Reaching Reluctant Writers

How do we inspire kids to be writers when they just don’t want to? This is the case for lots of kids. English Language Learners, perfectionists, those with insufficient experience or knowledge of a subject, those who prefer to tell stories rather than write them… the list is endless. Some kids (and adults) just don’t want to write.

Teachers can easily Google strategies to help reluctant writers- and find a plethora of resources to guide their lessons. The surest way to inspire writers is to be one… and share your ideas, your struggles, your stories. When I show a student the way I have used a certain strategy, in my own notebook, it shows them that I am in this with them- not teacher to student… but writer to writer. That is deep.

My Writer's Notebook. I need to fancy it up with pictures and ideas for stories!
My Writer’s Notebook. I need to fancy it up with pictures and ideas for stories!

This morning, I was asked to model a lesson in a sixth grade ELL class. The students participated in a Week without Walls experience last week, and their teacher, Mrs. Garrick, wanted them to write about it. Knowing that these two students were reluctant writers, I decided to show them a strategy that took the overwhelming pressure of staring at a blank page of many lines, and turned it into a fun way to hold on to memories.

The Model: I attended the EARCOS Leadership Conference last week in Bangkok. Looking back on my notes, I chunked my learning around 5 topics. I have 5 fingers, so I thought that if I traced my hand in my writer’s notebook, then not only do I have a place to brainstorm, but I have taken up some space, and won’t have to write as much (this is my middle school thinking). Genius!

Modeling the strategy
Modeling the strategy- trace the hand
Modeling the strategy- brainstorm the topics
Modeling the strategy- brainstorm the topics

Interactive Writing/Shared Writing: After I modeled my topics and journal entry, I asked the students to think about how they could divide their writing into topics. Since the subject was their Week Without Walls trip, they considered these topics-

  1. What was the best part of the week?
  2. What was the worst part of the week?
  3. What was most fun or most embarrassing?
  4. What did I learn?
  5. How did I make new friends or show leadership during the week?
Sharing ideas about topics
Sharing ideas about topics

Independent Writing: Hands were traced, ideas for each topic were jotted in the fingers on the page, and the writing began. They wrote topic by topic until they wrote to the very end of the page. “Now what?” they asked. “Turn the page and keep going,” we smiled.

"This was the best day of writing! It was so much fun! Look how much I wrote; can I finish it at home?"
“This was the best day of writing! It was so much fun! Look at how much I wrote; can I finish it at home?”

Sharing Time: I was barely able to get them to stop writing before the lunch bell sounded. My question was simple- what was different about today’s workshop, than other days? With smiles from ear to ear, they exclaimed…

“This was fun!”

“The topics made it easy to know what to write next!”

“The hand in the middle of the page meant that I didn’t have to write as much (even though they actually wrote more than any other workshop this year).”

This made us grin from ear to ear. Today we reached the most reluctant of writers.

My journal entry.
My journal entry.

Thank you, Mrs. Garrick, for sharing your wonderful students with me. I love spending time writing with you all and learning with you all.

Mrs. Garrick- fellow teacher, fellow learner, fellow writer.
Mrs. Garrick- fellow teacher, fellow learner, fellow writer.

Some History…

This post is not about me. I could only hope to be the teacher that he is.


20 years ago, I met someone who affected my heart and soul. Little did I know that he would affect the souls of hundreds of students- all over the world.

Shane did not start out teaching. He was an engineer for a huge company; and he hated it. The money was good, the benefits were more than fair, he ate donuts every morning. What could be so bad?

When we met, he had quit his career, moved 800 miles from home, and was waiting tables on the beach. Those first few weeks together, we began talking about the future. What were we going to do with our lives? His answer was very clear- he wanted to leave work each day feeling that he made a difference. I know, it sounds very cliche, but being a teacher’s kid, I got it.

Habitat for Humanity- Nepal
Habitat for Humanity- Nepal

Together, we became middle school teachers- because they are the best teachers (my completely biased opinion)! Even though Shane’s degree was in Humanities, his first teaching gig was actually STEM (well, what we would call STEM, 15 years later). After that, he was hired to teach science, then math. His passion was Social Studies, yet his years as an engineer were hard to resist for administrators.

