Two Common Misuses of Rubrics

Rubrics are not a new concept in education.  Their benefits have been touted for by many and a quick Internet search reveals large amounts of literature on the topic for anyone interested in learning more.  Likewise, one does not have to look far to find examples of rubrics or websites that will create rubrics.  Given this familiarity, it seems a bit surprising that they are still used incorrectly.  While the benefits of rubrics are significant (see information under “Why use instructional rubrics” here), these benefits are not harnessed when they are used incorrectly.

There are two major misuses of rubrics that I see in action on a regular basis and I would like to take a moment to address them:

  1. Rubrics are not assessment checklists.

Itemized lists with point values, like this, are not rubrics:

non rubric


One of the dominant benefits of rubrics is that it forces the teacher to have a very clear understanding of exactly what the student did well and what they would need to do to improve and this information is communicated to the student.  If a rubric is used well, the student will have a very clear understanding of what they need to do to improve in each category and will not have any need to ask the infamous, “why did I get this mark” question for any item on the rubric.

Rubrics, then, should have a descriptor for each level of achievement.  On the above example, if neatness is a category on a five point scale (assessing neatness to determine if students know a social studies concept is a whole other topic for discussion), students should have a clear explanation of what category five neatness looks like, what category four neatness looks like, and so on.

In her article, “Using Rubrics to Promote Thinking and Learning”, Heidi Goodrich Andrade provides the following example of a rubric:rubric example

In contrast to the non-example rubric, Andrade’s rubric has clear explanations for each level of achievement.  There is still some degree of subjectivity within the descriptors (as will typically be the case), but it is far more clear how each level of achievement is attained.  Thus, the student knows what must be done to arrive at the next level of achievement for each category and can use this to inform his/her work from this point on.  This is how rubrics become tools for learning.

     2.  Rubric grades and descriptors need to match

Rubrics are often written into a scale of four or five levels of achievement.  Mathematically speaking, five levels of achievement would mean that each category on the rubric is calculated out of five.  If percentage grades are given (another assessment issue that is yet another topic that needs to be addressed), that would mean that the categories compute to the following percentages:

  • 100% (5/5)
  • 80% (4/5)
  • 60% (3/5)
  • 40% (2/5)
  • 20% (1/5)

The problem with this is that the descriptors for the rubric can often be generalized into something like this:

  • 5/5 – great work.  No improvement needed.
  • 4/5 – really good work.  Just a slight tweak needed somewhere.
  • 3/5 – pretty good work.  A bit of a misunderstanding or oversight is present.
  • 2/5 – beginner stages.  On the right track, but at the very beginning of the road.
  • 1/5 – not there yet.  Shows significant lack of understanding, or no evidence of understanding, or this component of the assignment was not included in the project.

The problem here is the disconnect between the descriptor and the grade.  If a 2/5 reveals that a student is in the beginning stages, can we confidently assign a failing grade of 40%?  It seems more logical to assign a grade that is at the lower end of the spectrum of a passing grade.

Just because something can be computed mathematically, does not mean that it should.

The lesson here is that, when designing a rubric, the numeric grades sometimes need to be skewed.  Again, if reporting is done in percentages, the teacher needs to look at the descriptors of the rubric and determine an appropriate percentage equivalent that matches the descriptor, rather than assigning a percentage based on a mathematical computation.  For example, a 90% might be more appropriate for a 4/5 on a rubric, rather than the computational score of 80%.  Just because something can be computed mathematically, does not mean that it should.  When using a rubric, it is often necessary to give each level of achievement a grade that is not mathematically derived.

As a side note, there really is no need to put an actual numeric score on a rubric.  In fact, many would argue that that actually reduces the instructional component of a rubric.  When a numeric grade is written on a rubric, students tend to look at the numeric grade and derive their sense of achievement from that, rather than having to read the descriptors to learn how they did and what they could do to improve.  Putting a word descriptor for each level of achievement (rather than a 5-4-3-2-1) will be more informative for students and parents and will allow the teacher to assign a value for each level of achievement that better matches the descriptors than a grade out of five.


Rubrics can be incredibly effective tools to use to assess students, to teach them, and to show them where they are at and where they are heading, but it is necessary to ensure that our rubrics clearly communicate each level of achievement and are calculated in a manner that is fair and accurate.




Picture Books to Encourage Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck’s work on the concept of growth mindset is something that has significantly impacted the education world in the last decade (I’ve given further explanation of the concept here).  I strive to bring that growth mindset into my classroom, but doing so requires some intentionality.

