Friday, December 5, 2014

Those Who Do, Teach Better.

We’ve all heard that dreadfully incorrect phrase that exclaims “those who can’t do, teach.” I won’t elaborate on all the reasons why that condescending statement is woefully wrong here; talented professionals before me have tackled that notion. However, I will say that most teachers consider the profession a “calling.” That might sound clich├ęd, but only intrinsic rewards, true dedication, and a dash of idealism drive highly educated professionals to actively pursue a career with a relatively low income compared to educational level, time commitment, lack of adequate respect, and daily challenges and complexities. Clearly, teaching isn’t a soft option when it comes to career choice.

Because I teach at the secondary level, almost all of the teachers are experts in their field. Our APUSH teacher has a master’s degree in history, for instance. Not only that, but he has rich life experiences including world travel that allow him to share real-world examples and his passion for the subject with his students. Our Mock Trial coach studied and practiced law before dedicating his life to teaching. His real-world courtroom experiences help him instruct the students about the realities of the legal system. These are just a couple of examples from my hallway, but I could go on and on. Clearly, teachers can “do” what they teach. I don’t mean to neglect elementary teachers here; they must know a great deal about child development. Middle-school teachers have their own set of expertise as well.

When I had the epiphany at 30 that I belonged in the classroom, I wasn’t sure what grade-level I wanted to teach. I knew I had a knack for writing curriculum because of homeschooling experience, and I knew that I worked well with kids because of my large and successful Girl Scout troop. I was idealistic. Teachers had empowered me to overcome obstacles in my life; I wanted to do the same for others. The love of particular content isn’t really what drove me because I felt successful and passionate about everything from biology to band to creative writing. So I headed back to college, uncertain of my path, and studied the humanities. After all, this combined many of the subjects I love: art, history, music, architecture, and literature: all of the things that reflect and inform us of our humanity. I knew I would get to discuss important issues with my students and help them to become better people through exploration of these areas. At first, I thought I would teach history: the one subject I didn’t enjoy in high school. I always had that coach who didn’t actually care about history but had us read the textbook, color maps, and take tests. I found a love of history on my own, and I wanted to present it to students as exciting and relevant, so they would love it, too! In the process of my humanities degree, I took several literature courses. It wasn’t until Dr. Ed Garcia told me I was an English teacher that I realized what direction my path would really take. He even purchased an anthology text for me because he said I would need it when I taught literature. I insisted I was a history teacher in the making, but he reminded me that I already was an English teacher. Through class blogs, peer-collaboration and revision, and creative writing assignments, he said it was clear that this was my calling. And so this is how what I could “do” led to what I teach.

Since that time, I have been determined to continue to hone my craft. I read as many books as possible throughout the year and share them with my students. I write as often as possible – on my own, in front of my students, on long-winded blogs... This past summer, I spent the first month participating in the North Star of Texas National Writing Project. We wrote daily, published several pieces, completed a research inquiry project, taught mini-lessons, and read several texts. Then we wrote some more. We are still writing because we believe that teachers of reading and writing should actively and regularly read and write. Clearly, teachers can “do” what they teach, and do it well. I also firmly believe that teachers who continue to “do” are better teachers.
So here’s a shout-out to all the art teachers who craft on the weekends, the journalism teachers who publish articles in their spare time, and the band teachers who perform in their local symphony orchestras. Your students can sense your passion and knowledge, and enthusiasm for learning can be contagious. Let’s actively fight against the idea that teachers teach because they didn’t “succeed” in a given field. Teachers teach because they are committed to perpetual growth and demonstration to others of the importance of a chosen field.


Thursday, November 20, 2014

Hang a Shining Star upon the Highest Bough

“Through the years we all will be together / if the fates allow / hang a shining star upon the highest bow.”

These song lyrics are bittersweet to me. I hear them every year from late October through the New Year – in supermarkets, shopping malls, and on the car radio. In some renditions, singers focus on singing technically well. They sound bright. Hopeful. Festive. Ready to deck the halls with boughs of holly. In other recordings, you can hear the skillful and subtle touch of melancholy in these words – melancholy that echoes the pain, remembrance, and ultimately, healing that these lyrics represent in my life.

I did not get to see my dad often when I was young. He lived in California while I lived in Texas, and my mom actively worked to keep us apart. As I entered 5th grade, my parents reached a compromise. If we would move to California and grant my dad visitation, he would pay our rent and bills. It was an offer my mom couldn’t refuse. Not only did we have a quaint apartment in an old Victorian building, but I was also enrolled in an amazing private school where students were grouped by ability, not by age. Synergy School was housed in a Victorian house around the corner from the famous “painted ladies” at Alamo Square Park in San Francisco. We kept pet rabbits, went on frequent field trips to interesting museums, and spent an hour each day at the park for lunch. I could expound the virtues of that school at length, but I will save that for another post.

My dad often picked me up from school, took me to even more museums (I really love museums), taught me about the city’s history and architecture, and patiently listened to my pubescent rants. We really bonded in a short period of time, and I looked forward to spending as much time as possible with him.

And that’s when everything changed. There were several reasons why my mom felt it necessary to move back to Texas, but the fact that she worried that I relied on my dad more than her was paramount among them. Her decision was made. An intense confrontation ensued that I will never forget. We packed everything we owned (my stuff only filled a suitcase) and moved back overnight. It was Christmas Eve. I didn’t get to say “goodbye.”

When my dad entered our abandoned apartment, he found miscellaneous clutter left behind. You know, the sort of stuff that doesn’t seem important during a hasty escape. Among these items, a star remained on top of the tree. I had crafted the star with materials I had available: aluminum foil and a toilet paper roll.

Years later, my dad told me how he took that star home and placed it on his tree each year, hoping that he would soon see me again. During one happy Christmas Eve at my grandmother’s house, reunited, he told me this story as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” played in the background. He called the lyrics to my attention and told me how they always reminded him of that star and the years we spent apart. Once a painful reminder, now “the fates” allowed us to be together.

