Lessons to a Working Mom from Herself as a Stay at Home Parent

We were lucky enough to be on Cape Cod.

It was sunset. On the ocean. Bo was eating Cheerios out of a container. To get each piece, he had to stick his whole hand in, rummage around, and then squeeze his hand back out. His brow furrowed with every try. The wind ruffled his sweet toddler hair. When he got his ‘O, he grinned with his whole face, stuffing the cereal into his mouth and chewing exaggeratedly.

It was heaven. Our son sat with us on the beach. He was happy and tired out from a day of running and swimming and smiling. He was having a snack.


In less than a week I’ll be returning to work full time after a blessed, lucky year off to spend with my son. Of course I will still have so many of these moments with him, but there will be fewer. I will miss a bunch of them.

As I go back to work working in schools with the Reading and Writing Project, I can’t help but think of Bo, and my dreams for him when he starts his formal education. Above all, I want the light I see in his eyes, the one that shines like a beacon from his sweetest little heart, to never be extinguished. I know I won’t always be able to control this. I know that his light will change – it will turn from a fully open searchlight of joy to a more subdued, big kid twinkle. I just hope the light remains. And if I hope that for my son, then I must hope it for yours, especially if I’m going to be working with your kids.

There are some things I have thought about during this year off, things that I hope to hold onto as I dive back in to school. I share them here to try and etch them a little deeper into my teaching commandments as I move forward into the new years to come as a working mom.

Curriculum Matters…

When Bo was a newborn, he was easy going – until he wasn’t. One minute he was super chill and cooing, the next he was shrieking for his life. We realized we were going to need to teach him how to take in the world a bit. And so we studied up. We got advice. We worked actively on how to best teach this baby how to go to the park (later, how to eat with a spoon, sleep by himself, use some signs to ask for what he wants). There were many paths we could have chosen, many philosophies of parenting (French, Spock, Attachment, Old School) and probably all of them would have worked – as long as we worked at it. Because we had a philosophy of sorts, (really philosophy is overstating it, we basically flailed until we settled on something that felt right), we could be somewhat consistent, we had a framework for how to move forward, and we had a community to talk to when we ran into trouble.

The same is true in schools. As teachers we need to know what we believe in when teaching, say, reading and writing. And our practices need to match those beliefs. There are many curriculums out there. Researcher Michael Fullan suggests that many of them will work – as long as everyone really commits and tries to reach high levels of implementation. That is probably true. But any curriculum worth its salt needs to be flexible enough to allow you to respond to the kids in front of you instead of the box set of lessons on your desk. This is one reason why I have devoted myself to workshop teaching – when you break it down, workshop is a philosophy of teaching and a series of structures that supports those ideas. But you might choose something different. Here are three things that seem to matter most when developing curriculum:

  1. It focuses on the kids. A principal I work with in Queens said this about working with the Reading and Writing Project (I am paraphrasing): “All the other curriculums we were being offered came in a big shiny box, and there was some representative telling me that everything I needed was in there. But you guys don’t do that. You guys tell me that we are going to have to work hard and get to know our kids and go from there. I like that.” Any curriculum that tries to be “teacher proof” is not going to have the kids in mind.
  2. There are resources to draw upon. Once, back in the late 90’s, I wrote a unit on teaching philosophy in the reading workshop. It was awesome and gratifying and soooooo much work. I couldn’t keep that up if I tried. Plus, a few years later all this stuff came out about teaching philosophy to kids and I was like, “wow, that’s waaay better than what I came up with!” It helps to choose, at least part of the time, a curriculum that others have worked on too.
  3. There is a team. When I was in school, the quality of your education was greatly determined by the teacher you happened to get from year to year. Each room was its own kingdom. Most good professional development aims to shift that – to create communities of practice rather than a few good teachers. When I choose what kind of teaching to embrace, I want to be sure that my colleagues are in on it too.

…But curriculum doesn’t matter THAT much.

I was talking recently with a friend about where to send her kid to middle school. She had a few choices, and we weighed them out one by one. About a half hour into the conversation, I started chuckling. We hadn’t even mentioned curriculum. Here we were, two educators who spent a great deal of time thinking about and writing curriculum, and when it came down to where to send our kids, curriculum was far from our minds.

What mattered more? The teachers, and whether they were kind and responsive and thoughtful. If there were extracurricular activities, like sports and arts and music, and whether those pursuits were supported during the school day. The community of kids in the building – if this place felt like an empathic, happy group of kids. What we cared about when we considered which school our kids would go to was how the school felt – not really what it taught. That’s not to say that we would have been cool with bad curriculum. But we first focused on how kids would see themselves in the building, the offerings, the people.

As I walk into my schools this year, as someone who primarily works on curriculum and teaching practices, I hope to remember that what I do is important – the lesson we teach and how we teach them matter – but that what matters way more is how we treat each other, how we see our kids, the vibe we put out into our classrooms and hallways and gyms and cafeterias. While this is a big goal, there are some things we can do on the daily to help:

  1. Be the light. We can’t control what other people do, but we can control how we react. This is the first thing that you learn in therapy (I’ve, um…heard). Once I worked at a tough school where the teachers didn’t really want to work with me. For awhile, I tried to convince everyone I was right, that I was worth listening to. Then, I shifted. I decided to try just being kind, funny, loving, no matter what. “Be the light,” I said to myself each day as I walked into the building. It worked. The vibe lightened and we found ways to work together. We can do this anytime – in our classroom, our staff meetings, on parent night.
  2. Keep it simple. It’s impossible to create a happy climate when we are completely stressed out maniacs trying to do everything at once. The problem is, we have a culture in education right now where we are told that being stressed out maniacs is a part of our job description. The fact is, you can’t teach all of the Common Core or whatever in one unit. Or one year. So instead, lets take a deep breath and ask ourselves this transforming question: What one or two things do I want my kids to be better at without my help by the end of this unit? If we center our work around this question, we can create some space for ourselves and our kids.
  3. Find the fun. We have to have fun in our classrooms. Not all of the time, not at the expense of good work, but we have to have fun. If we don’t, the kids won’t. And if the kids don’t, we will lose so many of them. Let your sense of humor shine. Use a video clip from pop culture in a lesson. Play a ridiculous song to help kids transition. Choose funny read alouds and stories from your life to tell. Smile. A lot. Even before November.

