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.

When will I ever use this?

For most of my career, I have worked to have an answer for this question.  Since 1997, I have taught a number of different classes: English, Chemistry, World History (the one that covers a long time ago), US/VA History, Algebra, Geometry, Resource class, Writing classes, Technology classes, and a few I’ve probably missed.



Every class is almost always the same – students come in, excited.  Ready to learn.



Then the days start to drag.  The weeks start to drag.  The work becomes more and more.


The students start to ask questions.

“Why is this important?”

“Why do I even have to know this?”

And the inevitable:

“When will I ever use this?”


That’s the question that is so important to everyone – when will I ever use this?

In the past few years, the cry for rigor, relevance and relationships has arisen.  These are the new 3 Rs of education (if you didn’t know, the old three Rs = Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic (which if you ask me might still be pretty darn important)).  Rigor means that we should make the curriculum challenging so that students stay engaged.  Relationships: know your students.  Create relationships so that students know that we care.  And relevance – we must make connections to the students’ lives so that they understand why we are learning what we are learning.

I think rigor is important – mostly differentiated rigor; that’s for a later post.  Relationships are essential – although I think what constitutes a relationship is not necessarily always agreed upon.  But relevance.  That is something on which we can all climb aboard.

Do you know what the death knell of Shakespeare is?  This statement, “Well, because it’s part of the curriculum and so we have to learn it.”

Seriously?  That is your best at creating relevance for Shakespeare?  Of all the moments that could create a desire to learn in a student, this was the best shot?

Maybe there are other reasons, like:

  1. Shakespeare offers an opportunity for you to increase your vocabulary, and since we were just discussing your goal of attending college, we should focus on creating a college level vocabulary for you.
  2. When you write that college essay, think about how much more powerful it would be if you included something that dealt with Shakespeare to show how you can make connections between the present or the past

Or for the child who doesn’t have college aspirations:

  1. Almost everyone you know passes through high school, right?  Didn’t you say that you want to own an auto body shop some day?  Imagine one day, a businessperson comes in  with her daughter, and in the daughter’s hand is a copy of Othello.  While the mom is rifling through her purse to find her credit card, you state something about the story to the young lady.  Don’t you think that businessperson is going to think about how you’re not the typical auto body worker?  Maybe that, if you think deeply about something like Shakespeare, you will think really hard while working on her car?

And for the undecided child – not sure if it will be college, or the military, or the workforce:

  1. Shakespeare is tough.  It really is tough literature to read.  But as you get older, don’t you think you are going to read difficult text?  When we study Shakespeare, we have an opportunity to figure out and build the skills around reading difficult text.  That is one of the best reasons to read Shakespeare: to build the skill of reading something difficult so that, when you are looking for that promotion, or that next degree, you can rely on your skills to figure out any text anyone throws at you.

And if all else fails:

  1. People have always read Shakespeare.  Don’t you want to be the parent who, when your child comes to you to ask for help, you can help her?  Instead of ironically saying – “Yeah, I learned that in high school, but when are you ever going to use it?”

As the Response to Intervention specialist, I am often called upon to work with students who have low, or no motivation.  For many of these students, relevance is the only thing that is going to create that motivation.  Conversations that help students understand how, in the future, they will access either the information or the skills will only motivate them to connect with the curriculum.  Why not have some answers that make kids go:



OH! That’s when I’ll use it.

How do you eat an elephant?

There is an old saying:

How do you eat an elephant?

I remember when I was first asked this question – I can’t remember how old I was, but I do remember that I was young enough that the image of a giant grey elephant loomed in my mind, larger than anything I could possibly imagine.  I can clearly remember how I pondered how difficult it would be to eat the entire elephant.  It’s funny that I don’t have any recollection of wanting to ask the obvious question, “Why would you want to eat an elephant?  Aren’t they endangered?”

But that ‘s not the point of the question.  The point is, obviously, to make a person experience exactly what I did – a monstrous task that is too enormous to even begin.

