Summer BREAK

Fish: 0 Lost lure: 1 Beautiful sunset: Priceless

This was the first summer in four years where I wasn’t in school or teaching. The past four summers were consumed by my doctoral journey both as a student and as a professor. Don’t get me wrong, I loved doing both…but this girl needed a forced break.

Being at our second home in the beautiful state of Michigan was absolutely wonderful. I slept in, read books, enjoyed the lake, and day-dreamed. I cannot say that I didn’t think of work (I did) or what I wanted to do with the next chapter of my life (because I did that, too). Luckily I spent more time contemplating my Chapter 2, my next adventure, more than anything. The reason for getting my doctorate was both personal and professional. Personal because I read John Streckley’s book The Big Five (if you haven’t read it, I highly suggest you do!) and professionally because I wanted options beyond what the four walls of a classroom could give. 

The pandemic (for all of its craziness) gave me a good idea of what remote working was like. And I liked it—I really did. The flexibility of the day and the fact that my commute was cut down from 26 minutes to two was AH-mazing. I had more time in the day to do things because I didn’t spend it on the freeway. And, while I didn’t like all of the Zoom meetings, I understand that it’s the “cost” of working remotely. The pandemic also quickly helped me get over being on camera. So kudos, pandemic, as that was a hill I was willing to die on. 😉

I have mainly stayed away from the news and relied on email and listservs to provide me interesting tidbits of reading. I finally was able to indulge in one of my favorite activities: reading. It pained me to realize that as a result of the chaos of teaching during the pandemic, I had only managed to finish ONE BOOK as of June 2021. One. Pathetic.

Since I’ve been on summer break, I have read 35 books (and counting). My interests are far and wide with most of my books falling within the historical fiction genre, but I also read my share of non-fiction books as well. 

I bring all of this up because I needed this break. I needed to not feel the push and pull of studying or teaching. I needed to remove myself from the 24-hour media cycle. I needed a separation from the hustle and bustle of life in California and all of the personal and professional obligations that continuously call my name. I needed to be forced to slow down.

After reading all this, you might be thinking that I should be ready to return to the classroom. I had a nice two month break, after all. 

But you’d be wrong. 

The few news reports that managed to break into my bubble here in Michigan only revealed news that makes my head (and heart) hurt. The “guidance” from the CDC and leadership from the state and local authorities in California continue to make me feel as if I’m on a merry-go-round seesaw (yes, it’s an up-and-down centripetal feeling). I would like nothing more than to put my head into the sand until this whole thing blows over. And by “thing” I mean teaching during the pandemic

Don’t get me wrong, I loved each and every student who attended my Zoom sessions, who opened and responded to my emails, who participated in online discussions, who tried their best to complete the assignments, and who took the time to chat back-and-forth with me via the comments in their Living History Journal. So, the bottom line is: I loved my students. And I loved my colleagues and the perseverance they showed throughout this mess. #heroes

But I feel tired at the thought of returning to work.

There is much talk about “teacher wellness” out there. Good-intentioned people are posting positive intentions on social media. Organizations are publishing lists of ways to de-stress and resources to use. And I suspect many districts are now putting “educator wellness” somewhere in their strategic plans. 

I hope it’s more than talk though. 

While I had the luxury of having two months off from work, I know that wasn’t the reality for many of my teacher colleagues out there. Some continued to work during the summer out of necessity and perhaps others out of obligation. Most of my good friends had the summer off. But I think most of us are still just a bit leery about going back to work. 

We’re not quite at the post-pandemic trailhead yet. 

I’m not ready to get back on the merry-go-round seesaw.

And that’s the honest truth.

