This Year, Students Introduce the Teacher


Sometimes when I’m out running, especially along the stretch of bike trail that is closely flanked by forest on one side and a thirty-foot high wall on the other, I’ll pass a woman and wonder if my presence causes her any concern. Do I appear threatening? Does she grip a little more tightly a concealed container of mace or review the self-defense tips she learned from her sensei?

I like to think that I don’t inspire fear, that my smile (forced as it is when I’m running) is one of encouragement and not lascivious deviance. But here’s the thing: it’s not up to me. Ultimately, she is going to think what she is going to think and all I can do is keep running (and definitely not wink or compliment the gracefulness of her stride).

This past year I realized something: students see me the same way and I have little control over it. In a new building this year, students will know nothing about me except that I’m a teacher (and even that simple fact is open to diverse interpretation).

In the past, I’ve fed classes quick autobiographical sketches filled with tidbits of information that were meant to humanize me and demonstrate my professionalism. These introductions included facts like these (with the implied message in parentheses):

  • I am married and have three kids (Someone loves me).
  • I’ve taught now for X years (I have experience and you should respect that).
  • I have published blah, blah, blah (Bow, suckers, in the face of genius).
  • My name is pronounced sker, as in, “Don’t be sker” (Don’t worry, I can also be cool and speak just like you!).
  • I’m scared of swans, whales, and emus (I’m so crazy—you’ll just love me when you get to know more things about me like that).


    Some of my artifacts: a piece of my art from high school that my mother saved, a rocket football trophy, and a paperweight for 10 years of service in my district.

This year I will say nothing about myself. I will let my life speak for me and allow the students to share their own perceptions. I have compiled a set of artifacts and primary documents from my past, which includes:

  • My birth certificate, marriage certificate, and the certificate from my college dorm where I was voted Most Laid Back.
  • A magazine with an article I wrote, but also a stack of rejections, including one that complimented my use of “poop jokes.”
  • My own IEP from when I needed speech therapy, the result of a cleft palate (a letter from the Cleft Palate Clinic is included)

Much like any primary source document analysis, students need to study each piece to see what they can learn (will anyone notice that the minister who performed my wedding shares the last name of my wife? and will they correctly infer that it is her father? or that my wife was born in the Philippines?) So instead of me talking about myself with nobody listening, students are actively involved. The benefits as I see them:

  1. Instead of students silently judging me, I get to hear what they think (do they seem impressed by my publications or put off?) and I can respond accordingly.
  2. Not only do I learn about what they think of me, I get a glimpse into how they think. How keen are their powers of observation? How well can they infer and how willing are they to speculate? Do they synthesize what they learn from different information?
  3. And lastly, who knows, maybe I’ll even learn something about myself. 


    Then and now. Strangely, I don’t miss the hair.


From Cloned Thoughts to Passionate Voices


How to engage young writers, to penetrate these developing minds. The thoughts in the boxes are my own (though not necessarily original). They came back to me as I read Nonfiction Matters: Reading, Writing, and Research in Grades 3-8, from which I took all the quotes.


The Deepest Intuition of Truth

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“Let the preacher tell the truth. Let him make audible the silence of the news of the world with the sound turned off so that in the silence we can hear the tragic truth of the Gospel, which is that the world where God is absent is a dark and echoing emptiness; and the comic truth of the Gospel, which is that it is into the depths of his absence that God makes himself present in such unlikely ways and to such unlikely people that old Sarah and Abraham and maybe when the time comes even Pilate and Job and Lear and Henry Ward Beecher and you and I laugh till the tears run down our cheeks. And finally let him preach this overwhelming of tragedy by comedy, of darkness by light, of the ordinary by the extraordinary, as the tale that is too good not to be true because to dismiss it as untrue is to dismiss along with it that catch of the breath, that beat and lifting of the heart near to or even accompanied by tears, which I believe is the deepest intuition of truth that we have.”

― Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale

New Punctuation

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Bailey Lake Michigan Writing Project 2013

I know many of you thought of needs for additional punctuation marks. I heard some of you say that emoticons have take the place of punctuation to show how we are feeling when we write something.

Here are some ideas I found on the Internet:

8 New Punctuation Marks - Image 108 New Punctuation Marks - Image 108 New and Necessary Punctuation Marks - Image 18 New and Necessary Punctuation Marks - Image 18 New and Necessary Punctuation Marks - Image 18 New and Necessary Punctuation Marks - Image 18 New and Necessary Punctuation Marks - Image 18 New Punctuation Marks We Desperately Need - Image 10

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Assessing Students’ Writing

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“I think anytime we assess writing, we are assessing not only out students’ progress but our own teaching.”

Mark Overmeyer, What Student Writing Teaches Us

I’ve reached a point where I can point out some flaws in an adolescent’s baseball swing. I’m a good enough golfer that I can usually tell what I’ve done wrong when (not if) a shot turns out poorly. But help with someone’s jump shot? Critique a painting? No, thank you. These things require a certain level of expertise: those who can’t, teach, is an overstatement.

Judging other people’s writing is intimidating. Even for a skilled writer the task has to be approached with a great deal of humility. Add then the responsibility of having taught the writer and the experience can wind up sounding something like this:

          Paraphrasing Descartes (I think):

I helped you. You sucked. Ergo, I must suck.

This is, of course, not what we tell students or put on progress reports. This is that internal voice, that mousy-haired raven with the voice of someone named Mr. Bobledyk or Mrs. Tebos who still scolds our adult selves for not being good enough or smart enough and intimates that we are, indeed, nothing more than a sham.

But judge, er, assess we must. The question is how do I it meaningfully and manageably? The next question is how does it inform my teaching so I can do better so they can do better?

Who knows what sort of pedagogical mandates I will face come fall. But here are two I might: the use of John Collins and some type of rubric, probably the six-point holistic variety. I’m not one for diatribes and I don’t have any fundamental issues with either of these. But I do prefer good practice, so I’m thinking of meshing the two, adapting a rubric that Overmeyer helped create: take the form of a rubric and the focus of Collins’ Focus Correction Areas to guide the assessing.

It would look something like this:


One of the nice touches (from the book) is the area for “Above and Beyond” where students are able to, if not encouraged to, step out of these norms and take risks.

Now the question is, to assess this common core standard…

W.8.1a Introduce claim(s), acknowledge and distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and organize the reasons and evidence logically.

…what exactly would the FCA’s be?

Semicolon Blow


colon blowAh, the semicolon. I am not sure there is anything more mishandled by teachers than the teaching of the semicolon. I base this on two opinions. First, it is easy to teach the basic rule of semicolons. Second, students will never use them, and probably shouldn’t. The second opinion is a result of the first.

The problem is not a how problem; it’s a why problem. Here’s a typical sentence a student would write that follows rule number one of semicolons, followed by the semicolon formula:


This is correct. Yay for the student. However, just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. Writers don’t focus on writing correct sentences (in fact, sometimes, we write incorrect ones). Writers focus on writing good sentences. Is the example above a good sentence? Eh.

That, of course, depends. This sentence represents a specific situation, with a setting and characters, each of which has some sort of motivation. Different sentence constructions with different ways of combining these two ideas will take on different meanings. I’ve borrowed from Jeff Anderson and Constance Weaver to come up with the following analysis to help people understand the simple semicolon.

First, look at these examples, combining the two sentences a different way. How are these different from the first version, and how then are they similar and different?


Obviously both follow the same pattern. In A, most likely it is two facts with little connecting the two, although it is possible we are celebrating the fact that Tom and Joe both brought something or that they together brought two things (as in, they’re roommates and were only expected to bring one thing). But that’s not what happened at all.

So let’s look at another way of expressing the same sentence. How is this different rhetorically from the previous?


Again, the pattern has changed from the first two, and there is a different structural order. But the significant change is that we now see the relationship between these two facts. What we now see is that Joe’s bringing pop somehow influenced Tom’s bringing pizza.

So then, how is this next example any different?


Rhetorically, the semicolon creates more of a pause or highlights the connection between the two ideas more forcefully. So in this last example, I would argue that it most clearly represents what I had in mind: Joe and Tom had a rather heated argument about who could take pop and who would have to get the pizza, so when Joe rushed out and got the pop, this caused Tom to get the pizza, reluctantly. That semicolon and conjunctive adverb best underscore Tom’s plight.

I’m still, though, wondering about that first sentence and when it would be a good example, that simple semicolon formula. Well, semicolons can be good when sentences get really long but you don’t want to start a new one. For many students, this is dangerous territory, a large pair of scissors in the hands of a small child. Instead, a semicolon can be used to connect two sentences when the two ideas are so closely related that no “connector” is needed and a new, almost dramatic affect can be achieved. Consider this alternative scenario:

Tom and Joe agreed to arm wrestle. The winner could get the pop while the loser had to foot the bill for the pizza. They squared off, locking hands in preparation for battle. At first Tom had the upper hand, but then Joe found a hidden reserve of strength and battled back. The two went back and forth for some time until it seemed no one would be able to win.

Tom brought pizza; Joe brought pop.

Getting In There

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My physical agility was crippled by insecurity and a paralyzing fear of getting hit in the face. So now I’m sitting in the backseat with Charley, claiming more to myself than anyone, “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.”

So here’s what I tell my children: wait for the pitch you want to hit, not for the pitch that might hit you. It’s not that I want them to get hit by a hard ball: but it’s going to happen. If you stand in the batter’s box long enough, you’ll get hit.

Failure and fear and the fear of failure are part of life. I have a folder full of rejection slips from writing I have submitted. Had any of these stopped me, I would have no successes. And I wouldn’t be near the teacher of writing I am.