I never grew out of the mixtape. It really is its own extremely special kind of literacy. I love making and sharing playlists for particular moments in time, particular tasks, or particular people. Today, my fellow teacher about to go back to school, I made one for you.

Since music is intensely personal, you might enjoy the songs I’ve selected, or you might not. In case of the latter, I’ve included an “answer key” of sorts at the end of the post that will help you build your own playlist, according to your own preferred musical selections. Same spirit, different tracks.

I’d like to talk a little about each song and why it’s a power song for me. If you want to skip straight to cranking it in your classroom, just click here. I’ll include all the titles and artists in the post so that you can also pick and choose on your own music platform as desired.

A Tour Through the Songs

1. 365 Days – ZZ Ward

“I told you back in June–you knew d–n well what I would do… the summer’s over.”

ZZ Ward emanates cool. I really enjoy her music and her unstoppable confidence. This song kicks off the playlist by stating the inevitable, the reason we’re all here: the summer’s over.

2. Move – Saint Motel

“Gotta get up, I gotta get up. MOVE!”

The pace of the school year is insane. We get up early. We stay late, sometimes for several more hours past the final bell. The trill of the A.M. alarm blurs us into the next morning before we even know what hit us. This track reminds us to keep grooving while we’re moving.

3. Church – Samm Henshaw (feat. Earthgang)

“Good morning. Wake up, wake! Wake up and get yourself to church, yeah!”

For me, teaching is ultimately servant leadership. It’s like going to church. You go to serve others, you bring the best of yourself, you offer it up, you go to be together and to be changed.

4. Complainer – Cold War Kids

“You say you want to change this world. Well, you must really believe in magic. ‘Cause you can only change yourself. Don’t sit around and complain about it.”

There are inevitably problems and frustrations that exists in education, both at the national level and in our own local environments. But, both as professionals and as citizens, we have the power to make changes in positive ways instead of giving up. I love the way this song just takes no excuses.

5. Something Good Can Work – Two Door Cinema Club

“Something good can work, and it can work for you. And you know that it will.”

Staying positive and hopeful is important for teachers. We believe so hard in our students, in their potential, in their fundamental goodness. This song is all about that, positivity and trust in the future.

6. Short Skirt / Long Jacket – Cake

“I want a girl with a mind like a diamond. I want a girl who knows what’s best… She’s fast, and thorough, and sharp as a tack. She’s touring the facility and picking up slack.”

We always tell our students that the most attractive features they can possess are intelligence, hard work, and confidence. That’s what this song is all about. (Plus it’s just a great jam.)

7. This is Why We Fight – The Decemberists

This is why. Why we fight. Why we lie awake. This is why. This is why we fight.”

I actually wrote a whole post inspired by this song back in 2015. The short answer is this: the kids. The kids are why.

8. You Ain’t the Problem – Michael Kiwanuka

“Don’t hesitate. Time heals the pain. You ain’t the problem.”

Besides having a fabulous groove, this track reminds us to not take everything too personally. Even when the job gets hard, you’re still there taking care of students and helping them learn. You can’t take on everything. In all likelihood… you ain’t the problem. Just keep going.

9. Say – John Mayer

“Walking like a one man army, fighting with the shadows in your head,
living out the same old moment, knowing you’d be better off instead,
if you could only say what you need to say.”

Words are power. More than ever, communication is access. Literacy is opportunity. Our job is to help kids say what they need to say.

10. Going Away to College – Blink 182

This is the kind of song you can only truly divine by factoring in the years during which you were in the highest throes of teenager-hood. For me, this song is the one. The punch-in-the-stomach track that takes me immediately back in time, standing outside my beige locker at Menomonee Falls High School, with all the hopes and cares and dreams that overwhelmed me as a skinny and scared sixteen-year-old. In our profession, it’s important to hold on to a part of that. Remember what it’s like. And treat the young ones with care.


Want to make your own Back to School Power Playlist? See below.

Playlist Answer Key:

  1. A song that kisses summer goodbye.
  2. A song about waking up nice and early in the morning.
  3. A song about mission.
  4. A song about action over nihilism.
  5. A song that projects positivity.
  6. A song that celebrates intelligence and drive.
  7. A song that reminds you why you’re here.
  8. A reminder that even in a flawed system, you can recover to keep doing good in the world.
  9. A song about the power of words.
  10. A song that reminds you how confusing and magical and painful and intense it is to be a kid.

Image by Icons8 team on Unsplash

Universe as Text is broadcasting live to you from… summer! I hope all you teachers out there are taking the time to do the important regenerative work of doing non-school things for the most part. I don’t know about you, but it’s almost the end of July and I think I just now started to feel relaxed. And since I’m finally feeling relaxed, I thought it would be a good time to share a fun podcast project that I did with my students for the first time last year.

