Duck Rescue! and Applied Lessons from the PLC Institute

What do you do when see five baby ducks stuck in a flower planter outside of a convention center?  What do you do when you watch the mother duck jump into the planter and jump down, quacking for her ducklings over and over and over again?  You apply the knowledge you just learned at the convention. You rely on action.

I have spent the past three days at the Monona Terrace Convention Center right down the road from me at the Professional Learning Community Institute.  This is three intense days of reflection and planning, hoping and strategizing. At the crux of the institute are the four essential questions: 1)What do we want our students to learn? 2) How will we know they are learning? 3) How will we respond when they don’t learn? 4) How will we respond when they do learn (or learned it eons ago, I’d add.)   But the institute’s work cannot progress if we educators aren’t willing to step in thoughtfully and commit.

When we left Dr. Muhammad’s keynote, there was a mother duck and her five ducklings in a planter.  The mother duck would jump into the planter and out of the planter, quacking for the ducklings, only little balls of fluff, to follow.  They were like “heck, no!” They were right. Look at it. Here is a picture of the lip of the planter the ducklings would have to jump over.  For comparison sake, look at the lip vs my mega coffee cup.


Then look at what they would have to jump down.   I put my camera on the edge and took the picture, looking down.  Remember, these are tiny ducklings.


Criminey. I’ve seen baby ducks jump amazing heights, but I think they were right.  Jumping from that planter was an impossible ask.  (What do we demand of our students that is an impossible ask, I wonder?)

So I did what every nature loving soul would do.  I told two conference workers, who cheerfully got on it, contacting building staff.  Then I went to the bookstore.

But then I went to check on the ducks again, where there was no change except momma duck was getting exhausted and frantic.  I saw her try each side of the planter with no different results. So I decided to help her out. I gingerly lifted each baby duckling down, where quacking, they scampered to their mom.






And then I realized I made an error.  I just got the ducks out and now they were in the middle of a huge concrete structure and on the edge of a curved bike and running lane. Not safe.  Not safe at all.

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I tried to get the ducks to move.  Nope. Not happening. Did you know that ducks, like their “cousin” the cobra-goose, can hiss?  Yep. True.

Back into the convention center I went.  At this point, it is the third time I left the convention center to check on the ducks.  Re-entering the building requires walking around the building, entering a stairwell, going up some floors to get to the public entrance level, and then walking through the building and then going down some floors. Its decent exercise. I ventured back into the building, talked to the same amazing convention workers, and got a box from them.

When back outside, I kidnapped a duck.  That means I had to be brave enough to reach under hissing momma duck and carefully grab a duckling.  This did not go unpunished.  Momma ducks, even terrified ones, aren’t bad at pecking.  The duckling went into the box and its quacking lured the momma duck to follow me, slowly, slowly, toward water. I walked backwards, continually looking out for bikes and warning riders and runners of the duck family.  Here is the baby in the box, and hurried pictures trying to capture the family following me.  Crazy nuts trying to rescue ducks and take pictures.



The journey was tedious and precarious.  It took some juggling to keep the box open enough for the baby’s quacking to be loud enough for the mom to hear but  closed enough for the baby not to be able to jump.

And then success.  I could put the box down and on its side… and the family could reunite and get to water.


Whew.  That was sweaty and time-consuming.

What are the lessons?

1. Action is necessary.  One of the lessons learned these days is that education often says “hey, the opportunity is there.  Just do it.”  That’s the meritocracy and the status quo.  That view needs to change.  The momma duck was trying hard.  Those baby ducks were trying hard.  But without some intervention, I don’t know that things would have changed.

2.  Taking action isn’t comfortable.  I don’t know if I should have left them.  Maybe some duck expert will believe me to be completely wrong.  Being hissed at is uncomfortable.  Getting pecked by a rightfully angry duck isn’t pleasant.  And that was sweaty, sweaty work.  Action isn’t comfortable.

3.  Things might seem worse before they are better.  That huddled family on the cusp of the bike path reminded me of every significant change in my classroom or English department; it feels worse before it gets better.

4.  Celebrate what is done.  Look at these ducks.  Pure happiness!  There is so much to confront in my classroom, my department, my school.  Take that uncomfortable action, knowing it is going to be hard, and celebrate the experience.






An amazing Twitter thread for Friday the 13th: Happy Cool Dude Day

It is summer.  Aaaah, summer, when sleep and family time and personal care can actually get done, but even in such halcyon days, I am thinking school.  Working toward school.  Worried about kids and colleagues alike.  One summer ritual for me is to go through all the tweets I liked throughout the school year, plugging in those tips and lessons to my year.  Recently, I just rediscovered this… Screen Shot 2018-07-11 at 10.21.09 AM.pngScreen Shot 2018-07-11 at 10.21.25 AM.png

Mr. Schneider @Edu_Historian, thanks for sharing that story of father-love and teacher-courage.

