Once Again

We have far too many of these Monday mornings when children will walk into schools once again after a mass shooting from the day or couple of days before. Any number is too many.

Dearest Texas teachers – as your neighbor, as someone who grew up in one of these small Texas towns, as someone who knows you teach because you believe you have a more important calling than to simply help raise a test score, I wish I had a way to make tomorrow easier.

Honestly, though, I don’t want tomorrow to be easier. My fear is that this day you face tomorrow has become too easy. My fear is that your students won’t expect that this horrific killing will be discussed. My fear is that tomorrow is just another Monday.

My fear is that we’ll put some extra grief counselors in some schools and make an announcement that they are available if any one needs them and then move on to the announcements of when drama club will meet and how the schedule will be adjusted for the pep rally on Friday. My fear is that we’re so damned reluctant to share with kids that we’re as confused, angered, saddened, horrified, and afraid as they are that we take the easy way out – and nod in agreement that it is terrible and then move on. My fear is that there is even one teacher here in this state who will worry that talking about this will open up the gun conversation and that could seem political and that could be bad, so best to just stay away from it at all.

My fear is that even one teacher will forget for one moment that all those students in all those classrooms watch you. Sometimes you know when they are watching. They squint their eyes, tilt the chin, and stare. They dare you to miss that they are watching you. Other times, those eyes dart from desktop to you. Just for a moment before they quickly look away. Sometimes they push someone a bit harder, laugh at someone a bit louder, crash notebooks onto the floor a bit more often just so you’ll look. Look at them. Look past the bravado and the swagger and the “Nah, I’m good” to see the tension, the anxiety, the fear. And sometimes, they just come and stand a bit closer, linger a bit longer, fiddle with something on your desk just chatting about nothing. I can’t tell you how they will watch you, but I can promise that they will.

And that’s why I know, I know, what you do matters and what you do after horrific events matters even more. No one ever told you that you’d need to know how to sit with children or teens to talk with them about people in churches getting killed by a gunman or little kids in a school getting killed by a gunman or families at a concert getting killed by a gunman. No one. And you didn’t sign up for that. You didn’t. But they will watch you and they will listen for what you say and what you don’t say. Many of you have been calling this group of kids “your kids” for months now. They are your kids. And you are their – something. That person who stands before them and affirms them each and ever day.

So, you’ll make that circle a little smaller so that these children sit a little closer and you’ll tell them you’re sad and angry and confused and you know they are, too. And it’s ok to feel that way when such horrific things happen. We’re supposed to feel that way. And you’ll tell them that smart people are trying to figure out why he did this and others are talking about how to keep this from happening again. And others are making sure they are safe where they are. So their job, yes their job, is to make sure that while they are thinking a lot about reading and math and science and band and football, they are also remembering that the most important thing they can learn is how to be a good friend. How to be kind to others.

Our students won’t solve the gun problem we have in this country. And they aren’t tasked with wondering if this was an act of a terrorist or a murderer – a conversation I heard on national TV today. But we can take a hard look at how we treat one another – how teachers treat colleagues, how students treat peers, how teachers and students and parents treat one another – and ask ourselves, “Is there is enough kindness?”

Because all I got right now is that what will get us through the worst times is standing closer, holding tighter, listening harder, loving longer, and being kinder. And if even one child goes home tomorrow, at the end of what I know will be a very hard day, with that quick grin of remembering being kind or receiving a kindness, then tomorrow will be a day well done. And you, once again dear teachers, will have done far more than help raise a test score. You will have helped raise our nation’s children.

What We Do Next

Dear Teachers,

So many of us are deeply disappointed in the committee approval of Betsy DeVos. We’re disappointed because we believe that the Secretary of Education ought to have deep understanding of educational issues and laws. We’re disappointed because during the hearings, DeVos did not demonstrate that she has that understanding. We must depend on that hearing because she does not have a history of work in public schools, at being published in peer-reviewed journals or by educational publishers. She hasn’t presented at state or national conferences, written educational blog posts, worked on textbooks, served on national councils, or been a part of the national conversation on educational issues. She doesn’t come to the job with the history of being a teacher, a supervisor, an administrator, a professor of education. So, it was the hearing that showed us, showed the nation, the depth of her knowledge of educational issues.

And that depth was shallow.

And so we wonder what it means that she might be our Secretary of Education. We wonder what it means that our Congress thinks she has the expertise to lead our nation’s public schools.

