Tuesday, February 19, 2013


We all like to be recognized for our efforts. Students, we think, earn their recognition through grades. When students earn high marks, we adults think they are receiving the recognition they need to continue to stay motivated.

This year our school started the Cougar of Character program where students get recognized for being "caught doing good." I figured we, the staff, would fill out the card and the students would eventually receive them.

That's why last Friday I was completely surprised when the principal if our school came into my classroom: not to observe, not to discipline a student. She came in to celebrate the good deeds one of my students committed.

She called my student up to the front and read to the class what one of the staff members at school wrote  about her. In this particular instance, this student works with underclassmen with our Link Crew working with the incoming ninth grade night- an evening where eighth graders and their families come to hear about our programming, get tours of the school, and visit with different clubs. It is students who volunteer for events like this that make then successful  - middle schoolers don't get excited by adults talking at them - they want to hear what other kids have to say.

Standing at the front of the class, this student couldn't help but smile, couldn't help but beam -  and on the journey back to her desk, everyone wanted to see the card she got - the fancy one that would go on the refrigerator, so she made sure everyone got to see it from their seats.

One student said, "That would look GRRREAT on my bulletin board!"

Another kiddo yelled out, "The car keys would be mine for the weekend with one of those on my fridge."

This all took place in my AP class  with kids who are driven by high grades which clearly has worked for them. But they want more - they want to be noticed for the deeds they do and accomplish outside the classroom as well - they, like all of us, simply want to be noticed.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Heart in Hand

Every year for Valentine's Day our student council puts every student's name on a big red heart and they stick them on the banisters around our school. I love this tradition because whether or not you have your own special Valentine doesn't mean that you won't get one.

Each year upon entering school on  Valentine's Day, students gather in the hallways, around the banisters to find their heart. Once they find it, they take it and decide what to do with it. Some stick it on their lockers while others take them and have their friends write some nice little note about how great they think they are. One would think this whole routine could be disastrous for some students, but surprisingly I have never heard of students bullied with their hearts as fodder.

The teachers in  our school have pink hearts made and these hearts outline our main office. There are some students who go to great lengths to get their teacher's heart to bring it to them. Each student who does this holds the teacher's heart in both hands, smiles as they give it to the teacher, and the teacher is ALWAYS surprised and elated that some student thought of them on this day we show others we care.

I hold my students' hearts in my hand every day. I write on their hearts my comments for growth. I smile my comments in class each day we are together. It is my hope that I too, hold their hearts with both hands as I hand them back to my students.

A Drop in the Bucket

Some days the kids I teach are with me, and some days....well, let's just say they're not. Yesterday was one of those days. I walked into the AVID class I teach, the senior-level course geared towards first-generation college goers in order to help them matriculate through a four year university system. Yah, that one.

I walked into class excited because their FAFSA form was due, that Wiley little bugger that allows most financial aid to come their way, and I could  taste the progress about to be made that would continue to pave their lives towards their future.

Upon opening the door, I had three students who, before saying "Hi Mrs, Robbins, how is your day?" Or even before a simple, "Hello Mrs. Robbins," they blurted "I don't have my FAFSA form!!" Point-blank range, no warning, just blurted it out, all three one after the other in rapid fire.

Here's the thing: since these kiddos were freshmen I have told them I don't want to hear about their problems, I want to hear how they will solve it. Most of the time these students get this and work to resolve whatever issue they have in order to move forward, but not yesterday.

Needless to say, I kind of lost my cool and here's why. I have high hopes for my students. There are kids in this class who want to be doctors, some who want to be lawyers, a couple who want to be teachers, and some who would like to go into business. We have worked hard the last three years to understand that with lofty goals, comes a lot of work with great payout.

My students forget from time to time that piece of the puzzle about hard work. They forget that hard work is not about one big push and then you're done. I wonder if they realize that hard work is what we continually sustain on a daily basis.

Hard work is created by those small things we do every day. All those moments when we would like to vegetate in front of the TV and we choose not to. All those times when we want to sit and just hang out with friends, but we don't. Sometimes we sit in the doctor's office (as I am now) and we want to look at trashy magazines, but we don't. It is these every day decisions that constitute hard work, never letting go of our goals, never letting in to our id, that piece of our ego that tells us our effort is a waste.

I tell my daughter that every day is an interview, that we never know how someone may perceive us may affect our future. This above all else, is what I want my AVID students to take away from their time with me. Life is not a dress rehearsal, it is always on, it is always real, and most of the time whether we know it or not, there is always a audience watching.

