What I Know For Sure

downloadSomething I know for sure…

In 2014 Oprah Winfrey published What I Know for Sure (a fabulous read) stemming from a question she was asked by film critic Gene Siskel. It took her 14 years to come up with answers to that very question. In 2016 Rainn Wilson (otherwise known infamously for his role as Dwight Shrute) published his own musings in reference to this prompt in his autobiography entitled The Bassoon King (also a fabulous read). Winfrey and Wilson focused on, well, what they felt they knew for sure. And of course, they are both brilliant and produced brilliant pieces of wisdom written brilliantly and of course packaged just as brilliantly in their respective pieces.  Our team of educators felt this would be a great place to begin our 2020 blogging. 

What I know for sure. 

When I was a wee lass, my mom would buy me book after book. The rule in the house was that if you are willing to read the book, she was willing to buy it. This would be risky business these days as I can’t get enough of books (I could go broke with my book love)…but back then, I wasn’t really a reader. (Whhhhaaaaat? But, but, but you’re an ENGLISH teacher–I know, I know; it seems like I am breaking the law with even admitting that). Periodically, I would get books from my mom, most notably being Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and John Knowles A Separate Peace. When I turned 30 I received a complete set of Harvard Classics. For Christmases over the years I have received Jane Austin novels, The Bronte sisters’ works, and of course a favorite of mine, The Autobiography of Mark Twain Vol. 1. Along with these sets of books and novels, I heard her quote from various works. She seemed to have at least a page of each novel memorized and could recall it back without much effort. An English major in college herself, and a woman who could read a book every couple of hours, My. Mom. Knew. Books.

Sadly, I didn’t read them when she gave them to me. Instead, they sat on my shelf until I imageswas a teacher. (The hits just keep coming, first I admit I wasn’t a reader, and then I admit that I didn’t read some of the greats…what other English crimes will I reveal…I also can’t spell worth a darn, LOL). During my first year of teaching, I was tasked with reading all of these books my mom had been talking about. So, not only did I have to read them, but I had to impart my wisdom on them, which is no easy task as a first year teacher.

Fast forward to my close to 45 year old self. What I know for sure…my mom didn’t pick those books for me or talk about those books with me because they were just good books that people should have some knowledge in. She picked them because she loved them, and she loved me. I saw and still see pieces of her in those books that she gave me specifically. I see her in Sydney Carton; I see her in Atticus and Scout Finch. I hear her words of warning in 1984, Brave New World (which she hated), The Lord of the Flies. And I see her and hear her in Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and Walden

images-1What I, Kristina Zakrzewski, know for sure is this…when a moment arises that we think of someone with a book, a quote, a movie, a show, a meme (oy, yes, I am a lover of memes), a clip, a song, we should disperse this to the person or persons who come to mind. (What my mama did for yours truly). When I hear a song that reminds me of my husband and children, I send it to them. When I see a funny meme that reminds my of my very valued, treasured and extremely goofball friends, I send it to them. When I am reading a book, I am constantly thinking, who can I pass this on to. Who would love this, who needs this, who do I see in this? These are pieces of ourselves that we can share with others. And these are pieces of ourselves that we can see in others. It’s these pieces that show that we value them, we see value in them, and we are there for them. And that value can make change in the world, can inspire others in the world, can be what gets that person through the day, the week.  It can exclaim, “Hey, you, you there, you are not alone. I see you. And I am here for you.” This, this is the gift I was given through the years with my mom. It was through her quotes, her book suggestions that she showed that I was important. And this is what we should show our students, our peers, our families as often as we can. 

This is the legacy that I will forever value from my mom, and what I plan to pass on to the people in my life as I go through this great a wonderful journey…this…this I know for sure. download-1




So I was walking my dog the other day. We were soaking up the view as we strolled along the shores of Lake Erie. I was enveloped in a podcast episode and Holly’s little beagle ears were flapping in the lakeshore breeze. We were beboppin’ along, happy as can be, minding our own business. I didn’t think a thing of it when Holly drifted off the path to sniff around under a park bench. She squatted but nothing happened. The vet says this is a manipulative ploy to elongate our time together…go figure. Still, on this day, I didn’t mind the extra stop. We were in no rush, with nowhere to be for hours and it was a beautiful morning.

