The First Day of Spring (CrossPost)

I am cross-posting here a blog entry that I wrote for my Environmental Writing Course today. If you have the time or inclination, please visit our class blog! 


Walking last night with my husband and son, my ears perked up to the sound of birds singing, chirping, warbling: sounds I had been missing since the long winter came down. With my ears engaged, my other senses started to perk up, too. My nose scented the freshness of daffodils popping up in yellow, social clumps. And, who doesn’t recognize the stench of the assaulting bradford pear? I peeled off my sweatshirt, enjoying the crispness of a transitional-season evening, and realized, pleased with the turn of events, that it was 6 pm and still light outside.

The light enabled me to take a closer look around. Small, tiny blooms, popped up everywhere. Redbuds and cherry trees and daffodils– the early, loud, exuberant first heralds of the Springtime–had awakened the more reluctant winter sleepers. Small, hard buds on the dogwood trees, azalea blossoms- still shut tight in their shells-starting to peek through the foliage, and blueberry bushes covered with the seeds of their future blossoms.

Spring is here! I wondered if my students had noticed, so today, the first day of Spring, we headed outdoors to photograph “Signs of Spring.” The following pictures show what they found. (all photo credits to my students who are writers on this blog.)

babbstaleyEllaerikVishanLeoKelsey and JulietrumanjderriknofilterSpringWeselmanAshleyArainshope zoeLaurenBisabellamicaylaLaralara,catherineTvickcatherine

To put this post into the context of climate change and our class, I recently received this email newsletter, prompting me to “Be a Citizen Scientist,”

Have you noticed your favorite flower (or most despised weed) sprouting a little earlier than it used to? Heard frogs calling sooner in the spring over the past few years? These trends could be linked to climate change, and scientists want your help in tracking them. The USA-National Phenology Network (USA-NPN), a group of government, academic, and citizen scientists, has started a new national program that will rely on volunteers to report their observations of flowering, fruiting, and other seasonal events that will help scientists get a more accurate picture of our changing planet.

So I started to wonder, how has my area changed in the last 20, 40, 100 years? Do we even have the data? The The USA-National Phenology Network program mentioned in the email above is soliciting volunteers to help track bloom times of plants. This type of study is called phenology, or “the study of recurring plant and animal life cycle events.”  I’ve decided to participate in the study by becoming an observer in the nature around me.  All I have to do is go outside 10 minutes a week and record what I see. What better way to enjoy Spring than to become a mindful observer of the nature right outside my door?

As someone who loves the environment, I will tell you that I lost heart a few days ago. When we polled our 8th grade Environmental Writing class about whether they would consider themselves to be “environmentalists,” a large percent of them indicated that they did not identify as environmentalists.  Part of me can’t help but wonder if one of the reasons our students don’t consider themselves to be environmentalists is that they’re not in touch with the outdoors. By 8th grade the majority of their classes take place inside, and after school they’re so scheduled with resume-building extra-curriculars and hours of homework, when would they have time to enjoy, appreciate, and build a love of nature?

So students, take this as a challenge. Get outside for at least 1 hour every day. Plant a garden. Whistle back to birds. Follow a trail of ants. Roll in the grass. Watch the clouds. Stomp in a rain puddle. Pluck a blackberry. You may find yourself to be an environmentalist after all. And I bet you’ll enjoy this Spring more than any other.


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School Should Be Like Yoga Class: The How

So my friend CajunCart, a beautiful writer and thinker and teacher (with her own blog), challenged me with this question after my last post about formative assessment and yoga:

Screen Shot 2014-02-23 at 9.05.45 AM

So, I responded that I’d write a post to address this question. I think there are lots of ways that teachers can do this, but I’ll just list below a few ideas I have.

One general idea to stick with, however, is that students should be the ones doing throughout most of the class and the teacher should be floating and helping throughout most of the class. If the teacher is talking/doing more than the students are–or if the student’s main job is to take notes (assuming note-taking is not the main learning goal, which, if it is, then note taking the whole time would be perfect!), then it will be much harder to implement a classroom with formative assessment.

In English, I actually have experience with this idea. I taught my 8th grade class in a much more traditional way last year when it came to assigning writing and “teaching” writing.