More and more students seem to arrive at my door (mostly because I sent passes, but arrive at my door they do!) with a similar problem.  They are doing a mediocre job in their classes, getting by.  They have passed many, if not all, of their state assessments over the years (we call them SOLs – yes, someone in Virginia has a sense of humor).  However, the student is suddenly in high school, and is not doing as well as he used to do.  The classes seem to be at his level, but he’s just surviving.  Parents are concerned.  Something must be done.

When you evaluate the current situation, it almost always comes out that the student doesn’t do homework, or, if he does, it is in the manner of completing a task without any learning occuring.  Homework is viewed as a necessary evil that must be completed.  Furthermore, there is no habit established.  This bright young man, or bright young woman, has never had to do homework before.

But now there is a need to complete homework.  It’s the only way to learn all the information.

So that student who just arrived, wearied by the relentless pounding that is high school academics, slumps in the chair beside my desk.  We talk about the insurmountable amount of homework and projects and tests and quizzes that are currently cresting over his head.  And then I ask:

“Do you know how to eat an elephant?”

The student sits and looks at me.  In his eyes, I can almost see him imagining that giant hulking grey form – too large to even begin.  It’s always the same, the student sits.  I let the quiet surround us.  I let him ponder.  I let him be with the elephant for a little bit.  I need him to be.  The next time he needs to ask the question, I won’t be there, and he will have to ask it of himself.

After an eternity, or thirty seconds of silence, which is an eternity for today’s teenager, I give the answer. “One bite at a time.”  Silence again as the pieces are put together.

I always make sure that the student has made the connection that he needs to connect: Your insurmountable task can be accomplished, but just one step at a time.  One bite.  One forkful.  Not the whole thing at once.

We’ll also talk about the other interventions that I have in store for him, but, now he has the momentum, and a giant grey companion to walk along with him as he slowly deconstructs his mountain.

One folder – all the answers

I don’t know what my organizational system was when I was in high school.  In fact, I’m not sure I had one.

Can I share a secret with you?  Come on, lean forward, I don’t want this getting out.

I have difficulties with organization.

It’s really ironic.  Most of my job is about figuring out how to help staff and students become stronger at what ever they do.  But I don’t know how I do it.  I listen.  Then I listen.  Then I listen some more, and slowly, a picture begins to form in my head.  As the picture takes shape in my mind, I begin to ask questions about the person.  As I do this, I start to create a narrative for the person – a narrative of her life, or of her classroom, or of where she wants to go.  The person begins to nod or correct me.  I sometimes wonder if I’m like a fortune teller, making guesses that are near enough to the truth, then have the people fill in the rest of the truth.

“I’m seeing a man.” The person nods. “He is close to you.”  Another nod. “I’m sensing a brother” slight question on the listener’s face, “or brother-in-law.” Listener smiles slightly – and the questioning continues.

But through all of the information I attain, I begin to organize the information – some how – in my head, and together, we create a plan.

But I don’t create plans by myself.  There is an amazing teacher with whom I worked in Reynold’s School District outside Portland, Oregon.  Tai Quirke was on my team, teaching science.  I, initially, was the Special Education teacher, and later, one of the two English teachers.  When I started teaching English at this small high school – around 3,000 students – I had a lot of papers to grade.  There were eight classes, which added up to exactly a ton of work.  One day, while working with Tai, I noticed that she seemed to always have her work done.  She showed me a simple folder system.  For each class, there was a folder.  In the folder, there were two pockets.  On the left side went papers that needed to be scored.  On the right side, went papers that were scored, but not entered into a grade book.  When they left the folder, they were entered into the grade book and then handed back to the students.  Simple.  Perfect.  Genius.

Eight years later, I am working as the Response to Intervention Specialist at Albemarle High School.  I am in a meeting where I’m learning various strategies for a student with an Autisim Spectrum Disorder (ASD).  I’m there as the RTI specialist (the youngster is not on my caseload), and am observing an amazing ASD specialist in action.  One of the ideas she gives to the case manager is a folder.