I’ve been intrigued by the idea of doing a podcast with my students for a while. This is not a new thing–in fact, my friend Mr. B. did a guest post a few years back talking about his version of a podcast project! But it seems like podcasts are getting bigger and bigger these days, that the habit of listening to podcasts is now completely mainstream. So when my colleague Mrs. G. did a technology inservice on using SoundTrap to create student podcasts, I felt it was time for me to get on this train before it leaves without me. What resulted was a fantastic final project for my AP Literature students that helped them learn some digital skills, but also discern what they had to say about the power of literature.

I will start out by telling you that I let my students know up-front that this project was probably going to have some snags, since it was my first time working with the digital tools and overall concept. I think that’s a really important message to share with students: “This may not go perfectly, but we’re going to try it! Failing and learning are interrelated! Even if your attempt is kind of bad, I won’t penalize you for taking your time to figure things out!” Frankly, I just wanted to see what would happen. And what did happen was really cool.

At the bottom of the post, I’ll share my assignment sheet/rubric, along with the example podcast that I made (with my very good sport of a husband), and a student example of the final product. Please send me any questions you have about specifics. Beyond that, let me just share my major takeaways in bulleted list form.


*Podcasts are fun to make and fun to grade.

*The skill of verbally articulating one’s insights is so valuable. Recording audio is a wonderful way for students to practice that skill (with unlimited re-do opportunities) without social pressure.

*SoundTrap is very easy to use with a little bit of fiddling. It’s similar to Garage Band, so if students have that tech literacy, they can build on it, but even if they don’t, they can figure it out with some experimentation time (and so can you)! Video tutorials also help.

*Listening to to podcast examples along with the students was also very helpful. I chose literary-oriented ones like Hey, YA! and Literary Disco. But make sure you preview the whole podcast of your choice before sharing with students; sometimes non-school appropriate words or concepts can crop up in an episode. Just like video content, it takes time to search, preview, and select the examples. Plan accordingly.

*I encouraged students to take doodle notes/sketch notes as we listened. Otherwise it’s awkward to sit and listen passively to something for 10-15 minutes. It also helped give them something to reference when we discussed the anatomy of the episodes and things we might apply in our own work.

*The biggest mistake I made this first year: not requiring students to do a FULL LISTEN of what they think is their finished file for submission. When we listened to the files on presentation day, several groups had big editing errors in their shows that they didn’t realize had happened at some point during their collaborative editing or exporting process. Leave an extra day between deadline and presenting day for this reason, so there’s time to fix the “oh no” moment that will probably inevitably happen to most groups. That’s just the reality of technology!

*You will be absolutely delighted at how funny and smart your students are. This platform gives every voice a chance to be heard, because it’s engineered that way. I will absolutely be doing this project again!


*Assignment sheet and rubric–please feel free to use/modify!

*My example–A podcast on our love of science fiction, made together with my husband, the fantastic and handsome Scott Casey.

*Student example--A podcast on relationships in literature, made with big thanks to the PageHuggers group of 2019. ūüôā

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around ‚ÄĒ nobody big, I mean ‚ÄĒ except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff ‚ÄĒ I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”

There have been some voices around the internet in recent years singing the death knell of Catcher in the Rye as a relevant piece of assigned reading for high school students. And many of them present important arguments: Catcher, in this era of HBO, is no longer truly edgy and raw. Catcher has misogynistic and homophobic moments. Catcher is about a whiny, wealthy, straight(?), cis-gendered white male who doesn’t know true oppression. Catcher is not for cool kids anymore, but rather hipster teachers who think they are cool.

So, I do hear the value in all of that. I do. Certain flaws of the novel are crucial to address while studying it, particularly issues of privilege and representation. And hey, maybe I am just a hipster teacher who thinks she’s cool. But let me say this: teaching Catcher in the Rye is still important if the approach is a good one. I see my students’ eyes in our discussions, and I know this book still matters, because it’s a book about the human mind and heart, and how it works. It’s a book about fear and grief hurting so badly that a kid can become an insufferable jerk, even if he hates that about himself. It’s an opportunity for empathy, for mental health awareness, and especially for hope.

Not a single student in my classroom fits the social demographic that Holden comes from–opulent, elite wealth. But that’s an important part of understanding the story: even those who we assume are too rich or too [your word here] to ever have real problems definitely do still have problems. This idea is something that my students are able to identify along with a rudimentary introduction to some psychology terms. Holden’s negativity springs from a clear set of core issues and psychological defenses stemming from his anger and unprocessed grief. This, I think, is the difference between a dated teaching of this novel and a modern one. I don’t teach my kids to take this novel as a battle cry against phonies. I teach them to take it as a call for compassion.