As Holly wrapped up her investigation under the park bench, we returned to the walking path and I noticed an older woman walking toward us. She made direct eye contact with me and looked like she wanted to say something. We slowed and I greeted her with “Good morning”. Her response was a head tilt and scrunched nose. I removed an earbud. She said, “Did your dog just poop under that bench?” 

“No! Of course not,” I replied, astounded and instantly feeling defensive. 

“Oh, it looked like she did,” Miss Poop Patrol said. 

I may be a polished and polite 45 year old woman, but I teach middle schoolers and live with two teenage daughters. I am not a stranger to snide comments rolling through my head; they do so with ease. I thought of a million responses…they just came too late. In the moment, my words took the high road because I was feeling as though I was in big trouble with Poop Patrol. I pulled a bag from my pocket as proof of preparedness and countered, “Don’t worry. I have a bag.” I was at least mindful enough to accompany my weak comeback with a passive-aggressive eye roll and audible huff. 

For the remainder of the walk, I was in conversation with myself: What am I, twelve? Heck–I’d still be offended if that woman would have stopped and questioned my 17 yr. old the way she did me. Did I mention WE were minding our own business? Nope, age didn’t matter. Even if I were 12, no one deserves to be assumed guilty. It feels icky. 

Right or wrong, justified or not, this encounter left me feeling misunderstood and defensive. It reminded me of a quote from Maya Angelo: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Let’s not over-analyze the reasons why I am still upset by this encounter a full week and 3 days later (#InsecuritiesAfter40). But let’s do pause and think about what my reaction says about how our actions and words affect other people–no matter their age–and what that might mean for us as teachers. 

This is a truth; I’ve encountered it as a teacher. You can see it, too. Just venture into the hallway. Stop. Listen there. Take it all in. Think about it. And don’t be surprised when you realize all the judgements–good and bad–can all be traced back to one common factor: how the teacher makes students feel when they are in class. Is the teacher empathetic? Is the teacher a good role model? Is the teacher reasonable? Is the teacher clear about why things are they way the are? Is there room for risk-taking? Failure? Is there a chance to be successful today even if students blew it yesterday? You might hear some talk about assignments or upcoming projects. You might even delight in an academic exchange of words and feel like patting yourself on the back. But mostly, you will hear how kids are feeling. And when you hear that, you’re gathering what is probably the most important information you can have to be successful as their teacher. So, please. Take time to gather this social/emotional information. And in the age of performance data gathering, data analysis, and “diving deep” into academic data, tread lightly, my friends. What data do you need to inform your instructional practice? What data do you need to ignore so that you don’t stereotype how the student will perform in your class before he or she even has a chance to show you? Remember,

It’s not what you teach that students will remember most. It is how you make them feel. 

I’ve encountered this truth as a student. One of the biggest reasons I became a teacher was because I was fortunate to have teachers in my history that I adored; I wanted to become just like them. I wanted to have reasonable but challenging expectations. I wanted to open doors to new knowledge and help people discover new things about themselves and about the world. I also knew what kind of teacher I didn’t want to be. I didn’t want to make my students fear walking through the doorway because of my strict policies that made them afraid to move left or right. I didn’t want them to feel judged when, no matter how hard I tried, they just couldn’t seem to “get it”. I didn’t want them to feel pitted against their peers or in competition. I knew exactly the kind of teacher I wanted to be. I wanted them to feel valued, free to explore, gain confidence, take risks, and play to their strengths. Because…

It’s not what you teach that students will remember most. It is how you make them feel. 

Finally, I’ve encountered this truth as a parent. My husband and I are both educators, and had several years of teaching experience under our belts before we became parents. We knew school. We knew what to expect. We had a positive attitude. We were prepared. Our kids were prepared. And we thought we knew how school would look for them. We didn’t. And there was nothing more heartbreaking than seeing our own children go through phases where they were completely turned off by school. They didn’t want to go because of how school made them feel. They felt disciplined all day; they felt like a number; they felt teachers did not know them as people. Believe me, it was a hard-hitting professional slam to witness system failure when it mattered most. And yet even during the phases where our kids hated school, there was always one saving grace. There was always one period of the day that wasn’t so bad, because someone made them feel they could persevere. And that became the one thing that motivated the results of our best attempts at parenting to make it out the door and take their places in the classroom. 

