When I was growing up in a military town on the border, I didn’t give much thought to race.   In a sense, I was colorblind with all the good and the bad that goes with that.    I lived in a really diverse place.     The combination of the border and the military meant that my school had a lot of students of color.     With the innocence of childhood, I saw my peers as much the same – human.    I liked some of them and some of them not so much.    The feelings were driven more by the things of childhood than anything else – proximity, friendliness,  and the like.    When we hit middle school, it became more about a social pecking order (I was a nerd, so I was never at the top of that pecking order and was largely just fine with that)  and maybe, to a lesser extent, common interests.    Still, race didn’t seem to be a big factor.

It wasn’t until high school that the colorblind blinders started to come off.    One of my friends started dating someone of a different race.    Our peers didn’t really see it as a big deal, but an awful lot of adults did.   I just couldn’t get it.   He was a good guy.   He treated her well.   He was kind and funny and friendly.   He was also black and that seemed to be the only thing that some people saw when they saw him with her.   It stunned me that they didn’t actually see him  .

A number of years later when I was dating the man that would one day become my spouse, I remembered those days.   I was working as an engineer and so was he.   Our friends were all young professionals and no one thought anything of the fact that he is Asian and I am white.    I didn’t forget the lessons I learned from adults back in high school though.   I watched how people looked at us as we rode the train into the city to see a concert.    I noticed some small scowls on some of the older white faces.   I noticed some wrinkled brows on some of the older Chinese faces.    I thought about these looks a lot as I considered whether I would marry this man.    I wondered what it would be like for our children and whether I would be placing undue hardship on them as they walked between two cultures and two races.   Ultimately, I decided to believe in good, to be optimistic.   After all, my experience was that my generation was fairly tolerant and surely that would just get better over time as the older, less tolerant, generation passed on.

Over the years, as I have traveled through life with this man and our children, I have seen a life very different than my own sheltered childhood.   I have seen men suggest that he should not be allowed in a room because of his race.    I have sent my young children off to school with a knot in my stomach because a Chinese man was arrested for spying.   I had heard what adults were saying, so I knew what my children’s peers were probably hearing around their dinner table and would probably repeat at school.    I have watched people make eye-pulling gestures at my children to make fun of their race.    I have watched as my daughters’ white peers referred to them as Asian and their Asian peers referred to them as “bad Asians” because they did not strictly adhere to the Asian cultural  norms either.   I have watched my daughters learn to drive and had conversations with them about how they should behave if they were ever stopped by a police officer.    I have watched them go off to college, choosing a school with a large Asian population so that they would be less “other” only to discover that they are still “other” because they are also white.    Many of these things I expected.    Some I did not.

There have also been things that I did not expect.   I did not expect my husband to sit down at the kitchen table planning a route to drive my daughter across country to school that would be driven almost entirely by finding the safest route for them.    I did not expect to have to worry about whether they would encounter racists that might do them physical harm like that done in Virginia and Tennessee.    I did not expect to insist that they call me every night so that I would know they were safe rather than just because I love them.   I did not expect my husband, an internationally recognized researcher in theoretical computer science, to be questioned by police because he mailed a care package to our daughter at school.    (Thank goodness he keeps such meticulous records and had the receipt  proving that his package was sent to Wellesley and was not the package of drugs sent to a prison.)    I did not expect to see permission given so openly to be racist.     I did not expect so much of the population to be silent in the face of that.

These sights, both expected and unexpected, have changed the way that I see the world.     I can not be colorblind because the experiences that we each have are colored by the color of our skin whether or not that should be true.   To be colorblind would negate the fact that the experiences of the young muslim girl wearing a headscarf in my class, the black young man wearing a hoody walking down the hall, the boy who sits in the ELL class three doors down learning English  are different than my own experiences.  I can not ignore that difference.   I have to speak to it.

A classroom is one of the only places where people of all different races and religions intermingle on a regular basis.    Teaching children to see each other and to value each other for their shared humanity has to be a part of every single classroom.   Even math.



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.