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The Case of the Anonymous Commenter

25 Apr

They don’t teach handwriting analysis or crime scene investigation in teachers college. Those are skills good teachers just pick up along the way.

I had to call on these superpowers last week in The Case of the Anonymous Commenter.

You see, we have a classroom tradition. At the end of a writing unit everyone displays their finished product and students wander the classroom, take a seat and read a person;s paper. When they have finished reading they make a positive comment that acknowledges a move the writer has made. After reading and commenting on one piece, they get to take two cookies.

We like to splurge when we celebrate writing.

The kids know the rules: Sign your actual name. Comment on the moves. No ‘suggestions’ or criticism.

Well, last Tuesday, we celebrated the end of our sci-fi mini unit. The room had a minty scent because I bought mint Oreos. What I really wanted to buy was alien head cookies at a bakery, but, with 600 6th graders in two classes, that was not in the budget. Minty Oreos, green like alien heads, were. In any case, students were milling around absorbed in the creativity of their peers, munching their Oreos. It was good. All too soon, it was time to wrap things up.

“When you finish the story you are reading,” I announced in my best Lt. Uhura voice, “please return to your seat and take a few minutes to look over the comments you have received. When you have finished reading the comment, staple them to you paper, turn it into the basket, and take your break. ”

I looked around the room monitoring student behavior. A quiet girl came up to me, her paper in hand.

“Someone didn’t sign their name,” she said, concern in her voice.” They just put anonymous.”

I looked at the paper. Indeed, someone had signed something other than their name, for written on the line for a name, was  “anonomous”. Interestingly, the comment was actually quite complimentary. It turned out she was not the only recipient of  an anonymous comment.

Break buzzed with the mystery of who the anonymous commenter might be. I overheard a conversation and knew which papers to start with to solve the mystery.

When the students returned from break, they got started on their Social Studies project while I got to work sleuthing. I took the stack of papers from the basket and found the ones with Anonomous’ comments. All in the same handwriting. Then, I looked through the others, paying special attention to the one belonging to the name I’d overheard at break. Sure enough, there was a match. In fact, he used some of the same words in his comments, anonymous and signed. I had him. The funny thing was, all of his comments were kind and supportive. I didn’t really understand why he hadn’t signed his name.

While the class worked, I sauntered over to his table feeling like Miss Marple must, just before cracking a case. I crouched beside the boy and simply asked, “Are you Anonymous?”

He reddened and spluttered, “Yes, but…. I….” and didn’t really know how to excuse his crime. I complimented him on his comments, reminded him that he should always sign his own name, then I slipped him a sticky note.

“By the way, ” I said, a smile on my face. “This is the correct way to spell anonymous.







The Paper Mountain

15 Mar

I buried myself. It was unintentional, but it was all my fault. One assignment was a longterm project to be done at home. The other was the final project for our information unit, the teen activism book my 6th graders produced, much delayed after 10 snow days this year. And I collected their writer’s notebooks. I was swamped with paper,stressed and worried about getting the work back in a timely manner. Two classes of 30 x all this work due at the same time. Are you feeling my pain?


Today, though, I finished grading the information books and I feel like I have summited  a mountain. Or maybe crawled out from under one. Maybe, really, I can just see the summit from where I am. Bu this feels like significant progress.

The science teacher on my team has kids turn in everything electronically, but I don’t really find that a good process for me. I was feeling a little behind then times, until a colleague shared this article about the value of hard copies. Vindication.

I still have a bunch of papers to grade, but I am feeling less burdened. If I may mix my metaphors a bit, I might say there is a light at the end of the tunnel I just crawled out of.

Tools of the trade

11 Mar

When I was in teachers college, they told me I would build a toolbox over time. They talked about management and engagement strategies I could add. They talked about books and songs and stories. They never said I needed to add real tools.

For years, I kept an allen wrench in my desk for those occasions when a student’s desk suddenly collapsed on one side, a leg giving out. I had jewelers tools to replace the screws that fell out of glasses and reattached arms.  My 4th graders thought I was a rockstar.

In my new school, my repair work is more mundane. I replaced the latch I’d torn off  the only locking cabinet the day I forgot my keys.

Yesterday, I tackled an annoying problem that has been growing: failing laminate.


I looked in my teacher toolkit and found just the right tools


The repair was made in about five minutes. It will sit over the weekend and, when I return to school on Monday, I will remove the tape.

Mission accomplished.

One of the good ones

26 Sep

Today, we begin the 4th week of school. That means my students and I have been together 19 school days. It seems like more. I mean that in a good way, that it seems as though we’ve known each other more than 19 days. The first day of school feels a long time ago. And yet, the last day is so far in the future it is unimaginable.

