Entering the Grade


Here at the end of another semester I am settling into the moment that I have sometimes come to dread. Entering the final, permanent grades on behalf of a group of hopeful college students is not easy. And, to be honest, it comes with a handful of emotions that I have never really been able to reconcile.

I have many students for whom it is very easy for me to type in an A for outstanding work, but it is never easy to give others an F for unacceptable work.  I have a friend who has always reminded me, “We teachers are just the calculators.  The students are the final grade makers.”  That is certainly true and it does help to remember it, but it does not make it any less difficult.  I thought it would get easier as the years in the classroom passed, but after more than a decade of it, I can tell you, if anything, it has become, not really more difficult, but certainly more painful.

In one respect it is all about points.  Every project has a set number of points that are equal to an A, B, C, D, and F; and the student entering my courses embark upon this quest to fulfill as many of those points as possible by the end of the semester.  Simple enough – you generate enough points and you generate a good course grade for yourself.  I am just a calculator, and in the final analysis those points are all that really counts.

But then, the “messiness” of getting to know these people comes into play.  Every single person who enters my classroom is, well, a person with a name.  They have their good days and bad, their trials and tribulations, their families and jobs and dreams, their strengths and weaknesses…their lives.  I have had students who are moms and employees and wives; those who have struggled with addictions and abuse and anxiety; happy people and grieving people; quiet ones and hilarious ones.

No student is a robot, but this is the time that I in some ways wish they were.  It is the time where I have to grade them, these people I have come to know and admire; many of them just like me, who want to become the best teachers in the world, who want to make an eternal difference, and who want their students to learn so much that they become outstanding in their field. Whether they end my courses with an A or something far less than that, I know their names and very often know their stories.

Teaching is not for the faint of heart and entering the grade, it’s the toughest part.



‘Mr. Gumpy’s Outing’ – Look at this Book!

* Every Tuesday we introduce you to a favorite book from our secret book room.


Today’s great book: Mr. Gumpy’s Outing by John Burningham (1970, Henry Holt and Company)

Interesting Facts about the Author: “John Burningham – A Life in Pictures”

Time to Read: we read it just before bed

Summary:  from the inside cover…”Mr. Gumpy lives by a river.  One sunny day he decides to take a ride in his small boat.  It is such a perfect idea, for such a perfect summer day, that he soon has company:  first the children, then the rabbit, the cat, the dog, the pig, the sheep, the chickens, and still others until – Mr. Gumpy’s outing comes to an inevitable but not unhappy, conclusion.”

Best Quote from the Book:  “May I come, please Mr. Gumpy?”  said the pig.  “Very well, but don’t muck about.”

Our View:  I knew very little of the book of John Burningham until I was surprised on my birthday with a large hardback edition of his book, Would You Rather?, a wonderfully illustrated read-aloud that asks the reader all kinds of outlandish questions to determine what they would like to do on a particular day.  When I ran across the book, Mr. Gumpy’s Outing, I immediately knew it was his book because of the familiar illustration on its cover.  His style of drawing is immediately recognizable and interesting, while all the while beckoning the reader to open the book and get reading.  The cadence of the words is also a wonderful example of a superior read-aloud for children.  Teachers/classrooms and families/homes need this book!

Favorite Illustrations from the Book:


The Book of Equilibrium


In a course on family and teacher relationships that I am teaching at our local university this semester, we spend a lot of time talking about the need for equilibrium in the children’s classroom. I often think to myself, if one word could sum up a particular course, what would it be? For this course, the word is equilibrium.

There are too many children living in turmoil – disequilibrium – for all kinds of reasons and in all kinds of ways.

One out of 50—or about 1.5 million—American children are homeless each year, according to a 2009 study by the National Center on Family Homelessness.

On any given day – I said day – there are approximately 400,000 children in out-of-home foster care in the United States; annually about 650,000 children spent some time in out-of-home foster care in the United States. Children entering foster care remain there on average for nearly two years.

It is reported that more than 6 million children in the U.S. are referred annually to Child Protective Services, while some 3 million children are investigated for maltreatment and more than a half million of those children…I said children.. are determined to be victims of abuse or neglect.

Most all of these children in these and other stressful situations also go…to school.

Very often, the one and only place of peace is in the classroom of these children’s schools. That is why teachers can and should provide this priceless commodity – equilibrium – in a world so often full of disequilibrium. We often talk in my classroom about the fact that we can change very little in a child’s home and world and television screen outside the walls of their schools, but we can control the world that exists inside their classroom.

I am so proud to see so many young educators entering the field today who truly see that the needs of young students and their families are more profound than ever before…and that they find that challenge so compelling and important. Neither money or fame mean a thing to many of them. They just want to know one thing, “How can I help them?”

Education in America simply is more than high scores and a catering to reach only a certain population of students. We are not teaching robots nor are we teaching people to be robots. We must teach to reach them all. Every student and every family – and every teacher – deserves no less.

P.S. A few great books on the subject of teaching that will make you want to teach: The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer, The Hurried Child by David Elkind, and Once Upon An Ordinary School Day by Colin McNaughton.


451 degrees of Reading

 Claire 451

Fahrenheit 451 – do you remember it?  When Ray Bradbury wrote this stark view of a world in which books are illegal and firemen are sent to burn them and the homes they are found in, I wonder if he could realize the impact his book would have upon teenagers in 2013.

Both of my older daughters (whose English teachers have been the cream of the crop) read it as part of their 8th grade reading lists. It was an interesting book and its subject was immediately interesting to them because they are avid readers and lovers of books, but both of them began to realize with this famous work that reading some of these classics are a bit like riding a roller coaster. There are interesting parts and great paragraphs and eerie scenes, but also slow parts and confusing moments and difficult passages.

Because of the ups and downs in this particular book and sometimes feeling like they were having to force themselves to keep reading, I often found myself trying to encourage them to keep reading until the story could capture their attention again.

And then something great happened last evening! We were at a school event and our middle daughter’s wonderful 7th grade English teacher, Mrs. Adam, stopped to say hello. We were talking about the common struggle of reading these classic works of literature and our daughter told her about the difficult and sometime-drudgery of reading Fahrenheit 451.

Mrs. Adam said, “The reason to keep reading such things is so you can be ready for literary allusions in the future. The cultural impact of these books will always find some place in an interesting conversation. By reading them now, you will be ready for such things and you can think right along with the best of them.”

No wonder this is a person we define as a great teacher.  She could see beyond the day-to-day (or page-to-page) and into the bigger picture.  She was reminding us that there are important aspects of being a reader that only time will tell.  She was teaching.

The Coolest Maps of Childhood

This week in the teacher education class that I teach at our local college, we are talking about geography – what it looks like through the perspective of young children between the ages of around 4 or 5 to between 8 and 10, and how to teach it to them in a vibrant way. Our goal in any type of instruction is to start with what the learner knows and then bring them along in teaching them something we want them to know.  A map does much the same thing – it shows us where we are and where we want to go.

Map Winnie the Pooh

This is why this evening’s lecture is among my favorite subjects for one reason – these incredible maps!  When you think about it, it is really astounding how much maps are a part of our lives. Whether it is the three or four apps for maps that I have on my cell phone or the Garmin navigator in our car or the bookmarked map website on my desktop or those peculiarly large and colorful maps at the mall – we use them all the time.

Incredibly, some of your favorite books from childhood probably included a map.  For example, think of the classics like Winnie the Pooh, The Hobbit, My Father’s Dragon, and Treasure Island. Each of these books has the most elaborate and childlike map on their end pages or mixed among the chapter titles. Their illustrators inherently understood the powerful use of maps in the lives of children and books.

Map treasure-Island

And if you haven’t read the original Pooh books in years or haven’t looked over the wonderfully detailed maps of My Father’s Dragon, this is the weekend to do such things!

Here’s why – maps give children a sense of place in the world that exists around their home and in the world that exists around their imagination. So take them on a walk around your world this evening. Show them on a big map some exotic far-off place you want to visit with them before you die. Make your own map of the Land of Oz or Journey to the Center of the Earth this Sunday afternoon. Bury some treasure-filled shoebox in the backyard and make the coolest old pirate map drawn with crayons on a brown paper sack. Or instead of drawing it, build your map with blocks or clay or legos or even old fruit from the fridge! Your kids (and you) will love every word and every memory and every map you make of it.

Map My Fathers Dragon

Great Teachers

Thanks to Facebook, our oldest daughter (now in college) has reconnected and become friends with her 4th grade teacher. It had been this teacher’s first year in the classroom and our daughter loved her from the moment she introduced herself to the class. They read so many good books that year that, if you ask her, our daughter can name nearly every one of them by heart.

A few weeks ago, these two friends decided to meet for breakfast and catch up on life and school and good books; and they took a picture to commemorate two of their favorite books from that 4th grade year. Her teacher’s young daughter had a book of her own and joined in the celebration:

Emily and 4th Grade Teacher July 2013

And here is what I want you to know about this photograph. Behind that book on your left is a student grateful for her teacher, a person who made a little girl feel important and loved and smart and said through her words and her actions, “Don’t worry. I’ve got your back because I’m your teacher.”

Children of every shape and size and IQ and race and religion deserve a teacher who will say that to them and really mean it. Behind that book in the middle of the photo is one of those teachers. Take a moment to applaud her work and then Facebook one of your teachers and applaud them. You won’t be able to imagine how much it will mean or how important it will be to them.

“Don’t worry. I’ve got your back because I’m your teacher.” If there is a line separating what makes a good teacher great, that must be it.