Quick Rant: Establishing A Culture of Effort

Published 1/15/14 by:

Calvin & Hobbes Butt Kicking Comic Strip


The school district I teach in uses the term “a culture of effort” on a regular basis. It was a major selling point for me when I started teaching there in September 2011, because I don’t consider myself one of these “naturally smart” people.  I worked hard for every grade I received, every school I got into, every degree I earned.  I can honestly say that my effort has been the deciding factor for every opportunity or rejection I’ve encountered. So how did my culture of effort get instilled in me?  I grew up in a household where effort grades were held in higher regard than actual academic grades. In middle school, my mom didn’t care if I got a C in science if my effort grade was A- or better. “Did you do your best?” was a phrase repeated at every meal, every bedtime tuck in, and during every trip to the softball field. The  middle school I teach in doesn’t have effort grades, because they’re not easily measurable. I’m not completely convinced of that because homework, notes taken, and participation could be indicators of daily effort. Some of my students (if I were to give homework grades) would be at a 10% for the trimester, which started immediately after Thanksgiving. It’s this general lack of commitment to academia that is holding quite a few of my students back. They listen to my lessons, my demonstrations, and my general instructions, but they don’t follow through with doing the daily practice. The most essential part of learning is practicing skills. I often tell my students, “I didn’t wake up one day and know my multiplication tables. It was a labor of love.” To which they say, “what do you mean by labor?” Herein lies my most difficult work: motivating students to complete the practice so that they can eventually master a skill. Everything is so instantaneous for them in their personal lives, that putting in leg-work day in and day out seems ridiculous to them, and I’m not sure how to begin fixing that.

Oftentimes when I give my students feedback on rough drafts of their writing they’ll actually moan and complain to their classmates about having to fix things. It’s a nuisance to them that I told them they needed to add, elaborate or completely follow the directions. I’ve actually had to say to students, “I could just collect it the way it is, but you wouldn’t like the grade you’d receive. I’m giving you a second chance here. Take advantage.” It’s pathetic. Part of effort is showing up with the right stuff, being responsible for your things, and taking ownership of your mistakes. All of those things exhibit good daily effort. My students, and probably a lot of the students of 2014, have no interest in progressing in their daily effort levels. While society’s instantaneous nature that I alluded to may play a factor in this lazy mindset, I think a lot of it is at home culture and environment. Making excuses for your kid, blaming the teacher for lack of motivation, and bailing your kid out when he/she leaves is unprepared does not cultivate a work ethic which is essential (in my opinion) for leading a successful life. Hold your kids, students, neighbors, relatives et. al. accountable. You’re not doing them any favors by teaching them that tenacity, persistence, and the good ol’ college try aren’t necessities.



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Quick Rant: Snow Days and Winter Vacation

Published 1/5/14 by:

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Background information:

I teach sixth grade English (or language arts, or language & literacy – it’s all the same) at a middle school. We don’t call ourselves a junior high because we encompass grades 5-8 (10-14 year old people), and so we’re really “the middle”. Most public schools have a full day of school on December 23rd (it’s torture for both adults and children), and then the winter break begins on December 24th. This year a miracle happened: Christmas was on a Wednesday, so the scheduling gods made the brilliant decision to not have school on Monday December 23rd because they assumed most families would travel to their destinations over the weekend, and attendance would be very low. On the other end of the vacation is New Year’s Day. This year January 1st was a Wednesday, so it meant that not only did we get almost two full weeks off, but when we returned, it was to a two day work week!

I don’t want to hear all of your boos about how teachers have the easiest schedule of all time, because honestly: homeroom starts at 7:30am at my school, and the amount of (unpaid) overtime I do creating (dynamic) lesson plans, grading essays or quizzes, and pre-reading novels that I may want to teach our youth would make you weep for me. Loudly. In Massachusetts a funny thing happened at the end of our break. As teachers (and students) prepared to head back to school on Thursday the 2nd, it was announced that we were going to have a 48 hour Nor’Easter which could plop anywhere between 8 and 30 inches of snow in our yards. The snow day buzz started early on this one, folks. In the end, my school (smartly) toughed it out on Thursday and had a full day of school, and we had Friday off. I went back to a one day work week, which wasn’t very productive, or well-attended. Over 200 schools in Massachusetts canceled school on Thursday, and some schools (mostly private) had finagled their schedule so that students weren’t returning to campus until Monday January 6th. Teachers have been spoiled, as have the kids., but according to multiple media feeds, parents have been “suffering” through this long break.