Although the students I currently teach are in grade six, I often use picture books in my teaching.  This summer, I decided to purchase a number of picture books that support growth mindset so that I could use them as a tool for reinforcing the concept of growth mindset with my students.  I stumbled upon a few books that I quite love:

Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg  photo (28)

I adore this book!

When it came in the mail, I was disappointed.  I hadn’t realized that it was a board book – the kind written on thick, cardboard-like pages that’s intended for toddlers?  As soon as I read it, however, that was an irrelevant detail.

Each page includes some type of error but offers the reader the opportunity to interact with the page to discover how the mistake was turned into something beautiful.  There is no storyline in this one, but its tactile nature leaves a strong impression and it makes its point very clear: mistakes are often the precursor to masterpieces.

The Perfect Percival Priggs by Julie-Anne Graham photo (31)

I really appreciate this one because it parallels what I see in so many of my students.  The main character, Percival Priggs, is an extreme overachiever.  He fears failure because he associates it with his sense of worth and thinks that he will lose his parents’ love if he fails.  He participates in a plethora of extra-curricular activities, most of which he doesn’t enjoy, but he feels that they, too, help to establish his worth.  Predictably, Percival messes up and creates a bit of a disaster.  To his surprise, not only does it not alter his parents’ love for him, but it opens up a dialogue about his fears.  He discovers that, contrary to his prior beliefs, his parents aren’t perfect, either.

A fantastic message, wonderful illustrations, and some creative humour create an enjoyable read that drives home some important messages: we are loveable even though we make mistakes, and it’s important to pursue things that we enjoy.

Your Fantastic Elastic Brain by JoAnn Deakphoto (32)

This one is a true non-fiction, informational book.  It gives an overview of the functions of the different regions of the brain and focuses on the concept of neuroplasticity.  Brain research shows that the brain has a continuous capacity to grow and develop (see more on that here) and this book explains that in a way that is understandable for children.  It also speaks of the importance of developing new skills and persevering to develop skills in areas that are difficult for us.  Additionally, it gives several great statements about the importance of making mistakes.

It’s Okay to Make Mistakes by Todd Parr photo 2 (12)

Todd Parr uses his trademark catchy art style to deliver an important messages about accepting imperfections.  I particularly appreciate the fact that he not only mentions typical mistakes, but he also touches on character traits or other tendencies that are not mistakes, as such, but are things that we might have difficulties accepting about ourselves.  He mentions such things as getting upset, being forgetful, and being clumsy and normalizes them in an easy-to-understand manner.

Unlocking the Professional Development Power of Twitter

A few years ago, I learned about the incredible community of educators learning together on Twitter (more on that here).  I started up my own Twitter account (for the ‘how to’ on that, look here) and dove in.  Since then, I have been blessed with a constant stream of personalized, free PD that is deeply relevant and meaningful to my journey as an educator.

Tapping into such professional development is quite straight-forward:

