Browse Tag by Teaching

Igniting a love of words and worlds.


All teachers should teach middle school at least once

A colleague said to me in passing last week, “I’d love to sit down sometime and hear your thoughts on middle school vs. high school.”

(For background, I’ve ping ponged in my career from MS to HS and back. I spent the first 4 years in MS, the next 7 hears in HS, the next 5 in MS and now I’m back in HS.)

I’ve spent a lot of the first quarter thinking about the differences. What I’ve arrived at is that I think all teachers should do a tour of duty in middle school–metaphor completely intentional. For some teachers this would be a joyful home to stay in forever, other teachers would find it challenging. But that is precisely my point: teaching middle school can make you a better teacher, if you don’t run screaming for the hills first.

First, teaching middle school reminds you of the fundamental skills in each discipline. Far from the anxiety and pressures of college and GPA, middle school is a little island of time where it’s a teachers duty to instill a love of their subject. Teaching middle school humanities, sometimes I felt like I was in a friendly competition to get students to like my subject the most. Science really gives us a run for our money.

Truly, though, teaching middle school English is about the wonders of reading and writing. We watch movies in our heads, we compose things that make other people feel something. What a gift! Teaching middle school you will be reminded about what really is at the heart of your subject, and probably what drew you to loving that subject in the first place.

Next, you can’t be sloppy or unprepared in middle school. They will eat you. Ha, I kid. But you will feel like you’ve been eaten. Middle school students are honest and they also don’t have a lot of self control to spare. So if something is confusing, illogical, rushed, incomplete–they will smell it and let you know. Sometimes they will raise their hand and tell you it doesn’t make sense, but more often then not, they will begin to roll across the floor, do a handstand, cut pencils in half, or make strange bird calls. This is your sign. You must right the ship immediately.

You better have all those photocopies made. You have to get the desks pre-arranged. Doing a group activity? Pre-sort and number the materials. If you lose time trying to sort things or arrange the room during the first 5 minutes, pandemonium will ensue. By contrast, in the high school I share rooms, and I often arrive to a desk arrangement that I need changed. I simply project the seating arrangement on the board, the 9th graders move the desks and then sit, ready to learn. If you’ve never taught middle school, asking them to rearrange the desks is disastrous. They will build them into a pyramid and then begin launching themselves at the ceiling. I kid, sort of.

When I began my last 5 year stint in middle school, in the first semester I went and talked to lower school teachers about transitions. I would transition from a minilesson at the front to independent work time at desks. Except it wasn’t a transition, more like it was a bunch of molecules firing off into infinite entropy. I was completely losing them in the transitions and I couldn’t reel them back in or get them to be productive after the transitions.

I learned that you keep those transitions tight, the instructions clear. If you can introduce a timer or a competition of some sort, even better. No dead air, no breaks, no loose ends. A well-choreographed dance.

If the instructions aren’t written in addition to being spoken, forget it. Make sure there are posters around the room with the concepts you’ve been teaching. Yes, you’ve told them the website for printing 16 times and asked them to bookmark it. They did not bookmark it. Put it on a poster and just point at the wall. Middle school students are easily distracted. They can miss instructions because a cool bird was outside, or their thumb nail is a weird shape. They are like smaller children in that way. While high school students may not need so many reminders, I’ve found they really appreciate the posters around the room that they can consult. High school students often have questions about the instructions, but they might be too shy or self conscious to ask, so putting them on the board is helpful.

In middle school, the attention clock is ticking down so fast. Give instructions efficiently and get them working as quick as you can. They cannot sit through 25 minutes of instructions and explanation. Spend 5 or 10, then get them working and address questions as they come. Middle school students often can’t envision an activity until they are doing it, so if you let them ask endless questions, they can can caught in the bog. Give instructions verbally, project the instructions on the board, and send them off, ideally with a timer or a ticking bomb or some kind of fun device to get them working.

Even though high schoolers have longer attention spans, they also don’t love endless instructions. They also appreciate getting to the work quickly.

In middle school, you need to save middle school students from themselves. I learned very quickly that if they are working on computers, they need to turn so that their screen is facing me. They don’t have the self control to resist games, YouTube, whatever is currently obsessing them. Are middle school students starting to sound like manic squirrels? Yeah, that’s not too far off. But as soon as they know you are watching, and you’ve told them three times to stop playing Fortnite, they get down to work.

