Education Chat

Getting Ready for the New School Year: Advice for Teachers

Jim Burke, author of Letters to a New Teacher: A Month-by-Month Guide to the Year Ahead, and an English teacher at Burlingame High School in California, and Hanne Denney, a career-changer in her second year as a special education and social studies teacher at Arundel High School in Gambrills, Maryland and author of Teacher Magazine's blog, "Ready or Not," answered teachers' questions on preparation for the new school year.

Getting Ready for the New School Year: Advice for Teachers
July 26, 2006

Guests: Jim Burke, author of Letters to a New Teacher: A Month-by-Month Guide to the Year Ahead, and an English teacher at Burlingame High School in California; and Hanne Denney, a career-changer in her second year as a special education and social studies teacher at Arundel High School in Gambrills, Maryland, and the author of Teacher Magazine’s blog, “Ready or Not.”

Rebekah Lewis (Moderator):
Welcome to today’s online chat on how teachers can prepare for the new school year. Both rookie and veteran teachers are looking for ways to start the year off right. What do teachers need to do before the school year begins? What challenges should they expect at the start of the school year, and how can they prepare their classrooms for success? Those and other questions are already waiting to be answered by our guests, so let’s get the discussion started ...

Question from Mark Redfearn, special ed teacher, Lakeland Village Middle School, Lake Elsinore, CA:
What is the single most important thing a teacher can do to prepare for the new school year?

Hanne Denney:
I’m going to answer this question by differentiating between the new teacher and the returning teacher.

The new teacher MUST learn the staff of their school. Learn the names and positions of the faculty, the instructional assistants in your department, the custodial staff, and the administration. It is most important the teacher learn the name of each administrative support person along with his or her responsibilities. Ask your school for a staff roster, and familiarize yourself with the names and title. Then, the first few workdays before school begins, meet as many as possible, shake hands, and associate the names with the faces.

Then, after a couple of weeks have gone by, send notes to those people who have been really helpful to you. Or, send an email of thanks, with a copy to your principal. After my first year of teaching, I gave thank you notes to the secretarial staff. One told me that in all the years she’d been at the school, no one had ever given her such a note. But then I am of the generation that was taught to write thank you notes!

In other words, make friends. When you need help, you’ll get it.

The returning teacher should consider one simple task: reflect on the year(s) past and identify an area for improvement. Too many teachers never reconsider their teaching style or techniques. They complain when something goes wrong but make no effort to make it right. I use a journal to reflect when I feel like writing, or long car drives when I just want to think. Now that I am beginning my third year as a teacher, I have a LOT of areas needing improvement.

The first step to improvement is recognizing that there is something that needs it.

Question from Dr. Ann Benjamin, Assistant Professor, Univ. of MA Lowell:
What mistakes do first year teachers most often make?

Jim Burke:
Important question, Ann. So many teachers---not all, but most---were great students themselves, often coming from families that already have that experience to guide them. Often new teachers arrive thinking their kids are just like they are: love to read poems or do math problems all afternoon, maybe do a little writing on the porch for dessert after dinner, or conduct some late night experiments in the kitchen---just for fun. It’s intrinsic to them: they come to school infected with a curiosity they must ignite not presume to find in their kids. Yeats said that education is a fire not a vessel---or something like that, the idea being that we have an important part to play in helping to kindle that interest. New teachers are often scared when they first find 3 out of 35 kids do the assignment. Those who find within themselves the courage to ask themselves and the kids what went wrong will grow.

Another mistake, understandable in some respects, is that teachers want to be liked, they want the kids to see them as their friend. If you are 21 and just out of college, or even 25 and just starting to teach, it can be devastating to feel a student or a whole class dismiss your work as worthless, asking you “What is the point?” Teaching is so personal: we choose what to offer, how to teach it, and so it is an inevitable extention of ourselves. What new teachers must learn to do is lead, coach, guide, mentor---but not be guided by a desire to be liked, to be friends with the kids they are there to lead, to teach.

One last mistake we all make, but especially new teachers, is not planning well for the class. The lessons we thought (for some reason) would go all period fizzles out after five minutes, the room then filling up with a painful silence filled only with the impatient squeak of shoes on tile as they watch to see how you will get out of this one! I plan carefully, getting that all done before I ever grade papers because the bottom line is that class will come the next day and I will be ready or not. I then try to visualize in some real way what will happen, why I think that will happen, and prepare for alternative outcomes such as ELD/ESL students not quite understanding what I want, or what I will do if the whole class does not engage as I imagined they would.

Question from Becky Sullivan, student, Calvin College:
As a new teacher, what is the best way to proceed with first-day introductions, rules, etc? How do you get the upper hand in the classroom while still impressing on your students that you care and want to be as much of a friend as possible?

Hanne Denney:
Becky, I have to tell you that I began teaching when I was 45 years old. I knew I was too old to be “friends” with the students, and that was a good thing. Most students have all the friends they need, and they are usually having problems with their friends as it is. A teacher can be a colleague in learning, but not a friend.

Since I was an older “new” teacher I was not as concerned about students liking me, or thinking my clothes were cool as the younger new teachers were. Plus, I had an advantage because students assumed I had been around forever. They did not know I was as green as the 22 year-old teacher down the hall.

Your question specifically asks about the first day of school. Harry Wong’s book “The First Days” gives great suggestions. One of my colleagues in school, Dennis Skinner, told me that “Classroom order and procedures are number one because you cannot teach the subject if the class is running wild. Get help fast if you need it.”

So cover procedures and schedules. Let students know, from Day One, how your class will run. Keep your rules to the point, and don’t confuse rules with procedures. Then tell the students something about yourself. Don’t get too personal, but students will relate to you better if they know your background, your family, your interests.

The final piece of advice I can share came from my daughter Katie, who had just graduated from high school when I began teaching. She said, “Remember you can always get nicer, but it’s hard to get mean.” So start out direct and no-nonsense, and let the rope out a little when the class is ready for it.

Most importantly, celebrate the bell at the end of the first day. You’ve become a teacher!

Question from Shane Mueller, student teacher, Woodbury High School:
Mr. Burke- I begin student teaching in the fall. I’ll have two classes of honors English and one class with students who are barely making it, whether due to language barriers, cultural differences, lack of advocacy at home, or general disinterest in school. The curriculum is basically the same for all three classes; do you have any advice or strategies that I might use to keep the honors classes challenged while at the same time helping my other class succeed? (Other than buying your new book, which I intend to do ;^) )

Jim Burke:
Hi Shane:

Great question that captures the inherent complexity of our work, the kind of complexity that makes us feel like we are supposed to be some kind of instructional Swiss Army knife filled with tools and techniques for all scenarios. I just wrote down a quote from Studs Terkel last night that applies: “Never play down to people up to what they could be.” The first thing I discovered when I walked into teach AP Literature last year for the first time, after starting my day with the struggling readers in my ACCESS (Academic Success) class, was that 80% of the AP kids were struggling in their own ways, just at a higher level. I find more often than not that the strategies I use with struggling students work just as well with my advanced students who are instead struggling with Dostoevsky or Shakespeare. At the heart of it, though, is always my belief that they--no matter what level---can do it. Some student teachers were elite English students themselves and can’t imagine that someone wouldn’t just LOVE reading a good long novel. So be willing to learn from your students about what they need: ask them when in doubt and if you can nurture that partnership they will help you succeed since your success will mean theirs. Good luck, Shane. Is that Woodbury, MN? My old Peace Corps buddy Paul Simone is from Woodbury and is a principal around there somewhere... great guy.