Lessons From My Middle Schoolers – Part 3: Middle Schoolers are Perceptive

It is a mistake to assume that one can pull the wool over the eyes of a middle schooler. Oh sure, you may be able to get away with it for a little while, but make no mistake, middle schoolers are perceptive. They can see through facade of a fake smile or disingenuous praise. When they walk through the doors of a classroom, they are looking at the bulletin boards, the way the desks are set up, and the teacher’s body-language. And, they can tell what kind of learning experience they will encounter in a classroom based on the climate set by the teacher

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is not a new term. But it has been in the forefront of edu-speak over the past several years, and more importantly, as a result of the pandemic. One of the organizations that I rely on to keep abreast of research on SEL is the Collaborative for Academic Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) website. Introduced to this website several years ago by a good friend (@scottpetrie), I keep this website on speed-dial (I know I just dated myself) as it offers a plethora of strategies to help develop social-emotional skills.

But beyond using the resources from CASEL, I also believe it’s just as imperative to look at the work by Dr. Hardiman: Brain-Targeted Teaching. I was introduced to Dr. Hardiman through my doctoral studies at Johns Hopkins. I regularly go back through her book The Brain-Targeted Teaching Model for 21st Century Schools (2012) to remind me of important considerations to help me help my students.

I gravitated towards her research because it’s practical. Now, this blog post isn’t going to go in-depth on all six brain-targets, but rather I want to focus on Brain-Target One: Establishing the Emotional Climate for Learning. Target One addresses the interplay between emotions and learning.

“Positive emotion has been shown to improve learning outcomes” (Hardiman, 2012, Loc 874). 

Hardiman (2012) postulated that “setting the emotional climate for learning may be the most important task a teacher embarks on each day” (Loc 1016). Research on the effects of poverty and stress on learning and cognition revealed that stress has a negative impact on the overall development of the child (Hardiman, 2012). Although we cannot control what happens outside of the four walls of a traditional classroom, we can (and should) work to establish a warm and welcoming environment for our students. 

It’s important for teachers to set a positive tone for the classroom. This can be accomplished by simply smiling and acknowledging when students enter the room. Some teachers like to stand at the front door and high five their students as they enter. Others may circulate through the room as the students amble in to greet them and ask about their day. I’m the type who walks around the classroom to catch up with students, taking note of their body-language (i.e., easy laughter, bounce in their step,  slouching, scowling face, clenched hands).

When the bell rings, I always greet them, and I expect a collective greeting in return. During the class period, I continue to circulate the room to chat with students, give feedback on their work, answer questions, etc. During the pandemic, I missed being able to individually greet each child and read their body language as they came into class. To address that gap, I put together a Google Form that asked students how they were feeling at that moment by selecting from four different emojis. I always watched the responses come in during the first few minutes of class which was extremely informative. But more importantly, it alerted me to which students might need a bit of extra help, a kind word, or more time to complete an assignment. I collected these responses every single day for the past year and a half during the pandemic.

So you can imagine how touched I was when several students wrote in their last Living History Journal just how much they appreciated (1) an adult asking them how they felt and (2) that someone cared about how they felt every day. It’s no jump to speculate that many students experienced a stressful home environment during the pandemic. I read about it in their journal entries, but I also knew from my own experience living during the pandemic. The unknowns were so hard to live with…for everyone.

But this brings me back to Dr. Hardiman’s point about the importance of establishing a warm and inviting learning environment for students. Students cannot learn when they are not emotionally connected (1) to the teacher, (2) to their peers, and (3) to the learning content (Hardiman, 2012). I cannot say that I was successful in establishing this every day, but it was something that I put high on my To Do List because middle schoolers are perceptive. They didn’t live in a bubble that the pandemic was only happening to them. But I think that (at least I hope that) they looked forward to coming to my class because I was always interested in how they were doing that day—that remains my first and most important priority when it comes to teaching.


Hardiman, M. (2012). The brain-targeted teaching model for 21st-century schools. Corwin.

First Things First

Today I met with my department colleagues for the first time since June. We had so much to discuss from materials distribution to our learning management set-up. Revisions to our learning scales and how we assess students were also topics on the table. All of those are necessary conversations to have because we want to deliver a consistent message for the students who will be joining us in 20 days: special education, English language, and gifted learners. 

