Time Magazine and a Boat Hitting My Car

Time Magazine’s November 3, 2014 Cover

Time‘s cover this week incensed me, to be sure.  It reminded me of moment this summer when I was in central Wisconsin visiting a friend.  We all were at a public beach and I came back out to the car to get a pair of sunglasses, and as I was rifling through my car, I heard someone say, “Hey– she’s at the car.”

A man who was putting his boat into dock came over to talk to me, shuffling apologetically.  He pointed out the long black mark on my bumper and driver’s side and said he had grazed my car when parking his boat carrier.  I looked over the damage, thinking it superficial but afraid of being hasty.

He spied my “My Heart is in the Public Schools and My Children Are Too” bumper sticker and, reading it, asked me if I was a teacher.

The moment.

The moment I used to associate with pride, but now associate with fear.  Fear of the reprisal, the judgement, the scorn, the pity, the condescension.  I am proud to be a teacher, but I don’t volunteer the information anymore.  I don’t know many who do.  My friend reprimanded her husband on vacation once for telling the people they just met she was a teacher.  She, too, has come to dread the moment.

My moment stretched.  The man looked my two-year-old Toyota Camry over and said, “Nice car.”  Was that nice car as in “oh, my, look at what you over-paid teachers can afford?”  or nice car as in “I just hit your car with my boat and I am trying to make you like me so you will be nice”– and I still don’t know.   I rubbed at the black mark, found it came off, and, consulting with my friends, walked back to the beach.

That night at dinner, I heard my friends’ family talk about how bad teachers should be fired.  I ate quietly, because I love my friends’ family and my friends and it wasn’t the time, but I thought about the year not-so-long-ago my team teacher was fired over spring break.  That was a stressful year.  I thought about the so-so and failing educators I’ve seen driven out by good administrators.  The process is there, I wanted to say.

I have thought about that dinner when the Colorado teachers had a sick-out to protest the pressure the AP teachers are feeling to sanitize US history.  Teachers need protection.  They need process.  And good administrators do indeed have the power to fire.

So when I grabbed Time Magazine, I thought of when my car got hit by a boat and I felt familiar worry and angst.  I am tired of being a punching bag.  Tired of scorn.  And I wish the public knew the real facts of the different “reform” movements, though they can be captured a bit in these alternative covers, gleaned off Twitter’s #TIMEfail. Screen Shot 2014-10-25 at 11.17.07 PM  Screen Shot 2014-10-25 at 11.18.07 PMScreen Shot 2014-10-25 at 11.33.41 PM

PS: I just visited a site by Susan DuFresne asking for a Twitter storm on Oct. 26th.  Hence, the posting today.

PSS:  I first thought about responding to this by asking what exactly a bad teacher is… but Jose Vilson beat me to that question, and some more.  You should read it.  And, as always, if you want some great insight into controversies in education, read Jersey Jazzman.

Lessons in Teaching from My Mother’s Brain Tumor: Grace

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Mom on her birthday in high school.

Tomorrow is my mother’s birthday. Tonight I had the small-town pizzeria treat we have often shared on her birthday, but with her college roommate, not her. Mom died May 22 at age 70 of a Glioblastoma Multiforme, an aggressive brain tumor diagnosed in June.

Back at school this fall, I sometimes ponder how I survived last year at all. I had just quit my last school after 13 years, having been hired in my home school district, when we found Mom was sick. A whirlwind summer of neurosurgery and radiation left me scattered, and I went into a new school with new colleagues and new preps, and with only two weeks sick leave and no right to Family Medical Leave. I was my mom’s primary caretaker, though blessed with siblings and a host of family friends to help.

I’ve pondered a few lessons for this blog, but tonight’s is this: Grace. Simple grace. Sometimes it was giving myself grace, and not taking the extra minutes to fix the formatting on the worksheet, allowing some formative check-ins be small group discussions rather than exit cards, saving me grading time.  Grace. I can’t be all I want to be at all times. Mother. Daughter. Wife. Friend. Teacher. Me. Give myself grace.

Some of the grace came from administration, especially in May. Do I need to take my study hall time and grade papers? Go ahead. Need a tucked away office to buckle down during prep? Take mine. You just got a phone call you need to attend to? We’ll have someone in your room in two minutes. I hadn’t built a relationship with these people as I was new and just surviving, but they extended grace.

Most of the grace, however, came from students. It came in extreme moments when they heard my cell phone ring: silence fell quickly because any call was meaningful. Once, returning a computer cart during passing time, a student overtook me, my ringing phone in hand, saying she knew it was important. Grace came in small moments, too, when I would get caught in a theme of a poem (try teaching “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” the week you research hospice) or stumble in my words, my mind numb. Most of the time, grace was extended in patience when AP prompts did not come back immediately, or tests took a bit longer to grade. Grace. My students gave me grace.

