Saturday, December 31, 2011


There are still so many adventures and stories to write about, but the teacher of the year platform is no longer appropriate.  Please visit my new blogs:

Boundless is where I write personal essays about speaking at TED, parenting, friendships, creativity, politics, and whatever else flits through my world.

RethinkEd, is my new education blog, where I continue to discuss the issues we face in the education profession, as well as explore technology integration, literacy, and best practices.

Thank you for all of your support throughout this exciting journey I have been on!

Friday, December 30, 2011

The End

Last night when my husband asked me if I had yet to write my final teacher of the year blog post, I had to shake my head no.  In fact, I had to admit, I had not updated my blog since November 12—a month and a half ago.


Well, partly because I have struggled with looking for a way to clearly articulate the joys, the frustrations, and the transformations that occur when becoming a teacher of the year.  Because that’s what happens—you don’t walk into the position, you become it, you grow into it, and it takes a year.  But mainly, I haven’t written because I’m back in the classroom.  The craziness of travel, presentations, speeches, and opportunity is winding down, and I am finding myself focused on what is in my plan book.  And my plan book looks entirely different than it did one year ago. 

In fact, my entire professional landscape looks different than it did one year ago.  I’m not the same teacher; my head is not in the same game.  While this made teaching a little difficult for me during the fall—I felt out of place in my own school, disconnected from the students I spent so much time away from, and restless as I found myself walking into Holderness day after day without interruption—I am now transitioned, feeling strong, and finding my stride again.  I have spent long hours talking through muddy ideas with close colleagues and my husband about where my passions lie, what I want to take with me as I leave this year, and what I must leave behind.  I have finally been able to articulate my goals and my desires.  I have sat in my classroom late into the night looking at blank bulletin boards that I haven’t had the energy to decorate and reading about educational theory.  I have collapsed in chairs at the 2:55 bell feeling beaten like a new teacher, and I have cheered at 2:55 feeling like I have conquered the world.

I’m not the same teacher.  And who can be after the boundless opportunities of travel I have been granted or the chances to meet engaging, dedicated teachers across the state and nation?  Who can remain the same after meeting with state legislators about the damaging legislation we witnessed, sitting on Capitol Hill with our senator, addressing the US Department of Education, the NH Board of Education, and of course, meeting the president?   I have been gifted with incredible fortune this year—it has been a life-changing experience for which I will be forever grateful.

Out of the course of this experience, I have come to some conclusions that have taken me by surprise.  I have discovered that teachers are their own best resources and that we need to support one another through grass roots professional development.  I have realized that the world is not always kind to ambitious women, nor is it always flexible or forgiving of human error.  I have learned that teaching is a lifestyle—that you cannot do two jobs at once and be an excellent teacher.  I have learned that our classrooms need to be catapulted into the 21st century and that we need to do a better job at teaching on the very ground our students are growing up in.  I have seen the importance of relevance in education.  I have recognized that not everybody who makes legislative decisions about my career knows a thing about my field—that in fact most legislators are not well-learned in the realities of the classroom at all, which means that teachers across the state and nation must be voices of activism and change.  We must take hold of the educational conversation and offer proper guidance.  And most importantly, I have discovered that teachers in New Hampshire and across the country are doing remarkable things in their classrooms. Amazing things.  Last week I was speaking to a woman from TED2012 and she said, “I just read and watched over 800 teacher applications from around the world, and I can’t believe what kinds of things are happening in their classrooms.  I wish my children could have these kinds of people as teachers.”  “They do,” I told her.  “They do.”  Our culture underestimates what takes place in ordinary classrooms—they don’t understand the intricacies of the art that goes into tying together emotion, content, motivation, personality, scheduling, discipline, and creating awe.  They don’t realize that all of our children have amazing teachers.

So I return to the classroom with all of this in my back pocket where we are taking on new ideas, transforming what ELA instruction looks like, and redoing the plan book.  My students are happy to have me back, but I am happier to be back in the midst of their learning.  For a while I wondered about leaving the classroom to work with adults, but I don’t think that could be a fulltime possibility for me.  I need to stick closer to the roots—to the energy that drives the branches.  I’m keeping that for me. 

