Words matter.   Anyone who has spent 30 seconds in middle school knows this.   They are packed with power.   They have the power to cut like a knife and to bring forth beautiful smiles and unexpected laughter.   They can give a sense of belonging or a sense of soul crushing loneliness.   They can define a child and completely change the way that they see the world.   Words said and unsaid are some of the most powerful forces in these children’s world.

For several reasons, the power of words has weighed upon my mind this week.  I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about  how the words we say or don’t say change the way that these children see the world and the people that they will become.

  • Early in the week, I was watching a group of students work.   The girls in the group were largely passive and the boys were dominant.   When I approached them,   I told the girls that they need to be more assertive.   I told the boys they needed to take a step back.   One of the boys said, “but I’m better at it”.     My initial reaction was “you are being so selfish”.   The words started to spill out of my mouth.   Just in time, I caught myself and re-framed it to say something to the effect that “you need to be generous enough to give them the chance to explore how to do this as well.   You need to be generous enough to let them learn.”    Changing the way I framed the comment was probably one of the most powerful teacher moves I have made in a while.   The next day, the girls were in the thick of things.   The boy who didn’t want to yield the floor had an entirely different demeanor.   He was indeed being generous.   That dynamic held all week.   Everyone in that group saw themselves a little differently because the words they heard changed the way that they saw themselves.   I can’t claim wisdom in this choice, just a little bit of serendipitous luck for which I am grateful.
  • Late in the week, a colleague mentioned something that a student had said.   He said that his father had come home from a meeting at school and said “I roasted those teachers”.   I kept thinking that as he shared those words with his son, he said so many things, some of which he probably does not realize.   He said that he doesn’t value his son’s teachers or the work that they do and that his son doesn’t need to either.   He said that bullying his way through a situation is an acceptable problem-solving strategy and that his son can do the same.   He said that he thinks the entirety of the issue rests on the teacher’s shoulders and that his son bears no responsibility or ownership in the situation.   He said that he will “take care of” whatever happens and that his son does not need to learn to self-advocate.   He said that he doesn’t really believe in his son’s ability to handle a problem.

The words that children hear have a powerful impact.  They influence who they will become and how they will see the world.   Sometimes we get it right when we speak to children and sometimes we don’t.  None of us are perfect.  I’m left this week, though, thinking about the importance of being intentional with the words that we choose to speak to our children.


Why Student-led Conferences Are Worth the Time

Along my journey with student-led conferences, I have gradually grown to appreciate their value.    Like many parents and teachers, my initial feeling was that they are largely a waste of time.   The thought of giving up two academic days twice a year to hold conferences made me fairly unhappy when I jealously guard every single academic minute that I have with my students.    After all, the kids who show up for them are already having these conversations around the dinner table and the kids who need to have these conversations don’t show up, right?  As a parent, I really didn’t like them either.   I didn’t want to take off half a day of work to go to a 20 minute conference when we talked about things at home already.   I always went, though, because I wanted to send a message to my children that school is important.

As I have watched so many of these conferences over the last decade or so, this is what I have learned.

Preparing for the conferences is a growth experience for students.

  • In my class, I require them to set a goal for the year.    I make them break down how they are going to achieve that goal in very specific terms.   If they say they are going to “study more”, I ask them how specifically they are going to do that.   So, they have to come up with something like “I am going to review my Science vocabulary flash cards for 10 minutes every day in the car on the ride to soccer practice.”   (I know SMART goals are a big push, but talking about SMART goals with 11 year olds doesn’t really work for me.   I’ve tried it and found it to be a disaster.   Talking about  goals and having a specific plan for reaching them is something they seem to grasp a little better.)
  • I also require students to think about what is going well and what is not going as well in each of their classes.    I ask them to share two pieces of work from each of their core classes (Language Arts, Math, Science, Social Studies).   (They can also bring work from electives if they want, but I don’t require it because sometimes the elective classes don’t really lend themselves to it. )   As they choose their work,   I tell them I would like them to bring major pieces of work (not daily homework unless there is a really important story that goes with it).   One of the pieces of work should be something that went well and the other should be something that didn’t go so well.    The conversation with their parents needs to center on why one didn’t go well and what they did differently with the piece of work that did go well.   The reflection that they have to do preparing for this helps to build the idea that hard work and persistence (and asking for help) can make a difference.
  • Planning what they will share and how they will do it requires students to organize their thinking.    I give them a framework for the conference, but students have to organize their presentation within that framework.    This is a building block for later presentations that they will need to do in school and in the workplace.

