What we remember

In high school, I used to talk to my friends about how I would never be a high school teacher.  I used to look at those teachers, and discuss how they were obviously just people who never wanted to leave high school.  Don’t get me wrong, I loved high school.  I started in the lower level classes and had to work hard.  As I progressed through school, I moved up in ranking and in my junior and senior year, had a good group of friends — we definitely weren’t the cool kids, but we were happy.  Most people would call us nerds.  We, of course, didn’t think of ourselves that way — mostly because we were teenagers.

And that is high school.  Thinking stupid things, because you really don’t know.  Only knowing who you are by what you think, or what you hear other people say about you.  Your whole life before you, and, well, you’re a teenager.

Your fears, your happiness, your successes and failures are all based on an immature brain.  When we, as adults, think about how hard or easy high school is, is based on faulty evidence collected by an unreliable narrator — just as we should question everything that Holden says, so too should we question what high school is like.

The only people who actually know what high school is like, are the people who never left.

I was wrong.  First, I became a high school teacher.  Second, it isn’t because they liked high school so much that they don’t leave, but because they feel a need to help those students still in high school.

It shouldn’t surprise me that I was wrong, I was thinking, back then, with the brain of a sixteen, seventeen and eighteen year old.  Most adults would say: what did I really know.  But, that is the brain with which we remember high school, and it is with those memories that so many parents attempt to help their children navigate high school.  Those memories, though, are faulty, and, for many, decades old.  Times have changed.  People have changed.  School has changed.  Furthermore, all of the memories of high school only had one purpose: to get you through high school.  Therefore, they are limited to the interests you had, the classes you took, the needs specific to your plight.

When their children are approaching high school years, I always feel that parents should have a guide; a person by their side who can gently inform them of how credits work, how tardiness is determined, how to ensure that homework is completed – all of the minutia that is high school.  Unfortunately, since we all went through high school, most of us believe we understand how to help our children traverse that complicated maze, but we forget, our memories are those of a person who often, and sometimes only, thought of him or herself.  A person who was concerned about what would happen after graduation, but who also was concerned about with whom he would attend the football game, or the date on Friday, or if he should have his backpack hang off of his right or left shoulder – the important stuff.

In helping our children through high school, we should remember that we need that help.  We should consider how little of what we do now is solely based on information we learned a long time ago when we were teenagers.    We should look towards those people who can answer the questions we don’t even know we should ask.  Most importantly, we should keep asking questions until we are completely positive that we understand.  We should think about that what we remember may be different than what really was.


After class

In school, I was one of the kids who, if I was my teacher, I would  have loved to have in class. I worked hard; I was not the smartest; I always had ideas and wanted to share them. Even now, when I go to seminars and the speaker asks those questions that seem like they are rhetorical because everyone sits there for so long, I feel the need in my soul to raise my hand and answer. Someone has to answer. As I’ve aged, I realize that, unlike my immature younger self, I don’t think my answer is the best, or, sometimes, even good, but it is an answer, and it is what the speaker needs — even if it’s wrong — it’s a segue into the topic on which the speaker wants to discuss.

And in class, we need those too. We need those kids to raise their hands and answer questions; except when we don’t When we don’t is when we are trying to lead a discussion, or move through a lesson and suddenly, a student becomes more engaged in the activity than he has ever been in his entire life before. His very essence is about continuing the very dialogue in which he and you are currently engaged. Unfortunately, he is tremendously focused on a very minuscule, small, one might even say, minor detail, or on something that is tangentially connected and really not even that relevant to the discussion. And, in your teacher brain, you realize that irreplaceable moments are ticking away, many of the students in the class are beginning to wonder what the last text they received says, and, only that one student who might possible go on to major in the subject which you are currently teaching is paying attention. You realize, in your teacher brain, that if you squelch his involvement, there is a good chance he won’t participate again – ever. Furthermore, you will probably have a phone call from his mother asking you to explain why you wouldn’t listen to her son – “Just like all of the other teachers.” You can’t even mention that his idea isn’t really that important because, once again, you will have lost him.

So, trap him in learning. Encourage his participation, but keep the rest of the class moving forward

Say, “That’s a great idea [point, thought, question – what ever it is, just substitute it here], and I’d love to keep talking to you about it after class. Now let’s get back to…” and you’re back on track. The student is usually surprised by this quick solution, and also a little anxious about his unexpected agreement. On a rare occasion, the student will actually stay after class, which is really positive. In addition, you could remind the student toward the end of the class that you are interested in hearing the rest of his thoughts. And then think about the conversation on the phone, which may never happen: “I heard you kept my son after class today to discuss a particularly poignant idea he was attempting to share…”

Newsela: reading at everyone’s level

Here is what I have for you today:


What is Newsela?

At first, it just looks like a news site, with recent articles on current issues.


What Newsela does is to change this: (hint: read the title)


To this with a push of a button: (hint 2: read the title again)


But it doesn’t just do it for the title, it does it for the whole article. (If you didn’t catch it – the user (teacher,student,etc.) changed the lexile level of the title, which increased the complexity of the words used by clicking the blue area on the right of the screen).


  1.       Newsela is free
  2.       There are quizzes already made for many of the articles
  3.       You can create your own classes and assign different articles
  4.       You can annotate it – kids can respond directly on the passage
  5.       You can use the writing prompts they have, and kids can respond directly on the article’s webpage
  6.       You can create your own writing prompts, and kids can respond directly on the article webpage
  7.       Oh, and it’s free
  8.       You don’t need computers to use it with your classrooms
  9.       Only have Ipads or tablets – well it works
  10.   Have tons of kids who have smartphones – it works over the internet!
  11.   Did I mention that Newsela is free?