Question from Sara Langford, Dir. of Field Experiences, Texas A&M University-Texarkana:
What do you consider to be “must reads” for new teachers or those working with new teachers?

Hanne Denney:
When I began teaching I asked colleagues if they could recommend any books. Now I can recommend several. For new teachers, you can’t beat “The First Days of School” by Harry Wong. This book gives very concrete suggestions for organization, classroom management, and establishing procedures. It is easy to read, can be used in little snippets as you need it, and provides the right amount of inspiration, too.

I also recommend Carol Ann Tomlinson’s books on Differentiated Instruction. I am a special educator, and I believe that both instruction and assessment must be differentiated to meet the needs of all students. A number of other authors have written books on this topic, as well.

Rick Smith wrote “Conscious Classroom Management”, which is especially useful for new educators, although it can help all teachers improve their craft.

This summer I am re-reading books by Jim Burke, and not just because he is participating in this chat with me! His books are concise and creative. The best source for techniques and inspiration.

For experienced educators, the best source of information is the many online newsletters (consider Ed Week and the Council for Exceptional Children, for example). Sign up, and you receive highlights of news stories. You can then follow-up on this articles of interest.

Finally, given that it is summer, after all -- I recommend every teacher finish the summer by reading one special book. Whether it is an old favorite or a new, totally engrossing novel, fiction or non-fiction, every teacher should begin the school year full of enthusiasm for reading!

Question from Waltrina Mullins, Educator/Adjunct Professor, New Haven School District:
Ensuring that cultural diversity is infused and embraced in the classroom learning experience often proves challenging for many instructors, particularly in homogeneous-suburban classroom environs and urban settings. How will you construct your classroom curriculum and resources to address this need?

Jim Burke:
One of the areas of study I learned about recently but have not yet studied (I bought the books!) is a new field called “cultural intelligence.” As you might guess, it has to do with people working well with others from different cultural backgrounds. It has become very popular and influential in the medical/nursing field, for example, where nurses must work with people from very different backgrounds, not all of whom may be comfortable in the institutional or clinical settings. The authors I have heard most about are Ang and (?) whose book is titled, of course, Cultural Intelligence.

I have been to some places in the last few years with rapidly expanding ESL student populations and some teachers find themselves challenged to accept and commit to those students due to personal politics. As I said in a previous response, it all begins with our own commitment to each kid in our classroom and doing what we can to help that person succeed. “Cultural diversity” can mean so many things: tons of kids from Louisiana suddenly in a different city and school district utterly unlike their own surrounded by people very different from those they used to go to school with. When I began teaching we had a large group of Afganistani children arrive, many of whom had not been in school for years due to war. I had a girl last year who wore traditional Muslim clothing and could not sit near boys in class, but I only found this out when I asked her as she was shy. When in doubt, ask. If they are ESL students, seek out additional guidance from the ESL teachers or department: they can provide specific suggestions for students or, in other situations, help with translation to home or the student.

Question from Layla Wright-Contreras, Manager,, WETA Public Broadcasting, Washington, D.C.:
What can teachers do to prepare for having English language learners in their classroom?

Hanne Denney:
Educators as a whole must embrace diversity, whether its linguistic, cultural, or something else. I teach in an area of Maryland which is experiencing growth in population. This growth encompasses many cultures and languages. My school does not have an official ESL program for these students, and my experience is not specific for this need. So I will answer more generally.

I have participated in several professional development opportunities related to diversity. I completed a ten-session “Education that is Multicultural” progam with other teachers. And this week, every morning, I’m taking a “Spanish for Educators” course. I will not know Spanish when I’m done, but I will be able to say a few words and hopefully open the door to students whose English may be limited. If I become more comfortable with multiculturalism, I can be more supportive of those who are also experiencing it.

What can teachers do to prepare for ELL’s in their classroom? Recognize and celebrate diversity, participate in professional development, and seek help from other professionals when needed.

This is a question we should all consider. And school systems must consider how to help teachers prepare for students who are not native English speakers.

Question from Margo Maust Jantzi:
We have such a wide variety of learning levels in our classrooms. What new ideas are available for quick and easy differentiation with my students? My gifted learners are so often not learning at their appropriate level and I don’t want to neglect any of my students’ learning potential.

Jim Burke:
I often try to use a variety of configurations to address this need. At my school, for example, the AP classes are now open to ANYONE who wants to take them, something I support but which has presented challenges but good results.

One example of what I am talking about would go like this: have them all read a text on their own and do some initial work (e.g., respond to the text, annotate it, generate some words to describe the tone or character, perhaps complete a graphic organizer on it). Then, having finished that individual work at their level of ability (thus allowing me to circulate around to the struggling students and monitor others’ performance while also allowing the advanced kids to go all out on their own at their level), I might have them move into pairs or groups to discuss what they did, what they said, using their own individual work to guide their discussion. Their job in the groups will be to agree on some content---whatever is appropriate to the assignment, such as choose the BEST word to describe the character---which they can then bring back to the full class. We will then have a full class discussion during which I can ask them how they arrived at that answer or why they think that. This gives room for the brilliant ideas and room for the discussion about how they arrived at them (metacognitive reflection) or how others responded to the test.

It also allows them to use different modes, one of which might benefit some kids more than others but in the end help all succeed: read, write, discuss.

Question from Teri Banas, job seeker, hoping to find a position as a high school English teacher this fall.:
I made a career change to education after an 18-year career as a newspaper reporter. I completed my internship at a local inner-city school and have been in the job market this summer. Michigan’s employment climate is challenging for teachers and other professions, but I’m still hopeful. How can I prepare for the classroom now even though I do not yet have a classroom assignment? Regards, Teri

Hanne Denney:
I think you are preparing because you already see yourself as a professional educator. When you join professional forums (such as this discussion) you are gaining knowledge. Keep reading educational journals, follow new research, and attend any conferences or training programs available to you. Join associations.

Consider what you would do if you had a classroom this fall. Can you outline your procedures? Design wall posters or learning centers? Create graphic organizers? If you do this now, you can share it when you have an interview for a position. You’ll appear professional and prepared. Add these items to your portfolio.

If you are certified for certain subjects and grades, call the school (or check the curriculum online if available) and read the required books. Study the past state assessment exams if they are public, so you understand how students are being assessed.

You should also consider volunteering at a school. Most schools can use some volunteers to help set up rooms, make bulletin boards, distribute textbooks. This way you can meet teachers and talk about how they are setting up their classrooms. Ask the teachers you work with to introduce you to their principal.