Nobody likes Holden. Not even Holden likes Holden! But Holden needs help, needs someone to listen, needs protection. And, despite how irritating and clueless he can be, he still deserves love, as all of us do. The novel goes to some very dark places as Holden experiences self-destructive and even suicidal tendencies. Open conversations about mental health warning signs are an important result of these sections. My students are able to recognize Holden’s behavior and empathize with its source–not empty apathy, but a desperate need for help. Consider this moment from Chapter 25.

Anyway, I kept walking and walking up Fifth Avenue, without any tie on or anything. Then all of a sudden, something very spooky started happening. Every time I came to the end of a block and stepped off the goddam curb, I had this feeling that I’d never get to the other side of the street. I thought I’d just go down, down, down, and nobody’d ever see me again. […] Every time I’d get to the end of a block I’d make believe I was talking to my brother Allie. I’d say to him, “Allie, don’t let me disappear. Allie, don’t let me disappear. Allie, don’t let me disappear. Please, Allie.” And then when I’d reach the other side of the street without disappearing, I’d thank him.

At this point in the novel, my students are able to recognize the shadow language of symbols that have been building all book long. The ducks, the undialed phone, the false identities, the red hunting hat, the broken record–so many of them part of Holden’s longing for reassurance, for the sense that adulthood will be ok and safe, that his fantastical vocation of being the catcher in the rye is actually unnecessary. As you probably already know, the ending does get us–and Holden–to that place at the carousel in Central Park.

Holden’s final realization is, I think, one that my modern high school students still crave for themselves, and that is this: Ultimately, even when the world seems so dark that it can swallow you up as you disappear, there is still innocence and joy on the other side. Growing up doesn’t mean we lose everything. We can always depart and return to our inner child. We will continue to experience both loss and restoration as long as we’re on the ride. In the words of Holden, it’s “just so damn nice.”

The Catcher in the Rye is not without flaw. But it hasn’t outlived its usefulness just yet. It helps my students think about how grief and trauma disrupt one’s ability to behave in healthy and socially appropriate ways. It helps them think about how relationships can be sabotaged by fear. And it helps remind them that help is there for the taking, and that especially those who seem not to care about anything might actually just need someone to stop and listen.

“Creative work comes from your soul,” I tell the kids, channeling my best sage-like energy. “From deep inside there, from your feelings and your own life experiences and revelations. You own your writing. You, and your audience will decide on the merit of anything you create–a poem, a song, a story. I can’t grade that. I can’t grade your soul. And I won’t. So how will I decide upon your grade in this class? Let’s talk about that…”

This year, for the first time in a long time, I’ve had one of my greatest content area loves intersect with my assigned classes–Creative Writing! I am enjoying the work of building a course that is both rigorous and accessible for my many different levels of student writers.

One of the things I’ve considered carefully in creating the course is assessment. My school, like many others in our area, is moving to a standards-based (also called target-based) grading model. If you’re new to this idea, one of the main parts of this philosophy is that rather than being awarded a number of points per task–like writing a paper that is worth 20 points, for instance–students are directly assessed and re-assessed on specific learning targets throughout the semester, according to a proficiency scale. So the focus isn’t really on “How many points did I get on my paper?” but rather something more like “How am I doing on my grammar skills?” and “How am I doing on being able to organize my writing? Am I growing in this skill? Have I mastered it?”

At first I was a little bit leery about how this kind of grading would go in a class that focuses on creative work, but as I drafted the syllabus, I started to realize that the arts work perfectly in a standards-based setting. Think about it… all artists work tirelessly on their fundamentals. Whether it’s a musician running scales, a ballet dancer working on arm placement and turns, or a writer finessing the way they use punctuation, all goals with a level of craft to them depend on this idea of mastering the essential elements of one’s art.

As a writer myself, I always feel like I am returning to the basics to try to get better. When I write a poem, it’s not like I say, “Okay, I wrote a poem. That’s done. No need to ever do that again.” Rather, I look at myself evolving as a poet–how is my style shifting? What could I try next time? How do I push myself to get better?” That’s the same mentality I want my students to have. Learning in the arts, and everywhere, is not about checking off boxes and then forgetting about them. It’s about constantly pushing ourselves to be better, to truly master the fundamentals of our discipline.

So, what does this actually look like for me? I took some time to reflect on the aspects of writing that all authors, whether beginners or professionals, always need to work on. These are standards that I set for myself as well as for my students. In a semester-long course, I decided to go with ten of them. Not all of them appear in every assignment, but all of them reappear over the semester in different ways as the students try their hands at different types of open-ended assignments.

So, on any given assessment, I might assess one to four of these standards. My instruction is all built around strengthening these skills in a wide variety of contexts. The beauty of this is that it allows me to be very open-ended in my assignment choices–as long as the standards that we’ve been working on are evident, student writers can follow their own creative instincts. What I’m ultimately looking for is a consistent mastery of these skills–if I can say that a student has mastered these ten things by the end of the class, I’m confident in their ability as a writer. What they do with that ability, ultimately, remains up to them.