Leading the conference gives students real experience in a safe environment

  • A student-led conference is an opportunity to gain presentation experience.   For many of my 6th graders, this is a nerve-wracking experience.   Some of them are almost shaking.    What they don’t realize is that the more they give presentations, the easier it gets.   They ability to do it well can have a big impact on their future success in the work world.
  • For most students, their parents are the safest audience they will ever have.    That is a nice thing to have when they are shaking in their boots.   I have watched parents reach over and put a calming hand on a student to reassure them.   I have heard parents say things like “It’s OK.   You know that I love you.”
  • At the end of the conference, parents almost always tell their child that they did a good job.   Hearing that makes it a little easier the next time they give some kind of presentation.

The setting and structure brings out things that sometimes are missed in everyday conversations.  

  • Almost every parent just wants their child to do their best.    Sometimes that fact gets lost.     Students don’t always realize it if it isn’t explicitly stated.    If  students aren’t doing well, they sometimes think their parents are focused solely on grades.   Others  think that their parents don’t care.   Listening to students talk about their progress in this kind of a structure gives parents and teachers a chance to very explicitly say that they just want the student to do his or her best.  That is important for a kid who is working hard to hear.   No one expects him or her to be perfect.   It is also important for a kid who is just coasting through life to hear.   He or she needs to know that parents and teachers see it and that they expect more.

What Does It Feel Like To Walk Around in Her Skin?

What does it feel like to walk around in her skin?   I have asked myself this question on an almost daily basis about one of my students this year.   I have watched her closed face.   I have listened to her silence.   I have tried to coax her out from behind the mask that I see.   Each day, I wonder what is behind the mask.

I wonder if she is just reserved.  I wonder if she is shy.    I wonder if this is a reflection of culture.  I wonder if this is a reflection of religion.   I wonder if she is afraid.    Each day, I wonder what I can do to help her.

Each day, I speak to her as she enters my room.   Each day, I check in with her to see if she is understanding.   Each day, I keep her sitting with the one other girl in the room (and wonder if the male:female ratio is part of the problem) instead of mixing up the seating like I do in every other class.    Each day, I thank my lucky stars that the only other girl in the room is confident and strong and kind and celebrates their time together.    Each day, I look hard trying to find the things she might not understand but won’t tell me if I don’t directly ask her.   Each day, I try to find something to make a connection with her (a comment that the design on her scarf looks similar to a piece of art that I have seen, a comment on how my daughter likes to wear braids too, a compliment about the art she has drawn on her notebook).   Each day, I try to discover who this eleven year old girl is and how I can help her discover that she is amazing.

It has been ten weeks of this.   Now, when I look at her with a question, she smiles that she has “it”.    She sometimes will even giggle quietly with the girl who sits beside her.   Each day, I wonder what it is like to walk around in her skin and I wonder if I am giving her what she needs.   Each day I wonder and I celebrate each small success.

A New and Improved IEP Calendar Form

Two heads are definitely better than one.   Back in August, I shared a calendar/organizational  tool that I created to organize data about all the students on my caseload.   One of my colleagues read the post  and downloaded the tool.   She liked it enough to add a few improvements to it.   She then kindly shared it back with me.   That inspired me to make a few more improvements of my own.    Here is the new and improved IEP Calendar

The “goal” section serves two purposes.    We can use a number or letter to represent different goals that we have for different students.   The numbered boxes that are sub-headings can be highlighted as Progress Towards Goals are completed and sent to parents.

The “IEP/Re-eval” category tracks the date the IEP or re-evaluation are due and the date that they are held.

In the “Areas of Qualification” section, the different areas of qualification are listed and we just put a dot or an x in the box to indicate the areas in which a student has qualified.   This section could be changed to different areas of qualification for students with disabilities.

The “schedule” section documents the student’s schedule.   We put the teacher’s initials in the box for each period of the day.

The final “input” section documents when goals and parent/student input have been entered into the document.  (We usually send a form home asking for parent/student input prior to the IEP meeting and have the parent email them back to us.   This enables the parents time to think about their responses rather than being put on the spot during a meeting.   We can always add things during the meeting if the parent has additional thoughts.)

When we type the student’s name into the document, we make it a hyperlink to his or her IEP document in our online system.



Friday Favorites – A success, a lesson, and an assessment

The frenzied pace of the first months of school has finally slowed enough to catch a breath.   My students have settled into life in middle school.   We’ve spent enough minutes and hours and experiences together that we know each other.   We have weathered disappointments and successes.   We have had surprises and laughter and we have learned a lot.