Good luck with the job hunt! I believe career-changers have something special to offer the education community.

Question from Karen Singer, Teacher, Herndon HS:
What is the BEST use of class time that first day in your opinion? (I’m particularly interested in high school level)Expectations/Procedures/Curriculum Overview? Review? Learning something new?

Jim Burke:
This is all I have been thinking about the last few days and, for me, it all comes down to one question: What do I want them to feel and think when they leave my class that first day? Other questions follow: How can I achieve this feeling? What do I want them to end the first week thinking about my class? Other things arise, too: What do I need to accomplish that first day, first week? Top of my list is their names: it helps me settle down, shows them I am committed to them and getting to know who they are. KIds are very relational: I’m not saying I am busy trying to be their friend. In his book about Lincoln on Leadership, Donald Philips examined LIncoln and asked what it was that made him so effective as a leader. First thing, top lesson: “Get out among the troops.” In other words, Lincoln didn’t create distance between himself and those he led; intead, he bridged it, going right to the front, into the trenches. Same with the explorer Ernest Shakleton. In that first day and week you are essentially trying to establish your own credibility as a teacher and practitioner of the subject you teach; to assess what they know and need to learn; to create a rapport with them so they will respect and follow you where you intend to lead them the rest of the year. If you can achieve some laughter that first day it will go a long way. In my AP class, I want them to leave that first day having felt challenged by Yeats’s “Second Coming” but having seen what I can do with it, so they show what they know and use that poem to build community in the class by gathering around it to talk about it. Everyone else will be talking about syllabi, so let that go in your class that will engage. In ACCESS, my job for those struggling students is to ASAP help them understand that I am completely committed to their success and will offer thigns in here to help them achieve it, so I will begin with a slide show of last year’s “digital yearbook” that shows what we did all year and they will leave feeling/thinking, “Hey, this is cool. That class is going to really help me out !”

Comment from Dan Otter, author of Teach and Retire Rich and operator of
I was a recent host of an edweek online chat []on retirement issues facing teachers and wanted to remind new and veteran teachers that while the beginning of the school year is very busy (I know this first hand!) it is also an important time to address retirement issues. I encourage all school employees to:

1. Contribute to a 403(b) if you do not already. Only two in five teachers contribute—be one of those two. 2. If you already participate in a 403(b) consider increasing your monthly contribution. 3. Be sure you are invested in a quality, low-cost investment product. Many 403(b) products are extremely high cost and this can really eat into returns. Also be sure your investments are properly allocated for your risk level and age. Consider a target date retirement mutual fund which automatically allocates and adjusts your investments based on how long until you retire. 4. See if employer offers disability insurance. If they do consider getting this type of insurance. If they do not you can get disability insurance quotes from insurance tracker

Question from Sharon Powell, Teacher Trainable Mentally Impaired:
What are some strategies that are available to use in a classroom with students that have various impairments and are functioning on low and middle level? eg. communication deficiences, autism, and dyslexia.

Hanne Denney:
I am a special educator, and I have had students with learning disabilities, autism, Tourette’s, emotional disturbance, AD/HD, visual impairments, bipolar syndrome, mental retardation, and hearing challenges in my classroom. I believe each one benefitted from being in my class, but I acknowledge that not all students learned all the same information. Not all students were successful. So I am committed to improving my skills in differentiation this year.

I am happy to share some strategies that I find work with most students. General education students (those without IEP’s) may also benefit from these strategies. I teach high school, but many of these techniques can be applied to lower grade levels.

1. Speak slowly. Look at the students to gauge comprehension. Ask them for response (thumbs up/down) to check. Repeat often, even if you think they understand. Break down instructions into smaller steps.

2. Model. Let students see you doing the task you are assigning. When I give my English students a journal writing task, I write a response in my journal. If I want to share an organizational technique (e.g. literature web or history outline) I do it first on display.

3. Provide copies of materials to students. If I want them to take notes, I have them write from my lecture or from the reading. I provide copies to students who write slowly, or have trouble seeing a board, or who struggle to listen and concentrate. Any student who wants a copy can have it after they are done writing to check their work. Let parents know you provide these copies, and they can help child review at home.

4. Provide vocabulary lists for students who may not know all the words we think they should know. Keep a running word wall. Point to the words on the wall when you use them.

5. Use illustrations. Use maps to show troop movements in wartime, use art to teach mood in literature. Have students draw. Teach the use of graphic organizers.

6. Use manipulatives. Whenever possible, add something that students can handle to the lesson. Have them use flashcards, build castles with blocks, show battlefields with action figures. Have students use highlighters on their papers.

7. Engage students’ need to move - use kinesthetic teaching techniques. Get students up and writing on blackboards, moving between centers, demonstrating how something is done. Don’t be afraid to let students out of their seats. 8. Take risks. I’ll let students see my drawings, or hear me sing. It’s not pretty. But it lets students know I am human and willing to open myself to review. When students take risk by sharing their writing or telling a story, applaud them.

9. Seek professional expertise if you don’t have it. Find out if additional resources are available to you. Our media center has a growing professional library of resources for teachers. And the district office has resource people who can help.

10. Talk to the parents/guardians of the student. Often they can give very specific ideas on what works and what doesn’t with the student.

So this is my top ten list of strategies for teachers of students with special needs. Thanks for asking the question. I still ask people this question, because I am always gathering new information and techniques.

Question from Suzanne Forman, Teacher, North Kansas City Schools:
Which is more important: the needs of your students or the curriculum?

Jim Burke:
I can’t divide them except in extreme situations. When Mikey drove his car into a freeway pillar at 90 mph at the end of the year a few years ago, tending to the sudden grieving students was paramount. When an individual shows sudden rapid weight loss, her personal well-being is foremost on my mind so I go to her counselor and ask her to meet with the girl, because I have to move ahead. Otherwise, the curriculum we are teaching should meet their needs more often than not: If it doesn’t then we are not asking ourselves the important questions when we decide what we will teach or how they will learn what we teach. You and I read, for example, for personal reasons but reasons that matter to us. We must make room in our classes for such connection, such engagement. So, for example, I chose to teach the novel “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin last year to seniors because it was appropriate to the curriculum and met my instructional goals but more to the point the book allowed us/them to look deeply at some issues of independence (awakening to the realization that they are becoming adults, differnet people than they have been).

Question from Michelle Jardin,Teacher,Manhattan Place Elementary(LAUSD):
I am beginning my second year as a teacher. One of the areas that challenged me was community building. As I begin my new year, what do you suggest as first day/week activities that truly builds class community.

Hanne Denney:
I love your use of the term “community” in regards to your class. I feel it is important to create a classroom culture, and “community” is evidence of that culture. I want my students to feel the classroom is “our house”. So I ask them for suggestions on how to set up our house. Do they like music playing while they work? Do they want to move desks closer when doing group work? Will they promise to use the trashcan and follow the house rules? Would they like a class fish? or plants?

