Category Archives: Heather Cato

Illegal Poetry

While skimming one of my social media feeds I saw an article from the Huffington Post, Arizona Education Officials Say It’s Illegal To Recite This Poem In School. Of course, because Amy and I are presenting about poetry at TCTELA at the end of the week, the title itself peaked my interest. Briefly scanning it, and not thinking much of it, I sent it on to Amy as just one piece in a dozen I’ve scanned while preparing for our presentation.

In Amy fashion, like she always does for me, she shoots back, “Good one. What’s your take on it?”

Well, honestly I hadn’t really thought about my take on the subject, I was really just thinking about it as a reference that there is censorship in schools even in the genre of poetry. But as I started thinking about it I really generated more questions than answers:

1. What role should a state or federal government play in the specific materials that are used in an individual classroom? I certainly know that this question will continue to linger for me as the state legislators are about to reconvene here in Texas.

2. How do we prepare students for the culturally diverse world they live in when they are not given the opportunity to learn about different cultures? The article mentions that, “The law forbids classes that promote … or treat students as members of a group rather than individuals,” but I wonder to what end. Isn’t my individuality in some way tied to my identity to a particular group? And that’s not to say just ethic group, but also as an educator, a mom, a writer, etc.

3. The article also mentions that if the school district will receive 10% less in state funding if they do not comply with the state mandates. I’m not naive enough to believe that a simple slap on the wrist would be an effective punishment, but if there is a funding cut who are they really hurting, the school district officials or the students of that district? 

Above all though, if you read the portion of the poem that is included in the article, I find it most interesting that there are no terroristic anti-democratic overtones, as one might suspect based on the opinions of those that oppose the piece, rather a sentiment of mutual understanding and respect.

I would now like to return the question to you, Amy, and anyone else who would like to join in the conversation. “What’s your take on it?’


Cultural Literacy on the Front Porch

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So this weekend we hosted a block party on our street. While it was great fun, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take the event and apply it in some way to education. 😉

Here we are sitting in front of my house chowing down hotdogs, wishing away the summer heat when I thought to myself, “Well, this certainly doesn’t compare to one of Gatsby’s parties, but we sure are having a nice time!” WAIT – no I actually thought, “If Bradbury could just see us now! All these people hanging out together and not one of them mindlessly on a technological device! We sure are showing him!” WAIT – no, as I looked upon the diverse ethnicities of those represented in my yard I thought, “Man tolerance like this certainly didn’t exist for Atticus and even Scout growing up. What a shame.” And what is more embarrassing is that I know that had I verbalized my thoughts not one of my party goers would have known what I was talking about. – Such a shame!


Not one of those things even remotely crossed my mind for a second! And even if they had would it seriously have mattered if no one knew what I was talking about because they themselves hadn’t read The Great Gatsby?

For over the last year much of my time has been spent in conversation around trying to get a real handle on cultural literacy. One sticking point teacher proponents of teaching the classics keep coming back to is that they want to equip their learners with key literary references so that as adults, they can be “in the know” when such references organically come up in social situations.

Let me just say, for over three hours we laughed, talked, told stories at the party and not once was a book quoted or referenced – directly or indirectly. In this case, not one hour that I had spent reading all those books of Cliffs Notes  about the classics in high school paid off.

But now, let me tell you what would have come in handy:

1. More geographic, economic, and cultural awareness of other countries. 

One lady and her husband had recently moved from the Dominican Republic. I hardly known where that is much less anything worthy to contribute to the conversation. I wish I had more context about her culture in order to find out from her what it was like growing up there.

2. The current state of American currency. 

One gentleman is a passionate coin collector and the only thing I could think to contribute to the conversation was some shallow joke about collecting the 50 stated quarters when I was a kid.

3. Anything about cats. 

I can’t say that I like cats, but learned that one of my neighbors is the crazy cat lady on the block. She has 10 cats! And while she wanted to talk to me about the importance of getting your animals spaded and neutered, I honestly had nothing of substance to contribute. The only thing I could think about was no wonder there are so many cats loitering around my house!