  • Find people to follow
    • The starting point for making your Twitter use meaningful for you is to find key people to follow.  Begin by following a few people and see who they are following.
    • Additionally, you can see if they have any “lists” (to do that, go to the person’s profile page and click “lists”) and add people off of those as well.  twitter lists
    • (Lists are just a way for you to group people.  If you make a list, when you click on it, you will get a Twitter feed of tweets that are only from the people in that list. You don’t need to follow people for them to be on your list).
    • The folks on this list are a compilation of a few educators on Twitter in general and a few educators from Alberta and the western provinces.
    • Once you add a few people, Twitter will suggest others to add.  If you hover your mouse over the suggested person, their bio will show.  Use this to find people who share the same learning interests as you, who work in a similar position as you do, or who are experts in an area where you’d like to grow.
    • Remember that who you follow and how many people you follow is just one of the ways that you can customize your learning.  Whether you add many people representing broad interests or a few people with aligned interests is up to you.
    •  (When adding people, you might also want to see if their latest tweets are recent.  Some Twitter accounts are very active and some are hardly used).
  • Find hashtags of interest
    • Hashtags are a fantastic way to customize your learning on Twitter.  What are your interests?  Find the correlating hashtags and type them into your search box.  This will take you to a new Twitter feed of tweets that relates to that topic. (It’s also a great idea to go to the hashtags of your interest areas and follow the people who use those hashtags.)
    • You can’t “follow” a hashtag and make it show in your newsfeed.  They are something for you to keep in mind and search up whenever you want to learn about a specific topic.  They are also good to know so that you can use them in your tweets, so that people with similar interests can find your contributions.
    • Hashtags are not Twitter accounts.  Anything can be turned into a hashtag, thus instantly becoming a link for tweets on that topic.  Because of this, there are endless possibilities of hashtags to follow.  There are documents with gigantic lists of recommended hashtags for educators, but that’s a bit misleading since anything can be hashtagged.  The best way to find the hashtags that interest you is trial and error.  Take any topic, stick the hashtag symbol in front of it, put it in the search box and see what comes up!
    • If that’s too ambiguous for you and you’d like a few recommendations to get started, here are a few of my favourites:
      •  #edchat – ignore the “chat” part of this title (I’ll explain that further down), but know that this is a great meeting place for many prominent educators on Twitter.  I highly recommend keeping an eye on the information that flows through this stream.
      • #tlap – this is an acronym for “Teach Like a Pirate” – a book by Dave Burgess (If you haven’t read it, do yourself a favour and read it.)  This stream is the place to go for ideas for jazzing up lessons and turning learning into an experience.  Questions such as “Would students come to your class if they had a choice?” are pertinent here.  It is a treasure chest of ideas for increasing student engagement and interest in learning.  Even if you think you have to teach the most boring, obscure lesson ever, you’ll be sure to get some useable ideas here!
      • #growthmindset – this is based on the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck (another very worthwhile read).  Here you’ll find ways to encourage students, teachers and parents to rethink the way that we define success and failure.  Growth mindset means that mistakes are accepted as a natural and necessary part of learning, rather than as failure.  It also is a recognition of the fact that we all have the capacity to learn and grow.  Certain areas of study will be more difficult for some people than others, but we still all have the capacity to improve. (I’m totally oversimplifying, here.  Did I mention that it’s a book worth reading?)
      • #ffcaedu – this is the hashtag for the school system where I work.  While this specific stream isn’t likely to be particularly meaningful for you, your own school authority undoubtedly has a hashtag that’s already in use.  Find some educators from your school district and see what hashtag they’re using.
      • #abed – this is the hashtag for Alberta Education.  Again, unless you live in Alberta or the western provinces, it’s probably not of great interest to you, but your province or state likely has its own education hashtag too.  Check out the accounts for some prominent educators in your area and see what local hashtags they’re using.
      • #yyc – this is the hashtag for Calgary.  Your city will have a hashtag in use as well.  While this one isn’t directly related to education, let me remind you that one of the lovely features of Twitter is that it’s customizable.  If you would like to use your Twitter account for more than just purely education-related content, your city feed is a great place to look.  (Of course you could definitely use this hashtag in your posts about your school as well!)
    • I could go on and on about hashtags but with a little exploration you’ll be sure to find your own!  If you still feel that you need a list to consult, here are a few decent ones (but keep in mind, there’s no limit to hashtags – anything and everything can be one!): Teach Thought’s hashtags or Cybrary Man’s hashtags.
  • Participate (or at least lurk) in some Twitter chats
    • Twitter chats are whole other dimension of Twitter.  They are a group of educators who meet at an agreed upon time to discuss a specific topic through Twitter.  The duration of the chat is typically one hour.
    • Chats always centre around a particular hashtag.  Often, but not always, chat hashtags will have the word “chat” in the hashtag (eg: #satchatwc)
    • Chats are usually once a week.  During the remainder of the week, people might continue to interact about that topic, using that hashtag, but not in chat format.
    • To find out what chats happen when, use this document (there are a few other such documents out there, but this one is consistently the most comprehensive one).
    • Chats always have at least one moderator.  This is the person who is running the chat.  The moderator usually identifies himself/herself on the chat hashtag just as the chat begins (and often in the half hour or so leading up to the chat as well).
    • Many people use external sites (like Tweetdeck) to manage chats but it can totally be done through Twitter as well.
    • To lurk (follow but not participate) in a chat, open a couple of Internet tabs.  On one tab, follow the hashtag for the chat, and on the other follow the moderator.  (For the hashtag tab, be sure that your screen is set on “live” rather than “top” so that you see all of the tweets).twitter live
    • If you’re participating in the chat, open a few additional tabs.  I recommend having one open for notifications and one for your own profile, in addition to the previously mentioned hashtag and moderator tabs.
    • Begin reading in the tab with the hashtag for the chat and keep the other tabs handy for quick checks as necessary.
    • The moderator will usually begin by asking people to identify themselves.  This gives an idea of who you are speaking with and how many people are participating in the chat.
    • Some chats will have just a handful of people participate, while others will have hundreds.  The speed of the chat is proportionate to how many people are participating.
    • After a few (usually five) minutes, the moderator will pose a question. (This is why you have a tab open for the moderator.  If you get lost in the chat and can’t find the question, rather than scrolling down through hundreds of tweets, go to the moderator’s page).
    • The tweet with the question will begin with “Q1” for question 1.  Subsequent questions will follow the same format.
    • People will begin answering the questions.  All answers will being with “A1” and so on for subsequent questions.
    • Be sure that you don’t begin your answer with “Q”.  People’s brains are trained to hone in on the “Q” tweets, which should only contain the question.  Regardless, it seems that most of us accidentally begin a few answers with “Q” when we begin.  No biggie – people will extend lots of grace.  Just be aware of it and try to remember to use “A”.
    • People’s answers will start flooding the hashtag’s stream.  If it’s a large chat, you won’t be able to read them all.  Just read what you can, and when you find a tweet that raises a question or comment, interact with that person.
    • Be sure to include the hashtag for the chat on every single tweet that is related to the chat.  So, even if you are responding to someone directly as a result of the chat, include the hashtag.  This ensures that it comes through the feed and allows other people to jump in on the discussion as well.  Often additional people will join in and add to a conversation that was initiated between two people.
    • If it’s a decent sized chat, the hour will fly by and will feel like a matter of minutes, and you’ll feel overstimulated, inspired, and encouraged by the end of it.
    • Chats can be intimidating, but the participants are very gracious.  If you’re confused about the actual process of the chat, just tweet out a question (be sure to use the chat hashtag) and you’ll get a quick reply.
    • The learning potential from Twitter chats is unbelievable.  They are an amazing way to connect with other educators and to engage in deeply meaningful learning.  Whether you prefer theoretical or practical learning, or a mix of both, you’re sure to be able to find the learning you love and a community of people who love it just as much as you do.
  • Finding Twitter Chats to Join:
    • In case you missed it above, this document is the resource to use to find a chat that interests you.
    • Some of the chats that I enjoy are:
      • #satchatwc – Saturday Chat West Coast.  There’s an earlier “#satchat” version as well, but given the time zone difference, I’d have to be up way too early for my liking to participate in that one.  Both chats are very similar, however.  They centre around a variety of education-related topics but they’ve always been topics that I find to be very meaningful and they’re always well-organized chats with many participants.
      • #sblchat – this is a chat about standards-based learning (sometimes referred to as outcomes-based grading, or similar terms).  Assessment is an area of professional interest for me, so the content of this chat is something that I really appreciate.  What stunned me the first few times I participated in this chat is that some of the biggest names in assessment research participate in this chat.  People whose work I had been reading for years were suddenly interacting with me one-on-one – very exciting!
      • #tlap – this is the “Teach Like a Pirate” hashtag that I mentioned earlier.  Unfortunately, I have other commitments at the time that this chat runs, however, since one of the wonderful things about Twitter is that it’s customizable, I can go back to the stream after the chat is done and still read the content that was generated from the chat.
      • #colchat – Culture of Learning chat.  This is another one that I am not often able to participate in live, but I appreciate the content and join the chat when I can.  This one is about things that we can do to improve the culture of our classrooms/schools/districts so that learning can happen more readily.  The moderators of this chat are putting the finishing touches on a book that they’ve written based on the content that’s been generated from these chats.