For example, here’s the assignment description for my first assessment of the semester. (The instruction prior to this assignment focuses on building creative community, requesting and giving effective peer feedback, responding to feedback, revision practices, figurative language, metaphorical thinking, mining life experience and memory for creative purposes, and recognizing/avoiding cliche.)

“I can’t grade a poem, “ I tell them. “Poems don’t get grades and all poems deserve to be in the world. But I can tell you if you are using structure well. I can tell you if your revision is aggressive enough. I can tell you if you’re using a symbol or not. That’s how we’ll do this–everything I teach you is meant to make you a better writer, so that you can make the best version of what you want to make.”

I’m happy to chat more about grading practices in a creative writing context with any readers about there who may be experimenting with similar things–leave a comment below!

Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony is one of my favorite texts to teach in my AP English Literature and Composition class, but it’s also one of the more difficult ones. Like many other masterful contemporary texts that make their way into the literature classroom, like Tim O’Brien’s The¬†Things¬†They¬†Carried or Toni Morrison’s Beloved,¬†this text is not told in a straightforward chronological order. Rather, it’s a complex weaving of many different times in the characters’ lives, stories within stories, and even native legends that all work together to create the sense of the story. Especially for students who are very linear thinkers, this kind of structure can throw them off, so I try to help them along by teaching them terms like nonlinear narrative¬†and narrative¬†thread.¬†

For the purposes of my class, I define a narrative thread as a storyline that orients the reader through a certain recurring character set, setting, and place in time. I tell them that, unlike linear stories, where the plot gradually unfolds and we get a sense of meaning from what happens and how, a nonlinear narrative enforces thematic ideas across these different narrative threads. Even if we don’t grasp the exact order of events as threads are switching around, what’s more important in this kind of reading is recognizing how certain ideas are emphasized, repeated, and mirrored across the threads. That’s how we make sense of it all. It’s a different kind of story, where you feel your way through in a layering process almost like painting.

They don’t always “get it” right away, though, which is why I have them wrestle with it a bit. When we’re about three quarters through the novel, I have them complete a small group project where I ask them to select a thematic idea and then create a visual product that demonstrates how different narrative threads work together to explore the idea. This year, I got some really stellar ones, and thought I’d share them in case anyone else would like to try this project! Also, please know that the students made these things up entirely on their own. I take no credit for their amazing approaches to the task!

Digital Thread Map

This approach was digital, linking drops of rain to five different narrative threads where the idea of rain and drought correlate with the characters’ feelings of guilt and longing for restoration. Like raindrops pattering down on the earth, the threads don’t need a set pattern to be felt and seen.

Pop-up/Slide-out Symbol Poster

This one was way bigger and more complicated than just this photo shows, packed with important symbols from the novel. Each symbol slides out to show an explanation and moment in the text where the idea of healing is present in different threads, and then back in to create the effect of the overall symbol-spotted poster.

Icon Illustration

This gorgeous illustration took a snake symbol–which correlates with a specific moment in the text–and used it to explore moments that talk about the human relationship with the earth, including accompanying important imagery from the novel. The two snakes represent Tayo (you can even see the little scar from his scalp ceremony) and the Mother Earth Spirit.

Fortune Teller Origami

This one completely blew my mind–such a perfect idea to illustrate the oneness of theme across many enfolded elements of a novel. This group chose the thematic idea of belonging, and identified four prominent narrative threads that featured the idea. Once choosing the thread, there are two examples, each one correlating to an important quote from the book. Amazing!

Sometimes I feel like the most absurdly simple teaching strategies are the ones that work the best. Today, I have one to share with all of you. It’s called writing on the board… with a twist!

At the beginning of this year, I had one section of students in particular that was filled with very, very bright students who did not want to contribute to class discussion. It’s often the story with young introverts with a rich inner world–they suffer the paradoxical situation of having rich insights to share but feeling unable to verbalize them on the spot. This group in particular tended that way, which was frustrating as a teacher trying to foster productive class discussion. They understood what they were reading. I knew this because I could see it in their writing. But ask for them to share their thoughts out loud? Deer in headlights.

Luckily for these young introverts, I am an older introvert who is savvy to their ways. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished dearly that I could just write down a response in a conversation rather than blurt out some words that hopefully come out fully formed. Sadly for us, life is not thus. Even with some community building and time to adjust to one another, these students were just not budging, other than a couple brave souls who would try to carry the whole class with eyes that pled with me to help them out. So I did! I got them to talk. This is how.¬†

Everybody likes writing on the board in a classroom. It’s just a fact. It’s fun! There are markers! Come on teachers, you know you love writing on the board. And students do , too. This is something not to be underestimated. It’s a way to make introvert dreams come true–let them write their ideas down, but publicly. Then, the discussion part can happen much more fluidly. Here’s what I do:

1. Make sure you have plenty of nice, fresh dry-erase markers in multiple colors. Or¬†SMARTBoard markers, or chalk if you’re truly old-school (I’m envious!)