As society scrambles to respond to the ever-changing needs of our youngest generations, let’s not wait to create positive encounters within the school walls.  A teacher can never go wrong with considering the kind of encounters they create in their classrooms. Though it may be tempting, resist assuming that you have to be on Poop Patrol. Try expecting kids to be at their best until they prove otherwise. And when they do prove to be in need of redirection or tough love, realize you will never know exactly where they are coming from. You can only try to be empathetic and discipline while preserving their dignity. I’ll repeat it one last time for emphasis.  It’s not what you teach that students will remember most. It is how you make them feel. No matter our age, we don’t want to feel pre-judged, defensive or invisible. We want to feel safe, valued, and heard.


Power Of Positive

I grew up believing there was always something about me, my friendships, my school performance, and my athletic achievement that could and should improve. I was hard on myself and I believed I thrived when I focused on what I could do better. I grew up, parented like I was parented and taught like I was taught. Tough is good. Suck it up. Great job, but you would be better if….

It took what I would call a significant “kick in the pants” in my role as principal to realize that most respond to a celebration of success with more drive to improve than a list of critical feedback. Recently, I started reading a fun book, Together Is Better: A Little Book of Inspiration. It’s a small book filled with smart thinking and funny pictures. One page that sticks out to me has this quote, “Leadership is not about being in charge. Leadership is about taking care of those in your charge.” Of course, principals are leaders but so are teachers….we lead our students each day we teach them. In the last few months, I have been testing this theory in my personal and professional life.

It’s crazy how effective my smile, my words of encouragement, and my ability to use a lens of optimism have been! Daily, I actively search for someone to compliment. I smile and say hello to every child and adult I pass in the hallway. I send notes and emails complimenting teachers on their instruction or how they have structured their classrooms. And I am noticing our world is better. Everyone is giving their full effort. Students are making more positive behavior choices. Teachers are initiating their own learning opportunities. I think encouragement is the difference. I think….But maybe the difference is only my perspective.

We are entering a tough stretch as educators. The glimmer of a new school year is worn. Thanksgiving break is many weeks away. Conference nights are around the corner. Fatigue becomes real. As we move forward, I am going to remember the power of positive. It’s natural to see our work as less than perfect, but I’m guessing I”m not much different from you. When the day to day pressures of interacting with students, parents and colleagues begin to wear us down, we all win when we follow Norman Vincent Peale’s wise words, “Change your thoughts and you can change your world.”

person doing thumbs up
Photo by Donald Tong on



What’s the Next Step (as a teacher of writing)?

Screen Shot 2019-09-11 at 12.47.54 PMI recently read a book that I’ve been thinking about often and sharing with anyone who will listen to me: Why They Can’t Write by John Warner. I found myself shaking my head in agreement and laughing out loud sometimes as he spoke about writing issues – including the five-paragraph essay, grammar, technology, rigor, grades, and more. My book is filled with underlines, dog-eared pages, brackets, stars, “Yep!”, “Wow!”, “Hmmm…”, and even the occasional sad face.

My initial idea for this post was to be more of a book share than anything else. The problem is that many of the issues that Warner points out regarding writing instruction have come rushing at me in real life. One time was with my daughter who is a senior and who shared her Common App essay with me. And again with my older daughter who is in her second year of college, who shared an essay this past week for an ‘Intro to Diversity’ course. Both girls are struggling/have struggled with how to approach their writing requirements. I thought of them as I was reading the book and about the writing they’ve done in school. Honestly, I thought about my own experiences in middle and high school where I was taught to follow a structure and could write a five-paragraph essay like nobody else. The problem was that when I got to college, I didn’t know how to think or to write while conveying my own ideas.

