Why We’re Opting Out of Testing

Our oldest is in third grade in New York. This means Littlest Pet Shop and Shopkins have flooded her bedroom; fractions and division have overtaken number lines and addition; and she is growing faster than her pants can keep up. It is joyful (and for this dad, yes a little bitter-sweet) to watch her grow.

There is one thing in New York State that feels decidedly not third grade, however. Decidedly disrespectful of the eight and nine year olds’ developing minds and of the teachers who are guiding them through another year of transition in their mental, emotional, and social growth.

Third grade, like in many parts of the country, is the start of statewide standardized testing, the kind ushered in under NCBL more than a decade ago. The kind that, left unchallenged, will now be a part of her school year, every year, for the remainder of her schooling.

The kind that takes up well more than the smallish sounding “2% cap” the US Department of Education called for last year. Any teacher in a testing grade knows the additional weeks and months spent on test prep lessons, test prep books, practice tests “for stamina,” “Saturday Academy” for test prep for “struggling” test takers, and after school hours. Some schools make all of March a “Test Sophistication Unit.” Others find themselves in test prep on and off all year. I have even see textbooks and programs that added “bubble in the option” test prep questions starting as early as kindergarten.

This testing is the kind that since Race To The Top has been a primary factor in determining a teacher’s worth. Several years ago NYS released this cheerful, pro-Value Added “Growth Scores,” animated video to explain the then-new system and how it “allows every teacher to have a chance to demonstrate effectiveness.”

Of course, effective teachers already know that you do not “demonstrate effectiveness” with standardized testing. Instead, you find it by witnessing the developing relationships, deep thinking, joyful energy, risk-taking, and love of learning we support in our students.

Do Not Lose Hope: Act

There is a glimmer of hope and one we must grab in this moment. In a dramatic turn in policy, this past December the governing education body of New York State, our “Regents,” voted to temporarily remove test scores from teacher’s evaluations (at least through 2018-19). It was the first significant policy shift against testing or its reach.

Where did this shift come from?

Many sources, including The New York Times, draw the line to one major factor: Parents Opting Out. 2015 was the largest, to date, show of students refusing to sit for the test (this graphic from NYT shows the dramatic explosion across just three short years, 2013-2015).

In the months that followed dramatic actions took place at the highest levels:

Once again: where did these dramatic shifts come from? Voices. Voices standing up for children and the teachers who dedicate their lives to raising them.

So, my family has decided to join that chorus. For this first time we are able, we are joining the Opt Out movement and refusing to have our child take the NYS tests.

The word no made from jigsaw puzzle pieces
Photo Credit: Horia Varlan (under Creative Commons)

How to “Opt Out” of Testing

While not a tough decision for us, it was still one that made us feel nervous. How do we do it? How will the school react? Will they understand our reasoning? Luckily, there are communities of active parents across the country to help.

For example, in New York we turned to the NYS Allies for Public Education. Their website, www.nysape.org, contains resources, sample letters, and explanations of how to refuse the test and what to do if you face trouble doing so. I also spoke to other educators, parents, and educators-who-are-parents, for advice. Principals, teachers, and non-educator parents shared the steps they took. Here is what we did:

Steps to Take

  • Set a meeting with your child’s principal. It’s often nice to talk in person about your reasoning and it gives him or her a chance to respond. Be sure to share the ways your decision is intended to support educators and children. We also found it helpful to point out how the school already, without standardized testing, makes us aware of our child’s progress. We feel very clear on both of our kids’ growth because of the many formative assessments teachers give and their continued contact with us.
  • Follow-up with a formal letter detailing your request. This letter not only helps you be clear with your wishes, but in politically-charged districts gives the administrator and teachers “cover.” They can refer back to it if questioned.
  • Check-in shortly before testing. We will follow-up once again a few days before the tests begin and send our child to school with plenty of books to read and activities to do during the hours of testing.
  • Lastly, I would add: be vocal. The movement grows only by the voices of those involved.


The conversation with our child’s principal was terrific. She was open and curious about our perspective, gave us time to discuss our reasoning, she raised NYC Department of Education concerns about a child not testing, and then described for us the accommodations already in place to meet what NYC Department of Education, under Chancellor Carmen Fariña, stipulated in the Parent’s Testing Guide: “If a student is in school and refuses to take a State test, the school will make every effort to arrange for another instructional activity, such as reading or completing another project or assignment.

