Slice of Life: Feeling Intrepid


Intrepid isn’t a word I would use to describe myself. And yet, I feel intrepid this week. As I write this, I’m sitting in a hotel room in New York City watching the snow. From this height, I can’t see the street, but I can hear the traffic rushing by on Broadway. I still can’t quite believe I’m here.

I feel incredibly lucky because this week I’m attending the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project Mini Institute on Content Area Literacy. After just one day, everything I learned yesterday is swirling around in my brain like the snow outside my window.

Harvey “Smokey” Daniels opened the Institute yesterday morning with an inspiring keynote on what’s missing from the CCSS. “Where’s engagement? Where’s curiosity and creativity? Choice and responsibility? Social justice? Where’s the fun?” he wanted to know.

I’ve often wondered that myself. Daniels suggested that our curriculum should be inquiry based. Turning the curriculum into questions the kids “can’t resist answering,” and creating opportunities for them to do authentic, purposeful work would go a long way toward ramping up the level of engagement AND achievement.

Daniels also questioned the omission of writing as a thinking tool, or “writing to learn.” He stressed the importance of giving our students opportunities to put their thoughts and ideas into words every single day. Teachers can engage students with this work by having “written conversations.” These can be between students or between the students and teacher or other adults. Writing letters is one way to give students an opportunity to express their feelings and develop their voice.

After Harvey’s session, the day was filled with more learning from the incredible staff developers at TCRWP. Amanda Hartman shared strategies for combining reading and writing units with content area teaching. From Lauren Kolbeck I learned more strategies that use literacy skills to support the work of young scientists. And finally, Alexis Czerterko shared ways to incorporating literacy in a unit of study on the American Revolution.

At the end of the day, I felt empowered by everything I had learned. I was energized to begin applying the strategies shared throughout the day to my own teaching. But I’m also excited to learn more. I’m excited about stretching myself as an educator so I can help my students be curious and passionate about their learning. I want to support them as they take risks and follow their dreams. I want them to be intrepid.


Don’t forget to head over to Two Writing Teachers today for more Slice of Life stories.

Slice of Life: Getting From Point A to Point B


About a month ago, I found myself driving in an unfamiliar city at dusk. As I exited the highway into rush hour traffic, my GPS informed me that it had lost its satellite connection. After my initial panic, I took a deep breath and, because I had looked at a map before I left home and had the map feature open on my phone, was able to navigate to my hotel without a wrong turn.

Being able to read a map is an important skill. It provides us with a bird’s-eye view of where we’re going. Some people may argue that not knowing is what keeps life interesting, but I like having an idea of what lies ahead.

In teaching, our curriculum calendars and lesson plans are like maps in that they lay out a predictable path that will lead us from point A to point B. But like a driver encountering a roadblock, or me when my GPS failed, we need to possess the skills to help us adjust our teaching in a way that addresses the roadblock but still gets us, and more importantly, our students, to point B.

The school where I did my student teaching used a scripted math program that spiraled through concepts at a fairly quick pace. When we taught long division according to the program’s sequence, the kids were stumped. They just didn’t get it. They were frustrated and I was practically in tears. My cooperating teacher, however, believed in being responsive to the needs of students, not being a slave to the script. We worked together to use lessons from the old basal math program and other resources to give our students the time and support they needed to practice the steps of long division until they understood it well and were able to apply them independently. Without his guidance and support, I would have soldiered on and the kids wouldn’t have learned much about division.

I’ve been very fortunate in my career to have worked in a district where we’ve never had a scripted curriculum. The administrators have always trusted us. They’ve given us the autonomy and flexibility to make decisions about lesson plan and materials that we felt met the needs of our students. I worry that if teachers are never allowed to use anything other than a scripted curriculum, or are admonished or punished for deviating from this script, they will never know how to deal with the roadblocks our students present us with daily.

World of Ptolemy as shown By Johannes de Armsshein, Ulm, 1482 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
World of Ptolemy as shown By Johannes de Armsshein, Ulm, 1482 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Medieval cartographers labeled areas beyond their ken “Here there be dragons.” In other words, venture here at your peril. And yet, intrepid explorers ventured across unknown oceans. They trusted their knowledge, skills and instincts to carry them safely to shore. Teachers do this every day. We draw upon our past experiences, skills and knowledge as we interact with students. We aren’t always sure if our students are going to learn a skill or concept exactly they way we plan for them to, but we have a pretty good idea of what to do when we encounter a roadblock.

Just as drivers shouldn’t become dependent on their GPS, which might stop working at a critical juncture, teachers shouldn’t be held to scripts or curriculums that don’t meet the needs of our students. We have to have the flexibility to veer off course if needed, but still reach our destination. Anything less is a disservice  to our students.