Always have a snack (and a rest, and playtime). 

I was amazed this year at how often Bo’s problems could be solved with something to eat. Or a nap. Or some fun. One minute he would be fitzing out, the next, after a piece of fruit or a laughing chase around the room, he would be blissfully content.

In school, though, we ask kids to sit in chairs and work hard for hours at a time. Granted, our kids aren’t toddlers, the 8th graders I work with don’t need a nap every three hours. But I remember feeling hungry at 10:30 every day in school. I remember feeling exhausted at 1:30. I remember craving just a little bit of fun in the middle of Math class.

Research shows that this is not just coddling – it’s good teaching practice. Loads of research supports the need for recess, good nutrition, and rest when learning (or working). But of course if your school does not offer these things, it can be tough to find the space. Here are a couple ways to start:

  1. Invite students to bring a snack. I am eager to try this, even in my middle schools. Third period and seventh period feel like good times. For the kids who don’t bring one I can bring a bag of something or other. Even something small, like a baby carrot or two, can help.
  2. Give kids a minute of quiet time. When I remembered to do this in my classroom it made a world of difference. Before going back to our seats after the lesson, or before starting work, turn off the lights and let kids think,rest, daydream for a full minute. It’s a long time, actually. And it shifts the mood in the room.
  3. Incorporate fun into your lessons. We have to have fun. We just have to. (See above)

Don’t work too hard. 

If I worked with you before 2014, I want to apologize. Before we had Bo, I am pretty sure that when push came to shove, I defaulted to suggesting that we should take lots of work home. It felt like the only option, it felt like what teachers just did. And it is. There is no way to avoid having work to do during our off hours, but if we want this career of ours to be sustainable and nourishing, I now see how much we will have to figure out how to work less at home. As I go back to work this year, I realize that there is no way that I will be spending all night crafting the perfect read aloud, or reading swaths of student work just for the information it gives me about my class. I may want to, I may believe in these things, but I will want – need -to spend time with my family more.

It is a goal of mine this year to look for more and more ways to follow my colleague and friend Colleen Cruz’s advice, “Work smarter, not harder.” Here are a couple things I am going to try:

  1. Work effectively during the day. I shudder to think how I used my preps sometimes. Gossiping and copying, mostly. Instead, I wish I had gone digital, chatting over texts, and used my preps to look at student work and plan. Also, this year I commit to being sure that all of the meetings I hold with teachers during the school day are as practically productive as humanly possible. If we are going to take a teacher’s prep, we have a responsibility to make sure it takes work away from them, not just adds more work to their load.
  2. Schedule manageable bits of work. After my first week of teaching, I went to a bar to meet up with some of my new teacher friends. I carried a huge duffle bag loaded down with writers notebooks. Sharon Maier, MS 51 social studies teacher extraordinaire, took one look at me and said, “I see you have the martyr bag.” Collecting 30 or 100 notebooks is silly. It’s not like I can do a good job assessing all of those in one weekend. Instead, I learned to schedule how many I could do a day, and tackle small bits at a time. Five or ten notebooks or essays, a day became easy.
  3. Share the load. Don’t do alone what you can do with others. Plan units together and divvy up the work. When grading performance assessments, work with colleagues so you can norm what a low middle and high is for your kids, which helps make the work go faster. Ask for help and reach out. It will help make the work less odious, and it will make everyone smarter to boot.

In less than a week I’ll be back at work, leaving Bo before he gets up for the day. I’ll miss him every second, even as I am glad to get back to the profession that has shaped my identity for the last 16 years. I have a renewed sense of what it is that schools can be, what my dreams are for Bo’s education and for every student. But I also have another hope. This year at home with my son has changed me. It has left a mark. I hope that as I go back to work, I find myself better than I was. I hope that I won’t forget what I have learned, even as the crash of the school year begins.

Feel free to remind me:)

– Kate and Maggie

Interpretation Series Part III: Analyzing Scenes

So I have been feeling badly lately. . . guilty. The truth is that I don’t feel like I have been able to pull my weight these days – I have every intention of writing a blog post every two weeks, and of responding to comments more regularly, but I just can’t seem to do it. I know that many of you will know the feeling – The Curse of the New Parent. I just can’t seem to do everything I want to do. I can’t even do all of the things I need to do. Our mantra lately has been, “You can have it all, just not at the same time.”

And here is the thing – while I know that most of you totally get it and have interpreted our sluggishness here as a symptom of our parenthood, (or have not thought about it at all), there could be some of you who have come to a different interpretation.

That’s the thing about interpretations – they can change depending on your point of view. Two interpretations could be right, or valid, even if they contradict one another. It’s all in how you analyze the moments that make up your interpretations. Here’s an example: Recently I forgot to return a phone call to a friend. This has never been a strength of mine, and with the baby, well, my weakness in this area has grown. My friend and I talked it out. From my perspective, I am doing my best, and this “scene” of phone-call-forgetting also involved a shrieking baby who only wants to stand in my arms or crawl towards danger, a pot of food on the stove bubbling over, and a pernicious head cold. I analyzed this scene through the lens of “I’m doing my best.” But my friend analyzed it differently. For her, it was a matter of priority. “You could have texted and said you couldn’t talk,” she said. And the fact that I forgot completely underlined how un-prioritized she was in my life at the moment, and it hurt.

Of course, depending on how you analyze the scene, both interpretations are right.

The way we analyze the scenes in our lives closely relates to the interpretations we have made, and the assumptions or beliefs we hold. And when we interpret texts, we will need to be able to back up those interpretations with a close analysis of the scenes that relate to those bigger ideas. Yet too often our students, when “proving” an interpretation of a text with a scene, simply write, “For example in the text it says….this shows …repeat thesis.” All too often the scene is there but the analysis is missing.

