180 Days: Day 45–Keep It Simple Week Ain’t So Simple, and I Ain’t Ready

I sighed a breath of relief over the weekend when I found out that I would not have to report for jury duty today. But I do have to call every day this week and still face the possibility of having to go in to serve one day or one trial. So we started an assignment that would take both today and tomorrow to complete–and it turns out the students are far more challenged by the assignment than they expected. All it told me was that students didn’t do their required reading. I gave the quiz I promised them on the weekend reading from Unbroken. But the questions were open-ended and required students to provide direct quotes from the text as evidence and provide analysis of each quote. I’ve never heard so much belly-aching about having to actually open a book and find answers (be careful about wishing for those open book quizzes, folks). Needless to say, today was a trudge through 51 minutes of hard work reading and re-reading passages from a book for academic engagement rather than simple reading pleasure.

I purposely made today’s assignment a two-day assignment because I know I’ll have to write lesson plans for either me or a substitute for one if not more days this week. I already have a half day substitute planned for an appointment tomorrow–barring getting called into jury service. So making two sets of plans –one for me, one for a potential sub–makes keeping it simple a necessity, but it’s not simple for me to actually achieve. It’s double the work in prepping. It’s even more than double if I want the work that students do to be meaningful and practice skill sets.

So here’s to hoping I don’t have jury duty…

“Keep It Simple” by Tove Lo



180 Days: Day 44–Turn In, Debrief, and Perform Poetry

The only thing standing between my students and a three day holiday weekend is me and five other teachers they have throughout the day. To keep students from making it a four day weekend, I think all of us had something big due today. My students had three things due: weekly language, poems selected for Poetry Out Loud competition, and turn in their personal narrative essays.

So we started by looking at the weekly language–how to properly punctuate titles with quotations, italics, and underlines. We corrected our work and compiled questions to further investigate–like how to punctuate speech titles (a quick look at Purdue OWL solves the problem). I do not like just giving the answers to these questions. We take the time during class to investigate together and learn together.

We then turn in our personal narratives and do the same exercise–compile questions that students may still have about writing narrative essays. We debrief about what skills caused the most stress and struggle for them. Most agreed that they found properly integrating dialogue challenging, but they also found it necessary for the stories to be engaging. Most students also liked that I held their 1st and 2nd drafts for a few weeks so they could look at their writing with what I call “fresh eyes”. One student loved that she could spot the gaps in her story more efficiently. She cited her challenge with this essay in determining just how much to fill in the gaps for it to be understandable for someone who hadn’t experienced it. We had a productive conversation overall. And more than likely, this is not the last time these students will rewrite these essays.

We spent the remainder of the period looking poems the students selected to memorize four our annual Poetry Out Loud contest at school. I selected a poem as well to model for the students our day’s two main goals: memorization techniques and tone. We read my poem aloud. I modeled reading to the punctuation for them. We broke down the poem and discovered what it meant (memorize meaning before words–memorization strategy one). Then I reread the poem while laughing, while crying, and while angrily gritting my teeth to model the concept of tone. I had the students pair off and read their poems the three ways too. They found that they emphasized, or “punched” on different words dependent upon the emotion or tone they were taking with the words. So we talked about which words in the lines were the operative words–how they should pick which words to emphasize as they recite their poems. I also suggested thinking of their poems as songs, as songs are lyric poetry. Even if a lot of modern lyrics don’t crack the realms of literary merit, there is something to be learned from songs as poems too.

Then I leave the students with Taylor Mali’s famous slam poem “What Teachers Make.”

“What Teachers Make” by Taylor Mali

“Songbird” by Oasis (written by Liam Gallagher) from the album Heathen Chemistry


180 Days: Day 43–Library Run

I love days like today. I took my students to the library to search for an independent reading book for quarter 2–a book that they select that is of interest and reading level for themselves. My only rules are that the books are at least 200 pages and can’t have been adapted to film (tv or movie). Our school librarian set out a number of books and started each class with book talks about some of the different types of interesting stories available in today’s young adult market–both fiction and nonfiction. Our librarian is a well-read, spunky lady who is so enthusiastic in describing these books. And her enthusiasm is infectious. Students scoured the library stacks looking for the perfect book for their independent reading. And a number of the students had never used an electronic card catalog, so they learned a new skill in the library. Even the one student who purposely hasn’t turned in a single assignment so far this year picked out a book.

