How I Plan to Regain My Nights and Weekends in the Upcoming School Year

My Goal This Year

My last post on how to cultivate student writing identities was maybe closer to a novella than a blogpost, so this week I am striving to keep it shorter and simpler.

In keeping with the theme of brevity, I want to talk about the ways that I plan to keep the work monster at bay during a year where I know that it will be lurking behind every door. Working 70 hours a week was once a part of my early teaching life, but through reading, learning from others, and experimenting in my own classroom, I eventually got it down to 40 hours a week. An admission though: Since March of 2020, I have definitively not been a 40 hour teacher.

Some of those increased hours came from the additional needs of students during a pandemic and the increased work that came from a new online learning management system (which remained even when we returned). Other hours arose out of my diminished ability to focus and increased distractibility. Add these things together and last year schoolwork found its way back into far too many of my nights and weekends.

That is why one of my main goals this year is to banish work from personal time once again. I want to banish it for my health, for the betterment of my students (I’m a better teacher when balanced), for this blog and my writing (it is not an accident that I started my blog the same summer that I finally got to 40 hours and that my posts got more intermittent as I started to work more), and most of all for my family. Here are the big pieces in my plan for doing that:

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A Guide to Helping Students See Themselves As Writers

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There exists a vast catalog of books that discuss the sad truth that far too many students come into our classes each year holding attitudes towards reading that range from agnostic to downright antagonistic. From The Book Whisperer to Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys to Book Love to the upcoming book I Hate Reading, there might be more titles on that subject in literacy education than any other. And there is a good reason for that. Even with the collective knowledge in these books, student reluctance or refusal to read remains a perennial problem, one that continues to get worse, with the rates of students reading outside of school now sitting at the lowest level since we began collecting data on it nearly 40 years ago.

Given the massive number of ways that reading helps students to live happier, longer, and generally better lives, I would welcome even more books on getting students to love reading and believe that doing so should be a national priority. At the same time, I have often wondered why books about students being agnostic or antagonistic towards writing don’t share the same prevalence. I have found indifferent or oppositional attitudes towards writing to be as common (or maybe even more) of an issue, and the ability to write has dramatic impacts on our students’ futures as well. 

In recent years I have been excited to see a handful of wonderful books on the subject of improving student relationships with writing pop up, including Creating Confident Writers, Why They Can’t Write, and one of my books of this summer, The Confidence to Write. Even still, it is a topic that feels in need of more and more prominent development, especially now, as I have found more students than ever identifying as definitively not writers during the last two pandemic-impacted years. 

That is why this week I wanted to share a guide on how to help students to build stronger, more positive writing identities. This guide is a bit longer than my normal posts because the topic is a complex, thorny, and critically important one. But my hope is that through doing a review of the books above and a review of my own practices and writing concerning the subject (including a treasure trove of the practical resources I use), it will be worth the time. To break it up a bit, I’ve split it into two sections: one on where anti-writing identities come from and another on what we as teachers can do to disrupt them and help students to see that they are already writers—ones with unique voices and important things to contribute. I hope you enjoy!

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Why Building Classroom Community Will Be So Important This Year (and How to Do It)

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There isn’t much debate about the fact that teachers as a whole are struggling right now. Any education-focused site one views will likely be awash with articles about teachers leaving the profession, thinking about leaving the profession, or struggling in a multitude of ways. The same basic theme has saturated social media thus far this summer with a huge percentage of educator posts I’ve read boiling down to the message I’m struggling right now!

There are a number of teacher-specific reasons for these struggles (on top of the general reasons we all are struggling): increased workload during the pandemic, a generation of declining pay continuing to come how to roost, the rapid proliferation of attacks on teachers in many local and state politics, and safety concerns ranging from the fear of school shootings to the fact that over two years of an airborne pandemic, most American schools still haven’t bothered to install proper ventilation despite the availability government funds for that purpose. 

One other reason that I think should get more press or at least more consideration is the fact that teachers are also struggling because our students are struggling too. Any classroom educator will likely know that the well-being of our students can have a major effect on us. When we watch our students thrive, it can uplift like a permanent cup of espresso and when our students struggle, those struggles can come home with us too.  

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My Six Books of the Summer

A few weeks ago one of my co-author’s of the new book Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Middle and High School ELA, Dave Stuart Jr., offered a challenge on his blog: What if we approached resting this summer with a purposefulness and intensity normally reserved for home improvement projects or planning an epic vacation?