2. Give discussion prompt. Since we’re currently starting to read Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, I gave them a set of questions relating to that word–what is a ceremony? What does it need to go well? Why is it important? How does culture determine its workings?¬†

3. Have students discuss their ideas with a partner to get a bit of practice verbalizing. Encourage them to write down their best thoughts.

4. [Small class version] Invite every student to write a short phrase on the board that represents their most prominent/surprising/unique insight.

[Large class version] Have partners (or small groups if the class is HUGE) determine one group member who had the best insightful moment and send that representative up to the board to write a phrase that represents it. Remind them to write large and neat enough that their words will be legible.

5. Once the collection is complete, use it to guide discussion. It’s helpful as the instructor to have a laser pointer here, to guide the students to certain parts of this visual discussion. As the teacher navigates, each student gets a turn telling the class about why they wrote what they did, elaborating on it and potentially making connections to others’ thoughts in the process.¬†

Of course, this is not a substitute for a fully organic whole-class discussion, but it’s a way to work up to it. We did this exercise often at the beginning of the year in this class, and our traditional discussions have definitely expanded as a result. What I love most about this is that every student gets a voice, and there’s no hiding from the fact that they have ideas to add. After all, it’s all right there on the board, in their own handwriting.

Thanks for reading!

I’ve recently been working with my high school juniors on how to write a personal statement for educational or career-related opportunities. In the next year or so, they will all have to choose a path. That might entail college and scholarship applications. It might involve cover letters for career opportunities. It might mean joining another kind of program or apprenticeship. Regardless of a student’s aspirations, being able to write about one’s self is an important skill to open all kinds of doors. The stories that reveal the qualifications and experience that they bring into potential opportunities are stories they need to be able to tell. So we begin to practice now. And I start seeing a pattern that I often see whenever personal writing pops up in the classroom.

The confident students forge straight ahead, eager to envision their futures and tell the story of their potential. Many others approach with reticence, but slowly work their way through with the help of mentor texts, modeling, and one-on-one instruction. I’m not worried about those kids–they will all be fine. I worry about the ones who freeze–the ones who look at this assignment and refuse to put words to the page. These are the students who say things like, “I can’t do this. I can’t write.” Or “Nothing about my life is interesting.” Or the worst one (which I still get every year): “I really don’t have any positive traits. There’s nothing good about me.”

Moments like this touch something that a standardized test can never measure–the inextricable link between personal writing and self-concept. These are the students who, somewhere along the way, started believing that their stories don’t matter. Maybe it’s because of some aspect of who they are. Maybe it’s because of something they are struggling with. Maybe it’s because they don’t believe that anyone will listen to what they have to say. These students are often evasive or belligerent. But they are so important.

We cannot allow kids like this to give up. We need to show them that someone is listening. Every student’s story matters, and helping them learn to tell it, if you ask me, is possibly the most important aspect of my job as a teacher of writing.

So how do we do this? It’s a problem I’m still working on, one that I certainly haven’t completely solved. However, I’ve got a start, and as I’ve been applying this method this past week, I thought it might be helpful to share. Here are some things that I rely on to lift these students up and show them that their stories matter!

1. Double-check your teaching for culturally responsive practices.¬†Culturally responsive pedagogy¬†is too complex for me to explain in depth here, but it is something that every teacher should be familiar with. At the most basic level, remind yourself that the reason a student may be struggling may have something to do with a lack of inclusion or understanding related to their home culture, language, or socio-economic status. For teaching something like the personal statement, think about the various versions of success that can be presented in the written examples that you provide to them. Are all students presented with an example that they can relate to? Or does a homogenous definition of success end up excluding students of certain backgrounds, sending the message that this kind of writing doesn’t include people who look, speak, or live like they do?

2. Find something in common, and model from there.¬†Talk to your students who won’t write. Divert the conversation away from the writing task and toward what they care about. What do they do with their spare time? Where have they lived? Where do they work? What are they most proud of? Who do they love? I talk with my students about these things, sometimes writing down brief notes on our conversations to hand back to them. Often, that organically provides a starting point–maybe a student suddenly realizes that she emulates her mother’s determination, or that she can really talk to lots of different types of people with ease… those are wonderful, marketable traits that are great to write about. Point that out! Help them see the good that you see. So much the better if you as the teacher can find something similar in your own life and say, “Hey, that’s kind of like me! So here’s how I would set this piece of writing up if I were doing it…” Show them how to put it down, and it quickly becomes less scary.

