Sunday, June 26, 2016


As a teacher that takes their summers off to rejuvenate, I often find that getting to rejuvenation sometimes take some magic to get started.

I reflect on what went wrong during the past year. I reflect on what went great the past year.  I reflect on what I wish I did more of and less of the past year.  While I am reflecting, my emotions go on a rollercoaster ride which in itself, is stressful.  When I become aware enough to take a step back and realize what I am needlessly doing to myself, I finally get to the point that I can begin my rejuvenation.

To me, rejuvenation means clearing my head of all things education.  I need to purge my negative and positive stress from the school year.  I need to cleanse myself of all things school. I wish I could say that this was easy for me, but having a heavily involved and invested teacher as a wife, and since my wife and I devote 24 hours a day to our students and school during the school year, it is a struggle to stop my teacher mind and find my own personal peace.

I celebrate this week, the official coming of my personal peace.  I was able to sit in my back yard with complete silence with the exception the oversized poplar trees blowing in the cool wind which makes the sound of bacon frying (I'm a vegetarian, but I remember this sound).

This peace allowed me to reconnect with myself.  This magic time for me was like one of those Magic Erasers that my wife uses to clean every stain on the planet.  It erased the stress, the obsessive thinking and planning, the negatives and the positives.  I was allowed to simply be.  That is how I rejuvenate. I simply see and exist with an appreciation for the moment, in the moment.

I am reminded of a psychological therapeutic method of Mindfulness that comes directly from Zen Buddhism.  I meditated within the moment recognizing only what is in front of me.  What I see, what I hear, what I smell, what I feel.

I have noticed since, the school stuff and real life comes up all too often, but I am finding it more and more easy to become mindful as the days pass.

This is my rejuvenation. I am here and will appreciate it.


Sunday, June 5, 2016

Throwing darts at student education.

At a Parent-Teacher conference last year, I was meeting with a parent.  He is a great father and I was lucky enough to have all three of his daughters in my classes through the years.  We were talking about how different each girl was as a learner, as a person, and as an artist.  He went on to explain to me that he feels that the reason that all of his girls are successful in their own person way is that he let them and their personality guide their needs for parenting.

Again, all are successful  They are mature, but no stressed.  They get good grades, but not all of them make grades priority.  They are respectful and hard working.

After this meeting, I realized that this holds true for my teaching.  When I first started teaching, I was told to "throw a dart at the middle and that is where I should teach" by a veteran teacher that I respected.  That is to say, teach to the middle and hope the struggling students will eventually get it and the higher students will simply find ways to challenge themselves.

Next, I was re-introduced to the wonderful world of differentiation.  We all read the bible of this idea and there have been 100s of books published about differentiation since.  I started to equate this to throwing THREE darts instead of ONE!  I would throw one in the middle, one towards the top with some type of enhanced learning, and one towards the bottom that would be easier and less challenging for those that struggled.  Differentiation was the answer, or so I thought.

I was never satisfied with the 3-dart fix in differentiation.  I wanted to throw 25 darts at my 25 students.  Figuratively, not literally, although sometimes maybe...

I found that each student is a human being with their own needs, experiences, challenges, home-life, aspirations, etc. and none of them fit into a box.  I needed to find a way to personalize learning to each student!

I know this sounds a lot more difficult than differentiation, but it really isn't.  Personalizing learning has to start with knowing your students and trusting them.  By knowing them, you get to systematically get to know what they are needing and looking for in the educational journey.  By trusting your students, you allow them the freedom to take risks and take responsibilities!

I have found by having REAL and authentic conversations with my students, I am meeting their needs much better and on a much more realistic and wholistic basis.

Something to think about.

Moving beyond emotions.

Emma was that 7th grade student that came into my class with a chip on her shoulder.  The twisted face and body posture was that of anger and repulsion.  She answered questions in short, one word bites. Emma seemed to thrive on her hatred of the world.  She was looking for a fight with someone or something and this made me uncomfortable on a couple of fronts.  First, I really wasn't looking forward to a fight in or around my class.  Second, I have encountered students like this before on many levels and they are not easy learners.  In fact, they tend to be the type of learner that power struggle with teachers to get out of work and make excuses for their lack of learning.

I liked Emma.  There was an obvious soft side to her and I knew there was a story behind her anger and hardened front that she portrayed.  To help her to be a success, and for me to be a success, I needed to break through the exterior to truly be her teacher. I knew it might mean that she would push me away at times, but I would be patient and wait for the right time to reach her readiness to learn.

I had a plan!

Instead of meeting her with a power struggle of my own, I would play with her anger a bit and when I saw my opportunity, I would sneak some teaching and learning in.