We left feeling like we were respected and heard, whether she agreed or not, and that we had a partner in raising our children in her and our school community.


In the years since NCLB, and then more dramatically since Race To The Top, our profession has been under fire and the shape of our children’s education dramatically challenged. Few people would question these initiatives if they delivered what they once promised. However, we have years of testing data without real solutions. Like getting a cholesterol check year after year that shows your levels are dangerously high, and then not investing in exercise and a better diet.

I hope that with further action, and more families committing to end harmful testing practices, we can further reduce the effects of testing on our children and colleagues.

Without the fear of evaluations built on the backs of a single test, schools and teachers can feel free to continue to open (or reopen) their curriculum and school day to arts, making, hands-on science, increased time for physical education, curiosity-driven math, and the kinds of reading and writing practices we know change students lives and skills but in many districts (including much of NYC) are pushed aside for textbooks that had promised “test-alignment.”

I also hope you will join me. Join this movement in progress if you have not yet or continue raising your voice if you have. Voices matter. The pioneers that came before us gave my family the strength and faith to take up this cause and action ourselves.

If you live outside of New York and have other resources to share, please feel free to add them in the comments section, or share your stories as a parent and/or teacher.

Thanks for all you do for children, for colleagues, and for this great profession! Together we build the future.


Bring your edu-friends: #TheEdCollabGathering

There are many kinds of tired.

Grumpy tired, new baby tired (hi Kate and Maggie), but-its-THE-WEEKEND tired, and the rest. (Pun intended.)

Right now, though, I’m feeling awesome-tired. The kind where your eye balls are crossing and your every thought includes a blanket and yet you feel like you’ve accomplished something big.

While I won’t really rest until Saturday, at about 5PM, a first big accomplishment of this upcoming weekend is finished and ready to share:







Come check out the agenda, the presenters, the sessions – and while I’m totally biased, I can’t help myself but be oo’ed and ah’ed by the line up.

Saturday, September 20th

9:30AM – 4:00PM EST

Donalyn Miller is keynoting, and there are just too many others (Jen Serravallo) to mention here (Rafranz Davis), you’ll really have to go (Kristin Ziemke) check it out (Kathy Collins) for yourself (Luis Perez) and start making (Sara Ahmed) plans for what you’ll watch live (Kristi Mraz) that day.

The best part, is that—if the internet behaves—all sessions will be archived. So you could actually watch all of the sessions, even the ones you miss the first time!

We will keep the site and archives live for as long as you’d like to keep click, click, clicking on em.

We are so excited to share this with all of you!  Thanks for all you do.

I Have BIG News to Share (tomorrow!)

I am so excited. Excited, nervous, energized, and just waiting to see what you think.

 July 16, 11AM EST

Right here:


Is this a teaser, yes? Are you sufficiently teased? I hope so. 😉 

I’m grateful for this education community we all share and I can’t wait to share the big, big, BIG news!


P.S. It’s really big.


And now for something completely different.



I Have BIG News to Share (in 2 days)

I am so excited. Excited, nervous, energized, and just waiting to see what you think.

 July 16, 11AM EST

Right here:


Is this a teaser, yes? Are you sufficiently teased? I hope so. 😉 

I’m grateful for this education community we all share and I can’t wait to share the big, big, BIG news!


P.S. It’s really big.


And now for something completely different.


(note this video is probably PG-13 for a very few instances of language)


I Have BIG News to Share (in 3 days)

I am so excited. Excited, nervous, energized, and just waiting to see what you think.

 July 16, 11AM EST

(1pm was a typo. Sorry.)

Right here:


Is this a teaser, yes? Are you sufficiently teased? I hope so. 😉 

I’m grateful for this education community we all share and I can’t wait to share the big, big, BIG news!


P.S. It’s really big.


And now for something completely different.




I Have BIG News to Share (in 4 days)

I am so excited. Excited, nervous, energized, and just waiting to see what you think.

 July 16, 11AM EST

(1pm was a typo!)

Right here:


Is this a teaser, yes? Are you sufficiently teased? I hope so. 😉 

I’m grateful for this education community we all share and I can’t wait to share the big, big, BIG news!


P.S. It’s really big.


And now for something completely different.




I Have BIG News to Share (in 5 days)

I am so excited. Excited, nervous, energized, and just waiting to see what you think.

