14 Ways to Improve the Lives and Performance of Students

16 12 2013

There are those who like to sit around and complain about the weather. It is far too cold in winter, and it is much, much too hot in summer. A surprising amount of time is spent on variations on this theme. When these people grow tired of the weather, their next targets of scorn are “kids today,” how things are so much worse now,  and how schools are to blame.

Are they right?

Many People say our schools are failing, but I ask you—especially if you have a child in public school right now–do you believe that your school is failing your child?

My guess is that most of you reading this believe that your kids are doing pretty well, and that you like your child’s teacher well enough, and you like your district overall. Sure, improvements could (and should) be made, but overall, your child is doing fine.

That’s the general feeling in most places.

So, why are we pushing a new nationalized curriculum? Why must we have a massive overhaul of the way teachers teach and students learn? Well, one of the reasons is because some districts are not doing well. Not doing well at all.

I’m sure you know a district by you that is much worse off than yours, right? Why is that?

Do you think it is it because they are positively teeming with ineffective teachers?

Is it because they just don’t test those kids in those districts enough?

No, but that is what Common Core fixates on.

Hold your breath here, because I’m about to say something shocking.

Low performing districts usually have a population of students with low socio-economic status.  In fact, I challenge you to find one failing school in any moderate to high socio-economic community.

Gasp! I know. But, am I wrong?

I realize that it is impolite to say this.

But I’ll say it, because it is true.

A list was published in Central NY recently that rated all the districts around here. “Shockingly” the wealthiest areas were on the top and the poorest areas were at the bottom.

How could it be clearer? The problem is not in the schools; the problem is poverty.

And how do we solve poverty?

Can we?

The idealist in me (and, I’m sure, in you) refuses to believe that there is nothing we can do to help raise school performance in areas of high density poverty.

I believe that we absolutely can.

To find out how, we must look to the reasons why the students in moderate to high socioeconomic status do well and try to somehow provide those things to the students in poverty.

The following are my hypotheses.

In other words, this list is not research based, It is the result of reflection on my past 15 years teaching.


  1. You must have small class sizes, and I’m talking tiny. They should be no more than twelve in size, the size of a large family. Why? Because this creates a feeling of belonging. It creates a comfortable, safe, nurturing, and friendly environment. It is something that many of them lack, and if given this safe space, many will thrive.
  2. Time must be invested forging bonds among the students in the class. The more they know each other, the more invested in each other they become in their mutual success. Often students will be a teacher’s best tool in reaching a student who is slipping away. Any personality conflicts must get ironed out right away. Time spent building the family of learners is not wasted time. I would also suggest building class pride by engaging in good-spirited competition with other classes. They should identify with school in general and their own class in particular.
  3. Students must view their teacher as likeable and fair. These teachers do not necessarily have to be a laugh-riot all the time or one of those wildly entertaining types of teachers you see in movies. Students know when a teacher has their best interests at heart. They want to please, and these students do not want to let a teacher they like down. Please keep in mind that they can smell condescension from miles away. Don’t “feel bad” for them. They don’t want or need your pity. They want a chance.
  4. Give them a solid, dependable routine, but there should be room for a dash of spice here and there. Most of us like to know what to expect on any given day. Mondays were vocabulary days in many of my classes. They knew what to expect. They liked that, even if they complained. Now, that doesn’t mean I did the exact same vocabulary presentation every week. That’s the spice I was talking about.
  5. Give plenty of opportunities for students to express themselves. The more they develop and find confidence in their spoken voice, the easier it becomes to translate that into writing, good writing.
  6. Whenever possible, give students a touch of choice in assignments, and ALWAYS provide clear, written instructions defining each possible assignment. Students should have access to scoring rubrics that they can use to help them succeed. Scaffolding, such as outlines, etc., should be available at first, and then gradually eliminated.
  7. Never blame them for what they don’t know. Teach them what they need. Meet them where they are without creating shame.
  8. When you assign homework, which should only be a reasonable amount, always check it or quiz on it. They will stop doing their homework if they do not feel it is “worth” something.
  9. When students fail, give them a way to redeem themselves. Of course they should be able to revise their essays if they ask, etc.
  10. Know your students. Find their individual sparks and use them to your (and their) advantage.
  11. Take them on as many enrichment field trips as possible, but strive for at least one live performance each year, preferably of something you read together in class. Even if the performance is terrible, it will provide a fantastic opportunity to discuss. Plus, this is a cultural experience that they may not have previously had.
  12. They should read real literature. It should be the stuff that they have heard of and thought was way above their heads. (Oh, and they should never read excerpts.) Have them read the whole stinking text. Unless they are very limited in ability, they should not be given kiddie-lit. That’s a form of condescension. Give them real, honest to God literature that focuses on the big issues. They will complain, but they will rise to the occasion more often than not. I’m talking Shakespeare, Camus, and even Faulkner, here. Leave your Mitch Alboms for their personal reading lists or enrichment.
  13. An occasional “informational” or “fact based” text is appropriate as it helps focus another lens through which to study literature, but other than that, informational texts belong in the social studies classroom.
  14. Assessments such as tests and essays should have the purpose of assessing students’ progress and determining how to address any deficiencies. Students understand the value of them. Tests which do not serve these purposes and exist in large extent to grade the teacher should be refused.  Pretests in an English classroom are a complete waste of time.  Why in the world would it be beneficial to give them a test in the beginning of the year on things they do not know?  What a terrible way to start the year.  Instead, take a close look at their first assignment.  Even simple vocabulary sentences will reveal to the teacher areas which need to be worked on in a much kinder way, a way that wont create undue anxiety and resentment toward the teacher, school, and their own ability to succeed.

