Poetry Friday: Motion

This year’s Nobel Prizes were announced this week – including the prize for literature to Herta Mueller, a Romanian-born German writer. She didn’t write poetry, but we selected a poem from another Nobel-prize winner, Octavio Paz. He won in 1990 and died in 1998.

by Octavio Paz

If you are the amber mare
I am the road of blood
If you are the first snow
I am he who lights the hearth of dawn
If you are the tower of night
I am the spike burning in your mind

Read the rest of the poem here…

We have our own winner to announce: the winner of our “teaching life” poetry contest in Annie Herbert. William Varner, Stenhouse editor, selected her poem Teacher’s School Dreams as the winner. Congrats, Annie!

2 comments October 9th, 2009

Poetry Friday: Strive for Knowledge and Subject to Flooding

This week’s poems about the lives of teachers come from Gayle Hobbs, who is an English teacher in California.

Strive For Knowledge
A Sonnet by Gayle K. Hobbs

To watch the students strive within their minds
And see them fill their brains with wisdom fair,
Will prove to us that this true lesson binds
The teacher to his charge with loving care.
The learning curve is greatly charged each day
By eager thoughts and enigmatic thrills,
Which, if delayed, requires an other way
Replete with strong, hard lessons full of drills.
So listen to your teachers and fair wisdom,
Who daily share their thoughts and hearts with you,
And grasp the cup of life’s education
To truly survive, and gain the treasures due.
A life lived filled beyond innate abilities
Is what we see when knowledge melds our dreams.


Subject to Flooding
by Gayle K. Hobbs

Flooded roads line through the open fields.
The rain pelts my closed windows.
Wet, foggy days full of winter’s shields
That protects my thoughts from blows.

Enchanted drops full of thoughts
Nourish the students’ abilities
And opens possible faults
Where ideas happily float free.

Many dry minds will sit today
Not a care towards their own future.
The nurturing rain needs to stay
And show those minds the simple cure.

Among these dry skeletal minds
Sit a few students who begin brooding.
These are the ones that snap the binds
And become subject to flooding.

Yet, when I arrive at work, I find
The sun has begun to peak within.
My students wither, and treacherously the grind
Is far from my fancy, and I start to… grin.

Add comment August 28th, 2009

Poetry Friday: Two poems about the life of a teacher

We have two poems this week from Annie Herbert, who is a middle school reading specialist in the Howard County Public Schools in Maryland. She sent us her poems “On Being a Literacy Coach” and “Teachers School Dreams” as part of our Poetry Friday contest.

On being a Literacy Coach

I am a tornado of no harm,
Only beauty.

I am a swirling cloud of warm and cold and debris.
I appear in stormy times and good times,
And then I go.

You may not know when or where I will need to come again.
My job is not to destruct.

My job is to move your thinking around
Rearrange it, if you will,
So you have to approach your living, your working, your interactions differently,
With fresh eyes.

You, perhaps, don’t like to see me coming.
But after time passes, when the first green sprouts begin to appear,
You understand.

Don’t take shelter from this tornado.
Watch it.  Join it.
Enjoy the process of destruction
And rebirth.

For on the other side there is a rainbow.
Goodness always prevails.
I am your tornado of no harm,
But good.

I am a tornado of ultimate beauty.
I am growth.
I am welcomed.

Teachers’ School Dreams

They begin
Too soon.
As early as mid-July.
You weren’t thinking about school.
There are endless weeks before
the real thinking begins.

Where do they come from?
Where in the mysterious thinking center
do they originate?

Is there a worry spot in our brain?
Scientists have discovered so much.
Did they discover the teacher’s worry place?

Probably not.
We keep it so well hidden.

And who studies teachers’ brains after we pass?
Michael Jackson’s they want.
But not a teacher’s.
Too easy to figure out, I guess they assume.

But still the dreams come.
Disturbing usually.
Keeping us worried long after we wake.

Wrong school.
Wrong day.
Wrong grade level.
Unexpected visitors
catching us doing human things
But not what’s on the agenda or in the curriculum.

Being teachers.
Having too much fun.
Saying things we shouldn’t.
Holding knives
even if it is an artist’s linoleum-cutting knife!

Where does all this craziness come from?
Do we need these dreams?
Is this how we clean out our worry center
when the pressure is low?

Teachers’ school dreams.
Ushering out the old.
Sweeping in, making room for the new.

Teachers’ school dreams.
Too soon.