There are many things in Why They Can’t Write that are important for writing educators today to think about. I’m struggling to come up with just a few nuggets to share, but based on my personal connections, I chose a few as some next steps that teachers could ponder (this is only in Chapter One called “Johnny Could Never Write”):

  • “Writing is hard” (11). I think I’ve said this three times to classes full of students this week and at least four times with my colleagues. It isn’t supposed to be easy. The growth and learning come as students struggle. When we over-scaffold or provide structures at every turn, will our writers ever have to work hard? Warner equates a structure – such as the five-paragraph essay – to training wheels on a bike. If we take the struggle out of writing by providing a structure, will our students learn how to write well and independently? 
  • “Writing is a skill, developed through deliberate practice” (12). I think teachers know this. I know that football coaches do and so do dance instructors and violists. Writing teachers know this too but there are things that keep us from giving students the practice they need: large class sizes (150 pieces of writing to look at), deliberate practice time set aside IN CLASS, and thoughtful, purposeful writing tasks that seem too difficult to model or plan for. How do we move forward and allow our students this practice time? I think teachers have to be mindful of feedback versus assessment and what is and what isn’t graded. There are ideas in this book but there are also giants in the ELA world that offer suggestions, like Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, Lucy Calkins, and others. What can they offer that we can put into use in our English classrooms?
  • “We overestimate our own proficiency at writing” (13). I am almost 50 years old and don’t consider myself a good writer. (In fact, as I reread this, I noticed that I sometimes don’t make much sense.) I’m trying but I still send emails with mistakes – even if I’ve read it over and over again. What if teachers wrote beside their students all the time and were judged on the same standards we are judging students on? That makes me nervous just thinking about it.
  • “We overestimate our past proficiency at writing” (13). I imagine that at one point I thought I was a good writer – back when I was getting solid A’s in high school English. I was NOT a good writer which my college professors would attest to. But I am trying and I challenge all teachers of writing to try. How do we know what our learners are going to struggle with if we haven’t tried it ourselves?
  • “We hold students to wrong/unreasonable standards” (14). Correctness seems to be what many students – even middle school students – are most worried about. Is this spelled correctly? How many sentences does this have to be to get an A? Will I get all 4’s on the rubric with this narrative? I think we have to figure out, as educators, what our goals are for our writers and keep that in the forefront of our minds as we plan and invite our students to write. I think we also have to think about how we communicate the expectations to students and how we use our minilessons and our small group/individual instruction to teach students how to independently reach those standards.

Screen Shot 2019-09-11 at 8.44.57 PMIf you can’t tell, I enjoyed Why They Can’t Write. It brought up a lot of emotions for me. It has suggestions on how to think about writing in a classroom – even if you don’t teach College Comp in high school or college. It addresses grammar which is often “the elephant in the room”. It challenges the status quo of writing instruction. It is a book that will make you think.

The remainder of Warner’s quote from the picture at the beginning of this post is “…an act where we determine what we mean to say by attempting to say it” (16). This is exactly what I experienced as I created this reflection. I wrote in order to respond to my strong reaction to the book and to explore the feelings and teaching ideas that sprung from it. I figured out what I wanted to say as I wrote and revised and leaned on the expertise of my writing group to cut out what I didn’t need and to elaborate on what I did need. What an amazing exercise I’ve had as a writer! Hopefully, we can think about how we continue to allow our students this important opportunity.


Warner, John. Why They Can’t Write. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press. 2018.


Captain America and Deadpool

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We couldn’t be more different.
He graduated high school when I was still in elementary school.
We cancel each other out every election.
He is mini sculptures of former presidents; I am mini sculptures of zombies and Disney princesses.
He’s sweater-vests. I am a different hair color every couple of years.
He is an apple and a banana for lunch every day. I am rice and chicken and salsa and strawberries and kombucha.
He is Captain America. I am Deadpool.
He’s history, and I’m language arts.

And we are partners.

My teaching partner and I have been together in the classroom for six years now. We have experienced the highs and lows of our professions (seeing students move beyond their own expectations despite us knowing that they could do it and seeing students through hardships that they are too young to experience) and the highs and the lows of our personal lives (in our six years, we have each lost a parent, watched our kids go from elementary to high school and his to college).

And through it all, we have remained a strong unit in the classroom. 

Our 145 students share 100 minutes with us per day. They have two sets of eyes on them at all times. With our years of teaching added together…we have half a century of experience under our belts. Between the two of us we have Masters’ degrees. We have various advising positions and various coaching experiences. 

And between the two of us, we are walking examples of how people can disagree and still get along.  We are walking examples of a positive working relationship. We are walking examples of strong individuals who will help each other out through any situation.