However, in my writing workshop class, my students are cranking out some amazing writing in the style that we might call “research paper.” Yet, these essays, on a public blog linked above, are not drudgery for the students or the teachers. Nor, by the way, are these essays terrible– which is what most other middle school research papers turn out to be. Here is why:

1) The students choose the subject of their writing. It must be tangentially related to the topic of our course, but other than that, they’re free to bring their own interests in. See post here about climate change and the olympics. Wow. Yes, a middle schooler wrote that. No, we did not give her a lib guide.

2) The students write on their own time, but then they bring a draft in for conference before they post to the blog. It is during these conferences (held for us in OH), that most of the really good writing learning gets done. (Note: If I were to use conferences outside of office hours, I would schedule time with students as they’re writing in my class. I would also refrain from scheduling papers to be turned in all on the same day. I’d make staggered deadlines for writing or I’d have the kids set their deadlines within a 1-2 week period so that I could give more individual feedback without the time crunch.)

3) Our students write in class almost every day for about a fourth of the class. It is, after all, a writing course. It makes sense that a good chunk of the time the kids would be, well, writing. We don’t always give feedback on this writing. In fact, we don’t give specific feedback on most of it, but we walk around the room and look over the shoulders of the students as they’re working, and every now and then we stop or comment on what they’ve said in these journal times.

The students get to practice, practice, practice. Moreover, we don’t give grades on the papers we conference over, so the pressure in conferences is zero. Yes, ultimately, at the marking period we grade their writing, but we’re lucky that our class is on a pass/fail reporting system so we can focus more on the learning the rest of the time and less on trying to “get enough grades in for the marking period.” A frightfully common problem for many teachers.

Assuming you teach in 55 minute classes (my suggestions would change entirely if you have longer blocks), a yoga-style math class might look like a mini-lesson at the beginning of the class (5 mins or less) and then 50 minutes of students working individually or in groups on the concept with the teacher floating around and helping. If you can work some real world application in, even better!

In Science, it looks like labs. Labs, Labs and more labs.

In Language it looks like the students in conversation in small groups in their specific language for the whole class while the teacher floats around, popping in to conversations and helping out. Or like Skype.

In PE it looks like yoga. 🙂 They’ve mastered this art.

In History, where delving into historical content and facts often makes up a large portion of the class, it might mean focusing on driving questions like “How does geography impact history?” and then having students do research on their own or delve into a project of some sort in order to figure that out. Students will get the content when that is what they need to “get” in order to achieve a different goal. Rarely are students motivated by content alone, but give them a problem to solve, and by golly, they’ll ask you a million questions about the content.

I’d love to continue the conversation about different ways of achieving this type of classroom. All I know is that the more I teach like this, the more my students get better at what they’re learning.

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Formative Assessment and Yoga

I’ve been doing yoga for ten years. I’ve practiced in many types of yoga classes- ashtanga, vinyassa, hot, power, yoga-at-church classes, yoga for relaxation, yoga videos, prenatal yoga- and currently I’m taking a class at my school that is for faculty and staff. The hardest part for me in yoga (and in life) is staying present in the moment. So, instead of focusing on my breathing during my class on Tuesday, my mind was wandering. Despite the fact that this lack of focus led to incredible balance issues in Warrior 3, I mentally stumbled upon the topic for this blog post: formative assessment.

For those of you non-yogis, let me describe a typical yoga class to you. From start to finish, the students are doing. The teacher tells students the moves to follow, and the students practice those moves. As the teacher walks around the class and observes what his or her students are doing, the teacher will make comments about how to improve the poses. Most of the time, the teacher makes general comments that everyone can use:

“While you’re in plank, push your weight through your heels, push your finger pads down, tuck your tail and tighten your stomach.”

These suggestions, corrections made in real time, have an immediate impact on the practice. I don’t know whether they’re directed specifically at me, but if I do them, my pose is better.

Other times, the teacher will walk around and speak specifically to one student, making specific corrections for that person who needs that individualized instruction.

Every now and then, the teacher will even scaffold the practice further by moving an student’s arm into a better position, or help press them further into a forward fold to help that student modify their practice and go further than they could go on their own.

So what does this have to do with formative assessment? Well, the class is built around formative assessment. I have never faced a “summative” yoga assessment, yet I learn a significant amount each class.

First, the feedback is in real time. I don’t go to class, do yoga, and then 3 weeks later get notes back from my teacher about how I did. I get feedback immediately, as I’m doing the pose.