In John David Anderson’s Ms. Bixby’s Last Day, a trio of sixth grade boys skip school to spend one last day with their teacher who has been hospitalized with cancer.


Publisher’s Summary: Everyone knows there are different kinds of teachers. The boring ones, the mean ones, the ones who try too hard, the ones who stopped trying long ago. The ones you’ll never remember, and the ones you want to forget. Ms. Bixby is none of these. She’s the sort of teacher who makes you feel like school is somehow worthwhile. Who recognizes something in you that sometimes you don’t even see in yourself. Who you never want to disappoint. What Ms. Bixby is, is one of a kind.

Topher, Brand, and Steve know this better than anyone. And so when Ms. Bixby unexpectedly announces that she won’t be able to finish the school year, they come up with a risky plan—more of a quest, really—to give Ms. Bixby the last day she deserves. Through the three very different stories they tell, we begin to understand what Ms. Bixby means to each of them—and what the three of them mean to each other.

Ms Bixby is, what the boys call, “one of the good ones”. She makes a difference in a way I think we all wanted to when we decided to join the profession. She inspires and brings things out in these boys that feel real. I am not ashamed to admit that I simultaneously laughed and cried as Steve, begins to sing

And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul.
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold.

I’m thinking that this one might be a read aloud. It will certainly be the subject of a book talk soon.


Grade 6, Year 2

13 Sep


It’s my second year teaching 6th grade in Oregon’s largest middle school. What a difference a year makes.

Last year, I had no idea what I was teaching.

Fortunately, I had an excellent teaching partner who held my hand through the whole year. She had taught 6th grade for years and knew which end was up. I felt completely topsy-turvy for the first couple of months. Everything and everyone was new. Slowly, my knowledge grew, and, with it, my confidence.

I started this year feeling more self-assured. I knew people. I knew what I was teaching and how things worked. I knew what I was doing.

Unfortunately, my teaching partner received some bad news and had to leave town for a family emergency. She will miss at least the first two weeks of school and so, the shoe is now on the other foot. I get to be the expert, guiding her sub through the first few weeks of school, explaining units and clarifying procedures.

Although it is helping my teaching partner and her sub, it is helping me, too. Although I was a little anxious at first, knowing I bore an extra burden helping the room next door get off to a good start, I now feel even more confident than I had in late August.

When I left my old school, I was something of an institution there. I now think that I could be come that here. And that is saying a lot.



I asked for it

11 Mar


On Monday, I gave the students in my Humanities class time for a free write. One or two groaned, but most cheered. I teach the gifted and they are always complaining that they never get to write their own stuff.

I wandered the room, helping a few kids get started then went to sit and write myself. I wanted to try writing a Villanelle poem. They appear simple but are actually quite tricky. I got lost in what I was doing, but the kids were writing away quietly. I had a writing time frame in mind and as the deadline approached, I put my writing away and wandered the room. There was lots of what you’d expect from gifted 6th graders.

And then there was THAT ONE.

He’d spent the whole time writing, but it was what he wrote that caught my eye. The title at the top of his page was Why I Hate Humanities.  Gut punch. I tried to read more, but couldn’t. Fortunately, as a veteran teacher, I have developed some stealthy spy skills. While the kids were working on their Mesopotamia group project, I snuck over to his seat and took a peek. His biggest complaint was that Humanities was 2 hours long and that it was “even more boring than Math”. He also did not enjoy the group project we were working on. Okay. Nothing about me personally. He’d gone on to write a second personal essay entitled Why I Hate Enrichment. Enrichment is a required reading class for everyone and part of the elective cycle. I didn’t get a chance to read that one, but I saw the student adding to that page later on. Apparently he hates it more than my class because he was onto a second page. Ouch.

I didn’t take it personally. Like most teachers, I work hard, teach my heart out, and strive to become better at my profession. I know a lot of kids love my class, but I am not so naive that I think they all do. So, I will keep on doing what I’m doing and keep on learning. I don’t suppose I will ever see Why I Love Humanities  in that boy’s writer’s notebook, but I will teach as though I might.

The Quiz

10 Mar


Privacy folders were up and I passed out the quiz. Pencils were poised awaiting the signal that they could begin.

“Go!” I called.

The sound of papers being flipped was followed by the scratch of pencils. Then giggles. A few kids stopped writing and appeared to be finished.

Before too long, I saw a hand go up and student said, “I am on number 8.”

More giggles. Some groans and then everyone was finished.

Yes, we tricked them. All four of the teachers on my team gave THAT quiz: the one about reading directions. We’d all recently had kids get test questions wrong because they didn’t read directions, so we thought we’d teach them lesson. My class had a good discussion about the importance of reading and listening to ALL directions and, though this could have been boring it wasn’t . The were especially impressed at how the four teachers had conspired against them.

I think we rose in their estimation today.




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