These 14 steps do not ensure a student in poverty will succeed in a class. There are so many factors beyond our control. We cannot force a child to attend our classes; we cannot experience the individual struggles they live with every day. However, it has been my experience that many more students will succeed than fail if these 14 points are taken into account.

I am completely confident that reducing teachers into script readers and data collectors will do nothing to improve the lives (or test results) of our students in poverty, or the lives of any other student regardless of socio-economic status, but test makers may skew the results to make it look that way.  There is a whole lot of money riding on the implementation of these standards, so much so that I fear that this is “too big to fail.”  But if we really care about helping all students reach “college and career” readiness, this initiative  must fail.  It is time that we take some of that money and invest it in things that teachers know will help students.

Less Blame, More Peace: My Plan. (with Wordsworth’s “Ode of Intimations of Immortality”)

20 12 2012

Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood

By William Wordsworth

(Note: this is a much longer poem than I usually write about.  If you don’t want to read the whole thing, you can get the flavor of it in the boldened stanza below.  However, I do hope you read the whole thing sometime.  It’s worth the read. Promise.)

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,

The earth, and every common sight

                 To me did seem

            Apparelled in celestial light,

The glory and the freshness of a dream.

It is not now as it hath been of yore;–

             Turn wheresoe’er I may,

              By night or day,

The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

            The rainbow comes and goes,

            And lovely is the rose;

            The moon doth with delight

     Look round her when the heavens are bare;

            Waters on a starry night

            Are beautiful and fair;

     The sunshine is a glorious birth;

     But yet I know, where’er I go,

That there hath past away a glory from the earth.

Now, while the birds thus sing a joyous song,

     And while the young lambs bound

            As to the tabor’s sound,

To me alone there came a thought of grief:

A timely utterance gave that thought relief,

            And I again am strong.

The cataracts blow their trumpets from the steep,–

No more shall grief of mine the season wrong:

I hear the echoes through the mountains throng.

The winds come to me from the fields of sleep,

            And all the earth is gay;

                Land and sea

     Give themselves up to jollity,

            And with the heart of May

     Doth every beast keep holiday;–

                Thou child of joy,

Shout round me, let me hear thy shouts, thou happy


Ye blesséd Creatures, I have heard the call

     Ye to each other make; I see

The heavens laugh with you in your jubilee;

     My heart is at your festival,

       My head hath its coronal,

The fulness of your bliss, I feel–I feel it all.

         O evil day! if I were sullen

         While Earth herself is adorning

              This sweet May-morning;

         And the children are culling

              On every side

         In a thousand valleys far and wide

         Fresh flowers; while the sun shines warm,

And the babe leaps up on his mother’s arm:–

         I hear, I hear, with joy I hear!

         –But there’s a tree, of many, one,

A single field which I have look’d upon,

Both of them speak of something that is gone:

              The pansy at my feet

              Doth the same tale repeat:

Whither is fled the visionary gleam?

Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;

The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,

          Hath had elsewhere its setting

               And cometh from afar;

          Not in entire forgetfulness,

          And not in utter nakedness,

But trailing clouds of glory do we come

               From God, who is our home:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

Shades of the prison-house begin to close

               Upon the growing Boy,

But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,

               He sees it in his joy;

The Youth, who daily farther from the east

     Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,

          And by the vision splendid

          Is on his way attended;

At length the Man perceives it die away,

And fade into the light of common day.

Earth fills her lap with pleasures of her own;

Yearnings she hath in her own natural kind,

And, even with something of a mother’s mind,

               And no unworthy aim,

          The homely nurse doth all she can

To make her foster-child, her inmate, Man,

               Forget the glories he hath known,

And that imperial palace whence he came.

Behold the Child among his new-born blisses,

A six years’ darling of a pigmy size!

See, where ‘mid work of his own hand he lies,

Fretted by sallies of his mother’s kisses,

With light upon him from his father’s eyes!

See, at his feet, some little plan or chart,

Some fragment from his dream of human life,

Shaped by himself with newly-learned art;

          A wedding or a festival,

          A mourning or a funeral;

               And this hath now his heart,

          And unto this he frames his song:

               Then will he fit his tongue

To dialogues of business, love, or strife;

          But it will not be long

          Ere this be thrown aside,

          And with new joy and pride

The little actor cons another part;

Filling from time to time his ‘humorous stage’

With all the Persons, down to palsied Age,

That life brings with her in her equipage;

          As if his whole vocation

          Were endless imitation.

Thou, whose exterior semblance doth belie

          Thy soul’s immensity;

Thou best philosopher, who yet dost keep

Thy heritage, thou eye among the blind,

That, deaf and silent, read’st the eternal deep,

Haunted for ever by the eternal Mind,–

          Mighty Prophet! Seer blest!

          On whom those truths rest

Which we are toiling all our lives to find,

In darkness lost, the darkness of the grave;

Thou, over whom thy Immortality

Broods like the day, a master o’er a slave,

A Presence which is not to be put by;

          To whom the grave

Is but a lonely bed, without the sense of sight

Of day or the warm light,

A place of thoughts where we in waiting lie;

Thou little child, yet glorious in the might

Of heaven-born freedom on thy being’s height,

Why with such earnest pains dost thou provoke

The years to bring the inevitable yoke,

Thus blindly with thy blessedness at strife?

Full soon thy soul shall have her earthly freight,

And custom lie upon thee with a weight

Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!

          0 joy! that in our embers

          Is something that doth live,

          That Nature yet remembers

          What was so fugitive!

The thought of our past years in me doth breed

Perpetual benediction: not indeed

For that which is most worthy to be blest,

Delight and liberty, the simple creed

Of Childhood, whether busy or at rest,

With new-fledged hope still fluttering in his breast:–

          –Not for these I raise

          The song of thanks and praise;

     But for those obstinate questionings

     Of sense and outward things,

     Fallings from us, vanishings,

     Blank misgivings of a creature

Moving about in worlds not realized,

High instincts, before which our mortal nature

Did tremble like a guilty thing surprised:

     But for those first affections,

     Those shadowy recollections,

          Which, be they what they may,

Are yet the fountain-light of all our day,

Are yet a master-light of all our seeing;

     Uphold us–cherish–and have power to make

Our noisy years seem moments in the being

Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake,

               To perish never;

Which neither listlessness, nor mad endeavour,

               Nor man nor boy,

Nor all that is at enmity with joy,

Can utterly abolish or destroy!

   Hence, in a season of calm weather

          Though inland far we be,

Our souls have sight of that immortal sea

               Which brought us hither;

          Can in a moment travel thither–

And see the children sport upon the shore,

And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.

Then, sing, ye birds, sing, sing a joyous song!

          And let the young lambs bound

          As to the tabor’s sound!

     We, in thought, will join your throng,

          Ye that pipe and ye that play,

          Ye that through your hearts to-day

          Feel the gladness of the May!

What though the radiance which was once so bright

Be now for ever taken from my sight,

     Though nothing can bring back the hour

Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;

          We will grieve not, rather find

          Strength in what remains behind;

          In the primal sympathy

          Which having been must ever be;

          In the soothing thoughts that spring

          Out of human suffering;

          In the faith that looks through death,

In years that bring the philosophic mind.

And 0, ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves,

Forebode not any severing of our loves!

Yet in my heart of hearts I feel your might;

I only have relinquish’d one delight

To live beneath your more habitual sway;

I love the brooks which down their channels fret

Even more than when I tripp’d lightly as they;

The innocent brightness of a new-born day

               Is lovely yet;

The clouds that gather round the setting sun

Do take a sober colouring from an eye

That hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality;

Another race hath been, and other palms are won.