His call hit a chord with me because I have a long history of struggling to relax when it comes to summers. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t want to relax or understand the value of downtime; it’s just that one of the ways that I get through the scramble of the school year is to toss things I don’t have time for into what I call the summer bucket. The paint peeling in my bathroom? That can wait till the summer. The absolute mess of the basement? Toss it into the summer bucket. Finishing my son’s baby book. I’ll have time in the summer. And that new patio I want to build? Let’s do it this summer! You get the idea.

My struggles with putting an impossibly large number of things into my summer bucket is also the reason why I offer only six book suggestions for summer reading. As a young teacher, I used to fill my summer bucket with everything that I didn’t have time to read during the year. And while I read a lot in those summers, I never read everything I wanted to, meaning that I always ended the summer disappointed that I only read a third of the books on my list instead of thrilled that I read twelve books.

As I approach the two-and-a-quarter-year mark of pandemic parenting/teaching, I have found in recent months that my urge to toss both books and to-do items into the summer bucket to be worse than ever. There is just so much that I want to upgrade in my house, my life, my teaching, my garden, and my reading and writing life–all of which show noticeable signs of pandemic wear and tear. At the same time, I am more tired than I’ve ever been at the end of a year. Whereas my general inclination upon finding a bit of time in an afternoon is to write or run or build something, these days I am much more likely to curl up for a short nap or scroll vacantly through my phone.

So this summer, I plan to take Stuart’s challenge to heart by granting rest and leisure the seriousness with which they and I deserve. This can be seen in my suggestions, which are slightly less academic than what I normally recommend. Even still, I am so excited about my six books of the summer, as I think that they, along with that serious rest, are just what I need to recover and replenish so that I can be the best father and teacher possible when the fall comes around.

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Why May is the Cruelest Month for Teachers (And What We Can Do About It)

Several years ago I wrote the the following about the month of May:

“T.S. Eliot states in The Wasteland that “April is the cruelest month.” He is close, but he misses the mark by a month, at least in my opinion…May [is] the cruelest month…at least when it comes to my teaching life. The problem is that after a long Michigan winter, the extra summer sunlight of the north makes everything lush and leafy, seemingly overnight. This might not seem like a bad thing, but the appearance of summer is a serious problem when it comes to my students, as en masse and like clockwork they begin to checkout in uncharacteristic ways once the trees suddenly burst with leaves, despite the fact that over a month of school remains.

A lot has changed in the two years since I wrote that, but something that hasn’t changed is the cruelty of May from the standpoint of planning lessons and running a classroom. I have found this cruelty to be especially true this year, where after a school year set against a backdrop masks and variants and societal discord, my students are more ready than I’ve ever seen to reenact that scene in Dazed and Confused where they sprint through the school doors, as papers (and in this case masks too) explode into the sky and flutter like giant snowflakes to the ground.

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An Argument for Elevating Joy Right Now

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A couple weeks ago, a colleague of mine asked us a simple question at a department meeting: What are you doing to make learning fun right now? The fifteen or so of us in the room furrowed our brows and lowered our eyes until he bailed us out by admitting that he asked the question because he was struggling to find an example from his classes too. He then offered an optional challenge for each of us: think about the ways we could bring some fun into our classes in the last quarter of the year.

I couldn’t stop thinking about this challenge that evening, and it reminded me of the last pre-pandemic post I wrote, which was about fun’s close cousin joy* and how we can inspire joy and use joy to inspire in the classroom. I was ready to hit send on the post in early March of 2020, but then for reasons that likely don’t take any elaboration, it suddenly became a less than ideal moment for a post on joy, and so I shelved it for a later date.

I think what made my colleague’s comments stick was that it brought to the front of my mind both that post and some worries that had been quietly gnawing at the back of my mind for some time. I have these pre-pandemic memories of the joy that I used to regularly encounter within school, and when I think about my classes and the classes of those around me now, I fear that much of the joy that once existed got lost over the past two years.

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Learning to Transfer: A Discussion with Trevor Aleo

For my post today, I interview Trevor Aleo, a middle school English teacher and curriculum designer from Wilton, Connecticut, and a co-author of the wonderful book Learning that Transfers. Trevor is the English lead for Team LTT and an expert in all things transfer–an area of study that has helped my teaching greatly, especially in these pandemic years. Below is my interview with Trevor, which has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.