The best way to build community to create a sense of appreciation for all its members. So if a student contributes to class in the first few days be sure to acknowledge it. Use thank you and please. Encourage students to applaud each other. Post student work on the board. Call home and tell parents you’re glad student is in your class. Have a student open house after school if they can stay, just to visit with them. Greet your students in the hall. I asked a different student to pass journals out each day, so everyone had a chance to learn names. I spoke positively about my students with other teachers, so students would know I was proud to be working with them. I want my students to feel like I am their teacher all the time, not just during one class period. They are my people.

Question from Pati Johnson, Teacher, Hacienda La Puente Unified School District:
I am slated to teach a 1st/2nd grade combo class. How can I best set up for the combination and how can I best make sure I cover necessary curriculum for both grade levels?

Jim Burke:
You are asking a high school teacher a question I can better answer as a parent of a boy (my middle son, Whitman) who was in a 4/5 combo. THe image that comes to mind is the peformer who has those long poles on their chin and forehead and nose with spinning plates on the end, doing it all at the same time without dropping any of them!

Whit’s teacher, who was a new teacher, tended to favor the 4th grade curriculum and often struggled to get to the 5th grade kids. I might suggest getting one group going in a literature circle/discussion group at their level (or some other appropriate activity) that will challenge and engage, thus freeing you up to meet with the other group. The key is engagement: if one group feels like you are favoring the other and thus leaving them waiting on the side of the road it will bog down. As Homer said, in all things balance is best. Obviously some things, like reading aloud, work with all.

Good luck!

Question from patricia eddings, special ed teacher, chicago public schools:
I am looking for a get to know you activity for my special education students. They are 6th and 7th graders.

Hanne Denney:
Special Education students often are very aware of what they cannot do well. My suggestion is to focus on what they CAN do well. Create a “Success Board” and ask students to write (or illustrate) something they do well, or something they have accomplished. Ideas include sports, music, caring for younger children, helping friends, math, etc. If a student is struggling to identify something, call home discreetly and ask parents for suggestions. You’ll learn about your students, and they’ll learn about each other. You can use this information all year.

You can also use a identity bingo game. Create a board with categories. Have students circulate and ask each other questions to place a name in each block. Possible categories: who speaks another language at home, who is good at math, who can finish sudoku puzzles, who skateboards, who has more than three siblings, who has been to Mexico. Make sure there is something you can answer for yourself. Play the game with the students.

For an opening homework activity, ask students to find out the origin of their name. Is their first name from a famous person? A family friend? Is the odd middle name from a grandparent? What does the last name tell you about the family’s background and heritage? Ask students to share the following day. See if they can categorize their answers. You’re learning about the students, they are getting to know each other, and they are discovering something about themselves as well.

Question from Scott Siemon, Teacher Treasure Mountain International School:
With the technology available today, student’s and parent’s anticipate seeing assignments and projects outlined in advance and available on a teacher’s website. Administrators are emphasizing detailed curriculum maps for the entire school year. How much time during the summer is a new, or relatively new teacher expected to put into planning lessons and curriculum maps for the upcoming year?

Jim Burke:
First, a plug for the program we use at my school: SchoolLoop ( I love it as it allows me to communicate as I have never done before to both students and parents about what we are doing or other related issues. Very easy and quick to use. Check out the demo at their website.

By “how much time is a teacher expected” do you mean a. is appropriate/reasonable (to the teacher, i.e., in the eyes of the profession) or b. is expected by administrators (which is then, in the eyes of the union, uncompensated time)?

THe point is that you want to show up that first week ready. I try to get the first six weeks sketched out. What do I mean by “sketched”? In my Teacher’s Daybook (a planner I created for myself and other teachers which you can see at I just make brief penciled notes like “Hamlet October,” “ANtigone November,” or whatever, then plan carefully for the first few weeks so I am ready but flexible since you need to get to know your kids first. YOu can’t, to borrow a culinary metaphor, prepare a whole meal during the summer months only to arrive at school and learn that you have a whole class of vegetarians. So I use a lot of that first week to get to them them as kids and as students.

Question from Hope Cotton, Teacher, Macon Middle School:
I was hired this week as a lateral entry teacher for 8th Grade Science. What is the one thing that is most important for me as a teacher with no classroom or education experience to know before school begins?

Hanne Denney:
Congratulations on your new job! the single most important thing for you to know is that teachers make a difference in the lives of every child they meet. Whether you are a new or returning teacher, and regardless of the classroom setting, the child will learn because you offer an educational opportunity. Start every day thinking about the opportunity YOU have to give an opportunity to students. And to be more practical, my advice is to know when you need help. The professional community in my school is fantastic, and I would not have been as successful if I did not have the support of others. Ask for help and take it when offered! Good luck, and welcome to our community. By the end of September you will be an experienced teacher.

Question from Paul J. Smith, Ed.D., Facilitator, Accelerated Learning Center, Little Rock School District:
What can veteran teachers do to help new teachers?

Jim Burke:
Watch them, take an interest in them, make sure they have what they need, know where things are, get to know the teachers (like yourself) who will be good for them to know. Example: we have a new teacher coming in this year who has never taught high school. She has three preps at a new school at three different levels (advanced, CP, and a section of Reading). She’s probably about 24. She won’t know anyone. She won’t know the copy codes. She won’t know what she can ad can’t get away with. She won’t know who will support and who will undermine her. She will have classes of 35 kids. So the best thing I can do is to immediately establish myself as someone she can turn to (at school, at home, by phone or email or in the hall or in our rooms) for help when she needs info, guidance, support, a laugh. Schools can be SO alienating: everyone comes , goes behind their doors, and works away.

Question from Kathleen Petty, Teacher at Petty Elemetary:
What is the most challenging thing about starting a new school year? Mentally? Organizationally? Classroom Mangagement wise? What can we do as teachers to better prepare and make the most time out of the time we have? How can a teacher keep up to date on the cutting edge of the education world and still have time for family, staying organized in your career, and having a life outside of school?

How can one involve parents more when involvement seems like climbing Mount Everest?

What is your feelings about grading papers while students are on task doing the assignment that was given?

Hanne Denney:
Last question first. I took a great workshop that addressed grading. I am learning that assessment is not always grading. I “grade” students on whether or not they have mastered my lesson objective in lots of ways. Sometimes I assess students verbally. If I ask for a theme statement, and a student says one correctly, then I can mark that they have achieved that objective, and consider it a grade. My teaching style is very direct, so I don’t often have time during class to sit down and grade work. However, I will “conference” with students during independent work time to discuss improvement and provide appropriate guidance. I have learned that not every paper turned in has to be graded. I try to get all work graded in school, so I am not carrying papers back and forth. Your question about family is huge, and worth a discussion in itself, because families provide a lot of support for teachers. We all take planning work home, and talk about our jobs all the time. But it is critical to schedule “non-teaching” time. I play golf sometimes with my husband, or watch a movie, and consciously choose to abandon my job for those hours. My school is developing stronger ways to involve parents of students by using email lists. Many teachers create class mailing lists so parents remain informed. Of course a lot of homes do not have internet access, so teachers still rely on phone calls and notes home. I am determined to improve parent communication this year. I’m starting early, hopefully by making phone contact with some of the parents before the year begins. My bigget challenge is organization. I have asked a lot of teachers for tips, and I am much more organized in my third year than I was in my first. My advice there is to listen to other people’s advice! Finally, I’ll answer the question about staying current in the field. Ben Seidenstein, a NASA Teacher Ambassador and Arundel High School teacher, told me that the best thing teachers can do in the summer is to “get as much enrichment as possible”. We need to keep our brains fresh, and challenged, by learning new things every year. Remember that we love education because we love to learn!