Turns out that high school students might be more tech savvy, more mature, but they also need to be saved from themselves, technologically or otherwise.

Middle school students make you realize that if things don’t go super well, it’s probably your fault. Sorry to break this to you, but middle school students are basically doing the best they can, and if that lesson didn’t fly, you need to rethink the way you did it. In high school, it can sometimes be easy to shift the blame to the students. That sounds harsh and judgy, but I don’t mean it that way. Yes, high school students can be held to a higher standard, but it’s worth reflecting on how you as a teacher could have done things differently.

I shouldn’t let you walk away from this believing that middle school is just a post-apocalyptic wasteland with more hormones in the air than oxygen. When things go well, students will tell you both with their words and their engagement. They will hug you spontaneously, they will tell you that they really loved your class. The highs are high! And this will give you the feedback you need to find what works.

The growth is huge in middle school. The leaps can be impressive and the victory dances are joyful and unbridled. It’s a heady place to teach, middle school. And while I knew I needed a break, there are so many powerful teaching practices that I carry with me.


My letter of introduction, 2017

Each year I write my students a letter of introduction that I read to them on the first day.  Their first homework is to write me a letter back.  This is my 11th letter, and one I’m proud of.  Enjoy.

August 23, 2017

Dear Students,

I’m getting comfortable with failure.  Failure is the wrong word, though.  Failure is so final, it denotes an ending with nothing beyond it.  Struggle is the word I prefer.  Struggle isn’t over; struggle can continue; struggle keeps trying.  So, I will say that I’m getting comfortable with struggle.  Except comfortable is also the wrong word.  Struggle is never comfortable or easy.  But I’m getting better at struggle, at not letting struggle equal failure.

I’m getting better at struggle by being a writer.  I’ve written two novels (which add up to 130,000 words, not counting all the words I cut or rewrote) and 5, 6, or 7 picture books—fewer words, but more agony over each one.  And I’ve submitted my writing to strangers 400 times.  I copy the email address and I click send, hoping I didn’t miss a typo, didn’t misspell the recipient’s name or (gag!) my own.

The letter a writer sends out with her sample pages is called a query.  Query, which shares a root with inquire and question.  I am asking a question: do you like this?  Do you want to help me make this into paper and ink that will be dog-eared and underlined, carried in backpacks, passed from hand to hand?

What I’m really asking is, “Is this any good?”

But I write cool, collected query letters.

“I think you might like this…”

“I’ve attached the first ten pages…”

“I’d be happy to send the full manuscript…”

I try not to let my longing show through in these emails, like love letters stripped of their love.  I don’t tell them that I’ve sent them a piece of my soul, hours and hours and hours spent clicking away at my desk in a closet, during babies’ naps or after bedtime kisses.

I sign my letters “Sincerely,” but “Lovingly” is a better fit.  I’m sending the child of my brain in 0s and 1s across the air, flashes of light in fiber optic cables; sending a signal that I hope will materialize in the mind of the reader, and tell a story they didn’t know they wanted to hear.

I told a friend about waiting months for a response to arrive.  She said, “It’s teaching you to hold things lightly.”  Perhaps that’s it.  In front of the blank page I don’t hold back, I jump Geronimo off of outline bridges into streams of Times New Roman.  But then I release my words into the world accepting that maybe no one will read them, or the ones that do won’t like them.

But I keep thinking of that lottery slogan, “You can’t win if you don’t play,” and playing in this case means making something out of nothing and then accepting that that something might truly be nothing, nothing I can control, so something only for me.  Maybe?

I wonder if you, dear students, add up all the quizzes and the tests and the papers, the rewrites and the early help sessions, the red pen slashes, the “come see me’s” and the “this needs more work.”  Have you reached 400?  Double that?  We ask you each day to put some part of you on the page or the board and we tell you what didn’t work and maybe what did.  So who am I to be sad or discouraged?  Perhaps I’ve just gotten too far away from being a student, I’ve forgotten how to struggle and continue, as you do each day.

Because there’s no way from here to there without going through this.  No shortcuts.  You have to cut through the red pen and the paper with the machete of your mind.  Hack a path, all on your own.

