Teacherscribe's Teaching Thoughts

Week 19

For more content, check out my blog

For a deeper dive into the life of a passionate teacher and why education is amazing, visit my blog. Past content from my blog - Mr. Mueller, a teacher who changed my life.
Big picture
Big picture

"The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for" - Ernest Hemingway

The news is so full of negativity that a few years ago I took to creating a positive story board on Pinterest to try and remind myself that there is good in the world.

Here is this week's example of what Hemingway was talking about - Breastfeeding officer saves abandoned baby . . .

Big picture
Big picture

Book recommendation of the week - Radical by Michelle Rhee

One of the most interesting (and polarizing) figures of the past 25 years in education is the former school chancellor of the Washington DC schools, Michelle Rhee.

Her first book, Radical, chronicles her time as chancellor.

She was put in place to 'fix' the worst schools in our country, which just so happened to be located in our nation's capital.

The problem is that she made sweeping changes without taking her stake holders into account. Was this right? Maybe.

I don't blame her. She couldn't have made things worse.

But in the world of education, she didn't last and once the mayor lost his re-election bid, she was out too.

She still leads the organization Students First, though.

The picture that started it all

Of course, the nation was captivated by Rhee's crusade. But this picture, on the cover of Time, symbolizes her troubles. She was all for 'sweeping' changes, but the picture sent the wrong message to her teachers, many of whom began to fear her and for their jobs.
Big picture

Teaching Thoughts week 19

Week #19 (Jan. 14-18)

Teaching Thought #79

Give back.

One of my favorite bloggers and people in education in general is George Couros. This blog entry on “Three Ways We Can Learn from Past Success” has some great points for us teachers.

Way #3 – Success might be something you experience as an individual, but it doesn’t mean you were the sole factor in the process. Give back.

A few years ago, when I was awarded a WEM award, Mr. Hill from The Times interviewed me right after I was surprised with the award during my class. I wanted to thank all of the other teachers in the district who help develop our kids, the best of whom I get to enjoy in my College Comp I and II classes.

Giving back is so important. One thing I’ve learned is that we all stand on the shoulders of giants. I would not be doing what I’m doing if it weren’t for all of my mentors and all of the people I’ve learned from. I celebrate them as often as I can in front of my students. I swear when I had Josiah last year, I bet he thought I had a man crush on his grandfather, Loiell Dyrud, who happened to have a major impact on my teaching career . . . if only for one year.

One regret I have when it comes to getting back occurred a few years ago at a PD day we had at LHS. A colleague came over to the table I was sitting at and talked about a five-page Mother’s Day note her daughter, a former College Comp I and II student of mine, had written her. She thanked me for teaching her to write like that. I smiled and thanked her. But what I should have done was acknowledge that I only played a small part in her daughter’s writing ability. Sure, it was at the end of her writing career (her junior and senior years), but I was able to help her and inspire her only because of all the other teachers she had had previously who built up her writing skills in ways I could never have done.

Give back every chance you get.

Teaching Thought #80

One of those teachers

It was the first day. Actually, it was the first period of the first day of my first-year teaching. I arrived early, 6:30 to be precise. I walked down the empty hall and stopped for a drink from the water fountain across from my room. I refrained from my morning blend Caribou coffee, recalling my high school English teacher, whose breath reeked of Folgers. I was not going to be one of those teachers.

I fished a Spearmint Tic-Tac out of my coat pocket and popped it into my mouth. Then I pulled out my keys and unlocked the door to my classroom.

My schedule hung outside my door: five sections of Communications 10. Soon 28 sophomores would file in and expect me to teach them Communications 10. Whatever that was supposed to be.

Barely three months ago, the principal took me to what would soon be my classroom. There I met the retiring teacher whom I was to replace. We visited briefly before she handed me the teacher’s edition of the tenth-grade textbook and said, “Use the this. Start with the first story.”

A week later when I officially moved in, I found a colossal three ring binder with “Communications 10” stenciled on the spine sitting atop my desk. Inside there was a faded yellow Post-It Note that read: “Here is everything you need. Godspeed.”

I recalled that advice and stepped inside the room and flipped the lights on. My desk was organized. I had extra pencils in a canister, just in case a student forgot his or hers. I had a mesh basket for student work. The first story and assignment were in two separates stacks. Next to them was my red grade book. Below that was the blank seating chart for each period. Students in my class were not going to be forced to sit where I wanted them. I was not going to be one of those teachers.

I surveyed the rest of the room. The desks were in clusters. I did not want the traditional rows. Again, I was not going to be one of those teachers.

The day’s assignment was clearly printed in blue Dry-Erase marker on the white board.