Here’s my answer: I don’t give a damn what Congress thinks. Congress seems to not care enough about what happens in schools to make sure the Secretary of Education actually understands what happens in schools. So here’s where I’m putting my effort: I’m putting my effort into helping you. I care what you think. I care what you do. I care what happens each day in your classroom.

And that means that tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that I need you to walk back into your classroom and teach students. Do the best job you have ever done. Look at each child and see that child as your own. Look at each child and know that one of them will cure cancer; figure out how to make polluted water clean; find a way to make sure no one is ever hungry; become a teacher or a fireman or a chef or a lawyer or a preacher or an actor or a mom or dad. That squirrelly child who can’t find a pencil might someday serve in our armed forces or become a policeman/woman or a plumber; a farmer or a pharmacist; a grocer or a salesperson. And one might decide to take on leading this nation and go into public service. Those children you teach are our tomorrow and for our tomorrow to be the best it can be, we need you to be your best today. Spend more time talking with colleagues about what is working and what isn’t. Read more. Read more. Read more. Push harder. Don’t ever give up.

Make sure you know who your local school board members are. Can you name them? Do you write them? Do you let them know what is working and what isn’t working in your district? Do you know who your state school board members are? Do you reach out to them? Do you create the time to write to them? Do you reach out to your local newspaper and describe all that is wonderful that your students are doing? Do you write for your state journals? Are you a member of your national content association such as the National Council of Teachers of English?

In other words, worry most about your kids. They deserve the best you can give. And worry a lot about what you know and don’t know. Work with your colleagues to learn more. Always learn more. And work hard to make sure you are active at your local and state level.

And call your Congressmen and Congresswomen. Respectfully share why you think our educational system deserves a Secretary of Education who actually understands and believes in public education.

And go tomorrow into your classrooms and teach. Shut your door and teach. And I’ll keep doing all I can do to support you.

You are, for so many of our nation’s children, their best hope at a better tomorrow. Go teach.

Reflecting on Tomorrow

Dear Teachers:

I have teachers to be with tomorrow, on November 9, and that is where I want to be.

What I have learned tonight is that the anger and hurt in this country is deeper and stronger than I understood.

I am a teacher. I am a teacher. I tell children “Don’t bully. Respect others. Don’t call people names. Keep your hands to yourself. Don’t lie. Work hard. Prepare for important things. Study. Read. Think before you speak.” And yet tonight I sit here and watch how those qualities matter less than I thought they would, they should.

And so I sit here tonight and cry. I cry for the teacher who told me today that her colleague is Latina and has said she and her family have their escape plan to Canada because of a family member who is here illegally. I cry for the taxi cab driver in NYC who told me his eighth grade daughter is afraid to go to school the day after the election because they are Muslim and students at her school have said “You’ll be kicked out, you terrorist.” I cry for my friend’s son who is afraid his mom will die if Trump “gets rid of the healthcare my mom needs because she has cancer.” I cry for my friend whose son is disabled and he has wondered why people like a man who “makes fun of people like me.”

Dear teachers, some of your students will arrive sad and scared. And some will arrive boastful and willing to share that walls will be built and terrorists will be kicked out. And in one classroom they will sit looking at each other. And then they will look to you. If you are like me, you will wonder “What now do I do?”

Turn to books. Books have always saved us and they will again.

Our kids must read Wonder to sob at the way we treat those who are different and never, never, read that book to identify vocabulary words. We must read Speak to find our own voice and not to compare and contrast characters. We must walk across the bridge into Terabithia to stand in awe, not to answer a multiple-choice question. We must read Ira Sleeps Over and watch how one confronts fear. We must read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and wonder how, oh how, could we have ever have made those mistakes. We must read to laugh; to cry; to learn; to grow; to get lost and to be found.

And we must write to discover who we are as we hide in an attic; as we walk along a dusty road; as step through a wardrobe. We have turned literature into a multiple-choice test and writing into a chance to earn points on a rubric and in those moments we have forgotten that literature and writing heal; literature and writing never give up; literature and writing give us voice.

If we read to go places we have never been, then we write to become what we never knew we wanted to be. We must read and write more. More. And then more again.

So tomorrow, let your kids read. Let your kids write. Let your kids discover their voices. Let your kids know that kindness still counts.That bullying – in your classroom – is not tolerated. That stories can heal.

Tomorrow will be followed by the next tomorrow and the one after it and the next. And each day, you will help kids learn that words – those they read and those they write – can help them through the hardest of days.

So proudly, I stand beside you. Today. And tomorrow.