Adding this in…Screen Shot 2018-07-13 at 9.10.45 AM.png

I am going to model Best Buy this year…

Have you been to Best Buy lately?  Previously rumored to be at the end of their corporate existence due to giants like Amazon and the near evaporation of CD sales and other revenue streams, Best Buy holds its own, having actually rebounded.  It is surprisingly a happy place to go shopping.

Why does this stand out? At this stage in my  teaching career, I have three questions that haunt:

  1. How do I be the best parent I can be with my own kids in my school?  That means balances of work/life and a tricky walk of what is personal and public.
  2. How do I keep up the energy (physical and emotional) to be the teacher each kid needs? Dang, this job is exhausting, and this body is aging.
  3. And how do I remain relevant?  How do I keep evolving, keep learning?  How do I stay true to me, to my roots, to what I know works while I also keep challenging my concepts, keep folding new skills in, and keep questioning what I know?

I am thinking Best Buy did a lot of thinking on that #3 question, and I can learn from them.

First, focus.  Best Buy has a lot less stuff around.  Yeah, that’s because it wasn’t selling (CDs) and its inventory management, but it is also freeing.  With less there, I can focus more. I can navigate the store better and I certainly feel more comfortable.  For my classroom, keep remembering less is more. Two days on a poem in depth can be worth it. Stop crowding the content or the kids.

Second, be there.  Why do I go to Best Buy?  Because a real human is going to show up pretty quickly.  I find it ironic I now read Amazon reviews and then go to BestBuy.  Visits used to be the other order, but a real human– that is worth paying for.  In the classroom, be there. Don’t be at my desk doing email or (yep, admin, I know you don’t like this one) attendance.  Just be in the moment, being present.

Third,  listen. When we were contemplating our purchase, the sales rep listened.  Listened without judgement and without selling. He heard what we wanted, he knew we had opted out of some features and he didn’t pressure.  He answered every question without make us feel stupid or silly. Every classroom question is valid. What a student doesn’t know or a skill not in place is not a time for judgement, but something to address, fill in, and practice.

Last, provide options but not too many options  I recognize there is paralysis in too many choices.  Best Buy had a couple options that worked for us, so there was choice, but not meaningless choice.  And then there were choices on how and where to check out and how to get a receipt. These are small details, but when I watch teachers still try to control the minutia of the classroom, I think nah.  The right number of choices, the right amount of flexibility– yep. That’s sweet.

But in reality, I think what made the Best Buy visit better was the simple fact our sales person seemed happy.  Genuinely happy to help. Authentically knowledgeable. I am my classroom. My happiness, my attitude makes or breaks the day.

Yep, I am getting old.  I am that experienced veteran teacher, but, like Best Buy, I can keep my core and adapt.  And I can do it all with a smile.Big Box Retailer Best Buy Post Better Than Expected Earnings

A bit of faith and feedback salves the soul

This week, I’ve been calling some of my students who scored a below “qualified” on the AP Lit test, earning a “2”.  I haven’t yet connected voice to voice with each student, but so far, the conversations have gone well. It wasn’t until I was walking with a friend processing my son’s soccer tryout (and placement on a different tier team) that I made the connection between my personal and professional worlds.

As my son approaches eighth grade, his soccer age mates fold in the kids in the previous birth year who aren’t yet entering high school.  Sometimes those are kids “redshirted” and sometimes it’s just a December birthday. Two weeks ago, my son learned he was moved down a tier from “Red” to “White” team.  With any range of pre-thinking, whether that decision was feared, anticipated, or felt inevitable, the judgment plays with his sense of identity and worth, and that thinking (mourning) process is really hard to watch as a parent.

For my part, I keep wondering if I read last year’s coach, the one that continues with the “Red” team, correctly.  I thought he trusted and esteemed my son. I thought he valued him. I have my own identity crisis: do I understand people?  Did I understand what I was seeing on the field?

You know what would solve much of this?  A message from the coach. An outreach, a connection. My son didn’t think any step of tryouts went his way.  On each day, he talked about why he didn’t think his abilities showed through. If his coach could add feedback– either on the tryouts decisions or, most importantly, on my son’s soccer abilities, some of the placement angst might be blunted.  Some of his soccer identify salved.

So cue the phone calls about AP scores.  In those calls, maybe the student and I both recall timed tests weren’t a strength.  Maybe we curse the complexity of Hawthorne or laugh about plants revealing colonization. Maybe we both think the score doesn’t make sense and isn’t accurate for the skills revealed in class– and then there is that key bit of feedback I can offer the student:

“This is a a single score on a single day.  You are not the score. You are ready for college.  You will do fine. You are_____________– resilient, a thinker, an amazing discussion broker, a writer willing to work the process.”