What an assignment it was! I spent Labor Day weekend in my room planning. I was not going to simply start with the first story in our textbook - as the departing teacher had advised. The first story was Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations,” a classic science fiction tale. It was powerful but long. Maybe a science fiction story would turn a few students off. I wanted to wow them. I wanted them to fall in love with literature. I wanted them to know the power - and joy - of a great story. So I improvised. I scoured one of my college anthologies for one of my favorite stories: “The Harry Hastings Method” by Warner Law.

The story was mature for sophomores, so I spent an hour whiting out every trace of profanity. When students noticed the missing words, I reasoned this would be a great spot for a discussion on editing and censoring. I also hoped students would appreciate that I was thinking outside of the box and injecting provocative stories into my curriculum. I was not going to be boring. I was not going to be one of those teachers! I was going to hit them with a great story right away and keep them interested and wanting to read more great literature.

To accompany the story, I devised a reader-response guide. One thing I vowed not to do was just assign the questions at the end of the story. I had suffered through enough of those assignments in high school. I was not going to put my students through that.

The reader-response guide was based off many I had devised for a Fundamentals of Education class in college. First, I devised a pre-reading question to activate students’ schema. It asked them to reflect on a time in their lives when they were at a crossroads, just like the protagonist in the story. Second, I had during-reading questions designed to analyze the key elements of the story’s plot. Finally, I had a post-reading question, calling for them to write a mini-essay about a time where a situation turned out the exact opposite of what they expected, again just like the climax on the story.

“The Harry Hastings Method” was funny, interesting, creative, and had a great twist ending. The assignment was engaging. Plus, this type of lesson was always a hit with my fellow undergrads who role-played my students for the mock lessons in our Fundamentals of Education class. This would surely captivate my real students.

Was I wrong.

Teaching Thought #81

Part 2 : One of Those Teachers

As I counted the number of copies of the stories and reader-response guides for the tenth time, I closed my eyes and envisioned it all coming together: today my students would read the story, completing the guide as they read. Then tomorrow we’d go to the computer lab to turn those mini essays in to rough drafts. The third day would be spent editing and revising. On Friday I would organize the desks into a large circle and have the students share their essays, just like we had done in my college fundamentals classes. Then I would have the weekend to comment on their essays before returning them on Monday. Not bad for the first week of school. I could just see it all coming together . . . then the first period bell rang.

Students entered the room in small groups. They seemed a little thrown off by the desks being in clusters instead of rows, but they all found a spot. As soon as the final bell rang, I dispersed the photocopies of the story and the reading guide.

“Aren’t we going to go over the rules?” asked a girl seated in the cluster at the front of the room.

“We will. But that’s boring,” I said, eager to see their shock at my unconventional approach. They stared at me.

“What is your grading scale?” asked another girl, who just happened to be sitting right next to the girl who asked the first question.

“Ah, we will go over that later too,” I said. “I want us to jump right in to a really great story that I know you are going to love. ” With that I said their first assignment was on the board, and I turned them loose to read and work and - hopefully - be as blown away by the tale as I was.

Was I wrong.

Teaching Thought #82

Part 3: One of Those Teachers

My students were engaged. For five minutes.

Then hands flew into the air. There were so many - in fact - that I spent the better part of the hour running from desk to desk, answering questions. The most common question, aimed at my carefully constructed reader-response guide was, “What are we supposed to do with this?”

Note to self - sophomores are not keen on reading directions. Be sure to state the directions clearly several times. Even better, ask the students to repeat the directions back to you.

The other question had to do with one of the pre-reading questions - the one designed to activate schema - and which had worked so well on the undergrads in my Fundamentals of Education class - “What do you mean by ‘write about a time you were at a cross-roads in your life?’”

Note to self - 15 year olds dont know what a cross-roads is nor have they lived long enough to experience many!

I also had not expected students to struggle so much with the story.

“I don’t get it!”

“What is going on?”

“I can’t follow this!”

Dissension echoed around the room.

Someone even muttered the dreaded, “This is boring!”

They were not going to get done with the assignment in the allotted time. Forty minutes into the first period of the first day of my first year teaching, and I was already lost!

Mercifully, the bell rang, and I blurted, “Finish the story for tomorrow. There will be a quiz!”

It just came out like it was second nature. I had not planned on giving a quiz? If I didn’t want to assign the questions at the end of the story, I sure did not want to be one of those teachers who assigned a quiz to force kids to finish reading a story.

Was I wrong.

Teaching Thought #83

Part 5: One of Those Teachers

On the second day of school, I found it was a terrible idea to assign a quiz to just one class.

“Why are we the only class that has to take a quiz on this stupid story?” were the first words out of the girl who yesterday had asked if we were going to go over the syllabus.

