same rubric, I was excited and nervous and anxious all rolled into one little ball of emotion. I knew people would grumble, I knew people would get caught up in the rubric language, I knew that some disciplines lend themselves more readily to rubrics than others. But I also know in my heart of hearts that until every teacher in our building talks about student thinking, we will not improve our test scores.

It is the student thinking that is most important. They can math solve problems, but unless we can see the breakdown in their thinking, we can’t help them. We can see their processes best, most clearly, when they write about their process, when they argue a point about a concept.

Friday was eye opening to me. The staff I work with dug in. They had conversations about student writing. They engaged in cross curricular conversations about writing expectations. They talked about how the views of the rubric and the ways they will use it are different across content areas. Even when the conversations were not completely positive, they were powerful. They were still about student writing and student thinking

I am really proud of the people I work with. They show up and dig in.

What makes a teacher good?

Last week I was at a one-day conference with one of my colleagues who I don’t get to see near enough. This was a conference about the ACT. Yes, the test. Because we were at a conference about testing, it naturally led to the question, “How do you really know if a teacher is good?”

  • Does a test alone tell you a teacher is good?
  • Does student talk tell you a teacher is good?
  • Does a teacher’s passion for content tell you they are good?
  • Does a teacher’s involvement in school tell you they are good?
  • What do you rely on to know a teacher is good?

The fact of the matter is that teaching is a holistic process. I hear it time and again from newby teachers that they can’t believe how teaching kicks their butts. It has nothing to do with the curriculum, nothing to do with the testing, nothing to do with their knowledge of content, or with their involvement in school. It always has to do with the idea that teaching involves a person’s entire being.

When something isn’t going well in my classroom, I blame myself and I look within. When I can’t reach a student, I blame myself and I look within. When my students struggle with a concept, I blame myself and I look within.

Teaching involves all of me. Working with teens means that I must come into the classroom with an eye on the testing possibilities of each person, the development of the people sitting in front of me, the dreams of each family, the crises they might be having at school or at home, the human potential of each body in front of me, and how they balance all they are involved in. I am part of their being. I affect what ultimately happens to them.

Relationships are complicated by their very nature. Each year we form relationships with students that deepen our own understanding of ourselves. There are days I don’t like how I react to an event in my room, and I must face that and make it okay with the person I reacted to. If I don’t, I have the possibility of losing that person’s respect for the rest of the year.

I also have fun with my students. It is fun when they discover something they didn’t know before they crossed my threshold. It is fun to play with words and ideas each day. It is fun to push ideas into the ether. In the process of writing and pushing and playing and thinking we move one another.

How do you know a good teacher when you see one? The truth is, you just know. It is all of these things and more.

It is love.

The Parking Lot

What is it about short weeks that don’t feel so short? Is it that we try to cram in the same amount of work into a teeny tiny little space of time? I’m not really sure, but it caught up to me this week.

Yesterday I was at a Cognitive Coaching training in the morning, and because I missed some school when Grandad died, I felt I needed to teach the two classes I have in the afternoon. We had a pep assembly, so my intention was to teach and then go back to the training during the pep rally. But as I walked out to the parking lot, I began thinking, “This is crazy. What is it that’s making you feel you need to run around? Who are you trying to please? What are you going to get out of the training when you are so harried and crazed?” And…I put my stuff in the car, turned around, and walked into the pep rally and had a blast watching our Activities Director run around with the emerald green Wizard of Oz costume.

Let me be clear, I am a believer in Cognitive Coaching and I wholeheartedly believe it will make me better at my job. In fact, I am studying the work they did this morning. That is not my issue in the least.

I am working on becoming more mindful in the work that I do, in my every day life, and most importantly when I am with my family. I am taking a class called Mindfulness for Educators offered in my district. I don’t know if it is a result of the practices I’m learning, but in that moment in the parking lot I was able to step back and see myself from the outside and question my motivations.

I am seeing that I need to slow everything down. I need to slow down my classroom practices to give my students time to percolate and think. I need to slow down my schedule as much as possible and let go of some unnecessary things. I need to slow down conversations to become fully present in the moment. I need to not panic about my fitness goals, just be consistent.  I have to remember that in the education business there is always more to do, but that is not what is important: it is in HOW we do it that matters most.

Maya Robbins Gorgeous Eulogy to Brother Grandad

Printed with permission, and written solely by little Maya.

The law of the conservation of matter dictates that matter can neither be created nor destroyed. Our earth will never gain any more matter than it already has, nor will it lose any of the matter it contains. In an isolated system, the amount of matter must always stay the same. This is a law of the universe.

The atoms that made up Grandad may be more dispersed than before. They may have lower chemical energy, and they may seem very different from the Grandad we knew and loved, but they will exist until the end of the universe. According to the law of conservation, not a bit of Grandad is gone, he is just less orderly. These atoms, these pieces of Grandad will still live on. This is a law of the universe.

Grandad will also live on in our memories. I will always remember the patience he had when he would assist me with making my fake movie trailers, always willing to do a second take, even if it meant pretending to be a frog one more time. He will live on in the kindness in his heart and in his soul. I will always remember showing up at his house, and he would always have some fig newtons, my favorite, for me. I will always remember how enthusiastic Grandad was. He would always call my dad up directly after a basketball game so they could talk sports. Even at a young age I was impressed by his passion for a team.

Grandad’s time for creating new memories with us may be over, but we will always remember the memories he gave us, in this isolated system we know as earth. Grandad will live on in our hearts, and in our memories of him. We may not be able to create new memories, but we cannot destroy our existing memories.

This is a law of our love.