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.