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Month: November 2016 (page 1 of 3)

Chicken Wings, Forgeries, and Goodbyes: Project 180, Day 60

Morning, all. Headed to the doc today. Arm’s still giving me troubles, and the name “Chicken Wing” has begun to stick as a result of my carrying it tucked closely to my side. Oh, kids are lovely little critters. So, before Super Syrie gives way to Chicken Wing, I am taking the day off to literally get things straightened out. That said, this morning’s post will be a mix of miscellaneous musings.

  1. Time does not fly; it vanishes. Poof! 60 days gone. 120 to go. 180 will be gone before we know. And only just now, I’m finding my pace. Things need to slow down. Feels like a race. So much to do. Can’t do it all. Winter’s now come. What happened to fall? Okay. Enough sappy rhyme. But time is vanishing. And yesterday, I continued to press my kids to make much of time, telling them it cares not for their success or failure. And if they don’t “eat” the opportunity, time will. Time lives off opportunity.
  2. Gotta hunch. Gonna act on it. So, as midterm portfolios continue to trickle in with parent and student signatures (the only price exacted for the A), I’ve begun to notice some sketchy parent signatures. I suspect that some of my kids have taken up a new hobby: amateur forgery–heavy on the amateur. Not my first rodeo, but reluctant to falsely accuse or accidentally offend a parent with a naturally sketchy signature (my own’s pretty shady), I am going to contact all my parents with a follow up email , thanking the ones who signed, reminding the ones who didn’t, and maybe surprising the ones who never knew there was something to be signed in the first place.  Really, it comes down to our being a third of the way through the year, and I can’t–for their sakes–let some of my kids continue to sacrifice their opportunity to the insatiable thief, time. So, I am going to step in. As I shared yesterday, and as I shared in the letter that went home to parents on day one, I cannot do this alone. 180 days. 180 degrees, evenly split. 60 teacher. 60 student. 60 parent. Has to be.
  3. Said goodbye to my college kids last night. Lovely group of kiddos. So excited for them to continue their own journeys into this awesome profession. I am honored to share my experiences with them. And I am proud to bid adieu to another group of aspiring young teachers with one word etched in their minds, one word that I believe is the key: relationships.
  4. Sharing a smile. Yesterday, I received an email from one of the editors at Edutopia seeking my permission to promote my recently published “Movies in the Classroom” article as one of their own. You see, generally speaking, anyone can publish articles in their Community Forum, and I have published a few. If Edutopia likes what you’ve published, then they will promote the article through their various social-media platforms. Of course, I granted permission. They wanted me to make some edits for length and rework the conclusion, but that was no problem. I am just excited to have another opportunity to reach a wider audience. Earlier this past year, they also promoted my “Is Our Grading System Fair” article, which has nearly reached 40,000 views and 11,000 shares. Beyond helping call attention to and promote Project 180, I look forward to the opportunities of starting and continuing conversations about education. Just wanted to share.

Happy Wednesday, all. Sorry for the mixed bag this morning. Have a great day.


Not Enough: Project 180, Day 59


Though I have not fully processed all that I learned from the recent midterm conferences, I have reached a humbling conclusion. My dedication is not enough. Despite my commitment to lead and support my kids along their journey, in the end, if that’s all it is, then it is simply not enough. If kids aren’t motivated and if parents aren’t involved, then all that I do is not enough. Oh, it alone might nudge kids along from time to time, but a push here and a pull there won’t get kids to the top of this year’s summit. A sad, simple fact. But I deign to dwell in apathy because in the struggle, I found success. But I did not do it alone.

Recently, as I shared, I had a tough conference–maybe the toughest of my career. And while it certainly threw me for a loop that has not quite come to rest, yesterday the swirl slowed, and I saw the unfortunate situation in a new light. Unexpectedly, I had a newly motivated student on my hands, one who was diving into the work with a diligence yet seen. On top of that, this student turned in an exemplary essay that I will seek to use as a model in the future.

Of course, I don’t really know what the new motivation means. I certainly don’t see it as affirmation or acceptance of my approach, but the motivation is undoubtedly there. And that is all that matters. Teachers have to be dedicated. Students have to be motivated. Parents have to be involved. And that is what happened. No, I did not enjoy my at-odds moments with this particular parent, and it will bother me for some time, but in the end, if it has motivated her child, then that is what really matters. I want to believe that even if the divide between our perspectives is miles wide, ultimately we want the same thing: success for the child.