I say this now as the school year starts and thoughts bounce in my head. At a department meeting two weeks ago, we talked over late policies. Our school is moving to not giving zeroes for late work, and not allowing grades to be impacted by work behaviour. Many teachers disagree, reasonably, even lovingly. Teaching responsibility has been a key element of our craft.

But I think grace. Believe in second chances. Allow kids to get out of holes. This doesn’t mean I won’t hold students accountable. I will spend some time tomorrow calling each and every sophomore’s family of those who did not read the last assignment in a timely matter. But I will have an alternative assignment ready… grace.

There is research to back that up– so many of the great grading gurus expound new approaches to scoring work, and an interesting article in the Atlantic this month argues why boys need grace so much more.

But the main reason I know grace is right is my students tell me so. Last week, students were given a prompt choice for their first story to tell about a favorite teacher. Many told of teachers who were engaging or who gave candy, but a clear theme was grace. Teachers who loved kids after they caught them cheating. Teachers who extended second chances. Teachers who asked why instead of assuming laziness. Teachers who made sure a kid understood the material, not simply shrugging when work wasn’t done.

My mom believed in responsibility, and so do I. But grace is a bridge, a parachute, a ladder. It gets us from crisis to success, it tempers the terrors, it digs us out of holes. I have oft needed grace, and so I extend grace.

A comment from NYT’s “Can’t We Do Better” Friedman Post

I read Thomas Friedman’s post “Can’t We Do Better” and enjoyed this posted comment from NYT and Readers’ Picks.  You might, too.


I’m a professor of math at a Big Ten university. I follow these discussions and I am utterly disheartened. Nearly everything being said is irrelevant and unverified. So Shanghai students can shine like the sun at fourteen years of age and ace all the tests. How many of them go on to become serious scientists, inventors or entrepreneurs? The glory of our system was that it allowed students to follow a passion, to pursue one subject even at the expense of other subjects. The desire to pursue that one passion then motivated the student to learn what was needed to gain entrance to the programs they wanted to study in. Asian systems and many others always excelled in producing students who performed splendidly in standard tests and lagged in producing creative scientists, artists, writers and other creative personnel. We are pushing our system in that direction and we are noticing that no one is going into science any longer. Well that is predictable. Our students are a little at a time moving up in their performance in standard exams and moving away from the professions that created the new industries that fueled our economy. Alas we are becoming more like everyone else, but fortunately slowly enough that we just might survive this wrongheaded plunge toward the standard the stressful and the uninteresting,

Responding to NYT Editorial

Today’s New York TIme’s editorial read “Advertisement for the Common Core,” and it was. You should read it.

There are two key things to consider, however:

1. This is all based on a reliance and appreciation for tests and test data. What do tests truly measure? What are the costs and benefits of tests? Do tests mirror and assess what is best and needed in American education?

2. The editorial asserts “the nation as a whole still has a long way to go to match high-performing school systems abroad,” again leaving out the key fact that if you remove scores associated with poverty, we already are at and often surpass those schools’ levels.


Getting into Gettysburg, but not the Core’s Way

The Gettysburg Address appeared in my classroom today.  It is near its 150th anniversary, but the origination was not associated with that mark.

Rather, I used the Gettysburg Address to launch a discussion on sentence variety.  My class is culminating a long week of  examining revision as they work through their first AP Literature analysis essay, and we are at aspects of local revision, including sentence variety.

I first show this Google Doc of the Gettysburg Address, highlighting sentence length.  Kids quickly note that 86-word sentence, but I also ask them to pay attention to the 10 and 11-word sentences.  Then I read it out loud before leading a discussion on the purpose and effect of those sentences, a beautiful discussion centered on writer’s craft, and because the students are required to have tricolons in their writing, we also note Lincoln’s, as well as some of his other magical moves.  My main purpose, then, is sentence variety.

But before leaving them to count their own words and to evaluate their own choices, there are two more purposes for the Gettysburg.  One is to dispel the rumor that Lincoln hastily penned this masterpiece on an envelope on the train; this is not true, though my students said they wished it were, for then I would have no reason to badger them on revisions, the power of which Lincoln proves in his magnificent oratory.

But the third reason was to point out that Lincoln’s remarks weren’t universally loved, and in fact, some panned them.  I talk to students about writer’s choice, and how while I always have more to teach them, sometimes they need to stand by their choice if there is a reason behind the choice.