Sadly, my dad passed away a few years later. There are only 3 items I wish I could have retrieved from his home, and that star was one of them. Unfortunately, it was thrown out by well-meaning friends sorting through items.

I told this story to a small group of students one October with whom we were supposed to share pivotal moments in our lives. That Christmas, a boy named Jesus gave me a foil star to replace the one lost all those years ago. That small act of kindness meant more than that student will ever know, and helped me in the healing process. I spent years feeling almost Grinch-like about Christmas because of the painful memories associated with it, but that gesture reminded me of the compassion that my dad epitomized. Now, I greet Christmas with the goal of spending as much time as possible with those I love. I feel hopeful. Festive. Ready to deck the halls with boughs of holly. Well, I'm getter closer anyway...

The foil star that Jesus gave me, Dec. 2012

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Allowing Students to Inspire Your Lessons is a GREAT Thing.

One of my favorite feelings in the world occurs when I learn something from my students. Not only do I enjoy learning, but it shows that they are thinking, making connections between my course and their lives, and that they feel comfortable sharing their knowledge.
Recently, my students read “A Dog for Rock,” a short story by Mauro Senesi. As we discussed the story and its themes in class, one of my students mentioned that the story reminded her of a Simon and Garfunkel song titled “I am a Rock.” The word “rock” aside, I asked Katie how the story and song connected in her mind, and she proceeded to share her insight about the song’s meaning. It didn’t take long for her to inspire me to listen to the song as soon as possible. Though I had been a fan of the album that featured the song for decades, that particular song had escaped my attention until Katie brought it into my life. During my conference period, I pulled up the song on YouTube and listened to the singer-songwriters croon about isolation and pain. Katie was right; the song not only aligned with many of the ideas we were discussing from the short story, but it was poetry – just after I had been telling the students that poetry isn’t some foreign thing only to be picked apart in English class, but it is all around them – in the music they enjoy. I immediately changed the next day’s lesson plan.
When students arrived the following day, they picked up a copy of the lyrics to “I am a Rock,” glued it into their Reader/Writer Notebooks, and listened to the song. After some discussion, I asked them to use the lyrics/poetry as both model and inspiration for their own piece. Students were allowed to stay as close to or stray from the original form as much as they desired. I wrote along with them under the document camera.
In true workshop practice, they saw me struggle to find the exact words I was looking for, cross out lines I didn’t like to replace them with new ones, and allow myself to be vulnerable by sharing past experiences and emotions.
When everyone finished writing, I read my poem to help reinforce the safe atmosphere. Then I asked for volunteers to read from the Author’s Chair. Slowly but surely, students began to share their versions of “I am a Rock.” Some kept the refrain, while others changed it completely, but in each case, students shared a personal piece that meant something to them. In doing so, they touched others. They felt ownership in their learning and writing, and I felt overjoyed and proud of what they had accomplished – all because I listened to a student with wisdom to share.
Below are both the original lyrics to “I am a Rock” and my poem. I feel a disclaimer of sorts is necessary, for my poem seems depressing and somewhat juvenile. I explained to students that when reading the song lyrics for inspiration, I remembered a time when I felt that level of loneliness and despair, and that I immediately recalled the summer before my 8th grade year, when I was alone in my room almost 24 hours per day for 3 months. We laughed about all the ways that middle school can be difficult, and I reassured them that I am happy now, so they needn’t worry. Originally, mine followed the form very closely. Each stanza ended with the refrain, “I am a rock/ I am an island.” As happened with many of my students, I found that those lines didn’t fit my writing style and, thus, changed them. So, with that in mind, here’s a poem from my inner-eighth-grader:
 “I am a Rock” by Paul Simon

A winter's day
In a deep and dark December
I am alone
Gazing from my window
To the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow

I am a rock
I am an island

I've built walls
A fortress steep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need of friendship
Friendship causes pain
It's laughter and it's loving I disdain,

I am a rock
I am an island

Don't talk of love
Well I've heard the word before
It's sleeping in my memory
I won't disturb the slumber
Of feelings that have died
If I never loved, I never would have cried

I am a rock
I am an island

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room
Safe within my womb
I touch no one, and no one touches me

I am a rock
I am an island

And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries

My modelled piece (untitled):

A summer’s day
On a hot and humid afternoon
I am alone
Sitting in my room
Imprisoned by four walls
In this, the sanctuary from the desert of my life
I am melting, though I am too little in the sun.

I decorate the walls
That keep the people out and the feelings in
With posters of Marilyn, River Phoenix, and The Cure
With drawings that depict how I see the world.
I have no need of friends, siblings, or my mom
Relationships cause pain
It’s cliques and duplicitous people I disdain
I am art, imitating life, imitating art.

Cries of pain escape through my pencil
Graphite tears
Don’t ignore my smudges of saline, heartache, and lead
And tell me that you love me.
Your words play in my mind, on repeat,
Like my favorite songs on the radio
But they won’t change the fact that you abandoned me
When I needed you most.
So I’ll stay sheltered from your tempestuous care
After all, I can’t miss what I’ve never had
I am an orphan whose mother is in the next room.

I have my alternative music, my existential poetry, and my drawings
(carefully rendered with a cheap #2 pencil)
To protect me.
I am shielded by these friends
Hiding in my room
Safe within my tomb
Yet in plain sight for anyone who’s looking.
John Donne was wrong;
I am an island.

Alone, yes.
But I rise, strong, from a sea of tears,
And I watch the sun rise on the horizon.


Students: note the picture below. I continued to tinker in my notebook after class to find the words I was looking for. This is a natural and necessary process in writing, and I hope some of you will share your beautiful poems on your blogs!

You can see some of the many edits I made in my writing notebook.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Why I'm Qualified

Recently, I was asked why I “felt qualified” to select texts for my students to read and who gave me “the authority” to do so. Deep breath.