And how do we do it? 

  1. We share a philosophy on how we should treat our kids, both in terms of education and discipline. Our kids are just that. When they walk into our classroom, they are our children for those 100 minutes. We show them care and tough love and watch them grow.  While we are teaching under the label of AP American Studies, we have all levels in our classes. We have those students who are naturally gifted, so we work to challenge them further. We have students who struggle, and we work to keep them growing on an individual level. We have students who want to be invisible, and we work to show them, “hey, we see you.” We have students who want to be seen, and we work to show them, “And we see you too.” 
  2. We have mutual respect for each other. My teaching partner is well versed in his subject matter, just as I am well versed in mine. He has experiences in life that are different from mine. And I honestly appreciate seeing life through that lens. And this girl right here has had different experiences than he has, and I’d like to think he appreciates seeing life through my lens as well. 
  3. We compromise and run ideas by each other. Could I dig into ten minutes of your time, so they can finish working with this skill? Do you think this will work? If not, why? How would you handle this situation? Did I sound okay when I addressed her about (insert situation here)? This is how I would handle this situation. You talk to her, she responds well with you. I got him, he and I have talked before. (It’s a little like professional wrestling where we tag each other in when that person is needed to help a kiddo).
  4. We communicate.  We compliment when it is deserved. We give feedback when asked or when we see something that is awry. Students often are privy to us hashing out ideas in front of them, debating issues in front of them, agreeing to disagree in front of them…and also sometimes agreeing in front of them. 
  5. And we laugh. At ourselves. (And frankly, at each other…the other person is usually laughing as well. LOL)

Team teaching can be a rewarding experience for both students and teachers alike. And like any relationship, it has give and take. But if nurtured well, it can be a teaching tool for students to learn not only content, but to also model good communication strategies in a world where shade is thrown, where politicians cannot seem to get along, and where students are searching for more examples of positive human behavior. Look, we may not be “real life Deadpools or real life Captain Amiercas” with our own movies. But honestly, there is no greater gift or power that we can bestow on our kids than a pair of teachers in a classroom that are willing to work together to  battle for them when it comes to curriculum, when it comes to their self-doubt, when it comes to their trying to figure it all out. And when it comes down to it, we would do anything for our kids, and we are lucky enough to be able to do it together. 

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Dusting Off Strategies To Give Kids Time to Write Without Strings Attached

When I began teaching over 20 years ago, teaching writing in middle school was easy. I faithfully greeted my students every day with an inspiring quote or life question shining from the overhead projector, and my students wrote informal responses. This type of writing instruction didn’t require much planning, was typically not graded, and was only loosely related to the curriculum guide (gasp!).  And yet kids wrote. They wrote daily, and they wrote a lot. They filled their notebook pages with their opinions, reactions, life-experience stories, and their thinking. I know if I ventured into my basement, I could find resources from the good ol’ days with daily journaling prompts in the form of card decks, flip books, and spirals. And I’m pretty confident I would still think–even after all this time–that the prompts were thought-provoking, student responses would be entertaining to read, and the exercise would help me get to know my students as people. So, why are they covered in dust? 

I think a shift in my thinking happened when standardized test prep became the focus of curriculum design. With the exception of my first few years of teaching, I have certainly felt pressure to meet the expectations that my contemporary middle school writers not only be exposed to crafting expository and argument writing, but be really, really good at it! So good at it  that they can write on demand in high-stakes situations. For at least a decade, professional development has been focused on strategies for helping kids develop skills to explain and argue with support consistently. There has been no mention (ever?) about writing for fun and the purpose that, too, could serve. In fact, in the early years of this instructional shift, teachers were somewhat shamed if they engaged their kids in anything other than writing with an academic purpose. Who would have time for that!? Like many other really great initiatives, writing for pleasure took a back seat to writing to explain, learning to support thinking with textual evidence, and learning to synthesize information and form unique arguments. Over time, I became so consumed with other kinds of writing that I kind of forgot about personal writing. 

What a shame.

Sometimes, writers need to write without a scripted purpose, and just experience the joy of writing. Writing can have intrinsic rewards, but too few young people know what that can feel like because all their experiences as writers are with very challenging genres. When kids are led to explore and flush out their thinking through low-stakes writing, there are powerful lessons in intentionality that occur. And those lessons can transfer, making personal writing just as important to growing writers as any other genre.