Second, the feedback can be specific to each student or the whole class can use it. Because the feedback is in real time and comes in short bursts, the teacher has more time to spend individually with students.

Third, there is no angst attached to the formative assessment feedback we get. If a teacher walks over to correct another student, I don’t feel sorry for that poor-fool-who-isn’t-doing-the-pose-right. No! I’m actually a little jealous that they’re getting feedback that I’m not. I wonder to myself, “what’s the teacher showing that person? How can I improve?” I actually WANT feedback during my practice. I’m never scared of it.

Fourth, a teacher can easily level his or her instructions and challenges to the class. Frequently you hear teachers say, “now if you want to modify this pose and make it easier, do x, but if you feel good in the pose and want to challenge yourself, do y.” Students can choose what to do based on their ability. If the teacher looks around and everyone is struggling with a particular concept, he can give instructions to everyone that will help bring them up to level.

Now, imagine a yoga class that functions the way we traditionally approach classroom teaching. It might go something like this:

The teacher stands at the whiteboard with notes about different yoga poses. “Today, students, we’re going to talk about downward facing dog. The first thing you must know about adho muka svanasana, or downward dog, is that your heels must be facing downwards….” Students would sit in desks, taking notes about what the teacher said without ever actually practicing the pose itself.

downward facing dog

Then, students would be assigned homework, where, at home without any guidance – except from maybe a parent who tried yoga 20 years ago- they would try out the pose. They might take a picture of themselves in downward facing dog, and turn that in to the teacher who would grade it and return it a few days later.

On Friday, there would be a test. Everyone would be doing downward facing dog, but no one would be allowed to look at anyone else’s pose since that would be cheating. Then, the teacher would grade each pose individually in writing, and give the notes back to the student to review. Since grading is a laborious process, it might take a week or more to get the feedback on the pose back to the student.

Since the student’s ability to continue on to the next yoga class depends on whether or not he or she makes a C or above, the first and only thing she worries about on the test feedback is whether or not she made an A,B,C or F.

I probably would never practice yoga if class was like that.

Now don’t get me wrong, there is certainly a place for summative assessment, even in yoga. If I were applying to be a yoga teacher or to attend a particularly rigorous yoga studio, it would make sense that I should pass a summative assessment to get in.

However, just like in learning, the formative assessment is the more powerful tool for helping students learn (and enjoy what they’re learning!). I hope to teach using formative assessment more–I guess that means I need to structure my classes more like yoga class.


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Bringing Up Bebe: Just Another Support for Free Range Kids

As a mom-to-be and current teacher, I’m always curious about best practices for children’s development. What should I keep doing, stop doing, or start doing to help my students (and now my future son) grow into productive, happy adults? Ultimately, I think the goal of any teacher or parent is that we help our students and children find the way to be able to live and thrive without our help.

My friend, Clarkbeast– parent, blogger, out-door enthusiast and teacher extraordinaire- and I frequently bemoan the ways that we see our culture stifling children’s self-reliance instead of bolstering it. One element we both agree that needs to be more purposefully present in children’s lives as a way to foster self-reliance is unstructured playtime. So much of what we’ve read, from Free Range Kids to Last Child in the Woods, exposes the importance of unstructured play, yet we live in a world where it is not unnatural for most children’s days to be scheduled from 6 am to 8 pm- filled with school, homework, and extra-curricular activities.  Adults seem to worry that if children are not busy doing something, then they’re either going to be behind the rest of the kids when it comes to applying to college, or they’ll be getting into trouble. Clarkbeast recently shared this article with me, The Politics of Play, which I think can help quell the fears of helicopter-prone parents. One particularly moving quote stuck out for me:

The true opposite of obedience is not disobedience but independence. The true opposite of order is not disorder but freedom. Most profoundly, the true opposite of control is not chaos but self-control.

We fear the chaos, and so we try to control too much, when really, we should be helping our children practice being self-controlled.

My mom-to-be reading list so far has been comprised by books that friends have recommended to me, and many of them reiterate this same idea.

From Babywise by Gary Ezzo and Robert Bucknam:

Most parents with an infant in the home tend not to think about this, yet, some monitored alone time provides critical opportunities for learning. By “alone” we do not mean leaving baby out of sight, but rather providing opportunities for him to investigate his world without being constantly entertained. (114)

And my most recent read, an enjoyable anthropologically-lensed narrative about an American raising her children in France, Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman, revealed some of the major differences between French parenting and American parenting.