Last year, I made a promise to myself to do this more often with my students. Book talks and access to books are two research-based methods for developing readers’ skills by promoting interest in reading. So I’m already planning for our quarters three and four visits and building in features like proof of use of the card catalog to reinforce skills that we typically expect that 16 year-olds already know, but really don’t.

“You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover” by Bo Diddley


180 Days: Day 42–Catch Up Day

Last Friday marked the end of first quarter, so this week grades are due for report cards. So just like every teacher in the universe, I’m making a mad dash to complete scoring on a number of items I wish to include in students quarter grades. So today is a reading/catch up day. I know many of my students have not been keeping up with the reading in Unbroken, so I’m giving them the period to catch up with their reading while I catch up with my grading. This works exceptionally well for a number of reasons today. But to name a few: First, the kids took it seriously and actually read their books. Second, I completed beaucoup scores. And third, I was able to ask some students for last second make-up work and for clarification on some missing assignments (it’s amazing how many students forget to put their names on papers).

Being that this was a late start Tuesday (we hold teacher collaboration time for the first hour of the day on most Tuesdays), and our class periods are a short 40 minutes, today’s easy lesson plan also gave students some flexibility. Some students opted to work on their narrative essay that’s due on Thursday. Some students chose to complete their Weekly Language from yesterday before starting the reading. But students did their work and let me do mine.

Now as to my work, I got my scores recorded on paper. Then the real fun began. We have a new student information and grading system this year and it still isn’t fully functional. So here I am trying to input grades into a system that won’t let teachers add assignments and grades into quarter one because it reads quarter one as over, done, finished. I thrum my fingers and let the wheels in my brain churn before trying every option and workaround I can think of, only to admit defeat and go through my principal to contact IT to see if there is a resolution. Now I’m in a holding pattern waiting for IT to save the day. *eye roll* **snark**

“Alright Now” by Above and Beyond and Justine Suissa


“…I’m going to be O.K.
I’m going to be just fine.
I’m gonna be alright now (alright now).
I’m going to make a break (I’m going to make a break).
I’m going to take my time (I’m going to take my time).
I’m going to be alright now (I’m going to be alright).
Alright now…”

180 Days: Day 41–3 Shots of Espresso

My students were hyped up today. By 10 minutes into my first class, I kept thinking, “Who added three shots to your latte?” I’m taking the educated guess that their behavior stems from two things: one, the extra hour of sleep this weekend and two, it’s the first day of a short, four-day week.

We will take Friday off to observe Veteran’s Day. Most of these kids haven’t a clue what Veteran’s Day is all about, much less that Friday is Marine Corps Birthday. So to educate them on these things will be part of tomorrow’s lesson–which is appropriate since we are still reading Unbroken, the story of Louis Zamperini’s survival against all the odds in WW2. So we will spend time in the next couple of days explaining Armistice Day, red poppies, etc. But today we focused on revising and rewriting essays. And my students were more like squirrels on a nut farm than students wanting help and a good grade on an essay. Such is the challenge of dealing with students. Note to self: next time, all revisions are done as homework? I try to resist those kinds of notes. It’s important for the students to share their work–even if it is noisy and drives me crazy. It says a lot about their writing to get a response from their peers. Things I heard today: “It doesn’t make sense. It needs to…” “I’m sitting on my essay because it’s embarrassing and bad.” “That’s such a funny story.” “I have dialogue in my story. See.”  So they were talking craft with each other. Between giggles about what they did last weekend.

As the day progressed students were more in tune with the need to get feedback from their peers (and from me when all else failed) rather than just some overly-caffeinated morning social time.  Now I’ve just gotta capture their attention for three more days this week…maybe I’ll invite a dog and a pony to my classroom. I bet that’ll work.