But you, you’ve got me.  I’m just ahead of you, I’ve made it through this particular jungle and I’ve sketched a map that will help me to help you.  Sometimes maybe you can see me and sometimes you can’t, and you’ll wonder what I know anyway.  Maybe you’d be better just to set down and quit struggling.  You’ve had to double back, you’ve hit dead-ends, maybe none of this is worth it.

But, I know.  I know that you will make it. I know this even when you doubt.  I believe when you won’t.  If you will just keep swinging the blade, inquiring of the universe, asking the question again and again.

What I want is for you to be willing to struggle.  Don’t ask me to lie to you and just tell you that you’ve arrived, that you don’t need to go any further.  Don’t ask me to tell you that the struggle is over.  Maybe you hope you’re different, that you got lucky and landed right near the end and soon you’ll get to rest.

“Oh baby,” (I croon in the voice of Billie Holiday) “there is no rest.”  But you’re moving forward, I promise.  Sometimes it’s slow, and sometimes it’s fast.  Sometimes you’re even backtracking.  But sometimes you gotta go back to move forward and I won’t quit you if you don’t quit yourself.

Who am I anyway?  I’m Mrs. Griswold.  I’ll be your struggle guru teacher this year and this is my lucky 7th year at Harpeth Hall—that must be good omen.  I have three kids whose pictures dot my bulletin board.  I have an old dog who’s afraid of thunder, 6 chickens, and I keep bees in my backyard.  I’m a slow runner, but I like to do it.  I’m a theater major who now performs for audiences of 16 and gets to analyze plays every year.

Before I lived in Nashville, I lived in New York City.  Before that, London and Cleveland.  Back even further I lived in Caracas, Venezuela from 7th grade to 12th, and Mexico City for 5th and 6th grade.  I speak Spanish fluently and enough Portuguese to have conversations in the present tense.  Until age 10 I lived in Cincinnati.  So where am I from?  The answer is complicated but I’m happy to call Nashville home now.

Before we begin, would you write me a letter?  Tell me about who you are.  What are you struggling with?  How does struggle feel to you?  Where are you going?  How can I help you?  What do you love?

Sincerely (Lovingly),

Meg Griswold

Teaching, Writing

Process insecurity

Today I was giving feedback to students on a creative writing assignment.  For the assignment, they had to find a photo depicting human migration in some way.  Most chose an image of Syrian refugees, or immigrants at the US/Mexico border.  Some chose more historical photos of Japanese mail-order brides, or a family member who was a holocaust survival and immigrant.  They could then write in their choice of genre about the photo, story, poem, stream of consciousness, etc.

I asked for a paragraph of reflection at the end of the assignment.  One student commented on how hard it was to get started because she got hung up on finding the perfect structure and the perfect idea.  Once she started going, though, she discovered some things she hadn’t even realized were there and ultimately she felt great about the final product.

I needed to read that.  I’m having some process insecurity of my own.

Let me explain.  I wrote my novel Improbable Girl with an idea for an opening scene and that was it.  I had no outline, no ideas for the ending.  I had some characters in mind, but they weren’t fully developed.  I just wrote.  And I jumped around in the plot and wrote whatever caught my fancy that day.

When I finished, I started talking to other writers and reading about writing.  I read about all kinds of plotters and planners and outliners.  And I’ll admit, I started to feel a bit insecure.  I’m sure it was imagined, but I got the sense that writers who planned first looked at my seat-of-my-pants process (also called “pantsing”) as the inferior method of writing.

And when I sat down to edit my novel, it was a hot mess plot-wise and character-wise.  I had to make some massive changes.  I started to think that maybe some time spent outlining before writing might help me to save time on the revisions.

As I approach my next project, I’ve been doing some planning.  I’ve been Snowflaking and outlining.  The first few steps seem to work for me and then I get this feeling of dread and despair.  I can’t figure out how it should end or what the next crisis will be and suddenly I feel hopeless.  The whole idea is garbage and it’s not going to lead anywhere.