There are too many stories to tell, but here are a few of the best moments from this week.

Favorite “Favorite”

I gave a retake test this week for students who did not receive an A or a B on the last test.   It had been a really challenging unit and despite our best efforts, some students had not been very successful.  A week later, seeing the continuing hard work those students invested turn into sheer joy as they saw a D become an A or a B was my favorite “favorite” of the week.

Favorite Lesson

On Friday, my students explored the “stories” that graphs tell.   I gave each table group of students a set of 6 graphs and 7 stories. They had to match the stories to the graphs.    It was not a 1:1 match, so there could be no “process of elimination”.   The room buzzed as students engaged in rich conversations about why a given graph did or did not match a given story.  After a period of time, I had students do a gallery walk to examine the choices that other groups had made.   At each “station”, a group could give another group feedback by rotating the story card 90 degrees if they disagreed with the match.   The next group could give feedback on the “disagreement”, indicating that they disagreed with the “disagreement” by rotating the graph card 90 degrees (so the group would see that one group disagreed with their match and another group thought that the match was correct).   After all groups had given feedback at each station, they returned to their own station and had time to make changes to their matches based on any changes in thought that they had as a result of seeing other groups thinking and based on the feedback that they had received from other groups.    Finally, we had a whole class debrief in which we matched the stories to the graphs.

This was a “favorite” because the conversations were so rich, the students were so engaged, and I heard  “This was so much fun.”

Favorite Formative Assessment

My students are learning to correctly make  line graphs.   As we work our way through the unit, I take anecdotal records on a clip board documenting their mistakes as I circulate around the room.   I use these to help select which graph the class will look at for a given problem.   During this unit, I always choose graphs with errors and ask the class to find the errors.   The student whose work is shared and the students who find the errors all get candy as a “Thank You” for the gift they have given us in helping us to learn.


This year, I reused the same sheet on multiple days and just changed the color in which I took the notes.   This gave me an easy picture of whether things were progressing for a given student or whether the same error was being repeated.    Late in the week, in addition to taking the anecdotal records, I walked around with a pink highlighter.   On each graph, I made a pink mark indicating where there was an error (e.g, a pink line at the top if they forgot a title, or two pink lines showing that intervals were not uniform).   My hope is that seeing the pink marks in their composition book will be not only giving them feedback but also giving them a clear visual reminder about the ins and outs of that particular step in making a graph.   (Details and a download of the anecdotal record form are here.



Reflections on My MTBosBlaugust

At the end of July, I decided to participate in a blogging challenge that @druinok initiated.   It is the perfect blogging challenge for me.   There were no rules or expectations, no pre-defined prompts, just an invitation to write, to  share, and to read as much as you would like.    Some people dove in with the plan to post every day.   Other people targeted a once a week post.   Still other people just targeted “more”, whatever that meant for them.   I fell into the latter category.   I didn’t really have a defined goal.   I just wanted to write “more”, which wouldn’t take much since I was so busy during the last six or seven months that I wrote hardly at all.   If I only managed  two posts during the month of August, I was going to count it a win.

I wanted to write “more” because writing makes me pause.   It makes me think about the choices that I am making in my classroom.   It makes me consider what I am doing and why.   It makes me think about how the choices I make are impacting my students.   It makes me consider things from another perspective.   It makes me grow.   It doesn’t matter if anyone else ever reads it.   If someone does read it and they find something they can use or that makes them think, that’s awesome but it isn’t why I should write.  I should write because of the thought that must go into the writing and what I do with those thoughts afterward.

As I look back on the month of August, I never would have imagined that I would write so much this month.   Some of it was more reflective  and some less so, but I am better for having taken the time to think in ways that I would not have done without this challenge.   So, many thanks to @druinok.


A Flurry of Owls

Yesterday, Diagon Alley began to take shape.

Today, there was a flurry of owls delivering owl post.


Tomorrow, students will begin shopping for school supplies for Hogwarts.   They will need to convert their Galleons and Sickles from fractions to decimals.   Then, they will determine subtotals at each shop.

On Friday, there will be a mini-lesson on finding the percent of a number so that students can calculate discounts and taxes.   (Flourish and Blotts is having quite a sale.   Of course, the Ministry of Magic must have their due as well.)   They will then set to work finalizing their expenses and making sure that they have stayed within their individual budget.