Willy Wonka squirrel scene:

“40 Cups of Coffee” by Ella Mae Morse


30 Days of Thanksgiving: Day 2–My Parental Units

I’m thankful that I’ve been lucky enough to have both parents as an active part of my upbringing. And while my parents divorced when I was 17, both still have a deep impact in my life today–as does my step-mother.

My mom passed away four and half years ago. Despite her loss, I think of her daily and I employ the lessons of her life as I live each day. My mother was a kind, generous woman who struggled with having self-worth throughout her life. While I may have many regrets about how often I showed or verbalized my love to her, I know that she knows how instrumental she has been to my life. My son and I still cut the same jokes we did with her. She lived with us the last eleven years of her life while she grappled with under/unemployment. Through her efforts to remain employed, I learned a lot about dreaming big even when faced with ageism and sexism. When she became ill in mid-2013, her downward spiral happened all too fast. Emphysema is a nasty disease. And I would never wish it on even the worst of enemies. I feel her loss daily, but I know that she is with me in my heart and in my mind and in my memories.

Mom. In her 30s, her 40s, and her early 60s–not long before she passed.

Thankfully, my dad is still with us. And he and my step-mom are laid back, but energetic. But unfortunately, they live 1,500 miles away. We do talk often, but not often enough. The two-hour time difference often leaves only the weekends for us to catch up unless they want me to call late at night. I try to travel back at least once a year. My son and I used to take annual summer road trips to visit them. But now that my son is in college, I’ve been flying back for weekend visits. I’m looking for my next set of open days so I can fly back and spend some time with them. My dad and step-mom have been married for 29 years now, so step-mom has played a long-term sustaining role in my life, even though I was 19 going on 20 when she and dad married. She takes good care of Dad, and I’ve seen Dad grow and do things with her that he never did with my mom. He found the right woman with whom to spend his life. Dad and step-mom have long taught me about the strength and importance of family. I carry that lesson with me every day.

Dad and step-mom. Always together. Always smiling and laughing. 

My brother used to sing the distinctive opening word to Danzig’s “Mother” every time my mom entered the room.

“Mother” by Danzig

“Okie from Muskogee” by Merle Haggard

My dad listens to country music, and particularly to the old school singers like Hank Sr., Roger Miller, etc. So here’s one of the legends.


180 Days: Day 40–Essay Schmessay

Today marked the end of Quarter One at school. It also was a timed-writing day for my sophomores. As they struggled to focus (it is Friday after all), they did get down to the business of writing their first literary analysis paper of the year. This essay will serve as the baseline against which future essays are compared for progress. And I have a sneaking suspicion the bar will be set pretty low this first time out of the gate.

Since we are still reading Unbroken (we are part way through part four of five parts in the book), I gave the students an old AP Open Question and tailored it to our book. I didn’t tell them it was an AP prompt because, at the end of the day, literary analysis is literary analysis regardless of where the prompt originated. I don’t want the kids psyching themselves out before they even begin writing thinking I’m giving them honors work in a regular CP (college prep) class (all classes that meet University of California’s a-g requirements are considered college prep, and all English classes at my school are CP or better). And ultimately, I have faith in their ability to rise to the occasion–as they will have to master this style of writing for college anyway should they wish to attend.

So we started by reading the prompt, breaking it down, making sure we knew what it was asking for, then unleashing the kids to write. The prompt asked them to pick a character that sacrificed and analyze what that sacrifice taught us about that character’s values. They all seemed to have an idea of what they wanted to write about, which is a good thing. They felt they could do it, even if it might tax their brains a little bit. So they worked quietly while I worked on Quarter One grades, correspondence with parents and colleagues, and checking in on them, table by table, to ensure they could ask for help as needed.

The good things about essay days: I can catch up on paperwork. I can get a glimpse at their writing. They get badly needed practice. They have a block set aside specifically to get help with their writing.