Another conference. A different situation. Another success. Two days before conferences, Sally (name changed) came to me after the bell. She came to apologize. Caught off guard, I continued to listen as she shared with me that she had taken to heart my recent comments about the necessity of practice for growth, that if they weren’t doing, they weren’t growing. She had spoken to her parents about it, and they instructed her to come and talk to me. She had also been instructed to let me know that they would be at conferences. Touched by both her courage and honesty, I let her know how much I appreciated her coming to me and that I looked forward to meeting with her parents.

“We are here to be cheerleaders. We aren’t here to punish Sally. We are here to encourage and help.” I have had this on replay in my head ever since. Sally’s dad, looking to Sally to mom to me, shared this during the conference, and it lifted my spirit. Of course, that spirit would soon be crushed. But that’s another story. Anyway, Sally up to the point of the conference, had done little to no work.  But with her new cheer squad in tow, she made a public pronouncement that evening, rededicating herself to her learning. And for the few days before Thanksgiving break, she, too, was a newly motivated student.

But yesterday, I feared it only a mirage as she came to me and told me that she could not print her essay. This, folks, is not a new one for English teachers. To be sure, it’s the equivalent of “my dog ate my homework” of old. Seeking to assure her that it would be fine to get it to me the next day, I tried to hide my doubt and disappointment, but she, rejecting any potentially patronizing reassurance, insisted that it was in her Google Docs. I told her that she could email it to me then. And before I could walk back to my desk, it was in my inbox. Abashed by my doubt and disappointment, I praised her for getting it in. No mirage. Made my day. I emailed her parents last night with “Sally Rocks!” in the subject line.

Another success. But only because of a shared commitment. I cannot do it alone. Sally cannot do it alone. Parents cannot do it alone. We all play equal parts. And that is humbling. But it is also liberating. I can only control my part of the triad. I cannot control a student’s motivation. I cannot control a parent’s involvement. But I can control my dedication. And so, I will. It’s all I can do–even if it’s not enough.

Happy Tuesday, all. Sorry about the no-post yesterday. Won’t burden you with the details. Just glad to be back at it.

Long Story, Short Post: Project 180, Day 58

Sorry no post. Long Story. Back with you tomorrow.

In the Middle: Project 180, Day 57



In teaching as in life, the battle is constant; the struggle is real. Head and heart locked in conflict, as divided as together, as different as the same, as trusting as suspicious. And we get caught in the middle, torn between the two halves of our being, forced to find peace for our two ends.

On my “headier” days, I find the emotional objectivity that I need to be the high-expectation-wielding, realtor-of-rigor figure that my position requires. I boast outwardly, slinging sayings, “You’ll learn or you won’t,” “Sink or swim,” “There are choices and there are consequences,” and so on. I am large and in charge, armed with perhaps a neutral indifference, refusing to take personally or give into the, at times, maddening reality of wasted youth. I am Syrie. Hear me roar.

But, on my “heartier” days, I drown in empathy, immersed emotionally in my kids and their needs. I shed my shield of objectivity; I shrug my quiver of platitudes from my shoulder; and I let fall my sword of severity. I reflect inwardly, wondering worriedly, “Am I doing enough?” “How else can I motivate them?” “Do they trust me?” I am no longer so large, and I feel no longer in charge as I yield to the compassion I feel for the trial that is youth. I am Syrie. Let me help.

And so, lion and lamb. He who roars. And he who bleats. At once neither but always both. I have learned a lot about myself this year. I have learned I know nothing. For twenty years, when I looked in the teaching mirror, a solid, familiar me looked back; even with long spans between looks, I always found a familiar comfort in my image. And then there is this year, a year with daily deep dives into my identity, a year of every-early-morning looks into my soul with each 180 post. And each day a shimmer of an image, nothing solid, at times a face unknown, a stranger looking back. Me, torn between the halves. My head telling me to go back, “We’ve not come too far.” But in answer, my heart pulling me forth, drawing me ever deeper, “We’ve too much at stake. We’ve come too far. Do not lose faith.” And I follow. I heed my heart. But I do not leave my head. I need it, too. The halves made whole.

Last week, friend and colleague Nicole Nanny sent me the image below with the message “Have heart!” I have. Too much, maybe.


Happy Tuesday, all. Back here Monday after break. Hope everyone has a terrific turkey day. May you find thanks and joy in your family and friends. Sorry for the odd post this morning. Feeling a little existential on my 45th this morning.

Jump In: Project 180, Day 56


Though many of my students have expressed their appreciation for less stress in the P-180 classroom, it is not an environment without pressure. It’s just different pressure. In a traditional classroom setting, pressure generally exists in the form of compliance, often manifesting itself in the form of consequences for non-compliance, which frequently, then, becomes the basis for a grade, thus the ensuing stress. I see it in my class everyday in both overt and covert expressions of stress.

