Keeping it Real in an Urban High School

Because one of the reasons I continue to teach at an urban comprehensive high school is there is never a dull moment and because some of my previous posts have been just too serious, I have some fun anecdotes to share with you from my first week of teaching freshman and sophmore English.


Anecdote 1:

Me: How was your summer?

Student: Great, Miss. I went to New York.

Me: Wow! That is exciting. What did you do? (At this point, I am thnking about what a culturally rich city it is. How I love Manhatten, its diversity, its amazing museums and food. I am eager to hear his adventures.)

Student: It was so great all I did was watch white girls. (Enter laughter here)


Anecdote 2:

At North Dallas HIgh School, we have gendered classes for freshmen. This was a sad, sad revelation for my young men. Of course, they asked why, and I responded with the usual, “We want you to have as few distractions as possible so you can succeed.” One of them was particularly concerned.

Male Student: So all the boys are in all-boys classes?

Me: Yes. That’s right.

Male Student: But what about the girls?

(Pregnant Pause. Really? Really? Logic, please. At this point, I am laughing hysterically on the inside, but I proceed with dignity and respect for him.)

Me: Yes, the girls, too.

Male: Good. I guess I don’t have to worry about my girl, then.


Yup, deep belly laughs. It keeps me young. It keeps me loving my kids. It keeps me going.


Learning Principles… « What Ed Said

In my post for Leadership Day 2010 , I wrote about the McTighe ‘Schooling by Design’ model, in which programs, practices, hiring of staff and allocation of resources all rest on the foundation of the mission statement (what we stand for) and learning principles (what we believe about learning.)

Our school has a mission statement and, as a PYP school,  we have some firm, shared  beliefs about how children learn.  But, till now, our learning principles were not articulated in a clear, accessible way. Does everyone have the same beliefs? Is our practice really based on what we think we believe? Are school-wide decisions made on the basis of these beliefs?

We started the process of clarifying our learning principles by watching Simon Sinek’s TED talk on successful leadership. He highlights the importance of knowing WHY we do things and the importance of  prioritizing the ‘why’ rather than the ‘what’ and ‘how’ in business, or leadership… or teaching. We discussed the connection to the McTighe model and the rationale behind defining our learning principles.  The model applies just as much to teaching as to whole school design. What you teach, how you teach, how you speak to students, the layout of your classroom… all of these should reflect your beliefs about learning. Often our practice doesn’t really reflect what we say we believe.

Teachers were then invited, individually or in pairs , to write down a few of their own beliefs about learning. The leadership team then put forward their beliefs, without looking at what the staff had written. We compared the two lists and found them compatible.

I shared the first draft of our learning principles with Nancy (@blairteach), a school improvement consultant in the US and a supportive member of my online PLN. A fresh perspective is always helpful with tasks like this and she made a few helpful suggestions.

The final stage will be to take the list back to the teachers for their comments and suggestions. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Here’s what it looks like currently:

Everyone has the potential to learn.

  • We learn in different ways, depending on abilities, learning styles, preferences and interests.
  • Learning takes place through inquiry: questioning, exploring, experimenting and problem solving.
  • Learning takes place when we make connections between previous and new understanding.
  • Learning for understanding occurs by acquiring skills and knowledge, constructing meaning and transfer to other contexts.
  • Learning is active and social and best takes place through collaboration and interaction.
  • Learning takes place when we feel secure and valued and are able to take risks.
  • Learning needs to be challenging, meaningful, purposeful and engaging.
  • Learning includes meta-cognition and reflection, and requires learners to take ownership of their learning.
  • Learning is continuous, lifelong and ever-evolving.


This spoke to me. I do believe all students can learn, and that’s a real focus on our campus this year. I wish we, as a school, sat down and agreed upon these types of non-negotiables instead of just focusing on policy/behavior mandates.

Learning principles should be fundamental in all classrooms. So what are yours?