Question from Jesse Ynclan, Teacher, looking for work:
Since lesson planning is impacted by the students, what is a good way to prepare for the upcoming school year: write plans and modify later? have multiple lessons for the same topic to introduce? etc.?

Jim Burke:
I think I addressed this pretty much in a previous note about how much to plan during the summer. THe people who freak me out are those colleagues who are getting things run off in late May for the coming year!

Question from Jessica Meyer, student teacher:
I am doing student teaching in the fall with a kindergarten class. What sorts of things should I be doing to prepare?

Jim Burke:
You need to learn about the needs of the kids you will teach and how to structure their day so it will create a wonderful experience with school. No pressure! My wonderful daughter Nora just finished first grade and her K teacher was very committed to having fun but also initiating them into the culture of school and how it works. WHen in doubt, ask what areas of the curriculum worry you most and spend your time studying those. I try to have one things every year as my new area of learning, something I need to improve. Last year it was class discussion and using it to create deeper understanding of what we read. This year...hmmmm, I haven’t chosen yet. Oh, yes, I did: I want to learn more about rhetoric and art and incorporate those into my class regularly and in more effective ways. The other thing you can do, of course, is read read read all sorts of kids books to find books you want to bring in to your class.

Question from Dedra - SDC Social Studies, Santa Paula High School:
How does one get everything organized and stay organized throughout the school year? I’m mainly interested in lesson plans, grading papers, keeping good records, IEP’s, staff notes, paraeducator info, etc.

Hanne Denney:
This is the question most asked by new teachers. Most of us found ourselves swamped that first year. Who knew there would be so much paper in this age of technology? I’ll pass on some strategies to try. Colorcode -- all papers for one class are in same colors. Don’t ask me why, but last year World Civilization was purple, US History was red, and English 9 was yellow. Regular folders for the day’s lesson, larger folder for papers to grade and papers to return. Matching colored binder for planning materials. If you’re a special educator, you have the additional paperwork of case management. I set up a binder for my caseload, with a divider for each student. I keep all paperwork concerning that student in that location. If you do not have a classroom, but rotate to others, organization is even more important. I use crates and hanging folders which can be placed on carts or stuck under other teacher’s desks as needed. My best organizational tip is to keep a small notebook at all times. Write down anything you need to do or remember. Don’t trust yourself to remember. And find out who the really organized teachers in your school are (your principal knows, I’m sure) and ask them to show you how it’s done. I admit organization is not my best trait, but I am learning! You are not alone in worrying about it! This is a good topic to reflect on in the summer.

Question from Jim Stoltzfus, Kindergarten teacher, Bellevue Children’s Academy:
I am a first time teacher, male, age 42, leading a Kindergarten class. How do I establish an orderly room from day one? Tough approach? Friendly approach? Dive into academics? List three main rules?

Jim Burke:
I would refer you to the previous posting to another kindergarten teacher, Jim. Tough? It’s kindergarten! Many kids will never have spent a day away from home all day with another adult---they need you to be full of empathy, enthusiasm, encouragement. You want them going home that first day and saying, “I love school! Mr. S is awesome. We learned about x, y, and z and I got to do a, b, and c.”

Question from Rebecca Lawson, health teacher, Sullivan Middle School:
1. What are some good free resources to use to help teachers know the learning styles of their students?

2. What are some health initiatives in place in schools? (both to improve student health and staff health)

Hanne Denney:
I have learned more about learning styles this year. There are a lot of resources in print and online on this subject. I found an online inventory which I used with my students so they could learn their learning style. I’m sorry I can’t provide a reference for it, but I’m sure you can find something. Just make sure it is appropriate for your students. It is really helpful to know your students in this way so you can differentiate learning for them. About health initiatives -- the Board of Education for Anne Arundel County, MD (my home) just put in place new rules banning junk food in schools. Although I don’t know all the details, teachers are specifically forbidden from using food as a reward (e.g. candy and doughnuts). Staff health is not something I’ve seen addressed directly, although we have had some weight-loss support efforts in my school. I would love to see a meditation or stress-relief class for teachers!

Question from Rebecca Jordan teacher, Stewart Elementary Lubbock, Texas:
I am a now a fifth grade math teacher coming from 1st grade and I am concerned that the classroom management skills I have acquired to use with first graders will not work with fifth graders, what should I do to become better prepared?

Jim Burke:
I would ask to meet with other fifth grade teachers, especially those whose style is most similar to your own. Ask them what the issues are, especially at your school, and how they deal with them. Fifth grade is a big year but when it gets down to it they will respond to you well if you show them the respect and commitment you yourself would want from others. My older son had a rough year in fifth because she had a tendency to punish the whole class for one kids’ mistake and so she earned their enmity instead of their love and respect.

Question from Carla Monroe, Research Scientist, UGA:
What advice do you have concerning student discipline and classroom management?

Hanne Denney:
I work with teenagers now, but I worked in childcare with children aged 2 months - 13 years. So I am experienced! I think of classroom management as a factor of organization and procedure. If students know what to do, and how it is done, their behavior is appropriate. But we should also think of it as a factor of community. When I raised my two children I told them they earned privileges of the family by taking on the responsibilities of the family. So, if they wanted to go to a family movie night, they had to help do the Saturday chores. Same thing in the classroom. If you can participate responsibly, you can get the benefits and rewards. If you can’t be part of the group, you have to leave. As a teacher you must know your school policies, and know which issues are dealt with in-house and which require the intervention of administration. I tell my students I like to take care of things inside my walls, but they know which things must be taken care of “outside”, and that’s outside my control. We use PBIS (positive behavior intervention strategies)which provides for support for student compliance. I like the program, and it works well with special education students. I like whole-school programs for discipline and motivation. I have used detentions for students who break class rules. I have them serve the detention with me, because it gives me a chance to meet with the student outside the classroom and get to know them better. I can provide extra help if they need it, or chat with them. I might also make the student assume “family responsibilities” such as washing the blackboard. The detention can be a positive shared experience, believe it or not. Lots of good books and articles on this subject -- but trust your intuition and use what works for you and your students.

