Category Archives: New School Chronicles

New School Chronicles: Capacity

John Updike wrote a poem called “Capacity,” a fantastic summary of 26 passengers on a bus. Among the descriptions include affable, bibulous, corpulent, garrulous, jejune, knockabout, querulous, rakish, xanthic, zebuesque. How incredible are those words? How much fun would it be to use those words to teach vocabulary and to have students come up with their own (positive) descriptions for the people on our own (classroom) bus? Aren’t we all passengers?

I got that idea about teaching that poem from a former colleague. I have been turning it around in my head how I might use it. I want to do a more intentional vocabulary study. I think we could take ownership of those words, study synonyms, modern usage, do some composing.

This poem also makes me think of who these passengers are on this bus that I attempt to steer this semester. I have adolescent and adult learners and on the very best days, I put the two in conversation with each other, as what is going on in my high school classroom directly informs what I do later that day by working with preservice teachers.

Of late, I’ve been trying to help the adolescents think of their capacity to learn, particularly as related to effective effort and grit. Essentially, smart is what you get by using specific strategies to improve. Intelligence is not fixed. The bell curve is wrong.

That’s a hard pill to swallow for some honors kids. And incredibly freeing for others. Seriously. As we were discussing growth vs. fixed mindsets, more kids would speak up, confirming being called smart by well-meaning adults and peers, feeling pressure to live up to their siblings’ accomplishments, thinking that one is “just born smart” and that it’s an indicator of unsmartness (my word) if you have to work hard. I can see how learning how to foster a growth mindset can mess kids up if they’ve always been told they were exceptional, that this rarefied air is reserved for only a few–what, the keys to the kingdom are that accesible?!

By the time I rolled around to the third period of teaching that lesson again, I was well prepared for their resistance, astonishment and some simmering anger. And then, they began to ask the questions that leads me to believe that these just might be the change-agents in this world we need them to be.

One student asked a question about IQ, which led to some uncertainty about even knowing what the test measured (it was originally used to identify people thought to be the best military leaders), that a few had taken it, that it asked “random facts.” Then, we somehow got onto talking about standardized tests, and another chimed in that the correlation between how well you di on the SAT was really about how much money you had. That response caused another to ask about the relationship between race, class and SAT scores (I couldn’t have made this up if I tried), which was answered by a student who had done that very research over the summer. That led us back around to an entirely innocent question posed by another student, about why we needed these tests in the first place?


Whoa. I was happy to have that moment to pause, wrap it up, tell them we’d continue the next day in the context of reading Carol Dweck’s Mindset and the article about grit by Jonah Lehrer, finishing with effective effort narratives. I want them to have some tangible reminder of times when working hard and working smart helped them achieve success. Well, that’s in my head about where I want to go. Wanting and doing are two very different things, but I think it’s an important use of our class time, these few days we’re spending on fostering a growth mindset. It sets the stage for the on-going conversations we’ll have about their growth over the term. When they can chart the point from where they started and the tangible growth (through a variety of measures, only one of which includes a grade, which I know is important, but I also stress that the grade is merely an indicator of where they are at that moment in time and, again, with effective effort, if they want to change that grade, we can work together to do just that), that means something.

That develops their capacity to be better students, and also develops my capacity to be a better teacher.

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New School Chronicles: Rolling Tape


Who knew that rolling tape would be the perfect moment to reflect on the day?

For the first time in about five or six years, I have my own classroom again. I don’t have to share with anyone. I don’t have to travel, don’t have to squeeze my posters onto a bulletin board the size of a postage stamp. Don’t have to lament putting something in one location only to return to find it placed elsewhere (sometimes with a nice-nasty note about “forgetting” where to leave my stuff). I didn’t realize how much sharing space can be a cause of stress if one must share with someone who is territorial, or more senior, or more…yeah.