Foreword to Bring It to Class – National Writing Project

Foreword to Bring It to Class

By: Kylene Beers
Date: May 2010

Summary: Students’ backpacks bulge not just with oversize textbooks, but with paperbacks, graphic novels, street lit, and electronics such as iPods and handheld video games. Bring It to Class is about unpacking those texts to explore previously unexamined assumptions regarding their usefulness to classroom learning.

While at the 2008 National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)convention, I answered an AP English teacher honestly when sheasked me what I had read during the previous month. I don’t rememberall the books I listed, but I do remember one, not because ofthe book but because of her response. After I mentioned one of theHarry Potter novels, she interrupted me and said she was surprisedto hear I wasted my time on such “popular fiction” when there wereso many great classics to be enjoyed, “such as War and Peace.”

BeforeI could offer a response, she continued her lecture on the value of”real” literature and how popular literature could only be seen asa stepping stone to “better” books. To her, popular literature—”DaVinci Code books”—appeal to the less-educated because they demandso little. She called young adult literature and popular adultfiction “drive-by books” because, as she explained, readers ought todrive by them on their way to the classics. Finally, reading my face,she stopped mid-sentence. After a brief moment of silence she said,”Well, perhaps because you’ve never taught AP English, you don’treally understand the great literature students are capable of reading.Perhaps the students you work with really ought to stick to popculture. Perhaps that’s all they can read.” And then she left.

While I was disappointed at her abrupt departure, I wasn’t surprisedat her attitude. In too many places and too many times, popularculture texts are seen as “easy reads,” “fads,” or “teen reading,” oreven “inappropriate” texts—whether print, film, or music. In 2007, ata state English/language arts convention, when I asked the audience of about 500 secondary teachers to define popular culture texts, themost common response was, “What the mainstream media provides.”Most of the teachers agreed that, “It’s what kids read outside of schoolbut isn’t appropriate for school.”

When asked why it’s not appropriatefor school, the answers were equally divided: “Pop culture is easy, sokids don’t need help understanding it”; “Pop culture is what’s popularfor the moment, so there’s no reason to study something that willchange so quickly”; and “Pop culture contains language and imagesthat are not appropriate for school-based discussions.” Though someteachers did point out that rap was being used more often as a part ofpoetry discussions, most said that kids “got” rap without instructionso there was no reason to spend valuable instructional time discussingthis genre. Another group pointed out that for reluctant readers,pop culture texts offer “a way in,” but these teachers, as the one wholectured me earlier, also stated that these texts are still best used asspringboards to “real” literature.

* * *

I wish I knew then what I know now, after reading Bring It to Class:Unpacking Pop Culture in Literacy Learning. I wish that back in 2007and 2008 I had understood the concept of turn-around pedagogiesand the literacy of fusion. I wish the three authors of this book hadalready handed this text to me so that I would have been betterequipped to talk about how 21st-century demands, today’s “anytime,anywhere” learners, multimodal texts, standards, and homeand school literacy practices all intersect, creating nothing less thanan educational mashup that clearly reveals the value of using textsthat connect—pop culture texts, school texts, and student-createdtexts. I wish I could share with the AP English teacher at the 2007NCTE convention and the secondary teachers at the 2008 conventionmany of the activities offered in Bring It to Class because allstudents—not just the ones who struggle to read, but all students—will benefit from the critical, evaluative, collaborative, and creativethinking activities in this book.

Margaret Hagood, Donna Alvermann, and Alison Heron-Hrubygo beyond offering some ways to bring popular culture texts into aclassroom. They challenge our understanding of what it means toread, of what defines something as a text, of what it means to constructmeaning—of what culture is. They remind us that in today’sworld, “attention—not information—is in scarce supply,” a sentence that caught me up short and became my cornerstone for constructingmeaning throughout the rest of the book. If I agree—and I do—that attention is what is in scarce supply, then I would be smart towonder how popular culture texts, which already have students’attention, can be a part of the curriculum. The authors would argue,how can it not?