Tomorrow is a new day. We will begin our class new and fresh and I know I, for one, will be ready for curtain call.

Sunday, February 10, 2013


Last week I had a couple of conversations with teachers that made me think that we, teachers, are looking for places of energy, places where we can converge, share, and then take that energy into our world, our classrooms.

The first was with two women who I am working with in a book study group. One is a science teacher and the other a social studies teacher working with a group called the DBQ Project. Our charge is to read and study about text complexity, but our discussion was so much more than that.

We moved from text complexity to Common Core to history vs. social studies to frustrations about how teachers seem to have less and less of a voice in education and we finally landed on a discussion about how teachers in content areas HAVE to teach their students to write and read their content because it's so specific to the discipline. I left this meeting excited for the future education holds. I left feeling like I could work authentically with people around issues we care about: that students can write effectively in our respective content areas.

The other synergistic conversation actually occurred at the gym where I work out with a teacher who teaches English in middle school. We each have been given an iPad to use in the classroom and share problems, frustrations, but mostly our successes in our classrooms. Every time I talk with this person, I feel energized and I feel like we are making a difference.

You see the thing in education is that we have felt so much control taken out of the profession and given to legislatures that these little conversations are not only inspiring, but they are essential to our careers, essential to the synergistic education of our children. How else do we create excitement around learning than for those who educate to be excited about it?

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Testing Out

Today is the day I handed back the bad news to my Writing Lab students. Writing Lab is a class I created with some colleagues for students who are below proficient in writing as indicated by both the Explore/PLAN test and our state testing, now called T-CAP. Students are placed into the class based on their test scores, nothing else.

Many students on their first day do not understand why they are in the class. They believe they are doing just fine. They believe they are making it in high school. They believe their writing is good enough. Needless to say, we spend the first week of the class simply looking at test scores, thinking about goals, and finally writing the pretest. The pretest is the indicator we use to determine if students will "test out" of the course.

We decided three years ago we would have students write an writing autobiography which allows us not only to assess their writing, but also allows us to figure out where their breakdown occurred. It is actually a powerful assessment tool which cuts to the chase with most of my students.

I handed these back today scored on the MWIP, the awesome rubric that breaks down writing into its most basic gradable components our district created for interventions in writing. I am sad to say that none of my students tested out. But...they did have the highest scores they have ever had on the assessment.

Each time I hand back this reassessment, I must remember how my students are much more fragile than any of them let on. Disappointment...anger...frustration are all emotions which run through the room on this day. Today though something different happened, my students did not turn this on to me. One of my students instead said, "It's okay miss; it's not about you. I'm disappointed in  myself."

...and so our work began.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Success is Real

My AVID class is designed to teach students who test in the middle, who need a push, to get into and matriculate through the university system. This is the last year for my students, I have had them all four years through what is now their senior year.

Part of the curriculum of this class is conducting tutorials; we even have professional tutors who come in to help. Some if my students, though, have practiced the art of tutorials since they were in sixth grade. Yes, you heard that correctly SIX years of tutorials. They have begged and pleaded for something new, and I have to admit that I was reluctant to even broach this topic with my students. 

But the more I read and the more I talk to students who are currently in college, the more I realize we need to make a change. Today I had my students read a study that a researcher at Berkeley conducted to try to figure out why students of color have little success in upper division math classes. He wanted to figure out what would help African American students be more successful, so he began to study the concept of study groups and how these eventually helped his students become successful.

After reading this study, we conducted a Socratic Seminar about the ideas presented and then turned to what my students feel they might need in senior study groups as they begin their transition towards college. 

Here's the punch line: their decisions around what they most need to creat a successful study group are EXACTLY the same as their tutorial forms they have been given since early middle school.

To say I have fought them in the validity of tutorials is a euphemism. After four years of explaining, cajoling, and testifying the benefits of tutorials, my students have FINALLY realized the validity of their time well spent.

It was a happy day, indeed.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

My Adventures in Teaching

I have decided to begin a blog about my teaching experience. It's about time, I say. Each day in my classroom tiny miracles happen. It is time to share those small changes in thoughts, beliefs, and capabilities.

It is time to put these shifts into the world. For those of you who are teachers, you know exactly what I mean. And for those of you who are not teachers, please, I hope you learn something about the inner workings of classrooms, schools, and this one teacher's mind.

It is my hope, in this era of Common Core Standards, testing, and pay for performance, some insights might be gained: both from myself, but also from those with whom I come into contact.

This blog will be my thoughts about education from my own perspective and from the lens of my own classroom.