This question wasn’t posed by a student – a 12th-grader suffering from a slight case of cynicism and a touch of senioritis – no, it was posed by a community member.

I calmly replied: I have a degree in Literary Studies and graduated at the top of my class. As a teacher certified in ELA 8-12, G/T, and ESL education, I have pedagogical knowledge on which I base curricular decisions. I am an avid reader, and I continue my research on literacy and the education of literature, from the canon to Young Adult content. I attend more training sessions than required, by far, to stay current on best practices and strategies. In preparation for the AP exam and a well-rounded education, I consistently update my curriculum with new information from the AP exam, feedback from AP essay-readers, and other experienced AP teachers. I also consider student feedback and offer them choice when possible. The 12-page AP syllabus I painstakingly wrote for my course details the breadth and depth of the content we will explore, and I believe that the essential questions listed with each anchor text provide adequate information about why reading that text is important and offers insight into what my students can glean from the reading. Ultimately, as my syllabus was approved by the College Board, they provide my credibility.

I stopped there. There is a line between asserting one’s proficiency and plain ol’ bragging. I couldn’t help feeling immediately defensive, however. I mean, how often is one asked so pointedly to defend his or her credentials? I mean, really. Why did I feel I was qualified? Who gave me the authority to make decisions regarding my career? Deep breath again.

I understand that most of the press concerning teachers is bad press. Teachers-gone-wild types of stories. I understand that parents and community members want reassurance that the people who spend so much time with their children are educated professionals. The point is: we are! Are there bad apples in the profession? Sure. Show me the profession where there are none. The teachers I know, myself included, get up every day and head to work solely to improve the lives of students in some way. We are their advocates. We are their mentors. We are their voice of reason when needed and their support system when they’re down. We are teachers. We have trained for this, and continue to train. We know our content, and we know it well. We are enthusiastic about our subjects, whether they have to do with DNA (thank you, Mr. Reichle) or a literary masterpiece. We make decisions that are the best for our classes based on our love and skill in our areas. So yes, we are qualified.

I guess what really bothers me is the lack of respect for this profession. Can you imagine walking into anyone else’s place of business and asking them what made them think they were qualified to do what they do? Why is there an almost universal assumption that anyone could do what a teacher does? Worse than armchair quarterbacks are those who think they understand the complex career that is teaching because they were once students. I’ve been to the doctor many times, and I have a good deal of lay medical knowledge, but it does not mean I’m ready to go into practice.

I’ll end this with a simple plea; please assume that each teacher you meet is a highly-skilled professional who has earned the authority to make decisions in his or her classroom. Just as you assume your mechanic can fix your car or your nurse can take your blood pressure, assume that teachers can teach.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Listen for the Cherries

          You hear it all the time, if you're listening - Holocaust survivors are fewer every day; soon, only recordings and memories of their testimonies will remain. Sadly, this is true. As I listened to Max Glauben discuss his experiences in the Warsaw Ghetto, imprisonment in four concentration camps, and the murder of his family, I understood the responsibility that came with bearing witness to his story. We must nurture empathy for all people in all people we interact with by sharing the best and worst of our human history. As Max spoke, I appreciated his ability to find humor and beauty in the world and share those gifts with us. I marveled in the little details - the things you don't learn from books.

          I took some notes as Max spoke, and my notes are marked by some roughly drawn cherries. You see, I found that a lot of what I wrote represented the facts: dates, locations, Max's age at liberation. In essence, I copied down the more standard details in a neat, bulleted list, but the truly interesting facts - the details that make Max's stories unique and deeply touching - inspired me to give them more attention. When Max shared how the first cherries he tasted after enduring starvation were "the best in the world," I couldn't help but imagine that experience and compare it with those who would take cherries for granted. I once heard another survivor, Magie, speak just as lovingly about the first orange she ever ate. On her way to live in England via kindertransport, a stranger handed her the fruit, and like Max, she still enjoys it today.

          All of this is applicable to everyday life, whether you're listening to a Holocaust survivor or anyone else with a story to share. For example, I treasure the stories my grandmother shared about her daily life during the Great Depression and WWII. There's a huge difference between learning that nylon was used for parachutes during the war (and therefore difficult for civilians to purchase) through books or history class than hearing a first-hand account of how that meant that nylon stockings were unavailable to women while they were still expected to wear them. My grandmother humorously explained how she and her friends would draw a line down the backs of their legs with a makeup pencil, careful to make the "seam" straight, in an effort to mimic stocking seams and fool the eye. Of course, care had to be taken so as not to smudge the mock stockings. She also talked about the scarcity or outright unavailability of many of the fruits we take for granted today.

          My grandmother recounted in great detail how she learned that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. At that time, many families shared phone lines, or "party lines." If one picked up the phone to make a call and heard others conversing, the polite thing to do was hang up the phone and wait. Of course, much eavesdropping occurred. On December 7th, 1941, my grandma picked up the phone to call her friend and heard frenzy and distress. She listened as the news about the attack in Hawaii was described, and she ran to tell her parents the news that would change the course of history. The stories and lessons of my grandmothers are many and varied, and I hope to record them all at some point.

          I know that blog posts should be brief, and I probably lost many readers by now, but the point is this (and it's an important one): when we truly listen - and more than that, actively listen and probe for details, we gain knowledge and understanding that can only come from connecting emotionally to the storyteller and the event, item, or persons of memory that they describe. This knowledge can only be alluded to in print. We must never miss an opportunity to really listen, for everyone around us is a potential storyteller.

Cherries for Max

Friday, July 25, 2014

Praise for In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson

Late last night, or rather early this morning, I finished reading Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts. I purchased this book with nothing to go on but my interest in WWII history and satisfaction with other works by Erik Larson - notably Devil in the White City and Isaac's Storm. I was not disappointed.

