Category Archives: Reflection

Can’t Turn Off the Teacher

It’s finally summer break! That wonderful time of year when I can shut my brain off entirely–no reading, no writing, no thinking.

That’s the goal, anyway. What ends up happening is a week of mindless Netflix binges (this year it’s Suits, because I want to see Meghan Markle pre-princess), romance novel reads, a few days at the beach, a few household projects tackled.

Then it’s right back into teacher mode, even when I don’t want it to be.

Listening to a podcast? Oh, sounds like a great format for conferring. Texting with my family about a book? Oh, what a great genre for a literary autobiography. Selling a car on Craigslist? Oh, what a great authentic writing piece for my high school students. And the list goes on:

I can’t seem to turn off my teacher brain, even when I crave the break from the school year summer provides.

Image result for when daniel pinkI grapple with this every summer. As a new teacher, I tried to make myself take the whole summer off from thinking about teaching, feeling like I was doing something wrong when I started doodling writing units or reading activity ideas. Later in my career I felt satisfied if I could turn off my teacher brain for just the month of June, and get back into the swing of things starting July 1.

We all need breaks. Daniel Pink’s latest book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, reminded me of that. He gives some background on the effectiveness and helpfulness of “vigilance breaks” and “restorative breaks,” the latter of which are taken to help sharpen our mental acuity after too much thinking and focus around one task. Without breaks, we lose motivation, make more mistakes, and work less efficiently.

Teachers, you deserve a break.

You need a break.

But if you’re like me, and you just can’t turn off the teacher–that’s okay too. It’s okay to read a book as both a reader and a writer. It’s okay to buy a frozen pizza as a mentor text for the make-your-own-pizza kit you buy to make with your two-year-old. It’s okay that when you say “I love you” to said two-year-old, and she says, “okay,” back, that you think of The Fault in Our Stars and know that she means “I love you too.”

This summer, I hope you’ll find balance as you sink into your off-duty teacher self: taking classes, scrolling Twitter, reading and writing at a pace without deadlines. I hope you’ll embrace the fact that even outside the school year, you can’t turn off the teacher.

Shana Karnes is spending her last summer in West Virginia exploring the wild and wonderful state, taking her kids to various WV landmarks, enjoying the mountains and history. She’s tackling all the projects she totally neglected during the school year–one of which is doing some writing for herself…even though that writing usually winds back around to teaching topics. Find Shana on Twitter @litreader.

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Saying Goodbye

Today is the last day of school in my system, and as always, we have had a busy week of celebrating the seniors who are graduating and heading off to college or military service or to careers. It’s hard to believe that these young people who (it seems) just needed so much help and guidance at the beginning of the year are about to walk through our doors and out into the world as adults.

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This particular group of seniors are near and dear to my heart. I taught them for two years–Sophomore year and Junior year–and half of them call me Mom once a week. I’m the one they come to when they’re sad or when they have good news to share or when they need a safety pin or a band-aid or when they just need a place to hang out. (I’m not the only one–our school is blessed with many amazing teachers. These kids just seem to be especially MINE. 🙂 ) I’m not sure how we bonded so much–maybe it’s because as Sophomores many of them didn’t drive and needed a place to hang out while they were waiting for practice or their parents or whatever. Maybe it’s that I was their only female teacher Junior year and 1 of 2 female teachers Sophomore year. Maybe it’s because about half of them have been on our school/youth group trip to Washington, DC, for the past 3 years. Any of those reasons could be the reason or part of the reason. The bigger reason, though, I think, is that as an English teacher, I’m talking about life. Whatever we’re reading, I’m working to help them connect it to their lives. Because we share our thoughts and our feelings and our loves and our concerns, I think that we also share our hearts, and these kids got two years of that with me. So we’re bonded. (If you’d like to read more about the bonding we do with our kids, check out these posts from Gena and Pam.)