3. Minimize pressure — Just talk, then just write…¬†Do everything you can in your classroom culture to emphasize that writing is messy, experimental play that can be twisted and flipped and cut and expanded at will. Even something as high stakes as a personal statement starts as a draft. Spend less time saying things that send the message of “You will fail in the future if you don’t do this well.” Spend more time saying, “Write a half of a notebook page about what’s most important in your life. Don’t think about making it good. It’s ok if it’s terrible. It just needs to be on the page.” Initial writing should be able to just blurt out onto a highly destructible piece of paper. Once there’s a draft, that polished essay is within sight. Then it’s time to teach revision!

…But that’s for another post. ūüôā¬† Happy teaching!

P.s. An extra tip from my colleague Mrs. F.¬† For students who still get stuck on that first line, try giving them a sentence starter to get the pen moving. (Ex. “I feel good when I’m skateboarding because _____.” Sometimes that’s all they need.)

Next week, I will begin my tenth year of teaching. I am celebrating this milestone with great satisfaction and nostalgia.

I’m also thinking about this meeting that I had shortly before beginning my very first year as a teacher. There was a staff member who was sharing some information with me. I still remember her saying, “So, some of these resources will help you make it through the year and then we’ll see if you’re really cut out for teaching or if you run off and do something else with your life.” I looked her right in the eyes, little baby teacher that I was, and said, “I’m not going anywhere.” I’m proud to say that I made good on that promise. Teaching isn’t for everyone, but teaching is for me. That much I knew even back then.

Look, it’s not an easy job. I now know that every time you think you’ve got the hang of teaching, every time you start feeling like you’re really a pretty fantastic teaching professional, reality will happily intervene to humble you. There are still points in every year where I feel like a beginner all over again. Ask any teacher you know–no matter how experienced we are, there are always points in the year where we start to question something (or EVERYTHING) about how we do our jobs.

There is nothing I could write that could prepare someone for what this job is, and I am still learning myself how it all goes. However, there are some things that I’m very sure of after being in the classroom for this long. As a victory lap for my decade year, I’d like to share ten things that I now know after ten years of teaching. Especially if you are a new teacher, I hope you find this list hopeful, helpful, and steadying as we welcome the kids through the doors once again.


1. It helps to be positive and excited even when it seems like no one cares. It does matter.¬†I am a person who is notorious for seeing the brighter side, and giving a peppy, enthusiastic greeting to my all of my kids as they walk through the hallways. It is hard to do this when you are tired, when you have a headache, and when the teenagers whom you are greeting with care and warmth stare through you as if you are actually invisible with hardly a grunt in response. At the end of the year, though, one of the most common points of feedback I get from my students is how welcomed I always made them feel, and how my excitement for what I’m teaching really helped them learn. Kids respond to good energy… they don’t always show it, but it is worth it to summon the effort to be their sunbeam, even when it seems like it’s not making a difference.

2. There are no bad kids.¬†Are there students in my teaching past whose very names make me shudder as I remember the behavioral or academic difficulties I weathered with them? Of course. But even the most challenging, frustrating, inflammatory students are not bad kids. There is no such thing as a bad kid. There are kids with trauma, kids with illnesses, kids without support, angry kids, scared kids, kids who lack self-control. But they are all good kids. If you refuse to accept their reputation and spend the time to get to know them, to gently keep pushing even when they resist you, you will find the goodness. They may still be rude. They may still struggle. But they are still worth your time–sometimes you are the only person who is fighting for them.

3. Teachers are most effective when they embrace the nerd within.¬†Students respond to passion. Everything young people perceive is through a lens of intense emotion. To compete with that, you need to gush and rave and freak out with joy about what you’re teaching. It may be dorky to start yelling about how utterly outrageously good The Crucible is because the unit is only a week away and you seriously count down the days every year until having the privilege of teaching it, but kids respond to that when it is genuine! If I present students with a bookshelf filled with books, there might be a couple of them who want to investigate it on their own. If I take a book off of that shelf and start talking about how it personally¬†changed my dang life with its awesomeness, I will have a waiting list seven kids deep to check it out. Embrace the nerd within. You know you love your content area. Show them why.

4.¬†Teachers do the wrong thing sometimes.¬†There will be days where you will do something stupid. You will react to a student the wrong way in a bad moment and make a kid feel terrible. You will enter an assignment score in the online gradebook for Ashley F. that was actually the score for Ashley T., and somehow lose Ashley F.’s original score in the process. You will listen to a hateful comment from a student in class and want so badly to address it, but end up freezing, your face turning red with anger as you just say nothing. These mistakes will make you feel like garbage. But they happen because you are an imperfect human being. The best thing you can do to remedy this is to address it with an honest apology to the student that was affected–students understand and respect this. And don’t be too hard on yourself, because we all have bad moments.

5. Business hours are necessary for sanity.¬†To not suffer burnout as a teacher, you need a system for keeping your work life and home life separate. You will be much happier if you are not “on call” 24 hours a day. Do yourself a favor and try to leave your work at work. When you walk out the school doors, there are no more emails, no more quizzes to grade, no more plans to plan until you return the next day. Keep your weekends open for yourself and your family as much as humanly possible. Listen: Even though you are a teacher, you are allowed to have a life. It will make you a better teacher. If you struggle with this, find someone who has it figured out, and learn their ways.