Note to self - students communicate with students from other sections of the same class on assignments.

“Oh, the quiz is not that hard,” I said grabbing the quizzes off my desk and dispersing them. “Don’t worry. There will be plenty of quizzes later on for the other classes too.” What? Where did that come from? I thought.

“Now, I know we got a little confused yesterday when I just handed out the story and the guide and didn’t go over the instructions,” I said as I set the last quiz face down on a student’s desk. “So for this quiz, read the directions thoroughly and do exactly as they say. When you are done, put the quizzes in the basket on my desk.”

I was impressed. No one even tried to turn the quiz over to take a peek. “You may begin now,” I said. “Oh yeah, don’t forget to read the direct---” My words fell on deaf ears as they flipped the quiz over and began answering questions.

What they did not realize, though, was that I felt so badly that they were the only class to get a quiz that I had given them an easy out. All they had to do was read the directions, for they clearly stated, “Read the directions completely before beginning the quiz. If you do, all you need to do is put your name on it and turn it in.”

Yet, right before my eyes, I saw every student tear through the quiz! So much for my new emphasis on reading and following directions, I thought. Well, just let this be a lesson to them.

When the last student submitted his quiz, I asked, “Did anyone bother to read the directions?”

Students shook their heads and peered at one another to see if anyone had actually read the directions. I broke it to them as gently as I could that if they completed the quiz, rather than just putting their names on it, then they failed.

The group of overachievers in the front cluster drilled holes in my head with their glares. They were not pleased that it was only the second day of class and already they had failed a quiz. Others were shocked and wanted to know if that the quiz was really going to count. A few - namely a group of boys in the back - were grinning, impressed that I had pulled one over on them.

They began arguing that it was not fair. Some wanted to re-do it. Others wanted me to give the quiz to my other classes to see if any others would bother to read the directions. “Ha,” I quipped. “I know how quickly word spreads from one section to the next. That would never work!”

Then we spent the reaming 40 minutes discussing the issues. And something magical happened.

Somehow we entered into a zone where they freely shared ideas. They lobbied hard for me to disregard the quiz. I countered their claims and asked why should I not fail them for not reading the fine print?

The students took my rebuttal and countered it, offering evidence for their stance. I did not know it at the time, but despite the fact that I had not planned it, this was the first time I was really teaching.

It did not take us long before a student applied the implications of not reading the fine print to product placements on TV.

“It’s like those diet pill commercials,” a student called out. “Have you ever noticed the real tiny print at the bottom of the screen?”

“Yeah, that’s true,” another student chimed in.

“That’s right,” a third student stated. “It actually says something like ‘results not typical’ or ‘diet and exercise are the best way to achieve actual results!’”

Other students threw out names of bogus products they saw advertised recently. Other students named the rip-offs either they or their parents were duped into purchasing.

Note to self - record some infomercials tonight to share in class. Better yet, ask students to search their homes for bogus products and bring them in for show and tell. Also, what story can I use to tie all this together?

It was one of those magical times where I happened to glance at the clock and saw that the period was jus about over. We had not even discussed “The Harry Hastings Method”!

Hoping to tie the story in as the class period wound down, I asked students to turn in their reader-response guides. Only about half of the class actually opened their folders or books and took them out and passed them forward. Others stared down at their desks, a bit guilty that they neglected to complete their homework.

One boy at the back of the room fished something out of his back pocket. He then set it on his desk and unfolded it half a dozen times to reveal my carefully constructed reader-response guide, which was now crumpled and torn. He fished a pencil out of his other back pocket and scrawled something resembling a name in the upper right corner, so much for the actual spot I put in the upper left corner for their names, date, and class period. Then he tossed it over the shoulder of the student in front of him.

When I collected them, most were only partially completed. Only two students had even attempted to answer the post reading question. So much for my plans of writing essays based off of their reactions to the story!

Despite our wonderful discussion in class, things felt like they were falling apart again. I grabbed on to a lifeline. I recalled how my Fundamentals of Education professor always had us complete exit slips, calling for us to summarize what we covered in class that day. I included them in my mock lesson plans too. They never failed to generate honest and useful feedback.

“Okay, for your final assignment today,” I began, “I want you to take out a sheet of paper complete what I call an exit slip. Ever hear of one?”

Students shook their heads as they ripped sheets out of their notebooks, so I strode to my white board and wrote two questions: “What did you like most about the story?” and “What would you like to see me do differently in class?”

“This is a way for us to summarize what we have learned,” I explained. “Plus, it’s a chance for you to give me some feedback on how I am doing.” What? I had not planned to say that. What am I doing? What happens if they tell me I suck? Oh well, it was out there now, I thought. At least I was not one of those teachers who never sought student in put.