In all of these situations I was the one that felt uncultured and uneducated and I just couldn’t help but think that there is so much more to life than a classic piece of literature. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot to learn from a classic text or any text for that matter, but if your only real reason for picking a classic text to teach is so that your students will have that experience in their back pocket for a “just in case opportunity,” you might want to have them read something else.

Writing as Imitation

Before you go judging me for referencing Weird Al in a sophisticated professional blog, please stick with me till the end – then you can judge me.

So, I’m sure most of you have seen the latest parody of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines by Weird Al. If not here it is for your viewing pleasure.



Clearly, it is nerdy English teacher humor (as my husband would call it). And although it was funny, what actually intrigued me was a video of Weird Al that I stumbled upon after viewing his latest parody. The video was an interview that centered around his motivation as an artist and how he goes about composing his work. As I watched the video there was a brief part that struck me. See if you hear the same thing I noticed. (hint fast forward to 53 seconds into the clip)


See if you heard the same things I heard:

  • “It is sort of an exercise”
  • “I pretend like I’m them (the musicians) and I study their body of work.”
  • I pick it (the music) a part musically and figure out what are the little idiosyncrasies that make them tick stylistically.”

I know for many students the fear of the blank page is paralyzing. Just a thought, but what if we had learners imitate the writing of other great writers – even just as, “sort of an exercise.” I know I sure would be elated if I had learners carefully picking a part piece of writing in order to study stylistic elements and then turn around and try to use those same elements in their own writing. There is no question that Weird Al had to put a lot of work and thought into making the lyrics of his song parody work together just like the actual song and I’m confident that we would be pretty impressed with what our learners came up with if given the opportunity.

Not sure where to start? Don Killgallon has a great resource for any grade level that just might be what you need to try it out!


Sentence Composing for Elementary School

Sentence Composing for Middle School

Sentence Composing for High School




Reflection on the Year


I know it is hard to believe, but the school year is almost over. I am sure some of you are counting down the days before you can run screaming and yelling from the building, but before you do I encourage you to take just a minute or two for a bit of self-reflection.

Here are a few simple prompts to guide your thinking:

1. Think back to the beginning of the year, what is one thing that you were determined to do better this year. — How did it go?

2. Looking to next year, what is one commitment you want to make regarding an area in which you want to improve? — What will you do this summer to be ready to tackle your challenge this fall?

There is nothing magical about my questions, but what is magical is taking a minute or two for yourself to reflect on your practice. I am sure you have some great stories to share and know we would love to hear them! Feel free to add a comment below.


Photo credit: Lotus Carroll / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Authentic Work

Last week I had the privilege of visiting several elementary school campuses around my area. It is always neat to go and see what other schools and other districts are doing. This time, all of the campuses I visited were elementary schools, and there is no question that elementary schools love to show student work. One thing that struck me as interesting was the types of work that I saw displayed. Take a look at these two images:


photo 1EXHIBIT Bphoto 2



What do you notice about the two displays of student work? Any similarities? any differences?

The biggest thing that stuck out to me was that in Exhibit A, all of the student work looked exactly the same. I know you can’t read the text under each elephant, but it too was essentially the same on every page. I will disclose that Exhibit A was done by kindergarteners and Exhibit B was done by second graders, but still. Are you honestly telling me that kindergarteners, if given the opportunity, wouldn’t have come up with a more creative way to demonstrate their understanding about elephants?

Another question I had was what do the state standards say about elephants specifically? Does everyone have to learn about elephants? (The answer to that is NO!) What if a student wanted to learn about monkeys instead? Clearly, in this scenario, students were not given the choice in deciding what they would study.

Now, look at Exhibit B. If you can’t tell, the students are learning about perimeter and area. Some of the students chose to demonstrate their understanding of perimeter and area by marking off their foot print while others wrote out their names in block letters and then calculated the perimeter and area of their names. In this case, students had choice about how they would demonstrate mastery of the skill being taught.

Think about it this way, if the work in the pictures above were a depiction of work in say a high school English classroom, I would equate Exhibit A to the whole class novel where everyone has to read the same book and write the same essay over the same prompt. Whereas, Exhibit B would be reflective of the work that my co-blogger and friend Amy has been writing about in her posts lately as she has empowered her students to read whatever books they want. Amy hasn’t given up the content and the standards she has to teach. She has just allowed the students choice in what they read and how they show their understanding of that content and the skills they have learned.