* * *

Recently, Thomas Friedman (2006) announced that the world is flatonce again. “In the future,” he said, “how we educate our childrenmay prove to be more important than how much we educate them”(p. 301). He is reminding us of a principle that may have faded intothe background as we have been pushed by NCLB and other forcestoward a type of accountability that is measured by neatly bubbledexams. Yet, in a world of 21st-century demands, we need studentswho know how to think collaboratively, solve problems, createsolutions, share widely, listen intently, and act ethically. We needstudents who possess literacies that are, as explained by NCTE,”multiple, dynamic, and malleable.”

Indeed, we float on the edge of uncharted waters in this flatworld, toward barely imagined possibilities for our students and thefuture they must navigate. The direction we take from here will determinethat future and the destinations that await us. If our teachingis flat, our understanding insubstantial, and the experiences we offerstudents one-dimensional, we will fall into old ways and old results.Bring It to Class offers a “how-to” guide about new ways to educatethat offer new results. It helps us develop the multiple, dynamic, andmalleable literacies our students need. It is a guide on these unchartedwaters of this flat world, one I’m glad to hold close.

—Kylene Beers, Ed.D, senior reading advisor to SecondarySchools Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College,Columbia University; president, National Council of Teachersof English; author, When Kids Can’t Read: What TeachersCan Do


Friedman, T. (2006). The World Is Flat (Updated and expanded ed.). NewYork: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Related Resource Topics

I really need to get this, but I wonder how the book addresses the lexile gap between many popular teen reads and that of standardized assessments?

The Bounty that is Google Sites


I know many of y'all know about Google Sites. I know that you may have made several sites with it, but have you played around with their templates recently? Seriously, go check it out—especially if you're an educator. I just did this today. There are several for high schools, classrooms, clubs, teams, student spaces, and today, I found one for students doing research on colleges, jobs, as well as living independently.

To appeal to your other interests, there are also templates for weddings, foodies, travel journals, photography, and so much more.

That means, it's all set up and ready for your content! Could they make it any easier?

Enrique’s Journeyisms 2

Olga Sanchez Martinez…what a saint. After having cancer, being in a coma, losing parts of her fingers at work in the tortilla factory, being left by her husband for another woman, she still finds the strength to help so many migrants like Enrique.

She seeks those injured on their journey to the North to give them medical attention they would not otherwise receive. She spends her life trying to raise money for a clinic. She spends what little money she does have on her mission to help migrants and gathers donations to sell used clothing and food at market to earn more. She takes them into her own home. She seeks out medicine and prosthetics. She encourages those she helps with words of strength and inspiration.

She endangers her own safety by helping others.

People like this who are so selfless, so dedicated. It is a wonder that such goodness exists, but I am happy it does.


A Generation of Our Children Growing Up Without One or More Parents

Many of you have already seen this clip. It moved me to tears. Many of the reunions happened at schools, and I wondered, “How many of our children are having to do without a father or mother because he or she is serving our country? How many will lag behind, require years to recover the loss, or never get over the separation at all?”

We talk about the high divorce rate. The rise in single mothers. But, this is a different phenomenon. We haven’t been at war for this long in my memory. We haven’t seen this many troops deployed and redeployed and redeployed. And, no one knows when this will end. Many people agree we need to pull out, but how will this effect the countries we leave?

I had a friend who taught at a school that served Ft. Hood. She observed children entrenched in this sentiment of loss. I couldn’t do it. The children are most probably on the move, have said good-bye at least once to a parent, and they know what their father or mother is doing is dangerous. They know they are protecting our country, but they also know the risks they are taking.

This video is bittersweet. These are the happy stories, where chidlren and loved ones see one another again. But let us not forget about those who are lost forever. Let us not forget that another good-bye is probably in store for them. Who knows how long until the next reunion?

What does this mean for the education of this generation of chidren of U.S. troops? If a basic need of having parent is not there, if the basic need of safety for their family does not exist, how can they learn?

Unfortunately, this might be the least of their problems.

Thank you to those who serve and protect this country. You are not forgotten.


Enrique’s Journeyisms

According to Sonja Nazario, there are roughly 48, 000 children who enter the US from Central America and Mexico illegally without a parent. Two-thirds of those will succeed past US INS. Counselors in a Texas detention center estimate that of the children they serve, 75% are looking for their mothers.