 July 16, 1PM EST

Right here:


Is this a teaser, yes? Are you sufficiently teased? I hope so. 😉 

I’m grateful for this education community we all share and I can’t wait to share the big, big, BIG news!


P.S. It’s really big.


And now for something completely different.




I Have BIG News to Share

I am so excited. Excited, nervous, energized, and just waiting to see what you think.

 July 16, 1PM EST

Right here:


Is this a teaser, yes? Are you sufficiently teased? I hope so. 😉 

I’m grateful for this education community we all share and I can’t wait to share the big, big, BIG news!


P.S. It’s really big.


When There’s No White Horse: Being our Best Advocates

A few days ago several people forwarded a blog post to me titled “An Obituary for Close Reading.” They sent it along not because they thought talk of the death of close reading would worry me (life will go on), but because there are some less than glowing comments made about Kate and my book in both that post and a follow up one.

Some close friends felt badly for me, some others wondered if I should respond, still others said to brush it off.  I’ve had my share of good and bad reviews for all sorts of stuff, so it’s nothing new.

I did feel compelled to write a post today because, bruises aside, I actually agree with the author.

Well, okay, I’m human I don’t completely agree. I, like all parents, think my babies are the sweetest, brightest, most beautiful ones on the block.

I more specifically agree with the conceit that we need to be careful of buzz words and advocate for our own learning and practice.

To go a step farther, I think advocating needs to go well beyond shunning buzz words. Once something has become edubabble it is almost too late.

We, as a profession, need to advocate earlier and often for the policies that come our way. We need to shape the decisions that are made in our districts. We need to be active with our administrators. We need to offer our professional expertise so by the time something gets to the babble stage, it’s actually worth babbling about.

That was our hope with our tongue-in-cheek titled, Falling in Love With Close Reading, that we could restore best practices to a term which, at the time, was buzzing with nonsense.


We Can’t Wait for Advocates, We Need to BE Advocates

In their book Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School, Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan argue that while the teaching profession can hold onto hope that an advocate in government or the public will arrive, we must instead become our own best advocates right now.

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The reality is, when questionable things intended to “help education” trickle down to us — either from the federal, state, or district level — they are questionable to us now because they truly were questionable when they were decided.  Or more accurately, they were questioned during the process of decision making.

I was watching a documentary on the Cold War recently and I was struck by one meeting in particular.  Russian ships were on their way to Cuba and no one in the US military was certain why. Could they be carrying missiles? Were they empty and only coming to posture? Around the table, most of Kennedy’s advisors were pushing for a preemptive attack against Russia. Striking first, before the ships arrived, could scare them away. There was much debate, a lot of uncertainty, and for whatever reason Kennedy continued to say no, we should wait. Wait to see what they do first. No one knew the “right” move, it was all discussion, it was all conversation.

History revealed that choosing to wait was the right choice. Of course it could have not been.

Watching that documentary, I was so struck by my naiveté regarding history. For me, it always seemed so linear: pilgrims came, then colonies, then the Revolutionary War, and so on. Seeing the people, hearing their perspectives, I was shaken to realize (and embarrassed this had not clicked for me until now) that every decision that has been made and will continue to be is, quite literally, a room full of people talking about possibilities.

The same holds true for decisions that come our way in education. Though textbooks can seem to rain from the sky and standards are zapped into being through bolts of lightening, those initiatives were made by people and their best guesses.

So first, it’s important to realize that in all cases, decisions are drawn from experience and information (or lack thereof). When your district says “this textbook will help our students succeed.” You can be certain that no one who made that decision is 100% sure of that statement.

Which is where we, as professionals, come in. Before edubabble ever gets to the point of edubabble, we can advocate in small and big ways. We can help bring our expertise, experience, and knowledge to the table.

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Small Steps to Advocate

There are small step ways to advocate for our students, our work, and the right improvements to education:

  • Take back edubabble: In some cases the babble may come with a good intentions that may have become muddle in practice or the telephone line of implementation. If what you are hearing doesn’t match what you know to be best practices, change the word or revise the definition.
  • Don’t malign district decisions, get in there are help to make them: Decisions that are made are almost always made to help kids. It is just that often people making those decisions do not read research and work with kids enough to really know what works best. You are the expertise they need. Volunteer for curriculum review committees (even if they don’t exist yet, volunteer yourself!).
  • Connect with other passionate educators: Around your district and across the world there are people as engaged, active, and inspiring as you. Find them. Start a book club or lesson planning circle in your community, join a twitter chat, or sign-up for a summer course.

