True Grit part 2: My little guy & the “big test”

In my last blog post – I talked about having Grit...

My kids had to show more a lot of grit with the new test.

And I have one sweet, eager to please friend… that sometimes struggles with reading.

He fell apart during day 1 of Reading.  Got stuck, didn’t know what to do, and just went around in circles.  I could see the panic in his eyes.

I rubbed his back every now and then, and slipped him an extra couple of mints.  I did everything the rule book would allow.  Which wasn’t much.  It’s all I could do.

But I had to face the truth – they were all falling apart a little bit.  This was the their first time ever with high-stakes testing and it showed.  Almost two years of teaching the SAME strategies, and about 2 kids used them.  I wanted to just melt.   I felt I had failed my students.  I had armed them with a tool box full of tools that they didn’t know when to use during go-time.  And this was only Day 1.

I needed to have grit.

So – I knew we needed to debrief and reflect – as much as the rule book would allow. Which wasn’t much.  But it’s all I could do.

Often we are often tempted to ask kids things like “how do you think you did?” – and they honestly don’t really know.  Or  “Was it hard/easy?” which doesn’t really allow them to reflect and build.

So instead – I posed these questions to them to reflect on

  • “What strategies did you use?”  (they should have used reading the text with a pencil, close reading the questions, rereading the text/looking back in the text to confirm answer choices,  eliminating clearly wrong answer choices, creating a graphic organizer for their writing on scratch paper).
  •  “Where there any strategies that you didn’t use that you should have?”  “If not .. why?” 
  • “Did you manage your time okay?” “Did you have too much time left over or not enough time?”
  • “Did you use most of the all the space for writing (or did you run out of room?)  If you didn’t use all the space, why not?”

I even shared these questions with parents in an email

I started out the next day before our testing session with the usual pre-test pep talk, and I pulled a note from the sports world and told them “close your eyes, imagine using your strategies. What does it look like?  What are you doing?”

And later that morning we began testing.  And I did see a big improvement overall. Perhaps I hadn’t failed them after all.  Between getting that first day under their belts, the self-analysis, and the visualization – they were doing a much better of applying their strategies. They were showing their grit.

But this really made my heart soar.  My little guy – my struggler from the day before, started out the test by listing all the strategies I had taught them that on his scrap paper.  He was so proud of his list.  He said it would help him if he got stuck.  And he used it.  And he finished feeling good.  He had a goal, he made a plan, and he knew what to do when he got stuck.

That was TRUE GRIT!


Cutting the legs & wings off

My mother in law tells a joke.  It goes like this….

One Thanksgiving, a young wife began preparing her first turkey.  She follows the process handed down to her by her mother.  Safely thaw, remove giblets, rinse, brine, rub with butter, cut off the wings & legs.  Her new husband, trying to not rock the boat, gently asked her about this last step.  He had never seen this done before.  “Why do you do that?” he inquired.  Her response.  “That’s the way my mom did it.”   She was now curious, never realizing that this wasn’t standard practice in all kitchens.  So she called her mom and asked the same question.  “Why.”  Her mom replied.   “That’s the way my mom did it.”  Now, seeking a better answer, she called her grandmother.  “Oh” grandmother replied “my oven was too small, so that was the only way the turkey would fit.”

What is meant as a humorous story makes a profound statement on what we do as parents and as teachers.  We do what we know, we do what we’ve always done, but how often to we stop to ask “Why?” and change our habits to reflect the answer.


Time is so precious, that we need to make sure that everything we do is purposeful and for a good reason.

Take the time to ask yourself “Why am I doing this?”  “Is this the really best way to achieve my goal?” “Am I only doing this because this is what I know?”

“Is it still relevant?”

If the answer isn’t satisfactory, be brave and leave the turkey whole.

White noise awesome.

Moms are great for telling you how awesome you are.  But I don’t always feel awesome.

And during one such conversation with my mom, we laughed about the idea of “white noise awesome.”  Not the winning distinguished this or that type of awesome, but the kind that most people are in their own way and no one notices.   I decided that I wasn’t comfortable saying that I was awesome in the loud, noticeable kind of way – but I could be okay thinking that I had the kind of awesomeness that isn’t noticed, until it’s gone – like them hum of the refrigerator, the drone of the HV/AC.  (Remember the days when you’d fall asleep watching TV and wake up to the TV snow – ).

Everyday there is background awesomeness that we have learned to tune out and ignore and take for granted.  Living under the flight plan of a major airport, one of my most vivid memories of 9/11 was the silence from not hearing the planes go overhead.  Funny.  I hardly had ever looked up when I heard a plane go by, only the really big, really loud plane ones – then I would notice.  However, no one notices all the planes that go above us every day.  At least I hadn’t until they had been grounded.

I wondered… we do so much celebrating of the loud awesome.  The straight A’s, the sport wins, the cream of the crop achievements.  What are we doing to acknowledge the white noise awesomeness going on around us everyday?  What can we do?

Celebrating the child that as achieved success in something not as flashy as a varsity sport.  Maybe the child that is quietly overcoming a challenge we don’t even really know much about because she doesn’t want to share.  Or the child that worked so very hard, for that C.   Kids that have demonstrated privately the grit it takes, and we don’t notice because it doesn’t fit our traditional view of awesome. Those kids have already mastered the idea of a growth mindset and we don’t even realize it.

Their end game for them isn’t acknowledgement, it’s being better than they were yesterday – and they don’t even know it!