I’m bringing a sprinkle of personal writing back to my classroom this year. I’m going to teach it like any other genre, keeping focused on its flexible structure, its freedoms, its value. As I research personal writing as a genre and think about ideas for mini-lessons, I am finding many more benefits than I originally anticipated. I can’t wait to open this door for students. 

In planning my approach to incorporating personal writing back into my existing writing routines, I want my student writers to understand this core writing vision:

  • I am a writer; I have things to say and they are of value
  • I can reflect and revise my thinking anytime, any place
  • My writing is worthy of reading

My mini-lessons will focus on personal writing as a genre, and how it compares to other genres. Writing does not always have to be for academic purposes. Personal writing is a safe space to:

  • Create
  • Sort out
  • Catalog
  • Practice
  • Express

In general, writing instruction looks much, much different than it did back when I started teaching, and my personal instructional design has evolved since my early days of teaching. I have gotten better at teaching difficult writing genres, and I am so proud of how my students’ voices shine through in all types of writing. That change was for the better; I do not want to compromise any of the high-caliber thinking my writers accomplish in the current design. When students can effectively craft expository, informational and argumentative writing pieces that capture their thinking, they hold power. I want that for them; I want them to be confident in any writing task life throws at them. But let’s not forget writing can also be therapeutic for the mind: a safe place to sort out thinking, explore ideas, and let out emotions–and I want them to have that kind of pen power, too. As I continue to learn as their writing teacher, I figure the more tools I have in my toolbox, the better. So, I’m going to dust off some of my old journaling prompts and do some vintage writing exercises, allowing kids to discover that writing can be personal–just for them–sometimes.


Settling into a New Space

This year began a whole list of new changes in my professional career. After teaching 8th grade Language Arts for the past six years, I made the choice to move down a level to teach 7th. A lot of change accompanied that switch — even more than I realized. But as I settle into this new school year, I’m realizing this could have been one of the best things I’ve done in my teaching career. One of those changes was moving up to the 7th grade Language Arts wing upstairs — a nice, quiet spot!

With my new room, I really wanted to focus on how the space in my classroom is being used. I’ve tried many ways of creating positive work areas for different uses in the past six years, but this year I focused more on what the kids need — what they want. So I’ve been paying attention to where they gravitate these first three weeks. What spaces do they use? What are they asking for? What are they trying to create themselves?

We always have constraints with out given classrooms and furniture, but I’d like to think that we have the opportunity to let the kids help determine what our classrooms look like. Working with what I have, here are some things I’m excited about in my classroom this year.

A conference table. Finally! I have a designated space where I can sit with individuals and small groups in order to conference, and our support teachers can also use this as a meeting place. This table gives me the opportunity to sit across from kids in small group work, or to pull up beside them in a one-on-one conference.

A small group collaboration table. So far, this table has been really popular with kids who want a quiet space to sit together and work.

Tiny nooks throughout the room. If you didn’t know, middle schoolers are their own (weird) little people, and they love to find small alcoves to squeeze themselves into in order to find a comforting space to work. Popular spots so far are under tables and wedged between my supply cart and big cabinet!

Various types of chairs. Over the years, I’ve curated a collection of different chairs for kids to sit in. Last year, I got ride of all my “comfy” chairs, but I still have a tall chair kids like to climb into. I also got a foldable camping stool this summer that has become a popular seat for the most wiggly kids. They can move it around, and I’m not worried it will break with their constant movement.

For my own space, I like my standing work desk. I am not a sitter. I like to stand and work, so this year, I raised my work table so I have a more comfortable space for me. I also chose to use my table with wheels for this, so it’s easy to move around and give more space to kids. I need to keep it a little more organized, but so far, it’s working well!

I’m always looking for ways to utilize my space more efficiently, but so far this year, my 7th graders are finding ways to use the spaces in my room to best suit their needs. And I’m paying attention!

co-teaching · Community · Culture · Environment · Leading · Reading · Reflection

Sink or Swim


It was an early morning this past June, and I was scrambling around my kitchen trying to get a breakfast casserole out of the oven, coffee started in my brand new coffee pot, and the apple fritters out of my eye line so that I still had some when everyone got there. It had been a couple of weeks since we all had seen each other–Amber had just gotten back from a Disney cruise, Michael was returning from a wedding in the Dominican Republic, and Sarah had been climbing in West Virginia, so we had lots to get caught up on together. 