Dorothy Barnhouse‘s introduction to her new book, Readers Front and Center, is a master class in advocating. Written with passion and practicality, she helps us to rethink some of the edubabble in the Common Core reading standards and the constellation of “aligned” (and often not) initiatives. One highlight is the way she reframes the “Text Complexity Triangle” that every CCSS states’ educators have seen one-thousand-and-one-times (see my tweet for the visual, color added). That graphic, stunning in it’s simplicity, is a whole new way to talk about the same work described in the standards. I can picture school board members having those concentric circles in their hands and school leadership teams posting it on the wall of their meeting room, all saying “did we start with students with this decision?” and consulting the image again.


Big Steps to Advocate

The big step ways involve supporting our colleagues in having the vision, passion, and guts to bring classroom experience to leadership and policy levels:

  • More career educators need to move into policy and government roles: school boards, local, state and federal governments
  • More career educators need to move into school leadership roles: administration and central offices
  • More career educators need to move into research and teacher training roles: higher education, authors, consultants
  • More career educators need to remain in the classroom and also become more politically and socially active: writing, voting, speaking

A piece of this is reflecting on our own careers. Have you ever entertained the thought of an education life beyond your classroom or school building? You do not need to have one, but it’s a question worth considering. Your gifts may be able to impact many students and educators in more positive and purposeful ways then we are often experiencing now.

A larger key is being inspiration for others, for our fellow educators. When I began as a teacher I assumed I would always be in the classroom, I loved my students and found the job both impossibly difficult and incredibly fulfilling. It was a high school literacy coach who said, “maybe you should consider coaching. I think you’d be good at it.” It was my first step out of full time classroom teaching. The rest is history.  You can help shape the future of our profession by inviting a talented colleague to dream: “I think your passion and voice could help a lot of teachers and kids, have you ever thought of applying to policy program? We need more educators out there.”


We Are Our Profession

You are already an advocate. Every day you walk into your school, every child you believe in, every family you connect with, you are advocating.

We need your voice and talents even more. There are many improvements ahead for our profession, if you are not a part of making them then someone else will.

Your voice matters.

Thanks for all you do.


On Broken Door Handles and Butter Knives

A day or two before leaving for a long stint away from home, speaking at UW-Madison and then on to Boston for NCTE and CEL, it was a typical afternoon. Right around 2:40 my mother-in-law and I were getting ready to leave to go pick up my kids.  It is often a two person job–she was heading to our preschooler several blocks to the west and I to the bus stop for our first grader several blocks to the east. Shoes on, coats on. Routine.

She reached for our apartment door and it wouldn’t open.

Jiggle, jiggle, lock, unlock, lock, unlock. Nothing.  I ran over. Jiggle, jiggle, lock, unlock, lock, unlock.

“Está cerrado!” I said, not able to find the word “broken” in my mental Spanish dictionary.

“Oh no,” she said.

Both children are picked up at 3:00, we had fifteen minutes to get this door open.

So, we did what any reasonable human being would do, we completely freaked out in this order:

  • Jiggle, jiggle, lock, unlock
  • Shake the door handle violently.
  • Jiggle, jiggle, lock, unlock–with more conviction.
  • Imagining how to jump out of a third floor window to the street.
  • Get angry.
  • Call my wife’s cell phone, who was teaching and clearly not in ear shot of her phone how dare she HOW DARE SHE.
  • Call again.
  • Both of us call her at same time on different phones.
  • Jiggle, jiggle, lock, unlock
  • Butter knife, right? Thieves do that or something.
  • Call wife’s school in a panic and frighten the secretary.
  • Call my daughter’s school in a panic. (They were calming, they know how to handle this).
  • TOOLS!
  • Hammer, pliers, large and small screw drivers.
  • Dismantle door plate and begin to remove door knob.
  • Stop, bad idea.
  • Reassemble door knob and door plate.

By this point my wife had gotten the message, had left school early, was rushing home, by this point it was clear it was too late to get to the bus stop on time and (as her school calmly told me) my daughter was most likely on her way back to school at the end of the route, by this point my son’s teachers knew we were running late.

