Monthly Archives: January 2015

Give it a whirl, girl!

Red bicycleOne of the things I love most about living in the Metro DC area is the sheer number of academic, cultural, and political activities taking place all the time. Thanks to a small feature in the local paper, I found out about an annual event called the Women’s Legislative Briefing hosted by the Montgomery County Commission for Women. It took place last Saturday and featured city, county, and state elected officials, plus leaders from organizations related to women’s issues.

The keynote speaker for the event was Ann Lewis, a Senior Adviser in the Hilary Clinton Runs For President Campaign: Part I. Here’s the short version of Ms. Lewis’s biography: smart, witty, prone to sarcasm, advocate for female power, involved in American-Israeli relations and (this one is my favorite), she once taught a class called “The West Wing and The Real World.” Here are a few of the most thought-provoking points from her address:

  • “If you know history, you know women weren’t ‘given’ the right to vote.”
  • “The fight for suffrage began with a meeting.”
  • “The right to vote is a fundamental building block of democracy.”
  • “Social Security is more important for women. They are more likely to earn less and live longer, and less likely to have retirement benefits.”
  • “When women bring our life experiences to the table, we get more common sense policies to build healthy communities.”
  • “More women in leadership is better for businesses.”
  • “More women among decision makers mean better decisions are made.” (New York Times article she reference called “Why Some Teams are Smarter Than Others.” An article from The Atlantic that I found is called “The Secret to Smart Groups: It’s Women.”)

To my male readers (shoutout to my husband!), I feel compelled at this point to say, don’t be afraid. Neither the WLB nor this post is about putting down men. I also don’t like to play the victim. What I really liked about this event was that the message wasn’t “replace men, they’re not doing a good job,” it was “women have points of view that matter and that aren’t being represented by women themselves.”

One particular fact was emphasized over and over again: women constitute only 19% of the recently sworn-in Congress. In the Senate, we’re talking 20 out of 100, and in the House of Representatives you’ll find 84 ladies mingling with 351 men. That’s what we at the University of Florida would call a Sausage Fest. Not sure that phrase would be acceptable in the Hallowed Halls, but this is my blog, so there it is.

All the discussion about women in government also made me think about women in education. How does gender play a role in educational leadership?

Here are some statistics I researched regarding women in education, specifically:

  • Of the 4 million teachers in America, 76% are female.
  • As reported in the 2010-2011 Schools and Staffing Survey published by the U.S. DOE, about 52% of administrators are female overall: 64% in primary, 42% in middle, and 30% in high school.
  • In the “2013 Superintendents Salary and Benefits Study” published by The School Superintendents Association, “respondents arrayed by gender favor males over females in a slightly more than three to one ratio.” Those numbers were similar to 2012 and 2010 surveys.
  • Nationally, the average number of women on school boards is 44%, according to the National School Board Association. That’s not a bad number when compared to the others, but then I found a recent article on Education Week reporting on a study that basically says women on these board don’t speak up nearly as much as men.

Clearly, females still aren’t the majority or even the equivalent in key legislative or decision-making positions, whether we’re talking government or education.

Now, I’m not a sociologist, economist, or really any other –ist, so if you’re looking for a study to support the following opinions, I don’t have that for you. I’m an –er: blogger, teacher, homemaker, mother.  Here’s what my observations and experience lead me to foretell: A rising number of women will rock the world of education in the near future.

Women my age ruled our high schools and colleges. We took on leadership positions in our jobs. But then we all started having kids and “me” time turned into “feed me, cloth me, play Frozen with me” time. We had to cut back or hold back. We did not lean forward. We are too busy trying not to keel over.

For my part, I know I’m lucky to have been able to stay at home with my kids. I would never change my choice. But sometimes I have the overwhelming desire to put on my black pants (not of the yoga ilk) and sit down at a conference table with other adults and make some shit happen. I don’t think I’m the only woman in her early 30’s who feels that way either. I think women around my age will, in the next 10 years, start stepping into the ring in much larger numbers than we’ve previously seen.

