Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

“…not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” – William Bruce Cameron

What do we, as educators, need in order to be truly great?

When I was recently asked this question, I thought about the obvious answers:

  • Money
  • Resources
  • Time
  • Students who live in stable homes, aren’t hungry, and occasionally get some sleep
  • Community support
  • Administrative support
  • Societal and legislative understanding of what we actually do
  • A focus on student growth and development instead of standardized test scores
  • Hand sanitizer

…and then I thought about what our great teacher ed programs do to prepare their students to even become educators in the first place. What do these programs—like the one at Michigan State University—provide for their students and how can we build that into our own professional development model?

The answer is complicated, but it boils down to two factors: sustained mentorship, and sustained reflection, which go hand-in-hand.

The gradual release model of a good teacher ed program creates an environment for pre-service teachers in which they are constantly supported in all facets of teaching by multiple mentors. There is time scheduled for discussion of classroom management, pedagogy, work/life balance, mental health, assessment, and curriculum design. It is not uncommon to meet monthly, weekly, or even daily for supportive discussions to not only voice concerns but also to troubleshoot solutions. And yet, once we release these pre-service teachers into the wild, they become their own islands, drowning in the tsunami of papers to grade, emails to answer, standards to meet, meetings to attend, and hand sanitizer to apply. Even with new-teacher mentor programs mandated by the state, the time for supportive discussion is minimal. Instead, the focus is on survival. What is missing in these relationships and discussions is the time and energy devoted to the development of the whole teacher. Schools are a sink-or-swim world, and the survival mechanisms we develop in lieu of support are often unhealthy and pedagogically unsound.

And yet there is no time to think about it.

There is no time during the day, no time left after all of the assessments, no time in between all of the fires to put out (and the actual fire drills) for the sustained, supportive reflection that we all so desperately need. Because that’s what the teacher ed model of mentorship actually promotes and sustains throughout the program: long-term, intense personal written reflection.

I have mentored many student teacher interns during my career and this requirement for daily written reflection is a powerful piece of the developing teacher puzzle. MSU pre-service teachers are required to journal daily on their successes, their failures, their struggles, their joys. Although the degree to which the interns do this varies by person, the goals and results are the same: thoughtful reflection facilitates thoughtful teaching; a thoughtful educator is one who spends a great deal of time reflecting on all aspects of their participation.

But in the “real world” of teaching, who has time for this thoughtful reflection? Who has the energy? And if we are reflective, by nature, what questions are we asking ourselves? How do we constantly better our practice and celebrate our successes when we are neck-deep in crisis management and drowning in mandates?

I read a piece earlier this year that changed the discussions at my family dinner table (when we are lucky enough to all sit down to an actual dinner together); this piece suggests that—instead of asking each other “How was your day?”—to ask the following questions:

  • How were you kind today?
  • How did you fail today?
  • What are you proud of today?
  • How were you brave today?

What if we teachers had the time/took the time/demanded the time to ask these questions of ourselves every day? If not every day, then at least every week? If not every week, then at least once a month?

What if we added continued, sustained reflection to our workload? How might this work? When would it happen? What would the results potentially be? Because, let’s be honest. We don’t have time. Those of us who are constantly overthinking everything are doing this already in the middle of the night (or in a nightly bottle of wine). And those of us who are in survival mode don’t have the time, or the impetus, or the wherewithal, or the motivation to go down that rabbit hole.

And yet, without reflection, how will we ever do more than survive?

One place where reflection could be nurtured is during PD and staff meetings. We are already there, a captive (if not engaged) audience. Adding a systematic 10 minute written reflection might allow us to stop, take a breath, and take measure of ourselves, our practice, and our goals. But this reflection needs to be thoughtfully designed if it is going to be productive. And we need to be honest with ourselves and take stock of what we bring to the table. If our reflection centers around others (kids these days/parents these days/administration these days), the result is deflection, not reflection. Instead, we have to ask ourselves the following questions. Not all at once. Not on the same day. Not even in the same week. But systematically, we have to stop moving, take stock, and write.

  • How was I kind today?
  • How did I fail today?
  • What am I proud of today?
  • How was I brave today?


  • What student did I truly connect with today?
  • What student interaction do I wish I could do over?
  • What truly worked about the activity I designed today?
  • What do I need to rework in my lesson plans from today?


  • What are my greatest traits as a teacher?
  • What are the areas in which I struggle?
  • Why did I become a teacher?
  • Am I the teacher I thought I would be?


  • What is a different way I could teach that concept that I taught today?
  • Are my students engaged in my classes? How can I change this?
  • Are my students motivated? How can I change this?
  • What other ways could I assess the skills that I am teaching?


  • What do I love about my job? About this school?
  • What can I do to positively impact the environment in my school?
  • What relationships with other staff members can I build?
  • Whom do I admire on staff and how might I let them know?


How can I become the teacher I always wanted to be?