When Teachers Learn

On April 4, high school teacher Jennifer Drury did what teachers do so well. She thought carefully and reflectively about some of her teaching practices regarding the teaching of literature she now doubted and as a result of her reflection, decided to make a change.
I know this because she wrote about her thinking and shared it via a letter she wrote to me and and posted on my Facebook page. It’s a beautiful letter and it reminded me, again, why I think teachers are indeed our best hope for a better tomorrow: you think; you reflect; you question what you know and what you are doing; you learn; you grow.
Jennifer’s basic concern was that she had let teaching to the test become too important – even though this was never her goal. This reminded me immediately of a line in the preface from Dov Seidman’s brilliant book titled How: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything. In that preface, he explains that there “is a difference between doing something so as to succeed and doing something and achieving success” (p. xxxvi). Jennifer found herself doing something “so as to” succeed and she decided no more. NO MORE. 
I applaud Jennifer and know that our teaching profession is filled with teachers just like her – you pause, rethink, reflect, consider, and when you decide it’s time, you change. I also think we sometimes need a way to begin that process. So, if you and some teacher friends are ready for a conversation, I’d offer the following process you might follow (with a glass of wine, of course!):
2. Read an article I wrote that was published in Journal of Adolescent and Adult Reading in 2013 titled “What Matters Most.”  I’ve attached a PDF of it below
3. Talk with colleagues about both.
4. Create, with your colleagues, your own what matters most document.
5. Put your thoughts into action.
Teachers change tomorrow each and every day. Thank you for all you do each and every day.

Texas Workshops Fall 2015

I’m always happy to spend more time in my home state of Texas and that’s happening this fall as I run three workshops in Texas. These workshops will all focus on the close, attentive reading of nonfiction. They are most appropriate for teachers 4 -12, though primary teachers often attend my workshops and they tell me they easily adapt strategies to work for their students.

Here’s a list of when and where. Sure hope to see online friends at one of them!

Saturday, September 12. Keynote workshop speaker for the West Houston Area Council Teachers of English. Though sponsored by an ELA organization, all teachers are welcome. Location: Sugar Land, Texas. Registration info: http://whacte.org. (Workshop is from 8:00 – 11:00 a.m.)

Wednesday, September 30. Keynote workshop speaker for Region 13 in Austin, TX. This is part of the STAAR Distinguished Speaker Series. Registration is at Region 13’s website. (Workshop is from 8:00 – 3:00.)

Monday, October 19. Keynote workshop speaker at the Texas Association for Improvement of Reading fall conference at Baylor University, Waco, Texas. Registration is found at the TAIR/Baylor site. (Workshop is from 8:00 – 3:30.)

All of these workshops will share the information my coauthor (Bob Probst) and I present in the forthcoming Reading Nonfiction: Stances, Strategies, and Signposts (Heinemann, 2015). All content area, resource, and ESL teachers are encouraged to attend as well as literacy coaches, supervisors, and administrators. Math teachers – please know that while I include some information that will be helpful in math class, this is most appropriate for ELA, reading, social studies, and science content.

Hook-em Horns!

Reading Nonfiction correct title jpeg

Standing In the Middle, Shoulder to Shoulder

By Kylene Beers

Recently, one of my professional heroes won a huge award: The Global Teacher Prize. It was won by the extremely deserving Nancie Atwell. She then, in perfect Nancie style, announced that the full $1 million award would go to her school. I say, “perfect Nancie style” because she has always been the person to put kids first, to put fellow-teachers first, to put teaching and learning first.

Perhaps that’s why her comment during a live interview with CNN stunned many. When asked what advice she’d give to young people thinking about entering the profession, she said she couldn’t encourage young people to become public school teachers. She explained that in this climate, the restrictions on public school teachers are just too much and so she couldn’t honestly encourage folks to go there.

Her comment stunned me, too. At first. And then when I thought about it, I realized that, once again, Nancie was doing what we’ve always looked to her to do: speak the truth. This is an incredibly difficult time to be a teacher—and that’s for the seasoned teacher who has years of experience. That’s for the teacher who knows research that can be used to try to counteract bad practices if not in her district, then at least in her school. That’s for the teacher who understands that many educational policies will change if you can just wait it out. That’s for the teacher who has found his or her voice and knows how to respectfully, but assuredly, stand up for kids and best practices.

I wonder if once again Nancie didn’t do what she does best:

Say what’s hardest to hear

But for the novice teacher—that person still figuring out how to take roll while listening to three students explain why homework wasn’t done, while answering another student’s request to run back to the locker, while signing something that a runner from the office just thrust into his or her hands, while wondering how to get the class started when too many kids are still turned around talking to buddies—that teacher can feel overwhelmed when district- or building-adopted policies seem to stand in complete opposition to all that he or she has learned is a best practice.