6. Clean slate club.¬†This is one of those cliches that is actually true. If something doesn’t go well in one of your classes, it’s easy to get sucked into negative thinking: you’re doing everything all wrong, your class is never going to be well-behaved, and Bobby in the front row hates your guts for being a lousy teacher. But then, the next day, you try again, and everything is okay again! (In all likelihood, Bobby in the front row has already forgotten the thing you stayed up all night agonizing about.) Students and teachers both bounce back very easily. Bad days may occur, but as long as you approach it with kindness and a desire to understand, a new day is always a clean slate.

7. Teachers disagree with each other a lot, but they are incredibly caring.¬†No matter where you work, you’ll encounter other educators who have different opinions from yours. They may have different ideas about adopting new strategies or keeping old ones. They may hold on to a certain classroom management philosophy with an iron fist. They may just think your fashion sense is whack or misunderstand you on a fundamental level. Decisions are not always unanimous and meetings are not always harmonious. However, all of that falls away when you look at what these people do for kids. Teachers are extraordinarily caring people. They show it in different ways, but they are all kind, self-sacrificing people who want to help others in their own way. If you can tap into that commonality, it’s a lot easier to mediate differences of opinion.

8. Build your legacy!¬†One of the most enjoyable things about being a teacher is the legend that builds up around you. What goes into that legend is sometimes within your control, and other times up to the whims of fate. Seriously, though, it’s amazing to hear kids say “I always heard that this was a great class” or “My older sister had you as her teacher and I’m excited that it’s my turn now.” The more and the longer you invest in your school community, the larger your legacy reaches. You start to feel more admiration and trust from your students, which is really the best feeling in the whole world.

9. Describe behavioral expectations in physical terms.¬†This is a super effective classroom management strategy that has been invaluable to me over the years. When you want students to redirect and do something other than what they are doing, be direct and literal in your requests for compliance–tell them what to do physically to achieve the desired outcome. Instead of telling them “Pay attention,” ask them to “Look at my eyes with your eyes.” Instead of saying “stop bothering her,” say, “I want you to move your desk three feet to the left and turn it to face the window.” Instead of saying “Does everybody get it?” say “Take your notebook out. Draw a big smiley face if you understand and a frown if you don’t. Hold up your notebooks.” Works like a charm–whatever management challenge your class throws at you, if you can think up a physical direction to counter it, better results will follow.

10. Teaching keeps you young.¬†Maybe you’ve seen that funny meme around that says something like “Teaching? Stressful? I feel great, and I’m only 32!” along with a photograph of a woman who could easily be 90+. It gives me a good guffaw. However, I have to say, some of the most supernaturally young-looking people I know happen to be teachers, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Surrounded by all that youthful energy keeps us hopeful, as long as we’re doing it right. We can’t sit still very long without someone needing our attention, and we laugh constantly because kids are often fun and hilarious. Plus we’re usually up on the newest weird slang, music, and fashion trends. We might even feel some extra pressure to stay hydrated with all those teenage athletes walking around with their giant Nalgene water bottles. Sure, the teacher is the oldest person in the room. But if you’re a teacher who enjoys your job, odds are that you have a youthful soul.

I’d like to end this post with a thank you, to all the remarkable students and colleagues who have blessed my life along this ten-year journey.

Thank you, Milwaukee School of Languages.

Thank you, St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy.

Thank you, Sheboygan Falls High School.

Thank you, Port Washington High School. It’s been my privilege. I think I’ll keep going.

One of my colleagues was deep-cleaning her room this summer, and left this gem in my mailbox:

It’s a two-page article from 1982, written by the late James Dickey–you may know him as the guy who wrote Deliverance. At the time that this article was printed, he was also the poet-in-residence at the University of South Carolina. While I’m sure that Mrs. F’s motivation for sharing this piece of paper with me was partially the humor of the quaint title and the very pensive portrait of Dickey even so far pre-Instagram, I did take the time to read it seriously, and it is seriously so good!

In the world of Internet everything, sometimes it feels like we’re trying to re-invent all of our material and approaches all the time, but reading “How to Enjoy Poetry” made me remember that such things are not always necessary. Poetry is as eternal as the human experience, and Dickey’s way of explaining it is incredibly accessible and accurate. Before you throw all your paper-based binders away, make sure to mine them for gold!

I’m definitely going to use this piece with my classes this year, and I’ve scanned it into a digital copy so that you can too. I’ll put a link to the .pdf at the end of the post. But first, I want to share some of my favorite moments from the article.