   Thanks to the human heart by which we live,

   Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,

   To me the meanest flower that blows can give

   Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

Do you remember when you realized that the world was not all a perfect place, and our lives, at least our earthly lives, have ends? 

 Luckily, I do not remember. 

Obviously it happened at some point, but it must not have seared an indelible brand on my memory.  Maybe it’s hidden deep in there somewhere, but really, I don’t care to look around and find it.  One thing is definite; it was nowhere near as horrific for me as it was for many of the youngest kids in our country today.

That evil, evil man not only took babies away from their mothers and fathers and teachers away from their students and families, he also destroyed that fleeting innocence of six-year-olds everywhere. (As Wordsworth details in the seventh stanza in the Ode.)

He explains how the very young are innately joyful because before they were born they were with God.  Through this closeness to the divine, children have a natural ability to see the beauty in the world.  As we age, we become more and more “humanized” and the world becomes merely ordinary, or in worse cases, evil.    

Wordsworth says that at times, through a communion with nature, he is able to get his childlike joy back for a moment or two, but it is not the same.  He says, “ But yet I know, where’er I go,/That there hath past away a glory from the earth.”

All over the country and probably even the world, little kids are hearing the news of the massacre, even if their parents think they are trying to shield them.  Kids have ways of finding out these things, didn’t you?  They know, and their innocence is gone, all because of this one evil person. Many kids are waking up without seeing the “celestial light” in the world. 

Instead, they are scared to go to school. 

We want answers. 

Our brains can’t comprehend an evil mind who would do this; our brains crave order and good, so we have to turn to something that makes us feel better. 

We cast blame. 

We blame the guns, the mental health care system, poor parenting, security at the school. . . the list is endless.  I’m sure blame will continue get spread around pretty liberally for a long time over this.    

And YES, all these things deserve to be a part of the discussion.  As a nation, we can make improvements in all these areas, but none will not stop evil from existing. 

Wordsworth’s lines , We will grieve not, rather find/

          Strength in what remains behind; stick out for me.  What is the strength that remains behind today? That is a real question.  I don’t have an answer, but   


We need to teach peace and respect for all life. 

Here are some ways we can be more peaceful with very little effort.  I’m sure there are at least a million more ways, but these are just off the top of my head.

  • I will not watch violent shows, especially the ones that claim to be reality shows where they do evil things to each other.
  • I will not let the little ones play violent video games.  People become so saturated with violent role play, that it makes sense to me that the mentally fragile could easily get lost in the fantasy.
  • I will not play them myself. 
  • I will try to give my children the gift of faith by going to church and trying to live a good life.
  •  I will not watch television shows that, while not technically violent, belittle and exploit those who are different from myself, like Honey Boo Boo, for example.
  • I won’t seek the drama of little catty fights with anyone.  If I don’t like someone, I will just leave him alone as much as possible and limit my exposure to him.
  • I will live in a way that makes it clear that I believe every single person on this planet has worth. 
  • I will teach by action and words that every single person on this planet has worth.
  • I know that every single person on this planet has worth. 
  • I know that my life is important, but it is only one




 And I have no right to bring pain to anyone else,


How will you be peaceful and show respect for all life? 



 Merry Christmas to you all.

The Forgotten Benefits of Failing in “The Thing you Must Remember”

22 08 2012

The Thing You Must Remember

By Maggie Anderson


The thing you must remember is how, as a child,

you worked hours in the art room, the teacher’s

hands over yours, molding the little clay dog.

You must remember how nothing mattered

but the imagined dog’s fur, the shape of his ears

and his paws. The gray clay felt dangerous,

your small hands were pressing what you couldn’t say

with your limited words. When the dog’s back

stiffened, then cracked into white shards

in the kiln, you learned how the beautiful

suffers from too much attention, how clumsy

a single vision can grow, and fragile

with trying too hard. The thing you must

remember is the art teacher’s capable

hands: large, rough and grainy,

over yours, holding on.


One of the few things I can thank standardized testing for is for introducing me to this poem.

Just a few years after I started teaching, it was one of the poems for the “Controlling Idea” essay of the ELA New York State Regents Examination, which is given to most eleventh graders in the state.  It was the third of four essays in a two-day, six-hour, torturous exam. Thankfully for the students, the exam has been reconfigured recently. 