This might not affect teacher evaluations or student assessment or test scores or learning targets. This might not change the ways in which we and our students are measured.

But it might impact the ways in which we think about what we do and why we do it and who we are and who we want to become.

And this is what education should be about: supporting ourselves and our students so that we can all truly be the best that we can be.

This is what counts.


Participate with Intention

“In a hyper-connected world, we need to personally and intentionally connect with each other.”

When I graduated from Michigan State University in December of 1994, I knew exactly what my philosophy of teaching and learning in English Language Arts education was: after all, I was going to be Michelle Pfeiffer. Or, more accurately, I was going to be LouAnne Johnson, the teacher Pfeiffer played in Dangerous Minds. Armed with nothing but bravado and hip music lyrics and compassion and tough love, I was going to reach those kids, and inspire them to Rise! Above! And Fight!

Naive and simplistically dangerous (and culturally insensitive) tropes aside, I had read Leslie Hart’s Human Brain and Human Learning and I was struck with the ideas presented in brain-compatible learning. The interrelated ideas of the cognitivist construction of knowledge—using our mammalian brain filing cabinet memory to receive, organize, store, and retrieve knowledge (Ertmer and Newby, 2013, Hart, 1983)—working simultaneously with the survival-based flight-or-flight reptilian brain to keep us functioning above the “basic” level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs just made sense to me. Combining these ideas with (now debunked*) Gardner’s 7 intelligences, I steamrolled into the classroom, vowing to change the world one misunderstood student at a time.

It didn’t take long for me to see that these kids didn’t need a savior and they didn’t need to recite “Oh Captain! My Captain!” from their desktops; what they needed was to learn how to listen, and to learn how to be listened to. They needed to understand how to build meaningful connections with each other and with their world.

Over the last twenty years, my philosophy has evolved and decidedly matured. I still believe that we learn based on our social, contextual, and emotional selves and that the whole student must be considered if we hope to ever inspire critical thinking and social action. But years of working with students and learning alongside them has taught me that human beings do not live and learn in a vacuum. We are not–and cannot be–individual islands, fishing for our own nuggets of knowledge; instead we create and construct our knowledge by working together as a collective brain. If we are islands, we must be an archipelago, a community of learners.

Our learning community has to work together to have thoughtful exchanges and build meaningful ideas. Knowledge isn’t static and unchanging; as our world changes, our understanding of it changes as well, and the questions we ask of it and of ourselves must change. As Peggy Ertmer and Timothy Newby explain, “what we know of the world stems from our own interpretations of our experiences. Humans create meaning as opposed to acquiring it” (2013, pg. 55). This idea of the creation of knowledge is essentially constructivism. According to A. W. Bates,

Constructivists believe that knowledge is essentially subjective in nature, constructed from our perceptions and mutually agreed upon conventions. According to this view, we construct new knowledge rather than simply acquire it via memorization or through transmission from those who know to those who don’t know. Constructivists believe that meaning or understanding is achieved by assimilating information, relating it to our existing knowledge, and cognitively processing it (in other words, thinking or reflecting on new information). Social constructivists believe that this process works best through discussion and social interaction, allowing us to test and challenge our own understandings with those of others” (2015, Section 2.5).

When David Coleman rolled out his Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and insisted that the context of the writer and of the reader are irrelevant, and that the meaning exists solely within the text**, I knew that he was wrong. New Criticism, the theory of literary criticism that is the foundation of the ELA CCSS, is a cold and soulless interpretation of literature and of the world, and Coleman’s vision of the didactic sage on the stage guiding the Dickensian children to “understanding” is distasteful and arrogant. New Criticism is objectivism at its core. Objectivists believe that knowledge is something to be passed from instructor to student; there is an unspoken learning contract in place, whereby the experts teach and the learners silently learn and then reproduce said knowledge. But New Criticism as a literary theory and objectivism as a learning theory completely ignore how knowledge is actually created. They see no sense of community and they give far too much power to the “experts.”

Because I am an English teacher at heart, I spend a lot of time embedded in teaching, discussing, and reflecting on critical literary theory. Individual critical literary theories narrow the lens through which to read and understand and connect with literature, but these lenses, working together, provide a powerful way to view the world. If students learn to recognize their own lens (Reader Response), and then work to see through the lenses of others, they can make connections between each interpretation and between each other toward a greater understanding of the whole. Using the lens of New Historicism, students can unpack the social, political, and contextual influences and tensions in which the author was writing. Juxtaposing that lens with Marxism, students see the power struggles and imbalances inherent in the societies both within the text and within our own society’s interpretations of the text. Looking through a Feminist lens, students suddenly see the portrayal of the female and feminine, not merely as descriptors or supporting details, but rather as the primary storytelling voices, highlighting the issues within the text not as the issues of all mankind but rather as the exposing of the patriarchy and the experiences of the women—and all those who do not fall into the category of “men”—within that system. Using the various lenses of critical literary theory, we can strengthen our own ability to see outside of our own worldview, and we can push back at the “expert” worldview, and become thoughtful participants in the construction and understanding of world events.