Finally, he had his chance- but it was out of middle school and teaching in high school. Would that faze him? Any true middle school teacher is flexible, adaptable, and a little bit crazy. He handled it just fine. He didn’t change his philosophy. He still sang, danced, built collaborative projects, and loved his students. Kids can tell when a teacher loves his job; and it makes the class more enjoyable. When students WANT to attend class, they perform better. It’s not rocket science. He does miss middle school- that is where he truly shines.

I am so proud of the Master Teacher with whom I share my life. He is humble, though. He does not save the letters from former students who are now at MIT, UCLA, or Northeastern. He did not want his graduation speech shared on YouTube. He does not know I’m writing this. He doesn’t “follow” me.

Teachers, when you receive those sweet notes from students… keep them safe. Scan them and put them on your website. You do have a website, right? Check out our website, it has a little bit of everything (shameless plug to follow):

He leaves tonight for Manila. His Varsity Boys Soccer team have a tournament. I guess I am missing him already. Travel safe.


Teams with Poor Coaching Don’t Win the Big Game- in learning, every day is the Big Game

Some people work better on their own; I am not one of those people. I like being part of a team. I like everything that being on a team means… building a plan together, stretching together, practicing together, playing together, succeeding together, failing together, reflecting together, and improving together.

As a teacher, I was so blessed to work on some amazing teams of teachers and students. A few that come to mind are the grade 6 team at ACS Beirut (2001-2003)- we were energetic, passionate about learning, and made learning fun! The Dream Team of Seven Springs Middle School (2003-2005)- we took interdisciplinary learning to a whole new level, looping allowed us to really bond, and I worked with master teachers. DEMS (2007-2011)- I found my philosophical twin, and we team taught the heck out of grade 8- always keeping the students’ emotional well-being ahead of everything else!

Sometimes I was being mentored; other times I was the mentor. That’s what teams do- everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, and everyone helps their team improve. No one is better than anyone else. PS- I am including students in my definition of team, so should you.

Being part of a team was what made teaching and learning so meaningful, but here I was, an administrator- with no team. I was lonely.

Then something happened… Something significant… Something that gave me goose bumps. I realized that being an administrator meant taking on the role as the coach of a team. A coach’s job is to inspire as a team, set goals as a team, learn as a team, communicate and model effectively as a team, play-succeed-fail as a team, reflect and improve as a team. Every team needs good coaching or the players are just playing for themselves.

This realization came last week during a professional development day. Grades K-5 team leaders assembled with their principal and me to develop division-wide Enduring Understandings and Essential Questions for the writing units of study. Here is how we worked as an effective (and totally awesome) team:

  • We built a plan together- What are the lifelong learning goals of writing?
  • We stretched our thinking together- What do we already know, and what do we need to know, about the significance of being lifelong writers?
  • We practiced and played together- What work have we done that is meaningful and should be honored?
  • We succeeded together- What are we doing well and is worth continuing?
  • We failed together- What should we stop doing, and why?
  • We reflected together- What did we used to think and what do we now know?
  • We improved together- When can we do this with other subjects? This was powerful!
K-5 Teamwork! Photo credit: Krista Roll
K-5 Teamwork! Photo credit: Krista Roll
K-5 Teamwork- Succeeding Together! Photo credit: Krista Roll
K-5 Teamwork- Succeeding Together! Photo credit: Krista Roll

Think about the inspiring coaches and teammates that you’ve had over the years. If you don’t have that same inspiration and passion to win the Big Game, then make some changes. Your team, whether they are colleagues or students, need a quality coach. Don’t let them down!

Teachers are Just Big Students

Passing notes, checking email, stalking Facebook, needing a bathroom break- no, I’m not describing the actions in a typical middle school class, I am describing staff development meetings across the world. I should know; I’ve been on both sides of them. Teachers (myself included) are definitely the worst behaved students I have ever seen.

Does this look familiar?

Like students who sit in our class each day (hopefully more engaged), teachers have the same fears every morning as they walk through the school doors:

  • Will I be evaluated fairly?
  • Are my peers judging me?
  • How will I adapt to all of the changes that occur year-to-year, week-to-week, and day-to-day?