Question from Jennifer Gwilt, Math/Biology Teacher, Lake Orion High School:
Do you have any tips for organizing a travelling teachers cart? (Besides worksheets, textbooks, etc., I have a large carrying case of graphing calculators, regular calculators and supply boxes for 10 groups. These all need to travel to all the rooms I am in during the day)

Jim Burke:
Ha! I had to teach in five rooms one year! First, if possible, look at a supply catalog for teachers, a good one, and see all the types of carts there are. IF your school has money to set you up, demand the one you need in the name of both efficiency, security (of equipment, materials) and your own health (the weight adds up as does the strain). In other situations be willing to make duplicate sets of copies so you won’t have to carry them. Insist on a second set of textbook in the other rooms. The amount you are suggesting you might have to lug raises work conditions issues: if you are pushing around 100 lbs of stuff (or even 50!) talk to the union rep.

Question from John Seelke, University of Maryland CP:
What best strategy can you provide for teachers to learn student names as fast as possible?

Jim Burke:
I go with the good ol’ alphabetical order to start with. That way I can get their names days before school starts and start working on them, can visually mark off the A section, etc. After that, as other needs arise, I can reshuffle. My goal, no matter how many kids I teach each year, is to know them all by Friday.

Question from Maxine Cann,Teacher,Lifeskills centers delray beach florida:
Would it be a good idea to conduct assessments on your students as soon as they start the term in order to have an idea of what you are working with?

Hanne Denney:
I need to assess my students to know what their current skills are, but I do so informally. I ask them to write, read aloud, conference with them, discuss an interest, etc. I want to get a good picture of the student’s abilities. I will read files for my IEP students. I have not used a formal assessment tool in the beginning of the year, but I have considered using a reading assessment. Just because a student has reached high school does not mean he has high school skills.

Question from Elizabeth Keyes, Student, Texas Tech University:
What is the best way to get the “quiet” child more involved on the first day and break that cycle of non-participation?

Jim Burke:
It begins by learning why they are quiet. On the first day you won’t know. YOu won’t even know who is quiet yet. Still, the point is to facilitate participation by anticipating why they wouldn’t and then preparing to counter that. I happen to have had an article open on another screen of my computer on a new study about class participation. Go to (Teacher’s College Review) for the full article. Here is the synopsis:

Motivational Influences on Student Participation in Classroom Learning Activities

by Julianne Turner & Helen Patrick — 2004

This study examined how one type of student work habit - classroom participation - is related to a combination of both student factors (math achievement, personal achievement goals, perceptions of classroom goal structures, and teacher support) and features of the classroom context (teachers’ instructional practices, average perceptions of classroom goal structures). We focused on the participation of two students in mathematics class during both sixth and seventh grades. Differential teacher expectations, calling patterns, and instructional and motivational support and nonsupport interacted with beliefs and behaviors of both students, and those interactions were associated with different patterns of participation each year. Results suggest that student participation is malleable rather than stable and emphasize the potential of teacher practices to both support and undermine the development of student work habits.

This study examined how one type of student work habit—classroom participation—is related to a combination of both student factors (math achievement, personal achievement goals, perceptions of classroom goal structures, and teacher support) and features of the classroom context (teachers’ instructional practices, average perceptions of classroom goal structures). We focused on the participation of two students in mathematics class during both sixth and seventh grades. Differential teacher expectations, calling patterns, and instructional and motivational support and nonsupport interacted with beliefs and behaviors of both students, and those interactions were associated with different patterns of participation each year. Results suggest that student participation is malleable rather than stable and emphasize the potential of teacher practices to both support and undermine the development of student work habits.

How do students develop positive work habits in school? Popular notions tend to focus on one of two responses: One explanation is that some students are naturally motivated to learn and that they are the ones who succeed. Those who aren’t smart or motivated (of whom there are many) will not be successful achievers. Another explanation is that there are ‘‘good’’ and ‘‘bad’’ teachers. Parents in the know jockey to place their children in the good teachers’ classrooms, assured that work habits and achievement will follow. Fortunately or unfortunately, the situation is much more complex than these beliefs imply. Work habits, like other behaviors, arise from the interaction of both characteristics of students and of the learning environment.

Our research focused on studying teachers and students in classrooms to better understand the complex interactions that support student learning and learning-related beliefs and behaviors. In fact, learning outcomes are usually not straightforward. For example, it happens that even ‘‘smart’’ students don’t always develop productive work habits, while students with lower achievement often do. We have observed that even good teachers may inadvertently fail to engage some students but may help others to develop strong motivation to learn and positive work habits.

In this study we describe and analyze the joint contributions of both student characteristics and teacher instruction to the development of an important student work habit—participation in classroom learning activities. Participation is both a productive work habit, likely to contribute to learning, as well as evidence of student motivation to learn. We argue that neither teacher behavior nor student characteristics can adequately account for students’ participation but rather that students’ behavior is a unique outcome of the interaction between these two factors. Specifically, we analyze the participation of two students in their sixth and seventh grade mathematics classes. We demonstrate how different interaction patterns in each class were related to changing patterns of participation for both students. We conclude with a discussion of the necessity of considering person-environment relationships and instructional practices if we are to better understand how to foster productive student motivation and work habits.

Question from Lauren Goebertus, St. Peter Claver, Georgia:
Helllo! I am a new teacher who will be in a second grade classroom this fall. I feel very well prepared in terms of my teacher education, yet those voices of experience are always there to be listened there some advice that you would determine as critical to those of us walking into our first classrooms as new to the profession? Thank you, Lauren

Hanne Denney:
Trust the knowledge you’ve gained from your teacher education program, and recognize those things you do not know. Remember your education will continue, every day. Remind yourself of why you are in this profession, and be grateful for the opportunity to share in the life of these children. Be strong, allow yourself some downtime, and don’t dwell on things that went wrong. Just figure out how to avoid the same error later. Have fun and be joyous every day!

Question from Suzanne Forman, Teacheer, North Kansas City Schools:
When planning, how important is it that you are matched unit for unit, day by day, with other teachers in your department?

Jim Burke:
What is more important is that you meet your students’ needs not your colleagues’ pace. Plan together, collaborate, learn from each other, but move at the pace appropriate to your students. YOu might have a bunch of kids with different needs than your colleagues. One year I taught five sections of sophomore English. THe last two periods had an abundance of ESL and Special Ed students so even though I moved in step, I would say it was more recurrsive, looping back in those last two periods, setting aside things we did in 1-4 to go deeper in 5 and 6. Here, without much context, are the nine strategies from Reading Next: A Vision of Literacy Instruction for High School ( think!):

Provide direct, explicit comprehension instruction. Embed effective instructional principles Motivation and self-directed learning Text-based collaborative learning Strategic tutoring Diverse texts Intensive writing A technology component Ongoing formative assessment of students

Question from Kamisha Vanarsdale, Teacher, Life Skills Center -Atlantic:
What is the best way to motivate students who do not want to stay on task with their assignments? (I work with alternative education students) This is only my 3rd month

Hanne Denney:
Motivation is so individual I can’t give you a definative answer. You have to figure out what motives each child, individually. Some are motivated by public praise, some by private congratulations. Very few children are motivated by threat, although adults still try to use this technique too often. The best motivation is letting the child see how taking charge of their education help them get anywhere they want to go. I like to tell students, “It’s your life, if you want to own it.” Finding the motivation is a challenge, but when you do, that child is ready to learn. Alternative education has its own challenges, but it has very special rewards, too.

