Is it too late?

He’s sitting beside me.  He’s only a freshman.  It’s good that he’s a freshman, because, if he wasn’t, if he was like the eleventh or twelfth graders with whom I work at this time of year who are making the same decisions that he has, there would be little hope of him graduating with his class.

8383245717_91d5b44dcf_nIt is frightening to think about this:  I can sit with a student, and look at his historical grades, at his past SOL scores (Virginia’s standardized tests – also known as The Standards of Learning), at his attendance and current grades, and, most importantly, his current behavior, and I can predict if a student will or will not graduate with his class.  The most important aspect of all of this is the current  behavior, of course.

Many people are upset about SOLs, and I understand, and, at times, I agree.  There is a great amount of attention put to the time spent “teaching to the test.”  Not all students need that.  For most, they will pass the tests if there is time spent teaching towards them or not.

But for some, and this is why I like the SOLs, it is a major indicator of the level of skills they have, and whether or not they will graduate with their class – if they will graduate on time.

And this young man, who currently sits beside me, has only passed around three of all of the SOLs he has taken since third grade – a pretty good indication that concern is necessary.

So what can be done?  He’s in ninth grade, and it’s a little too late — the schools have failed him.

Or have they?

With some other standardized scores -short assessments called Curriculum Based Measures (CBM), our school has seen that with some direct instruction in reading and writing, this child is quickly improving his skills.  Because of the SOLs, we have scores to see that, although he has always struggled in some subjects, in other subjects, he has shown ability.  And because of all of those scores, I can talk to him about the potential that he has, the goals he has set for himself, and the reality of the choices he is making, and could make.

But now, it comes down to him.  It comes down to a simple question: what does he want?

Today, on NPR, there was a great article about how the marching band creates a future for some New Orleans students (At A New Orleans High School, Marching Band Is A Lifeline For Kids).

But in the article, when the guidance counselor begins talking about the challenges for these students, it rang true with me – especially when the narrator comments on how the counselor, a Harvard graduate, “recognizes the obstacles.”  Initially, the obstacle that the counselor states is a lack of money, but as you listen, you also here that there is the obstacle of a needed mindset – a necessary grit – the “I can do this” attitude.

In this great one minute video, you can see what Mindset, as defined by Carol Dweck, is all about.

And this is what the kid sitting next to me needs.  He needs to understand that he has the ability, but that ability doesn’t yield much without the work that is needed.  I love when Eduardo Briceno, in his Tedx Talk, shares with us how Josh Waitzkin, the man who the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer is based on, said that the best thing that ever happened to him was losing.

Having a growth mindset is what allows us to get back up.  It allows us to keep moving forward even in the face of great failure.  It helps us to know that we can do it.

And that is what this young man needs now – this ninth grader.

I’m working with him, right now, on progress monitoring – on his tracking of how and when he pays attention.  We took a break from that this week, and he only has one assignment.  He has to answer one question:

What is he willing to do so that he can reach his goal?

His answer next week directs all of our work and reveals his mindset.  What do you hope his answer will be?


How many times do I have to tell you?

Didn’t I already tell you?

It’s just like I showed you?

Do you remember the other day I taught you this?

How many times do I have to tell you?

Too many times, as a teacher, and as a father, these words have flowed freely from my mouth – usually with a tone of annoyance.  A few years ago, when my kids were young, I had an epiphany.  One of my children, I’ll say it was the boy, just dumped his peas on to the floor.  I looked, and realized that, although I had told him a thousand times not to do it, it was the first time I’d told him today.  And in that moment, I realized – although I’d told him before, the lesson didn’t stick, and I needed to tell him again because, after all, that was yesterday, and today was today.  He still needed teaching, not reminding, and adding guilt to the whole thing didn’t really improve the situation.

I was just reminded of this the other day.  My daughter decided that she wanted to help with the dishes.  I can’t tell you how many times she has watched, or at least been near, while I , or my wife, did the dishes.  So, I had her stand beside me, and I handed her the first dish.  She placed it flat on the prongs as if she was laying it on a shelf.  If left there, the dish washer would splash water around the bottom of the plate, and fill the top of the plate with soapy water.  We also would only be able to put one or two more dishes in, in total.  I looked at her – exasperated – and did something I’ve been working hard on lately – I took a breath and relaxed.

“Honey, is that how you think that plate should go?” it was with the “How many times do I have to tell you” tone.