There are scaffolds for helping students to analyze scenes. Top among them are using thought prompts or sentence starters to jog their thinking. And believe me, I love thought prompts. They are one of my favorite tools to get things going. But sometimes the fill-in-the-blankness of thought prompts feels a little, well, stiff. Stiff as in stilted, and stiff as in lifeless. When students don’t have the rich thinking work as the soil for their analysis, nothing beautiful and vibrant can grow.

There is no trick or fake to make students think without actually going back to the scenes and, yep, thinking. There is however a trick to helping students to read these scenes more thoughtfully – close reading.

In Falling in Love with Close Reading, Chris Lehman and I posit that only by having a clear structure for close reading a text will students be able to become so used to doing the work of close reading that they make it their own. We offer one such structure – to read with a lens, look for patterns, and then reflect on new understandings. This structure works well when analyzing scenes as well. Let’s try it now together.

Say that you are analyzing the book Twilight. (I mean, why wouldn’t you be?) And your thesis is that Edward’s insecurity creates a dysfunctional relationship between him and Bella.  This is an interesting thesis, and you have many examples from the book, but you are going to have to do more than just point to a scene and say “See? I’m right.” You will have to explain how exactly this scene proves you are right and not someone who thinks that Edward’s insecurity is endearing. Take this scene from the book (forgive me the shoddy screen shot):

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 10.41.11 AM

As the originator of the thesis “Edward’s insecurity creates a dysfunctional relationship between him and Bella” I can see how this scene fits, but to explain it well, I am going to have to go back think through how it fits. Let’s go back and reread the scene. Following our close reading structure, first I can go back to the text and pull out any evidence that supports my idea. My list might look like this:

close reading, text analysis

So I have a list of details from the scene that supports my thinking. The step that will help my analysis the most is the next one: looking for patterns. To help me make this leap I can take a detail, like “lips twitched” and name what this detail suggests, either an emotion or an idea or a tone. For instance, I think the fact that his lips twitch in response to a pretty direct question is kind of manipulative. Like he is playing with Bella.

Now I want to look for other details that might feel like he is playing with Bella…and that does not take long to find. Many of these details could be ways that Edwards does not just come out and answer her questions. So I circle in the same color the other details that fit this emerging pattern. I could try again and see if there are any other patterns I see. Like the detail “worried I would go into shock,” shows how Edward thinks Bella is weak. And other details fit that pattern as well. Soon my notebook page looks like this:

close reading, text analysis


I have broken down the patterns – the ways in which Edward tends to be dysfunctional because of his insecurity. Now I can step back and do some bigger thinking. In essence I can simply list the patterns I found along with the text evidence that supports them:

close reading, text analysis, literary essay


Close reading can help your readers and writers to unpack how a scene exemplifies an interpretation, theme, or idea.

This is the last post in our Interpretation Series. While interpreting texts can be an intimidating course of study with kids, the rewards are worth the work. Our kids can do the work of thinking about what a text really means – but they may need support along the way. We hope that these blog posts have been helpful. For more on teaching students to interpret, check out Donna Santman’s Shades of Meaning and Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen’s Teaching Interpretation. Good luck!

Kate and Maggie

Big Idea: Interpretation                         Tiny Detail: Close Reading to Analyze Scenes


Interpretation Series: Tracking Themes (Part II)

Thank you for the kind response to our first installment in this Interpretation Series! Many of you shared that our last post helped students begin the complicated process of uncovering rough draft versions of themes. It brings to mind Chinese philosopher Laozi’s adage, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Now it is time to take the second step on the path towards rich interpretation. While some of your students might have leapt out of the gate ready to analyze with great insight, many of your kids might be left holding post-its that say “Love is hard.” And while this is a great first move, we want to nudge students from there into deeper, more nuanced, more complex interpretations.

Today’s post will examine how to help your students begin to track these rough draft themes across a text, discovering layers of meaning they may have missed the first time through. We have found that this work – taking a beginning idea of  theme and tracing its progress across a text – is a good way to help students begin to see that themes are more complex, more contradictory than the ubiquitous: “We shouldn’t be prejudiced.”

Tracking Themes

The work of tracking themes is familiar to us as adults. After all, we track the themes of our lives as the years roll by and we are faced with our same issues over and over again. When things come up for me at 41, I can trace them back to events on the playground – the circumstances and reactions have changed, but the root emotions feel similar. Take the universal issue of “fitting in.” Like many of us, this struggle has stayed with me from the time I first went to elementary school up until the present day.  I could even easily and truly say that a theme of my life is that “fitting is hard.” But I know there is more to it than that. I know that right now, in my adulthood, my relationship to this idea is way more complicated that a three word sentence can capture. If I track the development of this theme throughout my life, I realize there have been many turns in the road, many ways this theme has manifested, many layers to this concept of fitting in.

When we reach the end of a book, we are in a similar place as a reader. The big idea is not too hard to suss out – our rough draft themes. But we can sense that there are many more layers to be reflected upon. And tracking a theme across a text can help us to do that work.

Here are three steps that can help us to track a theme, be it across a text or across a life.

Step One: Identify Critical Scenes

Step Two: Reread/Retell the Scene

Step Three: Reflect on What Scene Says About Issue/Theme

(Rinse and Repeat)

Here I am going to model these steps on the issue of fitting in throughout my life. First, I can look for what Katherine and Randy Bomer call critical scenes, (in their brilliant text For A Better World) –  times in my life where fitting in felt like an really big deal. Next, I need to live inside those moments for a bit. I need to retell the story so that it is fresh in my mind, so that I can remember the details. Finally, I step back and reflect on what this moment taught me about the theme I am tracking. If I track this idea of “fitting in is hard” across the critical scenes of my life, I see a more complex view of this issue:

1. As a young kid I never fit in, but I also didn’t really notice that often. I always had one best friend. I liked playing alone. But then there was the goodbye party when I was moving at the end of third grade. The teacher had thrown it for me but I didn’t have any friends, so while the rest of the class partied, I sat in the corner and played my favorite 45 on the record player over and over again.

I felt small and invisible and humiliated. Not one kid talked to me. (Neither did the teacher, but that’s another blog post.) So if I reflect on that moment in my life, and what it taught me about fitting in, I would say something like, “Not fitting in can make you feel totally alone, can make you burn with embarrassment.”