Those seeking a more shocking account of the atrocities committed during the war might be disappointed, for this book tells the story of the U.S. ambassador to Germany and his family during Hitler's rise to power. Ambassador Dodd was not the popular choice for the post, and his daughter Martha's zest for romantic encounters and her generally free spirit raised some eyebrows. She cavorted with young Nazi officers and a Russian spy alike, and it's worth noting that it is a mark of her time that her character is called into question for merely behaving almost as brashly as the men around her. Ultimately, Martha and Ambassador Dodd see the true and horrific nature of Hitler and his party and disassociate with them as much as possible while still in Germany. Dodd refused to attend Nazi rallies, making enemies at home and abroad as he chose to do the difficult but morally correct thing and uphold the values of democracy and freedom.

In this text, Larson paints a vivid account of what living in Germany was like during Hitler's rise, and begins to answer the question that so many have asked: how could so many people follow such a fascist, evil regime? In an honest account of the strengths and weaknesses of Germany, readers can begin to understand the depths of fear and control that permeated the country. Those who openly questioned Hitler's authority were killed, and while this doesn't justify the atmosphere of appeasement that occurred, it does explain it.

Once again, Larson's mastery of a flowing, narrative style to convey history, rich with cited primary sources, makes this book a page-turner. Now, on to Thunderstruck!

Eulogy for Melva

Recently, I faced the solemn task of trying to capture in words all that my grandmother meant to me. I felt honored to honor her at her funeral service, but I did worry about what to share; how much of my personal connection with my grandmother should be discussed versus an overall tribute that everyone would recognize as the woman they knew and loved? Ultimately, I decided that the same traits that made her such an incredibly loving force in my life would be instantly recognizable to others as what they knew about my grandma. Three of us spoke at the service, each with a different approach, and I think that, together, we did the best we could to capture the compassion, wit, and love that my grandmother exemplified. Some friends asked me to share what I wrote, so it follows here:

3 6 9 0 9 8 7. Imagine the numbers on a phone’s touchpad. 3 6 9 0 9 8 7.

            “There’s an easy way to remember this if you ever need me,” my grandma told me.

            She guided my tiny finger over the numbers as she showed me how the numbers 3,6,9,0,9,8,7 made a line down and back across the dial.

            You see, I wasn’t always able to see my grandma as a child, but she wanted to make sure I remembered that she was always there for me if I needed her.

            Of course I needed her. I don’t think a more loving, compassionate, talented, and incredibly beautiful woman ever lived.

            I needed her to take care of me, and she did. She taught me how to cook everything from grilled-cheese sandwiches toasted with real butter, not margarine, to bacon that was crisp and very well done – the way we agreed all meats should be prepared. She gave me beautiful flowing nightgowns because she thought I should feel beautiful, even in my sleep. We visited Northpark Mall quite regularly, where we talked and walked – and walked really quickly, by the way. She might have had short legs, but we would weave in and out of slower walkers and she could run laps around people with much longer legs. On these excursions, grandma often insisted that I pick out a new outfit. Being very frugal, I would head straight to the clearance rack to try to save her money. She would get so frustrated with me because she wanted me to feel that I was worth more. “If you like what’s on clearance, then buy it, but don’t buy something you don’t like just because it’s a few dollars less.” Of course, the underlying message was always that I had value, and she didn’t want me to forget that.

            I needed her to be a role model, and she was. No, she is. My grandma shared her stories with me but also listened to mine. I learned that despite our difference in years, we had a great deal in common. We joked about our Taurus traits – loyalty and stubbornness. When I admitted to her that I had skipped school one day to drive to Lake Murray in Oklahoma with Erik, she told me about the time she skipped school to go drag racing. We discussed serious issues and social injustices as easily as we discussed favorite colors and movies. She taught me to communicate – through song, if necessary. I learned that my propensity to alter the lyrics of songs to fit the occasion was a family gift that originated with her dad, who would often wake his daughters up in this way. Perhaps the greatest of all values that my grandmother instilled in me is the ability to put myself in the place of others and to remember that everyone is facing some form of adversity. She taught me that words are powerful, and that kind words can work miracles. My grandmother followed her heart and went after what she wanted. So when she decided that she wanted to sing on live radio and landed the job, she also found her accompanist for life in her handsome pianist. Several of us would not be here today if not for her passion for music and her tenacity.

            I needed her to guide me, and she did. My grandmother exuded love and warmth every second we were together and made me feel secure – something that was lacking at home. In this atmosphere of safety, she helped me explore my interests and encouraged me to read. The copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn that she lent me taught me that my situation did not define or limit me, and that education would shape my life and provide new opportunities. I would not be an English teacher today if not for grandma’s encouragement and her passion for reading and insistence that I follow my dreams. I was going to say that any time I needed advice, she gave it to me, but that’s not quite right. When I thought I needed advice, grandma would talk with me until I clearly understood what I wanted to do and why I needed to do it. I don’t know if she learned stealthy counseling super-powers during the many years she worked at SMU’s mental health clinic, or if this, as I suspect, was a natural gift of hers, but I always felt more confident, empowered, and at peace after talking with my grandmother.

When I was 18, I needed her to answer the phone. A very difficult year left me estranged from my family, living overseas, and not knowing how to get in touch with anyone. And then I remembered.