Today, I’m reminding myself of who I am.  I am a leap-and-the-net-will-appear person.  I’m a rush-in-and-find-joy-in-problem-solving person.  I think my logical brain is not quite as smart as the part of my brain that runs loose when I’m just writing my way out of things.  (“I wrote my way out…“)

I will say there is one pre-writing or extra-writing activity I find value in: character interviews.  I’ve starting doing more and more Q and A type freewrites.  I’m not controlling where it goes, I’m just asking and probing.  I did one with Jane and Daniel in the Improbable Girl editing process where I just asked them, “What do you think you’re doing?”  What came out of that was really crucial.  It helped me clarify what was happening with each of them and where they needed to go as characters through the novel.

So enough planning.  For now.  Maybe a premise is enough.  Maybe a character with a little wounded spot in her heart is enough.  And yes, I’m going to have more work on the other end to figure out how to make it work.  I’m alright with that.  I’ve been there before and I know I can make it through.

Also, I read this article by Chuck Wendig (swearing makes me so happy) and I needed it.  I joked on Twitter that I was going to make it a daily meditation.  I might not be kidding.  I might read it every day.  Even though I’ve done this once–finished a book, that is–I’m feeling that same old insecurity in my abilities.  Enough.  No more.

To write!


Letter of introduction 2016

This year marks my tenth year of writing a letter of introduction to my students at the start of the year.  Here is what I wrote this year.  Enjoy! (To read last year’s letter, click here.)

August 17, 2016

Dear Students,

Welcome to a new school year!  My name is Mrs. Griswold and I will be your English teacher.  Every year, I write my students a letter of introduction so that you can get to know me, and then I ask you to write a letter back to me so that I can learn a little bit about you.

It’s a contemplative and reflective experience to sit down and check in and see how I’ve evolved from the year before.  For you, each new school year brings new teachers and classes and sometimes a new school.  You’re off on a new journey, and honestly, every year I also feel as though I too am starting a new epic adventure.  I’d like to believe that with bravery and clear eyes, life continually offers exciting new quests, even beyond high school and college.

To start off, this summer I got two beehives in my back yard.  I’ve never kept bees before, but I took a class and I read lots of books and I dove in.  It was fun-hard-interesting.  I lost both of my original queen bees (one died, one swarmed) and my two bee colonies faced a crisis and could have died.  But, with a little patience and a lot of Googling, my colonies rebounded and even produced 8 quarts of honey!

This summer was also the end of one journey and the start of another because I finished writing a novel.  Almost 4 years ago, I decided to join a few students and participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).  In November of 2012, I wrote 50,000 words of a novel, and over the next three and a half years, I worked on finishing and editing it.  This summer I worked every day for the entire month of June to finish.  I wrote a 4th, 5th and 6th draft, and in the first week of July, I felt that I had arrived at a stopping point.  I was ready for the next stage.

What is that next stage?  I started submitting my novel to agents.  (Agents then take books to publishers to get the book published.)  I’ve emailed query letters and the first 10 pages of my novel to 104 agents.  So far, 25 agents have rejected me and 4 have liked what I sent enough to request more pages or the full manuscript.  It’s not a bad ratio, but I’ll tell you that every rejection is so hard to receive and every request for more makes me feel like I won the lottery.  If you see me in the hallway busting a move, I probably got some good feedback on what I wrote.  Sometimes the rejections are even bittersweet: one agent said that I was a good writer, my characters felt real, and the dialogue was authentic, but my book just wasn’t right for her.  And some rejections just sting, like the agent who said my sample pages weren’t as engaging as she had hoped.  Ouch.

Another big adventure is also beginning, because I am going to have a baby boy in December!  You may not know this but Mr. Griswold, who teaches math here, is my husband and this will be our third baby.  Our oldest, Calvin, is four and a half, and Matilda is two.  Mr. Griswold and I are very excited and a little nervous about going from man-on-man to zone defense (get it?).  While I’m on maternity leave in third quarter, other amazing English teachers from the department will be coming to teach your class.  You will get a chance to be inspired by the other faculty at Harpeth Hall, and I’ll be back after Spring Break.

I guess adventure is part of who I am.  As a kid, I lived all over the world for my dad’s job.  I have lived in Cincinnati, Mexico City, Caracas, Cleveland, London, and New York City before coming to Nashville.  I speak fluent Spanish and conversational Portuguese.  I got my bachelor’s degree from Case Western Reserve University and my master’s degree from NYU.  Fun fact, I was a theater and Spanish major in college, and my master’s is in Educational Theater.