Now that we have some of our foundational routines set, I am now moving my attention to how I can support the emotional and social needs of my new students. I teach at a Title I school: Grades 7 and 8. As this is my 26th year in the classroom, I know very well the trepidation that 7th graders experience. It usually takes them one full quarter (that’s 10 weeks!) to get their bearings. They go from having one or two teachers to six teachers. They switch classes several times a day. Now add the various challenges and unknowns of technology to the mix for distance learning and you have a perfect storm a brewin’.

On the first day of school, after I do the introduction to world history, I usually have my students engage in the scavenger hunt where they get to meet their peers. Did I mention that we have students from no less than FIVE elementary schools who feed into our school? Talk about starting over! But the scavenger hunt was a great way for them to stand up, walk around, catch up with friends, and meet new friends. By the time the bell rang on Day 1, I would ask my kiddoes . . . “Now that wasn’t so bad, was it?” And the majority of them would shyly nod their heads almost with a look of relief as they walked out my door to another class with a different teacher and a different set of students.

Since we are starting virtual this year, the first day of school routines have to change. And since I intentionally focused on social-emotional learning (SEL) last year, it is natural for me to continue with that since there’s so much more I need to do for my students in this current educational climate.

Aside of SEL though, I also think that it’s important to consider how to integrate culturally responsive teaching into my instructional practices. When you think about it, these students have not had a “normal” school experience since mid-March. Life for them has most likely been a series of unknown challenges, ups and downs, and all-around uncertainty. For the record, middle schoolers crave parameters and routines–even if they normally try to buck the grain.

Needless to say, students this year are starting with a completely different mindset and outlook. 

I’m sure they are exhausted. They want to be with their friends. They want some kind of normalcy (I mean, don’t we all?). But I’m not talking about making things “normal” for them in the virtual learning environment. I’m thinking that I need to tackle issues that are closer to the heart.

I recently came across an article in KQED by Amielle Major titled How to Develop Culturally Responsive Teaching for Distance Learning. She aptly writes that we need to be “thinking about what a student needs in order to have agency over their learning.”

Think about what a student needs in order to have agency over their learning.

Kids these days cannot control their environment. They cannot control what is posted on social media. They cannot influence what is presented in the news. And these things can wreck havoc on the mind and heart if one doesn’t make a concerted effort to step away from the fray here and there.

So, while my incoming students cannot control their environment, social media, or the news, they can control their learning experience if I design and offer opportunities for student agency. As we are (without a doubt) going to have to reduce the amount of content that we would normally cover, I am also thinking about how I can design my world history lessons to allow for even more voice and choice. Content is important—I know that. But so are skills. And that’s mainly what I focused on last spring. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t subscribe to the naysayers who claim that students didn’t learn during the last 13 weeks of school. My students learned self-regulatory skills; they learned how to analyze multiple causes and effects; they learned how to visually display their learning; and they learned how to be there for each other. 

My point—and I remain steadfast to this goal—is to focus on the development of the whole child. I will focus on more than just their content knowledge of world history from 500-1500 C.E. I’m going to pay particular attention to how I can better support the culturally and academically diverse group of students who are going to log in on August 24 to my world history class.

Major’s (2020) article suggests that teachers who are interested in integrating and incorporating culturally responsive teaching into their instructional practices do the following:

  • Deepen the background knowledge of students (reduce the gap by front-loading)
  • Cultivate cognitive routines to help students make connections across their learning
  • Build word wealth so that students can articulate their thoughts, feelings, and learning

Since we are forced to change how we are approach teaching and learning in the fall, I think it’s a great time to also examine our teaching practices to see how we can better support and empower our diverse group of learners. 

There are many things that need to be done at the start of any new school year. However, I think one of the more important considerations is to meet our students where they are and then work to equip them with the skills and knowledge to become empowered learners. 

And that’s how we can help close the equity gap.


Major, A. (2020). How to develop culturally responsive teaching for distance learning. KQED.