The bad things about essay days: These days create a lot of work for me. The students who struggle with writing have a hard time getting started so they are easily distracted.

So the good outweighs the bad by a lot.

“Good Times Bad Times” by Led Zeppelin


180 Days: Day 139–Educate. Agitate. Escalate. Not the Other Way Around.

One of the first things I learned in the basics of organizing, was that I needed to not react rashly to every outrage. That is sometimes hard to people who are highly agitated to accept. I have served in leadership positions for a long time now. I’m not the charismatic type. I’m the hardworking, willing to stick my neck out first type. As the person who is often putting my neck out there for others’ issues, I have learned over the years to pick my battles. I have learned that some battles are worth having even if I know I will lose. I have learned when to go it alone, and when to never even tip my toe on to the battlefield without an army at my back. And I have learned that I often will suffer from friendly fire far more often than fire from the opposition. All too often, those I lead are willing to let me fall on the sword for them while they sit comfortably at home continuing to grumble that I’m not working hard enough for them. I am not alone. Frankly, that is the price of leadership. That’s the cost of putting myself out there.

So when I actually have people who are agitated and willing to act with me, I’m excited. Very excited. But I’m also leery. As I know they often mean well but are reactionary with no plan, no idea of what they want (other than to burn everything down), and no strategies to get what they want once they know what it is. This is the current situation of my union board of directors. We have a fired up group of teachers (we have over 1,200 members, so this group is sizable) who are ready to burn everything (and rightly so–after years of being asked to do more and more with nothing but burnout on the horizon). So I keep trying to educate, educate, educate an already agitated crowd ready to escalate. Our board is putting together mechanisms to listen to our members, develop their goals (what they want), and organize them to be able to use their “fire and fury” well. Their rejection of the tentative agreement was the initial “shock and awe” tactic. Now it’s time to roll up the sleeves and get to work.

And that just what our board started to do last night–in a rather fractious meeting that dragged on and on. We officially adjourned after over two hours at work, then half the board continued to work for two hours more developing talking points, then a few more stayed an additional two and half hours educating themselves further on the processes of organizing. We are working overtime to capitalize on the fervor of our colleagues, but hope to help them feel empowered to advocate on behalf of themselves, their students, and their colleagues. It’s up to all of us to be the change we wish to see.

alinsky change

“Changes” by David Bowie


I still don’t know what I was waiting for
And my time was running wild
A million dead-end streets
And every time I thought I’d got it made
It seemed the taste was not so sweet
So I turned myself to face me
But I’ve never caught a glimpse
Of how the others must see the faker
I’m much too fast to take that test

(Turn and face the strange)
Don’t want to be a richer man
(Turn and face the strange)
Just gonna have to be a different man
Time may change me
But I can’t trace time

I watch the ripples change their size
But never leave the stream
Of warm impermanence and
So the days float through my eyes
But still the days seem the same
And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through

(Turn and face the strange)
Don’t tell them to grow up and out of it
(Turn and face the strange)
Where’s your shame
You’ve left us up to our necks in it
Time may change me
But you can’t trace time

Strange fascination, fascinating me
Changes are taking the pace
I’m going through

(Turn and face the strange)
Oh, look out you rock ‘n rollers
(Turn and face the strange)
Pretty soon now you’re gonna get older
Time may change me
But I can’t trace time
I said that time may change me
But I can’t trace time

180 Days: Day 38–NaNoWriMo Starts Today! Woo Hoo!

Extra Credit! Extra Credit! Come and Get Your Extra Credit!…

If there’s one thing that students love almost as much as summer, it’s extra credit. Enter National Novel Writing Month, more affectionately known as NaNoWriMo. NaNoWriMo started with a small band of writers in 1999 and has spread internationally in the ensuing years. The goal is to write every day in the month of November on a single story and at the end of the month have over 100 pages/50,000 words towards a novel by month’s end.