Every year, our seniors choose a speaker for their Senior Day celebration, and this year they chose me. I joked with them that they just wanted to see me cry in a big public way because, you see, I cry at them a lot. I cry about happy stories and about sad stories. I lost it when we read “Richard Cory” and again when we read Brian Doyle’s “Joyas Voladoras .”   It’s what I do–it’s the Irish in me. 🙂 They know me so well now that, whenever there’s something emotional going on, they all turn to look at me to see if I’m crying yet. On Monday, there was apparently a pool going to see when I’d start crying during the Senior Day festivities. Ha! If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to share a little bit about what I shared with them on Monday. I managed to make it through without ugly-crying, but there were certainly moments when I had to stop to compose myself and quell the rising emotion. 🙂

Some of you are nervous to be leaving the familiar and stepping out on your own—how will you fare in a new environment with brand new people—not the same kids you’ve been in school with since K4 or 7th grade or even freshman year? What will it be like on a campus of 1500 people or 5000 or -gulp- 30,000? It’ll be awesome. It will—it’ll be awesome. And sometimes, it’ll be awful. Sometimes you’ll long for those moments when you’re with the people who have known you since First Communion or who watched you through those awkward Middle School years. Sometimes it’ll be sad and lonely and scary. 

Here’s what I know, though. You—and only you—are in control of all of that. No, you can’t control the environment around you. You can’t control when bad things or even good things will happen to you. Sometimes bad things will happen and you’ll feel lost or confused or sad or worried. What I know is that you will always have a choice. Your choice lies not in some magical ability to keep the bad things away but in the manner in which you choose to handle things. You can choose to let the hard things crush and crumble you or you can use them to learn something  and grow. When rocks start to pile up around you, they can either bury you or you can use them as a foundation for the next step forward. That choice is up to you. That doesn’t mean that it’ll always be easy, but you can find something positive in every experience, even if you can’t see it at the time. 

As you say goodbye to your students this school year, celebrate those successes that you had–the little moments of growth and the big steps forward. Celebrate the student who found a new favorite author and the non-reader who has begun to turn the corner. Celebrate the student who moved from barely writing a full paragraph to writing a full essay and the one who comes to you excited about the new poem she’s working on. Celebrate the perpetual student who is always looking for ways he can improve his work and that student who comes to school just because it’s better than sitting outside cold and alone. But what if you have had a year of struggles–maybe you had a tough course load with lots of preps or maybe you had a particularly difficult group of students or maybe you had some tough circumstances in your own private life that sometimes made teaching hard. We don’t live in a bubble–all of these things affect us and inform our teaching and our interactions and who we are. What if that was your year and you don’t feel much life celebrating?

Well, just like I told my seniors…when the boulders start crashing down all around you and when it feels like you’ll be crushed by the weight of life, that’s when you have a choice. You can either let these experiences bury you…or you can find a way to dig through that rubble and start again and use the experiences of this year as a starting point and a foundation to grow upon. That’s the beauty of education. Even though this school year is over and everything is coming to a close, that doesn’t mean that we have to stop and close up, too. Once we have rested and recovered a little bit (thank God for Summer Break!!), we’ll dust ourselves off, shake off the debris, and figure out what we’ll use for building blocks for next year. And then we get to do it all over again.

Happy Summer, friends. You deserve it!

(And for those of you who are still in session for several weeks, please know that I’ll be thinking about you! We go back in mid-August, so our time will come, too. Hang in there–you can do it!)

Shining the Spotlight on Classroom Success

All too often, as the year comes to an end, our focus tends to be on reflecting about what we will change or tweak next year. With several different ways to evaluate teachers, analyzing student performance, and finalizing grades, does it ever occur to us that our focus should begin with what went well? If you are anything like me, the answer, most likely, is no. It can be difficult when our minds are caught up in how we can do more, did we do enough in the first place, and where can we go from here.

Improvement and growth are fantastic ways to ensure we don’t become complacent. However, sometimes it is equally, if not more important, to shine a spotlight on lessons that worked, and student growth and successes, no matter how large or small. Before we dive head first into rethinking next year, here are some key reflection questions to help us shift our focus, instead, to what made our classrooms successful this year. 

 

  • What all did my students do well this year? My students read, listened, collaborated, discussed, participated, created, researched, wrote, considered, but most of all, they learned. They learned about Shakespeare’s influence in literature and how to have accountability in their peer discussions. They learned about rhetorical strategies and about their personal stances on important, global issues. They analyzed speeches, made connections to their personal lives, made complex assertions, and practiced defending their opinions with support from a multitude of texts.