Three good reasons to incorporate the Gettysburg Address, all of which looked deeply into writing and reading and had clear objectives in mind.

Tonight, I examined how the Common Core would teach the Gettysburg Address, included HERE.   The lesson writers instruct teachers to “refrain from giving background context or substantial instructional guidance at the outset,” which didn’t surprise me, as I had recently watched David Coleman give the same instructions on how to teach Letter from a Birmingham Jail, HERE.   And while David Coleman’s video and the “Achieve the Core” handout had some good questions and pointers for both texts, I object to much of their lesson planning.  First, if the singular objective is a close reading of the text, I can see why no background would be given, but these texts demand more than that.  They demand a context, and without that context, we can hardly engage kids.  Knowing the context, seeing the text, and hearing about the writer’s process— ALL these have value.    The complete absence of background knowledge does more than bore kids; it is bad practice (or Marzano has it all wrong, and I don’t think so.)

I also object to the tedium that teaching the Common Core would require, particularly when you look at the instructions to go word by word through the text. I do not object to close reading; I teach it, I model it, and I live it.  However, there is a balance, and the Common Core does not illustrate that balance.  It may be, of course,  the lesson plans are jam-packed in order to let teachers choose which words to light upon, but I doubt that. It is more a singular philosophy, and one I simply cannot hold.

Dear Representative… first installment against the Common Core

My state representative, Dianne Hesselbein, sent out a message to constituents asking for feedback on the Common Core.  This is installment #1.

Dear Dianne,

Over a month ago you asked for insight on the Common Core, and the request has lingered.  Ironically, demands of the classroom kept me temporarily from writing to defend the classroom.

Common Core Standards offer some assets: they give educators across states a common framework and a common language, which, given the mobility of America, is a boon; they set expectations for student achievement, which, given the diversity of American education processes, can help lower achievement gaps, particularly those across states; and they include curricular items that other standards and movements, such as No Child Left Behind, omitted.  Pointedly, the Common Core includes writing standards, an essential skill and a very means of thinking.

An example of a benefit of Common Core is that in my previous school district, we floundered to develop scope and sequence of grammatical skills.  The Common Core provided a framework, and we wrote an excellent sequence of skills, clarifying grade-level expectations. It was beautiful.

However, I have dire worries about the Common Core, and the foremost one relates to that “beautiful” set of grammatical skills.  Writing is developmental.   Good writing comes in steps, where one skill must be in place before another can develop.  It is not particularly useful, for instance, to teach semi-colons and colons to students who primarily use simple sentences.  The ability to use semi-colons is not dependent on the writer’s age, as the Common Core would assert; the ability to use semi-colons effectively depends on the writer’s ability.  To be taught is one thing.  To understand another.

The Common Core demands all students in a grade meet a standard, believing in age-based skills rather than developmental.  The Common Core founders, in the interviews and literature I read, dodge that issue, implying if kids are raised on standards, gaps will not occur.

This attitude alternatively frustrates or outrages me. It assumes teachers who have gathered in and loved kindergartners who did not yet know colors did not have high standards.  It assumes that teachers who welcome students who haven’t spoken English before did not have high standards.  It assumes that teachers who empathetically listen and problem-solve for kids in crisis do not have high standards.

The Common Core groups all kids by grade level, but we as educators know better.  The children we teach and love are diverse, and that diversity must be accounted for.  The Common Core blames teachers, inferring a lack of standards causes current and real issues.  I assert the culprit is generational poverty, social-fragmentation, and situational crises.

I do not abhor the Common Core;  I refer to them as a touchstone.  But overall, I question them, their process, and their effects.

This is installment one; more objections to the Common Core to come.

Thank you so much for reaching out for feedback and for listening,

Kris Cody-Johnson

Twenty-year veteran teacher and

Mother of two school-aged children

Why I loved Thomas Guskey today

So I had my fears.  I didn’t want to go.  But, boy, I am glad I did.

First, I really didn’t understand Standards Grading.

It is not simply substituting a 4 for an A or a 3 for a B, though it will take a few years of retraining for students and parents and teachers to comprehend that.

It is not highlighting a rubric and considering that feedback. It is a paradigm shift that does a few crucial things, the most important of which is to remove process and progress feedback from product reflection.  And we need it.

In every team I have ever worked, we debate:  what should late penalties look like? how much should this assignment be weighted?  There is no answer.  In today’s conference, Thomas Guskey repeatedly proved there is no consistency among educators on how and what and why to grade.  So what if we isolate some of the feedback, and, in the process, clarify the feedback?