Reading Enrique’s Journey

As part of my work with North Star of Texas Writing Project (NSTWP), I am participating in research about Culturally Mediated Writing Instruction (CMWI). It focuses on how to strengthen academic writing for ELLs. The research group is reading Sonja Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey. Thus far, it is incredible. I have chosen to discuss any interesting moments from this powerful read here on my blog. More coming soon…


From AA to AU….What a Difference a Letter Makes

When I leave school for the summer, I like to be able to detach myself from all things DISD for however many weeks it may be possible. I shut down as much as possible because 1) I want to focus on family, 2) I need a break, 3) I need time to concentrate on NWP. This is probably why I was oblivious to the academic rating change of my campus.

When I left NDHS this past June, I think most of the faculty was feeling relieved. We were looking forward to a better year because we thought we were finally “academically acceptable”. I walked away with a sense of real accomplishment because I knew we had worked so hard. I personally was taken out of my classroom away from my own students for about 12 weeks to provide additional support to “bubble” students. That was a sacrifice foy myself and my kids, but I wanted to help our school. At the end of the year, when it was announced there were no academically unacceptable high school campuses, we were refreshed, remotivated, and proud of what we had done.

Unfotunately, at the end of July, when the state results were published, this was not the case. NDHS was unacceptable due to graduation/completion rate.

We made so many gains on the TAKS…enough to get academically acceptable, but now beacuse of completion rate, we must continue to wear the scarlet letters AU.

It is completely and utterly demoralizing.

In our schools, we teach how dangerous labelling is. We try to model for our students how to avoid judging one another, how to resist lumping groups of people together and deem them inferior. It’s ironic that what we, as educators, try to embody for our kids, our accountability norms do just the opposite. Mandated tests have hijacked education. Texas’ accountability practices have put schools into groups and places judgement, and I do mean judgement not evaluation, based on the labels they thrust upon schools. Do the gurus that be really believe there is no stigma attached to being labelled Academically Unacceptable? Or, perhaps, this is their m.o. Perhaps, they hope the shame that goes along with carrying this label (in our situation for years) will be the motivator that will boost up our scores.

WRONG! What it does is make students question their own ablities. It makes teachers dread going to work because even if we know how far a student has come, it is not enough because he or she did not pass a test and/or graduate according to schedule. Regardless of Maria’s amazing writing, despite Victor’s analytic savvy, even though our kids may outtest others on district assessments, none of that matters. We have been judged as academically unacceptable, “not acceptable…not pleasing or welcome”.

I refuse to allow any of my students feel like they are not welcome. If they want to learn, I will accept them. I will celebrate what I do see happening. I will try to do whatever it takes to rid them of feeling inferior to students from other schools.

I am saddened. I am angry. But most importantly, I am an agent of change. I will continue to challange my students to become the best they can. I will support them in any way possible to foster an atmosphere that reveres real education—not one dependent on what others say, but one that hinges on a student’s self-worth, a student’s curiosity, a student’s pursuit of enlightenment, a student’s journey to understanding that education is not what others tell you to learn but rather what you learn because it is meaningful and authentic to you. Real education is what can be used again and again. It is timeless. It is empowering. It is what separates us from the mindless robots who accept without a fight what others label them. Education is not a label. It is not a title. It is not a piece of paper. It cannot be measured and documented with data alone.

There are real students. Students with stories. Students with desire to be educated despite whatever rating they are given. Students who are our future.

In honor of that future, in homage to the students I serve, I will not limit them by judging. I will revel in their successes helping them get a true, make a difference in one’s life, education.


Teachers Are the Center of Education: NWP, College Board, & Phi Delta Kappa


NWP, College Board, and Phi Delta Kappa join forces to celebrate and share the powerful work of teachers. This particular report looks at teachers who use technology in writing instruction. Hats off to these three organizations for realizing that as a nation, we are only as strong as our educators. We can learn so much from these outstanding teachers.