What I did: I chose a scene from my life where fitting in was a big deal. I then retold it to myself a bit, and reflected on what that moment revealed to me about this idea. Let’s try it again on another critical scene:

2. In early high school I continued to not exactly fit in. I had my friends, but I couldn’t seem to get “it” right. My hair, my clothes, my way of being, all seemed so far away from where everyone else was around me. But I tried. I tried to learn how to spray my bangs so that they defied the laws of gravity.

Actually, these hairstyles defied ALL natural law.

Actually, these hairstyles defied ALL known natural laws.

I scoured the mall for the right clothes (Claire’s Boutique, anyone?) I watched the other girls to see what they were doing and then tried to roll up my cuffs like they did. But it just didn’t seem to add up to anything. I always felt like I was wearing a costume, like I was pretending to be someone and failing onstage every day. What this taught me about fitting in is that if it does not come naturally, fitting in is an incredible amount of work.

Right? Same process: Pick a scene from my life, live in it a little, reflect on issue. One more time:

3. In my twenties, living in NYC, I started to find my own style, to know what I liked and who I liked. And things were better on the fitting in front. I could hang at a party and not feel totally idiotic most of the time. And yet I still was plagued by feeling like everyone had it together when I did not. Confident people terrified me. Once a woman talked about “reclaiming her power” and I felt like she was speaking in an extraterrestrial tongue. I still felt small, I just knew how to exist in the world as a small person. I had come to terms that I did not fit in, and accepted it, and in some weird way, this allowed me to find the people I could fit in with. Fitting in was unnecessary.

I could go on, of course. Later I learned that only through true self acceptance can you fit in anywhere, and I have had the opportunity to learn the joy and camaraderie of fitting in with groups of people. Tracking a theme across my life allows me to see the multiple ideas and lessons I have learned about a given issue or problem. Similarly, when we track themes across the books we read, we can deepen our understanding of the theme we are examining. The process can remain the same, whether we are examining themes in our lives or in texts:

Step One: Identify Critical Scenes.

Step Two: Reread/Retell the Scene

Step Three: Reflect on What Scene Says About Issue/Theme

(Rinse and Repeat)

We have found that sometimes having a visual for kids can help them when tracking themes across a text. For example, this page from our demonstration notebook has helped us work with small groups on a class text to give kids some practice doing this work before they go off on their own.

Everybody likes a game board.

Everybody likes a game board.

For the next installment in our interpretation series, we will take a look at how to help students refine, choose and back up their themes, say for a literary essay or discussion. Without work like tracking their theme across a text, however, we have found that students’ rough draft themes never get much fuller. Like all good thinking work, of which interpretation is certainly an example, it is essential to allow things to get a little messy before the thinking gets all cleaned up and perfect. This is the messy step, the place where we encourage students to think a whole lot of things about their books and their interpretations before they are asked to prove anything.

After all, it takes a lifetime of messy thinking to get a grasp on the issues in our lives. Certainly we can give kids at least a few days to deepen their thinking before they have to decide what they believe about a book.

Kate and Maggie

Big Idea: Interpretation               Tiny Detail: Tracking Themes Across a Text in Three Steps

Live Near Chicago or Indianapolis? Come Talk Close Reading!

Hi all! I promise that our next Interpretation post is coming, like in a matter of days. In the meantime, I (Kate) wanted to extend an invitation for all you fabulous midwest educators. Chris Lehman and I will be holding two workshops on close reading, one near Chicago and one right outside of Indianapolis, and we would love it if you could join us!

Screen Shot 2015-01-12 at 7.59.30 PMWe have had a blast on these days so far, and hope you or a friend/colleague can come. Here is how to register:

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See you there!


The Grateful Teacher.

Here is one thing I have learned about parenting so far:

It’s all in the attitude.

As we packed up for a three stop, week long trip yesterday, I noticed something. When I got anxious, tense or annoyed at life, Bo got fussy. When I was chill and content to be doing the thing I was doing, even if it was unpleasant, Bo was smiling and talking and being pretty much the cutest baby in the know universe. (My completely unbiased opinion, of course.)

This feels so true: The circumstances don’t change, but the way I approach them changes everything.

I know we are in the midst of an interpretation series here at indent, and I promise we will get back to that right after Thanksgiving, but the approaching holiday, being at NCTE, and some struggles I am experiencing made me wake up this morning wanting to write this post instead.

It’s about gratitude.

Because it’s the same with teaching, isn’t it? I can’t always change the circumstances I find myself in. I can’t change the kids in my class, they way they act up or shut down, what they come to me knowing how to do. I can’t change the people I work with, the politics of my school building, or my salary. Even if I work to change the testing culture, in the short term, I can’t change that either. What I can change is my attitude, the way I think about the circumstances of my teaching life.

Once, I was complaining to a mentor and friend, Frank Vogt, about someone I found very difficult to work with. When I was done, he smiled and said, “It sounds like she is your teacher.” This was an incredibly annoying thing to say. And confusing – what does that even mean? (I tried to keep the snark out of my voice as I asked him.) He explained that any struggle we have is an opportunity to grow, and so anytime we have difficulty with someone, we can choose to see them not as our enemy, or as an obstacle, but as the person who is going to teach us something greater about ourselves.

It was still really annoying.

But, it’s true. This is the choice I have – to take the difficulties in my life as a burden that I feel sorry for myself over, or to take them as gateways to greater wisdom, fulfillment, and serenity.

Admittedly, this is really hard to hold onto in the midst of said difficulties. In the middle of a long school day, an impossible class, a failing unit, or a Pearson testing marathon, it can prove out of our reach to stay in gratitude, at least when left to our own devices. Sometimes I find myself waiting to feel grateful, and I just don’t. I feel frustrated, depressed or anxious, and I stand there hoping that by willing it to happen, gratitude will just fill me up magically. But it almost never happens like that.

Instead, I have been taught by my spiritual community to think of gratitude as an action, not an emotion. It is something we do, not something that happens to us. By taking grateful actions, then, we become grateful people.