Teachers are constantly being evaluated. Even when your administrator says that they are not evaluating you, they are. It’s human nature. They want to know what, why, and how you are teaching- that’s their job. Some administrators will ask for daily or weekly lesson plans, while others will access your unit plans at any time. Hopefully, your administrators will regularly visit your classroom and observe you in your natural environment. Maybe it’s a quick pop in every week or a formal observation each semester; either way, as long as you are the best teacher you can be, it’s a piece of cake. Always ask for feedback.

The fears you have about evaluation are the same as your students. You are always evaluating (I prefer assessing) them. You want to know what, why, and how they learn- that’s your job. You walk around and informally listen to their discussions or observe their work. You formally assess their learning of understandings and skills. As long as you are the best teacher you can be, it’s a piece of cake. Always give them feedback.

Teachers are curious about other teachers. Are they better, worse, more loving, too uptight, team players, or doors-closed-doing-their-own-thing teachers? I know some fantastically dynamic teachers who want to curl up in the fetal position and cry when asked to invite colleagues to observe them. We are so afraid for others to see our weaknesses, but how do we improve if we don’t invite others in to observe and help us reflect in our teaching? We need to trust each other and always presume positive intentions.

The fears you have about your peers’ opinions are similar to your students. Are they smarter, stronger, friendlier, more loved, perfect-in-every-way students? Kids are very aware of how their classmates are treated, and they are quick to pick up on that, so we need to treat all students equally and fairly. Students are also vulnerable and feel humiliated when their peers see them struggle. It is our job to protect them. We want students to presume positive intentions about one another as well.

Finally, how are teachers expected to adapt to continuous changes in leadership, standards, curriculum, schedules, report cards, technology, new students, leaving students, and more? Do other professions have this many changes year after year? I can’t think of a single one.

My advice is the same that I would give students who are dealing with the same changes and more…


slow down,


reflect on what’s important right now,

and do it well.

Then give and get feedback and presume positive intentions.

Seriously… Kids Really are Counting On You! Inspire them and be a teacher worth remembering.

Imagine that you are a student. It is 6am, you’ve pressed snooze 3 times, and your first thought is of a specific teacher. How does that teacher make you feel?

  1. “I am so excited to go to school! My teacher is always happy to see us, and includes us in planning our units and projects. The time goes by so fast, because we are always moving around and doing interesting things that keep us on our toes and learning in new ways. I feel safe to make mistakes and don’t stress out when we have a test since the tests are fair and allow us to talk about what we learned.” – Sounds like a Master teacher!
  1. “I wonder what today will be like? Sometimes we learn really interesting things and have some fun; we even get to talk about our thoughts and ideas. Other times it seems that we’re all in trouble and don’t know why. Usually we can tell as soon as we walk in and look toward the teacher’s desk. Unfortunately, if it’s a bad day, we are stuck working out of the book and no one’s allowed to talk. It’s not fun to guess what kind of day it will be.” – Oh, boy, that sounds like a moody teacher.
  1. “Ugh, I don’t even want to go to school. All we do is the same thing every week. Read the pages, complete the worksheets, go over the homework, take the test, and repeat for 30 weeks. Sometimes we are lucky enough to get a project, but it’s the same project this class did last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. This teacher must be as bored as their students. I guess I just have to survive the year.” – This is the meh teacher. Most of us have had at least one of these- every year of middle and high school. It’s not you, is it? 

Are you a master? Are you moody? Or, are you… (shoulder shrug goes here) Meh? Trust me, your students see you in one of those categories. Understandably, expecting a master teacher every day may seem unrealistic. We all have a few bad days, but if you are not inspired to be the kind of teacher who inspires kids to have a passion for learning, then please remind me why you are a teacher?

The best part is that you get a chance to be better, every single day! All it takes is an honest conversation with your students. What do they love about your class? What would they like to see changed? Why? How? Students expect feedback to make them better learners. Shouldn’t we expect feedback to make us better teachers?

Be brave, teachers! Kids are counting on us to inspire a passion for lifelong learning. Workbooks and textbooks don’t cover that. Be better than that. Don’t you want to be remembered as a great teacher?