She looked at me – blankly.

And, fortunately, I stopped, and thought, maybe she doesn’t know how to do this.  Maybe I’ve never taught her.  And so I did.

It made me realize how many times, we do things in the proximity of students, and think that, because they’re near by, they’ve paid attention; they’ve learned.  It made me think about how, so many times, we teach something to an entire class of students, and really have no idea how many students actually learned.

This week, while working with some students, I’ve said, multiple times, “Do you remember being taught ______________.  You might not have learned it, but do you remember a teacher teaching you this?”  The students always look at me, inquisitively.

Just because a person teaches a student, it doesn’t mean the student learns.

We need to check for the learning.  Check to make sure that we actually taught what we wanted to teach, and, maybe even more importantly, that the child, the student, learned what we planned would be learned.

What do you think?  Or do you want me to tell you again?



Focus.  Think.  Pay attention.

If you’re going to accomplish anything, you’ve got to focus.

Recently, I’ve had a stream of twelfth graders coming into my office.  Graduation is only a few weeks away, and there are a few students who still have not passed a reading SOL, which, without passing it, they will not be eligible to graduate.

There are many conversations to have around SOLs.  Are they important?  Are they a good use of time?

One thing is real – for some students, it is the hardest thing they will ever accomplish, and for that reason, we should respect their determination to work to pass this final milestone.

As I work more and more with students, I see that I have an awesome opportunity to teach them real skills that they can use for the rest of their lives, that just happen to be the same skills they need to pass the SOLs.  How to infer.  How to use context clues to define a word.  How to use pictures to help clarify setting.

And, surprisingly, how to pay attention.

I am lucky that I work with an amazing staff.  Recently, I was talking to an outstanding English teacher about a student who we are concerned may not graduate.  In our conversation, she stated that it isn’t the content that he doesn’t have a command over, but his ability to stay focused.

And this is where a team comes together.

The thing is, people can do something about focus.

In general, people can focus for + or – 2 minutes of their age.  This means for me, for example, I should be able to focus on something for 39 to 43.  Of course, if a person is really interested (my six-year-old boy can do Legos for two hours straight) the amount of time one is able to pay attention is extended.

So I sit with this student.  I talk to him about his attention.  I explain that a person is able to reset his attention once he realizes that he is no longer focusing anymore.  And it’s true.  Adults do this all of the time. They are sitting, reading the newspaper, and suddenly they realize that they don’t know what they just read because they were thinking about how the dog needs to be trimmed, or the kids need different cheese sticks cause they didn’t like the ones with white in them or the car needs an oil change.  It used to happen in school.  You’d be sitting there reading your United States history book, and suddenly you would realize that you just turned four pages and all you remember is that you’ve been focused on if that girl or boy in your Chemistry class saw you looking at her or him.  But, once you realize, you stop, pull yourself together, and start focusing.

The truth is, you could do it sooner.  As soon as you realize you’re not paying attention, you can do something – maybe stand up, maybe roll your neck, maybe close your eyes and think of Hawaii, maybe do a quick doodle – and then you set your mind to your task, and you’re focused.
Kids can do this.  Teach them to pay attention to paying attention.  Teach them that they can reset their attention once they realize they’re not paying attention. And, voila, they can pay attention again.

I taught this to two students, they both will walk in two weeks because they’ve passed their last needed SOL.  And, it’s a skill they can use for the rest of their lives.

Don’t Stop

Do you remember when you had to write that paper in fourth grade (honestly, it doesn’t matter what grade, try to remember back to when you were younger, and you had to write a paper)?  It was a report; it may have been on a country.  You had to show the flag, give all of the information about the population and the products – imports and exports – of the country.  You went to your school library, which was warm and cozy.  There was at least one really nice librarian, and for some reason, there was the other one too.  Everyone loved the first librarian, even the kid who she always made sit in the hall, or reenter the library with his quiet voice and not outside voice.  Not so much the other one.  You picked a book, looked in the Encyclopedia (I always liked World Book), copied down tons of information.  Sometimes you even went to your public library, if there was a weekend between the teacher giving you the  assignment, and when it was due.  There was construction paper, and crayons.  Fancy kids had glitter.

And there was the writing portion.