In summary of my now rather-lengthy post (sorry!), to get started with using Twitter for professional development: follow people, find hashtags, and join chats.  You can spend as much or as little time on Twitter as you like, but the learning is always available, it’s always customizable, and it’s always free.

Happy learning!

Beginner Basics for Twitter

Previously, I’ve shared my rationale for joining Twitter.  If you’re interested in joining the world of Twitter but need some guidance for the beginning steps, read on:

Opening an Account:twitter home page

  1. Go to and sign up.
  2. You will be asked to choose a username, which will become your “twitter handle”.  When people want to respond to you via Twitter, they will use your handle.  Any tweet (including handles) must not exceed 140 characters, so ensure that your handle isn’t too long.
  3. When twitter eggyou sign up, by default you will have an egg as your profile picture.  The egg tends to be indicative of accounts that are rarely used, so change your picture to something…anything.
  4. Provide some biographical information in your profile description to help connect with people with similar jobs or interests.  twitter bio
  5. The first few tweets are the most nerve-wracking.  Send out a few to try it out.
  6. Find some people to follow.  After following them, their tweets will show up in your “Twitter feed” (to find your feed, press the “home” icon on the Twitter website).  This is your live feed of tweets from anyone you follow.twitter feed

How to Read a Tweet

  • Twitter handles:
    •  As was mentioned above, the @ and the characters immediately following it is a Twitter handle.
    • Clicking on it will take you to that person’s page, where you can view all of their tweets.
    • Including someone’s handle in your tweet will cause them to be notified of your tweet and will put the tweet into their notifications.  In the tweet below, by putting Shelley Burgess’ handle in, I was able to ensure that she would see that particular tweet.