Everything was arranged on the outside, we were basically not needed.


by MichaelDiederich used under Creative Commons lic

I wedged the butter knife back inside the little open space on the side of the door, near the latch, and paid attention.  While the flat side didn’t grab the latch, the teeth did. The slightest movement! TWO KNIVES! I grabbed a second and like two little hands inch-wormed the latch open. Freedom.

Caution: broken doors

The NCTE and CEL conventions this past weekend in Boston were incredible, as they always are.  Joyful, exciting, like a homecoming.  There was also, just below the surface, a sadness.

At the end of my session with Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts on Saturday, I told the crowd that now, more than ever, at speaking engagements people seem to come up at the end and cry.

They cry because while filled with a deep joy for the art of educating, they are feeling crushed by the state of education. The many people in my life, dear friends or friendly acquaintances who have a gift for teaching that shines through their children’s eye, those people who are pillars in our world are all asking, “how much more of this can I take?”.

I’ll be honest with you, I’m seeing their faces now as I write this and am trying very hard not to cry myself.

I see you, my friend, the Curriculum Coordinator, and you Literacy Coach, you ESL teacher, you Amazing Principal and you brand new Science teacher, and I see you teacher I just met and hugged after that session, a big bear hug as we cried together.

Teacher evaluations,

student testing,

scripted curricula,

slashed budgets,

initiative overload.

This was not our routine. This was not in our plans.

Know this: there are always butter knives.

For me those butter knives are connecting.  At NCTE (as with twitter, conferences, and working in schools), I get to remind myself why I fell in love with teaching in the first place.  This weekend I shook Nancie Atwell’s hand (and tried not to embarass myself with gushing), I met Donna Santman… I mean, I have been in rooms listening to her for years and carry Shades of Meaning like it’s a map… but we met each other for real. I had the incredible pleasure of speaking on the same stage as Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts. I spoke in hallways, turned and talked in sessions, toured a museum, sat at lunches and dinners, all with old friends and new. I stood back and saw the sea of faces in those sessions, hallways, hotel lobbies, and was reminded that we have the collective power to do amazing things.

Butter knives are different for each of us, but those butter knives are there.

My friend Paul Thomas won the George Orwell Award at this past convention, his butter knife is writing and speaking out for the lives of teachers and educators.

Jillian Heise received her National Board certification this past weekend, her butter knife is learning and belief in learners.

Penny Kittle passed out envelopes at a session to raise money to support more classrooms having books, her butter knife is supporting readers.

Heather Rocco spent two years organizing the CEL convention, her butter knife was bringing leaders together to refuel their own passions.

The list continues: listening to children, talking with a colleague, taking on a study, joining a twitter chat, writing a blog post, leading an organization, waking up in the morning and deciding to go to work.

You know your butter knives. Use them.


Once we got that door opened it was amazing how all of the stress left. Nothing seemed hard anymore.

We replaced the door handle.

It works now.

door handle

Middle/High School Teachers Apply for a Book Love Foundation Library

Penny Kittle has been announcing on twitter that applications are now open for her organization, Book Love Foundation‘s classroom library grant.  Applications are due very soon, July 1st!

Open to Middle and High School teachers, it is an amazing opportunity to give access to books to your students and–quite literally–change their lives.

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Access the application (due July 1st!) from the Book Love Foundation website or here.

Give the Gift of Reading

Penny  tells me that soon Book Love Foundation will be accepting donations and fundraising will take place later this year. This way even more classrooms can be supported. Be on the lookout for these updates!

What’s Good For Parents is Good For Schools

My daughter is ending her first public school. Her kindergarten “moving up” ceremony was Tuesday night where she sang the ubiquitous “First Grade, First Grade” to the melody of “New York, New York” (which, my mother points out, I sang at my own moving up ceremony prompting her to bawl, both at the actual moment and at every mention of that moment since).

I am sure that the steps of the moving up ceremony are ones her teachers and her school have moved through over and over again. I know they feel important to the staff, like the first day of school feels to everyone, but I know it is nevertheless routine.

I think of my own parent-involvement routines from my classrooms: “back-to-school night” to introduce myself and our curriculum, inviting parents to writing celebrations, going on class trips with parent volunteers, and parent-teacher conferences. As a teacher these things felt important, they were also procedure.

Now, however, everything feels different. I have a child in school, her brother is in Pre-K next year and soon in the public system himself.  I. Am. A. Parent. (oh goodness.)