As we go off to our various holiday scenarios, let’s take on grateful actions. One possibility: for the past ten years I, along with a group of friends, have written a Gratitude List regularly. (I wrote a little about the gratitude list here awhile back.) On the surface, it’s a simple tool. You make a list of what you are grateful for. Recently this has become a Facebook thing – “write down three things you are grateful for for three days!” I email a list with some friends of mine.  On my list every day? Coffee. I am very, very grateful to coffee.


Bless you, sweet nectar.

But what I would like to suggest today is that the real work of the gratitude list is not when things are good, but when things are hard. The magic happens when we list things we are grateful for within the struggles we face. It’s easy to write a list of stuff we are happy about. “I’m so grateful that everything is going so awesome for me!” But it’s hard to sit in the tough stuff and ask ourselves where there are places for thankfulness. For example:

1. I have a confrontation with a kid in my class that doesn’t go well – the kid still misbehaves and I get upset. Instead of stewing on how bad the kid is, or sinking into shame over my failings, I can take a step back and look forward. On my gratitude list that day, I write:

“Grateful that I know what I could have done better. That I took the time to reflect on my choices instead of blaming the kid. Grateful that I didn’t yell like I wanted to.”

2. Heading into testing season, I am angry and outraged at the injustices of high stakes testing. I write:

“So grateful for my beliefs about kids and teaching. Grateful that I am not alone, that I have a community of educators that stands with me. Grateful there are things I can do to help change things. Grateful that I can be a source of comfort and confidence for my kids.”

3. It’s winter. I’ve been teaching five paragraph essays for what feels like forever. All I want is sunshine, and a poetry unit. I am depressed. I write:

“Grateful that all things pass. That spring will come. Grateful for hot chocolate and for the fact that if I need to I can just push pause on everything and teach my kids to write essays off of songs. Grateful for my kid’s patience, and how good kids are, even when things get boring.”

You get the idea. By pausing in the midst of difficulty and acting grateful, by looking for the things that are good and positive and true (even if I don’t feel them in that moment), we allow ourselves to let those positive parts grow bigger. We feed the good and starve the bad.


photo by Gregory Colbert. https://gregorycolbert.com/index.php

This is not to say that we cover up the bad feelings, the anger or the sense of wanting to be better than we are. (I am not, for example, saying that in light of the Ferguson ruling last night we should all just make a gratitude list and feel better.) Instead, by focusing on the things we are grateful for, we create the energy we need to keep fighting, to keep improving. Focusing only on anger or dissatisfaction saps us of energy. Gratitude fills us up again.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Kate and Maggie

Big Idea: Staying Grateful in Education.                                 Tiny Detail: Gratitude Lists.

Interpretation Series: Discovering Themes. (Part I)

As most of you know, we have recently become parents. It’s pretty awesome. I am currently spending a lot of time home with Bo, which I feel lucky to be able to do. Thing is, it can get lonely. Just me and this amazing baby who, well, can’t really do too much. There are only so many times that I can sing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” in a high pitched voice before I start to feel a little loopy.

I realized quickly that I was going to have to get out of the house at least once a day or I was in serious danger of becoming a little frazzled…

Except for the hat/hair, this is totally me. https://c1.staticflickr.com

…and getting out of the house meant making new friends. Mommy friends. So out I went with my stroller and a smile, looking at each parent I saw with hope and a probably very obvious desperation.

I hung out at the coffee shop. I loitered at the playground. Day after day, I tried to enter into the intimidating and strange new world I found myself in. And…nothing. Sure, a couple Moms smiled at me. A nanny gave me some advice about Bo’s socks. I got some fresh air. But no new friends.

And here is the point: This was not a new feeling for me. It felt very much like middle school. (And if I’m honest high school, much of college and a good chunk of my twenties) Entering into new communities has always been hard for me; it has always brought up insecurities. I have always struggled to get out there and be widely social, even as I have craved the connections.

You could say it is a theme of my life.

Themes are tough to identify – in life and certainly in texts. The way we know something is a theme – like my story above – is that it is recurring or persistent, it centers around a problem or issue, and it reveals something about the person or the world. In life, we identify things are themes because they keep happening. They are the things we always talk to our best friends about, the obstacles we continue facing, and they are the subject of the exasperated groan, “Why is this always happening to me?”

But in texts, themes can feel more hidden. How many times have we looked out at our students, repeatedly asking, “What is the theme?” only to see them shrug, look around, and say, “Um, love?” But without a sense of the themes in a text, our kids are reading just for plot and character – not a bad thing by any means, but certainly more superficial than we dream for them.

This post starts a series on teaching students to interpret the theme of a text. Today we begin at the beginning – teaching our students to identify possible themes in the texts they read. These are the rough draft themes they will later make more text-based and sophisticated.

So – how do we get kids to see the possible themes in a text? (I mean, beyond saying “But what is it really about?” over and over with greater and greater frustration) Here is one “recipe” for having kids develop rough draft themes:

1. Name the problems in a text.

Themes often live in the troubles of a text, so it helps if we start with the difficulties. Have your students name what problems the character is facing:

photo 2

It’s likely students will begin to retell the whole story. (“So, like, there is the land where there are 12 Districts…”) That’s fine, because soon you will ask them to…

2. Put those problems in one word or phrase.

Some kids may jump here automatically, but we will need to get to a place where we say, “Friendship” or “Loss of our Identity” or “Bravery” or even, yes, “Love,” if we are to move forward. Have students list out all of the problems they see the character facing in the text in a word or a phrase.  Then have them rank those problems from “Most important” to “Least Important.”

photo 3 (2)

This will help them to zero in when they…

3. Think about what the text (or scene or chapter) is saying about that problem.

Right? Ok. So the book is about love. Now, what does it seem to be saying or teaching us about love? Simple.

photo 1 (1)

Except you will want to watch your expectations here. Remember your kids are trying to develop a bunch of rough draft themes here, not a full-fledged dissertation on the deeper symbolic and archetypal meaning of the Mockingjay in The Hunger Games. Which means your kids are going to say lots of things like…

“Love is hard.”

“People with power hurt people.”

“You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.”