Question from Tamika McGee, Student, University of Tennessee:
I am about to start my internship (student-teaching) in the fall at a local middle school. I have observed numerous classes in both the middle and high school setting, but haven’t really gotten much out of those experiences. What can I do as an intern to make the most out of the upcoming school year? What should I pay attention to in order for this to be as beneficial an experience as I know it can be?

Jim Burke:
Hi Tamika,

My guess is that you didn’t see in those teachers you observed the kind of teacher you want to be. Am I right? My suggestion, based on this assumption, is that you find at your school the colleague(s) you admire as teachers and ask to meet with and observe them. Seek them out as informal mentors. Your school might assign you a new teacher mentor/guide, which is great; all the better if that person is someone you respect. Still, don’t be afraid to find the mentor you need--at your school, in a book, or even in a differnet department. Good luck!

Question from Cathy Smith, Student teacher, Dubuque, Ia:
What are essential items to have before you start in the classroom? How much is a reasonable amount to spent on classroom supplies?

Hanne Denney:
I have a daughter in college so I try not to spend much on classroom supplies. Right now, though, I’m scanning all the adds to see who is selling pencils for the least amount of money! Our school system provided a $100 reimbursement to teachers last year, but we have not been offered the same amount this year. I try to purchase those things that will improve my day-to-day functioning as a teacher. Tools to keep me organized (crates, colored files, etc), strong magnets for the blackboard, and enough pencils to cover students who don’t have one. I also use lots of sticky notes in different colors and sizes. My one essential tool has been a portable CD player, because I use music in a lot of ways in all my classes. Since I own one, I don’t have to find one when I need it. It’s made my life better. Buy only what you can really afford and which will make your life better.

Question from Brenda DeLaTorre, Teacher, Vernon School; District:
Our main problem seems to be the lack of independent practice (homework) completed. As a consequence, skills and strategies are not learned. What are some incentives teachers use to ensure the completion of this practice.

Jim Burke:
There was a brilliant article in a past Educational Leadership by Linda Darling Hammond titled “If Only They Would Do Their Work!” which began by asking why kids don’t. The points that I took from that article were to assign work that mattered and would serve some purpose the next day besides merely getting a grade on it. AN example would be, Read X tonight and come in prepared to do Y with that info. This increases accountablity and completion because they then run the risk of losing twice: on the HW and the inclass work based on it. A brutal question is to ask if you would want to do what you are asking them to do. Also, we need to ask sometimes how long does it really take to do what we think will take only a few minutes for HW. Sometime we know the work so well we think, Oh it will only take twenty minutes to do that---but it took them two hours. And then, perhaps, a teacher didn’t collect it or didn’t put it to any use, so the student feels discouraged, as if they did that all for nothing. Of course virtue is its own reward...but we are talking about kids here!

Question from Leslie Marcus, Elementary Science Lab Teacher, Alexandria City Public Schools:
I was just hired this summer as a science lab teacher in an urban elementary school. I am the first science teacher ever in this school and will have all grades, k-5. I am a first year teacher as well and have no idea what to expect. What kinds of basic supplies should I insure my school has at the start of the year? What should I do the first day/week with my students? I plan to adapt lessons to k-1, 2-3, and 4-5.

Hanne Denney:
I hope we’ve answered some of your questions in this discussion. Since you are the first science teacher EVER in this school, I would visit other schools in your district and find out what they use for materials and supplies. Then you should study your curriculum, and plan accordingly. Good luck!

Question from Suzanne Forman, Teacher, North Kansas City Schools:
How much planning should be done before actually meeting your students and assessing their needs and abilities?

Jim Burke:
An important question I think I addressed pretty thoroughly in a couple previous responses, Suzanne. That said, will add that I plan very carefully and always with the end in mind and how one thing relates to the next and why I should so that then. I think of a course as an “instructional narrative,” which challenges me to ask, as a writer might, what the “story” needs at any given point as we roll toward the happy ending we all seek for our student and ourselves. This narrative approach also allows me to realize, for example, that we have been doing the same thing over and over and all stories need change, tension, conflict, energy!

Hanne Denney:
It has been such a pleasure to learn that all teachers have the same concerns! I have enjoyed the discussion very much. Best wishes for a rewarding New School Year!

Jim Burke:
As I read through questions that everyone is asking, as well as our responses, I see some common ground that calls to mind one of the letters I wrote to Joy, the new teacher with whom I shared my room and to whom I wrote the letters in “Letters to a New Teacher.” I thought I would cut and paste the original letter here.

Question 13: How can I be use what I learned from the fall semester to be a better teacher in the spring?

Dear Joy: And so we arrive at the end of the first semester, the journey not done, but half gone, and giving us both the chance to learn from all that’s happened along the way. I was reminded of the importance learning, of not only setting and having but reflecting on goals yesterday while reading a paper I had never seen: Investor’s Business Daily. They have this incredible page every day that is devoted to “Leaders and Success,” and offers “Wisdom to Live By.” They lead with their “Ten Secrets to Success,” a list that has evolved after spending “years analyzing leaders and successful people in all walks of life.” They argue that “most [leaders and successful people] have ten traits that, when combined, can turn dreams into reality.” Here are the ten “secrets”: 1 HOW YOU THINK IS EVERYTHING: Always be positive. Think success, not failure. Beware of a negative environment. 2 DECIDE UPON YOUR TRUE DREAMS AND GOALS: Write down your specific goals and develop a plan to reach them. 3 TAKE ACTION: Goals are nothing without action. Don’t be afraid to get started. Just do it. 4 NEVER STOP LEARNING: Go back to school or read books. Get training and acquire skills. 5 BE PERSISTENT AND WORK HARD: Success is a marathon, not a sprint. Never give up. 6 LEARN TO ANALYZE DETAILS: Get all the facts, all the input. Learn from your mistakes. 7 FOCUS YOUR TIME AND MONEY: Don’t let other people or things distract you. 8 DON’T BE AFRAID TO INNOVATE; BE DIFFERENT: Following the herd is a sure way to mediocrity. 9 DEAL AND COMMUNICATE WITH PEOPLE EFFECTIVELY: No person is an island. Learn to understand and motivate others. 10 BE HONEST AND DEPENDABLE; TAKE RESPONSIBILITY: otherwise, Nos. 1-9 won’t matter.1

What impresses me most is that one can learn to succeed, that we can revise our story of failure into one of success for we are the authors of our days. As an English teacher I tend to think in stories: How it begins, who the players are, what themes I want to run through my story, and so on. To prepare the kids for finals, I created a tool called the Character Arc tool (included below). This is a graphic representation of a fairly old idea: a character changes over the course of a story. I thought you might find this useful as a tool for teaching but also for reflecting on this first semester. I did this the other day in class with the kids, for I had them first use it to reflect on where they were as freshmen four years ago and now as seniors. All along the arc you must note those events or experiences that lead to the “End” words. It gave me a sense of movement––from where I was in August as an AP English teacher (inexperienced, intimidated, inexperienced/novice, freshman honors teacher, student) to where I am now in January (engaged, assured, committed/guide, partner (with Elaine Caret), AP teacher. I found it strangely helpful to list the events of the last semester that had lead to these changes. I encourage you to do it yourself during the break between the semesters.