First, the “cadre.” The idea of the cadre is that French parents give their children a stiff framework outside of which they may not stray, but inside of which they enjoy enormous freedom.  The cadre is a delicate balance- deciding early on what is acceptable and what is not acceptable behavior, and then allowing children to find their own way within that framework. As a teacher, I like this idea. I try not to be too nit-picky about everything, but I let my students know what my expectations are (both for their behavior and for their learning) and then hold them accountable to those expectations.  In American culture, I see parents and teachers both struggling with the balance a “cadre” requires. We tend to sway either towards the strict side, where every minor infraction deserves a punishment and yelling, or where children are given too much freedom early on–becoming little kings of their homes or classrooms–not willing to listen to any adult.

Second, according to Druckerman, in France the life of parents is not subordinate to the life of their child(ren). A mother is expected to be more than just a mother– she is encouraged to be a woman, a wife, a friend, and also a mother–preferably in that order:

In France, there’s an expression for mothers who spend all their free time schlepping their kids around: maman-taxi. This isn’t a compliment…. “You have to leave kids alone, they need to be a bit bored at home, they most have time to play.” (143)

In America, there seems to be this assumption that in order to be a good mother, you must subsume all of your needs for the whims and needs of your child. It’s expected that you will lose your figure, ignore your husband, lose touch with your friends, quit your job, and follow your child around at the playground praising his every step, in order to be a good mother. Frankly, that kind of expected sacrifice makes me wonder, why would any woman want to become a mother? The best model we can give our kids about self-reliance is to show how we are self-reliant and can take care of ourselves.

Third, the French trust in the child’s ability to understand social norms and to learn to cope with frustration from a very early age. In America, we expect that toddlers will be finicky eaters, incapable of sitting still at a restaurant or enjoying a dinner with the family. The French, however, seem to approach parenting with the idea that their children can understand social rules from a young age and that they can adapt to them:

The practical implications of believing that a baby or toddler understands what you say and can act on it are considerable. It means you can teach him to sleep through the night early on, to not barge into your room every morning, to sit properly at the table, to eat only at mealtimes, and to not interrupt his parents. You can expect him to accommodate–at least a little bit–what his parents need, too. (94)

I think that if we model and teach these expectations to our children early on, we can help them build their self-reliance. We don’t try to control the child, we teach the child to control himself.

It’s clear that giving kids a degree of independence, and stressing a kind of inner resilience and self-reliance, is a big part of French parenting. The French call this autonomie (autonomy). They generally aim to give children as much autonomy as they can handle. This includes physical autonomy, like the class trips. It also includes emotional separation, like letting them build their own self-esteem that doesn’t depend on praise from parents and other adults. (244)

I hope that when my son arrives, I will be able to remember the point of parenting: to make my child able to live without me as early as possible. The more my child can do for himself, the more I will empower him to live well in this world. Of course, I can help him build his self-reliance in a loving way, staying mindful of his needs, and praising him when he really does good work. But hopefully you’ll never see me on the playground, following my child with a camera, crazed-look in my eyes as I exclaim a running praise-filled narrative of my son’s every step: “You’re walking! Your’e climbing! You are such a good stepper! Wow! Look at you on those Monkey bars!”

Rather, I hope you see my son playing at the park, either by himself or with some friends, and me watching from a blanket in the shade where I’ve either got a book, a friend, or my husband keeping me company. It’s a play date for both of us: “Free Range” kids and “Free Range” parents. We’ll see what happens to these best of intentions…..

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Advice to A New Parent from 8th Graders

I am- very happily, nervously, excitedly, and exhaustedly- expecting a baby boy this summer. As I read up on all the latest parenting books, make notes about feeding schedules, wash all of the baby clothes and baby sheets and baby towels and baby blankets and baby hats, and generally start the preparations that every first time parent begins,  I can’t help but think a little bit beyond the first year.

Everyone gives me advice about the first few weeks, or the first few months, or even the first year, but what I’m wondering about these days is: what will my boy be like as an 8th grader?

I’m sure that, as a parent, I won’t be in the position to ask for “advice” about parenting from my son. Can you imagine the conversation?

