by Jean Prokott
The sophomores have spent December writing creative nonfiction, short vignettes that allow them to rummage around for the metaphors hiding in their lives. I’ve been teaching personal essay for the last decade, so I often predict the topics students will choose (failing a test, church mission trip, sports injury) and the symbols they will find (butterflies, water, clouds) and preemptively direct them away from those clichés. The best part is to tell them what not to write. They have to keep rummaging.
Every once in a while, a kid finds a perfect peach of a topic and writes about it in a way that unties me. I want to share with you the story of “nonnie” so you see what I mean.*
That comma splice in the last line alone.
That structure with time, to start and end with death, to bring nonnie to life in the middle.
Her metaphor is one we all know. There's a defining moment in our lives when we learn about death. nonnie represents the literal of this coming-of-age, but also her struggle up the hill represents how my student felt when she lost nonnie.
It was a gift to read this piece. I wrote tomes of feedback in purple pen—mostly stars and wut and this is powerful over and over to the point where she probably thought I’d been living as a recluse for the last decade with only episodes of trash TV to keep me company. (Although to be fair, I think I just described last year and most of this one.)
One would have to be a callous car crash of a person if they didn’t feel their heart explode when they learned about nonnie’s fate and the effect she'd had on my student, and the day I read this, the time of year I read this, that this had been the 80th out of 95 essays I’d read—nonnie’s story was literally the saddest thing I’d ever heard in my whole sad life and I would spend the rest of my days mourning nonnie and my student’s loss.
After I read about nonnie, I had a flashback to an experience I’d had on my grandparents’ dairy farm and a cow named Flopsy, who’d been born with a messed-up leg. The end of that story is predictable: while eating hamburgers one evening, my father brought it up.
That wasn’t the impetus of my response, however.
Because it is quite clear we are all nonnie.
Her tragedy was that she’d wanted to climb a hill. There are so many hills this year. nonnie drowned “all because she faced an incline and couldn't get up. Such a simple action.” nonnie had spent her life free and sassy and getting under fences. She “liked potatoes.” I like potatoes, too, I’d thought. I like potatoes, too.
Since the assignment was not one short scene, but three, when I conferenced with my student this week, I reviewed more rough drafts. One was about a horse named Iago (and I’m sorry, but find a more perfect name for a horse). An excerpt:
Is Iago still alive? I asked. Yes, Ms. Prokott, Iago is still alive.
The third scene was about a chicken.
I read this, I looked up, I said: Why are you doing this? Why are you trying to kill me?
What also kills me is how humble she is. I think I might spend the rest of the year convincing her that, yes, it is that good. I know I will spend the next decade using her essay as a model for the assignment. And I just now realize this random IKEA print of a cow I have hanging in my classroom will never look the same.
My reaction to this powerful piece was not only reader-response, of course—this student has mastered empathy and control of language and voice and happy accidents and every possible technique to make me react the way I did. But I don’t want to talk about how she got there, don’t care to list which activities we did in the classroom, don’t want to get my nails dirty in pedagogy. This was all her. I simply want to share this victory. Her victory to write such a heart wrenching piece, to have the maturity to revisit grief and make it beautiful.
While we’re all nonnies this year, struggling up the hill (and praying we don’t meet her fate) maybe we can also be my student. It’s been a year of loss, so let’s talk about it. Maybe find the metaphors. Learn from our students.
And the next time you have a glass of milk, please pour one out for nonnie.
* The student has given me permission to share.
by Heather M. F. Lyke
We all know reading is important. I mean, just take a look at this infographic (aka: my attempt to summarize all the layers of importance).
Since reading is such an essential skill, it’s not surprising that the questions I receive most in my role as Teaching and Learning Director for Dover-Eyota schools revolve around reading.
Simply put, there is a lot of passion out there for helping our youth become strong readers.
Plus, ‘tis the season of holiday sales, gift giving, vacation days, and new year’s resolutions…
Combine these truths, and this becomes a perfect time for finding and sharing books, for having extra time to enjoy literature, and for setting new reading goals.
So, what can we do to support young readers and to foster within them a desire to read that lasts a lifetime?
Here are three sets of ideas:
Model It --
Read aloud to your child.