Unfortunately, current teaching mandates don’t consider the learner as a meaningful participant in the construction of knowledge and understanding. Objectivist and behaviorist in nature, current mandates insist on direct instruction, that is:

‘Eliciting the performance’…creating opportunit[ies] for the student to show that he or she has mastered the skill and is able to demonstrate it to the teacher’s satisfaction. The systems model is based on a behaviourist approach and on the assumption that if skills and sub-skills are taught in the right order, in a systematic and comprehensive manner, then effective learning will occur. (Herrington, Reeves & Oliver, pg. 40).

This is exactly what my own district is demanding as exemplary teaching: a daily learning target, performance tasks, and success criteria. However, this model assumes that learning is linear: students are taught how to find the correct answer, they practice the skill, and then they show that they have mastered arriving at the correct answer using the taught and practiced skill. But this isn’t how students construct meaningful knowledge, and it definitely isn’t how students become critical thinkers and become fundamentally engaged with the world. We learn by wrestling with ideas; by pushing and prodding and poking at the ideas of others; by teaching and talking and taking stock of our individual and collective positions.

Man is inherently a connected being, not climbing the knowledge ladder alone, but rather constructing the knowledge together, a minecraft world of understanding. Our current educational systems and our current technology systems aimed at individualized instruction are at risk of creating isolation, not connection. Personalized learning, as is currently being marketed and sold as the new ed tech savior of our schools, is chipping away at our—and our students’—abilities to build human connections and create knowledge outside of the scope of the computer algorithms. In contrast,  Herrington, Reeves, and Oliver emphasize “the importance of designing collaborative, rather than independent learning activities” and they point out the “importance of diversity, rather than uniformity, of outcomes” (2010, pg. 43).

In a hyper-connected world, we need to personally and intentionally connect with each other and continually push ourselves and our peers to a better understanding of our individual and collective contexts. This requires constantly looking through multiple critical lenses. This requires diversity, not uniformity. This requires community, not isolation. This requires learners, not experts. This requires human interaction, not algorithms. This requires listening, and questioning, and communicating. Above all, this requires participation from all of us. Together.



Photo by “My Life Through A Lens” on Unsplash

* Gardner, in Scientists Making a Difference (Cambridge University Press, 2016) states that, although his work on multiple intelligences was crucial and critical to an understanding of how people think and learn, he did not scientifically test his ideas and that his theories, although contributing to our current understanding of the “plurality of skills, talents, and intelligences” (pg. 170), are, in fact, no longer current.

** Susan Ohanian unpacks David Coleman’s earthy rants against student context, personal reflection, and reader response, as well as his disdain for teachers’ providing “any biographical, cultural, or historical context” in favor of critical analysis of the text alone in her article on Substance News (2011) and links to the New York State Education Department videos and transcripts of Coleman’s choice words.


Bates, A. W. (2015, April 5). 2.5 Constructivism | Teaching in a Digital Age. Retrieved October 14, 2017, from

“Bringing the Common Core to Life” : Resources : Race to the Top : NYSED. (n.d.). Retrieved November 24, 2017, from

Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. (2013). Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism: Comparing Critical Features From an Instructional Design Perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 26(2), 43–71.

Hart, L. A. (1983). Human Brain and Human Learning. Books for Educators.

Herrington, J Reeves, T C Oliver, R. (2010). A Guide to Authentic e-Learning. New York: Routledge.

Ohanian, S. (2011). “The Crocodile in the Common Core Standards.” Substance News. Retrieved November 24, 2017, from

Sternberg, R., Fiske, S., Foss, D., (Ed.). (2016). Scientists Making a Difference: One Hundred Eminent Behavioral and Brain Scientists Talk about their Most Important Contributions (p. 170). Cambridge University Press.

140 characters: It’s What’s Happening

Education chats: meaningful interaction?

Disclaimer: I am not a fan of Twitter.

  • I find the platform to be confusing. I would rather get my news from other, easier-to-read feeds with full summaries in the feed instead of clickbait headlines or trucated statements.
  • The Twitter app on my phone is s l o w, it doesn’t seem to update regularly, I’m not sure why I get the updates that I do get, and it seems to drain a lot of my phone memory and battery life.
  • I can’t really post to Twitter effectively from my phone because of issues trying to cut/paste, hashtag, count characters, etc. This limits me to having to be on my chromebook or desktop in order to post or participate. I can lurk on my phone, but I can’t join the conversation there.
  • I’ve had very close friends end up in very hot water because of the public and permanent nature of Twitter posts and the lack of free speech protection awarded to teachers.
  • And finally, I like to talk. A lot. I can’t say anything profound in 140 characters. There’s never been a word count I can’t easily exceed. I want to have thoughtful conversations, and by the time I add in the hashtags and abbreviate every word I can think of, I end up with nonsense Twittergarble. Twarble.