What about in your own classroom? Is there anything that you ask students to do that looks more like Exhibit A than Exhibit B? How might you change or modify the assignments to allow students a choice on how they want to demonstrate understanding of a particular topic?

The Missing Link

Last week I was working with some educators on a little project. I needed educators to take some time and write-up strategies that we could share with others as “Best Practices” for instruction. (I really hate the term BEST practice, but that’s a different blog.)  I provided a FOCUS LESSON by explaining what it is that I wanted them to do and the components they would need to include in their writing. I even showed them models, or samples, of what I wanted them to write, and we deconstructed them in order to analyze the style of writing. I then sent these educators on their way to COLLABORATE with the others at their table before they would INDEPENDENTLY write their own submission. The next day, when I went back to look over what the educators had written, I noticed a seemingly hodgepodge assortment of entries. (I need to preface that none of the entries were bad or horrible; in fact, I discovered that I have many educators who are excellent writers. It is just that some of the entries aren’t quite what I expected.) I guess I could more descriptively say–they didn’t follow the model that I had provided.

I spent much of the remainder of the week observing in classrooms, noticing similar lessons. A teacher would teach something, but then what the students produced on their papers wasn’t quite what the teacher was talking about. I kept thinking:

How can educators better connect the instruction with the desired results in a student’s finished product?

Or in my case:

How does an educator effectively communicate a vision
for a specific desired result?

bike1In chasing this rabbit, I started thinking about how we learn how to ride a bike. Think back to when you first learned to ride. Too long ago? What about when you taught a child to ride a bike. How did you start? Was your first attempt successful? I can remember WATCHING the older kids on the block cruising around, and I remember being jealous because they could go places so much faster than I could on foot. I also remember riding along WITH my dad on the back of his bike in a little seat. As we rode TOGETHER he would like to play tricks on me by leaning his weight to one side or the other, and thought I was going to fall out, but as he leaned he would EXPLAIN how leaning to one side or the other would help me make the turn. Riding along with my dad was great, don’t get me wrong, but I wanted a piece of the action for myself. I remember harassing my father, “But dad, I want to ride my own bike!” When my father finally took me out to teach me how to ride on my own, I have to be honest, I was a little disappointed. He had added these baby wheels to the back of my bike. Can you believe it?! How on earth was I supposed to look cool cruising like the other kids when I had this dead weight to drag around? What’s worse is that my dad didn’t just let me get on and go, he wasted my time EXPLAINING things –like how to brake. To make matters worse, my dad even held on to the back of the seat and FOLLOWED me on my first ride out. I was so annoyed–until I fell over that is . . . then, of course, I was grateful he was right there to help GUIDE me back up. Eventually, with more of my dad’s ASSISTANCE I was able to take a ride on my own, but it certainly wasn’t without a lot of his help in the beginning.


What I’m finding as I work to help improve instruction is that many educators, including myself, are missing a critical component of a basic model.



I’m sure you have seen it before–the Gradual Release Model is nothing new. I remember my professors talking about it in college. While the idea is very simple, it provides a structure that helps educators assist students in taking ownership of their own work–and communicate the desired results of the learning more effectively.

Look back at how I explained what my dad did when he taught me how to ride a bike. I made understanding easy for you and put the key words in bold. I’m sure my dad didn’t know it, but in teaching me how to ride my bike he actually followed the Gradual Release Model pretty closely. I watched him and others ride their bikes. We went on rides together. He was by my side, guiding me as I rode my bike. Then I eventually took full ownership and rode alone, having learned the things he taught me.

Now look back at how I explained what I did with educators last week. I provided them instruction. I allowed them to collaborate with peers, and then I let them do it on their own. Notice what I missed?

Shared Instruction = the Missing Link

I failed to take the time to model with the educators. I missed out on the “We do it together” part. In one chart I saw, it listed the facilitator’s responsibility during the Shared Instruction time as:

  • Works with students
  • Checks, prompts, clues
  • Provides additional modeling
  • Meets with needs-based groups

If I had included this shared instruction step as part of my instruction process, I would have provided the time for whole group collaborative writing as a way to create shared meaning of my expectations. The educators as students would have, “completing the process alongside others,” which would resulted in a more aligned finished product.

