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My Heart’s Delight

I have been working on more education…yes, I am a life-long learner and have discovered that my life is driven by learning. I will soon be a certified Reading Teacher and Literacy Specialist.

The crescendo slowly rising in my heart for the past decade I finally recognized as this increscendocredible symphony; I longed for a part in this amazing orchestra.  I was disappointed in myself as an English language arts teacher when a senior once told me, “I have never read a book.”, or “Never have I had the experience where I didn’t want to put a book down.”


That was the turning point for me. I began questioning other students with similar results. Those who enjoyed reading were not always willing to admit it, and, without a doubt were in the minority.

My questions led to more questions which led me to where I am today. I still have more questions, but have now surrounded myself with people who have felt a similar crescendo in their professional lives. I want to help children read to comprehend. I want to help children read to enjoy. I want to help children write for themsstudents readingelves and write to move people. Literacy is the key that unlocks every opportunity. With it, literacy brings competence, confidence, and collaboration. Mostly, though, literacy fills our lives with goodness.





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Coming Back

So, I need to make a comeback of sorts. Without going into too much garbage about where I have been or what I have doing, I need to get back to writing and sharing in this space.

For those of you who have been following this blog, SURPRISE, you just received a notification!

It’s not a mistake. It’s time for a comeback.

John, The Comeback Kid (for today).

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Students Create Instagram of Hamlet – #MaximumShakespeare

The New York Times sponsored a Hamlet Instagram contest (a 15 second video using lines from Hamlet) this fall.  An ELA colleague of mine at Seymour Community High School had her College Credit seniors enter the contest.  Authentic, 21st Century, editing, revising, and publishing learning opportunity!  Indeed, a fantastic example of best practice in education.

One of the student groups was recently declared a finalist and the video and an interview appeared in The New York Times.  Ryan Krahn, Clayton Skogman (in the pool as Ophelia) and Phil Michaelson are mentioned in the article and Ryan is quoted!

I am honored and blessed to work with amazing, compassionate educators and driven, creative students.

Take a look at the 15 second video and, if you feel so inclined, leave a comment on their Instagram.

Young Souls Portray the Wit of ‘Hamlet’, With Brevity, NYTimes-December 20, 2013

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The Lightning Thief As Difficult As The Odyssey…#Truth

Conducted an interesting experiment in my advance English 9 class recently.

We are currently reading The Odyssey, Robert Fagles translation.  When asked after the first eight books of the epic, The most confusing part of The Odyssey so far is ______ because _______, the most common response is the vocabulary is too difficult and/or the names are impossible.


As part of a 1-minute read I was doing in class one day, I used Rick Riordan’s Lighting Thief.  Middle school and high school students have been highly engaged in Riordan’s books, The Lightning Thief being Book One of the Percy Jackson and The Olympians series.  I read the first page and a half.  As I was reading, I suddenly wondered, What about this book attracts so many young adult readers?  Why is this text so much more approachable than Fagles’ translation of The Odyssey?

Finally, I asked these questions out loud to my group of ninth graders.  One student said he liked Riordan’s first person narrative.  Another student said the idea of a ‘half-blood’ hooked her.  Finally, another student said the vocabulary in Riordan’s book was much easier to understand and more recognizable.


So, I fired up the doc camera and we examined the first 193 words of The Lightning Thief and the first 201 words of Book Eight of The Odyssey.  First, we looked at Riordan’s novel.  We went word for word to identify which words, if any, caused confusion and which words were recognizable.  Of the first 193 words of this book, we identified six unrecognizable words.  Therefore, we understood 97% of the words we read.  This should result in deeper reading and comprehension.

We then did the same examination with The Odyssey.  Of the first 201 words of Book Eight, we identified 11 unrecognizable words or names.  Therefore, we understood 95% of the words we read.  Whoa…only 2% less than The Lightning Thief.  This should result in deeper reading and comprehension.

However, the students still felt more attracted to The Lightning Thief rather than The Odyssey.  We did acknowledge that word order and more sophisticated literary elements used in The Odyssey has a strong impact on student engagement and comfort level.

Because of this little examination, I do believe students may not so readily say the most confusing part of The Odyssey is the vocabulary.  They may say word choice, line structure, or use of extended metaphors cause them confusion, but at least now my students have a better idea of how to articulate what exactly causes discomfort as they read The Odyssey and other complex texts.

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Disciplinary Literacy

Disciplinary Literacy was a focus of a recent staff development in our district.  The high school English-Language Arts team partnered with two members of our middle school ELA team to model reading strategies for our colleagues in disciplines outside ELA.  Teaming up with my colleagues to prepare and then teaching alongside them, teaching our peers in our own school district, was a rich learning experience.

