Navigating the Learning at Home Storm: A Parent-Teacher Perspective

It’s a bit of a paradox to be busy, yet have time. Yes, I have things I need to do, but I have finally decided that this is one of them. I am the mother of three wonderful children. My oldest son is 7 – almost 8. He has been diagnosed with ADHD, ODD, IED, and generalized anxiety. My youngest son is 2 – almost 3. He has moderate eczema and severe separation anxiety. My daughter is 17 months old today (4/27/2020). She has a congenital heart defect. I am a full-time teacher and have been an educator for over 15 years. I have two part-time virtual/electronic jobs. I am working as a teacher full-time from home and my oldest son is also home learning virtually for the remainder of the school year. I thank God every day that my youngest two still have a daycare that is open for “essential” workers, because I honestly don’t know how I would handle life if they were suddenly home with me, too. I know I would handle it, I just don’t know how.

I open with this exposition not to garner sympathy or pity, but to provide perspective for what follows.

I have read enough. I have read enough blogs, articles, posts, and memes about what is happening with virtual teaching and virtual learning across this country right now. I am astounded (and, in many cases, embarrassed) at what seems to be a significant lack of common sense shown by parties on both sides of this situation’s aisle. Public education in this country is challenging at the best of times. Right now, it’s almost darned-near impossible.

My Teacher Side

I’ll start with us. The educators. The “royal WE.” I’ve been in this business long enough that I’ve learned you will never make everybody happy. As Albus Dumbledore says to Hagrid in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, “…if you are holding out for universal popularity, I’m afraid you will be [waiting] for a very long time.” Trying to make everyone happy all of the time is a non-achievable goal. But what I can do is use my common sense. If differentiated instruction is necessary in a traditional classroom (it is), it is needed even more so now, as our students move to individual, proverbial, “classrooms.” In a traditional classroom, we have some control over the environment. Not as much as we would like, usually, but we do have some measure of control. Now, our students are in “classrooms” over which we have zero control. Not a lot, not some…zero. Common sense says we are going to have to provide modifications and accommodations in more volume and style than ever before. We will have to differentiate by process, product, and content. We do not have the element of control for a student who isn’t able to (or chooses not to) complete work at home. Whereas before, we may have set time aside during class for that student to complete the work, or used proximity to ensure that student completed work, or used a grouping or partner strategy to be sure that student completed work, now, we have none of that at our disposal. Our “toolbox,” as it were, is locked. Our “bag of tricks,” has a knot too tight to open. Teachers, administrators, and even districts who fail to recognize this reality are either woefully ignorant, or purposefully obtuse. Neither is an acceptable trait for educators. Yes, it is difficult. Yes, there is a learning curve. But, yes, much like the first year of anyone’s teaching career, we will get through it and come out with mad skills on the other side.

It is, in my view, shameful for a teacher to put up a worksheet and mandate every student complete it by a set date or score a zero. It is shameful for an administration to mandate or support that. It is shameful for a district to do so, as well. Educators should be encouraged to be creative during this time. We should be supported for thinking outside the box. We should be lauded for finding ways to present material in different ways and accommodate the often very difficult realities our students face. We should be commended for offering flexibility in work load, due dates, assignment modes, and submission options. I am embarrassed for our profession when these things are absent during a time like this.

Yes, we feel like we are working harder than ever. But, we shouldn’t forget the things we don’t have to do now. We don’t have to deal with classroom management or discipline. We don’t have to do before school/after school/lunch duty. We don’t have to do parent conferences or conference nights. We don’t have to lament the copier breaking down. We don’t have to hold it for lunch or our prep to use the restroom. Those may seem insignificant when faced with the current challenges, but if you really think about it, we have gotten a pretty good trade. Not equal, not perfect, but there are silver linings on the clouds. Until we, as educators, all begin using common sense for this unique instructional situation, we will continue to be both vilified and praised by families and the media alike.

My Parent Side

As I mentioned previously, I have a 7-year-old son who is virtual learning for the remainder of the school year. He is in second grade. He is also very bright, along with having a myriad of challenges that require accommodations (which he has documented on his 504). I, like many parents, am still working full time. My boss still expects me to put in my full day’s work and fulfill my responsibilities to the absolute best of my ability – as he should. I happen to be working at home, and some parents are still working at their business establishment, but the struggle is the same: I am expected to execute a minimum of two roles productively and proficiently: full-time teacher to my students and full-time supervisor/engager/parent to my child. Most parents have additional stressors to handle, too. For example, our family is moving in less than three weeks. We have packing and meetings and other related issues to handle.

I tried for two weeks to do everything perfectly all the time. Can you guess how that turned out? Spoiler alert: Not well. But, instead of doing the same things the same way and expecting different results – or, just choosing to live in misery, I changed my approach and my expectations. Frustration is the result of unmet expectations. The perfectionist in me struggles to accept reasonable expectations as anything other than laziness and failure. However, after many years of self-help and professional counseling, I have learned the truth of the statement, “You can only do what you can do, and you can’t do what you can’t do.”