My approach:

I decided to meet Emma where she was each day.  I would walk by her and notice her mood and put a name to it.  For example, if she seemed angry, I would say, "having an angry day today."  If she seemed annoyed, I would say, "annoying day today." If for some reason she appeared happy, I would say, "wow, happy day today."

At first, all I would get was dirty looks.  Every time I spoke, Emma would give me a dirty look.  Eventually, as I approached her, she would give me a dirty look before I even said anything.  I think the break through happened when she would predict what I was going to say and she would beat me to my recognition of her mood.

Next, I started imitating her facial expressions without saying anything.  Emma didn't like this at first, but eventually, she would look at me and say, "stop!"  What I noticed is that when she would tell me to stop, Emma would always have a smile on her face as if she was caught and I was seeing through her mood.  It was at this point that I felt the door had opened for me to sit down and actually have a REAL conversation with Emma.

I sat down with her and asked if she was okay.  Emma seemed confused as to what I was talking about.  I reminded her about her facial expressions and body language.  Emma looked down and said that I was the first teacher to ever notice her.  I reminded her that she argues with all of her teachers so I was positive that her other teachers noticed her.  She went on to explain that she didn't feel important enough for anyone to take the time to care about her at school and at home.  Her entire life, according to Emma, had been about conflict.  As Emma explained her life at that moment, it was clear that she didn't know what to do with someone that noticed her and wanted her to be a success.

I then knew what I needed to do to move forward.  I needed to show Emma that she could be a success in small bites.  I found that little successes were easier for her to attain and much easier for her to handle as authentic.  I would recognize something that she did well each day and bring her attention to it.  I would write notes of encouragement on her assessments focusing on what she did correctly much more so that what she had incorrect. We worked like this from October until the end of the school year in May. She had gone from silent looks off arrows through my heart to small smiles and quiet conversations between classes.  Her grades went from straight Ds to straight Bs by the end of May.  On the last day of school, I even got a high five from Emma.

Unfortunately, the generalization of this intervention was minimal as Emma continued to get into arguments with other teachers, staff, and students.  She continued to get involved in Middle School Drama with other girls which caused her many consequences.  I had hoped that there might be some transfer to other areas of her school world, but at least she had one part of her day that she could look forward to and relax her tension.

As Emma starts 8th grade next school year, I am hopeful that she will mature using some of the positivity that we realized together and can ultimately transfer this to her new teachers.

Connection is so important to our students.  A student's mood has to be in a good place in order for them to think or to learn.  We cannot simply yell at a students and force them to learn.  Thought requires emotional space.  It is often our job to help the students to clear out the garbage so their is room for what we have to teach.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Getting comfortable

In my last post, I reflected upon my students that seemed to have learned to get by in earlier grades, but are now coming to the recognition that they are far behind in many areas and skills.  The result in Middle School tends to be acting out behaviors that mask their low academic self-esteem.

I am slowly learning from these students.  I am learning what they need, not just what works.  What some see as working is addressing the misbehavior alone through consequence and the like.  This creates a power struggle and actually gives students excuses to not invest in classwork and the class environment.

Brianna started the school year hiding.  She always wanted to sit in the back of the room.  When working in groups, she wanted to work alone.  When called on to think and consider abstract ideas, she would toss out silly answers or express that she didn't understand the question.

It was starting to become clear that she had learned that if she takes too long to answer a question, that the teacher will get tired of waiting and call on someone else.  Brianna had become an artist at diversion.  Her anti-investment behaviors were not overt, they in fact were very covert and hidden.  She did everything she could to dissolve into the mix so she would not be noticed.  It was her developed coping skills that she had perfected through the years.

There was another interesting manipulative skill that Brianna had developed.  When taking a test, she would come to me and ask me questions about the test questions.  She did this in such an artistic way that part of me believed that she really was getting it.  Unfortunately, after the test, I was in full realization that I actually took the test and she had mastered the ability to ask the right questions to get "help" from me.

I knew I had to help Brianna to recognize what she was doing before I could help her.  With the next unit, instead of watching her do nothing while the rest of the class jumped into their reading and writing, I sat next to her.  I wanted to know what she was thinking, not just about the reading, but as a human in school.

It took a while and a lot of "I don't know" and "nothing" responses before I finally got something that I can use.  Brianna said that she doesn't read and understand as fast as the rest of class so she waits until the class discusses the reading and that is how she learns.  This gave me some insight into her process, but didn't really tell me what she needed.

I knew I needed to start basic and find out what she is really capable of.  I found text of the same content, but at a much lower level.  This text was not of Brianna's expected 7th grade level, but at a third grade level.