 

  • How did they show growth? My students showed growth in the risks they took in their writing. For some, it was that they came to class and participated at least 4 times a week. One student in particular increased engagement in class and asked constructive questions in order to facilitate her own learning. Every student is educated in growth mindset and has the tools (whether they choose to act or not) to take responsibility for his or her own contributions to their own learning.

 

  • What did I do to improve instruction this year? With 3 brand new preps, I focused on attending training that would directly benefit my classroom. I set goals and frequently monitored my progress in order to help me stay consistently motivated and accountable. On my campus, I utilized the expertise and creativity of my colleagues in order to keep students engaged and positively influence their learning.

 

  • How did I grow as a professional? I collaborated with my colleagues in my PLC, researched ways to target specific student needs, contributed to a pretty fabulous blog (if I do say so, myself!), and took risks by putting myself out there and consistently stepping out of my comfort zone. All of my experiences this year have contributed to my growth professionally in one way or another.

 

  • What was my most successful lesson or strategy? The lessons that impacted my students the most were the ones in which they had freedom and choice to demonstrate their learning. These ranged from anticipatory class discussions, creative writing pieces, and Socratic Seminars.

 

  • What was my most memorable moment this year? My most memorable moments were seeing my students receive their college acceptance letters, writing letters of recommendation, helping my kids sort through issues that had nothing (yet everything) to do with our classroom assignments. Specifically, all of the letters and cards I received for Teacher Appreciation Week that are hung on my bulletin board from past and present students, and some of whom I have never had, personally, but crossed my path in some way this year.

The answers to your own personal responses should fill you with pride, awe, and accomplishment. We are all human and no school year will ever mirror another. After all, that IS the beauty in this extraordinary opportunity to make a difference that we GET TO call a career. I encourage every educator to pause and consider all of the many things we have done this year that positively impacts kids. Keep those ideas in mind when planning and build upon that as you continue to grow professionally.

Please share your successes in the comments. Let’s end our school year recognizing all of the positive aspects of teaching! What were some examples of success in your classroom this year?

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Gena Mendoza teaches High School English in San Antonio, TX. All of the successes of students in her classroom have motivated her to keep striving for excellence and to further her own personal education by pursuing a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Instruction. She invites you to connect and share your brilliance and expertise with her on Twitter at @Mrs_Mendoza3. 

3+ Ways to Help Writers Recognize and Celebrate Their Growth

The challenge?

I’ve always enjoyed our end-of-the-semester portfolio in College Prep Senior English. It’s where students typically celebrate their growth as writers. However, with a This-Is-the-Winter-That-Never-Ends leading to loss of instructional days compounded by fewer days for seniors in the spring, my colleague and I knew we couldn’t maintain the portfolio in its current form.

The solution?

So, we opted for celebration days for our writers to reflect on their writing journeys this semester. Their reflections will address the four key concepts of our course: process, purpose, audience, and collaboration. Inspired by Jennifer Serravallo’s The Writing Strategies Book and a few ideas of our own (sometimes constraints really do elicit creative problem solving!), we selected three ways to celebrate our writers, spread out over the last three classes. Each selection involves preparation and presentation (process and product, right?!).

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This chart contains the nutshell version of each day. On day 3, we’ll use FutureMe to have them craft their emails to their future selves. 

How will the celebrations go? Why will this matter, right now, in May?

Oh, I think that the students will benefit from feedback from an intended audience; I think they’ll laugh while they toast their pieces; I think making their process visible (as Shana discussed in Artifacts of Our Learning) will reinforce their learning; I think–given some of the relationships built in the classroom–that they’ll enjoy leaving their fellow collaborators love notes; I think that reflection at this threshold moment could help my seniors grasp the significance of their learning journey.

Why will this matter . . . in August?

I’m looking forward to this. Mostly. I’m also looking beyond it, thanks to Nathan. 

Through conferring with Nathan over the last two weeks, I realized that celebration–feeling happy about an occasion and engaging in fun related to it–is not enough. Nathan reminded me that my students also need recurrent recognition–admiration and respect for accomplishments. Yes, I recognize and celebrate strengths in student writing regularly via written feedback. Yes, I do recognize and celebrate application and growth while conferring. But not as consistently as I should. And, I’m certainly not doing a good job of prioritizing recognition and celebration as a whole class community of writers. If I recognized and celebrated successes more, would Nathan have said to me (while working on his final writing for the term), “Can you help me with this so I can produce the kind of writing you’re looking for?” Instead of the kind of good writing needed for the situation, he was still aiming to produce writing to please his teacher. What if I had shown greater recognition–with him while conferring–of progress before this moment? Would our impending celebration matter more? Yep. 