Just as I look back at my first class of sixth graders and think, “Well, at least they knew I loved them because holy cow did I not know much about teaching then.” I have a new awareness of what it feels like to be a parent coming into a school. I now wish I had done so much more.

by woodleywonderworks used under Creative Commons lic

Every Parent Wants to Know

Parents want to know [everything] because they want to help. The more we let parents and guardians know the more they ultimately can help their children and, in turn, us.  Many schools post grades online (and yes, many teachers have wonderful and terrible experiences in relation to those postings), but grades are simply the end result of an activity. Consider instead how you communicate with parents at the start of learning.

  • Communicate the focus of the month in every subject.  This could be as simple as an email form letter with topics, or in a more elaborate way suggest activities parents and guardians can take on at home.
  • Help parents see the journey. Weight loss before and after photos are dramatic and inspiring, if even for a moment. Consider ways you are providing a “before” and “during” or even “after” image of growth for parents.  I am learning that we really can see it, but in other ways we really can’t. My daughter can write words and sentences (huge and visible), but how she thinks about science is less clear (teach us how to see this). As the year moves on, consider times for these inspiring updates.
  • Tell parents important events and ways to give back waaaaay in advance. I love our “month at a glance” calendars our daughter brings home. Many schools share these with families. Know that we stick them right up on our kitchen wall where it’s impossible to miss. Include both trips and events, but also ways to be involved for parents that can come into school as well as those who would like to give back from afar.

Every Parent Wants to Be

Parents want to be present and active parts of your community (but we don’t want to pester). Schools often are concerned when there is a lack of parent involvement. I’m guilty myself of the teachers’ lunchroom complaint, “some of these parents never show up.” What I have reflected on this is year is how hard it is to be all the places I want to be and also how difficult it is to reach out and ask.

  • The more invitations the better. Often times parents and guardians want to support their children’s schools but don’t know how or are afraid to ask.  I think of a school’s role as needing to be more like television advertising.  The goal of those advertisements is not to make you stand up right now and go purchase the product, instead it’s to influence the way you think about the product so next time you are shopping you think, “wow, I have a feeling this soda will make me more fun to be around.” If invitations 1-24 don’t get involvement, 25 just might. Don’t give up. Keep ’em coming.
  • Balance safety with a welcoming spirit. I have visited schools where the focus is on school safety and security. Good. I have also visited schools where the focus is on school safety and security and community. Breath of fresh air Better. Think of how the TSA underwent a massive retraining as complaints about customer service rose. I travel a lot and am acutely aware of how much a TSA officer’s friendly, “flying anywhere exciting today?” greeting or “Let me help you with that” offer goes a long way to feeling welcome.
  • Call on expertise. Sometimes parents don’t know what to give back or don’t believe they can contribute. In conversations early in the year, seek out individual family strengths, keep a list, then call on them later: “Mrs. Carter, I remember you said you love to paint, we were going to do a science project on life cycles and I was wondering…”

Every Parent Wants to Feel

Parents want (no not just want, love, LOOOOVE) to feel cared for, just as their students. 

As I said, my daughter’s “moving up” ceremony was last night. I noticed the large paper flowers carefully made and hung throughout the auditorium. I noticed the music carefully chosen. I noticed the felt green “mortar boards.” I noticed the children’s names printed in the program. I noticed the hours of practice to get “This Land Is Your Land” out just right. I noticed the teachers who stood for way to long to make sure every parent got a photo with them and their “diploma.” I noticed these details. We all did.

Know that every thing you do for us–for all parents–means way more than you realize.

Your few extra moments typing  “The Class of 2021” onto green paper will stay in our keepsake box for years. Will be taken out in 8 years when our children move to high school and again 4 years later as they pack up for college. When you put your love into what you do for our children, you are reaching every family in a profound way.

Continue to reach out to your parent community. What you strength for them, will strengthen your school.


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Learn how to have him work with your school or organization.

3 Questions When Lesson Planning

by CarbonNYC used under Creative Commons Lic.

While planning with literacy coach Elizabeth Lacy we got to talking about the development of teachers across time. She supports both new and experienced teachers and we noticed that there is often a shift from novice teachers who plan with themselves in mind (Did I follow the template my school has designed? Do I have an objective? Do I have all of my materials together? Do I even know what I’m going to say?!?) to more experienced teachers shifting to plan with students in mind (Will they be engaged? Does this develop their skills more?).