Our presentation was driven by thinking strategies and reading purposes as outlined by Cris Tovani, a reading specialist and high school English teacher.  We added a few reading strategies used in our classrooms from Kelly Gallagher’s book Deeper Reading and we created an engaging presentation.

We broke up into three different groups, presenters and learners.  My colleague and I presented to our colleagues from the Science department.  We modeled several different learning strategies in a variety of situations.

First, we modeled how we utilize the strategies as teachers.  Next, we gave our learners the opportunity to apply reading strategies to a short excerpt from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations; we modeled how to use multiple draft reads, sharpening focus with each read.  Finally, my colleague took on the role of student and modeled what it would look like for a reader of an unfamiliar text — in this case a section of a Biology textbook — to apply the reading strategies we had been modeling.

Our colleagues from the Science department were intrigued by the reading strategies and recognized the significance of Disciplinary Literacy.  Every member of the high school Science department agreed to try a reading strategy and invited my colleague and I in to observe and provide feedback.  The department leader went so far as to get permission from administration to have substitutes available for my colleague and I so we would be free for an entire school day to observe and follow-up with feed back.

This was a tremendous learning experience for me.  The first time in 18 years of teaching where I have spent engaging, educational time in a classroom of another discipline.  The observation and follow-up conversations were eye opening for everyone and we all benefited deeply.

My ELA colleagues and I have invited our science colleagues into our classrooms to observe us, how we apply reading strategies, and provide feedback to us.  A few have taken us up on this so far and I have a feeling it will happen again.

Our district Curriculum Coordinator provided the encouragement, time, and space to make this happen.  As I told one of the science teachers, if other disciplines can spend 10 minutes a class period on a reading strategy, four times a week, what a difference this would make in school-wide literacy.  Just think of the confidence and competence our students would be equipped with as they left our high schools for work or further education.

I admire my colleagues and am grateful to work with many educators who are driven to do what’s best for kids.  We continue to find ways to give all of our students the best opportunities to be successful now and tomorrow.

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A Reading List for Engaged Educators

I participated in my first Twitter #Sunchat on Sunday November 10, 2013.  I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to participate in this one-hour chat. I have gained a list of 20 titles I would have otherwise not been exposed to without the generous sharing of so many educators via Twitter.

Here is the list of titles for professional development:

  1. Literacy with an Attitude, by Patrick J. Finn
  2. Book Love, by Penny Kittle
  3. The Trouble with Black Boys and other Reflections on Race, Equity, and the Future of Public Education, by Pedro Noguera
  4. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweckreading in the wild
  5. Change by Design, by Tim Brown
  6. Strengthsfinder, by Tom Rath
  7. Embedded Formative Assessment, by Dylan Wiliam
  8. Reading in the Wild, by Donalyn Miller
  9. The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell
  10. Good to Great, by Jim Collins
  11. Quiet, by Susan Cain
  12. Teach Like a Pirate, by Steve Burgess

For Entertainment Purposes (Potential SHS Faculty/Staff Book Club Books):

  1. The Help, by Katheryn Stockett
  2. Wild, by Cheryl Strayed
  3. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee BenderMs. Peregrines School for Peculiar Children1
  4. Come Back to Me, by Melissa Foster
  5. Still Alice, by Lisa Genova
  6. The Reason I Jump, by Naoki Higashida
  7. Ms. Peregrines School for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs
  8. I am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai

Happy Reading !!

#Sunchat happens every Sunday morning @ 8am CST.

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Pi, A Modern Day Odysseus?

Okay, so I was completely immersed in The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, that is, the life of life of piPiscine Molitor Patel, until I drifted into ‘Part Three: Benito Judrez Infirmary, Tomatlan, Mexico’.  To say this story-or, shall I say, stories-is a modern day epic is not a complete reach, however the ending (Part Three) was, paradoxically, arid in comparison to the supple, densely saturated, life-sustaining narrative.  This is where Martel failed to put this eloquently crafted novel in the neighborhood of great, must-read literature.  For nearly 286 pages I was ready to baptize Pi (I really have no authority to do this other than being an avid reader of a plethora of literature, both modern and classic) as a modern day Odysseus.

If we were to investigate this novel for epic characteristics they would be sparse.  For example, in its purest artistic form The Life of Pi is a novel not a poem, there is figurative language used but it would be a stretch to label similes as extended or epic, there is a natural beginning but, I suppose arguable, the novel does not begin in medias res, and there is no invocation of a Muse.