3 comments August 7th, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: The Ongoing Pursuit of Knowledge

In Growing Readers, author Kathy Collins helps teachers lay a foundation on which children can build rich and purposeful reading lives. But to be able to support that foundation, Kathy says that teachers have to continually learn about themselves and about their students. In this week’s Quick Tip she talks about how she continues to observe and learn about her students and how she uses the support of her fellow teachers and school principal to learn about and improve her own teaching.

We teachers have a huge responsibility to know our subject matter, our students, and our teaching. These three things are always evolving, and it’s our job to keep up with the changes.

As teachers of reading, we need to know what’s going on in the field of reading beyond our district’s prevailing model. This means we have to continue to educate ourselves about the reading process and learning issues. We need to be sure our knowledge base about reading is ever-growing and that it leads us to more inquiries in our teaching. The best teachers I know never feel like they’ve mastered it, and so they keep trying to figure things out. It’s as if there’s a carrot forever dangling in front of them.

It’s helpful to talk to colleagues about our teaching. Although it may feel more comfortable and affirming to talk to like-minded colleagues, it’s also important to talk to teachers who might do things differently. Listening to those who have different ideas keeps us open-minded, and it can help us clarify, strengthen, and amend our own beliefs and practice.

I can’t emphasize enough the power of being part of a supportive network of teachers. I’ve been fortunate to be involved with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project throughout my teaching life. Lucy Calkins, the founding director, provides many different venues for teachers to come together to share ideas, study with experts, confront difficulties, and perhaps most important, to know we’re not alone.

This idea of continuing to learn about our subject matter and learning from our colleagues, of course, extends to learning about our students. I listen closely to everything my students say, especially when they don’t know I’m listening. I watch my students’ interactions with classmates and other adults throughout the day in order to add more details to the picture I have of each child. When we closely observe our students, we learn about them, of course, but we can also learn about our teaching. One of my former students was also one of my most important teachers. I noticed that Shakeem seemed reluctant to participate during lessons and class discussions. I didn’t consider him to be shy, and he was a strong student, so it seemed sort of strange that I rarely heard his voice. I talked to Shakeem’s parents about how quiet he was and how I was trying to get him to participate more. They were surprised to hear this. “He’s usually very outgoing and doesn’t seem intimidated by groups,” his parents told me, as they recounted different situations in which he had participated with enthusiasm. We were puzzled, so I began to watch closely for times when Shakeem did express his ideas in class.

I noticed that he often participated during math lessons. During literacy work, however, Shakeem was silent. He rarely contributed to a book talk or offered insight during a writing lesson. My theory was that Shakeem didn’t feel as comfortable stating his opinions on more amorphous topics as he did answering questions that had a definite right or wrong answer. My theory was that he liked the security in knowing that he was right. I felt as if I had uncovered a little project to work on in my classroom.

The project required that I not only think about Shakeem and his participation but also reflect on my teaching. If I were to encourage Shakeem and other learners like him to participate more, I would need to fine-tune certain aspects of my teaching. I realized that instead of having whole-class discussions during book talks in which the same handful of children tended to participate, I needed to provide more opportunities for my students to “turn and talk” to a partner.

For children like Shakeem, it’s not as threatening to share an opinion with a friend as it is to do so in front of the whole class, and talking to a partner also provides a venue (as well as an expectation) for children to share their thinking about books. When I have my students turn and talk, I can scoot around and listen to what they are saying, so I hear more ideas than I generally would in a whole-group discussion.

In addition to watching students as a way of reflecting on our teaching, it can be very informative to watch our teaching on videotape. As miserable as it is to see and hear myself on videotape, I try to take the high road and focus more on my teaching than my bad haircut or fashion faux pas. I look for places in my teaching where I could be more explicit or concise. I’ve also found that it can be just as informative to focus the video camera on the students in order to watch their reactions, responses, and levels of engagement as we teach.

I often ask those with more expertise to observe my teaching so that I grow as a teacher. I remember struggling with transitions with one particular class. It felt and looked like Grand Central Station when my students were going from one thing to another. There were materials everywhere, a noise level that rivaled rush hour, and more tattling than I care to remember. I decided to slow down the transitions into their smallest pieces to calm things down. After a few days, I knew it wasn’t working. I needed another pair of eyes, so I asked Liz Phillips, my principal, to help me out. (I realize how lucky I was to have the kind of principal whom I could trust to watch me in action during what I considered one of my weakest classroom moments.) Liz helped me see that in my effort to create calmer transitions by slowing them down, I was actually increasing the tension. “Pick up the pace a bit and don’t wait for stragglers. Just get the next thing started, and they’ll begin to move faster when they know you won’t be waiting for them,” she suggested. What a difference in my class in just a couple of days!