…and this might hurt your heart a little, but it is so important that you high-five your kids when they get here on their own! Remember, thinking about the theme of a text is really hard. These rough drafts themes are important stepping stones on the way to more brilliant and impressive interpretations of the text. If you have kids who do more than this, awesome. But if you have a classroom full of “love is hard,” take heart. We will teach them to do it better. For now, smile, say “Yes, that is probably a theme of The Hunger Games,” and wait for the next blog post, where will will look at how to complicate and make more sophisticated our fledgling themes.

In the meantime, I will keep going out with my stroller, and my smile.

Stay tuned for the next installment in our Interpretation Series!

Kate and Maggie

Big Idea: Interpreting Texts                    Tiny Detail: Recipe for Theme

How to Take a Hit: On Embracing Critique.

The best thing I ever heard about conferring is that when the conference is over, the kid should feel excited to get to work, like they can take on the world. Lucy Calkins and Carl Anderson taught me that, and it’s a lesson I have taken to heart.

Of course, it’s not that easy. Instead, I sometimes look into my students’ eyes after a conference and I see something else. A shrug of the shoulders, or worse, a sagging. Confusion in their eyes. A vibe that says they feel just a bit badly about themselves as readers or writers, not better.

This kills me. And I work to prevent it. I compliment, I work on my wording, I show them my own flawed work. I channel my years in theater to be sure that my energy going into the conference is positive and loving and cheerful. And yet still, that downward cast of the eyes. The shuffle back to their seat.

Recently it occurred to me that maybe it’s because I haven’t taught them to take tough feedback that my kids are having a tough time hearing critique as anything but negative. Maybe I haven’t refined our ability to give and take critique. More specifically, maybe my students do not know how to take criticism, which means any bit of of it feels like an insult, a judgement.

After all, it is really hard to take critique. We are not very good at it, as, like, a species right now. Take a look at the comments under any political article, or any entertainment piece, heck pretty much anything written on the internet, and you will find people just unleashing upon each other at the very hint of a critique on their sensibilities, tastes or opinions. We in education are not immune to this knee jerk “you’d better not be telling me what to do” mindset. Recently Donalyn Miller, one of my reading heroes and all around favorite people, was forced to disable comments on her blog for a spell after she posted some misgivings she has about certain kinds of assignments in certain situations. Some fellow educators could not take the critique she was offering and fought back with vitriol and insults.

Why do we get so upset when people critique us? Why do our kids lose energy when offered help to make their work better? I would argue that it is partly because we have not learned – and have not taught – how to take a hit.

Like on my first day of first grade, when a boy named Matthew walked right up to me, and for some reason (because I was new to the area, because I looked like a boy) punched me right in the gut.


I like to think that when I get punched I look like an anime character.

All the wind was knocked out of me, and the pain was extreme. And I cried. A lot. From the pain of the punch, but also from the pain in my heart. I wasn’t ready. I had no tools to handle the assault. It felt out of nowhere.

We are living in the Age of Feedback. Whether it be teacher evaluations or the research that shows us how important response is for student growth, it is tough to get through a week in school without everyone critiquing everything else. Admin critiques teachers, teachers critique students and students critique each other and themselves (and secretly, all of us). And I believe this can be a force for good. As long as that critique does not feel like a punch to the gut. As long as we have the tools to handle it. As long as we are able to hear feedback without getting defensive, insulted, or furious.

Maybe it would help if we taught our students  – and reminded ourselves – what it means to give and take critique:

How to Give Critique

Ask Questions.

Giving feedback doesn’t just mean dumping what we think on our students and then walking away. Listening and questioning is just as important as talking. From the very start you can ask your students for permission to give them feedback. My favorite line in a conference these days is, “Do you mind if I push you a little?” By asking permission to critique, as David Rock suggests in his book Quiet Leadership, (thanks to Brooke Geller), you allow your student to open their minds to what you are about to say, and you allow them the freedom to say that this is not a good time.

Asking questions also involves trying to get at the root of things. Asking students what they were going for in a piece of writing, or asking them to say a little more about that thought they had about their book, allows you to see the whole picture, and not just the sliver that is available on a piece of paper or a post it note. There are many questions that can help you to get to the bottom of something. Here are a few.

Do you mind if I push your thinking/work?

Tell me a little about what you are trying to do.

Why did you choose ______?

What are you hoping for with this (work)?

What do you think could go better?

What are you most proud of here?

Be Specific, but with a Sense of the Universal

Have you ever had someone come into your classroom, watch a whole lesson, and then comment on one bulletin board in the back corner of your room, hidden by bookshelves, that was not adequately decorated? Conversely, have you ever gotten feedback on your teaching that felt so broad as to be unusable, like “you should work on engaging students” ? Helpful critique is both specific AND general. It helps you create a category for the work you need to do while giving specific places to work, or specific ideas to try. Helpful critique says “Hey you could think a bit more about how you are engaging your students, like at the start of your lessons, you could try out a little more storytelling, a little more of your personality. Let me show you.” When giving critique, see if what you have to say could fit into one of these two templates:

You could work on _______ by _________ .


You could work on _______ when you ________.

 How to Take Critique

When you Get Defensive, Listen Harder.

It’s so easy to take offensive to criticism or feedback. I, for one, somehow feel devastated if I am not perfect 100% of the time, and am terribly offended if anyone notices my lack of perfection. But I have to get over that if I want to grow. So when I notice myself getting defensive, I know that’s the moment that I need to breath and focus on what is true in what the person is saying. That is tough, because my mind amplifies criticism so that someone saying, “hey you might want to write down those instructions next time” sounds like “You are a horrible educator and a sham and you should quit.” So when I see myself getting tense, angry, defensive or panicked, I Stop, Breathe, and Listen.  What is it that is being said to me? What is the heart of what they are saying? Do I agree, even with a little bit of it? By choosing to look for what is true rather than what is wrong, I give myself the opportunity to grow. After all, as Aristotle said:

To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.

Choose to Be Happy Rather than Right.

Sometimes feedback feels so unfair. Like the person giving it missed the best part, or is way off base, or is kind of a jerk. Sometimes, a hole burns in your stomach because you know, just know, that You. Are. Right.