That feedback and that renewal of faith— well, that goes a long way.  It does a long way in a classroom and it would go a long way on the soccer field.  And that connection– having my parent heart and my teacher brain both in alignment– will help make those remaining calls.

grass sport game match
Photo by Pixabay on

Don’t Like This

Just saw Ezra Klein’s series of Tweets about–

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Which make me think of yet another Wisconsin legislative move making me angry…

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And then I think of Bruce Feiler Ted Talk that stated that what kids want most is for their parents to be less stressed.

And I think– What are we doing?  What are our values?

My Kids are Learning the Media

On June 30th, my kids and I again visited the Wisconsin State Capitol to advocate for education.  During 2011’s Act 10, my kids lived at the Capitol, chanting favorite protest sayings and regularly eating Ian’s Pizza.  They were actually excited to return to political action.

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When done, we looked through media accounts.   The story that went rapid fire through the state was this one, an AP story:

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Talking with Egan, my older child, I asked what he noticed.  He said it was interesting the only person who gets somewhat quoted is the opposition.  There were no quotes from Milwaukee speakers who talked about education being “tarnished and perverted” by “increased privatization” funded by millionaires and billionaires.  There were no quotes from the rural school leader, who argued current funding guarantees education will not be equal in Wisconsin and expansion of private vouchers will hurt rural schools the most, despite having no charter schools in their boundaries.  There were no quotes from the mother of a special needs student who presented the case that when special education kids take their voucher money and leave, they also give up their rights under IDEA.  There is, of course, no mention of her testimony that Wisconsin has fallen to last place in financing special education.  And there were no quotes from the Green Bay education advocate who noted this change to privatize education comes when the requests for vouchers are at their lowest.

But by all means, only grant specifics to the opposition, and do it as the last and closing lines of the distributed article, granting emphasis.

Then we looked at some headlines, and we saw this:

From Skitch

While most headlines used the phrase “advocates call,”  Fox used “advocates blast.”  Why?  To bring up the images of angry mobs of educators again, the distorted and well-publicized view of teachers since 2011.  The AP article uses “blast” as well, a disappointing choice for a press conference that strove for reason, making the argument that education is a bi-partisan issue.

And so my sons learn-again- how hard it is to be heard in a democracy and yet how we must keep at the fight because there is too much at stake.

Responding to NYT’s Editorial “Don’t Give Up the Gains in Education”

Today, the New York Times published an editorial asking that Congress keeps the yearly testing requirement that NCLB put in place.  I do not disagree.  A single yearly test can do much to guide a school, and as a teacher, I truly do value when I get good data on my students.  (Qualifier: Not all tests produce reliable or good data.)

I am, true to the title of this blog… Seeing Shades of Gray ( the name of which is, of course, problematic right now, thank you E. L. James trilogy and Universal Pictures movie).  I have written to my legislators to protest the Common Core and its testing, but I support the Common Core Standards as a goal (not a whipping post) and I yearn for a single, viable annual test for my students.  The problem is there is too much testing and the standards, produced without much educator input, appear unalterable and rigid.  But all that is fodder for more posts.

I have been angry all day.  All week.  Well, really, for about four years now.  Four years ago, Governor Walker did much to damage schools.  That damage continues as this year’s budget will decimate education here, regardless of “tools” that have demoralized and pauperized many teachers.  But my newest anger is that people like Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Assembly Education Committee Chair Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt argue “failing” schools in Wisconsin will face sanctions such as closing.  They are dismantling public education and ushering in privatization.  So that anger– and the four years of really trying to study education– fed this response.   (If it actually gets published, it will be shorter because of NYT rules.  This is the original draft.)

I can attest to the value of data from a yearly test.  In my roles as instructional leader/ department chair, I have valued data as a triangulation point to consider with teacher observations and classroom assessment success.  I bemoan when I don’t have consistent testing data to inform me.  I can also attest to the remarkable value in highlighting where a school is effective and where it is not.  Gaps were hidden until NCLB, and as the gaps are still ever-present, they must be scrutinized and attacked and tests can help.

But you point out a key element: sanctions led to over-testing, and dreadful overtesting at that.  Elementary students take expensive and high-stakes tests monthly in most places, and often twice a month.  This produces more data than can be effectively processed, creates remarkable anxiety for children, and lines the coffers of companies like Pearson, who, for example, was paid $32 million for a five-year contract with New York alone.  Schools pay dearly for tests in every way.  A bad test score is bad press.

As NCLB has progressed, all of this has seemed a subterfuge to privatize education.  Those test scores and sanctions often mean that schools are taken over and, quite often, turned into charter schools.  While charter schools’ original mission in the 90’s was to provide interesting and personalized alternatives to public ed, that mission has been twisted.  Now significant numbers of  charter schools are operated by for-profit chains that are more selective of their enrollees than public schools can be, more devious in dismissing students that may bring down scores, less transparent to oversight, and more removed from local governance.