Parents who are frustrated with their inability to be the perfect everything all the time have to learn to accept the reality that this expectation is not reasonable. What is reasonable, though, you may wonder? Here is a key piece of information that may sound familiar to ideas you read in the “My Teacher Side” section: Reasonable means different things for different people. My son (and my students) complains about things being unfair. Just last night he was angry that he had to go to bed but my husband and I got to stay up later than he did. One thing I find valuable is the teaching of the difference between fair and equal. Equal means everyone gets the same thing. Fair means everyone gets what they need. There is a relatively well-known example of a person in a crowded room collapsing from a heart attack. A doctor is present and is entreated to help the dying person, but the doctor refuses because it wouldn’t be “fair” to everyone else that he couldn’t treat. This, of course, strikes everyone as absurd, because of course he should help the person and no one else because no one else is having a heart attack or needing medical help. This demonstrates the difference between fair and equal. Giving the person treatment is fair because they need it. Giving the person, but no one else, treatment is unequal.


The widespread misunderstanding of this difference is the root of many problems families are facing at this time. A teacher posts an assignment that, for some students, is manageable and completed in a reasonable amount of time with little argument. But, that same assignment may be very unmanageable for other students. There are an infinite number of reasons why it might be unmanageable, but all of them are irrelevant. Individuals deserve fairness, whether they are students or adults. But, when a situation arises where accommodations or modifications are necessary to provide that fairness, it is the individual’s responsibility to self-advocate for those. As I often tell my son and my students, I cannot read minds. Teachers may be super heroes in many peoples’ eyes, but I guarantee you that reading minds is not one of our super powers. If a situation is unmanageable – if an assignment is unmanageable, it is the family’s responsibility to let the teacher know. It is the family’s responsibility to ask for accommodations that will make the situation fair – that will allow everyone to get what they need.

I read posts and articles about parents fighting with their children over school work, students crying in frustration over work loads, and parents raging about the unreasonableness of the teacher(s) in the current situation. However, rarely do I read that these parents – these families – have really discussed with the teacher what is necessary to create fairness for that family’s unique situation. And when that does happen, if a teacher isn’t using common sense (see above), I even more rarely read about a family then approaching the administration to try and obtain those accommodations or modifications. I have seen so many times in the recent weeks, articles and posts with the phrase, “…should know…” How “should” we know? We are not living in your home. We do not know what you need to be successful or efficient. As I have already discussed, we are not mind readers. We need communication just as much as you do. Tell us what you need. Ask us what the possibilities are. Advocate for yourselves and your students. Teach your student to use their voice when they have a need. Teach your student the difference between fair and equal.

The Overlapping Me

I often find my educational and parental views to be off-center. No doubt, this post will be far from the trending view of educators by families and families by educators. But, as both a parent and a teacher, I have had to accept this: There is no assignment or concept that is more important than my family’s health and well-being. There is no assignment or concept that is more important than anyone’s health and well-being. When that moment of frustration looms on the horizon, I remind myself to change my expectations. I remind myself that none of us can do more than we can do. Expecting anyone to do more than they can is unfair.

An Open Letter to the School Board

To the Hillsborough County Public Schools Board Members,

As a stakeholder in the Hillsborough County Public Schools community, I want to thank you for your diligent work during this difficult time as we approach the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year. I know this week you will make a difficult decision about the course of action our district takes regarding the start of the year and plan to return. I am sure you have heard from many parents, teachers, other educators, and community members regarding their thoughts on the path HCPS should take for the start of the school year. I, too, want to share my views as the board meeting approaches.
First, let me begin with the statement that schools are essential to our society today. Teachers and educators are essential workers. Public education plays a vital role in our community. For a variety of reasons, public education is an absolute necessity in today’s culture. The pleas of those who advocate for an e-Learning start to the school year seem to be misunderstood by many, in that, they are interpreted as wanting e-Learning for the long-term, rather than using e-Learning as a short-term tool to help the district better prepare for a traditional instructional setting. Please know that no teacher wants to teach remotely the entire year unless his/her current position is with Hillsborough Virtual School. Please know that no parent wants their child home e-Learning for the entire year unless they have chosen that method as their student’s learning prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Everyone I have been in contact with wants to be in a traditional school setting. Please, do not mistake our desires for a delay in the start of the year or an e-Learning start to the year as a wish for the entire school year to be conducted in this manner.

My personal opinion is based on three viewpoints: a community member, a parent, and a classroom teacher. Each of these perspectives culminates in the same conclusion: HCPS should begin the school year in an e-Learning mode until the district can adequately prepare for the necessary measures the CDC and other health officials outline in order to maintain a safe environment for students.