There is a time for arguing our points. There is a time to fight for what we believe. But I do not believe that those moments are when we are receiving criticism. When my spouse is brave enough to tell me why she is upset with me, it is not the time to name all of the reasons why she is wrong and I am right. Even if I think I am (see first point above). When we are receiving feedback, our job is to listen, to take what we can. And that means that I have got to let it go if someone gives me feedback that I think is unfair. At least for now.

Bonus Tip: Ask Questions.

(See above). The same thing is true when getting feedback as when giving it – critique goes best when it is examined and analyzed. Ask what someone means if you aren’t sure. Find out what’s at the root of their critique if you can’t see what they really mean. Many of the same questions as named above will help.

Feedback is important, but only in so far as people are listening. Otherwise, our conferences with kids, and our conversations with each other, are in danger of feeling like this:


…Not that any of us have ever experienced conversations like this before…:)

-Kate and Maggie

Big Idea: Feedback                       Tiny Detail: Ways to give and take critique.

You have to see it to believe it. (Or learn it.)

Originally posted on indent:

Making claim writing work visible, one strategy at a time.

When I was a kid taking math, I had a bad teacher. It wasn’t just that she hated children (she did), or that her lessons were written in pencil on crumbling yellow paper (they were). It was more that whenever I was confused about a math concept (read: everyday), she would stand before me and repeat the steps over and over again as if loud repetition would do the trick. “Volume! You just do blah and blah and then you get the Volume!”

The thing is, even though I consider myself a decent teacher, I fall into the same trap in writing every day. I see a kid struggling to elaborate on their evidence in an essay, and I kneel beside them and say “Say More! You just do blah and blah and then you Say More!”

It really helps…

View original 673 more words

Chasing Imperfection.

Hello after a long and joyful break from blogging. Joyful (and long) because our time was spent loving and learning this little guy:



As many of you know, becoming a parent is a steep learning curve.

Just kidding. We haven't done this. (Yet.) http://www.antalik.com/baby-instructions/

Just kidding. We haven’t done this.

It took us awhile to get pregnant. At some point, we had to accept that our story was not going to be”perfect.” And while that was tough, it helped prepare us for the first weeks of Bo’s life. Because – spoiler alert – having a newborn is not a “perfect” experience. It is beautiful, full of love and laughter, but not perfect. Let’s be clear – the baby is perfect in our eyes. But we are not. Far from it.

Like, I have, um, a friend who forgot to put the diaper on right and was greeted with a whiz to the face. Or, er, another friend who may have thrown out some milk accidentally. Or the screwing up of nap schedules in the beginning (turns out, babies need to sleep! Like a LOT!) and not knowing the right way to soothe and, and, and…the list of imperfections goes on and on.

But, you just have to dive in. You have to accept that you might mess up daily, mostly from simply not knowing, or from exhaustion, or just that you’re not great at this huge, difficult thing yet. You have to dive in because hanging back means the kid’s needs are not met. Hanging back means you don’t improve – you stay a scared novice longer. Hanging back means you torture yourself with self doubt or guilt. Nope. You got to dive in and try a whole bunch of stuff to see what works as you get better each day.

As a new parent, you have to start chasing imperfection.

I went a year with my glasses like this. I hoped at the time that it gave me a nerdy chic...

I went a year with my glasses like this.

The start of a new school year is a little like having a newborn.  If you have experience teaching, you know many engagement moves, you have pedagogy to play with, but it takes time to get the mixture right with your class composition. If you are new to teaching, well, you know what they say about learning curves: get ready to hike up that beautiful, terrifying, imperfect hill!

As we begin the school year, we can try to get everything right immediately, feeling skittish each day, or we can embrace our imperfection. We can chase down the areas of our teaching that feel weakest, that give us the most nerves. We can dive into the work ahead of us with gusto and look for (and look forward to) the places where we might mess up. After all, this is how we will learn, how we will find the new moves and inspiring moments that keep us going.

In the essay “Failure is a Good Thing,” Jon Carroll writes that every week, he knows that no matter what, one of his columns will be the worst one of the week. He says that while he used to try and avoid this each day, now he looks forward to it.

I have learned to cherish that column. A successful column usually means that I am treading on familiar ground, going with the tricks that work, preaching to the choir or dressing up popular sentiments in fancy words. Often in my inferior columns, I am trying to pull off something I’ve never done before, something I’m not even sure can be done.

We can think of our lessons and units in a similar way – that only by trying new things, by venturing out into uncharted territory, will we discover ourselves and our students as teachers and learners.

Of course, it is difficult these days to embrace imperfection. We are in the age of teacher evaluations and multi-faceted performance assessments at every turn. While it may be true that these new initiatives will give us insight into what makes good teaching, it is equally true that our current climate does not lend itself to a spirit of “hey you guys, let’s mess up a lot!” But without this spirit, we will be in a choke hold. We will hang back. And if we hang back, it often means the kids’ needs are not met. Hanging back means you don’t get better, you stay scared longer. Hanging back means you plague yourself with self doubt or guilt.

So what do you say? Here are some ways to get started looking for the imperfect places in our teaching to dive into this year:

1. Pick a unit/topic/issue/text you have always wanted to teach but aren’t sure how. 

Do you love graphic novels? Teach your kids how to write them! Frustrated by the lack of poetry in the CCSS? Teach the heck out of poetry, knowing that the skills found there will certainly be used elsewhere. Thinking that now is an essential time to teach your kids about the forces at play in places like Ferguson, MO? Dive in and try to do it right, knowing that even if you are clumsy now, you will teach it better next time.

2. Try out a new “thing.” 

Maybe it’s a new device, like using your iPad to track student conferences (we suggest using the Evernote App for your notes), or maybe you’d like to start a class blog. Or you were at a workshop where someone shared how their kids made movies to go along with the stories they wrote and you thought, “my kids would love that!” Take this year to play with a new whatchamacallit.

3. Take on an impossible challenge.

Right now, some gauntlets have been thrown down in education. The standards ask us to help our kids reach great heights. High-stakes testing asks kids to do extremely specific and challenging tasks on demand. Then there are the challenges we have always faced – our students who read far below grade level, our kids who feel unconnected to school. One way to dive into imperfection is to take on something that you may not be able to accomplish, but feel would help your kids succeed. Do a full court press this year on a challenge you believe in and see what happens. Lucy Calkins suggested to us years ago that we choose one child and decide to change their lives this year. Yes, more would be better, but if we do everything we can for one of our students, while still doing a great job with the rest, we can make a huge difference.