Obviously, I tend to avoid the educational chats on Twitter, participating only when personally invited. I’ve been in several over the last few years, but only because I was invited by the moderator; in order to participate, I’ve booked the time into my calendar, locked myself into the bathroom so as not to be interrupted by my children, pulled up Tweetdeck on my Chromebook, and then participated. I’ve never had a bad experience in educational chats, but I’ve never walked away thinking, “Man! I just had an amazing conversation! I learned something incredible! That was deep!” Instead, my response has been, “I think I amused people; I got a few new followers. I guess I did okay. That was an hour.” My response has always been more “meh” than “yeah!”

This last week, I jumped into the #miched chat on Twitter. The topic was timely: standardized testing in Michigan. Since I was currently proctoring the SAT, ACT workkeys, and M-Step to juniors, and since my daughter was currently sitting in her classroom waiting for pages to load for several days on the 5th grade M-Step, this was a chat that I could participate in, was vested in, and could hopefully learn from.

Screenshot 2017-04-12 at 9.08.27 PM

And, the chat was okay. It was entertaining: the moderator had prepared a list of questions, managed the time well, and had a series of GIFs that were hilarious to accompany each question. The chat was upbeat and active. I earned several likes, several followers, and several comments/side conversations. I didn’t lock myself in the bathroom this time and instead attempted to function “normally” during that hour. I was able to put my Chromebook on the stove and make the kids’ lunches, load the dishwasher, and check their homework while I participated, which was definitely a positive. And the storify sent out at the end allowed me to see if there was anything I missed or could reconsider.

However, the chat was just okay. I don’t like that I can’t see all the various side conversations; I would have liked to read every thread in some sort of “chat web.” And, although the hour was fun, and although I felt personally liked by all the “likes,” I didn’t walk away feeling like I’d learned anything or had done or said anything thoughtful. I’d entertained a few people and I joined a conversation that was fairly positive by a group of actively involved educators about a fairly negative topic.

I guess that’s the take-away from it all, for me. The conversation wasn’t profound…but maybe I’m asking too much for every conversation online about education to be profound? After all, the conversations in the teachers’ lounge are much closer to The Family Guy and Dan Brown than they are to Dawson’s Creek and John Green. Maybe it is enough that I was able to connect for a bit with other educators having similar struggles.

I can’t say that my voluntary participation in #miched is going to change my views of Twitter, or that I am suddenly going to seek out opportunities to Twitter chat at every convenience. But, I can say that it was okay. And, for some, it might be the conversation that they are craving. For me, I will continue to participate more actively in other forums and occasionally lurk on Twitter. After all, the GIFs are amusing.

Candy in the Classroom?

This semester, I’ve been extensively exploring gamification and learning games in the classroom. I’ve always been conflicted about this concept, as I have found and continue to find many significant issues pertaining to gamification and game-based learning. Gamification, when used to simply manage student behavior by means of punishment and reward, is not much more than a fancy Skinner box helping us control our students. And game-based learning, if it does no more than introduce, repeat, and quiz students on pieces of disconnected information, is nothing more than a multiple-choice quiz with sound effects. Yes, adding games and gamification to a classroom can enhance engagement and motivation (Bunz, Aguilar, Gee, Hamari, Kingsley, Kopcha, Nah), but the benefits don’t always extend to achievement and deep learning (Hamari, Nah); Hanus & Fox  actually found that “students in the gamified course showed less motivation, satisfaction, and empowerment over time than those in the non-gamified class. The effect of course type on students’ final exam scores was mediated by students’ levels of intrinsic motivation, with students in the gamified course showing l
ess motivation and lower final exam scores than the non-gamified class” (2015).

In my own quasi-experiements, I have found that adding game-based learning and elements of gamification increased engagement but leaderboard_correctdecreased retention and application of skills. My students liked the additional game-based learning of vocabulary and grammar concepts, but their actual scores fell. They were focused on winning and beating each other, but in essence they were just trying to beat the game. They didn’t retain what they’d “learned” and they couldn’t apply that information to any other situation needing that learned knowledge. In essence, they learned the game, but not the content.

checked-namesIn order for gamification and game-based learning to be meaningful, it has to be more than just a rote-memorization game, or a behavior-modification tool, or even a fancy LMS system. Educators have to find ways to integrate meaningful technologies, but they also have to find ways to push back at the insistence that everything must be gamified in order to be engaging. Forcing a culture of competition and leaderboards in the classroom is no different than posting everyone’s grades on the bulletin board; controlling student behavior by extrinsic factors (positively or negatively) is just putting names on the chalkboard circa 2017.