The beauty of a job like teaching is that there are so many opportunities to learn and change. Our job reinvents itself when we get a new class each fall, change grades, or develop a new curriculum. We model all day long as we teach, but perhaps the most important thing we can model is how to learn. I believe that we teachers have to be the most insatiable learners out there.

Add comment June 23rd, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Beginning to Teach

This week’s tip is not so much a tip as a story about when teaching goes wrong, when teachers struggle, when the best laid plans in the classroom go horribly wrong. In Oops: What We Learn When Our Teaching Fails Brenda Miller Power and Ruth Hubbard collected essays from teachers who share the pain, laughter, and lessons learned when their best intentions in the classroom come down in a brilliant crash.

It Silly, ‘Cuz It Silly: A Story of Beginning to Teach
by Jane Townsend

What rocked my complacency and preconceptions about teaching and learning was a group of multicolored high school seniors who had all failed English once before. It was my first day of formal teching, I had already conscientiously learned each student’s name, and I was determined to be innovative, engaging, and hip. My assumptions about English study — built on my own successful school career — was that the whole class would share a reading, we’d then discuss it thoughtfully, and finally, each student would write an essay. My students were mostly poor, mostly blacks and Hispanics. They’d resided on the edges of society’s privilege all their lives. They were used to filling in blanks and mimeographed sheets and passing the time. I wanted to make a difference in their lives. I wanted to help.

I was told to teach a lesson on persuasion and I decided to bring in music — I was going to do something new. It was the early seventies, Vietnam War protests were in my air, so I chose Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” a song that stirred my soul. I made a copy of the lyrics for each student, borrowed a portable stereo, and with nervous excitement began class. Standing in front of rows of students, I passed out song sheets and broadcast the music. When Dylan’s last guttural chord had faded, I looked expectantly at a sea of still faces, and my knees began to wobble. “So,” I said. “What do you think?” No one responded (probably not a question they’d been asked too often). My legs began to shake. “Uh, I’d just like to know what you think of the song,” I coaxed with a smile and a sinking heart. Blank faces. My body began a full-scale, dreadful tremor. More silence.

Finally, when I thought my heart must burst from apprehension, a large black girl in the back of the room — Amanda Lee Cannon, a young woman I’ll always remember — leaned back in her chair, and languidly raised her hand. My heart leapt with hope. “Amanda Lee,” I said, nodding encouragement in her direction, “what did you think?” Amanda Lee took her time and casually remarked, “I think it silly.” “Oh,” I gushed, hardly stopping to think about the importance what she was saying. “Um, gosh, that’s interesting. Tell me, um, what makes you say that? Uh, tell me more.” Amanda Lee looked me in the eye, stretched out her large, lean body, and replied, “I think it silly ‘cuz it silly.” And with that, she folded her ebony arms on the desk and put her head down. While I gaped, in a desperate dawning, one head after another went down. And I stood facing a class of students who said no with a firmness and a power that changed my teaching life forever.

I’ve blacked out the rest of that day’s class. I can remember driving home in tears, wondering how I’d find the courage to return the next day and feeling certain that teaching was not the job for me. I’m not sure what made me begin to think of the incident from my students’ point of view rather than wallowing in my own angst. If I wanted to energize these students, I knew I’d have to do something very different from what I’d expected teaching to be. I knew that these students had long ago — for many different reasons — been pushed or inadvertently shoved to the sidelines of school. Why they put their heads down with common determination, why they didn’t just humor me with empty responses, I don’t know. Maybe they sensed I wanted to do right. They didn’t expect much from school, but neither did they want to coddle some do-gooding white liberal talking about issues and ideas that had no apparent, real connection to their lives. If I wanted to help them feel the electrifying potential of reading and writing and talking, I’d have to find ways to begin with their concerns, their souls.

So, the next day I came in with more music — but this time, Jimi Hendrix’s song, “Changes,” which I hoped would signal my intention. And, again with my knees shaking, I organized an activity that I’d heard about in a methods class. I was breathless with anxiety as I walked around the room with an envelope full of folded-up pieces of paper. I asked each student to select a paper from the envelope, read what it said, and not show it to anyone else. “Then,” I announced, “when I begin to play the music, follow the instructions on your paper.” What I’d written on these piece of paper were mostly the small, forbidden acts of classroom life: make a paper airplane and fly it around the room, walk around shaking different people’s hands, draw on the blackboard, stand at your desk and count backward from one hundred, write a note to a friend, and so on. Each student had a different task to do. After saying that they were to freeze when I stopped the music, I turned on the record player and Jimi Hendrix started to groove. Chaos reigned for a few minutes as each student blossomed into movement. Then I turned off the music and told the students to sit back down. The kids had been having a big time, dancing around, talking, and laughing, but they sat down and turned curious faces toward me — a very different set of faces from the previous day’s — wondering what might be next.