4. Invite people to watch you teach (and vice versa).

Of course, the ultimate test of our desire to find areas of imperfection in our work is to work publicly.  Teaching in front of colleagues is the heart of our work with The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. We strive to get groups of educators in a classroom as often as possible and try things out in front of each other, seeing what works, brainstorming solutions to tricky bits. This means that in my job I fail publicly around 50% of the time. And it’s awesome. Once I got over my own ego (which took a year and lots of blushing) I realized that this is the best possible way to grow as a team –  to show each other our teaching moves and lean on each others’ expertise. Set up some classroom visits this year with people you like (or are intimidated by). Practice with each other and be sure to have fun.

5. Learn how to frame your failures.

The thing about inviting imperfection into your life is that you are going to have to develop a good, healthy relationship with failure. And, knowing that Murphy’s Law is always working in the universe, the day of your biggest stumble will most definitely be the day that a group of people in fancy clothes come in with clipboards and frowny faces. In that moment, you have a choice to make. Do you treat the chaos around you as a bad thing, something to be ashamed of, and apologize to the group in nervous tones? Or do you smile broadly, walk right up to the scariest person there and say, “Welcome! I’m so glad you are here – we are working on our debate skills. Today we focused on being sure to debate with passion and a sense of the counterargument. Clearly, we need to work tomorrow on a structure for our conversation. Any tips?” This ability to frame any imperfection against the goals you are aiming for allows you to name what your focus is, while allowing room for growth.

We hope you will share some of your gloriously imperfect ideas and days in the comments below, in the teachers’ lounge and at the dinner table. As we do, remember to be kind to each other and keep a good sense of humor. While there might be moments of failure, seconds of embarrassment, chasing imperfection leads life to feel way more perfect than if we tried to do everything just right.

Happy New (School) Year, everyone!

Kate and Maggie

Big Idea: Growing as Educators                   Tiny Detail: Chasing Imperfection

Book Club Confidential: Overcoming Conversation Anxiety by Focusing on Critical Scenes

This is a blog post on fear. Now, I could write about one of my many, many fears, some of which include:

  • Enclosed spaces – elevators, airplanes, subways, all of New York City in summer.
  • Taking a medication and then realizing it expired yesterday.
  • Anything expired really – taco shells, orange juice, sun screen, passports.
  • Thunder.

But this is also a blog post on taking risks. I could also write about one of the many risks I take, such as:

  • Drinking a purchased beverage even though the safety seal was maybe (but not really) broken!
  • Wearing black, brown and gray all at the same time!
  • Admitting to a large public audience that I’ve watched every single season of The Bachelor series.

But my fears and risks aren’t limited to being trapped inside metal objects and expiration dates. No, they pop up in all aspects of my life – including my reading life.

I’ve always been a bit shy in a book club. One of my insecurities centers around bringing up the ‘right’ thing to talk about – a great scene, a fresh idea about a character, an interesting theory about plot. My go-to move is usually to let others bring up something interesting to talk about and then I tack on my thoughts and fuel the momentum of the conversation.

But starting the conversation? Kinda terrifying for a reader like me.

I’ve noticed many adolescent readers struggling with the same insecurity. Now, they know the moves to kick off a conversation:

What ideas did you have since the last time we met? What are you thinking about this character? What have you found surprising in the book so far?

They also know the moves to keep a conversation going:

What makes you say that? Is there another place in the text where that’s true? Does anyone else see it the same way? A different way?

But somehow, even with these conversational moves in hand, so often the conversation seems to fall flat, to skim the surface. So when I watch an adolescent book club that’s awkwardly quiet or staying superficial, it seems sometimes that the struggle, the insecurity, is simply what to talk about. It’s risky to throw something big out there to talk about with a group of peers, especially around the middle school age, when, if you were like me, you panicked over having to go to the bathroom because that meant having to actually stand up and walk in front of the class. (This fear, luckily, has faded over the years.)

There are many ways to empower young readers with the confidence in finding interesting, compelling, exciting things to chat about when reading a book together. One of my favorites is teaching students to locate and talk about critical scenes in a text.

I was working with some wonderful teachers in a small middle school on the Lower East Side in New York City a few weeks ago. Instead of teaching students how to talk with each other, we invited them to think about what they might talk about. Check out our chart:

Teaching students to locate and talk about critical scenes in books

Teaching students to locate and talk about critical scenes in books

In this lesson, we first acknowledged how it’s sometimes tough to bring up something to talk about, especially if you’re not feeling that confident. We then invited them to do some thinking about the critical scenes in their books. As to not overwhelm them, we described critical scenes as places a character does something out of the ordinary (or says or thinks), places where there is a big shift of events, or places where the character (or the reader) discovers something about themselves, other characters, or the world.

After we modeled this work on the scene from The Hunger Games where Katniss volunteers herself as tribute, we observed students trying this work in book clubs. We realized this work had two tiers:

  1. First, students worked at identifying critical scenes in their books. They took post its or paperclips and searched for critical scenes they wanted to chat about. They debated with their clubs what scenes were, indeed, critical.
  2. Secondly, students wrote a bit to prepare for a conversation around these critical scenes. They took to their notebooks (or could be post its or blogs) to record their thinking about these critical scenes. Some thought prompts for this work can be found here.

Talking to people can be scary. Sometimes the fear and risk-taking around book club conversations isn’t so much how to talk with each other – it’s what to actually talk about. It’s about the moment you take a risk, throw something out there to talk about, and see how it goes. Anchoring this risk to something concrete, like discussing critical scenes, can be just the thing to settle a fear.

Here are other favorite anchors to help nurture conversations about books, both with students and ourselves:

If you have other ways you define a critical scene, let’s continue the conversation – please share them below in the comments. We’d love to hear from you!

Big Idea – Book Club Conversations      Tiny Detail – Locating & Discussing Critical Scenes in Books

-Kate & Maggie