The folder is for the student.  It is for all work that needs to be finished later.  Any work that is not completed should go on the left hand side of the folder.  When it is completed, it goes on the right hand side of the folder.  When the student arrives back in class, all of the work that needs to be handed in can be found on the right hand side.

It’s simple.  It’s perfect.  It’s genius.  What makes it so perfect, especially for high school students?  All work for all classes go in the folder.  Students don’t have a different folder for each class – there is only one folder.  At night, there is only one folder to find.  All of the work is in it.  When the work is done, it is switched to the other side.  When the student arrives in any class, there is only one folder to take out to find work for any class.

It can be expanded.  All handouts from the entire day could go into this folder, and the first step of the evening homework routine would be to file notes, then do any work that is not completed.

But, initially, it is simple.  Unfinished work in; completed; shifted; returned.

When I was teaching with Tai in Reynolds, I also realized something about working with regular education students – if a technique works for students with a disability, give it to students without one and see how quickly they grow.

The next step

When I was growing up, I always knew what I wanted to be.  It was always definite.  It changed often, but was definite.

In kindergarten to third grade, I was going to be an actor.  I was going to have one of those gold stars on my door and everything.  By the time I was heading toward middle school, I was going to be a doctor and an actor — definitely not a lawyer.  Then, when I arrived in high school, I knew that I was going to by a psychiatrist.  I was going to go to medical school and end up working with troubled kids; most likely doing high ropes courses with them while we figured out how to get them back on track.  I honestly don’t know where that idea came from — the psychiatrist part, I know where the high ropes course idea came from – there was one at Falmouth High School, where I went, and I thought it was the coolest.  High school ended, and I went on to college, and became a psychology major and pre-med minor.  By the middle of the first year, I realized I wouldn’t be successful at Chemistry, and just became a psychology major – the Chemistry class I was taking was for pre-med students, and it was used to weed out the kids who weren’t going to make it – I was a weed.  A week later, psychological statistics was kicking my butt, and I realized, if I couldn’t work with people, at least I could read about them, and I became an English major.  My mom, the wise person she is, suggested that I go to the education department and find out how I could get a minor in Education, because, as she said, “At least that way, after college, you may be able to get a job.”  This led to that, and I ended up with a Master’s in Special Education and a concentration in Emotional Disabilities, which resulted with me working with troubled kids, who I helped figure out how to get them back on track – no ropes course involved.

It’s strange to think that I ended where I wanted to, but, when you really think about it, I was always working toward that goal.  Except for K-3, I was always aiming at going to college.  In order to do that, I had to work hard, get good grades, stay out of trouble, and learn as much as I could so that I’d be ready for the next class.  My entire educational life was spent getting ready so that I would be prepared for the next class, the next year, the next school.  In a very cliché manner, I was an arrow heading for a very specific target.

There are people who may say this is sad.  I missed my years in school – just being a kid.  But, I always had drive.  I always knew why I was doing what I was doing.  I always had purpose in my classes.  Homework was horrible – I, just like the next kid, hated it – but it wasn’t without purpose.  I was honing my skills so that I would be prepared for going to college.  Projects were lousy.  I detested them – but they weren’t pointless.  I was getting ready for when I’d be in college.  Every step of the way, I had purpose and direction.

And, as teachers, that is why we must continually prepare students.  Carol Dweck, who has done ground breaking work with helping people to understand the importance of a person’s mindset, proves that those students who are continually focused on learning, will learn.  We must support that mindset in students.  We must help them see that one of the main purposes of homework in elementary school is because, when they arrive in high school, homework won’t be an option, and it is important to develop that habit.  We must help them to see that if they study for tests, they will retain the information for longer, which will allow them to understand the next thing they will have to learn, which will help them save time, which will allow them to have more free time to do what they want.  We must teach them that by simply doing some self monitoring, they will be able to see how they are able to capture back time and be more successful in school, which will only raise their self confidence.

We must show them how everything now, is to prepare them for the next step.  Otherwise, why are they doing anything.  Where is the motivation?