I love that my life and my house are filled with the fruits of past adventures.  We live in East Nashville where we have a dog, 6 chickens and the bees.  Past years’ letters of introduction were about getting a dog and building our chicken coop.  We also have a big garden where we grow flowers and vegetables.

The beauty of constant adventures is that life is always a work in progress.  I’ve never really “arrived” and I find that my search for new experiences never ends.  Journeys also imply detours and pitfalls and scary forests.  A quest is often filled with near misses and brushes with death.  And while I am luckily not facing those kinds of obstacles, I love embracing the messiness of life on a road of discovery.  As you know from your favorite stories and novels, it’s the struggles along the way that make for the most interesting and exciting plots.  When I think about building a chicken coop or writing a novel, I could tell you about the frustration, the banged fingers, the feelings of helplessness or despair.  I could tell you about the time I realized I needed the change the verb tense and speaker of the entire novel.  Those aren’t blemishes, but rather details that enrich the value of the journey.

And I’m excited that we will start the next one together.  It can be scary to begin and take the leap, but I can say with certainty that you won’t regret it.  Along the way, you’ll probably have very high and very low moments.  You’ll question why you ever started to begin with.  You’ll think you aren’t ready or can’t handle it. You’ll wonder what made you think this was a good idea.  You’ll feel great pride in your accomplishments.  You’ll laugh hysterically and cry in frustration.  You’ll make true friends.  You’ll discover that you’re stronger than you think.  At the end, on a May day that feels a million light years away from here, you’ll look up and realize how far you’ve come without noticing.  And you won’t regret a single minute.


Mrs. Griswold

Teaching, Writing

What I’m Reading: Girl in Translation

After A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I turned to my attention to the book I paired with it, Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation.  Set roughly 100 years apart, these stories comprise an interesting conversation.  Both have a strong female protagonist in Brooklyn.  One an immigrant, one the daughter of immigrants.  Both struggle with poverty and a precocious desire to learn and excel.

I first heard about Girl in Translation from a booktalk in our school library.  As often happens, I also check out a book or two after the book talks.  I immediately adored this book.  The protagonist Kimberly is relatable, honest and moving, just like Francie.  I also enjoyed how the author found a creative way to show us that Kimberly doesn’t always understand everything people say to her in English.  Peppered into sentences are phonetic spellings of words that Kimberly doesn’t understand.  It’s a brilliant way to put us in her shoes with teachers and classmates speaking quickly and not all of it landing.

I also love the emotional journey that we go on with Kimberly.  We cheer for her, we cry for her, we chew our nails for her.  And the flood of empathy that I feel is real.  Her character serves as both a window and a mirror for me.  First, this book give me a window into her Chinese culture and upbringing.  But, like a mirror, this book allows me to see American culture through her eyes.  We take so much of our own realities for granted that we forget all of our culture is a social construct.

I also feel very strongly that teachers need to read this book.  There is so much that we can say or do that could hurt students without us realizing.  Kimberly has a few terrible teachers and lots of amazing ones.  It was a good reminder that I want to be on the right team.  It also illuminated for me the privileges that teachers can take for granted–access to art supplies, NY Times subscriptions at home, a parent who can take time off work to come to school.

And I hope that my students also have a powerful experience with this novel.  Kimberly attends a private school from 7th grade through graduation and there is so much that her peers don’t know about her, and my hope is that it will increase my own independent school students’ awareness of both their privilege and the diversity around them.  It’s easy to get wrapped up in our own existence (especially if you’re a teenager), but there is so much variation in our communities, and we need to be open and empathetic to the experiences of others.  As Kimberly is struggling with a rat and roach infested apartment with no heat, her peers are complaining about curfews and the banality of suburban complacency.

There is also some interesting social justice commentary in this novel.  And, honestly, legal justice!  The book raises important questions about the ways in which immigrants in our country are treated.  Kimberly must act as a grown up as soon as she sets foot in the country as a 6th grader.  Her youth and also her lack of voice really cuts the reader deep.  Her vulnerability and strength are both breath-taking, and this is an important window into the immigrant experience.  And, of course, the fact that she and many other children are working in a sweatshop to survive made me so angry.  It reminds me how far we’ve come from 1912, but also how many things have not changed.