Does this mean I’m going to just sit back and wait for my kids to grow up? No. I do not ascribe to the “Waiting for the World to Change” coda. (Seriously, John Mayer. Let’s play hide-and-seek. You hide, and I’ll come get you when the rest of us change the world for you.)

After attending the WLB, I realized I need to do more. I can write letters and editorials. I can speak at school board meetings and local hearings. I can support other women leaders whose beliefs align with my own. Councilwoman Ingrid Turner asked us how much we spent on our purses we had with us. “$200? $300? $500? Take that bag money and commit to funding a person to further your cause.” Even though my Macy’s clearance-bin purse seeeriously lowers the numerical average of this point, I agree with her message.

It’s hard to be an advocate for your profession when the demands of your job leave you little time to do much else. (I can eat lunch, run 100 copies, and go to the bathroom in 20 minutes. That’s a skill, people.) I think that’s one reason why teachers, the majority of which are women, feel so frustrated. But what we lack in time, we make up for in numbers.

If every over-burdened, over-worked female teacher was able to spend 1 hour a month on an activity related to advocacy, our efforts would equal 3,040,000 hours each month. Can three million hours a month change the world?  I think it can. John Mayer might be able wait, but I’m more a Newsies “Seize the Day” kind of person.

Before WLB, I’d never heard of the 6 P’s statement: “Proper preparation prevents piss poor performance.” Councilwoman Helen Holton, who has been on the Baltimore City Council since 1995, gave us a more positive principle to follow: “Preparation and planning produces powerful progress for people.”

I admire and am inspired by that idea, so I’ve created a 6 Ps Planner for myself and for others to use in their advocacy efforts. It’s a place to organize information, specifically all the details that derail us and seem like obstacles at the outset. The 6 P’s Planner can be used as a reference sheet, a reminder, and a record of our efforts.

In 1850, women were ridiculed for wearing pants underneath their skirts, and the rise in popularity of bicycles in 1880 meant the fashion continued to catch on. Songs were actually composed about this revolutionary moment, including one called “Eliza Jane.” The first four lines read, “Eliza Jane she had a wheel, its rim was painted red; / Eliza had another wheel that turned inside her head. / She put the two together, she gave them both a whirl, /And now she rides the Parkway sides a Twentieth Century Girl.”

Maybe Eliza Jane received the first “Go, girl!” I don’t know. But I’m ready to put my wheel to use and give it all a whirl. I hope you’ll join me.

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Tone-up using the State of the Union

The President’s State of the Union address is tonight, which presents a great opportunity to engage students in the on-goings and up-comings of national policy with a text that lends itself perfectly to the analysis of tone, diction, persuasive appeals, and other rhetorical devices.

If you can, engage students in the live event. Use Twitter, Blackboard, or other ways of connecting to your students to create a group record of the rhetorical devices students notice in the speech. The White House has created a specific page of their website for the State of the Union, on which people can watch a special enhanced version “featuring live data, graphics, and charts that explain the issues and policies he’ll be discussing in the speech.” Partisanship be damned – that’s just cool.

Another resource is The Atlantic, which has an article about the importance of Pres. Obama’s tone tonight. They also have a phenomenal feature on the Language of the State of the Union with lots of graphs (visual analysis opportunity!) to enrich the written information.

If you don’t have a means of connecting tonight or want to do more, you can analyze the speech tomorrow or later in the week by printing out the text and giving each student a copy to read, annotate, and then use for your lesson.

I posted my chart for activities to use with speeches in an earlier entry, but here it is again: TeacherSoup Activities for Using Speeches

Here’s a specific, simple lesson: give students copies of the speech to read and annotate (either in class or at home); in the meantime, you divide the speech into even sections. Then, get students into groups of 3-4 and let them choose the section they would like to analyze specifically for tone. I’ve created a graphic organizer that you can give to each group on which they can record their observations: TeacherSoup Analyzing Tone in Speeches. After the groups are finished, they can present their findings by explaining their organizer on the document camera or overhead projector. Hold the rest of the class accountable by asking them to add the annotations to their own copies of the speech and collecting the speeches for a quick classwork credit check.