Overtly, the kids tell me directly or I overhear their out-loud stories of stress. Covertly, they–against my better wishes and policies–try to sneakily get their homework from other classes done during mine. One young man attempts this every day. Every day, despite our near-daily disputes over it, he attempts to do his math homework. I don’t believe that he is doing it out of  spite or disrespect; he is doing it out of necessity. He has to get it done, so he tries, even at the risk of creating conflict in my class. I try not to take it personally; my class just happens to come the period  before his math class. I get it. I don’t like it, but I get it. Stress makes us do crazy things. Even cheat. Copying is another covert operation that kids try to get away with. Of course copying is nothing new. It’s a practice as old as the tradition of a compliance-based classroom. I, too, under pressure back in the day, on occasion, borrowed someone’s homework. It was survival.

And so, it makes me wonder, then. Is that what the traditional approach perpetuates? Survive? Is that what it’s about? Can’t we have a more noble goal for our kids?  Is a perpetual state of stress really best for them in the short or the long term? Are we really creating environments where kids can grow? If they only strive to survive, will they ever thrive? The bet in the traditional classroom seems to suggest that we teach them to survive now so they can thrive later. I wonder if it really plays out like that? This is a wonder I have had for a long time, so I placed my own bet, challenged conventional wisdom, and attempted to create a culture where thriving, not surviving, was the goal. And though the odds are certainly against me, I went all in–no folding or filching now.

As I mentioned above, there is no lack of pressure in the 180 classroom. It just presents itself differently. At the center of the 180 classroom are freedom, ownership, and responsibility. But these ideals come at a cost. They require commitment. To oneself. In truth, it may be that compliance and commitment are only separated by a thin line, and maybe in the end, it’s only semantics that separate the two. But I believe there is a difference, even if it is subtle. Compliance in the classroom is students doing for the teacher. Commitment in the classroom is students doing for themselves. And that I believe is the necessary, albeit hard to achieve, difference in the 180 classroom, the difference that creates a do-to-thrive instead of a do-to-survive environment. But this does not happen overnight. It is, as the image above suggests, a climb. It does not come easily and it does not come cheaply. It is no easy climb. But it is a climb worth making. And this is a lot of pressure to put on kids. But is it any less pressure than that created in a traditional classroom?  I don’t know, but my heart tells me the kids can make the climb.

I said I would spare the details from last week’s contentious conference, and for the most part I will, but one comment in particular stuck with me, and I have been turning it over for days. Among a litany of complaints, I was accused of putting too much pressure on 15 year-olds by making them take responsibility and ownership of their learning, and as such I was setting them up for failure. And that if I cared about kids, I would return to a traditional approach because that is how kids learn. They are not mature enough to take on such responsibilities. I don’t believe that. In my heart, I don’t believe that. I think there is wisdom to be found at the top of the ladder. I think there is benefit for our society when our citizenry reaches the top rung. I think it is shared wisdom among adults who finally find their purpose and passion in life. But why does that have to happen late? Why cannot it not happen early? I believe it can. I do not want my kids to simply get along with life. I want them to engage life. I want them to find the flow. But they have to commit. I can only show them the river. They have to find the courage to make the jump. Yes, that’s pressure, but I believe they can swim. They just have to believe it.

Happy Monday, all.


Voices Within: Project 180, November 20, 2016

Only two comments this week. Sure to have fewer this next week with only 2 half days. Come on break!

“So far this class seems chaotic, and I wonder if it’s gonna settle down. Right now we’re supposed to focus on our blogs, the speeches, the films, and seemingly random work. The homework is fine (not that I am one to complain,since I haven’t done much lately), but it’s kinda hard to focus on them all, especially the blog and the speech. I am seeing this as a problem because I have been neglecting  my blog for the speech, and I was wondering if this was the more important of the two. Sorry if this wasn’t clear.” –Anonymous

Anonymous, first no apology necessary. Second, it was very clear. Third, I am sorry that you are struggling with all that we are trying to juggle in class right now. P-180 or not, it is how I do things. With a skills-based approach, process takes precedent over product. Most of your other classes probably follow the textbook approach to learning, a more linear approach where learning happens in a series of episodes, repeating with each new chapter. My concern with this approach is that the learning seems to lead to the test at the end of the chapter, after which the learning is left behind for the new content, in the new chapter, for a new test. This approach is certainly more consistent and more efficient, but I am not convinced it is a more effective way to learn. And… I know, blah, blah, blah. Right? Sorry.