  • Hashtags
    • Twitter uses hashtags (the # sign and the characters that immediately follow) to collate data.
    • This is similar to a Twitter feed but it is specific to a certain topic.  Unlike your Twitter feed, here you are able to see tweets of people who you do not follow.
    • If you would like to ensure that people who are interested in a particular topic see your tweet, include a pertinent hashtag.  I wanted to share my tweet below with people who were interested in neuroscience, so I included #neuroscience.  Anyone can look up #neuroscience and this tweet will show up, even if they don’t follow me.

  • Links
    • Note that hyperlinks often look different on Twitter than they do elsewhere.  This is because of the 140 character limit.  Sometimes the link has been condensed using a URL shortener.  These look something like this:
    • Links that have been condensed by a URL shortener are becoming much more rare because Twitter will now automatically shorten links.  If you put in the full URL of a site, Twitter will only show the beginning of the website and the rest is cut off, like this…

Really, the best way to learn how Twitter works is to start using it.  Set up an account, follow some people, and then click on the links and explore.  A whole world of information is waiting to be discovered!

What Can Neuroscience Teach Teachers about ‘Aha!’ Moments?

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

I love it when I can read about research and immediately see some direct implications of that research in my teaching practice.

For the results to be legit, researchers must surrender control of the outcome.  Due to this, sometimes scientists devote a chunk of their life to a project that didn’t reveal what they thought it would, or didn’t reveal what seemed useful.  What a terribly frustrating thing, yet inherently necessary due to the very nature of research.

Gabrieli referred to such unusable research as “file drawer research”. Interestingly, he stated that there are issues with this.  No one wants to publicize research that they’ve done that didn’t work, or that didn’t cultivate useful data, yet if they did, it would contribute to the greater field of knowledge.  At the very least, it would enable others to ensure that they didn’t repeat the same research, but it also would contribute to the pool of studies.  If data reveals that ‘all studies showed X results’, but in reality there were studies that didn’t show those results but they weren’t published, then the full story is not being revealed.

But, I digress.  My point is that sometimes research doesn’t seem to work.  Other times, it generates data but it’s not immediately apparent how that data is useful.  Again, this makes sense given the nature of research.  In light of this, it feels like a treat when there is research done and shared that contains workable, useable data.  I enjoyed such a treat when I read this article about the ‘Aha!’ moments of insight, summarizing some of the work of cognitive neuroscientist John Kounios.  Here is some of the useable knowledge I pulled out of it:

  • Finding: prior to that moment of enlightenment, or sudden ‘knowing’, our brains have been processing the information but at a subconscious level. Thus, it feels like a sudden state of enlightenment but our brain has actually been thinking about it for a while.
    Application: that dreaded “blank stare” that students give when they have no idea what we’re talking about, does not necessarily mean that they are not taking in any of the explanation that is being given.  They might be processing on a subconscious level.  Persevere through those blank stares – they might just be the precursor to sudden insight.
  • Finding: a surge of brain activity happens immediately before sudden insight. One of the changes in the brain during this time is a sudden burst of alpha waves visible on EEGs.  This is interesting because alpha waves inhibit the visual system – the higher the amount of alpha waves, the more the visual system is inhibited.  It seems, from what Kounios shares, that the brain essentially dials down its use of visual stimulus to allow for greater use of other brain activity for that short moment of time.
    Application: teachers often struggle with the concept of ‘wait time’.  It can feel uncomfortable and unproductive to have moments of silence during conversation with a student.  Watching a student’s eye movements could help encourage effective use of wait time.  If a child is looking away, it’s probably a good idea to help with their brain’s attempt at reducing stimulus.  Stay quiet, let them think, and see if a moment of insight arises as a result.
  • Finding: Those who are prone to have moments of insight show different brain function (even when not having ‘Aha!’ moments) than those who have fewer such moments.  Kounios is working on developing “different type of thought exercises” that can be administered to further develop the areas of the brain that are activated for sudden insight, but even with his existing research, there are some implications for teaching.
    Application: Kounios himself gives some application here:
    – He speaks of the importance of having a positive mood. For more learning on developing this in the classroom, a great place to start is to read Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset (#growthmindset on Twitter) or follow the culture of learning chat (#COLchat) on Monday evenings on Twitter.
    – He also speaks of the benefits of large rooms with high ceilings (most classrooms) or, more ideally – the outdoors.
  • Finding: ‘Aha!’ moments cause an emotional rush. It doesn’t matter if the outcome of the problem that was solved has a positive or negative connotation to it, simply solving a problem through sudden insight creates this rush.
    Application: This indicates the importance of working within a child’s zone of proximal development (if you’re not familiar with this concept, I highly recommend reading more on this important work by Vygotsky).  If we give students work that is consistently too difficult or too easy for them, they will not have opportunities for such sudden insights and that emotional rush of learning will not be something that is accessible to them.