According to Scholastic (2019), a powerful predictor of kids’ reading frequency is having a parent [or other adult] who personally reads aloud to/with the child 5-7 days a week. Commonly, this is something we do with younger children, but recent studies have shown that even middle-school-aged youth love to be read to.
Read around your child.
Show the children in your life that you, too, are a reader. “Children who see adults reading and enjoying it,” according to Pearson Education (2021), “are much more likely to want to read themselves.” Maria Russo and Pamela Paul, authors of How to Raise a Reader, note that “when I’m sitting there on my couch, reading a book, and my kids are doing their own thing, I like to think, I’m parenting right now—they can see me reading this book”—conversely, if “right after dinner, the first thing you do is scroll through your phone, open up your laptop, or watch TV, kids are likely to take note.”
Listen to audiobooks together.
Audiobooks support literacy skills in ways that physical books sometimes can’t. The web resource Reading Rockets (2003) shares that audiobooks model strong interpretive reading, make difficult vocabulary words or dialects more accessible, and enhance listening skills among other things.
Tip: there are a lot of ways to access free audiobooks. Visit the website LibriVox or try the app Libby (you just need a public library card!).
Remove Barriers --
Keep literature in reach.
Pearson Education (2021) shares a few tips: at home, have books on accessible shelves and coffee tables; when traveling, toss a few books in the car or suitcase; and when headed to an appointment, have a book at the ready should there be time spent in the waiting room. Personally, I’m currently reading 4 books: an audiobook, a bedside-table book, a living-room book, and one waiting-in-line book (which I actually access electronically on my phone).
Embrace whatever text they choose.
From nonfiction to fiction, from poetry to graphic novels, from magazines to thick novels, from comic strips to junk-mail…anything with text is an opportunity to build vocabulary, to increase interest, and grow reading stamina. Additionally, each genre has its own unique trends when it comes to plot structures, character development, and literary techniques: reading widely exposes one to all the trends, making it easier to navigate future works of the same genre.
Look past levels.
Once a reader is able to decode basic words, according to the School Library Journal (2020), which is typically around first grade, students should be encouraged to “read a wide range of texts…they should read easy books to things that kick their butt. The variation of difficulty does matter.” Simpler texts can build fluency, enjoyment, and stamina; while a text outside of one’s comfort level can introduce a reader to new vocabulary and increase understanding of what skills they’ve yet to master.
Encourage Interests --
Reading teachers and authors Karen Szymusiak and Franki Sibberson (2007) share the tip that adults should “…talk about the books they [the students] are reading” by having conversations rooted in “open-ended questions they can use in discussing their reading.” They suggest questions that fit each of three layers:
Leverage hook books.
Reading a book series, going on author binges, rereading a favorite book—these sometimes get bad reps. Yet, they are integral to creating lifelong readers. Author Devon Corneal shared on Read Brightly (2021) that rereading helps learners develop strong word recognition, notice patterns, enhance fluency, strengthen comprehension, and foster confidence. Similarly, a reader who is hooked on a series deepens their connections with characters, increases comprehension, spends more time reading, and quickens the process of finding what book to read next, according to Edutopia (2016): likewise, reading multiple books by the same author can have similar impacts.
Celebrate books and reading.
Make literacy a reward. Make going to the library, visiting the bookmobile, or browsing at a bookstore a regular and joyful event. Combine reading with what your learner enjoys. For me, that was lunch with my father at Wong’s in downtown Rochester after spending a summer morning with my mom at the library. For my third-grade niece and nephew, it’s being allowed time to read uninterrupted in their small, end-of-bunkbed nooks they created with their father last year—simple plywood nests filled with blankets, pillows, and a few favorite reads. Lifelong reading is fostered by the memories of contentment we nurture now.
If you ever want to dig more deeply into reading, I’d love to connect! Until then, I hope you and the youth in your life find a great piece of literature to cuddle up with and enjoy this holiday season.
By Gina Meinertz
As a leader, I have always avoided data. I know that sounds crazy.
We all know that we can’t make decisions without data, but every time I heard data analysis, goal setting, or SMART goal, I thought about someone else’s accountability for objectives and goals in someone else’s dream (or mission and vision if you want to use the 'correct' terminology). I would go into these meetings and learning opportunities knowing I would spend the time complying to the process without much excitement, action, or vision for how I would implement changes in connection to the data we were reviewing.