On the horizon?  Possibly a professional development organization driven by teachers.  A book proposal.  Teaching at conferences.  Speaking.  A new blog. Who knows—I have many ideas and renewed drive given to me by the consistency of teaching in the classroom every day again.  But whatever I do, it will only be done with students by my side. 

So in once sense I feel whole again—I’m back in my room, surrounded by the students and books that I love, engaged in conversations about learning, dealing with the intimacy of the written word.  Parts of this feel normal.  But in another sense I feel like my whole person is pieced together with new parts.  My topics remain the same; my approaches not so much.  And with this newness come the remarkable feelings every new teacher experiences—elation, excitement, inquiry, curiosity, and a sense of being overwhelmed.  It’s not exactly where I anticipated ending up, this feeling of newness, but I'm grateful for it.

Thank you. 

Bethany Bernasconi, 2012 NH Teacher of the Year

Bethany Bernasconi, the 2012 NH Teacher of the Year, teaches Science in Windham.  Her energy, enthusiasm, creativity, and drive will make her an exceptional representative of our profession this year.  I, for one, am proud to call her a colleague and a friend, and I can't wait to watch her transformation over the year.  Good luck to her as she takes on the world!

NH DOE Announcement

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Middle School: The Perfect Storm

When we middle school teachers alert other teachers that we are middle school teachers, we inevitably receive one of the following comments:  You must be crazy. Or God bless you.  Or You are a special person.   Other teachers know what happens after the students leave their cozy pods of elementary classrooms and what happens before they enter the liberation of high school.  And it is a bit crazy.  It is a time of intense change both socially and developmentally.  In fact, consider a newborn baby.  And then examine a three year old who can speak, control her bowels, feed herself, walk, etc.  Between the ages of 10-14, children experience the same kind of intense growth and change as they do between 0-3
These changes impact family structures greatly. The child who used to come home and tell parents everything is much more selective about what he or she shares.  He or she might even be surly.  Removed.  Irritable.  Erratic. Looking in his or her backpack creates arguments—because it feels like an invasion to the child’s desperately desired autonomy.  A focus on social issues overcomes the household so that the bathroom is never empty, the phone is never available, the computer is always taken.  Parents often complain that their children never come out of their bedrooms; that they don’t tell them if homework is done; that they don’t tell them about things that are happening at school. 

At the same time that all of this is happening, students change educational structures.  In our school they move from class sizes of 9-15 with one teacher to a team of 5 teachers who see 85-100 students a day for 40 minute periods.  In many schools in larger districts, students move from classrooms of 15-20 to large middle schools where teachers see 100-125 students a day.  It is impossible for a teacher to contact 85-125 parents every week. Parents who were once accustomed to getting frequent communication, positive and negative, from their elementary teachers, find that communication drops off as teacher load increases, during a time when their children are also communicating less.  To top it all off, parents were once accustomed to having one teacher to communicate with and now have up to 5 content area teachers, so aren’t always sure where to begin themselves when they have concerns.
It is no wonder so many teachers opt not to teach this level.  And it is no wonder that so many parents are unhappy with middle schools across the nation. It is a perfect storm of physical, hormonal, mental, and educational change.  And the children that parents once sent off to school are not the same ones that come home. 

During this time, students start experimenting at school.  What happens when they don’t do their homework?  What happens when they talk back to a teacher?  They try on different personas, looking for their identity, hanging out with different groups of kids.  They make mistakes.  But they are most often surrounded by teachers who both love and understand this age group and are willing to provide them with a clean slate the following day.  And so we know it’s okay for them to make mistakes.  It’s okay for them to try something new and abandon it the next week.  This is the time to learn from these errors.  And we’re there to catch them.  We also know that it is their responsibility  not to make excuses for themselves.  That it is their job to relay communication accurately to their parents.  That it is their job to take responsibility for their actions.  And so discipline, communication, classroom management, homework policies…none of those things are the same as they were in the younger grades.  Because we are dealing with a different kind of kid.
I frame this blog post in this context: The other day we sat as a faculty and read over comments that were made on our recent school survey completed by parents, students, and faculty as part of our self-evaluation process.   One major theme stuck out:  dissatisfaction with the middle school.  At first it stung.  But if we looked at numbers—out of the 61 parents who took the survey, only 4 of them were consistently negative—the parents were overwhelmingly happy with us.  More importantly, when we read the students comments, my heart felt like it would burst.  Over and over again, the majority of our students wrote that the greatest thing about their school was the teachers—that they felt challenged, understood, and cared for.  And that is our audience:  those 10-14 year olds who show up every day during some of the hardest years of their lives, trusting us, including us, and taking risks for us.  They are magnificent creatures, these middle schoolers—and maybe that makes us crazy.  Maybe that exposes us to criticism.  But I can’t imagine a more rewarding job.     