Throughout the article, Kounios references his book eureka factorThe Eureka Factor” and explains that it contains much more information about his work (written in lay terms) and many more ideas for the practical applications of it.  The positive feedback loop of reward from sudden insight is something that I greatly value in my teaching – it’s a large piece of what makes the job both meaningful and rewarding.  If there is some way that I can further cultivate such moments in my classroom, I’m all for it.  I’m looking forward to ordering his book and learning more about this.

The Early Years: What I wish I had known.

I remember well my first few years of teaching – they were intense.  Over the years, I have concluded that there are a few lessons that I wish I had learned earlier in my teaching career:

Lesson 1:
I wish I would have known that I would feel like I had sold my soul to my new profession
To eat, breathe, and sleep ‘work’, yet still always feeling like you can hardly keep your head above water – this was my first year of teaching.  Social events were a distant memory, a balanced life a foreign concept, and stress an ever-present companion.  To add insult to injury, public perception of the job includes many who believe that teaching is a cushy job: a few hours of work each day and copious amounts of time off – and random people would cross my path and remind me of this.  Have they no idea?

And that I wasn’t alone in feeling overwhelmed
I worried that the extent to which I was overwhelmed and ridiculously busy with work meant that I was doing something grossly wrong, but what I was experiencing is often the norm for beginning teachers.

And that ‘overwhelmed’ would not forever be an inherent aspect of this career.
I had been told that the stress and time commitment would be greatly reduced as the years went on, but I doubted.  I wish I would have known with certainty that that was true.  It would get better – so much better.

Lesson 2:
I wish I would have known to tap into others as resources.
My third year of teaching saw me land a job at a huge school.  This school was the queen of collegiality and there I learned how to utilize my colleagues for the powerful resource that they were.  Beautiful, wonderful, time-saving, quality-enhancing things happened there.  They gifted me with binders of all of the materials that they possessed or had developed in years past.  Someone would do something new that worked well and would give their materials to the rest of us to add to our collections.  Someone else would try something new that ended up being terrible and would let the rest of us know so that we could avoid doing the same thing.  We would revamp tests and we would tweak each other’s work while giving feedback and encouragement.  We would share frustrations and joke together on the tough days to make them more bearable.  We journeyed the school year together, and it was wonderful and it was beautiful and somehow, suddenly, this whole teaching thing felt like it was becoming so much more manageable and so much more enjoyable.

Lesson 3:
I wish that I would have had access to the amazing network of teachers on Twitter.
My first year of teaching was in a tiny school.  We are talking three-teachers-kind-of-tiny.  The kind of collegiality described above just wasn’t a possibility.  I had so many questions, and wished I would have had more resources for finding the answers.  Twitter didn’t exist yet (even the Internet itself was still a novel concept) but it would have been the perfect tool for me if it did.  We are not all going to work in a huge school that loves to share resources and work as a team, but we can all access that same type of resource.  It’s all there – it’s online.  Twitter is an amazing meeting ground for teachers to empathize with each other, encourage one another, teach and mentor others, and to journey the road of teaching together.  It’s invaluable.  I hope new teachers know how to use it (more on that in a forthcoming blog post), and know that it’s wonderful, and know that it will remind them that they are not alone.

Lesson 4:
I wish I would have known more about balance.
I had no idea how to live a more balanced life those first few years of teaching.  I wish I would have known that things didn’t have to be perfect – that the students can still learn from less-than-perfect lessons.  I wish I would have lowered my expectations for myself a bit that first year – to have given myself a little more breathing space – and just focused on making it through.

Lesson 5:
I wish I would have known about teacher attrition rates.
Teacher attrition rates are quite high.  That means that many teachers leave the profession – particularly during their first few years.  I wish I would have known that.  I wish I would have known that simply making it through the first year alive was a huge accomplishment.  That might have helped me with lesson 4 – lowering my expectations for myself.

As much as I would have loved to have known these things when I began teaching, there was one lesson that I learned pretty much immediately.  It was this one lesson that enabled me to put one foot in front of another and make it through those first years, and it’s the same lesson that keeps me going today.