As a member of the community, I am appalled that private sector businesses are not stepping up and shouldering some responsibility for the painful situation in which many families find themselves. A majority of other community members I have spoken with agree that schools should not be opening in a traditional setting but that working parents have little choice in the matter, given their reliance on a 2-income family situation. Why is our community not demanding businesses take responsibility for the well-being of their employees? Why are employers not announcing contingency plans for families with children, should the district make the decision to begin the school year in an e-Learning format? Why are businesses spending millions of dollars renovating stadiums but not sending a single dime to the district to renovate schools with essential equipment and staff to keep students and educators safe? It seems as though society has decided to cherry-pick which professions and people are worth more than others, and those that do not “make the cut” are being forced to choose between their lives or their livelihoods. As the board meetings are now being widely broadcast, I implore you to raise this issue and challenge the community businesses to join in the problem-solving process to fund safety measures and provide flexible options for families that have no recourse if e-Learning is chosen. I fear that in-classroom instruction may be chosen because it is the convenient option, rather than it being the best and safest option for students, educators, their families, and those with whom they interact on a daily basis. The district should not be forced to make decisions based on convenience. As a community member, I find it appalling that there is not more outrage regarding this lack of involvement by the local private sector.

As a working parent, I acutely feel the struggle of other families during this time. My oldest son is entering 3rd grade this year. Neither my husband nor I can afford to take unpaid leave or quit our job in order to stay home and supervise our son in the e-Learning process. At the same time, I am also grossly aware that an overwhelming number of district school facilities are woefully unprepared to be classified as a safe environment in a standard school year, never mind the fact this one begins during a pandemic. Parents are being given a false choice. It a choice that favors the privileged. The survey for parents was assessed online. If the 4th quarter of the 2019-2020 school year taught us anything, it was that low socio-economic communities are disproportionately disadvantaged when it comes to technology. If parents were only given the option to respond online, then the input of those without access to internet or reliable devices has been suppressed. No attempt was made to gather this information in any alternative format – at least as far as I am aware. No district phone calls were made to collect intent from families that had not responded via the online survey. No announcement was made informing families what the default would be for their students if they did not declare intent. The assumption of many was that the district will count them in the traditional classroom intent option, but there is no certainty about this. Many, many families recognize that this district is not prepared to return safely to in-classroom instruction at this time; it is not able to meet the CDC safety guidelines. However, as a result of their employment circumstances, they have been forced to choose an option that is not safest. As a parent, I appreciate the district’s attempts at exploring a variety of options, but what I have not seen is widespread requests to hear from parents regarding their ideas on possible solutions. Families are being put in impossible situations. My 19-month-old daughter has a congenital heart defect. This makes her extremely high risk for death, were she to contract the virus. My 3-year-old son has severe respiratory risks. He contracted RSV at 6 months old, and as a result, has asthma and has had pneumonia twice already in his short lifetime. He, too, would be at extreme risk for death if he contracted the virus. My 3rd-grade son would be risking coming home every day with the virus on his clothing, skin, or as a carrier himself. How can I, as a parent, put my child in the position to know that if his sibling contracts the virus and dies as a result, he likely was the one who transmitted the disease? That is a heavy burden to foist upon children. This is, of course, in addition to the possibility of myself being that transmitter each day when I return from the classroom.

I have been an educator since 2004. I am a veteran teacher. I have continued to teach in impossible conditions, as have my colleagues with even more experience than I have. We teach our students knowing we may have to protect them from active shooters. We teach our students knowing we don’t have adequate supplies to educate them. We teach in spite of terrible conditions created by people who have never set foot in or taught a day in a classroom making decisions for our profession. We teach our students knowing they come from home lives so unimaginably heart-wrenching that it is a wonder they can make it through the day without emotionally breaking down. But I have never been asked to teach in a situation that is so patently absurd and inappropriate that it makes me question my sanity. Teachers want to teach. Students want to learn. Children need socialization and cooperative learning opportunities to be successful. This isn’t possible to do safely right now, given our district’s current situation. That doesn’t mean I don’t have faith that it will be possible. I know that with more time, the district will find answers to the unanswered questions. I know they will find ways to secure funding to properly equip educators, their classrooms, and their students to mitigate the possibility of transmitting the virus. But it isn’t possible right now. For every argument I have heard from anyone in a decision-making position, I have multiple reasons to oppose it. Real reasons. Reasons that, thankfully, some of the board members seem to understand. There isn’t enough time in my day or in yours for me to expound upon all of them. I do not want to engage in yet another data war with statistics that can be presented in a way that supports the chosen viewpoint. Semantics is getting us nowhere. Data and statistical manipulation are spreading misinformation and fear. The crux of the issue is this: we are being forced to choose who is more important to us: our families and ourselves, or our students. If we have come to the point where we are being asked to choose who gets to live or who may have to die, that’s the point where we have to come to our senses and stop. Yes, people get sick. There are colds and flus and strep throat. That’s unavoidable. No one is asking for the unavoidable. No one is arguing schools stay closed until no one get sick ever from anything. I will not take the time to thoroughly contrast the common cold and influenza with COVID-19 beyond saying those viruses have been around for an incredible amount of time. The risks and outcomes are known and documented. The same cannot be said for COVID-19. As such, the devastating consequences of opening schools right now are avoidable. The collateral damage of this path is avoidable. In the coming months and years, those who make this decision will be called on to defend their decisions. They will be forced to confront their choices. Would it not be easier to defend the delay of the school year or several weeks of e-Learning rather than the deaths of hundreds – or even thousands – of students and employees? Teachers feel powerless right now. We feel as though we have no voice. No one has asked us for our ideas on reopening plans. Many teachers I have spoken with – as well as myself – have excellent suggestions for moving forward. But no one is listening to them. Not seriously. And in doing so, those with power are effectively choosing whose lives are more important. Don’t be a part of that.