I asked Brianna to read the text aloud to me, stopping after each sentence and explaining in her own words what the sentence was saying.  Reluctantly, she started.  The first thing that I noticed is the smile on her face.  As she read aloud, it was clear that she understood what she was reading.  Is was as if she magically became smart in her eyes.  She explained what the sentence was saying and could not wait to read the next sentence.  When we were finished with the read, I asked he to explain to me what she thought the section was saying.  She did!  Brianna actually said, "I feel smart".

I now knew that I needed to personalize her learning.  I found that this transcends every day differentiation.  Brianna needed a prescription that was taylor made for her.

We continued working this way on a daily basis with me leaving her to work independently and report her successes to me at the end of class.

The true test- Test day!

I had expected Brianna to come and visit me as she had always done during the test.  She did, but something was different.  Brianna asked me, "Is this asking about the reading that I did...", and gave a summary of her reading to make sure she was on the right track.  I was proud of her progress.  Small steps and at a much lower level, but with success and a recipe for growth.

I think my lesson learned is that my students need to realize success to overcome their low academic self-esteem.  It has to start with their self-perception as a student more so that the work itself.  I can only hope that this trend continues and that Brianna is able to self-advocate to continue her growth.

Brianna taught me more than I taught her.  I am fine with that.

No thinking, no learning?

I have come to the conclusion that the many students that struggle in my class, and other classes, have never understood how to do school.  It might seem that through the years, they have been getting through school by quietly going through the motions and doing the task...without the thinking and learning behind it.

Evidence:  These students do not like questions.  They do not like to be tested or asked to think.  They hide.  They feel pressure to "be smart" and realize that they are not as ready as they should be.  The result...behavior that detracts from learning.

I have to admit that I have witnessed this for my entire career.  For the longest time, because I wasn't looking, I was insure what was going on.  Since intentionally trying to dissect the cause and effects of this common behavior, I have been able to see all of the commonalities that lead to these behaviors.

For many, I have looked back to their performance and investment in school beginning in third grade.  What I have found...many of them start out as quiet and compliant students that seem to be doing what they were supposed to be doing.  They are on task and completing the task.  This is especially true if the task in simple as in a worksheet or fill-in-the-blank type work.  They were not the top students, nor were they really struggling to start.  The problem- They were not squeaky wheels and little attention was paid to them.  They got by.  They did the minimum and were rarely asked to think.

Fast forward to Middle School.  The same students are asked to move beyond their learned comfort zone.  They are being challenged.  These students never really grew and were fine with just getting by.  Now, they are behind.  They are behind in skills and the ability to generalize information and abilities that they should have developed while in elementary school.  They now suffer from low academic self-esteem.  They do not believe in themselves because on some level, they realize how much they have missed in academic growth and readiness to do what is expected in Middle School.

The result...Detracting behaviors that call attention away from the truth.  A diversion from realizing the realities of the situation.  They are behind and on some level they recognize it.

Who's role is it to "fix' this?  I say that I most certainly is not the role of the student.  In fact, I would guess it would be impossible for a Middle School student to be reflective enough to come up with some type of plan to remediation.  They are lost in themselves.

Coming next...

Some ideas to help these students to become comfortable where they are really at in thinking and making academic connections.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Just thinking

As I look around my classroom full of students, I often find myself wondering what exactly is going on in their heads.  I explain to the students, I read to them, I ask them to read, I ask them to write, I ask them to learn, but I have no idea what my students’ self-talk sound like.  I want to know.  I need to know.  Most important to me, I ask my students to think.  I am constantly creating formative assessments, both paper and experiential.  I may be able to know if they know what I want them to know, but I don’t know if they are truly thinking.  I need to know. 

I believe as teachers, we get caught up in having our students complete tasks that lead to learning all of the time.  These end up being effective and help to create student growth. I also believe that if thinking were at the core of what my students were doing, the level of growth would be amazing.

So…the magic questions.  The questions that might create magic if it can be answered and turned into action in a manner that is meaningful.  How can I know what my students are thinking and how they are thinking?  As well, how can I help my students to become better thinkers and help them to see value in thought?

To begin to answer my own questions, I will start with the idea of helping my students to know what thinking is.  What it looks like. Why we do it and how we get better at it.

My challenge to myself for the remainder of this school year is to simply and authentically ask my students to try to explain their thinking.  I want them to become more cognizant of what and how they think during my class.  Awareness sounds like a foundational place to begin.

My goal for next year is to create an environment in my classes that talking about our thinking is a common practice and a natural part of the flow of class.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Welcome to Mindful Literacy!

Thanks so much for joining me on my journey!  I will take us on a journey of new ideas in literacy that all starting with thinking.  I will look at current research, great new ideas, and experiments that I have encountered in my own teaching with my students and peers.

Please comment often!  Please join me in conversation and let's grow together!

Again, welcome!

Mark Levine