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.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

5 Categories of Memories

based on Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox

What is a memory?

Something warm: Benji during the "snowpocalypse." He is paws down the best dog that ever lived.

Something from long ago: My boyfriend (now husband of 23 years) risking the band director's wrath to give me a kiss, 1990

Something that makes me cry: My dad and I getting to know each other after too many years apart. This was taken during his 1993 visit to England while I was pregnant with my daughter. We laughed at our luck that, of course, on the day we visited Buckingham Palace, there was no changing of the guard. He didn't get to be a grandfather for very long before he passed away, but he loved his granddaughter deeply.

Something that makes me laugh: During a period of "baby fever", I spontaneously bought this black bear hamster so I could fulfill those nurturing instincts. I mean seriously, what 39-year-old does that? Sammy (the hammy) still entertains me daily.

Something as precious as gold: Of course my children are the most precious people in my life, and the memories we've made together are the most important. This photo was taken the first time my daughter held her baby brother in 1999.