This is the part I want you to remember.  The part when you were sitting down to do the writing.  You had great ideas.  It was all there.  Then you would start writing.  Inevitably, you would come to a word you weren’t sure how to spell – my killer was who.  Yup, you read it right.  It was who.  Three simple letters.  I would write them down: h-o-w.  Then I would look at it.  Part of my brain was high-fiving: “WE GOT THE LETTERS!!!!!”  Another part of my brain was consternated: “I agree, we do in fact have the correct letters, but something just isn’t right.”  A whole other part of my brain wanted to go outside and play – I ignored that part.  Then I would go back and forth.  Sounding it out, rewriting it.  I finally, triumphantly, would arrive on W-H-O.  Success.

Not really though.

I was now through two and a half sentences, and I had no idea what I was going to write for the rest of my paper.  It was all gone.  Erased.  As I had pondered those three letters, my brain had slowly been repetitively pressing the delete key – erasing every idea that just moments ago were so clear.

Do you remember?  It might have been elementary school.  It was definitely high school (but hopefully not with how. . . I mean who).

How, though, do we get past that?


By teaching students what drafting actually means.

In a first draft, a student’s only concern should be to get the ideas onto the paper.  People shouldn’t worry about flow.  Voice shouldn’t be considered.  Grammar and spelling must be left for later.

Actual draft of Ayn Rand’s “Through Your Most Grievous Fault”

Get the ideas on the paper.

When I’m teaching kids to draft ideas, one of the first interventions I use is the cross through.  Now, this is pretty complex.  Make sure you’re ready.

I tell the students, when you make a mistake, cross through it.

That’s it.

Don’t use your eraser.  Don’t try to fix it.  Don’t try to make it right or look pretty or free of errors.  That is what a draft is for.  I even teach them how to make the fancy editor cross through.

Here’s what it will look like if you’re doing it all fancy-like:

Cross out

Teaching students how to do this does many things.  One thing is to teach kids the idea that your first draft isn’t your final draft.  Drafts are messy.  They are where you are allowed to make mistakes and where you should make mistakes.  Another thing it does is save time and thought.

Try this activity – I do it with my students.  You are going to write a short sentence: The car is in the yard.  Now, the first time through, you are going to do it all Massachusetts (The ca’ is in the ya’d).  Right after you write “ca'” use your eraser, and fix it to car.  Do the same for yard.  While you are writing the sentence, have a friend, or use a stop watch, and time yourself.  As soon as you start writing, start the timer, or the friend.  As soon as you reach the end of the sentence, say stop.  Remember that time (if you need to, write it down – I have two young children; my short term memory isn’t worth anything – I have to write it down).  Now, do the same activity again, but this time, when you misspell car, just cross through it and go on.  Same for yard.  See how much time you’ve saved.  It’s only one sentence, but think about how those few saved seconds allowed you to keep your train of thought — allowed you to keep going.

When you’re drafting, that ‘s what you need to do – keep going.  if you want to be able to keep writing, the easiest way is to keep writing.  There’s no need to slow down.  Cross through and keep on going.


A Screw Loose



I’ve shown this picture to so many students in the past few months.  I always start out the same:

“Do you know what this is?”

The usual response is: “The parts of a car.”

“No.” I reply.  “That’s actually a car.  It’s just broken into parts.”

Most recently, when I asked this, I was attempting to help a student – honors level courses, not completing homework (never has had to), doing poorly on assessments because he isn’t completing any of the work that would prepare him for the assessments.  I showed him the picture.  Asked the question.  He stated: “It’s a car.”  I was happy.  This would hopefully be easy work.

Before I go on, I’m going to have to let you know that I know relatively little about cars.  I can change a tire.  Oil if needed.  Windshield wiper fluid – most of the fluids really.  Mainly, I can read the owners manual that they give you with the car.  But beyond that, I really don’t know much about cars.  But this activity isn’t about demonstrating my knowledge about cars, it’s about helping kids to think differently about the choices they make.

dissembledcararrow1Do you see where the arrow is pointing to the circle? I think it’s part of the transmission or the drive train. If you know what it is, feel free to tell me.  It’s really not that important which thing it is, but what I like to do is find a big part – not a wheel or something that is obviously very important, and find a small, sort-of pointy thing that is really little beside it.  The little pointy things are usually in groups of four, or six, or eight.  You’ve probably guessed by now; those little pointy things are bolts of some sort.  I like to point at them and ask the kids what they are.  They always guess,

“A bolt or screw or something?”