A Shout Out to Teachers with Teacher Kids in their Class – I Feel Your Pain and Appreciate YOU

     It’s not easy, I know. My first year teaching, I had the daughter of my principal in my 8th grade English class. I think that is when I first broke out in hives. I knew that everything I said and did was being discussed at their dinner table each evening. It made me very conscientious about my lessons, my homework, my feedback, and my grading. I was a GREAT teacher that year.
     The next year, I did not have any children of colleagues- to be perfectly honest, my teaching practices were not nearly as polished or exciting as that first year. I relaxed, my teaching relaxed, I did not become better- I became lazier. I am so ashamed to admit this, but I am sure there are others like me out there. Right?
     Once I began teaching internationally, teachers’ kids were everywhere- in every class. I stepped up my game, but this time, for the RIGHT REASONS. I made sure that there was no room for error, no matter who was in my class. I worked really hard to build strong relationships with my students; I needed their trust, their respect, and their love – families were counting on me. Of course, I’m human, I had my fair share of struggles and “off” days- I learned and grew from them.
     In the back of my mind, I began considering these 3 questions:
If my child was in this class…
  • would they get it (purpose, instructions, feedback, assessments)?
  • would they feel liked, loved, challenged, and happy?
  • would they be getting the best effort from their teacher?
I am asking you to ask yourself these questions as often as possible,
if not every day of every year.

And to the teachers of my outspoken children- past, present, and future…
for putting up with us,
for putting up with them,
for giving your heart and soul to teaching and learning.

I would like to leave you with my favorite TED Talk from a truly inspiring teacher. Every day should be Teacher Appreciation Day 🙂

Stay Human, Teachers

As I was packing up and deciding what is worth saving or chucking, I came across some letters that were written to me by former students- 10 years ago. They reminded me of my favorite part of teaching- building relationships with kids. It was easy to teach curriculum when students felt loved, respected, and equal. They were as eager to be passionate about learning, because we were all in it together. We laughed together, cried together, and taught each other- I miss that.

As years have passed, and teachers rely more on technology to get information to students (Let’s face it, technology is pretty cool, and we want to use it!), I am afraid that the valuable relationship that is so necessary between students and teachers is deteriorating. We need to step back, teachers, and examine why and how technology should enhance our relationship with students, not separate us. Technology should be making us better, right?

Virtual classrooms can be amazing! Virtual classrooms can also be confusing, frustrating, and needless. These are the types of questions we must ask ourselves:
1. Is my virtual classroom simple and easy to navigate?
2. Is it aesthetically pleasing and friendly?
3. Is everything that students can see relevant to this unit or current learning?
4. When was the last time a colleague looked at YOUR virtual classroom and helped make suggestions to make it more student-friendly?

I am also concerned about other types of communication between teachers and students, and how technology can take away from our purpose of teaching and further separate us from our students. If students must rely on looking at virtual classrooms to know when assignments or projects are due, understand instructions and expectations, and figure out how they will be assessed- then what are we teaching? This is not the way to support and encourage independent learning. Teachers must guide students to be independent learners by…
– Creating a basic framework- objectives to be learned, purpose, timeline
– Getting student input- project design and process, checklists, rubrics
– Modeling expectations- throughout the process, in class, with your own work/writing
– Giving effective feedback- at each step, personalized, compliment + teaching point
– Opportunity for reflection- of purpose, of their own work (and team), of the process, of learning.

The relationship between teachers and students is so important, and we need to figure out how to keep that personalized relationship while using technology to enhance our classroom. Kids want to be loved, respected, and equal. Let’s not forget that at the end of the day, it’s about them. Not what we’ve taught them, but who they are, who they become. What will the letters from students say about you as a teacher?

Take Your Passion, and Make it Happen!

What a feeling!

This song from Flashdance has been on my mind for the last few days, and I have a good reason for it. I somehow lucked out and was asked to help recruit teachers to join our organization. Now, some may say that the exotic locale of the recruiting fairs was the reason for my rejuvenation. They would be incorrect.

Picture this: 600 eager, international educators looking for a new adventure in a foreign land. Oh, the choices… Shanghai, Warsaw, Dubai, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur. Yes, yes, they all sound like marvelous places, but the true super stars were wanting to join us in the Magic Kingdom. They knew the real deal- ISG is shaking things up!

Recruiting fairs are stressful, frantic, and very judge-y (unfortunate, but true). The gates open, teachers slowly approach the recruiters, hoping to be chosen for an interview. Then, the interview happens in a hotel room (yes, weird) and is completed in 30 minutes or less. It is speed dating, but the 2nd date lasts 2 years- contractually! This means you have to choose wisely and go with your gut. Oh, the stress!