Demand support from the community. Don’t disenfranchise the under-privileged. Empower teachers and value them as much as every other profession and person.

Don’t send our children and teachers back into classrooms yet. Don’t send us to a gunfight with only knives. Don’t send us to a nuclear war zone with only spoons. Be our voice. Fight for us.

To quote Albus Dumbledore from the novel, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, “Dark times lie ahead of us and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.”

Make the right choice. Do it for our future.

How to Prevent Learned Dependency (and prepare your student for middle school)

I had lunch with my oldest son’s kindergarten teachers over the summer, and we had a great discussion regarding what parents and teachers in elementary school can do to prepare students for middle school. I told them probably the number one thing a parent or teacher can do to prepare a child is to stop the cycle of learned dependence.

Parents and teachers love their kids. Even really bad parents and teachers still have a love for their children. The vast majority of parents and teachers, no matter how lacking they may be, don’t wake up in the morning and plot how to best make their child miserable. Parenting and teaching don’t attract vindictive people by nature.

So, when I mention learned dependency, it’s important to understand that this isn’t something parents and teachers do on purpose. No one WANTS their child to be completely dependent on others. No one WANTS their child unable to function as an adult. But, unfortunately, if you don’t know better, that’s exactly what happens. Enabling dependency is terrifyingly easy. It’s much, much harder to stop it than it is to allow it – even when you know exactly what you’re doing. And if you’re not aware you’re doing it…well, it can be almost impossible to avoid.

What is learned dependency?

  • It’s the systematic development of the dependency on others to accomplish tasks.

How does it happen, and what can you do to avoid it?

  • Learned dependency stems from a single place: understanding the word “help.”

Let me give you an example: My oldest son, who is currently 6, frequently asks for “help.” Can I “help” him brush his teeth? Can I “help” him clean up his room? Can I “help” him put on his socks? If I’m not careful, I turn these into situations where I’m enabling dependency. How? Because I do the task FOR him instead of assisting him WITH the task.

What does real “help” look like?

Task Real help Learned dependency
Brushing teeth Unscrewing the lid on the toothpaste

Putting toothpaste on the brush

Getting water ready for rinsing

Guiding his hand to the right angle

Brushing the very back teeth for him if it’s too hard for him to reach

Checking his teeth afterward to look for obvious misses

Brushing his teeth for him
Cleaning room Brainstorming/suggesting where to start

Standing by a drawer and putting in things he hands me

Putting away items that come from higher places while he puts away all the lower items

Picking up and putting away everything for him
Putting on socks Scrunching up socks so they’re ready to go on his feet

Twisting the socks to the right place once he’s put them on

Putting his socks on for him


Why is learned dependency a bad thing? It teaches kids they can’t – and don’t have to – do things themselves. It teaches them someone else will do it for them when they struggle. It teaches them that struggling is bad. It teaches them that being uncomfortable when faced with a challenge is bad. It devalues persistence. It devalues hard work. It stunts character growth and development. It teaches them the incorrect meaning of the word “help.”

Don’t misunderstand me. It’s not bad to do things for kids. My son can’t tie his own shoes yet (please don’t judge me on how remiss I’ve been as a mom!), so I’d never expect him to struggle through tying his own shoes. If he’s going to wear tie shoes, I’m going to tie his shoes for him until we get to the point where he’s learning how to do it himself. It’s not bad to do things for kids, as long as you don’t do it too often or with the intent to never teach them how to do it themselves. But, what is vital is that you make sure your child can distinguish between “help me do this,” and “do this for me.” If my son asks me, “Will you brush my teeth, please?” I’m more than happy to do that (again, not every time, and not forever, but if he asks for that specifically, I can honor it). But, if he asks, “Can you help me brush my teeth?” He will get a different intervention from me. Since becoming more cognizant of this, I now try to ask him which one he means. If he asks me for help but then whines as I only help, I ask him if he meant to ask me to do it for him. I’m teaching him the true meaning of the word “help,” so that he doesn’t learn dependency.

Teachers are guilty of this just as much as parents. Students ask for “help” with a problem or an issue, and rather than truly helping, we do it for them. It’s so important that we, as teachers, begin to notice when we do it and stop ourselves so that we can break the cycle of learned dependency and empower students to be self-sufficient.

If you point this out to a parent or a teacher, of course it’s obvious that facilitating learned dependency isn’t good for a child. So WHY do we do it?

Well, the answer to this is the master key to effective parenting, teaching, and any sort of leadership role: it’s easier.