Me: “Son, how do you think I’m doing as a parent? Is there anything I’m doing that’s driving you crazy? Am I doing anything detrimental to your emotional or spiritual health? How might I improve?”

Son: “Um, mom, I wish you’d let me play Xbox more.” or “I dunno. It’s fine.”

Now, I find myself in a unique position. As a teacher, I’m free to ask for parenting advice from my 8th graders without having to a) actually listen to it or b) be in the awkward position of hearing about my actual flaws as a mother from the mouth of my own babe.  So I decided, with 4 weeks left in the semester, to capitalize on my unique position, and ask my 8th graders for advice.

On my student course feedback form, the last question I asked–an optional one– was the following: What do you wish your parents knew? What would be advice you have for Mrs. W as she raises her son?

For all parents out there, both new and old, you will be surprised, amused, saddened, and enlightened by what my 8th graders wrote. I’ve copied their anonymous responses below (in all of their grammatical glory). Enjoy.

  • Expose him to the world.
  • One thing I would do is not make promises and say things that you aren’t sure will follow through.
  • Don’t force your kid to have to be like you. I feel like that happened to me with my brother and I wish i had more options
  • I think that getting out and doing things with friends from a young age is very important and a crucial building point for everyone. Finding a music club or play group is great to learn basic social skills.
  • Don’t choose his friends for him. Encourage him to make his own friends and let him keep the ones that he likes. No kid ever wants to be friends with someone that they don’t like. If he doesn’t like someone, don’t make him be friends with that person. Good luck!
  • Don’t let them watch too much TV as a kid, and avoid shows like spongebob that have no learning value. My parents made sure of this, and I feel like this has helped me appreciate better and more enriching forms of entertainment more.
  • Just do some activity with him like go to the zoo or the aquarium as much as you can because that would be fun.
  • Let him do whatever he wants except drugs. Drugs are bad.
  • Take spanish instead of french in kindergarden.
  • [L]et him learn the value of working hard for something and not taking things for granted.
  • Keep you temper with him. If he screws up, make him not want to do it again. Don’t just spank him.
  • I feel like discipline is a real big part in being raised up. I feel that a child should be given proper instruction while growing, but if you look back at a situation wre you think that you have been too hard. You should try to make ti up for him
  • Sports, get your son to play as many sports as possible, it is the most rewarding thing ever. I love sports (esp. baseball) and I can’t get enough of it. Also, get your son to start earning money as soon as possible, in any way possible, he’ll definitely want a steady stream of income to fuel his recreational activities later on.
  • Let the kid be a kid.
  • Talk to your baby while it is in your stomach because the more you talk to it, when it comes out, it will be more responsive to your voice
  • Don’t be to strict on your children
  • I wish my parents remembered the first 3 years of my life but they don’t remember anything about my baby years. Also sports are good.
  • Take videos and track milestones that the baby has done/completed.
  • I think one thing that you can do is let him chose his own path and always support him.
  • I wish my parents would not have physical punishments like spankings and instead they would have used other disciplinary actions.
  • Read. A LOT. Every day, read. If you get time off of school to care for him, spend entire days just playing to him and reading to him. It is worth it. My mom read to me from the day I was born, so I could read by myself at three-and-a-half (all credit to my mom.)
  • Don’t let him give up on something because if he doesn’t he’ll end up loving it.
  • I wish my parents had enrolled me into spy school. I’m joking. I wish that my parents got me a pet unicorn.Sorry about that but I can’t resist. So many punchlines. In actuality, I think that you should get your boy reading from a very early age, to inspire that desire to read and to learn very early on, which will carry on most of his life.
  • Some boys enjoy physical challenges, some like physicality as long as what is being done is not repetitive, and some dislike strenuous physical exercise entirely. Personally, i like strict direction and requirements (and exercise), but i complain because i enjoy arguments. Complaining doesn’t necessarily mean dislike.