Through the rest of my conferences with Nathan, I tried to shift the conversation toward his audience. I pulled in mentor texts. I modeled some revisions I would make to voice and imagery. And over the next several days and a few conferences later, his piece began to transform, leading to this: “You know, Nathan, I think this has the possibility of being your best piece all year if you keep working at it.” I’m sure you might guess what I’m celebrating here: yes, Nathan sat up straighter, smiled wider, and, ultimately, revised more. He began really crafting. Later he reflected, “It’s like with the other pieces we really had to learn the basics. And this is getting into what really matters.” His words show his own recognition–his understanding and respect–for how his skills built in the course. There’s something to celebrate! And the genesis of this larger realization might be that small moment, that moment of affirmation.

Big celebrations are important. But life is made in the small moments. And, next year I want to consistently recognize and celebrate the good times (anyone else flashback to ’80’s weddings?)–big and small, in big and small ways.  

Next year I will . . . try to have students share lines from their notebooks more. I’ll probably need to schedule it!

Next year I will . . . try to make their successes visible. Maybe I’ll try Penny Kittle’s and Kelly Gallagher’s Beautiful Words Google Doc idea.

Next year I will . . . have my students reflect on and admire moments of growth during the celebrations portion of our weekly class meeting.

Next year I will . . .

It’ll be a dedication to celebration to last throughout the year (my apologies to Kool & the Gang.).

Kristin Jeschke’s life was made in the not-so-small moments of her children’s births. Happy Mother’s Day to mothers of all kinds, everywhere!  She also needs someone to get married soon so she can dance with her mom and her aunties to Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration.” Follow Kristin on Twitter @kajeschke. 

100 Days of Writing

Today my favorite quote on writing is this one attributed to James Michener.

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I’ve had a lot of emotions lately. Chaotic, confusing, crippling emotions. The kind that freeze action and force reflection.

But time thaws, and the writing of others warms me in ways my own writing often does not. I have found healing in the writings of my friend and colleague Amber lately. So raw and real and poignant.

I share her most recent post here. (An interesting mentor text idea:  Choose an age and write about it.)

I think about the work of writing and teaching writing a lot — more often than I actually write. I need to change that. Find my groove. Free my soul within the swing and the swirl of my pen. Stop thinking I can only write research-based pieces or tips on this blog. I need to walk my talk and just write — more. Period.

Our friends at Moving Writers have an incredible idea:  100 Days of Summer Writing. Imagine the possibilities — for ourselves and our student writers.

What do you think? Could we all use a little writing inspiration? Could we all write a little more, strengthen a few mental muscles?

I’m thinking if I do, perhaps everything that’s sent me into a spin lately will spin into something else entirely.

Writing can do that. That much I know.

 

Amy Rasmussen teaches English IV and AP Language & Composition in North Texas. She recently moved homes, trading one cluttered mess for another, which does nothing for her need for order and simplicity. You can find her searching websites for minimalist living and selling So. Much. Stuff. on Facebook Marketplace when she isn’t trying to prep her students for graduation or the looming AP English exam. For tweets, follow @amyrass 

 

 

 

One Concept That Makes Me a Better Teacher: Tempo

Earlier in the Spring I spent a Saturday morning at the new football stadium in Katy, Texas listening to football coaches speak about various aspects of the sport.  That’s right, in January, high school football coaches get together to talk football… for fun.

The speakers presented their philosophies of offense or defense and talked about schemes and personnel.  I loved how, universally, they were: bright, confident, and eager to share their knowledge.

Just like with teachers, collaboration helps grow the profession. Coaches know the importance of sharing insight.  Its something I love and appreciate about the profession.

One speaker, from a school down here by us, presented on the topic of “Tempo.”

Tempo is the offenses ability to change how fast or how slow they snap the football.  In layman’s terms, its a way for an offense to give themselves an advantage over the defense and can be brutally effective when used to full effect.  Often times, tempo can dictate who is going to win or lose a contest.