No one likes to struggle. No one likes to see their child or student struggle. Struggling is hard. It’s uncomfortable. It’s messy. It’s downright painful sometimes. And it takes FOREVER. It is SO much faster to do it ourselves. I mean, have you ever WATCHED a kid clean his room by himself? OMG, it’s torture.

Image result for it's torture gif

I could clean it in, like, 3 minutes. It takes him what seems like half a lifetime. And he’s whining and pitching a fit the whole time. It is SO much easier and faster for me to do it for him.

And students? Don’t get me started. “I don’t understand number three.” “I need help with number three.”

Image result for facepalm

Yes, we JUST did one EXACTLY like number three not five seconds ago. You don’t need actual help, you just want me to do the problem for you. Or worse, you DO need actual help but want me to do the problem for you. And if there are multiple students who need “help”? Don’t get me wrong – I’m happy to help them. I love helping them. It’s what I get paid to do. But, only helping them takes so much more time and effort than just doing it for them or telling them the answer. And, that doesn’t even begin to cover the students who already suffer from learned dependency. When you actually help them instead of doing it for them, they go ballistic. They whine to their parents about how the teacher “doesn’t help me.” Yes, it is VASTLY quicker and easier to just do it for them. “Here’s how you do number three.”

So I get it. I’m guilty of it with my own kids and my own students. Still, we have to strive for better. For everyone’s sake. So here are some tips to “help” your students instead of teaching them learned dependency:

  • Show another example
  • Ask students which specific part they need help with (a certain step, a certain word, etc.)
  • Direct students to their notes
  • Direct students to the text
  • Direct students to each other (I see Shawna did a problem like this correctly, maybe she can explain how she did it)
  • Scaffold the process (if I did this first, what would you do next?)
  • Read the problem aloud to the student
  • Allow the student to work through the problem verbally with you
  • Ask students to identify keywords
  • Direct students to dictionaries or glossaries

As a parent or a teacher, it’s hard to recognize when you’re enabling dependency. Here are a few things you can ask yourself before you “help”:

  • Is the child really asking me to do it for him/her? If so, is it something s/he can do, at least in part, on his/her own? If not, then reword the request so the child understands s/he is asking for you to complete the task for him/her rather than simply receive help. If the child can complete all or part of the task independently, then only provide help with the most difficult part of the task.
  • Is the child asking for help when s/he really means, “this is difficult!” Or, “I don’t want to do this!” Or, “this is boring!” Or, “this is taking too long!” If so, remind the child that struggling is okay, and even a good thing. Remind the child that a task doesn’t have to be fun or quick to be worth completing. If not, provide help with the most difficult part of the task.

In conclusion, helping kids is tough. Really tough. Not the helping part, per se, but rather resisting the instinct to overtake the task and do it for them. Whether it’s faster, easier, or just makes us feel better to not see a child struggle, doing it for them is the path of least resistance. It’s our job as parents and educators to make sure our kids are ready for the real world, though, and learned dependency is the enemy to that.


Why I Allow Corrections on Student Work

Although many of my educational philosophies are unique (and often unpopular, though not without sound research to back them up), this one is a bit more mainstream: corrections. Most teachers I know and have worked with allow corrections of some sort in at least some capacity. My version is broader than most, though, but here’s why.

First of all, if you don’t allow corrections on assignments (any assignments: homework, classwork, tests, quizzes, etc.), think about why you don’t. I (and the other teachers who do this) allow corrections because it facilitates learning. What good is it to get something wrong if you don’t figure out why and correct it? Failing a test doesn’t teach a student anything. It shows, in fact, that the student needs more instruction. This goes for every assignment. By not allowing corrections, or some form of redoing the work, whether it’s the original assignment or an alternate assignment, it devalues the assignment itself and the skill it’s assessing.

Let’s say you either already allow corrections, or want to, or I’ve now convinced you to, but you’re not sure how best to implement this policy. Many teachers I know only allow corrections on homework, or only on tests, or some restriction regarding the assignment. I, however, allow corrections on everything. Why? See the preceding paragraph. I don’t assign busy work, and I find that corrections give an assignment value. It also improves students’ self-image and motivation to know that a failing grade need not be permanent.

So, now you’ve decided to allow your students to correct all assignments. How do you grade those corrections? Many teachers I know only allow students to correct work that scores below a certain score. Some set it at the failing mark. Some set it at a “C.” I, however, allow students to correct anything that isn’t a 100%. Why? Because failure means different things to different people. For some, a 50% is failing, but a 75% is awesome. For others, an 85% is failing and a 95% is acceptable. I don’t think it’s fair to tell students what their expectations for themselves should be. If I want to let students correct failed assignments, I should honor each student’s definition of “fail.” Not to mention, this helps a LOT when a parent’s definition of “fail” doesn’t match the student’s. If you haven’t gotten the, “My student ONLY has a 97%, how can s/he raise it?” phone call…you will. Just wait. If you allow students to correct ALL assignments no matter the grade, you have that in your pocket when a parent questions a student’s grade. Then it becomes their job to monitor the student taking advantage of all opportunities to improve his/her grade, and not yours.