The Ultimate Lesson:
Teaching is worth the sacrifices, the stress, and the everything else.  It’s worth it.
It’s worth it – this teaching thing.  It really is.  It’s not a job for the faint of heart, it’s not a job for the lazy, and it’s not a job for people who just don’t feel it (this is one job that you have to love if you’re going to stick with it).  But if you love it and if you stick with it, you’ll reap the benefits, because it’s worth it.
It’s worth it to see the eyes of a child light up with the wonder of new knowledge,
To see a child who always thought “I can’t” learn “I can”,
And to hear a child pose a deeply reflective question about a topic that’s being discussed.
It’s worth it to see a child from a tough home situation come to school – his safe sanctuary.
It’s worth it to see a child with a learning disability learn how to compensate and discover that his perceived limits are less limiting than he realized.
It’s worth it to hear laughter bubble out of a room full of children,
To see the look of pride for a job well-done,
And to experience the development of a micro community that happens each year.
It’s worth it to watch a child with Autism be cheered on and supported by his peers,
To see the students stand up for what’s right and confront what’s wrong,
And to witness leaders emerge from the group.
It’s worth it to hear the students debate after class about a controversial topic that was discussed during class,
To push a child to work harder and do more and have him come back and thank you when he does,
And to see a child five years later and have him still express gratitude for ‘those lessons I learned about life’ while he was in your class.
It’s worth it.

I could go on.  The list is long and it certainly doesn’t end here, but I don’t want to spoil it for you.  Part of the joy of teaching is composing your own list of ‘worth it’ items.  It’s a list that will keep growing.  It’s a list that you’ll need to remember.  There will be hard days, and there will be harder days, and then there will be days when you feel like you can’t even go on.  Reflect on your ‘worth it’ items.  They’ll keep you going.

The first few years of teaching might not be inherently wonderful, but they will be filled with wonder.  Dwell there and know that it will become easier.  It will become less time consuming and overwhelming.  Know that you are not alone.  Any veteran teacher was once a beginning teacher.  We’ve all been there, and we’re here to help.  You’ll make it through.  The second year will be so much more manageable than the first, and the third much more than the second.  You’ve got this.  We’re cheering you on.  Your ‘worth it’ list is ready to be written.

Dear Friend with Dyslexia

An audio file of this post is available here.

Dear Friend with dyslexia,

I am not an expert on dyslexia – nothing of the sort – but I did recently attend a summer institute on the neuroscience of reading.  The institute was primarily focused on dyslexia.  I’d like to pass along to you some of the information that was shared.  I hope that much of this is information that you already know.  I think, however, that it might feel good to hear someone else validate it and to remind you of the presence of legitimate research to support the information.

Let me begin with one of the most crucial pieces of information: In no way does having dyslexia indicate compromised intelligence.  You already know that, don’t you?  I hope, dear Friend, that you haven’t been fighting against that truth for years, but unfortunately some of you carry with you the scars of comments and stigmas of untruths surrounding this.

Let me elaborate a bit.  Those working in the field of dyslexia have little agreement as to the criteria for establishing whether someone has dyslexia.  The most agreed upon criteria, however, is a gap between intelligence and reading ability.  More simply put, the very fact that you have dyslexia indicates that your intelligence is just fine, but that your reading ability does not match what one would expect for your intelligence.

Dyslexia is not related to intelligence.  What it is related to, however, is the way that your brain works.  Neuroscientists are doing some really interesting work with people with dyslexia.  They are able to have them go in an MRI scanner, have them complete a task while in the scanner, and then see what parts of their brain they are using to complete the tasks.  This generates a picture of the individual’s brain, and the parts of their brain that they are using light up in the picture.  When the same tests are done on people without dyslexia, it becomes very apparent that people with dyslexia use entirely different parts of their brain to complete reading and reading-related tasks.  This is crucial information for you to know.  It means that your reading deficits are not related to effort.  Your reading deficits are not related to the reading instruction you received or didn’t receive.  We’ve already established that your reading deficits are not related to intelligence.  Your reading deficits exist because your brain is wired to work differently than people without dyslexia.  Regardless of how hard you try or how much instruction you receive, your brain can’t be rewired to process reading differently.  There are certainly things that can be done to help make reading be less difficult for you, but your brain will still use alternate systems to read.

When people without dyslexia read, they are primarily using the back areas of their brain.  The front area of the brain, which is the thinking area, is not utilized during reading for those without dyslexia.  This is rather convenient.  It means that, while reading, a person can be using the thinking area of the brain to be thinking about what they are reading: connecting it to their life, asking questions, making predictions, and so on.  This is part of what makes reading be so engaging and enjoyable.  In contrast, when you read, one of the dominant areas of your brain that is being used for the reading process is this front area of the brain.  This is unfortunate.  It means that your thinking area is dominated by the act of reading and thus it isn’t readily available for you to be thinking so much about what you are reading.  There are other areas of your brain that you use when you read, too.  In fact, you use more areas of your brain to read than people without dyslexia.  Your brain is working much harder to complete the reading.  Again, this is a fact that you already know, at least to some degree, don’t you?  Reading is tough for you.  It’s tough because your brain doesn’t use the areas that are most efficient at reading and processing language.  It’s tough because you use more of your brain to read than people without dyslexia – this shows, in concrete form, that it takes much more effort for people with dyslexia to read than it does for people without.  It’s tough because your thinking area is so occupied with the process of reading that you don’t have the luxury of interacting with your reading in the same way that non-dyslexic readers can.  Reading is tough for you, and science backs this up: your brain lights up light a light bulb on the MRI scanner when you’re reading.