What if there was a bolded achievement grade and then, as Guskey provided as examples below, separate grades for participation, homework, punctuality, and effort?   What if we graded just the skills manifested in that assignment, and then used a rubric 4, 3, 2, 1 to capture the other relevant and important but non-skill based attributes of a student?


Loved it.

And what if we could take that just one step farther and then have standards supplementing that achievement grade, so parents knew what an A or a B or a C meant in my room particular to skills?   See below:


Yes, it does take a paradigm shift.  Yes, there would be fewer A’s, but this is somewhat tempered by two things:

In the ten years since I did Standards Based, colleges rely less on GPA and more on the rigor of the classes.  According to Mr. Guskey, colleges love this system, mainly because it provides better feedback.  Right now, GPAs mean little as there is no consistency across the USA.

Also, the A is not the point.  Accurate communication of skills is the point.  In some ways, it is easier to get an A as there isn’t the law (or mob rule) of averages here.

But most of all, I did not feel that my propensity to invest in comments is undermined in this system.  I do not need to highlight a rubric, but I can identify a score according to a rubric.  If I had every kid insert a table at the end of the paper with the listed standards, I could easily slip in a 4 or 3 or 2 or 1.  I do not need to resort to paper grading.  I do not need a highlighter.  I can do both and I can do it well.

So consider me ready.  On board.  Salivating.

Let’s go.

Why I dreaded going to the Thomas Guskey inservice today…

I dreaded going to see Thomas Guskey today.

I have just started at Middleton High School, which is moving to standards-based grading.  When I was hired and interviewed, I didn’t know what that meant, but as time has passed, I think I get it:  Based on what I  observe, it means taking a rubric with the standards for that assessment, and rather than giving a single comprehensive letter grade, highlight the rubric, scoring each student has a 4, 3, 2, 1 for each standard.

And as I started to understand this, I remembered my time with this grading system.  My team partner wanted to do this about ten years ago, and I tend to try anything.  I only lasted two years, though, and here is why:

There are fewer A’s under this system.  Maybe that seems trivial, and maybe that just seems like justice as so many claim that there is grade inflation, but it isn’t trivial.  Ten years ago, there was even more weight placed GPA in college admissions.  I don’t know why a 4 is so much harder to give out than an A, but I could not turn that corner, and so I disliked the 4, 3, 2, 1 system.

I hear my Middleton students talking similarly now, talking about how a science or a physical education. teacher said that work has to be stupendous to earn a 4.  The students in class bemoaned this, asking if it mattered to try, and I reflected back, thinking through what I had experienced.   Grades are gateways for kids.  A GPA can open a door or close it, so it is not something to be taken lightly.

But there was another reason I dreaded going today.  Rubrics.  I have come to question rubrics, not necessarily as tools for communicating expectations, but as grading mechanisms.  Part of that questioning comes from reading Alfie Kohn, some comes from looking at Maja Wilson, but most comes from an innate survival instinct.  Rubrics take up valuable grading time.

I love making comments via Word (though I know I will need to embrace Google more in the future) because of the precise feedback I can give.  I can link to websites that explain the colon.  I can created a voice comment through Vocaroo or other means.  I can even create a video, as I did here.  But a rubric takes time, and then I have less time for comments and less time for feedback.  I have studied my assessments habits, tallying how many comments I write on handwritten papers vs electronic papers with Word, and I am convinced: I give better, more precise feedback with comments than with a rubric.

So I dreaded going to see Thomas Guskey today.

But I was wrong.  Boy, I was wrong.

Been awhile…

First, an apology for those who were actually reading this, but most importantly to my students who followed this blog hoping for answers.

Here are headlines:  After 13 years in one district, I applied to the neighboring district, a heart-wrenching decision.  I told my students they would understand more when they read my blog… but then, days after school ended, my mom was diagnosed with a glioblastoma multiforme brain tumor, which threw my summer into chaos.  Life sorted out a bit in August, and then school started.  So despite best intentions, here it is October, and no real post.   My apologies.

Here is what I still think:  in any situation you do not like or cannot stomach, you can first try to influence it, then you can try to avoid it, but eventually you may have to leave to save part of your soul.   It sounds dramatic, but I still think it true.  Value yourself and your strengths well enough to question status quo and to think what might be.

As I think back, I am thankful for all I learned and for all the experiences my last school district gave me.  I believe, however, that the move extended the life of my career, and for that, I am grateful… grateful for colleagues who understood, family who supported, and for students- who always make me remember why I love my job.

New technology, new insight

Just shared this with a favorite history teacher down the stairs from me– and thought I’d post it here, too.

When I was in high school, I studied the Holocaust and the bombing of London.   Just found this website mapping the bombs of London.
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Interesting what new technology can do to add insight to history.