Don’t trust me?

Check out this youtube video: http://youtu.be/0e7FPS0jsGw (it’s only 4.5 min.)

(don’t have 4.5 minutes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dkkNIicAHmE (1.07 min – but you don’t get to see it)

Ready to look at Newsela?

Click here:  newsela.com

Don’t believe everything you see on Youtube?

Check this out: http://techforteachers.com/?p=805

Or: http://www.oregonteaches.com/2013/11/10/newsela/

Now are you ready to look at Newsela?

Click here:  newsela.com

Want to learn more about setting it up in your classroom?  Here is a Youtube channel dedicated to Newsela: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCPWbr_l57rD-WN6913EYcQw

A quick reminder of why we’re here

I’m sitting beside a student.  She is completely disorganized.  She is also failing several of her classes, and we are two weeks away from grades closing.  There is hope.  There is a chance.  She can pass, if she decides to organize and complete work.  She begrudgingly took out here binder and almost slams it on the desk.  In a harsh tone, she says, “Here.” As if I’ve asked her to do something that is so egregious that not only she, but also her family, should be offended by my request.

My request was that we look at her binder to see what work she needs to complete.

The hostility towards me continues, and, instead of continuing, I stop and quietly say, “Hold on a second, let me ask you a question.”

She quiets; seethes, but quiets.

Looking at her, I ask a simple question, “What am I trying to do?”

She quickly answers, with sass in her voice: trying to get me to do my work; trying to get me organized; making me do work.  To each, I shake my head.

“No, really, what is the only thing I’m trying to do?”

Dejectedly, “I don’t know.”

“Help you.”

I let that sink in for a second.  Let her hold on to that idea.  There are a ton of things she needs to do, but right now, I’m only trying to do one thing:  help her.

“I’m trying to help you, and, for some reason, you’re angry at me.  Is that how you should treat someone who is just trying to help you?”

The anger visibly fades from her.  She relaxes and shakes her head.

“Let’s look at this notebook.”

And we keep working.  

I believe you

Growing up in the 80s, one of my favorite movies was Some Kind Of Wonderful. I think I, like the male lead character, wanted what he couldn’t have, and, more importantly, didn’t really know what he wanted.  I have never forgotten one of the lines of this movie, “Trust is the basis of every relationship.”  Of course, the use of the line is completely ironic as the handsome foil to the lead male tells this to a young girl he is attempting to seduce while cheating on his girlfriend.

But the truth behind the statement is solid, trust really is the basis of all relationships.

And one aspect of trust is listening and believing what people tell us.

A few days ago, I was talking with a young man who is struggling in school.  He, like many other ninth graders, is struggling with the realization that he cannot just do ninth grade the same way he did eighth grade.  He is a student who has potential, but does not understand what he needs to do to be successful.  As I am working with him, I show him his failing grades — except for PE in which he is earning a “D” — his grandmother is really excited about that.  I begin a conversation that I have had several times with students who are much like he is.  His reading level is below grade level – it is actually four grades below grade level.  He is not completing work outside of school, for he has never had to complete homework in the past 10 years of schooling.  In the past, his teachers had assigned homework, but if he didn’t complete the homework, it really didn’t count against him.  Furthermore, the homework wasn’t essential to learning because he was smart enough to ask questions in class, and pay attention during class which enabled him to glean enough information to pass, minimally, the assessments that he was given.  He had enough support, or assignments were created in such a manner that he could complete them. And so, he has never had to do work outside of school to receive passing grades.

But high school, as so many students have heard before, is different.  Lower level students are now expected to move very quickly through complex curriculum, and the hours during school are never enough.  Students are expected to learn exact vocabulary that is specific to the curriculum — for courses such as Earth Science  — vocabulary that many students have never encountered.  Furthermore, some of the concepts are so nebulous that students don’t even have the background knowledge to which they can hook the new information. Without using more than the time in school, few students are able to, even at a minimum, grasp the basic vocabulary to have the tools to pass the class.  And the student with whom I now work, has fallen into this cycle.  Minimal work in school which has, with poor academic habits, like studying out side of school, completing homework, and organizing his assignments and notes, made it tremendously difficult to be successful in school.  And so, with all of the work he has done in avoiding school work, he has become really able at avoiding school work which has resulted in his failing grades.

Now, I sit and talk with him about his failing grades.  We have looked at his binder; we have looked at his grades; we have discussed what he can do to start changing his high school outlook.  I ask him a simple question, “So what can you do?”

And he answers in the way that so many other struggling students do, by looking my straight in the eye and defiantly saying, “I don’t know.”

The “I-don’t-know” is flippant.  It carries with it that he doesn’t care, that he isn’t going to care, and that if anyone tries to change anything, he isn’t even going to even try.

At this point, many teachers will realize that the student is being defiant and decide that, until the student is ready, there is little to be done.  Many teachers, at this point, will smile at the student, if they haven’t taken the response personally, and let the student know that if he decides that he wants some help, I’ll be there.

But for some reason, I say something that I have never said before.  My response is based off of the idea that people always do the best they can on any given day.  And so, I say to him, “I believe you.”

The student looked at me, shocked, and says, “What?”  There is no incredulity in his statement, no defiance.  It is a genuine question.

I look him square in the face and, sensitively say, “I believe you.  I believe you don’t know.”


Then, surprisingly, he looks down.  His shoulders slump.  He stares helplessly at his hands and says. “I don’t.”

And then I start the conversation again, about what he can do, about various techniques we can try, and, if he wants, ways that we can get him back on track.

And he listens.