There is room in a nurturing, inquisive, challenging classroom for game-based learning. But good pedagogy has to come first. Good teaching provides opportunities for students to explore, create, define, engage. Good teaching goes far beyond content delivery and behavior management. Good teaching extends and enhances and intrigues. Students can and should be motivated and engaged in the classroom because they are intrinsically being rewarded far beyond what external leaderboards and badges can offer.  If we are to meaningfully transform our classrooms with game-based learning, we need to have “clear goals about what digital media in school can achieve; the appropriate curricula, pedagogy, and assessment to reach these goals; and the right social and technical infrastructure to support the endeavor” (Warshauer, 2011). It’s up to us to figure out how to foster this intrinsic motivation and stop caving to bad pedagogical decisions because “kids like games.” After all, kids like candy, too.

 photo SimpEating.gif

Aguilar, S. J., Holman, C., & Fishman, B. J. (2015). Game-Inspired Design: Empirical Evidence in Support of Gameful Learning Environments. Games and Culture.

Bunz, R. (2016). Game-Based Learning and Gamification: Strategies for Effective Integration. Presented at the Retrieved from

Gee, J. P. (2003). What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. Comput. Entertain., 1(1), 20–20.

Hamari, J., Koivisto, J., & Sarsa, H. (2014). Does Gamification Work? — A Literature Review of Empirical Studies on Gamification. In 2014 47th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (pp. 3025–3034).

Hanus, Michael, D.,, Fox, Jesse, & (2015). Assessing the effects of gamification in the classroom: A longitudinal study on intrinsic motivation, social comparison, satisfaction, effort, and academic performance. Computers & Education, 80, 152–161.

Kingsley, T. L., & Grabner-Hagen, M. M. (2015). QUESTING TO INTEGRATE CONTENT KNOWLEDGE, LITERACY, AND 21ST-CENTURY LEARNING. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy: A Journal from the International Reading Association, 59(1), 51–61.

Kopcha, T. J., Ding, L., Neumann, K. L., & Choi, I. (2016). Teaching Technology Integration to K-12 Educators: A “Gamified” Approach. TechTrends, 60(1), 62–69.

Nah, F. F.-H., Zeng, Q., Telaprolu, V. R., Ayyappa, A. P., & Eschenbrenner, B. (2014). Gamification of Education: A Review of Literature. In F. F.-H. Nah (Ed.), HCI in Business (pp. 401–409). Springer International Publishing.


Warschauer, M. (2011). Learning in the Cloud: How (and Why) to Transform Schools with Digital Media. Teachers College, Columbia University: Teachers College Press.

What do you call a dinosaur with an extensive vocabulary?

“One of the key indicators of students’ success in school, on standardized tests, and indeed, in life, is their vocabulary” (ASCD, 2013). This publication then goes on to cite numerous statistics on the necessity of vocabulary, the expected and needed word acquisition levels of students, and the ways to best teach vocabulary, based on Marzano & Pickering’s Building Academic Vocabulary: Teacher’s Manual (2005).

I am in my 20th year of teaching high school ELA; I’ve taught juniors and seniors for 17 of those years. The drive for quality vocabulary teaching and for meaningful student acquisition and application of vocabulary knowledge is intensified in students’ junior year because of the SAT, a gatekeeper test that focuses on Words in Context on the reading test, and “consistent use of precise word choice” on the Essay. In my classes, I use a Marzano/Pinkering-based “4-square” system: I have students look up a definition and synonyms, parts of speech and pronunciation, etymology, and words related to the same root word. (Note: I do not have them draw a picture or use it in a sentence; I have not found that students draw pictures that actually illustrate the word effectively, nor do they use the word thoughtfully in a sentence. As an example: I challenge you to draw a picture that illustrates the meaning of the word “mundane.” And now, please use it in a sentence that clearly differentiates the meaning of this word as opposed to any other adjective…) Although this process I describe seems to do no harm, I am not convinced that students who are not “word obsessed” get much out of it. they don’t seem to make the connections between the vocab root word and various other words formed from that root; they don’t seem to clearly be able to use the vocab word in multiple ways, and they rarely seem to truly internalize vocab words as part of their internal lexicon after the test.

Enter  Claiming to be “the most intelligent way to improve vocabulary,” purports to teach “to mastery” with “clever usage tips and real-world examples.” There is a teacher dashboard with real-time statistics and student tracking; teachers can create and/or upload lists of words; teachers can also paste 100-page excerpts from passages into the list creator and let generate the lists. With both a free and a pay option, this seems like a low-risk experiment with a high-return potential. After all, if the site claims, “it’s a science” that uses “sophisticated algorithms” to create “an addictive game,” what is there to lose?