            The lesson she taught me as a child echoed in my memory as I looked at the phone and dialed: 3 6 9 0 9 8 7. My grandma’s warm, musical voice greeted me, and her unwavering love and support immediately healed all wounds. I have valued every year since, knowing her not only as a wonderful grandmother, but also as a friend. You’re all here not only because you know what an enlightening presence Melva was in this world, but also because we have all been blessed by how she enriched, and will continue to enrich, each of our lives.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

I Really Wanted to Appreciate This Book

I just finished Uri Orlev's novel Run, Boy, Run. It relates the true (yet partially fictionalized) account of a young Jewish boy who fights to survive during WWII against all odds.
Being fairly well-versed in Holocaust literature and memoirs, I understand that many survivors have seemingly impossible stories. Impossible because of the depths of evil that occurred and impossible because of the strength, courage, and perseverance of others. Yet these events did occur, and it's important that the world does not forget.
This is where I felt disappointed with the book. It has the abstract feeling of inauthenticity. It just doesn't quite ring true, and I feel like this does a disservice to the very real survivor depicted in the novel. I understand that some holes in the story must be filled in with the best information possible, but I don't feel that this has been seamlessly done here. Maybe I've been spoiled by Erik Larson.
Here's the problem: Goodreads tells me I'm wrong. People love this book. Am I judging it too harshly against the more mature literature I usually read? This book is clearly geared toward middle-schoolers. I think they would be enthralled and able to relate (on some levels) to the story's protagonist. If this is a gentler introduction to the horrors of the Holocaust, isn't that a good thing? The book also provides an alternate story of pain and loss not centered on a death camp. I do respect this focus on a different aspect of the realities of war.
Ultimately, I recommend this book for young adult audiences, preferably with a knowledgeable adult with whom to discuss the history behind the book.

Friday, July 4, 2014

You Can’t Buy an Aztec Pyramid at Kmart!

You Can’t Buy an Aztec Pyramid at Kmart!

By Amber Counts

Of all the teachers who shaped me, for better or worse, there are a few I wish I could speak with now that I am an adult. I was fortunate enough to tell two of my favorites just how much they meant to me before they retired, and I’m still trying to track down my high school biology teacher, Mr. Reichle, though I fear he is no longer with us, to tell him how much his encouragement, expectations, and enthusiasm still mean to me. However, there is one teacher with whom I would have a very different conversation if given the chance.

            In Spanish I, we were asked to construct a cultural or architectural artifact from an ancient culture that once existed in a region that currently speaks Spanish. Inspired by their architecture, I decided to construct an Aztec pyramid. I studied pictures in encyclopedias and library books and bought supplies at the craft store with money I had earned babysitting.

            Based on careful research, I meticulously measured and cut the balsa wood and glued the pieces together to build a replica of the pyramid. Once dry and structurally sound, I sprayed the model with Fleck Stone – a new type of spray paint at the time, and not cheap by my standards – to make it look like stone. The results were pretty impressive, even up to the impossibly high standards I set for myself.

            The day came to turn in projects, and the first clue that things weren’t going to work out as they should came when my Spanish teacher laughed at me, in front of the entire class, for listing items like “X-acto knife” and “pencil” on my supply list. She had said to list everything we used, but clearly she didn’t really mean “everything.” After berating me in front of my peers, she gave me an “F” on my project.

            “I think you bought this,” she taunted me.

I had never spoken back to this hateful teacher, nor any teacher, before. Not even when she got mad at me because there wasn’t a close enough Spanish version of my name and I had to go with “Amalia” for class purposes. I just couldn’t stomach the injustice of this accusation.

“You can’t buy Aztec pyramids at Kmart! Where, exactly, am I supposed to have bought this?”

With a cold sneer spreading across her lips, she responded slowly and quietly. “Get out of my class, Amalia.”

And I did. I dropped Spanish, but that “F” remained on my report card.

When I think of my former teachers, good and bad, I try to make sure I take the best properties of each and mimic those traits in my own teaching style, but I also remember not to make my students feel the way that my Spanish teacher made me feel.

I always used to think that if I ran into my former Spanish teacher, I would stand up for myself in a way I couldn’t in my youth and tell her what miserable person she is. But now, I would thank her, for she taught me valuable lessons about what kind of teacher I want to be, and I never doubt that my students are capable of impressive feats. I never forget that I am their advocate.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Confessions of a Master Procrastinator

This past weekend, I completed a 30ish page research essay. The road to completion was paved with tears and blocked by the most random acts of procrastination. My research concluded, my essay successful, what I really learned from my three-day writing spree is that I have an almost infinite capacity for distraction and procrastination. Here are some of the clever ideas I had while I was supposed to be focused on writing:

Hair's up - time to write!


My hair is my kryptonite. I simply cannot be expected to write if my hair is down. If, at any point, I realize that my hair is down, I must stop writing immediately - even if I'm in the middle of the most brilliant line ever written - and go style my hair so it's pulled back from my face.

Super-typing nails...'click' 'click' 'click'


I can't be expected to type page after page with nails that can break, so obviously I need to stop writing and immediately visit the nail salon to have acrylic laid over my nails. After all, this will give me superhero typing skills complete with unbreakable nails and that clickety-clack sound that you either love or hate.


All of a sudden, my house seems way too messy. How can anyone be expected to write in such conditions? At the very least, I need to clean the room I'm in. I might as well do some laundry while I'm at it, and when was the last time I mopped? My house is never cleaner than when I have an essay I don't want to write.

The most entertaining squirrel ever.


Writing requires sustenance. I have a sudden craving for Mexican food, but it just happens to be halfway across town at a sit-down restaurant. I just need a little time to get ready before we go, let my hair back down. Oops - there went another 3 hours. On the upside, I did get to watch that squirrel for several minutes outside the restaurant.


Everyone wants to talk to me all of a sudden, or maybe the difference is: I want to talk to everyone all of a sudden. I never make more phone calls or Facebook posts than when I'm supposed to be writing. Clearly, research is good for my social life, except for the fact that it keeps me from actually seeing any of my friends.