Now for the actual grading part. The majority of teachers I know who allow corrections count them as half credit. I’m not completely against this school of thought, but I would like to offer what I do as a counter. I give full credit for all corrections on any assignment that isn’t an assessment. So, all classwork, homework, etc. can be corrected until a student’s score is 100%. Why do I do that? Two simple reasons: it demonstrates that the assignment and the skill have value, and it is a CYA for failing students when parents or administration question a student’s grades. You might think that it would discourage students from trying their best the first time around. And yes, while this does happen with some students, by and large, the majority of students don’t use this policy as an excuse to slack off. As with most of my policies (see my entries on open-notes testing and accepting late work), I find that this helps the students who have extremely high standards for themselves and it also helps the students who are truly struggling but really want to improve. The super lazy kids are going to be lazy, no matter how many avenues to success they have available. But everyone else really benefits from these policies and they don’t use them as excuses to give less than their best.

The exception to my full credit for corrections policy is assessments. I allow students to correct assessments, but only for half credit. This is akin to the more common practice of allowing a student to retake a test or take an alternate version of the test and averaging the scores. I prefer to use my time in other ways, so I don’t make multiple versions of assessments. Instead, I encourage students to correct the assessment they took, but receive half credit for the correction. It serves the same purpose as the full-credit corrections of the other assignments but does prevent what would rapidly become a pervasive problem of half-assing it (as it were) the first time around.

You’ve decided to give allowing corrections a try! Great! Now, I’ll save you some trial and error for what works best (or at least better). Some tips for allowing corrections:

  • Let students do the corrections on their own time. Don’t do them together in class, and don’t set aside specific class time to allow corrections. Make students make corrections a priority in their own lives.
  • Only accept corrections that are done in pen (or a different color pen if the original assignment was done in pen). This saves you SOOO much time from having to hunt to find the correction. If you’re worried about space, this can be achieved by requiring students to submit their corrections on a separate piece of paper with the original assessment.
  • Require students to leave their original answers. You, as the teacher, want to see that the student has corrected the error. If the student erases the original answer, that progress is lost.

If you have any other tips, please share them!


I was fortunate enough to be awarded grant funding to stock my classroom with a full set of kid tablets. My intention is to be a 1:1 classroom this year and put this technology to good use. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to do with these tablets, other than maybe allow students time to play on educational apps when they’d finished their work, but then I found an incredible online tool in the form of Deck.Toys. For those of you who read my Smoothboard post, Deck.Toys has the same creator, BoonJin. This platform allows teachers to create maps for students to work their way through – a bit like a treasure map with stopping points along the way. These decks can be as minimal or as thorough as you’d like. I put together an entire unit on one of mine. You can upload PowerPoints, videos, graphics, and even link to outside sites. There are also cool interactive “apps” you can put into your decks to give students practice on things like vocabulary, problem solving, etc. Some of these apps are even interactive, so students work together instead of being tied to the device for the whole time.

Sounds cool, right? It is. And I haven’t even told you about what I think is the best part: the data. The platform saves the student data so you can analyze it. Every slide the students go through records their responses and/or scores. You can build in quizzes or even have an app serve as a quiz. The deck scores it and then keeps that data for you to use and analyze. So. Cool.

The platform is free, but the free version is somewhat limited. The upgraded version isn’t too pricey, and it’s totally worth it (especially since many teachers may find that their department budget will cover the annual fee, or even the PTA, if you’re a member, will sometimes grant teachers small grants to do things like this).

BoonJin is still working on developing different aspects of the platform. He’s very receptive to ideas and suggestions, and answers questions promptly. There is a learning curve, though, but investing the time is worth it, to give your students an interactive, engaging experience.

Oh, and one more thing…once you’ve created your deck, you can sell them. Yep, that’s right. You can charge other teachers to use your deck. Or you can make your deck public and free. There are many free decks you can access without even having to make your own! Could this tool get any cooler?!

Smoothboard Air

As I embarked on my search to free myself from the front of the classroom, I stumbled upon (thanks to my brother, who teaches English in Japan – shout out to Eric) an interface called Smoothboard. Developed by BoonJin, it’s a way to use the wifi connection between two devices with wifi capability to remotely control the master device. That doesn’t make much sense, so let me explain. In my classroom, I have a laptop set up on my AV table with my ELMO and projector. As great as all that technology is, writing on the board, working with the ELMO, or working from my laptop tethers me to the front of the room. Students are very difficult to manage from that far away. Any teacher worth his/her weight in salt knows that proximity control is the first line of defense against misbehavior. Kids do what they think they can get away with, right? I mean, most of them, anyway. So, there’s this seemingly dichotomous issue where I have to be near my students but also up in the front of the room teaching. Sure, not 100% of the time. There are circulation points built into the lesson when students do partner or independent work. I don’t want any of my readers to think that I just park my behind up in a chair at the table and talk, a la Peanuts teacher, for a whole period. But it is limiting to have to go back up to the front to work out an example, give a visual to answer a question, etc.