To this end we thought about questions teachers can ask themselves while planning lessons that aides in that transition from planning for myself to really planning for students. We came to these three questions (there are probably others, or better ways to word these. I’d love to hear what questions you have on your own personal “am I meetings their needs” list).

1. Will this lesson lead to a large volume of work that is rigorous for the students?

Sometimes lessons are well articulated, involve multiple demonstrations and steps, sometimes even a lot of materials… but then fall a bit flat when students return to their independent practice only to spend 2 minutes on the work of the lesson and say “I’m done.” When planning ask yourself will this lesson lead to a lot of practice? Shift talking about one way to write a lead to instead suggesting ways of trying out multiple experiments.

Within that, will this lesson be rigorous for the students in front of you? Meaning, does it push their skills appropriately, not so easy that they zip through the work quickly and not so hard that they get very little done from misunderstanding.

2. Is this a strategy that students can come back to/that will live beyond today?

This next one feels especially important. Sometimes lessons seem to fit only the book we are teaching from or the piece of writing we are demonstrating. Ask instead if the lesson you are teaching is something students will be able to use over and over again beyond this moment. Our shared aim as educators is to develop independent thinkers, writers, readers, scientists, mathematicians, artists… Reexamine your lesson and revise so that it feels larger than just today. For instance, instead of having students fill out a graphic organize that compares only these two particular books (with prompts directed to those books), teach students ways of brainstorming comparisons that they could apply to any comparative essay or reading.

3. How does this lesson connect to the end goal/standards/essential questions of the unit?

Lastly, this question often can seem like the throw-away at the end of lesson planning: “Okay, lesson planning done. Oh wait, I forgot to mention the standards… mmmmm, eenie, meenie…” Instead, teachers that plan with students in mind do not just find a standard that matches their lesson just out of compliance, instead they see standards as connected to end products or end learning. Consider how this lesson is moving students towards a larger understanding, be critical and revise as needed.

We’re looking forward to using these planning questions for ourselves and with teachers in the future. What are your own questions that support you in planning with students in mind?

Leave a comment or connect with me on twitter.



Christopher Lehman blog sticker-01Follow Chris on Twitter and his Blog. Learn how to have him work with your school or organization.

Summer Reading, Writing is a Habit (and No One Likes Habits)

by puuikibeach used under Creative Commons Lic

The end of the school year is fast approaching and as educators our minds turn to the obvious celebration of this glorious time of year, the end of a year of hard work, students growth, and this amazing sunny season: assigning summer homework.


Assigned book lists for the in-coming grade. Essay prompts to write. Sometimes even packets to complete. A lot of which many of us secretly reveal we barely read or do anything with in September.

It’s all well meaning. We know that students over summer can drop reading levels if they don’t read. We know that September can feels like the September of the year before, not the continuation since June if students are not actively thinking. We want our students to carry with them the work of a year so we can hit the ground running. We do this out of love.

What we are really asking students to do is to take on new habits, to make the work of the year part of their daily lives.

Here is the problem. Most of us hate new habits.

New Habits are Horrible

by kevin dooley used under Creative Commons lic

My self-directed summer assignments include: eat better, exercise more. Could you think of anything more terrible? This will, as it always is, be hard to maintain and tough to make time for. Enjoyable and amazing when it goes well and frustrating when I skip the gym for two weeks and just eat everything.

New habits are not made from book lists handed out on the last day of school. New habits do not come from assignments.

New habits come from self-drive and from a community of others. Think how you will use these last weeks of school to continue to build both.

Habits Helpers: Drive and Community

  • Summer reading club or reading partner lists, instead of simply book lists: Have students begin to organize now who they will be reading alongside, who they will talk with about their reading. As simple as phone numbers or email address, as complex as setting up book club meet-up dates.
  • Begin writing for self now, instead of just relying on a prompt: Have students begin exploding with writing, any genre, any purpose, any technology. Then just as with reading clubs, help them think about who they will share writing with. When will they check in?  Or even who could they be writing with? A google docs epic sci-fi adventure written by three classmates could fill an entire summer with writing.
  • Find a writer or reader you want to be: When we want a habit of better health we often look to people we admire: celebrities, family, friends. We learn about their routines and try to emulate them. Have your students write about the readers and writers they plan to admire over the summer. It could be you, classmates, professional writers (You could even draw connections beyond literacy, like in my guest post What the Kardashians Taught Me About Reading Instruction (No, For Real).