Upon further investigation we do find echoes of epic characteristics.  The novel addresses a serious topic, one of self-discovery and survival under the weight of extreme natural forces and battles of wit with varying species.  Pi’s family-his father, mother, brother, and Pi-are pushed out of India due to a concern over politics-or, as in epics, the fate of their nation, and pulled to Canada.  The novel holds a large, expansive setting from India, to the middle of the Pacific ocean, to Mexico, and finally Canada.  In Homer’s epics, we are bombarded with the intervention of gods and goddesses. Certainly, Pi is helped by his belief in God and his practicing of three separate faiths.  Depending upon the impression of heroic qualities and based on which of Pi’s stories is most reliable, one might argue that Piscine Molitor Patel is a larger than life hero.

I was hooked by the lure of spirituality.  Believing in one God while practicing Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity made sense.

waveA wave of emotions washed over me as I read.  First, when Pi’s father decided to shut down the family zoo and move out of India, next as I realized Pi’s father, mother, and brother drowned as the Tsimtsum sank to the depths of the Pacific ocean, then as Pi struggled to survive as he drifted aimlessly on the ocean in a lifeboat with a Royal Bengal tiger as his first-mate, and, finally, his miraculous rescue, on the shoresroyal bengal tiger of Mexico, when he barely had strength to stand on his own two feet, struggling to even trust the ground underneath him.

Early on Pi claims this story is one that will make you believe in God.  The story comes full circle, the circumference made up of a long voyage, the radius of struggle after struggle on the Pacific, and the diameter of a spiritual connection that aided in Pi’s survival.  At the end, when he asks the Japanese interviewers whether they liked his story with or without animals, Mr. Okamoto replied as Mr. Chiba agreed,  “The story with animals is the better story.”  Pi responds, “And so it goes with God.”

Did this story make me believe in God?  No more than I already do.  Was this story full of symbolism of human nature and our pursuit of understanding our purpose?  Yes, absolutely.  Is Pi a modern day Odysseus?  Maybe, but, because of an ending that leads to more confusion, disillusionment, and a white-washing of the first 300 pages,  Yann Martel is not a modern day Homer, not that he wants to be.  He has hit upon something significant in The Life of Pi.  Namely, the possibility of a peaceful coexistence of three faiths based on enduring, sustaining, unconditional love.  If nothing else, that is worthwhile and valuable in our age.

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Favoring The Home Team

Trying to avoid filling my blog with unsolicited sports fandom commentary, I rarely broach the topic of sports.  Based on what I am currently reading, I am compelled to share what I have learned about referee bias and home field advantage.

I am stepping over the line with this post…slightly.

In a few weeks I will begin teaching a course for high school seniors, Sports Literature.  As I have been preparing, I have been reading the books I will share with my students.  The book with which I will be kicking off the semester has me fascinated.

SCORECASTING: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played And Games scorecastingAre Won written by Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim is an in-depth study of the subtle biases that influence sports, particularly professional sports.  One the eve of the NFL Divisional Round Playoffs commencing and my beloved Green Bay Packers preparing to battle the San Francisco 49ers, I couldn’t help but share some engaging insight this book offers.

The chapter that has caught my attention most, no doubt because the Packers are traveling TO San Francisco for their playoff game, “What IS Driving the Home Field Advantage”, asserts that there is a single factor in home field advantage.  One might think it is the crowd.  Another might think travel and time differences might be the advantage for the home team.  Even further, one might suppose that professional athletes play differently (effectively or ineffectively) on the road versus at home.

refereesIn fact, Maskowitz and Wertheim claim the “leading cause of the home field advantage is…referee bias” (p. 165).

Yep. That’s right.  For all you sports fans who declare your team got screwed from the officials, there just maybe some truth in that sentiment.  And Maskowitz and Wertheim have plenty of evidence to back it up!

With volumes of statistical data and psychological research, Maskowitz and Wertheim launch out on a mission to show, among other things, referee bias.  What they found was astounding.  “When humans are faced with enormous pressure–say, making a crucial call with a rabid crowd yelling, taunting and chanting a few feet away–it is natural to want to alleviate that pressure.  By making snap-judgment calls in favor of the home team, referees, whether they consciously appreciate it or not, are relieving some of that stress” (p. 159).

Some might think this obvious, but there is a correlation with the crowd size and home field advantage.  Despite what you might believe is causing that advantage, like the Seattle Seahawks 12th MAN or the DAWG POUND in Cleveland driving their home team heroesdawg pound to extraordinary levels,  the fact is the referees are more affected than the athletes.

“Even in the NFL, in which most games are sold out, the home-away discrepancies in penalties and turnovers increase with crowd size.  With virtually every discretionary official’s call–in virtually every sport–the home advantage is significantly larger when the crowd is bigger” (p. 162).  The appropriate conclusion is “(h)ome team favoritism…should be greater the larger and more relevant the crowd and the more ambiguous the situation.  They may also be taking a cue from the crowd when trying to make the right call, especially in an uncertain situations” (p. 160).