I explained NaNo to all of my students and offered them extra credit for every day in November that they made a legitimate attempt at writing a single story, hopefully leading to at least the beginnings of a novel. My intention is to help students build discipline–writing daily is one proven way to become a better writer. Practice. Practice. Practice. Plus, students do not get many opportunities to write narratives in high school, much less narratives of their on topics/genres of their own choosing. So this project really is all about sparking some creativity amongst the students–even though it’s extra credit.

I got the typical questions. “Have you ever written a novel?” “Is it hard?” “How do you do it?” “Do you type or handwrite?” etc. etc. etc.

  1. No. I’ve never finished a novel with NaNo, but I have written every day for the month of November in years past. And I enjoy the challenge in developing a story, or building a format, or blogging daily, or whatever I choose to do.
  2. Yes. It can be hard. But, no. It’s not always. It’s a process. It’s all about learning who you are as a writer and how to develop your own voice/style/methods/strategies as a writer.
  3. Personally, I use both computer and handwritten techniques. I often blog straight onto my computer. I edit online and post with minimal revision. I often write fiction into a binder filled with looseleaf paper. I have a research section and a text section. I research names, topics, etc. online and record the info by hand, then write by hand before typing and revising. I like carrying a notebook everywhere I go, much like Quentin Tarantino does, even if I don’t use it. This part really is about building self-discipline to write with regularity.

Last year, my NaNo goal was to blog every day in November in order to kickstart my blog. I succeeded for not just 30 days, but over 45 days. And while I’ve written on the blog sporadically in the months afterward, I decided to start this school year borrowing an idea from a colleague, resulting in this 180 Days blog. Let my blog tell the story of my school year. It may not be a novel, but it will be a documentation of a year of my school life. And for NaNo this year, my plan is to continue my 180 Days blog while picking up my FB 30 Days of Thanksgiving, and adding a sprinkling of my Jules’s Jukebox into the mix. So I do plan to have a flurry of writing throughout November. I want to set a good example for my students. I write because I want to write. I write because I want to challenge myself. I write because I want to develop discipline.

So here we go…

“Miserlou” by Dick Dale and the Del-Tones


180 Days: Day 37–“Never Love A Wild Thing, Mr. Bell”

Holly Golightly gave this salient advise in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And today, I played Holly Golightly for Halloween to a group of ghosts, ghouls, zombies, and steampunk red riding hoods who would rather have been anywhere else but English class. But in English class they sit reading and writing summaries about war. Today is a short class period because of our modified schedule for intervention period–mercifully. So while students write their summaries, I let them “trick or treat” my pumpkin full of smarties candies and tell me about their costumes. Many guess correctly that I’m “Audrey Hepburn” though I’m the character she famously portrayed in Blake Edwards’s 1961 classic. Their guesses allow me the “in” to tell them about Capote and that they should read the book.

Speaking of loving wild things, tonight the Dodgers play the Astros in Game 6 of the World Series too. The ‘Stros are up 3-2 in this wild World Series, so tonight’s win will mean “winner takes all” or “live to fight another day” depending on which team you are. I am glad that the Dodgers are in the finals because they are a home team. I don’t dislike the Dodgers. But I do have a hard time with some of their fans, who heckled my son mercilessly when he was a five year old attending his first major league game proudly wearing his T-Ball uniform, which happened to be not from a rival team, but THE rival team (SF Giants). And Dodger Stadium is a real pain to get in and out of being in the heart of downtown in a ravine with only one way in or out. So needless to say, I typically avoid Dodgers games. It also hurts their cause that they beat my team for the National League title to make it to the Series–I grew up watching the Chicago Cubs. So I have chosen to cheer for the Astros this year. First, because they are representing a city trying to recover from a massive trauma with a millennial flood. Second, because I’ve actually been to see the Astros before, way back in the Astrodome days to see Nolan Ryan pitch. And third, because this would be their franchise’s first World Series win.

So tonight I will hand out candy with my brother and sister-in-law while we intermittently watch the game and horror movies. We will see where the night takes us wild things. And if I have any students showing up tomorrow after their late night prowls tonight.

holly golightly

Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

“Moon River” by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer from Breakfast at Tiffany’s.