Let’s get students thinking, reading, and engaging in the issues that will affect their adult lives. Enjoy!

Change Quiz-No’s to Quiz-Yes’s

For the first several months of my teaching career, I struggled with finding a method of assessing students’ at-home reading assignments. I couldn’t seem to create multiple choice questions hard enough for the kids just reading Cliff’s Notes and not so hard as to resort to asking about minutia. I discovered the foundation of my answer in Carol Jago’s fantastic book, With Rigor For All (now updated as a second edition).

Before I explain, here’s a downloadable sample for To Kill a Mockingbird: TeacherSoup TKM RQ Ch. 18-19 . It ain’t flashy, but it does its job well. (A motto I use for many things in life: cars, kids’ diapers, my hair.)

For the first reading quiz, I take extra time to explain to students the format, rules, and my expectations for their answers. The rules are simple:

1) Students create a four-square box on their paper. Some kids fold their papers and use the creases as their lines, some kids draw boxes. Either way is fine with me. There’s something about having each answer in its own quadrant that makes reading the answers fast and easy. (Another motto I use for many thing in life: cars, dinner, my hair. Your mama.)  Students should also write the title of the quiz at the top of their paper.

2) I always give students six questions and they can choose four questions to answer. Don’t you hate it when you read something and someone else asks you a question about the one part you can’t remember? So do kids! I wanted to hold kids accountable, but not punish them for lacking a photographic memory. I was also selfishly motivated. Four short-answer questions takes time, but not an unreasonable amount of time.

3) All answers must be written in complete sentences.

With short-answer questions, I could get at the how, why, and what (which normally indicate a deeper understanding of content), as opposed to the when or where (which typically reply on details or basic facts). These questions made students think about their reading and could preclude further whole-class discussion. I could also ask students to identify the speaker and context of a quotation and explain its significance. Every so often, I would ask students to draw a picture and label the details (one of Jago’s ideas).

The four-question format simplified the scoring for each answer: 25 points means you thoroughly answered the question; 20 means you proved you understood the reading but left out an important point; 15 means you read but perhaps forgot some aspects or didn’t fully understand; 10 means your answer shows a partial understanding (scoring lots of “10″s was usually indicated a student was simply skimming, reading Cliff’s Notes, or only completing part of the reading); 5 points means you didn’t read but maybe lucked into getting credit for some small detail; zero means totally wrong or left blank.

When students finish, they turn in their work and start a new assignment or get a head start on that night’s reading. If a kid isn’t writing anything down, that’s a good opportunity for me to have a one-on-one conference about why he hadn’t read or why she didn’t understand the reading and discuss how we can solve the problem next time.

I gave my students a reading quiz nearly every day following a reading assignment. The quizzes were meant to reward students for doing the reading by giving them the opportunity to prove their work and also to underscore the importance of the reading. How could I teach the book if the kids weren’t reading the book? In that vein, I also used the quizzes to guide my instruction. (“Why did half of the class miss the question about the fire at Miss Maudie’s house?”) If I decided not to give a quiz, I didn’t tell the kids beforehand; for the next quiz, I would just combine two night’s worth of reading.

These quizzes really reveal who knows the text, who’s struggling, and who’s trying to yank a teacher’s chain. I’ve been known to write “Don’t waste my time” on a few quizzes that were full of Grade A Horse Manure. Alternately, I’ve congratulated kids on answers that taught me something.

Whether you teach English/Language Arts or not, I hope these ideas assist you in your teaching and your students’ learning.