When everyone arrived, there were lots of smiles, hugs, and “I’ve missed you!”s. After about twenty minutes of lively discussion (which involved stuffing our faces and guzzling coffee like pros), we settled into what we came to do–discuss standards based grading.

But before we talk about standards based grading (in another blog post!!), I want to talk about something that can sometimes be overlooked or forgotten about unless nurtured properly–teacher friendships. We’ve all seen the quotes on Pinterest or other teaching blogs about how there’s no way we can survive the days or years without teacher friends. But in all seriousness, this couldn’t be more true.  

As a child and teenager, I was a competitive swimmer. While swimming is an individual sport, we always practiced, traveled, and bonded together as a team. We were friends both in the pool and out of the pool. While I swam in the water by myself (unless I was in a relay), and finished the race by myself, without the extra push from my teammates during practice, I wouldn’t have been as successful as a swimmer. My team was with me all the time, requesting and expecting 100% from me every single day.  

It is the same with teaching. 

Working with a Professional Learning Community (PLC) is key for success for both teachers, and students as learners. I learn something new every day from my colleagues that helps me in my classroom whether it’s small, like an organizational tweak to my classroom library, or big, like discussing how to overhaul our entire grading system.

My PLC is definitely my support system at school. I don’t just get teaching advice from them; I also get life advice. We are all different ages and offer each other very different perspectives, which is what we want our kids to be doing when they meet in small groups. If I come to work in a sour mood because of a meltdown my 4yo son had that morning, they know that I need a few minutes of space before they come to hear the crazy story (It’s never simple, is it?!), offer their support, and give me some motivation for the day. My workload, both at work and at home, seems much more manageable when I can talk to others about it and get some valuable feedback to move forward, much like what our learners expect from us. 

I don’t know about you, but I’m a procrastinator. I also don’t like letting people down. Knowing that my PLC is relying on me to get my work done on time, and my wanting to contribute to the group, motivates me to get my part of our workload done. These friendships have also pushed me to challenge myself to tackle some work that I would otherwise avoid doing, or try to find something someone already uses that may not be great for my learners, but already completed, thus easier. They are my thinking partners and really push me to be the best version of myself that I can be for my learners.

Let’s face it–sometimes we spend more time with our colleagues than we do with our own families. When we are happy with the people we interact with every day, it makes going to work and being happy at work easier, which then makes for a happy workplace for everyone. I want to be happy where I work. I want to feel comfortable and welcomed there. I also want to be able to prevent teacher burnout. In order to do that, I need to have people I can talk and connect to. 

I certainly don’t think all of your work friends need to be in your PLC. I’m lucky enough to have friends at my building in every department. I’m even luckier that I have gained some really solid friendships over the years from the three buildings I was in before moving to Ohio–friendships that have remained even after I moved out of state. I’m grateful for the multiple views and perspectives offered to my teaching and also to my life. 

At the end of the day, we want to be successful at our work for our learners. At its most basic level, teaching, like swimming, is an individual activity. But to be a successful teacher, you need that extra push in practice, a cheer in the meet(ing), and for someone to say that your craft inspired them. Teaching is a team sport. So go find your team! 


Lucky to be Learning

Tomorrow is the start of the second full week of school and the beginning of my ninth day of the school year as an assistant principal. I knew this year was going to be a year of learning, and I am realizing that the learning is going to be constant – something new every day and on some days something new every minute! 

A few things I have learned so far: 

A team is essential! 

I feel so lucky to be a part of such an amazing administration team. Each of us has different strengths, and I am excited about the wonderful things that lie ahead of us! 

Questions are necessary!

I have so many questions! This school year marks my 20th year as a member of my school district and although I have been thinking about joining the administration for a long time I still have so many questions and so much to learn. Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to patiently answer each and every one of my questions! 

Everyone needs someone who will be her vault! 