Basically, I learned more about myself than I did about my research. When free time is extremely limited due to an approaching deadline, it necessitates choosing what is truly important to you. So, all joking aside, I focused on family, enjoying meals with family, reaching out to friends, and finding joy in the little things - like a squirrel who thinks she's invisible because she's staying very, very still. Looks like it was a pretty productive weekend after all.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Inquiry Video - Building an AP Literature Classroom on the Writing Workshop Model

This is a very general overview of the research I have been conducting on merging the writing workshop model with the AP Literature classroom. Choice in reading and writing are great, but can we give students ample choice and still prepare them for a rigorous exam? Why yes, yes we can! I would especially like to thank Amy Rasmussen, who began this inquiry long before I did and has applied the workshop model, to the benefit of her students, in the AP Language classroom. I couldn't ask for a better mentor and friend. My resource list is only briefly displayed. Please contact me if you would like a copy.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Whither Thou Goest, I will Go

Whither Thou Goest, I will Go

                In the summer of 1992, time stood still. Others might not have noticed this phenomenon, but I experienced one perfect day, deceptively simple. I lived only in that moment: safe and loved and happy.
My wedding vow to Erik contained the promise, “whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge,” and as an Air Force wife, I came to know all that those words entailed. Erik’s first assignment was to a small Air Force base in California. I enthusiastically moved to the golden state with expectations of grand adventures, yet found myself not near Los Angeles, nor San Francisco, nor anywhere fascinating like that, but in a little town in the middle of the state called Atwater. The town was dismal. It wasn’t special geographically, culturally, or historically, and its only claims to fame were its small military base and its proximity to Modesto – the birthplace of George Lucas.
However glum my initial expectations of an Atwater life of an Air Force wife might have been, our location turned out to be a blessing in disguise.  Centrally located, we could fill up the car with cheap gas from the base and drive in any direction to find someplace special. We didn’t have much money, so this became our regular weekend entertainment. We would spend one weekend at Half Moon Bay, another in Muir Woods, and another sight-seeing in Santa Barbara.
            So it happened that on one of our trips to Yosemite National Park, we discovered what would become my happy place – physically and figuratively. With almost no money for the journey, we bottled tap water at home to quench our thirst on our excursion and stopped for fresh oranges at a farmer’s roadside stand. These were meager provisions for the day’s expedition, but we were happy to be together – driving, listening to music, and exploring – so we didn’t mind.
            We stopped in the little town of Mariposa, not far from Yosemite.  Observing the small wood-frame buildings lining the main road through town, I imagined how the town must have looked in the days of the Old West, when two men might have faced off in a showdown on that very street over an argument in the saloon or a case of cattle-rustling. We chatted with some of the locals who told us about the town’s history and how it had been a gold-mining town during the great rush. One aging shopkeeper kindly provided us with a gold pan and collection vials. He winked and reminded us that most of the gold had been found long ago, but he told us he thought we were a nice young couple and he hoped we would find something in the river nearby.
“Who knows?” he mused. “Someone’s got to find something. Might as well be you kids.”
            We drove a short way out of town to the point where the Merced River runs down from Yosemite and crossed the rusty, rickety bridge, just wide enough for one car. Since Erik drove a Jeep, he didn’t hesitate to drive up the steep, winding roads lining the cliff that faced the flowing river. We parked mid-way up a very large hill (or very small mountain, depending on how you look at it) and walked down to the river. The sublime beauty of the river took my breath away. The riverbed glimmered with the pyrite, or fool’s gold, and the mica that coated it, magnified by the reflection of the sun’s golden glow. For the tiniest fraction of a second, I thought that maybe the river was full of actual gold that would put an end to our financial difficulties forever, but as geology was a hobby of ours, Erik and I quickly realized that this wasn’t the case.
We raced down to the water like children anyway, lost in enthusiasm, and began to collect as many of the little fool’s gold and mica flakes as we could, carefully coaxing them away from the sand and into small glass vials. We mused about how much our collection would be worth if it consisted of real gold, and we spent hours enjoying the sun’s gleam on the water and glistening riverbed. As a warm breeze embraced us, sounds of our laughter and moving water filled my ears, and cool water rushed over my bare feet as my toes sunk into the sparkling sand.
While the sun began to set, casting long shadows and tinting the scenery with amber hues, we hiked back to the Jeep and drove further up the mountain to its highest peak. I don’t think I could make that steep, dangerous journey now, but then, I was fearless. When we could progress no further in the vehicle, we walked the rest of the way to the peak. Lush greenery stretched out below us in every direction, and the river wound below like a shiny, slithering snake. We sat on top of that small mountain as the sun set, eating oranges, and lamented that we had not found any actual gold, but honestly – it didn’t matter. As night tinted the Western sky with shades of orange and purple, Erik held me in his arms and we watched a lunar eclipse together. It was as if the heavens had proclaimed this as a special day. We might as well have been on top of the world. It was just the two of us, and nothing else mattered. Contentment does not seem like an adequate word to describe the deep sense of well-being, love, and connection to nature I felt at that point, but it was a state of total, utter contentment. I had journeyed up a mountain to find blissful nirvana at its peak.

The rusty, rickety bridge that marks the entrance to my happy place.
My son jumping into a deeper part of the same river twenty years later.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Rock, Paper, Scissors

While I have changed my friend's name to protect her anonymity, the story below depicts an actual event that occurred when I was in 2nd grade. The fragmented thought, lingering questions, and feelings of doubt therefore reflect my state of mind at that point as well as how I remember it when I look back on the memory over three decades later.

Rock, Paper, Scissors

By Amber Counts


I can’t believe I lost rock-paper-scissors. It’s not really fair anyway because I don’t know how to play. Jenny learned from her older brother. She must know some secret I don’t. The game can’t be as simple as that, can it? It’s so hot outside. Cooling off in the creek seemed like a good idea, but walking home to get us some water – the result of losing the bet – my jeans are plastered to my legs in an uncomfortable way, chafing as I walk uphill towards my apartment. Sloshing waist-deep in water all day looking for crawfish and pretty rocks, but not being able to drink the water, is really inconvenient. Though we usually only think to go back home when the apartment lights come on, our thirst cannot wait on this muggy August evening.