We look at it for a few more seconds.  I like to wait.

“How important is it?”

“What?  That bolt?”

“Yeah, that bolt.  I mean, it’s really little.  Compared to the rest of the car, it’s insignificant – don’t you think”

They don’t know.  They’ve never really considered it before.  Seriously.  Who does consider how important one little bolt is in relation to a whole car.  There is Instagraming and Snatchatting and XBoxing or Playstationing to do that is much more important.

Then I ask, “What happens if it isn’t there?”

Funny enough, they usually know this.  It has effects on the rest of the car.  Negative effects.  Detrimental effects.  At first, those effects probably won’t be noticed, but overtime, they will become bigger and bigger – more pronounced.

A little bolt.

Now, as I said, I’m not a mechanic.  If this isn’t true, if a car could really miss one bolt and be fine, please don’t publish that out – sort of ruins the whole idea.

And here is the idea:  That bolt is World History I; it’s Earth Science; it’s close reading and analytical writing and Catcher in The Rye and The Romans and factoring polynomials.  By itself, it doesn’t seem that important, but when it’s gone, when the background knowledge is faulty, all of a sudden, that missing piece effects a lot of other things.

When I show kids this, I’m usually trying to work on motivation.  I’m trying to help them to further answer the question of, as asked in a recent post, “When will I ever use this?”

The dissembled car is just a start.  When they walk away, they have begun to think about all of the parts in their lives.  All of the pieces that, by themselves, really don’t seem very important, but, when one is missing, the whole thing starts to break down.  Just a small part, but important to the whole.


Fight the fight or flight

You’re walking along in the woods.  It’s a beautiful day.  You can’t hear civilization at all – even the planes are too high.  The wind whisks through the trees, whispering to look around, to forget about everything.  Smells fill your sinuses and the pines and the oaks make you forget that there is a world that, in another hundred yards, you’ll have to turn back to.  The three o’clock sun filters through the canopy, dappling the area ahead with shapes.  Shadows flit.  Leaves rustle.  Peace fills you as you recognize that one of the shapes looks just like a bear.

Mostly because it’s a bear.

You try to use your rational brain.  You try to think about that PBS special you recently saw about what to do when you see a bear.  You try to remember all of the facts about bears, and this time of year, and babies.  But a much more powerful brain begins working.  A brain that is powered by pure adrenalin and fear.  A brain that has laid latent in our minds for millions of years.  And that brain says, “Stay very still, and maybe it won’t see you.”

We all know the common latent reactions to fear, or anger: Flight, Fight, or Freeze.

Change gears.  A classroom.

I was working with some students who are in danger of not graduating from high school.  There is a multitude of reasons, and for the most part, the reasons don’t really matter.  What did matter was that there was a high stakes assessment that stood in front of them at the moment.  I am there to teach a mini-lesson on a variety of writing skills that they will actually take with them and be able to use when they become employed – these skills happen to be the same ones on which they shortly will be assessed.

I begin reading, and they begin taking notes, when I notice something.  Some of the kids are working away.  Some of the kids listen, pause, write.  Some of the kids just keep looking at their paper, and then they look at me.  Then they look at their paper.  Frozen.  When we finish, some are confident, some are angry and let me know.  Some just sit there.  Frozen.

In the few moments that I was reading, these students were faced with years of failure.  Years where they tried their hardest, and their hardest let them down.

At that moment, I change direction.  I start teaching a different lesson than I thought I was going to teach.  I realize that, for years, I talked about content when preparing kids for tests, but I didn’t give them all the information that they needed.  I realize these kids don’t have the right test taking skills.

So I start talking about the bear up above.  And how that bear starts lumbering towards them ready to fight.  Not a pause in it’s step.  I do my best menacing walk towards one of the kids while I say, “You’re gonna come into my woods.  Really?!?!”

I talk about driving down the road and seeing a deer.  I talk about rabbits that some of them have hunted.  I teach them about our autonomic response to fear and anger.

Flight, fight, or freeze.

We talk about that deer, I ask the rhetorical question, “When you’re driving down the road, what does the deer do?” And then I become the deer.  Frozen in front of them all.  Not moving.  Not moving so long that they begin to laugh.  I can only imagine what I look like.  And then I say, in a hushed voice, “Maybe, if I stay really still, they won’t see me.”  Like I’m sharing a secret with them.  More laughter.