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How I’m Trying to Do More With Less Part 3: Finding Places to Let the Students Lead


Early in his book Writing Unbound, Thomas Newkirk implores his readers to “[Not] Talk So Much” by saying the following:

“Deep in our DNA there must be some image of teaching where we are talking–instructing, giving directions, up front. Just walk past about any class. Studies of teacher lessons affirm that there is a deeply ingrained recitation script where the teacher takes two out of every three turns (Mehan 1979). Teacher asks question-student answers-teacher responds to answer.”

From Thomas Newkirk’s Writing Unbound, pg. 10.

This 2:1 ratio of teacher talk to student talk is something I know well. As I’ve discussed before, it can be second nature for me to settle into that recitation script time and again in my own classes, which can be a problem for the following reasons:

  • Like a thumb being pressed to an already unequal scale, when teachers talk first, it weights conversations heavily towards the teacher perspective–an action that when revisited enough times can neutralize any talk of partnership and agency.
  • When teachers always talk first, students can grow too dependent on teachers to solve all of their problems and chart the courses they should follow. To understand why this can be a major issue, see “The Curse of Helicopter Teaching” by Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher. 
  • Whoever leads is the one doing the preparation. Thus, if teachers are always leading, they will always be the ones doing the majority of the work–a dynamic that is not ideal in the best of times and is even less ideal in times where too much is already being asked of teachers.
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4 Essential Studies: An Interview with Penny Kittle

Given how overwhelmed and overloaded many educators are right now, my posts since the new year have focused on teaching practices and pedagogical approaches that allow us to maintain or even improve the quality of our teaching while also trimming down the time we are spending on it. 

In that spirit, getting weekly or even bi-weekly posts out has proven difficult for me in the face of everything, especially since either our son’s daycare, our daughter’s school, or both have been shut for Covid-related reasons 16 of the 25 school days in 2022. So, in an effort to keep up continuity for the newsletter while also not overloading myself, I will be weaving in some interviews with authors of wonderful new books between my posts throughout these last weeks of winter and the early days of spring. These interviews will be wide-ranging, but they will share a focus on how we can potentially do more without adding more while also sharing practical tools, approaches, and tricks that you can use in the classroom tomorrow, if you wish.

First up, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, is Penny Kittle. If you don’t know who Penny Kittle is, she is a legendary teacher and author of such books as Write Beside Them, Book Love, and 180 Days. She is also the founder and president of the Book Love Foundation, which has raised over a million dollars for classroom libraries for teachers, and the co-author of the incredible new book 4 Essential Studies–a book that is so captivating and lively that it is one of only four pedagogical books that I have ever read in one sitting. Below is my interview with Penny, which has been shortened and lightly edited for clarity and concision:

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How I’m Trying to Do More With Less Part 2: The New Pyramid of Writing Priorities

In my last post I explained that to start this new year, I will be writing about how I’m trying to maintain some semblance of balance–even as each week seemingly demands more–by looking for places where I can cut what I’m doing without negatively impacting (and sometimes improving) my instruction. If there is something you are doing, please share with me, as I’d love to pass it along to my readers!

This week, I want to rethink a topic that I explore a great deal in Flash Feedback: The Pyramid of Writing Priorities. The Pyramid is something I adapted from Dave Stuart Jr., who adapted it from The Core Six,  and over the years it has helped me to save hundreds of hours when providing feedback by acting as a guide for when and how to respond to student work. For those who don’t know it, here is what it looks like:

From Flash Feedback, adapted from Dave Stuart Jr. and The Core Six by Silver, Dewing, and Perini

The idea behind the pyramid is pretty simple: We do different types of writing in our classes, and so we should respond to each different type of writing in a different way. Practice Writing, or writing where students practice with new skills or ideas, should likely be mostly ungraded and probably unread; Targeted Writing, or writing that is focused on assessing or refining students’ understanding of a specific skill, should likely get a quick Targeted Response that focuses only on that skill; and Polished Writing, or larger writing that undergoes multiple rounds of revision, should get a greater, more comprehensive response. (This is a quick overview. For more on this pyramid, here is my original post discussing it).

While the idea of the pyramid is simple, using it isn’t always as straightforward because each rung holds a hidden potential pitfall that teachers often fall into, to the detriment of both students and the teacher.  Further, I’ve felt for some time that it needs another rung, something between practice and targeted writing, for reasons I’ll touch upon in a moment. With that in mind, today I want to unveil my new, updated pyramid of writing priorities, complete with annotations about the potential pitfalls that can lead us astray and how we can avoid them. Here it is:

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