It is so easy, too easy, in fact, to look back on the semester and cringe before the mirror that shows what we would rather not see. It is painful to learn in public as we both inevitably did these last five months. As it happens, there was an article yesterday in that same Investor’s Business Daily edition, about taming our “inner critic,” something that often seems to give you trouble. Here is the opening: Criticism. It can be helpful in teasing out problems with products or ideas. Or, it can snag great thoughts long before they rise to the surface. How do you manage it? The most successful people learn how to retain valuable critiques as they edit criticism that keeps innovative ideas from blossoming. Learn how to dance with the critics––especially the imaginary ones that bound around in your skull––and you’ll be more likely to come up with some new approaches that work even better than the ones you’re using right now.2 As I mentioned today when we met for lunch, I had some unusually strong criticism from one student this semester. I might best sum up his three-page harangue by saying he considers me incompetent and ignorant, and said so in notably forceful language. Luckily his was a lone opinion, but still it is his voice that takes up residence in my head these last few days. I have found such students can be useful, if frustrating at times, for they keep us honest, remind us that we are not perfect, that we are, indeed, far from it. And yet I would not take back one mistake I made for all my mistakes were necessary to my learning since only after I made them did I know they were mistakes. People tell a story of Edison: One night his warehouse caught fire. This is the place where he had everything, for it is where he did all his research. His son was roused and told to get his father. Upon arriving at the scene of the blaze, the building entirely consumed in flames, everything gone, Thomas Edison told his son to go get his wife. Standing before the inferno of loss, Edison put his arms around his wife and son and reportedly said something like, “This is a wonderful event to behold, for all our mistakes are in that building and tomorrow we can begin fresh, keeping only what we know works.” On some other occasion, Edison said, “Results? Why I have several thousand results. I have learned of at least a thousand things that do not work.” Thus, to borrow from yet another quote of Edison’s, we “blunder, but blunder forward,” guided by what we learn along the way so long as we stop to reflect and revise. It is with that critical student’s voice, which could never be as demanding as my own, that I have sat down these last few nights to reflect on the last semester. I did for myself what we did for you when we met some months back for breakfast: I pulled out a pad of paper and wrote down what worked and what did not, then analyzed why. This was remarkably helpful as it made concrete those things I had done or could do to improve. Returning to the character arc diagram, I also asked myself what words I wanted to be able to put down at the end of this year by way of “beginning with the end in mind,” then asked how I would get there. I decided that for the beginning of the second semester, anyway, I need to work more on creating a sustainable, effective, but flexible instructional structure for my AP class. I want to have greater consistency about what they accomplish and the way they work. Lately we have had these excellent opening 15-minute sequences where they read, write, and eventually talk about some focused aspect of the text they read the previous night for homework. They do these writings in their journals, but we make good use of them as an opportunity to work on writing as well as to improve on discussion of literature. This is all very new to me, to be honest, but the approaching AP test forces me to think in these ways to improve efficiency and economy of instruction, not terms I typically use to think about teaching. Yet it makes sense to me as I get more intentional in my teaching. For too long teachers have been activity-based instead of instruction-based. When I walk into my ACCESS classes, I have set goals in mind, skills I know they need if they are to succeed. This helps me prepare, focus, and organize my instruction in ways that pay off. The difference such guided instruction makes is profound as the following email shows; but this is also a class (ACCESS) that I have taught and carefully revised for five years, also. I sent this note to my editor this morning after scoring the final ACCESS reading tests: When you teach a class like ACCESS, and especially when you just finished writing a BOOK about it, it’s hard to ignore scores and data. You do all these things, based on ideas and theories, principles and experience, and you give the kids formal tests like the Scholastic Reading Inventory (SRI) or the Gates, or some miscue analysis, and then you pray. You hate the scores if they don’t tell the story you want; you hug them if they do. So in September I gave both the Gates (required by the district) and did individual miscues on all 25 kids in ACCESS, some of whom scored in the basement. Then yesterday I gave them the SRI, which I actually like the best, though the miscue matters, too. The SRI is hard (demands intense inferential reading) and long (70 questions with passages that are not haiku). And this morning I scored them. I stood at the scantron reader, listening to it tick like a heart monitor, a few ticks for some (good), many for others (bad), and I was getting very nervous. After all, we have spent a semester doing stuff that I claim really works. But so many red marks on some of the tests! Then I returned and converted the scores. Then I went to the cumulative data sheet with the September scores. Finally, I went through and compared today’s scores with September’s. IF their current score was higher than BOTH the September scores (Gates and miscue) I put a + next to their name. If the current score was higher than one of the two, I put an x. If the current score was lower, I put a minus. Final score: + next to 24 out of 25 names, most with SIGNIFICANT gains. I’m as thrilled as I am relieved!

What matters to me in this story is that I was neither teaching to a test nor running a skills workshop; we developed those skills (and will continue to do so, for this is merely confirmation that we are moving in the right direction) through authentic reading in a variety of contexts. That is what I want to be able to say about my AP class and so will try to create a lesson plan template that will guide me. This process of revision will help me improve the rough draft of my AP class, though I will necessarily make new mistakes, or the same mistakes for different reasons en route to a new understanding. My instruction and my students’ success will begin to follow this same story line the ACCESS numbers tell in years to come. What that angry, disaffected student resented was having to live through my rough draft; he felt like a character the author (me) keeps moving around and giving different lines to say as the author figures out what he is trying to accomplish through the story he is learning to tell. In short, he wants what no teacher can give him: a perfect performance on the first run-through. Years from now he will make mistakes as he learns his field; I can only hope he will remember his words to me and work with people who are more generous and understanding than he was with me. His expectations and resentment ignore the very nature of mastery, which must be earned through the same actions outlined in that list I included at the beginning of this letter. Let me close by telling you––I don’t know what other word to use, really––how proud I am of you. I know this first semester was hard hard hard. Those weeks before Winter Break were brutal; it’s a hard time for everyone, but hardest for a new teacher. But you have persevered, revised yourself and your craft day by day, class by class. And when you asked that troublesome boy to stay after so you could talk with him the other day, what you learned is that kids will always respond to an adult who tries to connect with them. This is the essence of our work for our students and, as we discussed, for ourselves. Right now, you are working hardest to find the voice that is yours as a teacher. After this first semester, you have begun the hard work of not just creating that voice, but using it to teach, to guide, to shape young adults’ lives. In the days ahead, as you begin to imagine the second semester, see yourself in June, looking back on all the months to come, your hands full of all you learned along the way, and see yourself as the teacher you dream of being and with faith, patience, and hard work will become.

Your colleague,


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