Then, along came an opportunity for me to help guide a data collection, reflection, and action-planning process for an area organization. It would be a way to give back and guide other districts in our region with their own MTSS structures.
My first response, internally, was the same as always, a little gag reflex and a deep breath, but then a "yes, I can do that."
I went to work learning about the Tiered Fidelity Inventory that the Minnesota Department of Education recommends. I learned how to give this inventory to other school districts and how to help these districts create an action plan from their data.
As I worked through this inventory in a few different systems, I started to appreciate how the data from this inventory was bringing each district’s story of collaboration alive. We were not just analyzing student growth, but discussing what processes and structures supported a productive team. The inventory used such depth and clarity, people who used to shrug their shoulders and say, “We do that,” started to question their system, their teams, and their data in new ways. They started to look at the patterns of their system to find specific ways to shift their system for the better. Finally, I was seeing data for the possibilities that it holds.
Many of you may already see it, but for those of you who don’t. Keep searching. You just have found the right data, reflection process, or personal connection to the data yet.
Here are a couple of things that I have learned about data once my fear decreased and my curiosity increased.
I am not in a place to call myself a data geek quite yet. But I am ready to share how I think you could find more meaning in the data you use. Here are three directions to explore:
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Know your strengths and interests. Then, find data that tells you the story that relates to your strengths and interests. For instance, I am a big picture and systematic thinker. By looking at data that was drilling down into specifics, I was missing the view that serves me the best. I need data that gave me a view of where we needed to be as a system and what we needed to do and change to get to our desired point.
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Data takes many forms. Many times, we feel like we only have one option, standardized assessment data, to guide our decisions. This is a great starting point, but we also need to be able to use other points of data to guide our decision making.
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I hope this quick read has convinced you to look at data with a new perspective, a curious one.
Ideas by Gauri Sood & Dr. Amit Sood, framed by Heather M. F. Lyke
Building trust, whether it be with students or fellow staff members, is foundational for learning and growth to occur. In our recent conversation with student Gauri Sood and her father Dr. Amit Sood, we explore five aspects that, when laid out and actively implemented, help establish trust.
Amit Sood notes that, “people don’t like you for who you are: people like you for how they feel about themselves in your presence.”
Plotting it Out
The Soods share five ways to build trust in such a way that people will grow to “like you for how they feel about themselves in your presence.” And, not surprisingly, these five fall into line much like the points found on a traditional plotline.
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Social Emotional Learning as a Collaboration
with Gauri Sood & Amit Sood | 9.28.21
Daughter and father, Gauri and Amit Sood (an international expert on mental health) speak to the team about collaboration with your audience as well as great mental health tools for teachers and students.
Dr. Amit Sood is one of the world's leading experts on resilience and wellbeing, executive director of the Global Center for Resiliency and Wellbeing, and the creator of the Resilient Option program. He has also authored many articles and books, including The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living.
Gauri Sood is co-creator and lead trainer of HappiGenius, a Social Emotional Learning tool for young learners. She also serves as a member of the education committee for the Rochester Community Initiative and the Rochester Youth Commission, and she is the teen representative for Food Allergies of Rochester, MN. Gauri is a senior at Mayo High School.
Heather M. F. Lyke is the Teaching & Learning Specialist for Dover-Eyota Schools and author of numerous articles focusing on quality education.
My students have taught me an important lesson over the years that is a step beyond my vocabulary lessons. They taught me that words can be powerful. Words have power not only in the academic world, like my vocabulary lessons, but in the social and emotional world as well. Each word that is spoken has meaning. Even the most simple words, like “hello,” have meaning to both the speaker and the listener. The speaker has a meaning, but the listener may interpret it differently. Our words are powerful to our students, families, and colleagues.
Here is an example of where words matter.
As I was walking down the hall to visit a classroom, I noticed a student slithering like a snake down the hallway. I knew this student was not where he needed to be and that his teacher was looking for him.
My first thought was to say, you need to walk down the hall to your classroom.