In 2007 the Italian government forced professional soccer teams who did not have sufficient security at their stadiums to play home games without spectators.  Upon analyzing the data from these ‘spectator-less’ games, it was found that the behavior of the athletes, namely their level of play, did not change.  What did change, however, was the officiating.  “The same referee overseeing the same two teams in the same stadium behaved dramatically differently when spectators were present versus when no one was watching” (p. 164).

This got me reflecting on the game earlier in the year when the Packers traveled TO Seattle to play the Seahawks on Monday Night Football.  As has been well documented, fail marythe Seahawks won the game on a much argued completed Hail Mary pass from quarterback Russell Wilson (a Wisconsin favorite, by the way) to wide receiver Golden Tate.  It appeared as though Packers defensive back M.D. Jennings had intercepted and gained control of the ball before Tate muscled his way to, what was moments later decided, simultaneous possession.  The NFL rules indicate that simultaneous possession results in awarding the offense possession of the football.  In this case, the ball was caught (possessed) in the end zone, resulting in a touchdown, giving the Seahawks enough points to win the game.

Arguably, CenturyLink Field is THE loudest stadium in professional sports.  In the video and photographs of the miraculous simultaneous possession reception that followed, the backdrop often included Seahawk fans–who are seemingly closer to the field than in other NFL stadiums–screaming, ranting, and pounding on the stadium walls for the referees to make the favorable decision for the home team.

The officials obliged, relieved the pressure, and ruled in favor of the home team.  “…(T)he closer officials are to the crowd, the more likely they are to favor the home team” (p. 167).

In reading SCORECASTING, I am reassured that players most often dictate the outcome of a game.  I am hopeful that Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, and company will out-execute and out-perform their counterparts from San Francisco.  I know the 49er fans will be ready for some football on Saturday night by showing rabid support for their team.  I suppose, if they were smart, they would direct all their attention and energy to the referees rather than the players.  That is counter intuitive and goes against conventional fan wisdom, if there is such a thing.

Moskowitz and Wertheim aptly assert that when fans scream players  (for or against), the outcome is not affected.  On the other hand, when they scream at officials (against, I suppose), “well…that’s another story entirely” (p. 167).



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Literacy Stamina and Social Media

I use social media in assorted formats and diverse purposes.  As a high school ELA teacher,facebook I aspire to immerse students in literacy: lots of opportunities to read and write every day.  As time has passed, there has always been a certain population of students who are reluctant readers and insecure writers.  Today’s culture, and its flood of social media, has created, to some degree, more reluctant readers and minimalist writers.

I have brought my personal library of books into my classroom, placing several (nearly book stack100 different titles) on display in my classroom.  I invite students to check out my books any time; if it doesn’t fit for them, I propose they put it back and try another one.  Sometimes, I will even suggest certain titles to certain students, based on their interest, from my personal library.

I encourage students to read books: long ones, short ones, and anything in between.  I require students to read non-fiction, magazine articles, newspaper articles, and longer memoirs.

In various forms, my students write nearly every day.  Some writing is quick and to the point, other writing is extensive and in-depth.

I model writing for my students as often as I can, even so far as placing the two books I have authored on display, inviting my students to read them.  This blog is another option for my students to sample my writing (and, yes, be critical of it too): style, tone, structure, and interest.  Writing in front of them, with them, is a powerful way to teach the writing process.

While I attempt to lure students into literacy, I feel defeated when some st

udents don’t find the appeal of reading and writing and, sooner than
Social media is trending.  Use of multiple forms of technology to communicate is shrinking our world.  Our students are utilizing technology to connect, cooperate, and, ultimately, textingcoexist.later, give up.  In observing students behavior, both socially and academically, I have noticed their keen interest in social media, namely Facebook, Twitter, and texting.  I began to reflect on the effect the “140-Characters-or-Less” era has on our students’ willingness to embrace literacy.

My hypothesis is students don’t have the stamina to sustain long periods of reading and/ortwitter writing because our culture is begging for concise summations in ‘140-Characters-or-Less’.  The effects are numerous, the most obvious being a growing reluctance to read and a shape shift as to what ‘good’ writing looks like.

As a high school ELA teacher, I have embraced technology and social media as a tool in my classroom, an efficient way to connect with my students and move from a traditional classroom to a more blended experience.  However, my concern is balancing the literacy immersion with the concise status updates our culture has encouraged us to compose and read.

There is a place in our world for deep literacy and ’20 second updates’.  We just have to find the right blend for our students to understand, appreciate, and utilize both.  We must promote the relevance of technology and social media in today’s culture and how it might drive deeper reading and in-depth writing.

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