Knowing that I have a trusted confidant who truly knows and understands me, listens without judgment, provides words of encouragement, and roots for my success one-hundred percent has been a lifesaver. (You know who you are and I am forever grateful to have you as a colleague and more importantly as a friend!) 

And  more importantly: 

Getting accustomed to carrying and using a walkie talkie takes time. 

Where do I clip a walkie? How I am supposed to carry a walkie, my phone and the coffee that is essential to start my day? And will I ever not have the desire to end each conversation with 10-4? 

Never wear new shoes on the first day of school! 

Welcoming approximately 1400 students to school on the first day results in 16,000 steps. I  learned that doing this in new shoes results in two extremely painful blisters. So no more new shoes on the first-day of school for me (no matter how cute they are).  

But most importantly:

I have learned that I am so very lucky to be starting this journey as an administrator AT THE RIGHT SCHOOL, AT THE RIGHT TIME, and SURROUNDED BY THE RIGHT PEOPLE.


Getting the Right Books in Students’ Hands

One of the perks of my job as a literacy coach is to have the opportunity to move between buildings and among classrooms during the first week of school. It is such an invigorating time as students get to know where their lockers are (and how to operate those darn locks), as teachers stand ready in the doorway to answer questions and to greet students warmly, and as reading and writing communities are being built “brick by brick”.

IMG_9850.JPGOne of thliteracy-building activities our students experienced within the first five days of school was the chance to hold books in their hands and to think about what they like to read and what to put on their “to read” list. There were book tastings, book passes, speed dating with books, book gallery walks, and books talks taking place all over! There were read alouds starting on day one and #classroombookaday routines starting from the get-go.I’m so proud that it is obvious that our teachers value reading and know that children need to find books that are right for them.

A goal for me this year is to challenge teachers to think about what books are on their IMG_9834.JPGbookshelves and are being shared with students in order to support ALL students finding books that are right for them. I was privileged to attend NerdcampMI this summer and to hear from so many authors, teachers, and librarians who were champions for children and for diverse and inclusive book titles in our school libraries and classrooms. I wish that I could channel Laurie Halse Anderson or Jason Reynolds or Jillian Heise or Kathy Burnette or Mr. Schu and rally support and enthusiasm for inclusive books.

I think that teachers are starting to think about what types of texts they surround students with. I think that Rudine Sims Bishop’s “Windows, Mirrors, and Sliding Glass Doors” message has been shared (and if you haven’t read her work, you should!). I think it is still a work in progress for some of us. I think we need all the support we can get which leads me to some suggestions for teachers and educators:

  • READ – as much as you can, as many different genres as you can
  • Find the support you need – share titles with colleagues and teammates, ask for recommendations, set a reading goal for yourself, turn off the TV and put down the phone (yep, I said it!)
  • Get into the Twitterverse – #weneeddiversebooks, #buildyourstack, #pb10for10, #DisruptTexts, #DiversityJedi, @jasonreynolds83, @halseanderson, @jarredamato, @angiecthomas, @SaraKAhmed, @Tolerance_org, @debreese, @MrSchureads and that’s just to name a few!
  • Ask yourself some tough questions and encourage others to do the same:
    • Do the books in my classroom library represent ALL of my students?
    • Are there any voices missing from my bookshelves or any voices that overpower all the others?
    • Are there any voices missing from the whole class texts that I teach? Are all the shared text voices the same?
    • How diverse is my own professional development?
    • Are the mentor texts I use for writing representative of many different voices?

Little of what I’ve shared is original thinking, but I feel like I could talk about the importance of getting books into students’ hands for hours including being sure that all students find books that speak to them or that will make a difference in their life one day. 

So, teachers, keep hosting book tastings and speed-dating and asking students to create “to-read” lists! But, also take a look at what books make it into those piles and onto those shelves – we owe it to our learners to do that.

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For more comprehensive thinking about diversity and inclusiveness in classroom libraries, please visit:

We Need Diverse Books

NCTE Build Your Stack

Jillian Heise’s website

Article from EdWeek


**Thanks to Jen Hamilton (KMS) and Katie Estepp (DMS) for inviting me in to watch their students and take pictures. Also thanks to Stephanie Stinemetz for posting pics on Twitter of the book stacks in the 8th-grade classrooms at Davis!