  • Make sure to get him involved with sports, but don’t force him on any. Make him play a bunch of sports the first year he can actually start playing and then let him pick 3 or 4 that he really likes.
  • Always keep a good relationship with your son even as he gets older and make sure he is HAPPY.
  • i think something I think my parents were a lot better at is not getting really frustrated. Especially when you are a kid, you are going to mess up a lot and sometimes there is not much that you can do about it/prevent it. It is always really frustrating if your parents just yell at you or ground you or anything like that. I think something that would be really helpful is instead of getting grounded or yelled at, I wish my parents would help me a lot more so it wouldnt happen again, not just get angry. I am sure that Mrs. [W] would not get mad like that but my main point is just to be more lenient in the sense of helping a kid when they mess up (she is good at that).
  • “Look at Pinterest! They have a TON of cute ideas and everything. Also, make sure he knows and understands these quotes:””God is first, my friends are second, and I am third.””””Be the change you wish to see in the world.”””
  • Don’t make promises you aren’t sure you can keep.
  • Make sure to get him involved in after school activities/sports at an early age so he doesn’t regret it later.
  • Be understanding, caring, listen. Don’t be strict but also be in control
  • My pediatrician told this to my mom. “Know the quickest way to the hospital or minute clinic, because no matter what you do as a parents, boys will be boys.”
  • Be helpful when he needs you but don’t pry too much into his life.
  • Bundles of Love!!!!
  • First of all congratulations! I would give him a little freedom, and as he grows up start to give him more freedom. My parents dont like to give me freedom and i resent them for it. i was given more freedom as a child, and they havent given me any more than i had. because i got so much, i got used to it, and now that i am older and want more, they dont want to give it up. also be forgiving and dont hold things over them or they will just want to spend less and less time with you. if you are too strict, they will become more and more rebellious and not like you as much…
  • Since it is a boy do not name him John. My dad says that it is the hardest name for people to remember later in life. My dad’s name is John so he has a first hand experience. (People always forget his name).
  • Let your child make their own decisions, don’t force them to do anything they don’t want to but lead them in the right directions. Be understanding of the child and hear their whole story of things. Just always be happy around him and enjoy him.
  • Be cool, not too over protective.
  • Open mind– If a parent keeps an open mind, a child is more willing to talk to his/her parents about anything.
  • Get him involved in things early on, try to find what he will like and try to get him to stick with it.
  • Have patience!
  • “Have FUN with him!
  • – Since it’s a boy, make sure that he is a good gentleman!!!
  • Buy him lots of preppy clothes and make sure he respects girls.
  • Make sure to keep some time for yourself 🙂
  • Make sure your boy is properly raised and well-rounded in all fields. By this I mean have him involved in athletics, the Arts, rigorous academics, and anything else you can think of.
  • You son will probably try to climb out of his crib, so put pillows around his crib. I know someone whose kid did this every night!
  • Trusting your husband with babies is not always a wise decision.
  • If you want him to be really athletic (for example maybe in tennis) , then he should start practicing at a really young age. This will give him a huge advantage against other players because he has more experience then them.
  • Never tell your son “Good job, you’re very smart!” because they will grow up thinking that they are smart. Eventually they will start to get lazy to do work and to study. They will think that they are too smart and they will think that they do need to study or turn in work on time. This will turn into a bad habit of becoming lazy with school. To prevent this, whenever your son has accomplish something change the “you’re very smart” to “with your effort you did well!” Make them grow up thinking that it’s their effort that makes them accomplish things. This will get them to give their all in all things.
Posted in A Sustainable Life, Education, Pearls of Wisdom, To make you laugh.... | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Have Sports Become Too Intense?