Anyway, learning is messy, learning, like life, is a little chaotic, and–most of all–learning takes time. That said, things will start to come together kiddo. We have a lot to do, and I opt to put much of that into play at one time, as you are–unfortunately–frustratingly aware. I need you to have the time and opportunity to progress with feedback. As for what’s most important, I will continue to give you my recommendations along the way, as I have with the recent suggestion to focus on your speech. I think what is different about this class is that you have freedom. I wonder if that is contributing to the chaos that you feel. I am sorry that you are frustrated. Hang in there. As I said above, things will settle–somewhat.

“I really enjoy and appreciate watching movies like The Book Thief and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas because they really open our not-always-seeing eyes to the cruel realities of the world and its history.” –Anonymous

Anonymous, I am pleased that you are finding value in the movies we are viewing for the Holocaust. I also enjoy them and find them powerful representations of a time that we can never forget.

P-180 Growth Garage: Models and Movies


Young writers need models. And while that “need” certainly varies from writer to writer, providing models for our students is one way to help them grow as writers. Some will use them more than others. Some will rely heavily upon them. Others will not use them at all.  Regardless, with the only cost being time, I find them effective means to  help my developing writers.

Above is just a screenshot of the introduction to the model essay. It is the annotated version. At the top is a color-coded key to the necessary elements in the essay. Beyond, the color codes, and not visible in the screenshot, I also offer explanatory annotations through the comment tool in Google Docs. With the use of Google Classroom I can push the annotated model to my kids, providing them with a resource as they work through their own essays.

The essay is a practice opportunity for the students to demonstrate their abilities to critically view a film. As they watched the film, I asked that they view it through the lenses of historical accuracy, point-of-view, and audience impact. The essay puts into play the latter two. The model represents the point-of-view lens. I will also offer an annotated audience-impact model.

Process, then Product. Here is the process we followed for viewing The Book Thief and will continue to follow for the next two movies, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and Life is Beautiful.

  1. I introduced the after-viewing guides to give the students during-viewing direction in the form of the three lenses.
  2. We watched the movie in roughly 30-minute segments.
  3. During the segment, each student took notes for the three lenses.
  4. After the segment, students worked in teams to complete the lens-driven viewing guides.
  5. We repeated the process until the completion of the movie. The Book Thief was completed in four segments.

Here I try to find a balance between viewing for the experience of the story and viewing for the critique of the film. To that end, the provided 15 – 20 minute team time at the end is essential. It not only gives the kids time to immediately capture their thinking at the end of the segment, but it also puts a little less pressure on them, allowing them to watch the movie not only for the purpose of the critique but also the story. The opportunity for collective team-time thinking is a must.

Feedback. One film = 90 essays. 3 films = 270 essays. That = insanity. 270 practice essays. Practice is the paramount word. Here is the method in the madness.

  1. I will not read the entire essay.
  2. I will not “score” the essay.
  3. I will look to provide feedback for each kid in one or more of the following strands.
  4. Purpose/Focus, Organization, Evidence/Elaboration.
  5. My feedback will be “this-is-what-I-see-you-need-at-this-moment” suggestions for each writer. I may give John feedback on organization. I may give  Sara feedback on Purpose/Focus and Evidence/Elaboration. It will be personalized to each kid. I will point out at least one “doing well” and one “needs work” within the strands.
  6. I will keep track of trends in each class. And I will use that information to guide my whole-class interventions. For example, I may discover that most kids need support with Organization, and so I will take the time to address that with the entire class. In some cases, the intervention will occur in the form of an invite, my asking kids who received “needs-work” feedback on Organization to join me in a small group intervention.
  7. Now that the kids have feedback, they will get a timely opportunity with the next movie and essay to apply their learning. This is important for growth. Kids have to have the opportunity to circle back.
  8. By the time we have completed the full process, the kids will have had three similar opportunities to grow from practice and feedback, stretching their skills with analysis in a medium that is all too familiar, a medium–like it or not–that is here to stay.

Viewing is a 21st Century Literacy Skill.  Movies in a language arts classroom? Some suggest it is sacrosanct to the literary tradition in an English classroom. I understand that idealized, nostalgic longing for tradition and ceremony. But I also understand the realities of the 21st century, and the various media which better capture and hold the attention of our students. This is the reality. Kids are not reading books. Of course, I am deeply troubled by this. I am a reader–always have been, always will be. And it is a trend that I found both disturbing and disheartening. But it is a trend, an irreversible one. We are not going back now.