                Opening the door to my squalid apartment, the air-conditioning hits me full-force. My stiff jeans become icy cocoons, and my bare arms erupt in goosebumps. A short time ago, I was miserably hot, but now I am uncomfortably cold. I open the kitchen cabinet, looking for the plastic cups to safely carry tepid yet refreshing tap water to Jenny, but there are none. Sighing, I begin to wash the dirty cups left on the counter from the previous night’s dinner.

                “It figures,” I think. Not only did I have to trek all the way back to the apartment to get water while Jenny gets to wade through the creek, but I also have to clean the cups first. I really need to learn how to win rock-paper-scissors, I think. With the cups clean and full of tap water, I begin the walk back to the creek.

                The hot air hits me immediately as I leave my apartment. I hear my grandma’s voice in my head, telling me that these abrupt changes in temperature cannot be good for me. My jeans stay cold almost all the way to the creek, though I feel the dampness beginning to evaporate as my jeans are already lighter than when I left the creek earlier.

                Immediately, I know something is wrong, though I am not sure what. Jenny is scrambling up the bank of the creek holding onto her clothes and wearing only panties, mud smears all over her shoulders, legs, and face. On the other side of the creek, I see a man running the opposite way.

                “What’s wrong, Jenny?”

                She doesn’t answer.

                “What happened?”


                “Are you hurt?”

                She still doesn’t respond, and my panic increases.

                “Did that man do something?”

Jenny is silent. She half-runs, half-staggers toward her apartment, and I follow. Jenny stops outside her door, shaking. I’m not sure if she’s cold or scared, and I don’t know what to say to make her feel better. The silence between us is palpable as I still cling feebly to the cups of water. After what seems like an eternity, I’m knocking on the door. Jenny’s mom opens the door and immediately pulls her daughter in, screaming words I can’t quite make sense of.

I make my way home and place the water next to the sink. I do not yet have a name for what has happened to my friend, but I instinctively know that it is terrible.

If only I had won rock-paper-scissors, she would be okay.

Tribute to Marla Robertson

A few of you asked me to post this, so here it is. This poem might be a bit corny, but I think it reflects the fun and joyous attitude that Marla brings to our writing workshop while still being a respectable Doctor, full of knowledge and skills that she shares in the spirit of collaboration. Marla is truly an inspiration! For those of you who weren't with us, the apple puns correlated with a delicious baked apple breakfast pastry, courtesy of Whitney Kelley.

Dr. Marla,

We congratulate you on earning your Ph.D.!

They say an apple a day keeps the doctor away,

but we think the opposite is true

when the doctor is also a teacher.

So here’s an apple for the teacher, Doctor, and friend.

You are the apple of our eye,

the best of the bunch,

the cream of the crop.

You have the sophistication of a pink lady

and the sharp wit of a granny smith.

You’re as sweet as pie.

You’re good to your core.

Your knowledge is bountiful.

We know you would turnover backwards for us.

Because we could not hold a gala in your honor,

we honor you today with puns and provisions.

Thank you for all you do.

NSTWP Summer Institute, 2014


Monday, June 16, 2014

Creating Choice and Authenticity in the AP Lit Classroom

I began the North Star of Texas National Writing Project summer institute with a burning question in mind: how can I incorporate a writing workshop model into an AP Literature classroom? Abhorrent to a test-prep approach to teaching, though fully aware of my responsibilities to enable students to succeed on the high-stakes AP exam that marks the culmination of the course, I endeavor to teach the necessary skills and facilitate students' acquisition of knowledge in a way that feels authentic despite the standardized testing parameters. This is a tall order.

Students need to know what to expect on the AP examination. There is nothing like it in the world of daily reading and writing. For those of you who are not familiar with the structure, students read 4-5 passages, a combination of prose and poetry, and complete 55 high-level multiple choice questions within an hour. Next, they write 3 essays in 2 hours based on poetry, prose, and the "open-ended" prompt for which they must identify the best novel, novella, or play on which to base their response. This is a grueling test that demands intense concentration, reading and writing stamina, combined logic and creativity, and speed. The only way for students to prepare for such a taxing exam is to practice with released exams, including multiple-choice questions and strategies and essay passages and prompts. Of course, they also need to read enough novels, novellas, and plays so they have a wide repertoire from which to draw for that open-ended essay.

However, all test prep and no play makes Jack a dull boy. I'm not sure this is the place for a reference to The Shining, so I'll try again: If teachers primarily focus on test-preparation, students will suffer from lack of engagement, lack of authenticity of the reading and writing experience, and perhaps most importantly - the real reasons behind reading and writing, which include learning and communicating about the human experience. 

So, how do educators offer the necessary information about the exam while keeping daily classroom activities more authentic? As many experts before me have said (such as: Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, and my friend and mentor Amy Rasmussen), the answer lies in choice. As much as possible, students should choose what they read, how they respond in writing, and what their inquires are. Let's use my experience in my summer institute as an example. Able to choose my own inquiry, I feel more inclined to research and learn as much as I can. I feel free to weigh different viewpoints and deduce my own meaning. I feel free to change my mind, explore, and relate what I learn to my own unique situation and goals. In short, I am engaged, excited about learning, and motivated. Isn't that what we want from our students?