As a mom, I try to champion my own kid’s white noise awesome, and that’s easy.  I can brag, advocate, post.   But my job as a teacher is a bit tougher, I have to make sure that I’m fostering a classroom where white noise awesome is just as amazing as the awesome that is louder.

We often don’t give kids enough time to privately reflect and to think about this.  So – last Tuesday I issued a Snow Day Challenge (Mrs. Smith’s Snow Day Challenge began last year when we had a ton a snow days.  Every snow day I’d email my students a fun challenge to break up the monotony of another day – and since I looped with my kids and I have the same ones, they look forward to them again.)

This went out to my kids:

It’s a SNOW DAY!!

I’ve decided to do a snow day challenge today (for those new to my room, I try to give the kids something “to do” on a snow day to combat boredom!)

I’ve been thinking a lot about all the things that makes us special and feel proud. It’s easy to feel proud of the things every one knows about – winning a game or getting an A.

Some of us feel proud of accomplishments that are easy to brag about.  But sometimes we have faced something hard that we’ve worked through, a tough situation, something that was challenging for us. Or we’re really good at something that we think most people wouldn’t understand or get.  And sometimes, those things are private and personal because we think it might be embarrassing in some way – so we don’t share them.  

(For example: when I was in 6th grade, I was SO PROUD of myself for going away to 6th grade camp at Camp Greentop because I had a lot of anxiety – but I never told anyone because I was embarrassed that I was scared.   And one time, I won a big award for 4-H and was SO PROUD, but was embarrassed to tell anyone because I thought they wouldn’t think it was cool I was in 4-H.  And I was really SO PROUD of my C in Chemistry because I worked hard for it, but was too embarrassed because my friends were getting As and Bs.)

In school, things aren’t often very private, so on this snow day, I want you to write, draw, type, create something – anything – that expresses something (or more than one thing) you feel really proud of on the inside. And since this is private, you can do anything you want – something like winning a game, but also something private like sleeping over at camp.

And keep it. This is just for you. Share with me that you did it and I’ll give you a Dojo point… and maybe something else…, but I want you to keep on the inside that feeling of what you did that makes you feel proud of yourself.

And if you want, you can put a word or a symbol on a sticky note at school that represents what you feel proud of, and leave it on your desk. Just for you. No one will know what it really means but you, but every time you look at it you will be reminded of how awesome you really are! 🙂

I was really surprised at the number of kids that took me up on the offer and did this exercise – and brought in their sticky notes.  We took a moment to talk as a class and I gave a sticky note to all the kids and had them write something they were proud of for their desks.  At the end of the day, I took a picture of a sampling….  (the bottom left is supposed to be a Cub Scout patch… too cute!)

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It’s important that kids take the time to think about it – and sometimes they need to do it privately.  This is one idea that I had to help them tap into their inner white noise awesomeness that they didn’t even know they have – and to be inspired by it…. in their own 3rd grade way.  I’m going to keep searching for more ….

Depart from the Text

Growing up, I loved the Sunday Funnies.  And I really loved Bloom County.  Bill the Cat never failed to crack me up (Ack Ack Thbbft).  And I was obsessed with Opus.  For those that don’t know – it was Opus the penguin, Bill the Cat (was probably on something illegal), and a cast of other point of view characters.  They discussed and reflected on current events and pop culture in their own off beat way and I think the real allure was that It made me feel smart because I was old enough to get the jokes.

And somewhere, post college, I got “Good Night Opus.”  A picture book that has Granny reading Opus Goodnight Moon (a routine I became all too familiar with myself).  And the gist (the gist is something I’ve been finding a lot of here lately in my classroom) was that Opus didn’t want to follow the tired old routine.  He wanted to be creative and say good night to Lincoln and Tooth Fairy and get carried away by his imagination, which he gleefully did,  much to the chagrin of his nanny. Despite her warnings, he departed the text.

As an 8th grade English teacher, I used to read this to my students at the start of the year. I told them that this was going to be the year to take risks, to see how far they can take their writing and thinking.   It was our class mission statement (and this was before mission statements were cool.)   And I still read it to my 3rd graders at some point.

But at some point I forgot to take my own advice.  To depart from my own text.

Every day I ask kids to put themselves out there, to take risks by sharing and putting their ideas out there, even if it’s just for me to read.  Yet I’m not doing that myself.   So, I’m going to start blogging.  I was inspired by a recent unconferance that I attended – EdCamp Maryland, and specifically by a bloggers John Harper ( and Brian Cook (  Thank you gentleman for inspiring me to step outside my comfort zone.  And thank you Susan Verdi ( as well!

When I thought about what to title my blog I immediately thought of Opus departing the text and wanted to be as bold and giddy as him.

I also found it ironic that with CCSS, so much of my time is spent on telling kids to “refer to the text”  “what does the text say” “is the answer from your head or from the text.”  Seems kind of backwards.

So how to reconcile the two?  How to stay in the text, and depart it at the same time.  Kids need to do both.  Opus could not have departed from the text had there not been one to depart from to begin with.  He needed to understand the nature and content of Goodnight Moon to take his own path with it.  He had to have known the story so intimately that he could then make it his own.  He wasn’t just departing the text and leaving it behind, he was building on the foundation of it.   He was expanding it.  He was pushing the boundaries of what was.  (Pretty deep for a penguin).  And this applies to reading, writing, math – all content areas.

I hope to use this blog as a place where I can share my reflections, ideas, and tools I use to achieve my goal of keeping students grounded in the standards but with the creativity of mind and confidence to visit the milky way, Abraham Lincoln, and the tooth fairy.