Then, I say, you realize the deer isn’t going to move so you honk you’re horn – insert horn sound – and I bolt for the door, “OH MAN, THEY SEE ME!  I’M GOING TO HAVE TO GET OUT OF HERE!!!” More laughter.

And then I talk to them about their own lives.  When Mom yells at them.  How some of them just want to run – get out of there.  How when their brother starts screaming for Dad, they don’t move, hoping beyond hope, that if they stay very still, they won’t get in trouble.  How sometimes, when the teacher calls them out for texting on their phones, they don’t lose a beat and start arguing with the teacher.

Flight, fight or freeze.

How when they sit down to take that Algebra test, or the Roman Civilization assessment, or the Vocabulary quiz, they sometimes just give up – want to run away, or they crumple up the paper and say it’s stupid, or just sit there, hoping, that maybe, if they don’t move, nothing will ever happen.


But, I let them know, a test is not a bear.  We have a rational brain – a brain that allows us to transcend that caveman brain.  I remind them, and it always get’s a laugh, we’re not caveman.  I teach them that, when our caveman brain starts working, it most certainly will keep us alive, but it doesn’t do much for helping us to think.  And when you’re taking a test, you’ve got to be able to think.

I recently read Hunter Maats and Katie O’Brien’s post on this very same subject (To Improve Test Scores: Hit Reset).  I’m all about the brain, and they do an excellent job of explaining the actual actions through which our brains move.

And by remembering that we’re human, and that the test is not going to try to make dinner out of us, we can go through several different actions:

  1. Relax our shoulders
  2. Take a deep breath
  3. Let it out slowly
  4. Sit up straight
  5. Remember to calm down

We practice several times.  I tell them to pay attention to how their brain clears out, almost instantly, and, in that new moment, they are able to think again.

It is with simple strategies like this (in RTI we call them interventions) that we can teach people how to quickly calm themselves – increasing the ability to think, and the scores they earn on tests.

What do you get when you hope a lot

Christmas was a wonderful time of year.

A time of hope.

I grew up Catholic and knew the secular reason for Christmas.  Once out of high school, I actually came to realize that that time of year is really about giving to others, for I must admit, that like so many others, Christmas was a time to acquire things.  There were GI Joe figures — the big ones, a new bike, Bill Cosby records, and, when I was older, a Buck knife.  Every year, I would make my list and hope.

Hope.  It is such a wonderful thing.  It always allows us to look towards what we want.  It can create in us a feeling of good — that everything will be ok.  It enables us to think of what we want, and then make, or not make a plan.  So, hope is good.

Except when it’s not.

I’ve sat around many meetings to talk about students who are currently failing a class.  Then, the person leading the meeting will ask what we think we can do.  Very rarely is the expression, “Well let’s hope. . . ” not uttered.  This is the last place that that idea should be used.  Here is a student who needs help – and needs it now.  The team, maybe it’s a School Based Intervention Team, attempts to create what the student needs.  Then, from there, it should all be action, review of action, next course, and repeat.  No hope involved at all.

I don’t use it anymore when I talk about kids.  I say things like, “If he works hard enough. . .”, or “This plan seems solid. . . “. or “Let’s review this in a few weeks. . . ” because when you’re attempting to help a student, hope is good, but it isn’t where we should be putting our energies.

When I hear people – students, teachers, administrators – talking about hope (“I hope I do well on the next test”, “I hope those people go to that seminar”, “I hope they understand this new plan”) I often like to say, “Do you know what you get when you put a lot of effort into hoping?”

(Pause for silent reply as listener realizes it’s a rhetorical question)

“You get good at hoping.”

And that’s about it.

When we are working with students, and we are about to say, “I hope that. . .” we should stop ourselves and reflect on the plan that we have created.  What have we missed?  What else do the people involved need?  What else should we put into the plan?

Please don’t get me wrong.  I hope all the time.  I hope about dreams I have and things that I have little control over.  Hope is amazing.  Hope is great.  Hope is the what allows us to keep moving towards the impossible.  But when we are trying to support a student who needs specific instruction, structure and support should be focused on — those things that we can control.  But when we put our efforts — our students’ futures, our teachers’ needs, our administrators’ vision – into hope, most likely, we’re only going to get one thing, and, I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I need to get any better at hoping.