Do I have all the answers to my inquiry yet? No, but I have quite a few that I'm keeping under my belt, for now, until I have tried them in the classroom. Meanwhile, here are some ideas that I have compiled from educators more wise and experienced than me, along with several I already employ, that students can expect to experience in my classroom:
  • Blogs for a variety of writing, from creative pieces to responses to texts, videos, etc. (thanks, Amy Rasmussen!)
  • Original pieces modeled on mentor texts (teaching AP Lit. through creative writing is a new goal I'm working on - thanks, Matt de la Pena!)
  • Daily writing in notebooks - the new twist will be me sharing what I write with my students (thanks, Penny Kittle!)
  • Facilitating a more natural discussion of poetry vs. TPCASTT or another formulaic approach - let the students identify author's craft in a more authentic way
  • Writing poetry as a primary way to understand and explore poetry and sharing my poetry - sharing my own work has always scared me, but with new understanding of how important this is to students, I have moved from anxiety to exhilaration about sharing my writing
  • More opportunities to self-select texts of literary merit - in my experience, students are more likely to write about a text they chose on the AP exam anyway. I have already allowed some choice, but I will expand opportunities for choice this year. 
I haven't written my inquiry-based research essay for the summer institute yet, and I'm sure I will generate many more ideas as I do, but I am already excited for the possibilities that await next year as I let go of the fear of teaching enough test prep to meet standards and trust that by really teaching the literature, they will still get there, but have more fun and authentic experiences along the way. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Penmanship, Progress, and Possibilities

It's important to know how to read cursive writing.
Reading cursive is not important in the age of computers. Most of us type, anyway.
Knowing how to spell words properly is important so that students can clearly communicate what they mean.
As long as a student can right-click and select the appropriate word, he or she will be alright.
Writing legibly is imperative and indicative of eye-hand coordination and a sophisticated mind.
Doctors are notorious for writing sloppily and are successful nonetheless.

These are just a few of the differing viewpoints shared by teachers of different grade-levels and content areas during our writing workshop today. Clearly, we are in an age of transition, but isn't education always in such a state of flux? The rapid rate of technology growth since the computer revolution is responsible for many of the dilemmas we face in education today, but teachers have grappled with similar changes since long before the digital age.

My daughter recently shared a 19th century professor's quote with me that denounced the evils of writing on paper in the classroom. There would be too much waste; students would write careless notes to their friends with no regard to the precious resource that paper represents. Students were losing the ability to write well on slates. Some ended up "with chalk on their elbows!" Two centuries later, few people lament the loss of classroom slates. In fact, we've almost come full-circle with the use of personal white boards when they fit the lesson plan.

Therein lies the real lesson about the fear of letting go of traditions in favor of new ones. Human beings create new tools to make life easier. In fact, I challenge anyone to define what it means to be human without including the use of adaptable technology on that list of defining characteristics. As educators, we must prepare our students for the world that awaits outside school boundaries. In reality, most communication will occur through digital media. Let's get our students blogging, typing research essays, citing sources using helpful online tools, file sharing, and creating infographs, videos, and Prezis. Too often, we hold on to traditions because they represent how we learned. Some even view laborious handwriting and spelling practice as a rite of passage. As we suffered, so shall you all. I say that tongue-in-cheek. I don't believe that teachers intentionally perpetuate outdated practices out of any sadistic or lazy tendencies. Rather, it is difficult to know when it is time to shift the focus to new areas.

The first teacher to ditch the slates in favor of paper probably seemed crazy to some, not the least of which the afore-mentioned professor; however, look at all that we gained in that process: the ability to save work and track progress, the ability to transport ideas from one location to another without fear of smudging or wiping away, and the option to craft longer works. After all, a slate allows only so much space for brilliance.

Imagine the possibilities that await us as we shift away from a focus on penmanship and writing on paper to the exploration and utilization of a variety of available media. I'm not saying we should abandon cursive or tell students that spelling doesn't matter. For the record, one of my favorite memories consists of practicing calligraphy and cursive with my grandmother. I also won a spelling bee or two in my day. Rather, I'm proposing that if we place less emphasis on those talents in order to focus on newer needs, the benefits could be greater than we can imagine.

Ultimately, if students find that they need a stronger mastery of traditional skills, they will work to improve on their own. Students learn best when they have authentic need for information. With standards to meet and limited class time, teachers must carefully choose which skills to focus on within their given confines. It is important to remember that tradition is rooted in the past - not the future. As author and former teacher J.K. Rowling writes in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:
          Every headmaster and headmistress ... has

          Brought something new to the weighty task of
          governing this historic school, and that is
          as it should be, for without progress there
          will be stagnation and decay. There again,
          progress for progress's sake must be

          discouraged, for our tried and tested traditions
          often require no tinkering. A balance, then,
          between old and new, between permanence and
          change, between tradition and innovation ... (11.92)
Let us take care to keep what is truly important and move in new directions where progress could lead to inspiration and innovation. We cannot fear change, for it will happen whether we will it or not.

Where I'm From Poem

Okay, so I have to admit something. I've heard about this poem and assignment combination before, and while I know it has merit for students in classrooms ranging from elementary to secondary, I wanted to throw a temper-tantrum when asked to write one myself. I could hear my inner child exclaim "I don't wanna!" After listing memories in several different categories, I felt the too-often experienced pang of knowing that most of my early memories range from fairly dark to outright tragic. The very fact that I have worked to create a new reality in my adult life and a new type of family for my children makes it difficult for me to revisit some of my earlier memories. I don't like to dwell though I acknowledge that it is important to know where I come from. So, there you have it; I ultimately talked myself into completing the template and resultant poem. Here are the results:

Where I’m From
by Amber Counts

 I am from music,
from alternative rock and melancholy ballads.
I am from the home destroyed by lies.
(Arguments, deception, it smelled like marijuana.)
I am from the mighty oak,
the Tree that Grows in Brooklyn,
rising up between the cracks of the concrete jungle
despite its oppressive beginnings.

I’m from new family traditions,
forged with Erik and Tabytha and Ian.
I’m from the talk about everythings
and the showing we care through the little things,
from You care too deeply!
and You’re too nice to everyone!
I’m from forgiveness of those who have harmed me
and occasionally of myself.

I’m from Native America and its conquerors,
corn and Cadbury chocolate.
From the day I met Erik in band
and skipped school to spend time with him,
the beautiful children in our laughter-filled home
26 years later.

I am from love and truth
that have triumphed over my parents’
mistakes of the past.
I am not trapped in their bluesy songs of woe.
I make my own music now.
Upbeat tempo.