Enter the Smoothboard interface. First, I download the Smoothboard software (free, though you can pay to remove “ads”) onto my laptop. Then, I can take my tablet, smartphone, Surface, etc. and activate the Smoothboard interface so that my personal device (the tablet, etc.) controls my laptop. The interface also has the cool capability to use drawing tools, has graph paper, and other awesome features that let me teach from anywhere in the room. I can go over bell work, do examples, write whole essays, even, from my tablet right next to Johnny in the back of the room, who now is deterred from being his usually obnoxious self.

Look! I made a video!


How to Gain an Extra Set of Hands in Your Classroom

As a teacher, if I could give myself a superpower, it would probably be the ability to be in two places at the same time. That, or just never need sleep. Or be able to stop time. But definitely, being able to be in two places at once would be an amazing ability – especially in my own classroom as I teach.

I also wish I could re-teach every lesson for students who were absent. There’s no time for that, but it would make life so much easier if I could take the student aside when s/he returned and give the lesson from the day before.

Well, two years ago, I got myself one step closer to achieving both those dreams. How, you ask? I’ll let you in on my secret: I videotaped myself teaching the lesson. Sometimes I did this before the lesson, and sometimes I did it during first period so I had it for the rest of the day. Then, I played the video and I was able to teach the lesson and walk around the room and troubleshoot (and manage behavior) without affecting pacing. I also put the videos up online for students who were absent, so they could watch the lesson and get the same instruction as their peers who had been in class. It was, I suppose, a variation of the flipped classroom.

I’ve not perfected the art of the video. I’m still learning new things. Just the other week, in fact, I learned that you can record your computer screen while talking as a function in PowerPoint (cool, I know, right?!). And, I figured out how to use a graphic tablet (very affordable on Amazon) to do real-time notes and handwritten lessons through PowerPoint’s “Mix” function. So, I’m still learning. But it’s made an AMAZING difference in my teaching and my students’ learning. It takes some prep work and time in the beginning, but it is SO worth it in the end. Have you ever done something like this? If so, what are some tips and tricks you can share to make it more successful? Thanks!

The Forever Diaries

My father died unexpectedly on February 1, 2016. As unexpectedly as one can lose a parent, I suppose. I always felt like we would have more time. I wanted more for my children and their relationship with him, but those expectations are gone, now. What it made me realize was how lucky I was to have my father for as long as I did. He saw me graduate from high school, graduate from college, get a job, get married, and have my first baby. He was there for me at the important times in my life, and his death made me think about what my children would miss out on if I died before they’d experienced the major milestones of their lives.

To combat that, I started something I call The Forever Diaries. I started an email and Google account for my children, and I send them emails and make them videos so that when I die, they have more to remember me by. I’ve done videos of me singing things like lullabies and the Happy Birthday song, and emails telling them things like what I would say to them on their high school graduation or wedding day.

I hope they never have need of these, but I know one day I will be gone, and at the very least, they’ll have videos and letters from me they can watch and read anytime they want to hear me say I love them. I wish I had a video of my dad talking to me and telling me he loves me. So, as morbid as it may seem, I hope my kids appreciate it one day.

Why I allow open-notes quizzes and tests

Every teacher has his or her own educational philosophies and teaching style. One of the things I’ve learned throughout my teaching career is that while good teachers learn from others and take bits and pieces from others to incorporate into their own classes, you can’t be another teacher. No two teachers are exactly alike, and trying to be a carbon copy of another teacher, no matter how incredible that teacher may be, isn’t going to be as effective as developing your own personal teaching style.

That being said, I learned a long time ago that I espouse some unique philosophies on education and teaching, and I run my classroom differently from most teachers I know. Which is fine. I would NEVER try to tell another teacher how to teach. I do not like it when others do that to me, so I don’t do it to them. Suggestions and tips are fine, but I shy away from saying things like, “You have to…,” or “You should…” Instead, if I notice a teacher is struggling or having a certain issue, I share with them, “What works for me is…” and let them adapt it for their own classroom.

If you read my blog regularly, you’re probably already aware of this: I assign seats in secondary classrooms. I don’t allow backpacks at desks. I grade through growth and gains. I accept late work. I rarely assign homework. I allow corrections. Many teachers disagree with my teaching style because that’s not what works for them. And that’s okay, as long as they don’t try to force me to do what works them.

In this vein, I offer another perspective that I have found to be quite rare in my educational experience: open-notes assessments. I’m not talking about a few here or there, I’m talking about every single classroom assessment being open book and open notes.