As the book approaches the climax, every inch of ground that Kimberly has gained hangs in the balance.  It’s the kind of book I start yelling at, pulling my knees close to my chest as I plunge into the next page.  She’s come so far, I can’t handle the thought that she won’t make it.

I assigned Girl in Translation and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as summer reading for my honors 10th grade World Literature class.  Before we dive into the rest of the world, let’s consider our relationship to the rest of the world.  We are a part of the world and it’s good to discuss and question what that our relationship is.

Teaching, Writing

What I’m (Summer) Reading: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

As the school year approaches again, I am turning my summer energy away from writing and personal projects to the summer reading I assigned my students.  It’s been a year since I visited these books, and I need to re-read.

In some ways, re-reading for work like this can be maddening when I see the list of books I want to read for the first time.  Life is short and the list is long.  But every time I dive back into a book I’ve read once (or six times) I find that I can see so much more.  I feel like Neo seeing The Matrix–I can see word choice and sentence structure. I can see interesting plot choices.  I can see what the author is doing with the narrator or the voice.  What I’ve come to learn is that re-reading is a treasure trove for the writer.  Freed from trying to hold on to characters and plot, I can turn my attention to craft and think on a higher level about the writing and the themes.

I started with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the first of two books I assigned to my honors 10th grade students.  I’d been looking for a way to teach this book since I was in grad school.  This year will be my third year teaching the honors 10th grade English curriculum that I designed, and it’s also the third iteration of summer reading for that class.  The first year I was too controversial and caused a stir.  The second year I went safer but the students didn’t feel the love.  Then, in the middle of last year, two of my students told me they were working their way through a list of classic novels and had just read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  They gushed.  They adored it.

Lightning struck me!  I’d been thinking about that book for a decade, and also I’d been trying to find a way to use Jean Kwok’s lovely 2010 novel Girl in Translation.  Hadn’t Girl in Translation been compared to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn?  Wouldn’t that be an amazing pairing?  100 years apart, one girl Chinese, one girl Austrian-Irish, and yet so much in common in their stories.

And so, onto the summer reading assignment they went.  I remembered back to all the amazing classes I took at NYU in the English Education department where I designed book pairings and projects that would ask students to draw a thread of connection between an old novel and a new.  This is why I love my school: I can bring to life the passionate imaginings of the NYU grad student I once was.  I’m glad to see her light wasn’t ground out along the way.

So I spent last week curled up with the bittersweet prose of Ms. Betty Smith.  (I feel she must always be addressed with that formality.  She’s like an old Hollywood movie star to me.)

As I started the book again, I was reminded of how different it is than the modern novel that drops you in the soup of disaster on page one.  In the introduction by Anna Quindlen, she calls it a novel in which nothing happens.  Which is true, but also it isn’t.  Life happens.  True, there is no central conflict, no overarching character objective, except maybe survival and a moment’s pleasure.  But that comes to be an all-consuming goal to the reader, and you can’t stop reading lest Francie languish in heartache or hunger too long.

Ms. Smith is a master of character development.  There are a lot of characters flitting in and out of the tenement neighborhood and beyond, and they all start to feel like your own wacky relatives.  No one is totally perfect or good, but no one is completely wicked and you realize so much truth about humanity as you read.  You condemn and forgive on the same page.

I was surprised to see the book is narrated in third person.  You spend so much time inside Francie’s head, that you forget that it isn’t first person.  We take occasional dips into a few other characters’ minds, but mostly, we’re with Francie.  And it’s a lovely place to be.  Her innocence, her toughness, all of her is so endearing.  You see what she fails to see, and you watch her realize things she as matures.

This book is the quintessential bildungsroman (thanks Word of the Day for this one, but don’t ask me to say it out loud, I have to repeat it over an over and it never quite feels at home in my mouth).  Francie starts the book at 11, then we flash back to her parents’ childhoods and move all the way back to Francie at 11 and finish the book when she is 16 or 17 and headed off to college.  My whole life is a bildungsroman–I teach 14-16 year-olds 10 months of the year–but I still like reading them.  They don’t lose their charm for me.