Thinking back to my time in my own classroom, I am able to pin point many times when I skipped this important step because of time. I rushed to give kids enough information so that I could get them into their own writing. In reality though, I short-changed the instructional process and did not allow my students to deepen their understanding of the task before I expected them to do it independently.

I wonder, if I had devoted more time to this shared meaning step, might I have had to spend less time on corrections and redos?

Take a minute to think about it for yourself.  How much time in any given lesson do you spend on creating shared meaning, working alongside your students to ensure they understand before letting them go on their own way? How might making a little more room for this step save you time in the end?

bandz Remember these? Silly Bandz. A few years ago they were all the rage with my middle school students. They simply couldn’t get enough of them. I remember one student that proudly displayed hers, coordinated by color, from wrist to elbow. One day at school I was called down to the office and asked to cover someone’s after school tutoring class. Of course I obliged, but when I showed up to a room full of less than eager writing students I immediately knew that six page packet of worksheets I was left to work with was NOT going to cut it. I began scanning the room for a plan B. There always has to be a plan B somewhere, and sure enough I found my alternate plan on the very arms of the students in front of me. I ask the students to pull off one of the millions of bands they had on their arm, and kindly requested several to share with the students in the room whose arms were not enslaved by the bands. I asked them to then find a partner who didn’t know what band they had picked. The pair then had to start describing the band they had selected to their partner using enough details that their parter would be able to guess what they were describing.

Without the students knowing it they were having a conversation about descriptive details.

From there we continued doing a number of activities with their beloved bands. We concluded by writing stories where they had to incorporate the band’s object into their stories.

Students had a great time. They were laughing, and talking about not only their prized Silly Bandz, but also the craft of writing. In fact, they were having conversations about the same things they would have been doing mindlessly in the packets I was left with. The only difference between my activity and the packet was that my activity capitalized on something that was near and dear to those kids, the Silly Bandz, and connected it to back to what they needed to learn.arm

As quickly as they rose to fame, the Silly Bandz craze was relatively short-lived, so I’m not advocating that you start digging around and try to replicate this activity in your classroom – it probably won’t work. Kids these days have moved on to something else, but it is the idea that we all need to capture. How can we take something that is important and on the fore font of our students minds and bring it into the classroom? By doing so teachers send a simple message: “I care about your life outside of this classroom and I want you to share it in here.” When students hear this message they are much more apt to taking the time to learn whatever it is that you want to teach them. I leave you with this: What is currently the craze for your learners? What might you be able to capitalize on in order to have your own Silly Bandz moment with your students?

Tech Tip #487

Me being shown a new tech tool is actually pretty rare. In fact, I don’t know when the last time it has happened, but a fellow co-worker recently shared what appears to be a pretty cool presentation tool that I have never seen before.

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Powtoon, not to be confused with Paltoons – a comic creator, is touted as a newer and improved replacement to PowerPoint or Prezi. With a simplistic design and many easy to use templates students and teachers alike are sure to find Powtoon a fun tool for creating presentations.

Not that long ago, someone asked me about tool such as Haiku Deck that could also embed video and make a cool presentation. While I have yet to play with that feature it looks like it is simple enough to do as well.

Of course every one wants to know about cost and usage for children. Although there are paid options, there is also a free version that seems to provide some pretty descent access to the tools on the site. As far as any rules for student use, I scanned the terms of service and didn’t find any specific restrictions related to minors. But, as always, I would make sure to check for yourself.

Now, I do have to provide a disclaimer that I have not used this tool, as I just found out about it today, but I can guarantee you that my next presentation will be made Powtoon. I’ll let you know how it goes. — Hopefully you will try it out too!

Crunch Time – Standardized Test Prep

A couple of days ago Amy and I were lamenting over the reality that in a short six weeks students from all over the state of Texas will sit down with their sharpened No. 2 pencils and begin taking our version of “accountability” called the STAAR test. For 9th and 10th graders they will have five hours to answer 30 multiple choice questions, write 2 short answer responses, and write 2 essays.