My plan is to sign up and implement for one month. It’s usable on any platform and highly rated on; they say that it is a “clever site [that] emphasizes word comprehension over memorization.” If the repetition, structure, and competition of this type of gamification of vocabulary will help students better prepare for the SAT and better integrate new words into their everyday life, then this might be a tool worth having in my teacher toolshed. Although I can’t decide if the statement: “You may not even notice that you’re learning along the way” is actually a selling point or not, I’m willing to give it a try. Besides, “it’s a science,” “it’s a game,” and “it’s free!*”

*note: I’ve spent $35 on the site so far this month…

Grammar Instruction

 (is slowly killing me)

When I got my teaching degree in the early 1990s, I believed that teaching ELA was all about building connections and fostering my students’ love of literature. I embraced Reader Response Criticism and I envisioned Writing Workshop to be the utopia of all things ELA. I was armed with Nancy Atwell’s In the Middle and Howard Gardner’s Frames of Mind and I was ready to change the world.

In my classes, I lived by the quote, “Anything I can say, I can write; anything I can write, I can read” (Weaver, 1988). My students wrote every Friday, exploring genres and purposes; the rest of the week we read literature together and created projects that showed our connections with the ideas or themes in the literature. I listened to so many student-created soundtracks exploring themes in Death of a Salesman that I finally had to ban “Father of Mine” from playlists for fear that I might lose my sanity. I still have faded student-created watercolors from “The Black Cat” and “Annabel Lee” stapled to my room divider. There is a metal jalopy illustrating the truck from The Grapes of Wrath on my bookshelf and a 3D representation of Central Park (“By any chance, do you happen to know where they go, the ducks, when it gets all frozen over? Do you happen to know, by any chance?”) from Catcher in the Rye on top of the back cabinet. We wrote, we drew, we built, we journaled, we made connections.

What we never did was rote grammar lessons. This was before the ACT and then the SAT became the end goal for all students and the ultimate measure of all teachers and districts. My students needed to be able to write in complete sentences, but they didn’t have their entire futures and my career hanging on their correct usage of a semi-colon. I did do pull-out grammar mini-lessons on mistakes I saw them making in their writing, and when grading, I picked one mechanics focus area for each paper to highlight and focus on for editing and grading and rewriting purposes. I knew that my students couldn’t really identify the subject or the verb, but since they could obviously communicate and read and write, I didn’t think that the terminology was necessary.

But I realized it was impossible to discuss mechanics if students didn’t have the terminology. How could you discuss sentence fragments or run-on sentences, or powerful sentences, or parallel construction, if students didn’t know that “running on empty” wasn’t a complete thought? I tried grammar games; I bought Grammar Grabbers in the hopes that we could at least make grammar fun. The kids hated it, and didn’t seem to have any better understanding of commas after a year.  I bought the Killgallon Sentence Composing for Middle School text (the high school text was way too complicated for my high school students), and students worked through professional authors’ sentences, modelling structure and sentence combining, and phrases and clauses. My students combined and decombined sentences but when I asked them what they were doing and why, they shrugged. They were just copying the book, because I told them they had to. I watched the AP listserve closely, following the discussions on mechanics, and bought the DGP (Daily Grammar Practice) series. The kids treated sentence diagramming like they treated math: you just plug numbers into the equation and hope for the right answer eventually. I brought in children’s picture books to have my students decode the rules of mechanics. They didn’t care. They could read and they could write. Why did they need to know the rules? I pulled sentences out of the books we were reading, to analyze the structure. “If a seed dropped did not germinate, it was nothing. If the young thrusting plant withered in drought or drowned in a flood of rain, it was no more to the driver than to the tractor” (Steinbeck, 1939). My students didn’t see the pattern. They didn’t care. They just saw that there was a drought and crops wouldn’t grow, and this driver guy didn’t care. They were ready to move on.

Our test scores remained stagnant. My students still couldn’t identify a verb; they surely couldn’t have a thoughtful discussion about the various verbs that a writer might use for impact. Our school implemented a mandatory test-prep course for juniors and now I was stuck with having to teach kids for a six-week block how to get better scores on the ACT. We dug through the ACT English test sections and worked and reworked those question formats and answer options. It was the most boring, soul-crushing “teaching” I had ever done.

When the state of Michigan switched from the ACT to the SAT, I didn’t have time to learn a new test (especially since the new test was reformatting to look like the old test and wasn’t even written yet) and reinvent the wheel in my classes. I needed serious help with the teaching of mechanics and I was exhausted. I had tried everything, from grammar in context to diagramming sentences. Nothing seemed to connect with the students. Everything took way too much classtime and had little lasting effect. My students were bored and frustrated. The ones who didn’t “get it” immediately saw no purpose whatsoever in studying grammar; the ones who did “get it” clearly got it and were ready to move on. So, I stopped trying to write my own materials and modify existing materials and instead went to Khan Academy for help. My students worked through the SAT Grammar portions of Khan Academy and I wandered around with a clipboard, giving them points for finishing grammar sections. The room was silent, except for the sound of the clicks as students answered multiple choice questions and reported out their scores. My students’ eyes were glazed. They didn’t care what their score was, they only wanted the bell to ring so that the hour could be over. They only wanted to be done. It’s as if school had become everything I’d fought against for 20 years. But I didn’t know what else to do.