The same can be true in our classrooms.

Often times, I find myself racing along, pushing the students through this concept or that; when necessary circling back around to re-teach when needed or tie-in an idea that supports our current work. I like to think of workshop pedagogy as weaving a tapestry made of many different threads of many different types and colors.  Sometimes we pull in this string or that one.  Whichever combination of threads that most effectively addresses our students’ needs.

I’m continuously amazed at how well the students facilitate this complexity in their learning.

Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher talked about their process in ” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>this amazing podcast. They explain it far better than I ever could.

Momentum

I am a big believer in using momentum in my instruction.  When the students see success in their literacy, I want to capitalize on those feelings of success by moving on to the next idea quickly. Any lull or pause in our movement forward is an opportunity to stop and lose focus. I don’t like “catch up days.”  Every day, in my mind, we should move our literacy forward.

Tempo

What I don’t do often enough, is take a deep breath and slow down.  I’ve found, this year, that I don’t take time to do the “fun” workshop activities. I’m talking about activities that build morale and allow the kids to laugh and, dare I say it…. play.

When they get to approach an activity as “play,” they can find success they haven’t found before:

Or they might find a fun way to learn its okay to come up a little short:

Either way, they are engaged in facilitating their own growth!!!

The assessments I’ve asked them to complete show me so many gaps in their skill sets that I can’t ever find enough time to address them all. But being hard-headed and driving forward without ever taking a moment to relax, we miss out on some of the fun that workshop can facilitate.

I have quantitative data that shows my students are reading and writing more than my previous senior classes and I have the anecdotal information they share with me about reading and writing more than any previous year in their education.  This is important to consider and it is valuable data to analyze as I work towards the end of this year and start thinking about next year.

The data tells me something else.  My students are burned out.  They are done; not just with their writing and reading, but with their thinking. Maybe I moved them too fast through our work in the fall and early spring.  Maybe the world they exist in is so far removed from the one I experienced at that age, that I have no real understanding of their stress levels.

I have to ask myself, what am I trying to accomplish and can I get that done operating the way I operate right now.

“Tempo,” I tell myself, “slow down.”

I have to do a better job keeping our tempo in mind as we finish out their high school education.

I’ll mix in more Poet Moments.  I’ll take more time to let them explore their own voices through narrative work that isn’t for a grade and is for fun.  I’ll change the mode from individual drafting of language to more group feedback. Generally, I’ll ratchet down the intensity of our work and lighten up on the speed with which we attack it.

What are some of the “fun” workshop activities that I can mix into my lesson plans that still hold value and have rigor?

Charles Moore is currently reading Before We Were Yours and The Glass Sword. He spends his newly freed up afternoons waiting to get his kids off the bus and tending to his beloved pool.  He just completed the GRE and hopes to start graduate school in the fall at U of H. One more thing, he recently took his Student Council class to a ropes course leadership facility and it was one of the best days of his teaching career.  Two of the many videos he took are included in this post.

Formative Assessment Works!!!

For those of you who haven’t taught Seniors, trust me on this:  Formative assessment during the second semester is challenging.

If you’ve taught seniors, then you might understand where I’m coming from:  Sometimes it’s hard to tell if they aren’t grasping a concept, or they are just too tired of school to have the energy to engage.

I hurts my heart to even consider that my precious learners are worried about bigger issues than Comparative Literary Analysis essays or finding examples of bias in their self-selected texts.  Prom looms five days away and graduation seven weeks after that.  They work, they compete in extra curriculars, they deal with the adults and peers in their lives.  I forget, sometimes, that their plates are filled with important thoughts.  I remind myself I’m not doing their stress levels any favors by point out that we still have important work to do before June 2nd.

Last Monday we reviewed an excerpt from Niel Schusterman’s Thunderhead as a mentor text for practicing literary analysis through all the lenses that should be crystal clear to these literate learners.  I needed to assess their understanding and thinking so that I could make decisions about the instruction leading up to the summative assessment.  That’s the point of formative assessment; to “form” a plan for instruction.

I read the short selection with them, and asked them if they would, please, mark their thinking on this first lap through the text.  They should, as they’ve done many times before, underline or highlight what they noticed about the words the author chose through the lenses of diction, bias, author’s purpose…literally anything they noticed within the realm of literary analysis. It’s the last nine weeks of their public education career. They should be able to look at a text through a variety of lenses.