I can hear it now: “You must be joking!” But I’m not. Much like my philosophy on assigning homework, my perspective on assessments has evolved over the years. Here are the top five reasons why I now only give open-notes assessments:

  • It encourages consistent and high-quality note-taking skills. If my students know they will be able to use their notes on an assessment, they work harder in class to pay attention and write neatly so they can use them effectively later. Yes, they should be using them to study, but allowing them to use notes on an assessment provides another incentive to be on task and pay attention to detail.
  • It provides support for me when parents or administration questions a student’s grades. Much like my reasons for accepting late work, I find many arguments silenced when I tell a parent or an administrator that students are welcome to use their notes, and if they aren’t passing my assessments, it’s likely because they’re goofing off in class rather than writing down the key information.
  • Assessments should be authentic. Again, much like my decisions behind the assigning homework issue, I’ve really come to think critically about what purpose my assessments serve. I used to give assessments that were focused on rote memory skills. Could a student memorize a definition? Could a student memorize a formula? They didn’t focus very much on actual problem-solving skills or application. I realized I wanted to be more interested in whether or not my students understood the material. Had they internalized it? Could they render it useful in a given circumstance? I thought about how in the real world, if a student needed to find the circumference of a circle or develop a subplot in a story they wrote, it wouldn’t be in isolation. They would have access to and use various resources to find what they needed, and then use their knowledge of the concept to apply it. So I allow open-notes assessments because memorizing rote facts isn’t authentic.
  • Piggybacking on this idea is that both my teaching and my assessments are of higher quality because I allow students to use their notes. I have to carefully design my assessments so they don’t have problems that are too similar to what was given in the notes. I have to make sure that they present opportunities for students to apply what they’ve learned and not just copy from what was shown in class. I have to be more creative and have more depth in my instruction and my assessments.
  • Because of this, I’ve found that allowing students to use their notes on assessments honestly doesn’t make that big of a difference in their grades. Aside from a few formulas that they have access to, being able to use their notes doesn’t change the outcome by much for students. If a student truly understands the concept, takes conscientious notes, and studies, s/he’s going to succeed on the assessment, whether s/he has access to the notes or not. If a student doesn’t understand the concept, or didn’t take good notes, or didn’t study, s/he’s not going to succeed on the assessment – and having access to notes isn’t going to change that. The previous 4 benefits still make it worthwhile, though, so I continue to allow open-notes assessments.

“But wait!” Some may shout, “What about the state tests? Students can’t use notes on those!”

I’m aware of that, and I remind students of that at every turn. Most states, however, give formula sheets on the math assessments, which reinforces the idea of authenticity. I have found, though, that on state assessments, my students consistently perform at or above the level of my colleagues who do not give open-notes assessments, which negates this argument.

Is there a right or wrong philosophy here? No. As is true with nearly all aspects of teaching, it’s about finding what works for you and your students and running with it.

Portfolios: How Those Plastic Milk Crates Became My Friend (and Helped Me Tackle Paperwork)

Portfolio grading is all the rage in elementary school. And I get it. I do. It’s the most accurate way to monitor student growth throughout the year. But elementary teachers only have one roster of students. In secondary education, portfolio grading is nearly impossible. With at least six different rosters of students at about 25 students each (if you’re lucky…), portfolio grading simply requires time that teachers do not have.

It is possible, though, to incorporate some aspects of portfolio grading in secondary classrooms. One way teachers do this is periodic, though perhaps infrequent, student conferences to go over writing, assessments, and general progress. That, too, consumes a lot of time, and depending on the makeup of your classes, may not be feasible, as it requires the teacher to be focused on one (or a small group) of students while the remainder work independently (alone or in small groups). I know I’ve had many classes that – despite my best efforts – would become a three-ring circus if I tried student conferences.

Several years ago, my district adopted a curriculum that strongly encouraged the use of portfolios in the secondary classroom. I’d been teaching long enough by that time to know I would not be able to implement it in the way it was intended, but I was determined to try something and see how much I could do. I fully intended to do some type of student conference at some point in the year, so I had to make sure I kept the record of student work in my possession. Because, let’s face it: if we gave our students their work and told them to hold onto it until later, we’d never see it again. Instead of handing graded work back to students, I began filing them in folders. I had to get creative with this because I didn’t have access to any filing cabinets that I could use hanging files with (and, looking back, wouldn’t have wanted to use it anyway), so I used the next best thing: milk crates.

Did you know that milk crates are the exact size to fit hanging file folders? Well, they are. I bought a bajillion hanging file and manila folders and made portfolios for each class. I let students decorate their manila folders (which they loved – even the high schoolers), and all their work went in there.

I never got around to student conferences that year (or any subsequent year #teacherfail), but the use of these milk crate files had an unexpected benefit: It lessened lost work. Both students and I had access to the work from throughout the year. This meant that they could use old assignments to study. It meant they could find and correct assignments for additional credit. It meant I had a student’s (mostly complete) work record at my fingertips, and I had ammunition for parent conferences. I brought the files with me and set them in front of parents who were demanding an explanation for a student’s grades. It shut people up pretty quickly when they saw the quality of work (and, in some cases, lack of work altogether) their child was producing. This was true for my administration as well, if they had questions about a student’s work or grades.

It’s an easy thing to implement, and it saved me a lot of time and headaches with paperwork. Now, they’re a staple in my classroom every year, and I even “hire” a paper captain to do all the filing for me. I have more time and energy to devote to teaching, which is, of course, the entire point.