Today, it is raining. Hard. There are thundershowers forecasted throughout the day. The high today is 50.

It looks like this outside:


I question: just because we have a turf field and it won’t tear up the fields to play, does it make sense to have 30 seventh and eighth grade girls standing out in the rain in a high of 45 degrees for four hours in order to play two games?

This post needs to be taken with a grain of salt. I will freely admit that I am a burned out coach. I have coached two sports for seven years, and, frankly, I am emotionally done.  The good thing is, I know that I am “done,” I know that coaching was not and never will be my passion, and I am taking a break from coaching after this current season in order to spend time with my new baby and husband. The bad thing is that, well, the thought of going back to coaching after my baby starts to grow up is not that appealing to me.

The second reason you need to take this post with a grain of salt is that, while I love playing sports and games of all types, I’ve never had the mindset that they’re that important. Sports were something I played as a kid because I liked the game, I liked being outside or getting exercise, and I liked playing with friends.  Later, in high school, sports were something I did because I had always done them. Now, as a coach, I just can’t get all that worked up about the life and death nature of a middle school girls basketball game. Even a varsity game. I firmly believe that sports should be played because they’re fun. End of story.

So, with those two caveats in mind, read on if you dare…

I think that the adults in charge of sports manage to kill the fun of them by making them too intense too early. Whether the death of fun happens in middle school, high school, or college, all too frequently, sports can turn into too much of a job for a majority of the kids who start out playing them for “the joy of the game.”

Middle school students are getting burned out of sports. How has a middle schooler had enough time to become burned out? They’re 13 for goodness sake!

Club Soccer provides a perfect example of this problem. I loved soccer when I was a child, and I was pretty good at it. I played on the gold team–a traveling team– starting in fourth grade. As a fourth grader, my family made the monetary and time commitments for me to fly to St. Louis, Washington DC, and drive me extensively throughout the state of Georgia in order to play soccer games. As a fourth grader. Looking back, I cannot believe my parents agreed to that level of commitment for someone so young.

In another moment of intensity, I almost got kicked off my club team for choosing to go to a school function instead of one of my club soccer games. I do understand that when a person makes a commitment, it’s important that she honor that commitment, but I couldn’t understand why my extra curricular sport that I was supposed to be doing for “fun” suddenly was running so much of my life. As you can imagine, I got so burned out from soccer that by 8th grade I had quit that club, and by 10th grade I had quit soccer all together.  The intensity of the expectations from the adults running the program had squeezed all the fun out of the game for me.

My former club soccer program and other clubs like it, I imagine, have only gotten more intense since then. I spoke with a teacher who has a soccer player on her school team who told the coach that she had to miss a school game because she had club practice. Thinking that the club coach might allow a middle schooler to choose a school game over a club practice, the teacher called the other coach up to ask for permission for the player to come to the game. My friend was floored by the coach’s response: “No she cannot miss a practice. For any reason.”  What kind of insanity is that? For any reason? This is something that child and her parents are paying to do. They are the clients, and they can’t choose whether or not to miss a practice? I think that is going a little too far.

Another example of how the adults in charge are making sports too intense is by the schedules that we ask our players to agree to at such a young age. Middle school sports practices are scheduled when students have days off from school. Easter break? No dice! See you at practice at 10 am! Teacher work day with no school for kids? See you on the field at 3:30.

Some coaches schedule games on both Saturdays and Sundays. It is de riguer now that Varsity coaches ask their players to practice or play games the day before and the day after Christmas, over all of Thanksgiving and Christmas Break, and to spend their Spring Breaks practicing or going to tournaments. To come to off-season practices and workouts in the summer. These are not extra sign-up-for-it-if-you-want-to-cause-it’s-fun events. These are mandatory.

All I can ask is WHY? What is the purpose of what the adults running these programs are doing? What is the purpose of the intensity?

What’s that, you say? We want to be good? It takes practice to become a competitive player?

We know that mastery comes from 10,000 hours of practice. It’s Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule. You want to get good at something? Do it a lot. Well, I’m all for that, except when adults start to make children make those commitments to excellence at such a young age. They turn the purpose of sports from something done for fun, for exercise, for character building into something done to get “good.”

Here are my problems with this excuse: 1) most of the middle schoolers who pick up a sport are not going to play that sport in college. And yet we require college level commitments of them in order that they “get good.” 2) Adults are the ones who make the schedules for practices and games. The adults make mandatory the commitment from the kids. The children have no say in whether they want to play in the rain in 40 degree weather. If they want to play ball on spring break or not. When we remove choice from the kids who start out playing because it’s fun, we start to remove the fun from sports.

Dr. Madeline Levine, clinical psychologist, has written several books about how to parent well and how parents can avoid the pitfalls of “over parenting.” One of the things she advocates is that children-and parents- need P.D.F.: playtime, down time, and family time.

I think sports used to be able to fit into the playtime category. But now they’ve become so much of a time and monetary commitment that sports  are starting to fall more on the “work” side of life. They’ve become something from which we need a break. Moreover, the time commitment from sports creeps in to the time which was once reserved for “down time” and “family time.” When there is not one day of the week without a break from sports, that sport has become more than just play.

Now, my husband disagrees with much of what I’m writing here. He says he loved playing every sport he participated in. He wanted to play baseball all summer, all spring break, and all off season. He says he wouldn’t trade a minute of it. So, perhaps I’m wrong.