You can tell a lot about a teacher candidate when you ask them to describe a typical class. The magic happens when the nerves go away and they are transported from the hotel room to their classroom. Their eyes widen, their smile grows, and the passion they have flows out into the room. I was so invigorated with their storytelling, student-focused lessons, and love for their students. These are the candidates I wanted to spend more time getting to know. Passion is not taught or learned; it’s in your heart and soul. I totally get these teachers.

So, thank you to all the passionate teachers and administrators who eat, sleep, and breathe LEARNING and KIDS! There are lots of us out there.

40. Unemployed. Bruised Ego. Never Been Happier.

40- Yes, it’s happening. I am turning 40. I remember my dad turning forty; we had a big party. I recall lots of black balloons and over-the-hills. I don’t remember my mom turning forty- it was probably a quiet occasion.

Unemployed- Yes, I said it. I don’t have a job for next year. Am I surprised? Yes. Am I worried? Completely. Have I lost faith? No.

Bruised Ego- In the past 2 months, I have been long-listed, short-listed, a finalist, and even runner-up for several new jobs… great opportunities for our family, in many fantastic places. Then again, I have also applied for positions where I didn’t even get a response, period. I am a pretty humble person. I never claim to know everything or be better than others. I own my mistakes and my faults. However, don’t let my smile fool you; I feel I’ve been punched in the gut when someone doesn’t see my value, my hard work, my overall wonderfulness (she says with humility).

Never Been Happier- So, how can that be? I am turning the dreaded 40, I don’t know where we will be living or working next year, nobody wants me!! Well, I am finally happy being me. Life is pretty good- I have a great husband and awesome kids. I believe in what I can bring to a school- as a leader and a learner. A new adventure awaits!

Why am I writing this on my learning blog? We are all on a roller coaster ride. Colleagues, as well as students in our classes, are going through highs and lows in their life. As much as we’d like to leave our worries at home, it’s almost impossible. All we can do is offer to listen, give a friendly hug, and offer chocolate.

On the other hand, I have also been told to “Suck it up, children in Africa are starving!” So, whatever works- know your audience. ☺

No Recess For YOU!

It’s true, there are teachers who punish kids by taking away their recess time. These are probably the teachers who also require students to sit in the same hard seat, for over an hour at a time, without being allowed to stand up, wriggle, or stretch. Don’t even think about going to the bathroom (I already let you out once this week to do that. If you choose to go, write your name on the board), these teachers must have super bladders.

These are some of the reasons I’ve heard from teachers (and students) for losing recess privileges:
1. You did not finish your homework last night
2. You did not get your homework journal signed last night
3. You did not do well on your assessment, you need to stay in and do extra problems
4. You were talking to your neighbor, disrupting class, misbehaving – so you owe me fifteen minutes

For every reason I have heard, I have a response: Let’s look at the WHY:
1. Why weren’t you able to finish your homework last night?
o I already spent most of the evening doing homework, and I just got too tired;
o We had unexpected guests for dinner last night;
o I had a baseball game.

RESPONSE: I totally understand. Just let me know if you have any questions, and I’ll be glad to help you.

2. Why didn’t you get your homework journal signed last night?
o I forgot;
o My parents forgot.

RESPONSE: I totally understand. Just let me know if you have any questions or concerns, and I’ll be glad to help you.

3. Why did you struggle with this assessment?
o I didn’t study as much as I should have;
o I thought I knew it all;
o I was having a bad day.

RESPONSE: I totally understand. Just let me know if you have any questions, and I’ll be glad to help you.

4. Why were you being disruptive today?
o I didn’t get enough sleep;
o I already know how to do this and I’m bored;
o My friend had a question and I was helping them;
o I’m having troubles at home;
o You lost me at the beginning of the lesson.

RESPONSE: I totally understand. Just let me know how I can help.

Students are human. They forget, they struggle in school and at home, they talk out of turn – just like the rest of us. If teachers build personal relationships with each student, then trust follows and quality habits form.

Recess is so important. This is time for students to be active, work on their social skills, and relieve daily stress. Don’t take it away!