Feeling like this was a demanding statement and one he may not respond well to, I decided to say instead, “You have great snake-like skills! Let’s think of another animal that walks on two legs that we can mimic as we head to your classroom.”
This is one example of how words can be powerful with adults too (not just our students).
“Ugh, Johnny is driving me crazy today! He just won’t stop tapping his pencil during math! I told him to knock it off and he wouldn’t!
What if you heard the teacher say this instead?
“Johnny likes to tap his pencil on his desk. I noticed it was bothering other students. So, I went up to him and said, ‘I bet you are going to be a fantastic drummer someday. Let’s practice drumming with your pencil at recess and I’ll give you a fidget toy to use until then’. He loved using the fidget and we finished the lesson without any more disruptions.”
The article “15 Ways to Bring More Positive Language into Your Classroom and School” from We Are Teachers provides a great infographic with examples of how to tweak phrases to be both affirming and positive.
The old phrase “think before you speak” is as true today as it was 20 years ago when I started my career in education. I hope you fall in love with positive and powerful words, too!
One day, after several spirited classes, in which school was starting to feel pre-pandemic normal, in part because I could see smiles in student’s eyes above their masks. I was congratulating myself for a great morning as I headed to the restroom where a quick check in the mirror necessitated a double take: right in the back of my carefully parted hair there was a Alfalfa spike, and it took some water to tame, so it had been there advertising my silliness all day, like the inflatable “air dancers” at car lots. I swallowed my pride and obsessively checked to be sure my buttons and zippers held the rest of me in place.
The next day, a less literal oversight occurred as I engaged my AP Lit class in an analysis of a provocative short story, Graham Greene’s “The Destructors.” (Quick synopsis: a group of young gangsters in post-World War II London destroys a thing of beauty. Utterly.) As we unpacked the piece, first in small groups and then as a whole class, our spotlight focused on one of the main characters, a boy called “T.” I pointed to a piece of textual evidence in which T behaves with kindness and empathy, which seems to run against the grain of his destructiveness. A student raised a hand.
Another blindspot! I’ve taught that story a dozen times, and I still missed something, not because I hadn't looked, but because I had--again and again; I’d looked so often that my view had become fixed, despite the fact that it was incomplete.
Dueck’s new book, like Grading Smarter, Not Harder before it, offers a wealth of research and classroom tested strategies for engaging students where they’re at and honoring their perspectives. Here are a few quotes from the book to chew on before we get into specifics:
- John Hattie, who wrote the foreword, argues, “Assessment is something we have done to students rather than with them” (ix).
- “Inviting students into the realm of assessment is linked to increased motivation, confidence, self-regulation, and performance” (6).
- “We need more testing but less grading” (89).
- “Why are so many individual educators, schools, or entire districts married to a percentage system when in the end they intend to report on one of five levels?” (123)
For students, these communication tools proactively circumvent embarrassing and deflating blind spots, and they provide empowering information to help students track their progress toward targets.
Some of his findings, summarized:
- Difficulty is desirable, especially when building long-term learning (81).
- Students learn more from an hour of testing than an hour of studying (84).
- Teachers and students need to distinguish between performance and learning, then lean into the latter (85).
- Immediate feedback may boost immediate performance but undermine lasting learning (86).
- Feedback too often provokes emotional reactions; we need to make sure it inspires cognitive ones (87).
- Grade inflation results when we confuse performance with learning (87).
- Event-based gradebooks are unreliable; grades must be standards-based (91).
- Students can and should track their own learning (92-99).
- Teachers need not grade homework (95).
- Pretesting may be more effective than retesting (98).
Yes, there are challenges there, and Dueck backs them with logic, personal experience, and recent, compelling research. Most importantly, he explains how to improve assessment practices: he includes classroom-ready materials for both elementary and secondary settings; he offers a detailed amplification of how to create and employ rubrics that function as learning tools by focusing on communication, as opposed to evaluation; and he makes and a persuasive argument for why and how we must revise grading practices to include student self-reporting and to escape from the imprecision. The tools he offers are substantial, timely, and actionable.
with Myron Dueck & Phil Olson | 9.14.21
Dueck triumphantly returns to Third Eye, this time joined by teacher Phil Olson, to discuss his new book and giving students voice.