There is good news in this, though.  One of the great things that science shows us is that our brains have a lot of plasticity.  Plasticity is the ability to change and develop.  We would expect this of a child’s brain, but the adult brain shows no less plasticity than a child’s.  What this means is that we can continue to grow and develop our brains.  We can establish more connections within our brain, thus allowing brain systems to work more efficiently.  The simple message from this is: don’t give up.  You always have the capacity to continue to learn and develop, even in terms of reading.  Though you can’t rewire your brain, you can continue to develop ways to compensate and make the reading systems that you use work a little better for you.

There’s other good news, too.  When our brains have deficits in one area, they often make up for it in other areas.  You have probably heard stories of people who lack one of their senses but another sense is incredibly strong as a result.  For example, perhaps they can’t see but they have an incredible sense of hearing.  Have you considered that the same principle applies to you?  When your peers were learning to read and were growing and developing the areas of their brain that typically process reading, you were probably growing and developing another area of your brain.  Perhaps you have an incredibly powerful memory.  Or maybe you’re very skilled in music, art, or another area of fine art.  Memory and/or fine arts are often areas that, for whatever reason, end of being extra developed in people who have reading deficits.  Your skills in this area have likely developed to this degree because you have dyslexia.  They are an important part of what makes you be you – and they certainly need to be celebrated.

You should probably be aware of the fact that dyslexia has been shown to have some heritability to it.  This means that there is some likelihood that your children will have dyslexia as well.  The important thing to know with this is that research indicates that the earlier that reading interventions are given, the more helpful they will be.  So, if you are aware of the fact that your children stand a chance of having dyslexia as well, you can be proactive in seeking out supports for them early.  There is continuing work being done in the area of finding early identifiers for dyslexia and hopefully in the foreseeable future children will be given reading interventions before they fail to develop reading skills, rather than after.

Another thing to consider with regard to your children and the fact that they, too, might journey with dyslexia, is the fact that 25-40% of students who meet the criteria for ADHD also meet the criteria for dyslexia.  If your child receives a diagnosis for ADHD, given that and the fact that they have a parent with dyslexia, be aware that their chances of having dyslexia would then be quite high.  Advocate for them and get them access to the supports that they need so that, if they do indeed have dyslexia, they can reap the benefits of early intervention.

Having dyslexia isn’t inherently desirable, but we all have our limitations and deficiencies.  Just as those of us with vision issues can’t squint harder or tell our brains to process our sight more clearly, so too, sheer willpower or determination won’t rewire your brain to not have dyslexia.  Unfortunately many people still attribute dyslexia to laziness, but this is a stigma that needs to die.  You and I know that it has nothing to do with effort.  Neuroscientists can show you all sorts of pretty brain pictures indicating how, when you read, your brain looks much different than non-dyslexic readers.  It’s a brain thing.  It’s not an effort thing.  It’s not an instruction thing.  It’s not an intelligence thing.  It’s a brain thing.

We all have areas where our brain excels.  We all have areas where our brain has limitations.  The beautiful thing is that where one person’s brain is limited, another person’s excels.  And where that person’s brain is limited, someone else’s brain will excel.  There is deep beauty and richness in this.  It has been dubbed ‘neurodiversity’.  We each bring our own unique flavour into this world.  We each contribute our piece of individuality to the beautiful mosaic of humanity.   And that, dear Friend, is something to celebrate.


So today, I celebrate you.  I celebrate your uniqueness.  I celebrate your persistence.  I celebrate your ability to overcome.  I celebrate the fact that you have developed ways of compensating for your dyslexia.  I celebrate your bravery.  I celebrate your resiliency in light of the scars that you bear from the stigmas you fight.  I celebrate your incredible effort.  I celebrate your intelligence.  I celebrate your unique skills that have been developed as a result of your dyslexia.  I celebrate the uniqueness and diversity that you contribute to humanity.

Dear Friend with dyslexia, I celebrate you.

Related Posts:
The Neuroscience of Reading – Part 1
The Neuroscience of Reading – Part 2
The Neuroscience of Reading – Part 3