I am not alone. Meaningful grammar instruction might be the singular curse of the English teacher. A Facebook closed group that I am in often has threads on grammar and mechanics instruction and practices that work or don’t work. NoRedInk has shown up repeatedly in these threads, with teachers raving about how their kids don’t hate it, and how easy it is to use, track student progress, and watch students “level up.”

NoRedInk claims to personalize grammar instruction, and it claims to connect with students’ interests. Students fill out a pop culture interest survey and then all of the questions they answer use their pop culture interests to build content. Teachers can set up assignments, quizzes, and diagnostics to determine what their students learn and what they know. And the questions are not multiple choice; students manipulate the sentences on the screen, working with punctuation and sentence structure.

At this point, I am willing to try. I know that NoRedInk is still not grammar in context. I know that “indivualized instruction” is not just giving quiz questions about Spongebob. I know that taking time away from meaningful instruction and inquiry-based explorations of literature and society and ourselves is not the kind of teaching I want to do. But, I also know that I have bloodied myself, beating my head against this wall of grammar and mechanics. I know that this type of program will do no harm, and that’s some relief. At the end of the day, will it actually get the concepts to stick in students’ heads? Will it be more engaging than Khan Academy or teacher-led grammar instruction and practice? Will it be a tool that I can use to help my students finally “get it”? If the students learn to successfully punctuate sentences about Spongebob, will their SAT scores go up? Will their future lives be fuller? Will they better communicate with others? Will they care?

NoRedInk claims:


Salinger, J. D. (1951). The Catcher in the Rye. Boston: Little, Brown. Print.

Steinbeck, John. (1939). The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Penguin Classics. Print.

Weaver, C. (1988). Reading process & practice: From socio-psycholinguistics to whole language. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Is it all just a game?


Game-based learning. Badges. Leveling up. Race the clock. Race the teacher. Leader boards. Competition. Rewords. Competition. Rewords. Competition.

I have always struggled with the idea of gamification in education. So many aspects of gaming feel out of place to me in the classroom. If, as Alfie Kohn would say, “A ‘grading orientation’ and a ‘learning orientation’ have been shown to be inversely related” and “Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking,” (2011) then wouldn’t the earning of badges and levels and names on leaderboards have the same effect? Aren’t the rewards earned in game-based learning the same thing as very visual and published grades? And why does everything have to be a race? Since when has critical thinking and reflection become synonomous with competition and earning badges?

The research on gamification in education doesn’t seem to show harm (Hamari, et. al; Kopcha, et. al; Nah, et. al). However, It also doesn’t convince me that learning games are effective ways to teach and learn. Having my students’ avatars quest their way through The Grapes of Wrath doesn’t feel like thoughtful contemplation on humanity and inhumanity, the roles and requirements of our government and social safety net, and the very real effects of human negligence and narcissism on the environment. And I’m not sure that leaderboards and badges are the way to unpack what is between the world and each of us as we read Between the World and Me. But — are games effective ways to teach in other content areas? Or to teach and remediate and practice and assess skills within my own content area that are not quite so dependent on humanity?

My own children come home with logon instructions almost weekly for the various websites and apps that they *should* be using for practice and “fun” to support the content they are learning in school. And yet, I haven’t really been able to force myself to encourage Spelling City or Xtramath or ixl practice. I’m much more likely to have my kids go outside and play. And if we are going to play games, I’d rather we all play Sushi Go! together instead of sitting and staring at glowing screens in silence.

In my profession, we have been encouraged to incorporate games for daily formative assessment. Around the building you can hear almost daily the echos of Kahoot music eerily anticipating the final bell of classes. There is a drive to do something, anything, to make the performance tasks manageable and the learning targets “fun.” There is a panic that we have to do something, anything, to get our students engaged and motivated in the classroom. And these are very real and very pressing concerns.

Clearly, then, I need to spend some serious time thinking on, reading about, and playing some education-based games. I need to figure out what the benefits and drawbacks are for me as an educator, me as a parent, and for my children and my students. I hope to figure out what aspects of various games are appealing and acceptable, and what aspects simply do not connect with my beliefs about teaching and learning and grades and competition and remediation and assessment. And I need to see if there are some gamification concepts and platforms that might enhance what I do and how I do it. If, at the very least, there are substitution and augmentation applications that I can use in my classroom, this would be a research road worth exploring. And if I happen to find modification and redefinition applications that would work for me and my students, this will only make my practice better. At the very least, this process will make my practice more informed.

I look forward to exploring.