Tuesday, November 8, 2011

How Curiosity Led Me To Game Theory

 We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we're curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” ~Walt Disney
In terms of the game theory, we might say the universe is so constituted as to maximize play. The best games are not those in which all goes smoothly and steadily toward a certain conclusion, but those in which the outcome is always in doubt.” ~George B. Leonard (1923)

 When a teacher is no longer curious, he or she has brought stagnancy and complacency into the classroom, and I find the idea of those entities being present in our children’s lives unacceptable.  And so every once in a while I do a quick self-check.  Am I still curious?  Do I still have wonder at how the human brain learns?  Do I still want to know more about my subject? Do I still want to know more about my students?  I feel like as soon as I fail that assessment, it is time to leave the classroom.
This year, however, the answer remains yes.  And my curiosity has led me down an unexpected path:  one that involves technology, game theory, and a flipped classroom approach.  Anybody who knows me well and has spent time in my classroom knows that those kinds of things make me extremely uncomfortable and certainly don’t define my teaching style.  But I’ve been watching other teachers make an incredible impact on their students and deliver difficult material in a way that caters to a variety of learners—both in ability and style—and I’ve started rethinking some of my practices.

Start small.

In rethinking my approaches to subject matter, I decided to do a trial run of game theory in my typical 8th grade grammar unit.  When teaching grammar, I often feel as though I am leaving behind a group of students who don’t get it—yet I have to move on.  I feel as though there’s another group of students whose needs I am directly meeting, and then there is another group who is bored because they got it the first time, and now they are waiting while everybody else catches up. 
The Great Grammar God Game will be an 8 week unit.  Each student has created an avatar and username and as they earn points during the unit they climb the board.  This past week I would have simply covered nouns, but “Koogle” and “Yolanda” have each mastered nouns and pronouns, and are well on their way to covering the adjective material.  Meanwhile, most of the class is undertaking pronouns, and then a couple of students are still working through the noun material with me, getting some reinforcement.  I am running the program through Edmodo—kind of a cross between Moodle and Facebook—and on this program, kids access all of my video podcasts (also on Vimeo), all of their written practices, and all of the directions for other activities they must do.  They work with one another and help each other master the practice work; they meet with me about questions or struggles they might have; and when ready, they sit down and take a quiz independently.  They get four lives—and so if a student does not get an 80 or higher, he or she must retake the quiz.  It is my job, after all, to teach for mastery.  Today, a boy who failed his first and second quiz sat with me and we found a different approach for him to show me his knowledge.  Granted the time to sit with him because of the independent learning taking place in the rest of the classroom, I was able to find out that he does in fact have mastery over nouns.  He got a 95.
For each part of speech, the practice work is worth 50 points and the quiz is worth 200.  As the kids gain points they climb the board—they start out as a Nothing, move to a Mere Mortal, on to a Monster, Satyr, Centaur, Sprite, Hero, Demi-God, and finally a Grammar God.  It is also possible to become a Titan with extra points earned throughout the game.  One student came to see me after taking his quiz.  I told him he got a 96.  He didn’t blink.  “But how many points do I have?”
The idea of a student-centered classroom where students are working independently and all of their needs are being met is not a new idea—but some days it feels like an elusive one.  And I’m not sure how I could apply this kind of classroom to my subject matter entirely, but I’m working on melding my reading workshop philosophy with game theory; I think it will work. 

My nightstand is stacked with a new collection of books about educational gaming, 21st century learning, and technology for the sake of advancing learning.  It’s a place I never thought I’d find myself—but when you’re curious, you never know where you’ll end up.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

TEDx NewEngland: An Abstract

“We need to stop in the course of our busy lives and look at what we already have done and ask, ‘What else is possible?’”

“To deny the chaos of reality is a disservice to our students.”

“I am what I share.”

Generation Y “will be the one that needs to tackle global and economic issues” and they are a group of “strategic optimists” with “more dreams than memories.”