Six Weeks – a mere 30 hours (at most) to make sure the students sitting before us are equipped with the skills they need to pass.

Let’s face it, we are all in crunch time!

Choices are going to have to be made and lessons are going to have to be cut, or scaled down, in order to make sure that the last remaining hours are maximized. If you aren’t feeling it already, you should feel stressed!

But before you start running around in full-blown panic, might I offer you a solution:

Don’t sacrifice anything!

The conversation with Amy got me thinking about the reading test vs the writing test. What if, instead of stressing out about the reading portion of the test, we double the time we spend working on the writing portion? A few days ago, I studied the released questions from last year’s 9th grade End of Course Reading Exam (see below). What is one striking feature about the questions I studied?

  • Why does the author use sentence fragments to begin the article?
  • The author includes quotations from Gupta primarily to —
  • In which line does the author use figurative language to explain why people participate in the simulation?
  • What is the primary purpose of paragraph 1?
  • Why does the author include details about the “scissors” style of high jumping?
  • The author includes the information in paragraph 4 to —
  • The author organizes the selection by —
  • The author ends the selection with information about Fosbury’s later life in order to show —
  • The poet uses these lines to emphasize the importance of —
  • What does the poet mean by the lines “suddenly everything is a metaphor for how/short a time we are granted on earth”?
  • What is the most likely reason the poet ends the first stanza after line 13?
  • What is the primary purpose of paragraphs 1 and 11?
  • In paragraph 6, what is the effect of the author’s use of figurative language?
  • By having the narrator tell the story to Marge, the author allows the reader to function as —
  • The author uses ellipses primarily to —

Ok, so I gave it away… Look at all these questions that have students considering the motives of the author, or the writer, of the passage. Just a little under half of the questions ask our students to put themselves in the shoes of the writer and consider the author’s craft of the piece.

Wait a minute, isn’t that what we are trying to do when we ask students to write themselves? Don’t we want them to consider craft, purpose, style, voice, etc. as they put pencil to paper and write their own pieces?

So my challenge is this:  If you are faced with too much curriculum to cover and not enough time, consider stepping back and focusing on developing your students as writers.

If we empower our students to critically think about composing their pieces as a genuine writers, not just test takers, where they confidently make stylistic choices in their own writing, they will be able to approach a reading passage with a critical writer’s eye, and in turn be able to examine another writer’s stylistic choices.

Amy and I think we are on to something. She is making these choices during her own crunch time with first-time 9th grade test takers and second-time 10th graders (and a handful of re-testers who haven’t managed to score high enough–yet).

What  are you doing with your own six weeks?

Whose job is it Anyway?

Recently I read an Education Week article talking about the benefits of reading novels. Study: Novel Reading Generates Sustained Boost in Neural Connectivity While I am sure I have an opinion or two I could share about the article itself, there was a quote by Ariel Sacks included in the article that really got me thinking.

The Common Core standards for English Language Arts require more nonfiction than we’ve seen in the past, but this is across content areas, as [common-core authors] David Coleman and Susan Pimental clarified almost a year ago. This means we need to collaborate with content area teachers, not that we should stop teaching fiction!


Think about it for a minute, Sacks is essentially saying that core teachers need to take some more responsibility for teaching strategies related to informational texts so that language arts teachers in turn would have more time to teach fiction. This got me thinking. We talk about creating interdisciplinary units all the time and we talk about how core content courses are not an island unto themselves. So, how might standards in language arts be supported in other content areas? What if there were pieces or chunks of the language arts standards that would be better suited within the context of another subject area.

I immediately thought about research standards. I know in Texas at least, there are quite a few standards related to research in every grade level for language arts. Those just might be a better fit in science or social studies where they are constantly doing research projects. Or how about vocabulary standards? Every content has vocabulary they have to teach, right?

Obviously I’m not proposing that it just goes one way or that content courses should take half the work of a language arts class just so language arts could “have it easier.”  I am sure there are science or social studies, math for that matter, standards that could be supported directly in a language arts classroom as well.

All I’m pondering is:

What if schools restructured the way they supported student mastery of the standards? Maybe everyone would find they have just a little more time for whatever it is that they find most important.

Thoughts anyone?

Photo Credit:  | Published November 18, 2012

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