But here is what I can’t help thinking: my husband didn’t go on to play baseball in college. He didn’t go on to play professional baseball. But baseball was a passion of his. He was lucky to find it early. I don’t know that the majority of the kids who play sports today feel that way about every sport they play.  I wonder how many of them feel more like me: trapped in a commitment that they thought was going to be fun?

I am sure there are kids out there for whom their sport is their passion.  They would choose to go play basketball over Spring Break, or they would choose to go play lacrosse in rainy, 40 degree weather. Doing so would bring them joy. Those kids thrive in the current sports environment, and I would not begrudge them that choice.

I just know that sports aren’t my passion. I wouldn’t choose to coach on my vacation days.  I wouldn’t choose to go to play baseball in the rain or a pick up game on Sunday. So perhaps what I’m really arguing here is that parents, admins, and teachers have to make sure that both the players and coaches have the ability to choose to go towards their passions full-on, and if they discover that their passions lie in another area besides sports–then they have to be able to choose something else, lest the intensity enjoyed by some become a reason for burn-out in others.

Posted in A Sustainable Life, Education | 2 Comments

A New Idea for the Gradebook

Now that I have begun using “I can” statements as a way of monitoring student progress and creating assignments, I have loved it. I know so much more clearly what my students know and can do, and they know better the expectations for their work as well.

However, now that it is grade reporting time, I’ve encountered a significant problem. The way the traditional report card is set up leads to unclear communication about what my students have learned. This problem is manifested in two ways.

First, my grades are super-inflated. Because I care more about whether students ultimately get the skill more than how many times it takes for them to do it, I let them re-do work when they don’t “get it” the first time. (The reasoning behind “re-do’s” is not something I want to debate or talk about here, but it is a worthy conversation.) Ultimately, however, many of my students have A’s–where in a traditional system, these same students might have high C’s or low B’s.

Second, if a teacher or parent were to look at my records of a student’s “I can” sheet, it would be abundantly clear to that teacher or parent what the student knows, how long it took that child to achieve that skill or knowledge, and whether the student had been responsible in completing the work. However, if a teacher or parent were to look at the grade report for that same student, the message would not match.

Take for example the following student’s work compared with his grade report.

I can sheet:


Notice all of the different color pen marks, scratch outs, etc. This sheet only shows about half of the process taken.

Grade Report:

Screen Shot 2013-03-14 at 11.42.29 AM

This high average is due to several factors, including the problem of averaging with assessments from the first marking period (since the grade report traditionally needs to be cumulative), and the fact that this report card shows nothing of the process Jimmy encountered. It took Jimmy many tries to achieve those marks in reading and writing, but that process is not listed here. The traditional grade book’s model–even one that uses standards based grading– assumes that process (or, lack-thereof, really) is averaged in to the overall grade, therefore the average is traditionally lower. Finally, the traditional grade book also doesn’t show that there are several assignments this student hasn’t completed. I will give this student an INC (incomplete) at the marking period if he doesn’t attempt this work.

This discrepancy between what I know and have records of vs. what my grade report shows leads me to wonder: what are grade reports for? In my recent conversations and in reading about assessment, it seems that there are two reasons we give grade reports. First, we give grade reports to show learning and process to both students and parents. Second, we give grade reports so that students can be “compared” to other students by our own school–for class placement, honor roll, etc– and outside institutions–colleges and those in the hiring world.

The current grade report we have is trying to do both at one time, and in attempting so, doing neither effectively.

So, here are my ideas for a new grade report that would meet both outcomes:

The important things to report for LEARNING include:
–Has your student accomplished the required skills?
–Has your student accomplished the skill at an acceptable or an advanced level? (ex. the difference between a 3 or 4 on the Gusky scale).

The important things to report for PROCESS include:
— At what RATE did the student accomplish the skill? (ex. did your student finish the work immediately and at a high level, or did it take him multiple tries? This is important process information because it helps teachers to know how much and what type of differentiation each child would need.)
— Responsibility (did the student meet deadlines, follow directions, take initiative, etc?)

The important thing to report for COMPARISON includes:
— Based on the above criteria, compared with the other students I teach, what “rank” in the class would you give this student? Top 10%, Upper Middle, Middle, Lower Middle, or Bottom 10%? (ex. I’d rank Jimmy as Middle overall.)

So here is what my *first draft* new grade report would look like if I were the boss:

Posted in Education, Standards Based Grading | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment