my responsibility? my duty?

She looks up at me and smiles (smirks?).

“Come on, Ms. Kim. This is boring. You know that, right?”

As I’m trying to work on staying calm and never raising my voice, I’ve realize that with that comes my old tendency to stutter.

“Is it difficult for you to read?  Maybe that’s why you don’t get it,” I suggest lamely.  Inside though, I am full of comebacks and right now, that conversation still niggles at me.  I don’t feel furious, but I do feel indignant.  How dare she?  This story is amazing and how dare she pass off this text as “boring” when it’s  more along the lines of the fact that she can’t read 7 pages straight.

Okay, okay. In this mentality, I see all the areas where I fail. I get it.  Is it her fault she’s so low? Nooeewwwp… Should I take it personally?  Newwwp.  blergh.

I think one of the comments I hate the most is the flippant, “That was fun today,” or “You should do this more.”  Because in them saying that, it assumes that other lessons aren’t fun, or that lessons are *supposed* to be fun.

I feel like getting to her eye level and saying, “This is boring for me too.”  Teaching ELA to kids who are constantly behind and feel complacent or defensive or insecure or whatever about it is boring. It makes me long for the days when I taught math.  When it was easier to just group, differentiate, and figure out what kids mastered and what they hadn’t.

ELA is the worst.  You have to teach vocabulary, grammar, writing, writing, reading, comprehension, fluency, speaking, listening.  It’s not Robin Williams and his classroom of rich prep boys.  It’s not even Hilary Swank and her underprivileged yet eager to succeed group of urban kids.  It’s this weird middle where my kids are behind – victims (?) of the system – yet they .. act like it’s my fault.

Thinking though.  Maybe I need to have less rigor on Mondays.  Maybe I need to slow down.  I now understand why/how kids end up as they are in college.  This slow slow progress somehow starts before high school… and middle.  I don’t know. It’s discouraging.  Back to the drawing table.  What are the minimal things I want my kids to get down before they move on?  I’m almost 2/3rds done with first semester.  It’s still just trial and error.

I miss reading To Kill a Mockingbird with my old students.  I cried when I read the verdict of Tom Robinson in that class, and I still cry now when I read it.  Although now, I think of mockingbirds and I think of my students.  And I hear stories of how all of them are scattered and falling through cracks and making the wrong friends.  And I feel like everything is hopeless.  And when we do high school suggestions during parent-teacher conferences, and kids are planning to go to the crapcrack schools around this area, I just think, what’s the point?  Why do I bother trying to do the hard things?

I think I’m extra sad because today I found out that my Ren Man is hanging with the wrong crowd and just going the wrong way.  I found out same case for Diva.  I found that Emo is most likely not going to have a chance to go to the ivys because her high school doesn’t support her in that way even though she’s freaking brilliant.  She taught herself geometry.  WHO can SELF-TEACH themselves GEOMETRY in 8th grade?  And the system is so messed up, that even if you prepare them super well, or even if you don’t prepare them well at all, they’re all going to end up wherever depending on the luck of the draw.

And then. with kids who are unappreciative, or just mean, or hurtful, why bother trying?

Folks, welcome to Oakland public schools.

Dear Assessments, I don’t believe you!

So, today, I sort of slogged into class. I had semi-discouraging one-on-one conferences during interventions with my students as I broke the news to many of them that they were 4-6 years below grade-level in reading.

But then, during our talks and observations over the novel, I realized no wait, these kids DO know.

Maybe they’re just assessment’d out, or reading practice’d out, or.. y’know, lazy.

I’m going to go by what I know and what I’ve experienced… which is that, these kids can’t be/aren’t that low.  If they have a so-called 1st-grade independent reading level and a 4th-grade vocabulary level, then having a teacher guide them through a 5th grade book is still okay.  And based on their fluency, their participation, etc, I don’t think all of them are as “low” as the programs claim.

I *will* be cutting back a bit and allowing more practice time in class.  But at the same time, I can’t just get all down that my students are “so low”, because I don’t think they are as low as the assessments purport.

On the same vein though, I just feel like I’m doing a super cruddy job.  But, I think back to what I covered with my kids last year, and I have to remind myself that I basically ended with 9th graders, and now I’m starting with semi-7th graders.  We are not there yet, but we can be.  Also, I had 90 minutes of ELA and 60 minutes of Social Studies. Every. Day.  That’s a total of 750 minutes a week.  Whereas at this school, it’s a more normal 470 minutes a week (but with 125 minutes of silent independent reading and 120 minutes of reading practice through Reading Plus).

I’m not a huge fan of smart computers teaching kids how to read, but maybe expertly navigating this data and having kids buy in with the right competition and such, could cover that space where it’s “good enough”.

And year by year, I’ll extend from the “good enough” to “FREAKING FANTASTIC!”

Glum, ho hum

It’s tough.  I’m nearing the two-month mark at my new school, and I need to realize that teaching is not for the glory or the praise.

It’s tough because as I’m doing what I think is good for my students, my students at the same time are mouthing off to me telling me that I am too strict, that I don’t know them enough, that I think I have power, etc etc.

It’s also tough because there is an element of truth to all they say, and yet they are so unfair about it because they fail to take in the context.

Lastly, it’s tough because on Friday, I caught a glimpse of how some kids are currently definitely set up to fail.  At my past school, failure was natural, but in a sense, we offered alternatives (by not offering electives, having PE tutoring, and having 3-hour after school homework time).  At this school, these alternatives are (thankfully) not in place.  What this means is that academic growth is slower and and I need to take into account that some kids will just fall down a drain if I don’t slow down, differentiate, and reflect.

I’m just dreading it because I’m also having a hard time liking my students right now.  One girl told me that they “test new teachers” (she meant it just honestly, not testily), and I’m to have meetings with a few students this week.  Their issues with me, however, are things that I think comes with this overentitled perspective.. that I’m the newcomer and I don’t know “how things are done.”  And that’s just unfair.

Finally, if I worked in Palo Alto, their starting pay is still more than my current salary.  I know it’s not about that, but sometimes, it feels like it is.

Teching off the School Year!

So, having grown up with a dad that tinkers with computers for fun and always being interested in problem solving myself, I always loved tech!  How much cooler was it when during college, I found out that tech was cool!?

Then, upon entering the ed sector, I found that lots of people are not very tech-literate.  I’m not going to push this point but the concern I see is that because people just assume “tech is better”, they pilot these insane programs that claim to do insane things (improve kids’ reading by 2 grades in 1 year!  Intervene and plug in all the holes in a kid’s Algebra, etc), and in a sense, just gives the teacher a lot more work.

So, after about 2 years of excitement, my enthusiasm faded.  I realized that in reality, these tech substitutes are for the poor – the ones who lack the resources to simply hire another helping hand in the classroom.  Instead of adding a teacher’s aide 3 times a week to move a teacher-to-student ratio down, they add a class set of computers with the hopes of “differentiating.”  Don’t get me wrong — there are some good programs out there.  But those exercises really only hit the drills and the very low levels of Bloom’s.  

Not to mention – a class set of Chromebooks? UGH.  Internet’s not dependable AND Chromebooks blink off about every .5-2 hours!!!  They turn on fast enough, but it’s so frustrating.

The “flipped” classroom is another cool idea.  Almost every kid has an access to a smartphone.  But, again, internet access, a quiet room to study/listen to the lecture, the English ability to listen to Khan’s fast-paced explanations?  So many barriers.  This would only work for middle-income and up. Basically.


So, where do I like my tech?  I like it high quality (think: iPads), to facilitate classroom collaboration (more on that later, but for now, jump on over to my DonorsChoose page and donate if you can!  Use code INSPIRE to double your impact until 9/9).

AND I like it in my OWN teacher planning and fun supplements.

Here are some amazing things I found this past week:

Common Curriculum.  Normally, I’d describe, but if you’re a teacher, you’ll understand as soon as you click through it and experiment.  It’s amazing and from the looks of it, it’s only getting better.  Free too!  Perfect for extended lesson planning!

Flocabulary!:  Now, Flocabulary is good on its own just subject-specific merit.  It’s a paid service, but I think it’s so worth it.  If you’re skeptical, you can try a trial run.  I totally encourage it.  BUT what’s even MORE impressive, is its vocabulary lessons.  I am SO stoked to try it!  They have this awesome rap with high level words and definitions embedded, then a cloze exercise, definitions and other vocabulary exercises along with it.  So, all I have to do is press play, implement, and pace!  So easy.   Until I have a better handle on teaching, I’m going to go for something ready-made.  This is standards-aligned as well.  Woo hoo!  

Today’s Self-Assigned-Ment: “Essential Questions”

I’m excited. Next year I’m going to be teaching humanities at a school less than a mile away from my previous school.  It’s a charter school, the same population, and similar subjects (humanities – no math or science).  Why am I leaving? Save that for a different post (after I’ve stopped making it personal).  So, for the first time in a long time, I got to create a pacing guide with my own choices for literature!  Of course, there will be lots of editing involved, but I just wanted to write out something that I would love.

As I was doing so, I remembered that I wanted to have overarching themes to effect meaningful, relevant learning experiences.  Only once do I remember having a teacher who explicitly did that (HS junior year Lit, first semester: “What is the American Dream?”).  Yet I’ve observed other teachers do that, and it just makes sense to help my kids make connections rather than having them do it on their own.

I was not even sure what the key words were so, first, I began to search “How to create overarching themes”, “how to write big ideas,” and thanks to Google’s autofill, I finally found the right topic: “How to Frame Essential Questions”.

In looking that up, I found this blog post: Understanding by Design: Essential Questions.

Below are a few choice quotes of this writer’s summary of this chapter in the book, Understanding by Design.  (ahh internet, O how you allow us to keep boiling things down!)

“Wiggins and McTighe define essential questions as “questions that are not answerable with finality in a brief sentence… Their aim is to stimulate thought, to provoke inquiry, and to spark more questions — including thoughtful student questions — not just pat answers” (106). “

“according to Wiggins and McTighe, essential questions actually have one or more of the following meanings:

  • Essential questions are “important questions that recur throughout all our lives.”  They are “broad in scope and timeless by nature.”
  • ….
  • Essential questions help “students effectively inquire and make sense of important but complicated ideas, knowledge, and know-how — a bridge to findings that experts may believe are settled but learners do not yet grasp or see as valuable.” 
  • ….(108-109)”

We sometimes send students the message that getting through the content is more important than their own questions.  We have trained students that not to know something and be curious about it is risky.

Now, this was nice.  This brings me to my second question:  How do I write them?

Unfortunately, there was much more chaff than wheat on the Google results, and what I realized is that for now, I do best by looking at others’ plans and then adapting them to my own kids.  As a teacher, I am learning to not go out of my way to reinvent the wheel — I end up doing it anyway.  So, there’s no guilt in not being “original.”  Thankfully, lots of the themes that I seek to teach or books that I want to cover have already been taught in some way, shape, or form before!  So, now it’s just the process of sifting through all the old resources and figuring out what I want to use for my students!

So third, as I sifted, I thought of this whole “Understanding by Design” or “Backwards planning” and other teacher-y terminology, and my mind drifted back to my last semester of grad school in 2012, when I learned of Universal Design for Learning – the idea that all students (regardless of academic background) can learn (given the right scaffolds and resources).  It’s also the idea that if we modify parts for a student with special learning needs, that modification could also help the “regular” student.  As I continue to teach in a diverse environment, differentiating is a challenge, but it’s exciting as well.  When you take a step back, you do realize that everyone is learning!  Anyway, I found this nifty tool on the CAST website where I could self-check my unit goals and methods.

So this is my own self-study for the day. I hope you also got to reap a few benefits.

How do you frame your units? How do you create your essential questions or big ideas?

Secret Confession #1…

I’ve been avoiding this question like the plague, because – hello! – I’m an English teacher. And yet… here it goes.. What is Theme?

It plagues me, I tell you, plagues me!

I spent all my middle school and high school years struggling to understand and explain what theme was. It was pretty easy getting by; after all, longwinded explanations in class or easy process-of-elimination tricks during tests help in figuring out “theme” (especially if they write out the themes for you).  But I never had an easy time explaining this.

In college, I loved figuring out how to write my lit papers. I’d spend days revising my intro paragraph and writing and rewriting my thesis statement. By the time I’d stewed in this for days, the rest of the paper would practically write itself. (This is my writing process). Somehow, by the time I got to the conclusion, I was able to figure out what the larger idea was and tweak my introduction. My thesis would be bombtastic and voila, in the midst of it all, I’d be able to argue that I had figured out one of the major themes.

Yet in middle school, it’s not so complicatedly simple. In middle school, I have to be able to say, “Blah!” is the theme. Once I get into the gray college area of hemming and hawwing and agreeing that “sure, given the proper evidence, that could be a theme,” I’ve left the rest of the class behind. And furthermore, the smartypants that asked the question probably wasn’t thinking along the lines that I assumed.

Also, in middle school, I have to make sure that we don’t confuse “topic” (a word or short phrase associated with the text) with “theme” (the main idea or lesson of the text). (Now “theme” however, is not the “moral” of the story. Why not? I don’t know! Or maybe it is!) Even worse, when I refer to teacher guides, sometimes they mix up topic with theme. For instance, “battle of good and evil” or “coming of age” is called a “theme”; but that’s not necessarily a main idea – that’s more a phrase! So sometimes, specific topics are themes?  (This issue is exacerbated by tests doing the same thing!!!)

This bothers me. I hate teaching theme, because in the end, I don’t feel like there’s a specific answer. For now, my main strategy is just hitting the process of determining the theme over and over again, and guiding kids through it, and suddenly by the end of the year, most of them are wowing me with papers that are evidence-based and tell me what a text is saying (okay fine, at least half, if given lots of scaffolded guidance). Then I can say, “A ha, that’s a strong argument,” or “Sorry, kiddo, I’m pretty sure that’s not the theme – or even if it is, you have no proof.” Yet I have this sinking feeling that at the end of the day, the kids are sort of like I was: knowing that they’re supposed to write a certain way and bounce upon the idea that we touched upon most in class.  Would it be messed up to tell them that I know a theme is the strongest because I can feel it in my bones?  Maybe by doing this, it will magically sink in when they get to college.

I’m at this weird point where I’ve been teaching Lit long enough that I take a lot of things for granted, and I forget to walk kids through certain processes.

Seriously: how did you learn what theme was? Or, how do you teach theme? Or how would you teach theme?

Must figure this out before … I retire!

Keep, Change, Start, Stop 2014

Following Math=Love’s idea, I decided to have my students fill out a “Keep/Change/Start/Stop” sheet where for each heading, students gave me 2-3 suggestions.

It sucked. It made me sad. You’ll see why (scroll down for data).  I was tempted to edit or write disclaimers, but instead, I recorded all their suggestions.

 In general, students were broadly in favor of the social studies notebooks and the social studies powerpoints.  I didn’t think they were that great, but I guess it’s because during power points, kids didn’t have to take too much notes, and the social studies notebooks were pretty simple to do (I cut down SS homework a LOT this year because I did acknowledge that we gave way too much homework last year).  They also mainly liked the kim kash system, and some acknowledged that I tried in class.  They also liked the science labs.

There are quite a few things kids want me to stop doing that are against school regulations: namely, lessen homework load, lessen the amount of tests, change the detention and field trip policy, change after school tutoring (which I can’t because my school forced me to keep a minimum of 10 students enrolled in 9 hours of after school “tutoring” which was SO horrible that I stayed after school for the majority of the days of the week so that kids would have an actual quiet place to do work) and get rid of the red and yellow folders (a homework method that our whole organization implements).  That’s out of my hands, and some of the suggestions that kids gave made a lot of sense.  Sadly, it’s not up to me.

There are quite a few things kids suggested that I change that made me irritated.  I can recognize handwriting at this point and some of the suggestions to start/stop just seemed to fortify the fact that I hadn’t really effected any sort of change in them.  They urged that I stop projects, let them sit anywhere they wanted, stop the lit circles, or even stop “trying new things.”  Honestly, I know I pushed them this year, because kids were chill with taking notes, reciting, reviewing, memorizing, and moving on.  This year, I tried to push them to higher heights in Bloom’s taxonomy and I made sure we were always pushing our thinking higher.  Some kids, I definitely had to pull, but hello, I am not going to stop my intensity just because they’re lazy.

There was definitely a very valid pattern and problem in my discipline style in that kids felt unfairly punished and felt that I yelled a lot.  I will definitely own up to that.  Yet, I would also like to say that my school affords me very little alternatives. It’s really hard to teach all 4 subjects, be with kids 24/7, and have no back up support.  I try to keep kids in my class because sending them to the office is a sure ticket to cleaning duties.  Anyway, I’m just saying that classroom management is closely influenced by school culture.  And it sucked.  It just feels like, how do I run a class calmly if every other teacher also yells (or curses), and so nobody listens to me until I yell?

Also, yeah it sucks to punish the whole class, but what do you expect me to do?  when it’s more than a few kids doing it, how am I supposed to figure out who did it/ who didn’t?

Students were divided about the money system, and to be honest, I hated the classroom microeconomy too, and I’ll try a different thing next year.  I was also surprised that kids wanted me to start exit tickets… I do exit tickets.  What did they mean? I didn’t do it so much in ELA or science, did they mean that?

I think in general, I felt a bit surprised by the lack of acknowledgement or even gratitude.  We got a pet this year: instead of a thanks, they wanted more pets.  I allowed them to not be in rows and columns but groups (I was the only teacher who did this): now they wanted to pick where they sat.  I decreased the number of tests: they wanted even fewer tests.  I introduced lit circles so that low readers could finally focus on comprehension rather than just decoding or being lost: those kids wanted to stop the lit circles.  I helped one girl get an IEP: she wants me to slow down on everything rather than modify.

I don’t think it’s entirely their fault — our school harbors an “all is earned” policy that honestly cultivates a slightly arrogant mentality.  During our field trips, kids usually just complained or offered an improvement suggestion.  The most I got was, “It was fun.”

Obviously, I’m not doing this for gratitude, but it begins to wear on you when there are no verbal or written acknowledgements on Teacher’s Appreciation Day, Christmas, or the end of the school year.  I try to model it by writing thank you notes and having students write thank yous to other people, but I never asked it for myself.

I agree with the students: we should focus on more projects, more engaging tasks, and less punitive measures.  Did I try to change it within my own classroom? Oh you bet I did.  And I sort of want to tell them, “hey, I know our year was tough, but I planned so many things for you, went out of my way to make sure we do academically meaningful projects, and that you guys aren’t just multiple-choice testing bots.  Look at X’s class.  Sure they got less homework, and yeah, X doesn’t yell as much.  Instead, at the end of the year,  he took only the good kids on one field trip to see a movie at the mall and go bowling.  THAT IS NOT A LEARNING EXPERIENCE. “

I also know that I was pretty stickler with school rules, but that’s just how I am!  I follow rules!

And that’s something I hate about this place.  No matter how hard you try, if the school culture is set in a certain direction, kids are so resistant to what you’re doing  (Example: PAT stands for Preferred Activity Time, which implies there some sort of academic activity.  Since all the teachers let their kids out for free time in the yard, every time I try to give them a choice of an activity, they protest and lose the buy-in).  They gang up against you, gossip about you, and don’t understand why you’re frustrated at their persistent desire for complacency.  I don’t think they intend to be malicious – I think it’s just common.  Since we don’t have avenues for real talk, modifications, etc, (well technically we do, but let’s be real – I only have 24 hours in a day – how do I modify 4 separate subjects for different kids when I barely have content material learned), at the end, there is no meaning behind the learning we do.  All we say is, “You guys are working hard! You’re getting smart! You’re gonna succeed!”  And so my kids move on.

I wonder if at a new place I’d be able to not yell.  I wonder if at a new place, kids would understands that projects are not out of the ordinary.  I wonder if at a new place, I could take all the students on a field trip because I wouldn’t be short-staffed nor told to take people off my field trip list.  I wonder if at a new place, kids wouldn’t mind tests because they would actually be prepared (as opposed to rushing through a lesson to finish the whole textbook) and tests wouldn’t be so back-to-back.  I wonder if at a new place, I’d be able to tweak my homework into something reasonable.  I wonder if at a new place, kids wouldn’t say stupid things like “stop assigning reading out of class.”  I wonder if at a new place, students would take responsibility for the things they want me to change/stop.

They have so much potential, but such little intrinsic drive.

So what if they know a lot? I feel pretty useless – because after these past two years, nobody wants to take the road less taken.


  • projector for notes, movies, etc
  • lab experiments in class.
  • kindness
  • the helping for field trips
  • the slideshow notes
  • finding a way for heping a student
  • lit circles
  • PAT time
  • kim kash
  • class money system
  • rewards/movies/field trips to hard workers
  • privileges from class
  • everything
  • giving detention for inappropriate behavior
  • notebooks
  • the notes we do in a notebook
  • the lit circles
  • popsicle sticks and auctions
  • power points
  • auctions
  • homework checkers
  • I would like to keep how strict the school is like the detentions, saturday, and Friday schools and uniform policy
  • should keep everything
  • keep the history notes book
  • keep the money and job system
  • doing your work
  • working hard
  • keep powerpoints
  • keep pictures
  • keep main points in history
  • doing SS
  • giving PAT time
  • being a teacher
  • creativity
  • determanity
  • being caring & funny
  • projecting notes onto the board
  • science experiments because they help us learn better
  • the way that you teach
  • the cheat sheets
  • trying to make lessons fun
  • projects
  • pushing your kid to their limit
  • seating arrangements
  • groups/jobs
  • jepardy/reading groups
  • powerpoint notes for social studies
  • game we played for each unit
  • civil war game


  • give less hw
  • nothing
  • money
  • going to fast on the subjects
  • not giving examples to see
  • your way of punishing everyone because of one person
  • homework -> less strict on little things – > differnet punishments (30 min after school)
  • amount hw -> to maybe 3 big things
  • Jobs (4 class jobs) -> to more sufficient time
  • the money system
  • the way you teach
  • the kim kash money system
  • giving social studies unit tests
  • red and yellow folders
  • they way to take notes
  • discipline
  • lines for everyone to lines for those disturbing
  • the way of organizing groups
  • how you teach science – should be like history
  • the testing format
  • some ways to make learning fun
  • maybe you should change the way of taking notes, and the mini-projects
  • some rules
  • some ideas
  • frustration
  • tutoring hours
  • seating rules
  • rules in class
  • class arrangement
  • have more fun w/ class
  • the amount of homework given
  • the way you lose children in fieldtrips
  • the way you do project
  • don’t put too much detail on the project
  • sitting arrangement
  • writing
  • homework
  • some notes to pictures
  • half notes and some pictures
  • early risers


  • having everything planned out
  • making math fun by relating to real life problems
  • cheat sheets for ELA, SS, Science
  • letting students go to restroom
  • put kids on a table so they could help each others
  • help them how to write notes on ther own
  • giving out more freedom to the kids who actually do work
  • sticking to 1 thing: ex: keep the money system, no break outs
  • giving 3 big homeworks than 10
  • adding fun to class/teaching
  • having more educational games to have students get involved
  • introducing more projects to your class
  • giving out more pop quizzes and challenge the students
  • exit tickets
  • giving exit tickets
  • organizing binders
  • more activities. for example, yearbook, chess, soccer, or even tutoring
  • having cheat sheets on science
  • giving more group work
  • start giving students more time to do homework during class, and more ways to earn PAT points
  • doing something fun
  • make teaching fun
  • listening to the students
  • having more group work
  • doing more jeopardy games
  • more projects, less hw
  • giving less tests
  • using desk arrangements
  • having more pets
  • being more calm
  • teaching Social Studies in a more interesting way
  • to make some projects a little more fun
  • don’t make a lesson confusing
  • trying to know them
  • try to be a friend not a teacher
  • cheat sheets
  • games
  • homework passes
  • not read books at home, out of school


  • Losing students in field trips
  • Yelling
  • nothing
  • screaming
  • giving kids independence time because kids get stuck
  • testing new methods of teaching, because it usually just wastes time
  • maybe not full time detention but half depending on what they did
  • detention next day — instead, let some of them do it on that day
  • picking on any one person
  • making students write letters to them (i’m assuming this refers to Donorschoose)
  • selling items to other students
  • the Outside Reading Book reports
  • speeches
  • folders for homework
  • red and yellow folders
  • giving us so many lectures
  • the economy thing
  • on ELA, stop giving class book reading
  • stop giving so many projects and essays and figure out a way to instead of punishing the whole class, only the student who misbehaves
  • getting whole class in trouble
  • making it boring
  • being angry at the whole class
  • stop giving a lot of hw
  • giving hw
  • giving detentions
  • after school tutoring
  • leaving much hw
  • explain hw a little better
  • class economy
  • yelling
  • getting mad for little things
  • don’t get too excited for something
  • trying to keep all students in class
  • nothing
  • lit circles