The most remarkable thing is that even after reading and rating approximately one million (mostly competent if not completely inspired) essay responses on the poem, it still wasn’t ruined for me.

 This is easily my favorite poem about teaching.  

For many teachers, the start of the new school year means a welcome-back assembly where all sorts of fascinating information is imparted from those- in- the- know, like the importance of washing your hands for the precise duration it would take one to sing “happy birthday” and oodles and oodles of statistics regarding where your school scored last year in this and that, and where you must end up this year—or risk losing funding for art. 

It’s part informative, part doomsday prophesying, and part pep-rally.

The recitation of sentimental poetry is a favorite at these events to help motivate teachers.  It is usually some heartbreaking tale of a teacher who rescues some sad wretch of a smelly child from his horrific home life. Years later, the weary but dutiful teacher opens a letter from the formerly smelly child, and in it he credits her (and her alone!) with who the student is today, the scientist who cured all cancers. End Scene. Pass the tissues. 

 Did I mention that this poem is written in a forced ABABCDCD, etc. rhyme scheme with a sing-song rhythm?  Well, of course it is. 

But it isn’t the sentimental, poor poetry that’s the problem here. 

The problem is that this is not really what teaching is about.  Don’t get me wrong, it definitely happens that teachers save children from horrific things far too often.  But let’s face it, the day-to-day life of a teacher is much less glamorous, much more routine, and comes with very little recognition for a job well done, and a whole ton of recognition for a job not-so-well-done. 

So, this poem offers a refreshing look at the profession. 

Notice how completely silent but poignant the teacher’s role is here. The speaker, a former art student, remembers exactly what (s)he wanted.  She wanted to sculpt this damn dog that she could envision perfectly, and wouldn’t stop till she was happy with it.

Finally, after perfecting it, (but completely overworking the clay) the student puts the sculpture in the kiln. 

What comes next is no surprise to the teacher.

The sculpture cracks in the kiln. If you want to be technical, the student fails. But doesn’t she learn not only about art, but also about life?  Is this really a failure?

This lesson transcends the classroom and becomes authentically interdisciplinary.  At least in retrospect, the student learns from this incident how in most any situation, being myopic can end up destroying your vision. She could have had a cool dog statue if only she could have seen it didn’t need to be the ONE way.

And really!  How frustrating is it when people can only see things in one way? 

I’m sure you know people who insist that they know the one “right” way to do something when in reality, the goal can be met in multiple ways. 

Here’s one off the top of my head: there are many ways to fold a t-shirt.  You might prefer one way better, but really, seriously, who cares about the details if it is in fact folded, put away, and not wrinkled when you pull it out to wear it. 

Another thing I love about this poem: the teacher does not dive in to rescue the student at the last minute in some deus ex machina Greek Tragedy style.   You don’t hear the teacher frantically repeating, “Umm, you know, Student, the more you overwork this clay, the more likely it is that it will be destroyed in the kiln.” “Umm, you know, Student, the more you overwork this clay, the more likely it is that it will be destroyed in the kiln.”   She knows this is more effective.

For many reasons that I am not going to even try to start to discuss here, we are terrified of letting our students fail, even when they totally deserve and NEED to fail.

What a failure that is on us. 

Yes, this teacher has a failing student in this lesson, but she is not remiss in her duty; she is not a bad teacher at all.  In fact, she is a fabulous teacher.  You better believe that next time, that student will not overwork the clay. 

The lessons learned from failing are powerful.  Please, take a minute and think about how failure has pushed you, motivated you, in your life.  I guarantee that, no matter how successful you are, you have been pushed forward by your failures.  Who would you be if you were never allowed to fail?

Who will our students be?

This teacher is not absent. She is not unfeeling of her student’s failure.  Her hands are RIGHT there with her student’s the whole time.  The teacher’s hands are what Maggie Anderson wants us to focus on.  They are “the thing you must remember” from her title. 

They are large, rough, and grainy, yes, but they are holding yours as you fail, ready to pull you up and have you try again.

In our most challenging times in life, if we are lucky, there are hands that cradle ours through our failures and push us to learn from them and try again.  They don’t save us from failure, they guide us to success.

The art teacher in this poem, of course, can be a metaphor for any type of teacher— the meaning here can be expanded to include the type you have in school or out of school.  It can be a parent or grandparent.  It can be a friend. 

But most likely, it will be an English teacher.