“There is $50 billion in 4th graders’ pocket change. Imagine what they could do with that.”

“We need to empower kids to become social entrepreneurs who make a difference for themselves and the world.”

"When you create value, you can claim value.”

“Character is not a trait. It is as malleable as anything else.”

“You and I are as infallible as anyone else and there are moral circumstances that will test this.”

“How do you cultivate your moral humility?”

The above quotes came from the scribbles I hurriedly made in my program yesterday as I sat in the audience at WGBH studios in Boston (and so I cannot claim complete accuracy…apologies to anybody whose words I butchered or accidently re-invented), watching the first ever TEDx NewEngland. I believe they repres ent the level of thoughtfulness and exploration that then guided conversations well into the evening and the wee hours of morning. Artists, scientists, researchers, sociologists, PhD candidates, and educators took the stage in what proved to be a highly successful event, leading us down paths of thought that filled us with admiration for a new generation, questions about our own fallacies, intrigue for the future, and hope that once-thought impossibilities could be seemingly possible. I don’t think my words can or should compete with theirs, and so I’ll leave my commentary brief. But I do want to congratulate the coordinators of TEDx NewEngland on their brilliant inaugural event and thank them for their support of the New England teachers of the year. Your generosity and new friendship is greatly appreciated and adored. Thank you.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Everyone Has a Story

I was standing in the kitchen washing potatoes several years ago--it was a winter night, dark had come already, and there was a steady hum of kids playing, NPR reporting, and my husband working around the house.  I reached for a knife to cut off a green portion of a potato when suddenly a childhood story about a homeless man who was in my grandparent's basement eating their raw potatoes came pouring back to me.  I quickly cut up the potatoes and raced through my living room yelling over my shoulder to my unsuspecting husband, "I need to go write something..."

I had a story.  I am reminded of this every year when I embark on our memoir writing unit in 7th grade.  I start the unit by telling my students the green potato story, and later read what I had eventually written down--words that wove together my childhood memories and my adult realizations of justice and prejudice to show how we find meaning in our memories.  On this first day, we sit in a circle in my classroom on the floor and just spend 40 minutes telling stories.  The only person who can speak is the one with the bouncy ball.

Writing memoir is one of my favorite units to teach, but this particular day is one of my favorite lessons.  Without any sense of hindrance from getting language fine tuned on their paper, my students begin to pour forth their stories.  And so I hear about getting lost in the grocery store; near death experiences, traveling, washing a cat off in a mall parking lot mud puddle, buying a new puppy, getting stranded in the snow, mistaking another adult as a parent...

Every child has a story.  That's one reason why I think teaching English Language Arts is nothing short of an honor; my job allows this intimate glimpse into what my students think about, believe in, and question.  But even then, I wonder if I take the time to really know everybody's story.  Do we, as teachers, know the stories that are guarded behind a child who is a behavior problem?  Do we know the stories behind the quiet student in the back of the room?  Because when we know those stories, we are suddenly much more efficient in the classroom.

Last week on an 8th grade trip to Boston, I stood on a cement wall a couple of feet above my students, in front of the Holocaust Memorial, explaining to them what the towers and numbers represent.  An elderly man and his wife wandered over to our group and stood among the students listening.  I wondered why they were standing there, and I have to admit, my first reaction was one of annoyance.  As the kids left me and began to stroll through the memorial, I saw some of them give the old man a quick lookover and then promptly move away from the stranger.  I walked over and reached out my hand.  "May I help you?"  I asked.

The man was a WWII Navy pilot who flew over the concentration camps, never knowing what they were--he was never told until his service was up.  He was shot down over Yugoslavia and it took him 10 days to get to safety.  He asked me why my students were so interested in the Holocaust--he didn't think they would care.

And there you have it--I almost missed his amazing story because of an initial response to a stranger "infiltrating" our group.  And he almost missed the story of how 14 year olds are passionate about justice, find meaning in history, and are fascinated by the Holocaust.

Think of all the stories we miss in a day because we are too busy, overwhelmed, annoyed, overbooked, scared, shy.  We must not only remember to take the time to hear each others' stories, but to teach our children to take the time to hear one anothers' stories as well.  And we need to, above all, make sure that our school environments are safe and comfortable enough for our children to share their stories.