Students began writing their responses. I even had a few linger after the bell to finish. Hey, maybe I was becoming one of those teachers who worked their kids so hard they cannot finish during the class period. I recalled my high school Algebra teacher who worked us a minute past the bell every day. Maybe I would not mind being one of those teachers after all.

Was I wrong.

Big picture

Podcast of the week - How Southwest Cultivates Culture

This podcast is an interview with Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest airlines. This has great insight into how to develop culture, not just for companies but also for classrooms.
Big picture

Video of the week - Why I hate school but love education

A student of mine shared this with me several years ago as he was struggling with the transition from high school teachers who cared to college professors who didn't.
Big picture

Thoughts from Twitter

Twitter is the best PD available. Don't miss out.
Big picture
Big picture
Big picture

Gotta love Gen Z

When you're home with your sick daughter and you get a text from a student noticing something odd about your school picture.
Big picture
Big picture
Big picture
Big picture
Big picture
Big picture
Big picture
Big picture

Tech Tool of the Week - Pechaflickr - a great tool for impromptu speaking


I saw this modled at TIES a few years ago. It is based off of the presentation format of PechaKucha where you only get 20 slides and you can only talk about each slide for 20 seconds.

Oh yeah. There can be no words on the slides. Just an image.

This allows you to type in a word (dog, cat, food, snow) and then it will generate 20 images for students to speak on.

How I use this - Before my students give their mock TED Talks, I use this to get them to rehearse their speaking skills and to get used to not relying on notes or reading from slides.

Big picture

Bonus content for this week- more on Michelle Rhee

The education of Michelle Rhee. John Merrow, education reported for PBS, is one of my favorite voices on education. Here he takes a hard look at all that Rhee got right and wrong during her tenure.
Big picture

Chief Inspiration Officer of Room 205

I am married to the most amazing person in the world, Kristie. It was love at first sight. At least for me. And it still is.

We have four wonderful children, Casey, Koko, Kenzie, and Cash. I also happen to have the greatest job in the world: teaching English to high school students. I'm even blessed enough to teach an Intro to Education class at UND during the fall.

I am about to begin my 21st year of teaching at Lincoln High School. I graduated from Lafayette High School in 1992. I come from a family of teachers: my grandmother was a country school teacher for a number of years before finishing out her career at Knox in TRF; my uncle Jim was an English professor at Western State in Gunnison, Co. My niece, Amanda, is a math teacher in Wayzata, MN. Teaching continues to run in the family.

As a result of my family influences, teaching was always something I wanted to do. The deciding factors, though, came because of two amazing teachers, Mr. Mueller, my fourth and sixth grade elementary school teacher and assistant baseball coach, and Mrs. Christianson, my 9th grade English teacher, respectively.

I attended Northland Community College, and had my life changed by the amazing Dr. Diane Drake. Then I transferred to Bemidji State University in 1995. There I had amazing professors who further inspired me to teach English (Dr. Helen Bonner, Dr. Mark Christensen, Susan Hauser, and Gerry Schnabel). I graduated with my BS in English Education in 1997.

I student taught with the wonderful Lisa Semanko and then began teaching full-time at LHS in 1998.

I took a year's leave of absence in 2001-02 to return to BSU for my MA in English. There I had the privilege to teach and work closely with my greatest mentor, Dr. Mark Chirstensen. I earned my MA in English in 2006 and was honored with "Thesis of the Year" for my creative non-fiction, braided, multi-genre memoir, "Meeting Myrtle: A Biography."

In 2013, thanks to my dear friend and mentor, Dr. Jodi Holen, I was offered an adjunct teaching position fall semester at the University of North Dakota. Tuesday nights I teach Intro to Education: Teaching and Learning 250 from 5-8. Those three hours fly by in about ten minutes.

Then in 2016 I was blessed to win a WEM award (thanks to a nomination from a former student - and now an amazing elementary school teacher in her own right, Ciera Mooney).

In 2017 I became part of the #pineconepd podcast club along with Brian Loe, Jeff Mumm, Kelsey Johnson, Kelly Weets, Josh Watne, Tevia Strand, Megan Vigen, Mariah Hruby, and Laura Brickson. This has been one of the best forms of PD I've ever been a part of. They make me a better teacher every time we meet. Please think about joining us in the summer at the Pine Cone Pub from 6:30 - until we've solved all the world's problems. For that evening anyway.

Thanks to the inspiration of Shane Zutz (our former principal), whose weekly newsletter "High Impact Leadership," is directly responsible for influencing me to create this newsletter.

I devised this as a way to distribute my Teaching Thoughts and add more content to, hopefully, help out and inspire others.