Perhaps all coming-of-age stories are a series of lucky near-misses and blood-sweat-and-tears survival, but A Tree Grows in Brooklyn feels especially so.  I find myself with my heart in my throat as I read.  I just want to leap into the book and yell at the adults and give her something to eat.  But then I forgive those adults (except maybe Johnny) and I just want to throw a coat on Francie’s shoulders.  Except her spirit and gumption kick in and I’m so proud of her when I realize she doesn’t need saving.  She’s doing it herself.

This book also makes me realize the importance of ignorance in childhood.  It’s a great insulator.  Francie’s lack of awareness keeps her from despair.  And when awareness blooms, and despair threatens her, she fights back.

And this book is so much about women.  From illiterate Mary Rommelly and her abusive husband to Katie and her drunk (but loving) husband, to Francie.  What an important story of the generations upon generations of women who have not earned spots in our history books, but who nonetheless have kept our species alive.  I know we like to talk about the Joan of Arcs and the Marie Curies, who are undoubtedly important, but the women who endured hunger, poverty, abuse, violence and yet somehow kept themselves and their children alive are the true heroes.  They didn’t quit and they didn’t give up.  They accepted the hand that life had dealt them and eked out an existence.  When I look at Katie Nolan’s survival and achievements, they match those of the great women who have earned posters and glossy textbook pages.

And now, I have to steel my heart and hope that the 30 or so student who read it for my class liked it.  You don’t know the pain in a teacher’s heart when a student, a stranger still, breezes in on day 1 and casually torpedoes me with, “Ugh, that book?  So boring.  I could barely finish it.  I mean, what’s even the point?”  It takes all my inner Katie Nolan not lose my cool.  Plug your ears in the grave, Ms. Smith.  Forgive their youth, and let me see if I can work my magic.

Summer reading is always an autopsy, as my colleague says.  We didn’t read it together, bit by bit, with discussions and collaboration along the way.  Their opinions were formed in a vacuum and their opinions get set in concrete before they walk in the room.  If a book confuses them, they come to hate it for making them feel stupid.  And since they didn’t get to meet up with their peers and me around the Harkness table to ask their questions and shine a new light on the text, the negative opinion sticks.  I like to fantasize about them going to college some day, and there’s a fellow student clutching the book to their chest, delivering an impassioned monologue on its value and beauty.  My former student bites her tongue and wonders, Maybe Ms. Griswold was on to something.  Let me give it another look.

Inevitably, someone won’t like the book.  That’s how books are.  And probably, given the high energy and quick plotting of contemporary novels, this book feels plodding and atmospheric by comparison.  Perhaps Girl in Translation will illuminate A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for them.  Perhaps a fear of disappointing me will make them soften their negative opinions, if they have them.  Perhaps by requiring them to read it, I’ve already robbed them of the joy of reading it through their own discovery.  The most I can hope for is that our discussions and our research into poverty, current immigration and immigrant rights, will light a little flame in them.  And, at the end of the day, it’s never a bad thing to spend some hours with Ms. Betty Smith.


What I’m reading: Make It Stick

Good afternoon!  As the summer draws to its end, I am working on my summer reading.  First up is my faculty read Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel.

My husband, David, is a high school math teacher and read the book a year ago.  He was obsessed.  He’d get immersed and then dive into a passionate treatise while changing diapers on why he loved the book.  He recommended it to our admin as a faculty read, and here we are.

I’m loving it.  It’s in that middle ground between the dense articles you might read in a grad program, and super pop psych books.  It gets the message across, tells some good stories, and practices what it preaches.

One big take away is that we think we know how we learn, but we really don’t.  We have a lot of lore and intuition–not much more than superstition–and most of it doesn’t amount to lasting learning.  It has some storytelling aspects, where an anecdote is told to illustrate a concept every few pages.  It’s folksy, but as a fan of stories, I’ve enjoyed the real-life illustrations.  (The one about the process for marines who learn to jump out of planes and not break their ankles was fascinating!)

For those who, like me, got their teacher education in the last decade or so (thanks NYU!), this jives with constructive learning, problem/project based learning, student-centered classrooms, etc.  If you are a chalk-and-talk or drill-and-kill person, you might not enjoy this.  The focus is on how learning is encoded, retrieved and made permanent.  Teaching is discussed, insofar as the most effective ways for students to NOT forget what you teach them.  Which, you know, is the point.