Quick Rant

Full disclosure: I’m not a parent. I have nannied, taught swim lessons, been a camp counselor, and taught elementary and middle school (combined) for over a decade. I get that kids make you weary. I understand that kids have meltdowns. What I can’t understand is parents moaning and groaning about the opportunity to spend two weeks with their kids. Parents are jokingly threatening to kill their kids if we don’t head back to school for a full five day week on Monday. The parents have had it. They’re at their wit’s end. So here’s the rub: I’m with your kids ALL.THE.TIME. I spend more (awake) hours per week with your kid than you do. It’s a fact. Numbers don’t lie. So when you (parents) start complaining about being blessed with a two week vacation with your kids I have a problem. And don’t even get me started on the fact that you think your kids are such a burden, but you didn’t even have them write their teacher(s) a holiday note saying, “thanks for being my teacher”. Wake up, folks. As the great Coach Taylor (of “Friday Night Lights”) once said, “These kids of ours? It’s a one time deal.”

End of rant.

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An Open Letter to Veronica Roth

Published 11/11/13 by:

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****This post contains spoilers as to how the third book of the “Divergent” series ends. If you have not finished “Allegiant” then please refrain from reading.****

Dear Veronica,

I feel the need to start by saying thank you. Thank you for “Divergent”, and everything it gave me as a new middle school teacher. When it came out, I was in my first year of teaching sixth grade English. I bought five copies so I could teach it to a group of  boys that just were not buying into the whole reading thing despite my best efforts. These boys were capable. They were unchallenged by choice. They needed the right conversation starter. You know what did it? Fear landscapes. So thank you for writing a book about romance, bravery, choice, and fear landscapes. It was one of my favorite teaching moments I’ve ever had.

This is where my love fest for you ends. I finished “Allegiant” an hour ago, and I’m so outrageously disappointed. It’s a testament to you how upset I am, because it shows how much you’ve reeled me in. I am a guppy in the land of factions. I’m a guppy whose heart is broken and deflated. “Allegiant” did that to me. You built Tris into this absurdly brave girl. This girl who had strong beliefs, desires and loyalty. As a reader, I knew how vulnerable she could be because of the circumstances she put herself in, but when you had her die for Caleb, and a cause she barely knew anything about, I was enraged. What sliced me open even more is that while people lived peaceful lives after Tris’ sacrifice, no one was a success. If you’re going to kill your badass protagonist, then it better be for some insanely awesome greater good. Four living a boring life with his mother that he should’ve never forgiven? Awful. Christina working as an outreach coordinator for people in transition? Mediocre. Caleb working in a lab? Predictable. Everything was so mundane in the end, for a series that was so triumphant until “Allegiant” breathed its last breath. I was, and will continue to be devastated by this lackluster closing.

In the spring of 2007 I was a senior in college, and I was taking a class called “Fiction of the Modern”. We read the likes of James Joyce, Djuna Barnes, and D.H. Lawrence, and dissected their novels into smithereens. It was a fairly enjoyable class, that often skirted the line of being too cerebral. The Erudite would’ve eaten it up. The professor of the class was also my advisor, and she was a bookish British woman who rarely veered from the syllabus. One day, we were discussing the assigned novel of the week, and she bestowed upon me one of the most intriguing literary ideas I’d ever heard. She said, “the mentor always has to die in order for the hero to be actualized. That’s why you should’ve known that Dumbledore was a goner.” This was news to me because evidently I didn’t take enough “hero’s journey” courses in my career or watch enough “Star Wars”.  Anyway, my point is, that my gut told me that Christina, Tris, Four or Caleb had to die before “Allegiant” was over. My previous adoption of this mentor dying philosophy convinced me that Four, Tris’ guiding force, her Dauntless teacher, would die in order for her to be independently accomplished. I also assumed that you were foreshadowing when  you included Four as one of the narrators in this last installment of the series. I think a part of it is that I’m a sucker for the build them up to shoot them down process. I guess I just didn’t think you had it in you (as an author) to kill a 16-year-old girl.

Here’s the rub: it’s your series. It’s not mine. Tris and Four felt like family the way that very few other novel characters have to me, so I have to be reminded that this is your story that I’m a witness to. It still hurts. I wanted so much more for Tris and Four. Apparently I shouldn’t have assumed that you wanted it all as well. What did you want? For Tris to finally be Abnegation? For Four to finally have a mother? If that had been clear from the start, then maybe I would be more accepting of this ending, but this guppy feels gutted.

Disappointed, but still with gratitude,


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Teach Your Children Well: Tackling “Coming of Age”

Published 8/4/13 by:

“Time may change me, but I can’t trace time.” 

-David Bowie

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“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”

Stand By Me

There are many times per week, day, hour that I feel inadequate as a teacher. Sometimes it’s my own unpreparedness, often times it’s the limitations of how I can approach a topic. Frequently this inadequacy stems from how much time I can allot to something that requires a lengthier discussion or exploration. Since I began teaching middle school, the unit of study that leads me to this type of frustrating standstill which I encounter in my line of work, is a unit aptly titled “Coming of Age” or, “Growing Up Is Hard To Do”. Prior to teaching sixth grade, when I was previewing the six thematic units of study I would be teaching, this unit was the most appealing to me. What could be more appropriate than to discuss change, time marching on, responsibility, crushes, consequences and anything else that begins when you approach teenage-hood? What I quickly realized was that the coming of age unit I would be instructing would be a lot more “Full House” than “Modern Family”.  Thus my sense of inadequacy began.


In order to understand how I want to cultivate this unit, you need to know what I’ve covered, please see below:

WRITING: Narrative writing techniques, autobiographical writing, plot maps & their parts: rising action, falling action, climax, exposition, resolution, how to write an opening, how to use dialogue in writing.

TEXTS: “The Giver”, “Walk Two Moons”, “Al Capone Does My Shirts”, “Maniac Magee”, “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry”, “The Wednesday Wars”, “Tangerine”

TOPICS OF DISCUSSION (developed from novels used): Homelessness, learning disabilities (specifically Autism), going against society and/or your family, war, absent parents, segregated communities, abandonment, reluctance, accepting differences – especially your own.


Looking at the list of things I teach during this unit makes me feel pretty groovy. We talk about some hard-hitting themes which can be both historic, and modern. The protagonists in all of the novels listed get entangled in a certain struggle, and in the midst of that struggle slowly cease to be children and rapidly become adults. It all fits together in a nice, lovely puzzle, that drives at important big picture issues, but does not address anything that could be deemed controversial. I want the controversy. I yearn for the controversy. The controversy is essentially what makes people define middle school as the most awkward part of their entire lives (that they can remember). The writing and reading techniques that are taught during this unit are completely appropriate, and I’m satisfied with what my students walk away with, however, the themes and discussions that we untangle could be so much more engaging and relevant to where they are in their young adulthoods. Most school districts, including my own, have to protect teachers (like me) from ourselves. This may sound strange, but it can get very dicey when topics are broached in the classroom that families think are inappropriate, or don’t align with their values. While I would argue that school is the type of safe environment for such topics to be introduced, and that as the world evolves, our kids need to know about society, it has become clear to me that a lot of folks aren’t ready to change with the times. This leads school administration to the protective part of their job in which they advise teachers like myself to toe the line very carefully. I’m getting better at toe-ing the line, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.


In a perfect world, here’s what I would add to this coming of age unit:

Discussion Topics- Heartbreak, first love, homosexuality, dealing with cliques and/or exclusivity, what to do when you outgrow your friends, what to do when your friends outgrow you, how to negotiate trends (specifically expensive ones), how to conduct yourself in public (especially in large groups, and what you’re wearing), helping others that are in tough situations, negotiating (in general), and how to be trustworthy.


Would these topics be easy to create unbiased, respectful conversations around? Absolutely not. Would I be able to keep my opinions to myself? Most likely, no. This is why I’m unable to tackle these ideas in my classroom. It’s my hope that maybe some parents in the universe read this and realize that they could take the lead on this and do the latter (and more fascinating) half of this unit. If my students (and I’m sure most middle schoolers would fit the mold as well) are already using Facebook, Instagram, Vine and Twitter, as well as watching shows like “The Kardashians” or “Pretty Little Liars” then they’re already being exposed to the stuff that I’m not allowed to touch. We (teachers) need parents to help us. The learning should extend beyond the walls of my classroom, and the conversations should be flowing in carpool, on the field, at dance rehearsal, at the dinner table etc. Seize the small moments, parental units! Middle school may be an awkward time, but it’s a crucial time. Help me do our work: teaching the children well – teaching them how to be great humans.

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