Faced with that reality as a high school ELA teacher, I strive, then, to find ways to engage my kids in “literature-based” experiences that better ensure that before our work begins all kids have consumed the content. Far too frequently over the years, I have found myself frustrated that only a handful of kids actually read the novel, despite my valiant, sometimes crazy efforts to motivate them to read. And yet, despite my knowing that many did not in fact read the book, I charge on with the essay, with the project as if they had. With movies, I know with certainty that all kids have consumed the content. Wish beyond wishing, that I could make this happen with novels, but I have yet to find the magic means. In the end, I want my kids to think. We will still read, of course–Night is right around the corner, but we will also watch movies. They, too, can be used to get kids to think critically. And I’m okay with that. As it is, maybe I have to be.

And that concludes this P-180 Growth Garage post. More to come. Have a great weekend.

And Then the Sun Shines: Project 180


This is part of a note from a parent who was unable to attend conferences last night. Wanted to share. Brightened my day. Thanks to all who have offered your support today. Your words help me better hear what’s in my heart, despite  what’s sometimes in my head. Thank you.

Let’s Make a Deal: Project 180, Day 55

It’s too bad that one’s peace cannot be ruled by a simple majority. It’s too bad that one’s brain conspires against the very thing it needs most. It’s too bad that one can neither remember the positive nor forget the negative. It’s too bad.

Dear Brain,

I beseech you, I beg you. Let majority rule. When our day’s experiences tend to the positive, let that dictate our night’s rest. And, in return, I promise when it tends to the negative, I will grant your incessant gallop across the synapses of the arena, a ruminative rodeo replaying the day. I promise. But you have to promise, too. Deal?



I should have slept like a baby last night. I had a super majority of positives from last night’s conferences, parents thanking me for the care, work, and faith that I am putting into their children. I should have. I didn’t. Not sure I slept a wink. The rodeo was in full force as the stock ran roughshod, stuck on replay, running over and over again the one negative of the evening.  Another night lost, victim to a tyrannical brain. But why does it conspire so?

The people who love and support me tell me to forget. I tell myself to forget. But my brain won’t listen. It will not remember. I will not forget. But enough is enough. We have to strike a deal. Doubt will not do. There is too much at stake. I have worked too hard. I demand a deal. Brain, are you listening?

In the end, I guess I knew it would happen. I knew it when I wrote yesterday’s post. I knew it when they walked in the door. And, it happened. I thought I was prepared. I thought it might go differently. I thought wrong. I’ll spare the details, but I will share that I have never been so insulted professionally, and I have rarely been so wounded personally. It was not easy to be subjugated to the implication that I do not understand or care about kids for twenty minutes. Hard to sleep on that.

But today is a new day. The stock are back in their pens. Rodeo is over. I seem to better remember the positive with the sun on the horizon. I just wish my memory were better when it went down. Brain, let’s work on that. Please.

Happy Friday, all.

Meet the Parents: Project 180, Day 54

Test today. I will do the taking. Parents will do the scoring. And while it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that I am not experiencing a little test anxiety as I look ahead to my long day, I am, above all, more excited than worried about this milestone moment for P-180. In this first round of parent-teacher conferences this year, I will have a chance to sit down with parents and talk about they who matter most–our kids.

Okay, so I concede that they are not my kids; to be sure, I will be attending my own kids’ conferences at some point in the next days, sitting on the other side of the table, learning about their learning, yearning to see, understand what their teachers experience with them every day–out of my sight. As a parent, I want to know–really know–who my kids are, especially away from home, which, as they get older, is sadly becoming the new norm. And thus it follows that I have to imagine that my students’ parents are seeking the same as they sit down with me tonight. And so, I will share what I see. I will share what I have learned in the first 54 days, when, for an hour a day, they are my kids; they have to be. I care too much for them not to be, and it is that, exactly that, that I hope parents find in me as I visit with them about their kids. I care. Deeply.

But, even then, I know, despite the depth of my dedication, some will still not be comforted by my concern for their kids. It will not be enough. And that makes me sad. In particular, I have gotten pushback from one parent who remains unimpressed and dissatisfied with me and my approach. We have scheduled an appointment for this evening to discuss her concerns. And I will listen. But I will also speak. I believe in what I am doing, and on that I will not compromise. But that does not mean that I will not be flexible in the best interests of her child. I have already offered a personalized, return-to-convention-and-tradition option for her child. Sincerely.

In the end, even if it runs counter to my deepest convictions, I can look past those and do my best to deliver what will work best for each kid. Even in a 180 classroom, one size does not fit all. But I am finding that it is fitting many, so I will stay the course. If nothing else, I hope our conversation reveals that, at the end of the day, we both–in our own way–just care about the kid. I look forward to the meeting. I do not resent the pushback. I ‘d rather have a “pushy” parent than a passive parent. Any day.

Happy Thursday, all.

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