“The Test” provides insight and provokes further questions

Since Tuesday, I’ve been reading a new book called The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed With Standardized Testing – But You Don’t Have to Be, by Anya Kamenetz.  I ordered it after noticing in the newspaper that she would be speaking at a nearby bookstore called Politics and Prose – an event I attended Thursday night. Kamenetz spoke briefly about the book and how it came to be, then opened the floor to questions. I would have enjoyed hearing more about her experiences researching and writing the book – a “behind the scenes” look at her writing process – or  alternately, where she envisions or hopes the discussion will go from here. Still, I’m really glad I had the opportunity to meet her in person, ask a question, and have my book signed. (Meeting some of her colleagues from NPR, where she is the Lead Education Blogger, was an added bonus for this public-radio-loving nerd.)

The Test cover pic

I’m halfway through The Test, but I’ve already learned fascinating and important information regarding the politics behind the test and the tidal wave of money flowing into testing and test preparation. I asked Ms. Kamenetz at the book talk whether she had discovered in her research to what degree actual teachers were involved in creating the tests or their questions. She answered that the tests were mainly created by psychometric specialists – that is, people who specialize in test creation. Ok, but I’m still left wondering – what is the background of the test-creators? Do they have degrees or experience in K-12 education? Is their work assessed, tracked, and used for their evaluations as test-question creators? Do the same people write questions every year or do the companies (mainly just Pearson) hire new employees? Where is the transparency on the creation of these tests?

I spent 7 years teaching in Florida, so I’ve administered dozens of standardized tests, dozens of times: computer-based reading tests (several throughout the year), FCAT, FCAT Writes, SAT, and AP practice tests, to name a few. When you’re in the thick of it, you are annoyed at some tests and accept others. You don’t have time to research the validity of the tests, to examine their origins, their makers, or their backers. You’re cutting down each tree that’s planted in front of you, without the time to climb to a vantage point and view the forest.

I’ve been a supporter of using test scores as part of a teacher’s evaluation. I still am. I’ve also been a critic of the kinds of testing currently in use and the degree to which these scores are used in a teacher’s evaluation. I still am – now even more so.

In The Test, Ms. Kamenetz has given readers a lot of information, some possible answers, and perhaps most importantly, a great deal of questions left to explore. I’ll leave the review writing up to the professionals (The Boston Globe, Kirkus Review), and simply say I highly recommend this book to teachers, parents, students, school board members, and politicians.

I look forward to doing more reading, research, and writing on this topic and sharing my thoughts and findings with you.

Me at The Test talk



Welcome, new Congresspeople. Speech! Speech!

House chamberToday was a day of firsts for me. It was the first time I drove my daughter to preschool. It was the first time my husband realized halfway there that preschool was cancelled. It was the first snow day for my daughter. It was the first time my daughter went sledding. And it was the first time I went sledding. (I consider it a personal accomplishment that I didn’t eat it in front of all the other kids. Like I did my first time skiing. I’m from Florida, you know.)

Today was a first for a lot of politicians too. Freshmen congresswomen and congressmen were sworn in today and took their place in American political history. I admit, I’m jealous. When I was in 5th grade, two high school guys visited my class and gave a presentation about careers. As an adult, I realize this activity had “extra credit” written all over it, but at the time, I was impressed. When they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I excitedly and sincerely answered, “President of the United States.” They smiled. Again, as an adult, I realize now their smiles were based on their knowledge of the far-fetched nature of my aspiration. As a 10 year old, I felt belittled. And pissed. I didn’t have the vocabulary at the time – those lessons would be learned the following year on the bus  - but I’m pretty sure my expression read, “Watch me, a-holes.”

Turns out, they were probably right. I say probably, because you never know! If people live to be 100 now-a-days, I may still have a shot. While awaiting my own Town Hall meetings, I’ve turned my own political interests outward and tried to emphasize the importance of intellectual citizenship in my teaching. I want my students to think, research, analyze, listen, and engage in their government. I want them to be aware of the manipulations, pratfalls, fallacies, and steaming piles of horse-manure that dot the great American political arena, so they can find people and ideas to genuinely support.

One of my favorite genres of texts to use with students is speeches. They’re often examples of powerful, poetic prose, and they serve to inform students of either the past or present. The chart I’ve created and included for you is just a place to start when considering how to use speeches in your classrooms. The activities are suitable for middle and high school students of any level and align with multiple Common Core State Standards. Some of my best teaching moments happened during these activities, so I hope they are equally meaningful to you and your students.


TeacherSoup Activities for Using Speeches

Score big with verbs in sports

Ice_Hockey_sharks_ducksBefore I met my husband, Oliver, my knowledge of hockey was limited to what I learned from Disney’s Mighty Ducks movies. (You mean real hockey players don’t actually quack?) A confession: While dating, I actually brought a book to the first hockey game I attended with Oliver. And read it. It’s a testament to his love for me that he didn’t dump me right then and there. (He says it was close.)

This morning I stumbled across a story entitled “Hockey’s Doc Emrick and His 153 Verbs.” A story that combines my home-grown appreciation for hockey and my innate love of language? Quack!

As sports writer Frank Deford explains, Doc Emrick is a long-time announcer for hockey who is respected for his work by fans around the world. Deford writes, “he is that rare play-by-play man who is both an authority on the game and a connoisseur of the language. The eloquence he brings to such a bombastic activity is the sort of giant contradiction that even overwhelms irony.” (So many great words in Deford’s own writing.)

In 2013, someone wrote down 53 different words Emerick used to say “pass.” A different fan wrote down all the verbs Emerick used to announce the USA-Canada game in the 2014 winter Olympics – 153, to be exact.

The story got me thinking. Kids love sports. Teachers love great writing. Great writing loves a variety of verbs. Quack, quack, quack!


Most Likely Chefs: English teachers, Physical Education teachers, or Journalism teachers

Variety #1

  1. Play the NPR story for students and show them the lists of words.
  2. Watch 2-5 minutes of a sports video – could be the high school team, a college team, or a movie scene (G, PG, or Kosher, of course).
  3. Before hitting play, ask students to write down all of the verbs they think of while watching the action of the clip.
  4. At the conclusion of the clip, compile a class list on the document camera or whiteboard of all the verbs they wrote down.
  5. Watch the clip again, allowing students to raise their hand to pause the video and add their commentary.
  6. Possible assignment: Ask students to select their own 2-5 minute clip for narration. If the technology is available, students can create their own play-by-play audio with the selected video. The clip does not necessarily have to be sports-related, as long as it has action (i.e. a fashion runway show. NOT Victoria Secret’s.)
  7. Long-term goal: Students keep a running list of the action verbs to use in their own writing. The teacher actively reminds students to refer to their list and add to it.

Variety #2

  1. Play the NPR story for students and show them the lists of words.
  2. Bring in copies of articles from ESPN magazine or other sports-related texts. Let students choose which article they’d like to read.
  3. Before they begin reading, ask students to highlight any action verbs they find. Also, ask them to star or underline any parts they believe to be an example of good writing.
  4. After students are done (or the next day, if you give that step as homework), compile a class list of the verbs they found.
  5. Ask students to create a simple t-chart on their paper. One side should say “Verb” and the other should say “Effect.” Ask students to pick five of the verbs and, in the “Effect” column, explain how the verb choice affected the text. (Push them beyond anything banal like “the words creates an image.” Right. But why that image? How does it connect to or affect the meaning, tone, or purpose of the text?)
  6. Next, ask students to replace their five chosen verbs and replace them with others they select from the class list that would also make sense in their article. Add the new five words to their t-chart and explain how those new choices affect and/or change the meaning from the original words.
  7. Finally, if there’s time or as a follow-up activity, engage students in discussion by asking them to share a part they identified as great writing, and (this is the important part) ask them to explain why the writing should be considered great. Did others identify the same moment? Why? How can we use these techniques in our writing?
  8. Long-term goal: Students keep a running list of the class’s action verbs to use in their own writing. The teacher actively reminds students to refer to their list and add to it.

Great connoisseurs of language are out there in every field, on every field, and apparently on ice too. Happy New Year’s Eve, be safe, and enjoy!