But this year, I have my own space. I’ve been tempted this week to leave small things around at the end of the day, just so, when I return the following morning, it’ll be in the exact same place.

I have begun a new practice this year (in addition to leaving my stuff around the room–neatly, of course), and I think it’s akin to this metaphor of rolling tape. The process of hanging up posters, student work, etc. in your room can be a meditative time. I give myself time limits to do things, lest I stay at school forever. My task at day’s end yesterday was to hang up students’ Who I Am homework: a nice get-to-know who’s in our community. On average, that means there are about 25ish sheets to hang, equalling a good amount of tape. Sometimes, all one can manage is to do housekeeping to end a day, and that’s what I did.

So, as I rolled tape, for the last hour of my day, I reflected on the three great things–big or little–that happened and my role in making those great things happen. I read something that said teachers should do this every day, and write these three things down, creating a tangible record of the good rather than the bad. This is a monumental mindshift for me, as I’m a dweller on past screw-ups, almost to the point of not being able to let it go, but with this new strategy, my attitude has done a 180.

As I rolled tape, I recounted three good things. It was quiet, meditative space, and it was the perfect way to end the day. I am a better teacher because I reflect on my practice. I have to remember and honor that, and keep rolling the tape…

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New School Chronicles: Looking for Opportunities to “Bump Up”


My Room With a View

Someone has this concept of “bumping up” in respect to collaboration and space allocation. Essentially, if you put people together, say, in an office, then chances are they’re going to talk to each other, share ideas (hopefully), and improve their practice, in the case of schools. Two heads are always better than one, yes?

I’ve been getting oriented to my new school for the last couple of days. While this is not my first orientation, it somehow feels the most exhausting, but I think that’s attributable to other major life events that are happening to me. I have what might be the best room I’ve ever been fortunate to teach in. In my life. Seriously. See the picture for yourself. 

Today, I sat at a desk, sketching a layout, daydreaming out the window, thinking about what it is going to be like to be energized by young people. I lost all track of time. My room is on the fifth floor; it’s a reward: you climb to the top and you get to sit and talk about ideas, about reading, about writing, in what I hope to create as a warm, welcoming space.

But not today. I am so very tired that I feel my creative juices are drained. I need to recharge, go out in nature, perhaps, or just check into a hotel for a day or so and re-energize before it’s go time.

In my haste to leave my former position, I think I took something for granted (I love reflection–it’s how I actually learn stuff): I had fantastic, brilliant colleagues, who were so generous with their knowledge, so supportive, so…I don’t know, awesome in many respects. Many were the teachers I strive to be. And in the design of the school, we bumped up against each other.

All the time.

If I was thinking of a way to teach vocabulary, I could just wheel around in my chair and ask my colleague. Or, I could walk around our shared space and discuss a short story, or a literary device, how to teach something…with all of us in close proximity, there was a frequent, steady supply of discussion about practice.

My new place also stresses collaboration, and I’m excited to work with my new colleagues. The opportunities for bumping up, though, will be quite different. The school is so spread out and teachers spend most of their time in their classrooms. What I think–and I’ve only been there for a couple of days, so I’m still in the discovery phase–is that time together becomes much more rushed and intentional, more of the interactions are done via technology. That’s just my sense. There are shared spaces, within the school, though, so I’ll be curious to understand how they’re used.

What I began to understand much more saliently, though, was how much of what I learned about practice came, again, during those unstructured moments that bumping up afforded us all. Now, with the possibility of letting my classroom become my primary space (and I know that I’m not going to be gung-ho for running out of the building once it gets colder), I have to be much more intentional about interactions. I don’t want to be that teacher who just closes her door and teaches. I’ve come too far and have too much respect for how improved my teaching becomes from working with others.

I just want to take a minute to slow clap for my progress as an educator. Again, ten years ago, I never would have been able to say that.

I had that instance, today, though, where I wished MK was there to lift my spirits, suggest a great poem to teach, laugh…bump up.

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