  • Hamari, J., Koivisto, J., & Sarsa, H. (2014). Does Gamification Work? — A Literature Review of Empirical Studies on Gamification. In 2014 47th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (pp. 3025–3034).
  • Introduction to the SAMR Model. (n.d.). Retrieved January 21, 2017, from
  • Kohn, A. (2011). The Case Against Grades. Educational Leadership. Retrieved from
  • Kopcha, T. J., Ding, L., Neumann, K. L., & Choi, I. (2016). Teaching Technology Integration to K-12 Educators: A “Gamified” Approach. TechTrends, 60(1), 62–69.
  • Nah, F. F.-H., Zeng, Q., Telaprolu, V. R., Ayyappa, A. P., & Eschenbrenner, B. (2014). Gamification of Education: A Review of Literature. In F. F.-H. Nah (Ed.), HCI in Business (pp. 401–409). Springer International Publishing.

Virtually a Virtual Disaster

we’ve got to do something different

  • Clarke, J. H. (2014, September). Adapting Secondary Schools to Personalized Learning.
  • Colbert, B., Miles, R., Wilson, F., & Weeks, H. (2007). Designing and Assessing Online Learning in English Literary Studies. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 6(1), 74–89.
  • Guo, J., Marsh, H. W., Morin, A. J. S., Parker, P. D., & Kaur, G. (2015). Directionality of the Associations of High School Expectancy-Value, Aspirations, and Attainment: A Longitudinal Study. American Educational Research Journal, 52(2), 371–402.
  • Kim, R., Olfman, L., Ryan, T., & Eryilmaz, E. (2014/1). Leveraging a personalized system to improve self-directed learning in online educational environments. Computers & Education, 70, 150–160.
  • Milman, N. B. (2011). Is online learning for all learners? Distance Learning.

“Those offering online courses should provide even more supports to foster the success of all learners. This assistance should involve completion of high-quality orientation by all students, examination, development, and implementation of effective strategies to support students in online courses, careful monitoring of the reasons why students might withdraw from online courses, factors that contribute to their persistence, and also research about factors that promote the success of all students” (Milman 2011).

Virtual learning in educational settings is expanding exponentially. It’s cheaper; it’s more accessible to students anytime, anywhere, on any platform; it’s touted as the answer to the highly circulated myth of the failure of the American public schools system; and in Michigan, it’s the law. But it’s not working for our high school students in Michigan and it’s not working nationally. Unfortunately, because of the nature of academic research, most of the articles and studies I have found related to student success in online learning are all studies of higher education. There are huge differences between high school students and college students related to maturity, perceived power and control, choice, perceived relevance, apathy, long-term vision and goal-setting, self-efficacy, and self-control. Young adults are not “younger adults.” Studies related to engagement and motivation and success in virtual higher ed environments are simply not applicable to high school students. We have to do something different. We are losing our kids to virtual classes and they are losing out on a quality, meaningful education.

Rob Kelly, in “Five Factors that Affect Online Student Motivation,” posits that Brett Jones’ MUSIC theory’s factors of “eMpowerment, Usefulness, Success, Interest, and Caring” are the factors that contribute to student success. As per the usual, Kelly’s discussion is based on higher ed students, not high school students. In this way, the MUSIC theory misses the point: high school students don’t see the usefulness of what they are “forced” to learn, and it doesn’t matter how often they are reminded of “the real world,” they don’t believe or can’t see what the real world is like. Therefore, the other factors of empowerment, success, interest, and caring are absolutely critical for high school students to experience, if they are to be successful in their classes.

Unfortunately, much of the virtual class offerings for our high school students offer none of the remaining MSIC aspects. So much of what the students experience is predetermined, checklist learning. Student interests and student choice are not factors in their courses; in fact, their voices are seldom heard. Much of the course offerings are instructor-free. Someone, somewhere, built a course and it now functions as software, not as interactive learning with human beings. As one of my former students (enrolled in and currently failing an online sociology class) said yesterday, “Sociology is about human interactions; wouldn’t it make sense for a class about human interactions to have some?” In addition, the lack of feedback and the lack of interaction creates a student success vacuum: students only know if they got something right or wrong; they don’t know why, or what errors in their understanding they have, or how to move in the right direction, or what they are doing well. There is no support, no sense of community, very little connection with their interests, and no caring. Even the students with a “real, live teacher” in their virtual classes report having very little interaction with the teacher and no sense of who they are as people. The interactions they have with other students are stilted and limited; they don’t feel “real.”

Something has to change. It’s not enough for Milman (2011) to insist that students complete a readiness self-assessment before embarking down the virtual path; it’s not enough for Kim et al. (2014) to insist that an LMS module that encourages student goal-setting and reflection be a part of the virtual experience; it’s not enough for Kelly (and Jones) to tout the necessity for their MUSIC theory to be a part of the learning experience for students. High school students have different needs and different motivations than adult learners. They need to have that personal interaction, and we need to figure out how to make it happen. For my former student who is failing his online sociology class this semester, the solution is for him to bring his Chromebook into my classroom at lunch every day so that I can work with him and encourage him and high five him and nag him and make eye contact with him and remind him that he is worth it. Until virtual classes can figure out how to make this happen, I’ll be spending my lunches helping their students try to find and maintain success.