I asked them to write down everything they’d seen while the music played, and the fascinating trick was that those who’d been moving around the room, interacting with other people, had seen far more, had indeed much longer lists, of what had been happening than had the students who sat at their desks, turned their backs to the room while at the board. Spontaneously, we began having a spirited discussion about the benefits of travel, open minds, observation. By talking — listening to different points of view, hearing one another’s stories, finding common ground — we began to establish a sense of working together to stretch out understanding. I was certainly stretching mine. “Let’s do it again, Miss! Let’s do it again!” the chorus of student voices resounded. I knew then that teaching wasn’t going to be easy, but it was possible.

Add comment June 2nd, 2009

Questions & Authors: Keeping teaching and life in balance

TeamWorkMany new and veteran teachers struggle with keeping their professional and personal lives in balance. The authors of TeamWork: Setting the Standard for Collaborative Teaching Grades 5-9 know this all too well. During their years of team teaching, they have learned many tricks for setting aside the time they need for planning their classroom activities, and for meeting their personal obligations to themselves and their families. Amanda Mayeaux, one of the coauthors of TeamWork shares some of these tips in this latest installment of Questions & Authors:

“A good teacher is like a candle – it consumes itself
to light the way for others. ”  ~Author Unknown

True, but most of our families would not be pleased if suddenly in the middle of grading papers while sitting on our couches, we were consumed! The question we are often asked by teachers struggling with the overwhelming workload is how to manage all of the responsibilities of work. Add the responsibilities of children and a spouse on top of your workload, and being consumed may sound like a great escape.

Our book, TeamWork, is not only about teaming, but more about the relationships we had with each other and our students. What truly made the teaming concept work for us was — and is — the collaboration which helped all of us learn to depend on each other so we could balance our professional and personal lives. If you are in a school without the structure of teaming, you can still benefit from the basics of collaboration. Learning to balance is about keeping your priorities straight, planning, and learning to lean on and support others.

If you are in need of some balancing, first, set your priorities. If you don’t take care of you, you can not take care of others in your family or your students. Your family is crucial. If you are struggling to make the list, think about who will be at your deathbed. These people are your priority.

List the things you and your family need to function properly. These may include being with your family, exercise, eating right, spiritual time, and recreational adult time. Many of these can include your family. Maybe you eat a healthy meal together three nights a week or maybe each Saturday morning regardless of what needs to be graded, you play in the park.

If you are struggling with fitting it in, consider having a family meeting each week to set dates for the week and anything important that may be coming up in the next few weeks. Knowing the important events that are coming up will allow you to know when you can take the lead at work and when you need to move back a little. For example, when Kathryn was getting married, Monique and Amanda knew we had to pick up some extra duties during the week leading up to the big event. Likewise, when Kathryn knew when Monique and Amanda had responsibilities with their children that may require a little extra help from her. How you manage your family is personal. Our families have moved to online calendars, but traditional paper family calendars work well also. Your students are important, but your families are you lifeline. You should plan with your family first.

Second, think about your professional priorities. Our best trick for keeping life in balance is planning ahead, setting a timeline for what has to be done, and then getting it done. As a team we plan quite a bit during the summer by planning our major unit timelines, planning parent and other events, and preparing anything we can prepare ahead of time. We also only focus on one major change a year. For example, one year we decided to add more parental involvement activities to our team. We planned during the summer, assigned roles to each person, and then spent the year implementing. We did not create another big push until we had this one under control. Chapter three in TeamWork illustrates the various elements of this initiative and has resources for anyone wishing to involve parents more often.

Of course every teacher has numerous demands thrown at them. Decide what is critical and what is not. Yes, some things are not. If you are overwhelmed, do not be afraid to talk to your administration or a mentor. Sometimes administrators do not realize things that may be on your plate personally. If there is an important event coming up in the life of your child or spouse, don’t be afraid to tell your administrator. Being up front about what you can manage and what you can not will assist everyone in getting the job done.

Finally, connect with your colleagues. If you are part of a team, then you are so lucky to have people with whom to share the responsibilities of calling parents, managing attendance records, conferencing with students, setting up special events, and many other things. Again, planning ahead will save you a great deal of time later and reduce your headaches.

If you are not part of a team, you will benefit from having someone you can talk to. Find a few teachers with whom you connect. Maybe these teachers teach the same subject or the same grade level. Maybe you are all in graduate school together or completing National Boards. Maybe you just like this person. If planning time during the school day is unavailable, ask if they are willing to talk over coffee after school once a week or once every two weeks. Amanda has a friend she meets on Saturdays when her daughter is dancing.

Before you begin the talks, set some rules. In chapter 1 of TeamWork we have some ideas for building a team. These questions and thoughts will help any group in the beginnings of collaboration. We believe the establishing core beliefs are crucial. Ours are listed in this chapter for your benefit.

Even though we are not teaming together anymore, we still get together with each other and with a few other teacher friends, because one of our core beliefs is that learning is a lifelong endeavor. Our meetings are not complaint sessions. We talk about issues, but we focus on solutions. We may talk about professional books we are reading or ask questions about an issue we have in the classroom. Sometimes we even talk about how to manage a personal issue or two. Adding a wise mentor to the group is a great idea.

We also collaborate with online chat sites and email. With Monique and Amanda moving to a new school in the district, we found the internet to be a way to remain connected. As lifelong learners, we are enjoying finding new ways to engage our colleagues and even some of our former students.

Teaching is an all consuming profession. Having someone or a small group of people to talk to about your challenges and thoughts will save your family the fate of hearing about school day in and day out. Great teachers should burn brightly, but please don’t burn those around you or they may blow you out.

1 comment April 15th, 2009

Stenhouse goes to the Oscars

Teaching is not often associated with glamour – except when movie directors take this noble profession to the big screen. While we at Stenhouse Publishers are as far away from the glamour of Hollywood as we can possibly get, with the approach of the Academy Awards this weekend we wondered: What are some of the best movies about education and teachers?

We asked some of our authors to share their picks. Happy viewing!

Ann Marie Corgill
My favorite is Pay It Forward.  I’ve loved this movie enough to watch it again from time to time (and I don’t really like to sit still long enough unless the movie is really great.)  I loved it because one child changed the world, and that’s really what school is all about.  We want our students to believe they can change the world for the better.  Such a great story!  And a tear jerker too.

Kathy Collins
I would recommend Half Nelson–it’s not exactly a “feel-good” classroom movie, and many parts of it are hard to watch (and stomach), but I appreciated the complexities it presented.  Ryan Gosling plays a new teacher, but he doesn’t portray that stereotypical image we often see, that of an idealistic, shiny, new teacher who moves mountains in his first year of teaching.  No, this guy has issues, major issues, mixed in with his idealism and deep concern for his students.  I wouldn’t call it an enjoyable movie, but I would say it’s thought-provoking.

I’ve heard that The Class is a wonderful French movie about teaching and learning that casts actual students, not actors.  I haven’t seen it yet, but I plan to watch it when it’s available on Netflix.

Although it’s not a movie about schools and teachers, I highly recommend Season 4 of The Wire, an HBO series.  The whole season takes place largely in a middle school setting, and it deals with the intersection of school reform, urban education issues, politics of education, and so on.  My suggestion is that you begin with Season 1 and work your way through the series. There are threads, characters, and story lines that run across the seasons and it will help you to understand what’s going on in Season 4.

Liz Hale
I am probably not alone in saying that Stand and Deliver is one of my favorite teaching movies.  Inspiring every time I watch it (and well-acted which makes many viewings possible), this movie is based on the true story of high school teacher Jaime Escalante, who helped his far below grade level high school students eventually pass the AP Calculus exam.

My favorite scene is when Jaime is teaching negative numbers and using an analogy of digging a hole in the sand (negative) and then filling the hole (positive). He approaches Angel, a resistant gang member, and asks him several times what +1 and -1 equal.  After a few “Come on…just fill the hole” encouragements, Angel finally quietly says the right answer, zero, to which Jaime responds, “Good”.  The fact that negative numbers is a concept usually learned in middle school is not brought up.  What this scene and the movie drive home for me is the power teachers have to affect the way students see themselves.  Students have to feel successful, even if in small ways, if they are going to believe in themselves, and they’ll only think we believe in them if we don’t resist where they are.

Jeff Anderson
Even though the movie, Field of Dreams is not about teaching, it had a huge influence on me as I decided that teaching was what I wanted to give my life to. It made me sure. In the movie, Doc “Moonlight” Graham, played by Burt Lancaster, didn’t go on to the baseball career he dreamed of (something he sometimes regretted–or thought he did). Instead, he became a doctor and was able to help people and children, and that was a life worth living. Yeah, he missed the stardom and life of a pro ball player, but dreams are truly fulfilled when we make others’ lives better. That’s what satisfies our soul. His discovery was mine. And I have never been sorry that I have given my life to children and the people who serve them. That’s the life I built, and boy did the joy come.

Add comment February 19th, 2009

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