NCLB was designed to label schools as failing.  Teachers are now denigrated daily.  Enrollment in teacher preparation programs is plummeting.  Viable and vibrant public schools are shuttered.  And the root cause of most failing public schools– the root cause goes unaddressed.  Poverty.  America has chosen fit to spend 1.7 billion (Brown Center on Educational Policy) on testing while cutting nearly every social program that fights poverty.  It is a true attestment to the dedication of teachers and the problem-solving of public schools in this nation that while those severe cuts have happened, the gaps have narrowed.

My Overdue Letter to Time Magazine

December 30, 2014

Dear Time Magazine,

Time Magazine's November 3, 2014 Cover
Time Magazine’s November 3, 2014 Cover

No, I will not be renewing my subscription.  Your sensationalistic November 3rd cover fed a public fire of anti-teacher rhetorical and sentiment churning for the past four or five years.  Your cover, black and white in both its design and message, wounded.

I eagerly read Nancy Gibb’s editorial response hoping the response from fellow teachers would have an impact, but I saw no acknowledgement the artwork was a mistake.  Nancy Gibb’s sentence, “We view education as crucial to America’s success, and it concerns me if teachers who have not had a chance to read our coverage have heard it mischaracterized” assumes outcry was solely due to the article, which was, in truth, more nuanced than the cover.  She ignores the cover, the most visible and displayed aspect of the magazine.

Teacher tenure does deserve discussion, and if Time really did value, as Nancy Gibb’s states, its mission to “spur discussion of important issues,” Time would include interviews from educators and it would look at issues such as the financing of the various movements to chip away at public education.  “Making the story free for all readers on” does not spur informed discussion; it simply makes the monied interest’s message more available.

So, no, Time.  I will not renew my subscription.

Plickers Engages Students

Plickers is the most engaging free app I have come across in years.  It gets more kids involved in class than anything else I could do.

An amazing substitute teacher, Tim Fahlberg,  who has some background in technology, used an engaging and really easy to set-up system, Plickers, when he worked for me a day this year.  The kids loved it, and Tim was kind enough to explain it all to me and get me started.

Plickers is where kids hold up a card to give a response to any posed multiple choice question and the teacher scans the room (I use my iPad, but a smartphone with a camera would do) to collect all the answers, which are printed from templates available from the site (I used colored cardstock).  If you have the ability to project, you can project the “Live View” student list while you are scanning and instruct kids to put down their cards when they see their name is checked.  The software tallies up who answered  what and shows it on a chart (hope you can project it!), where the real instruction begins.

When there are two close answers, the true class discussion begins.  I have mostly used this for AP Lit and their multiple choice, and so I ask the kids to go back to their text and find evidence that D is correct or C is correct, or we see that vocabulary is the culprit and we talk through the words and revote.  Kids get immediate feedback and I see their thinking patterns and can talk through errors they are making.  One beauty of this is that the tool is responsive to that moment.  It find it easier to see the differences between hours than I do when I grade by hand, where assessments blur together.

When we have done Plickers, going through the answers takes two to three times longer, but when I queried the kids, they said it was worth it: they get more feedback and better feedback than any other method.

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I used to use cards like those shown and would visually survey the class, but Plickers is better because it is impossible for kids to look around and see what other kids are answering and change their answer, and it provides anonymity for kids.  No one knows if Sam answered A, B, C, or D.  The graph feature is wonderful, and the app tracks who answered what.

There are some missing features of Plickers: it is hard to group and organize questions in order (consider entering them in reverse order), it doesn’t tally up multiple questions in a spreadsheet, and there are only four options.  When I contacted Plickers to tell them how pleased I was with their product, pleased enough to pay for more services, they sent me to their How do we make Plickers better page, which allowed me to upvote some of the modifications I would want to see.

I have also used Plickers to poll my class, based on suggestions from Tim Fahlberg.  You can ask groups if they need 1, 2, 5 minutes more or are done.  Instant answers.  For me, I asked about paper revision plans, and that helped me strategize next steps.

Want some resources?

Here is a slideshare by Kristen Vollmar that has concise directions on how to set up Plickers, including the essential fact that kids can’t cover up the code at all

Some general ideas on use from Richard Byrne at Free Technology for Teachers or from Stacy Barnes at May the Tech Be With You

A YouTube how-to video from Tech in 2.

Teach music?  kindergarten?  math? more music?  Do a search– and maybe some amazing teacher has posted ideas for your discipline.

Plickers is easy, free, and engaging.  I am pretty sure I will find more and more ways to use it.