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?


It’s simple math

Mr. McCauley was my physics and Calculus teacher in high school.  He taught me many things, and some of those had to do with math and science.  He was my inspiration in more ways than one — I wanted to be Mr. McCauley.  It sounds a little weird when I say it, and it’s about to become even stranger.

Mr. McCauley was a bear of a man.  A short bear of a man, but a bear of a man anyway.  He had the hair of Grizzly Adams and the beard to match – just in black.  I wanted that.  I wanted to be a rugged looking man with square shoulders and a bushy beard that hung down over my chest.  Unfortunately, to this day, over twenty years after leaving Mr. McCauley’s class, I still only need to shave every three days, and that is more so that the stubble doesn’t annoy my children than because of how it looks.

But I also wanted to be him.  He attended MIT and majored in science and math.  When asked why, he gave a simple and short answer: “They were my toughest subjects.”

English was mine.  I followed Mr. McCauley, on a different path,  and attacked my hardest subject, majoring in English.

But, even as an English teacher, I’ve always been struck that school is all about math.  Want honor role?  The grades have to add up.  Want a high score on a paper?  You have to get the points.  Want to earn an “A” in Earth Science?  Look at the percentages.  It’s all math.

But there is other math that many people don’t seem to notice.  It’s the math of the classroom.  I try to help parents see this math by making it visual.

When a parent sees a classroom, it’s simple.  There is a teacher = 1.  There is a student = 1.  There is a parent supporting the student = 1 (sometimes two, but to keep this in the realm of my abilities, let’s say one).  So, 1+1+1 ≈ 48.

Did I lose you?  It really is simple.  See, let’s say, on average, that you have 23 students in your class.  That is 23 kids.  Plus, all of those students have at least one parent who is supporting them; that is 23 parents (at a minimum) (23+23 = 46); then, there is a teacher, and also an administrator (46+2=48).  Sure, there may be many others, but that’s the minimum.

Now picture this:  You have a room — average room – circa 1950’s, maybe new tile – white with grey flecks (it’s all the rage).  There are whiteboards (they are actually chalk boards that have been covered with white board material).  It’s got desks in it — usual desks – very similar, if not the same, as those you sat in while in high school.  Then there are 23 kids.  Now imagine that behind each of them stands 1 parent, and in front of the class, there is 1 teacher, and an administrator standing directly beside her, and usually other people too — support services, special educators, intervention specialists, counselors, testing coordinators.

And suddenly, the math makes sense.  The math of why it is taking so long to return a paper.  The math of why a phone call wasn’t returned.  The math of why the teacher wasn’t able to take the time to do that one other thing.

But, what I’ve found, is in that math there is great power – the power of compassion.  An opportunity for the community to begin to realize that with all of those people, there is so much that can be, could be, done.

So, even though I may have focused in English, my toughest subject, I think Mr. McCauley would be proud of my math skills. 1+1+1 = y

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…”