Some of them made some marks on the page while others wrote notes next to highlighted lines or words.  Others, though, marked nothing.  [Alarms wiggle and stir in my head. Something’s not right.]

I asked them to share within their groups what they noticed.  Muted whispers of ethos, tone, and metaphor struggled out of some groups, but again, most said very little.  Very few connections were being made. For them and for me, the picture was as clear as mud. This, by itself, is important formative assessment. This wasn’t working. [Def Con 55- Full tilt klaxons at maximum volume!]

Yet, I refuse to blame them.  I fully believe that it is solely on me, the teacher, to facilitate engagement with the text.  Somehow I need to do a better job inviting them to take all those useful tools out of their tool belts and dissect this very meaningful text.

New England Patriots at Washington Redskins 08/28/09

I bear a striking resemblance to Tom Brady.  Photo by Keith Allison

In football parlance, I needed to call an audible in the middle of the game. What I had hoped they would do; they won’t or can’t.  It’s time for me to jump in and scaffold this concept to a place where they can see the connections they can make and I can assess their thinking.  I’m not going to put them in a position to fail on the summative assessment if I know they aren’t ready for it.

In a whole class mode, I read over the text, mark what I notice and verbalize my analysis.

Now I ask them to talk about what they notice.  There it is…an increase in discussion, an inflation in dialogue. The alarm volume turns down a notch, but it doesn’t turn off.

I wrap the class period up with an invitation to write about what moves the author is making and as they do I confer with a few students who seem completely flabbergasted.  The bell tolls, signaling an end to their literary torture session.

 

Thus was the source of my salvation:

book

I only saunter.

Jumping into this book reminded me of a few important tenets of writing instruction that I let myself forget:

  1. Give them choice- I was allowing no choice in the subject of their analysis.  I know better than to restrict their reading and writing experiences and I let my, and their, end of the year exhaustion affect my decision making.
  2. Show them, not tell them, what you want to assess.  I wasn’t showing them examples of literary analysis and again, I know better.  I was expecting, wrongly, that Senior English students would confidently engage in literary analysis and move forward with their thinking in a way that shows me they can write a response in essay form.

After school, I tore up my lessons plans for the next four days and re-wrote them to reflect what I SHOULD do to support my students in this exploration.

On page 5 of their amazing new book Marchetti and O’Dell introduce a mentor text written by Joe Fassler from The Atlantic.  His recurring series “By Heart” is a collection of responses from a diverse group of thinkers and writers and is an amazing resource.  A simple Google search returned a link to this series of essays. I scanned the list of the titles and discovered an article from September titled, “What Writers Can Learn From Goodnight Moon.”   In it, Celeste Ng describes her feelings of the children’s book and how it “informs” her writing.

Perfecto!!!

This checked so many of the boxes of what I was looking for in a mentor text.  And…I get to read a children’s book to “big” kids.  I know enough about my students to know they will love this.

Also, I used Marchetti and O’Dell’s five part descriptions of literary analysis on pages 11 and 12 to create a glue-in anchor chart for their readers’/writers’ notebooks that helped to clarify what exactly we should look for when reading and writing literary analysis.

Confidence restored! Disaster averted… kind of.

We Ng’s reflection and discussed how this was a perfect example of literary analysis.  They asked questions, we laughed about Goodnight Moon.  I saw their confidence grow and I knew we were back on track and ready to move toward our essay.

Thursday, we started the drafts and I hope to see many of them tomorrow.

Being responsive and intentional is a crucial part of the workshop pedagogy.  I can’t stress enough how this one piece can make our break my teaching.  My lesson planning skills have finally reached the point where I plan for and anticipate opportunities to change up what we are doing to match what the students need. This was an opportunity for which I hadn’t planned, but we made the adjustment and made it work.

Sometimes, that’s how it goes.

Let me know in the comments below when you’ve had to make big changes on the fly to support your students’ learning. I know I can’t be the only one.

Charles Moore is neck deep in Children of Blood and Bone.  He’s spending the day taking his daughter to school and then having lunch with her.  It might be the best day of his life.  His summer TBR list is growing uncontrollably; feel free to add to it in the comments.

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