“The sun of poetry is new every day, too, because it is seen in different ways by different people who have lived under it, lived with it, responded to it. Their lives are different from yours, but by means of the special spell that poetry brings to the fact of the sun–everybody’s sun; yours, too–you can come into possession of many suns: as many as men and women have ever been able to imagine. Poetry makes possible the deepest kind of personal possession of the world.”

Find and fall in love with the full article here, and enjoy your own pursuit of the path! How to Enjoy Poetry

If your professional development doesn’t feel like this, you might be doing it wrong.

For the past two weeks, I’ve had the honor of working as a facilitator for the UW-Milwaukee Writing Project at their Invitational Summer Institute. I love working with the Writing Project, because it is absolutely outstanding professional development. If I didn’t know any better, I’d call it magic.

It also makes me wonder whether or not this magic is replicable, because (as all teachers know) professional development can be both the best thing or the worst thing about being an educator, depending on what, where, how, and through whom it happens.

What if professional development could always be good? What should districts look for in their pursuit of quality professional development for teachers–workshops that leave staff feeling inspired and legitimately empowered to change their practices for the better?

As a teacher who has actively pursued (and facilitated) professional development to enhance my teaching practice over the last decade, I’ve noticed some patterns in what good teacher PD really means, which I’ll¬† share here in list form. It’s my hope that this list will be helpful to professional development committees and administrators when considering PD offerings for teachers. I’m focusing specifically on aspects that will leave teacher participants feeling empowered, because that’s a key in creating positive change in schools. It’s not an all-encompassing list, but it’s enough to start some important conversations.

Recommendations for Professional Development that Empowers Teachers

#1 Presenters of professional development for teachers should also be current teachers themselves.¬†I understand that there are people out there who have well-researched and innovative ideas about what teachers should be doing. However, if those people are not current teachers themselves in some capacity, their ability to truly understand the day-to-day classroom implications of their findings is compromised. A presenter must be able to answer the question “How does this work in your classroom?” in order to get complete buy-in from an audience of practicing teachers.

#2 The topic of professional development should directly correlate with an area of need identified by the participating teachers.¬†Teachers have a lot to do. They also want to learn. But if they are sacrificing their time, they want to learn about what’s important to their own practice right now. The best professional development addresses the specific needs of its audience. All teachers have questions about certain strategies or situations within their classrooms. Professional development topics should ideally correlate with those questions to make the process authentic. This is best accomplished when the presenters have a working knowledge of the participants’ context–what is it like to teach in this school? Who are the students? To what level have the participants already implemented the strategy in question? What kinds of expertise are the participants bringing in with them? A presenter must know what his or her audience truly needs most, to make sure the offerings are valuable.

#3 Participants should be assisted in creating or adapting resources for their classrooms during the professional development.¬†Teachers don’t want to be given something and simply told to use it–they are creative, ingenious people. Professional development that assists teachers in creating something tailor-made for their own classes and students taps into this immense potential. Students benefit immediately from new resources being applied by the experts who created them–their teachers! Hands-on, active learning is the kind of meaning-making that we know works well in education at all levels. Teachers, like students, should be provided opportunities to apply and experiment with their growing knowledge to create new applications.

# 4 Participants should be given the support they need to become future leaders by sharing and building knowledge in their professional communities.¬†The goal of teacher professional development should not be to “bring in the experts.” Teachers are the experts when it comes to teaching (see #1). Districts gain more value when they invest in professional development that in turn makes teacher-leaders out of participants, who can then present their developing knowledge to others in their district. This shows a trust and investment in teachers as professionals. It also builds a school culture where teachers grow their own learning by sharing expertise with colleagues–a sure way to strengthen community and foster leadership among staff.

#5 Participants should have the chance to build supportive relationships and connect as human beings. Teaching is primarily about working with people.¬†Teachers will participate more enthusiastically, feel more valued, have more fun, work far harder, and respond far more positively when they are able to connect meaningfully with each other during their time together. Sharing stories and feelings around what they are teaching, the joys and heartbreaks and frustrations… these opportunities to connect, relate, vent, joke, and collaborate are crucial. Giving teachers time to discuss what is most important in their own lives may seem like it’s a distraction from the purpose of professional development, but it is not. Rather, it’s a catalyst. Caring about people fuels teachers. When they care about each other, they can do incredible things as a team.

Any one of these five criteria can make professional development more empowering for teachers. It may not always be possible to hit all five at once, but when it is–that’s when the magic will happen.¬†

Of course, I can speak only from my own personal experience. But as someone who just can’t stay away from the National Writing Project after eight years, I’m currently looking at another summer institute with new colleagues who have become family that I don’t want to say goodbye to. I’m feeling a propulsive momentum for learning about my profession that I don’t want to end. I’m feeling like a leader who wants to work hard. If all professional development felt like that, well… I can only imagine the resulting magic.

For an at-a-glance version of the list in this post, scroll through the infographic below!   Download the PDF version here.