Think beyond summer assignments to engaging students in the real, tricky, exciting work of developing new habits.

Happy summer! Happy growing!



Christopher Lehman blog sticker-01Follow Chris on Twitter and his Blog. Learn how to have him work with your school or organization.

Stop lying: Writing is so hard.

I was writing with my friend and current co-author Kate Roberts at her home on Sunday.  At one point late into the day, at an official “wait, when did it become 6:30?” moment, we started talking about how hard writing is.  How it’s fun, exciting, but also exhausting. We are well into revising mode yet the little line-by-line work and the big nope-that-lesson-didn’t-go-well work both take so much time and energy.

As we were talking… yes mostly to avoid writing for moment… we quickly switched our conversation to thinking about how students write in school and wondered out loud if we as teachers of writing are bringing lessons from our adult writing lives into our rooms.

Revision is horrible until it’s beautiful until it’s exhausting.

I told Kate about a conversation I had about a month ago, I can’t remember exactly where, but a few teachers brought up the point that students seem to hate to revise.  I began with my usual stump speech and practical tips and then stopped for a minute.

I had a flash of myself, in front of my laptop, at 1:38AM, on a work night/day, revising and quietly cursing in my head, “why aren’t the thinks I’m thinking getting thunk on the page any faster?!?”  I then flashed to a heated debate with Kate over a section (of a now very old draft version we have long since improved upon) that at the time neither one of us was totally emotionally prepared to give in to the other on. I then flashed to a moment of turning on the television and refusing, absolutely refusing, to even turn my computer on because I was just so drained from a day of work I couldn’t even face the screen.

I remember looking up at those teachers and saying, “You know what, if I really think about it, of course your students hate to revise.  Writing is a terrible, emotional, time consuming–sure, at times wonderful–thing.”

i am writing

Revision is as revision does.

Kate and I started reflecting on what it means to commit to revising in our adult lives and how it does or does not look in classrooms.

  • Revision involves thinking of audience and a clear purpose. Carl Anderson has written about this, I have even done some of his lessons on this with students.  Heck, the standards even say we should care about this. But I don’t bring this up enough with students.  Yet, every single word I write and all of the hundreds upon hundreds of nit-picky rewrites I do are all with some reader in mind. “Will this make sense? Are they going to understand my point? A list of three questions stylistically reads more fluidly than just two right?”
  • Revision involves heart-ache and letting go. I am convinced you haven’t really revised anything until you’ve taken something you absolutely love that you wrote and deleted it.  I do so much teaching of what students should add to their drafts that I do not think I do enough teaching into what they should look for to cut.
  • Revision requires other eyes. Hallelujah that I am lucky enough to have great editors in my life.  I have learned so much working with each of them. My friend and editor Tobey is always terrific at seeing just what isn’t working as well as it could and suggesting cuts, changes, and needed explanations. What makes her a special talent is that she doesn’t write the book with us, she never says, “in this part I would write this.”  Instead she is much more of a writing teacher than editor, she gives big ideas, raises larger issues and then lets go.  I always aim to support teachers in leaving students with big strategies — I wonder, though, if I work enough on having honest (not harsh just honest) feedback about issues in writing that need addressing.
  • Revision takes time. In our conversation Kate pointed out something that has stuck with me, that I can’t figure out a solution for just yet, but that has really stuck.  The simple fact that it can sometimes take hours just to revise one small section of one page.  Yet, in classrooms, even in ones that give students time to revise every day for a week, the sum total of in-school revision work is perhaps two and half hours, maybe pushing three. I see the need to keep types of writing going and lots of opportunities to publish.  I think there is value in that.  I also know that when revision feels painful to students any day spent on it can feel like an eternity.  But I still wonder, are we – can we – provide the time needed for students to even feel the power of revision.  To get through their own stages of grief to acceptance?

My thoughts are racing with reflections.  “Duh”s and “Hmm”s and “What if”s.  I guess the biggest idea I will be carrying with me is if I am humanizing writing instruction enough for students. Do I expect them to do miracles that most adults find hard to do? Do I share my own struggles enough?   I’d love to hear some of your own lessons from your writing life and what they mean for your teaching of writing.

Happy anxious feelings of dread… er… writing.



Christopher Lehman blog sticker-01Follow Chris on Twitter and his Blog. Learn how to have him work with your school or organization.