And when I think of that teacher, that novice teacher, I wonder if once again Nancie didn’t do what she does best: say what’s hardest to hear.

Nancie started me on a journey of rethinking practices when I first read In the Middle. At first, I stood on the edges of being in the middle—I bought bean-bag chairs and lamps and a lot of books and plants (which I promptly forgot to water) and said to the kids, “Now you read and then write me letters and I’ll write back.” Let’s just say that didn’t work out so well. It seems that Nancie was saying a lot more about reading and writing workshop than what I first grasped. Workshop is first and most importantly about, well, work! Little by little, over years, I’ve come closer to understanding many of the guiding principles Nancie offered us all in that groundbreaking book. Never once did Nancie budge from her principles: kids need choice in what they read; kids need opportunity to write about what they’ve read; kids need time to read widely and read deeply; kids need teachers who are readers and writers; curriculum built to a test has no place in a school; schools focused on test-prep have placed the value of the test above the value of a child. And when our system is so focused on standards and tests and racing to the top that we fail to see the child before us, perhaps we can no longer in good faith encourage people to head into this profession.

And, yet, of course we must. Of course we want our brightest and our smartest, our most empathetic and our most energetic entering this profession. We want them to enter demanding to know why teaching to a test would ever be more important than teaching to a child. We want them right in the middle of all that needs to change. We want them becoming the next generation of people who will lead all the changes we’ll continue to need in this wonderful thing call education. I have no doubt that this year Nancie will be one of those leaders who calls us all to action; who says what must be said; who stands there with us, in the middle, showing us the work that must be done.

Always the teacher, Nancie remains one of my heroes.


Teachers: Our Nation’s Hope Whisperers

Matt said he would never finish high school, but he did.

Katie said she just didn’t understand anything at all about geometry.  But she passed her end-of-year exam with a B-.

Alejandro said he couldn’t read, but his seventh grade teacher told him she’d help him learn.  And he read 22 books his seventh-grade year.

Elisa said she was too clumsy to make the basketball team.  But her coach said she just needed practice and she made sure Elisa had a lot of time on the court and Elisa made the team and then made it off the bench and made the winning points that last game of her junior year.

Marcus said he didn’t have anything to say, so he put down his pen and then put down his head. But one teacher told him every day for twenty days in a row that she thought Marcus had much to say.  And finally Marcus wrote about his dad who “swished through his life like a basketball swishes through a net. Silent but counting just the same.”

Jayson was afraid of recess because he had no one who would play with him. So Ms. Olson wore her tennis shoes and asked him to play tag with her.  Every day.  And on the seventh day, all the kids who had joined them now wanted Jayson to play with them.

Mr. Johnson gives his band kids his phone number “so if you end up needing help at any time and for any reason you can call me.”

Ms. Everett meets kids the night before big unit tests at Starbucks to help anyone who shows up.

Mrs. Allen always keeps a loaf of bread and and a jar of peanut butter in her desk drawer.  Help yourself whenever you’re hungry.  And yes, of course you should take an extra sandwich home.

Darien said school was dumb.  School was boring.  School was really, really stupid.  He said it over and over to anyone and everyone.  Then one day, he yelled at his teacher and said she was dumb and boring and really, really stupid.  And the teacher put her arm around him and said, “Well, what I really need is your help.  Could you help me figure out why this class isn’t working?  Could you help me make it better?”  And he stood there shocked and said, “Aren’t you going to send me to the principal’s office?”   And she said, “Nope.  I want you to stay here and help me.”  And so he stayed.  And little by little Darien shared how scared he was of everything because everything was just so hard.  “I can’t do it,” he kept saying.  “You can’t do it yet,” she would reply.

That’s what teachers do.  They add the word “yet”  giving kids confidence when kids don’t have it—yet.  Teachers are hope whisperers.

Every day, even though kids often don’t show it, they enter our nation’s classrooms full of hope.  Hope that they’ll do better, hope that they’ll be liked, hope that they’ll both stand out and fit in, hope that no one will discover what hurts at home, hope that someone will discover what hurts at home, and underneath it all—the swagger of the senior and the defiance of the eighth grader and the can’t sit still hopping up and down waving my hand for the teacher to call on me second grader—is the hope that my teacher will like me.  It only takes one to whisper hope in an ear.  One teacher.  One gentle reminder that what you can’t do, you simply can’t do yet.