I find myself feeling lucky that I teach English.  One major message is that learning needs to be varied, spaced and interleaved (other stuff inserted in, so it’s not just one topic/skill all the time).  My class is naturally that way: first a poem, then a novel, then a few short stories.  We don’t just drill metaphors for 2 weeks, then move on to similes.  We spiral back over and over to the same concepts in different settings in different genres.  I already have a lot going for me just through the natural structure of my class.

And, there isn’t much mindless drilling in the English classes at my school.  The one exception might be in grammar.  That’s where I’ve done a lot of reflecting as I read the book.  I’ve noticed that students tend to forget one unit as soon as it’s over.  But, the problem is, they need to use apostrophes correctly FOR EVER, not just for the next two weeks.  So, my first step next year is to spiral back to the material throughout the whole year.  An apostrophe question on every quiz.  I’m also going to try to mix up my grammar practice and instruction, so it doesn’t fall into mindlessness (read the chapter, do 10 practice problems, repeat).

Another big take away I’ve enjoyed is the notion that harder learning is better learning.  When something “feels easy” to learn, it doesn’t mean you are learning it as well as you think you are.  The research Make it Stick cites shows that the harder you have to work to retrieve your learning, the deeper your learning is.  For those of you brain enthusiasts, the more you are laying down those neural pathways in different ways, the stronger they are.  If you access the learning a different way, you are strengthening it.  If you have to connect it to other things, you strengthen the pathways.  It may sound counter-intuitive, but when you read about the studies, it becomes clear.

All of this makes me excited for the year because I tell students and parents early on that I embrace a philosophy of “hard fun.”  Seymour Papert coined the phrase, and I heard it at an NCTE conference in 2007 or 2008.  It’s pretty straight forward and makes me think of building my chicken coop by myself with no plans.  It was hard, but I was having so much fun.  The idea is supported by the research that Make It Stick presents, which I now have to bolster my philosophy.  If learning feels hard, then the student is on the right track–which will be a relief for my very ambitious, eager-to-succeed students.  Too many of them view struggle as a sign of failure and poor ability.  As the book agrees, we feel that “easy” learning must be good, but the truth is easy come, easy go.

In an interesting turn of events, I noticed a pretty active hashtag on Twitter for Make it Stick.  I threw a few tweets up and pretty quickly had a lot of people, coincidentally all men, begin to debate these principles with me.  In case it needs to be said, I didn’t write the book.  If you would like to debate the merits of the sources and the research, please take it up with the authors.  Or, better yet, you could publish your own research in a peer reviewed journal and then write your own book.  I look forward to reading that.  Until then, I’d appreciate you staying out of a friendly conversation among teachers who are enjoying the book and want to stay positive about using its concepts in the classroom.




Bringing Literature to Life with a Maker Space

Today I am presenting the session “Bringing Literature to Life with a Maker Space” at the TAIS Tech conference.  Caitlin McLemore, our educational technology specialist at Harpeth Hall is my co-presenter.

Here is the movie I made of the project with WeVideo.

Here are is our presentation:

Teaching, Writing

Thesis and outline workshop

Both my 10th grade classes and my 9th grade classes are working on thesis statements and outlines for their upcoming essays–on The Secret Life of Bees for 9th graders, and Life of Pi for 10th graders.

The first stage in the process is a Graffiti Wall.  I have them tape their exploratory paragraphs and quotes onto a large sheet of paper.  Silently, students rotate to the other papers and leave feedback.


Then, they work on writing a few thesis statement attempts for 10 minutes.  They pick their favorite and write it on the white boards, without a name.  They then pair up and rotate through the statements leaving feedback.





The feedback is valuable, but giving feedback and evaluating the work of others is equally valuable.  It reminds them there are many different topics and arguments and they aren’t chasing the one, perfect topic.

I also want to make writing less lonely and emphasize the power and potential of collaboration in the writing process.  I am a member of a few writing groups, and they are essential to development and growth.


Meet the teacher presentations

Below are the presentations I gave at Meet the Teacher night.  I did not get to the final slides about confidence because I ran out of time.  The first presentation was for my 9th grade parents, and the second is my honors sophomores.

*You have to press the play button in the bottom left corner.  The slides automatically advance every 10 seconds.  You can pause the presentation or manually advance or rewind.

English I:

Honors English II: