May 16, 2022

I’m a Believer

Frustration & Despair

It was the end of the first week of school, one that saw the implementation of a new schedule that was proving to be a challenge for both students and staff. Over the summer, my colleagues in the English department and I read and discussed Carol Jago’s The Book in Question, which examines why there seems to be a significant drop in reading by the time students get to high school. I resolved this year to give students time to read a novel of their choice at least three times a week and to record their thoughts so that they (and I) can track their thoughts as they engage with the stories.

My plan on Friday was to have my students make (or refresh) a blog page. Unfortunately, I had not asked beforehand if, the technology students would use in the lesson, wanted to play nicely. I had run through the steps on my laptop, and all went smoothly. Surely, it would do the same for students.

Nope. Students had a host of problems: they couldn’t log in (even when they had made a blog freshman year); they got blocked once they did log in; and if their Layout and Settings screens showed up, they looked nothing like mine–or, in many cases, each other’s. I did what I could to help them but largely had to rely on them to help each other. We eventually reached a point where students could create a post, and before I gave them time to read/post, I showed students how to fill out a Google Form that would tell me the url of their blog. Relieved that the problem was (sort of) solved, I read a little myself and made a post about the book I just started, Educated, by Tara Westover. (I am enjoying it immensely and highly recommend it.)

Believing that with perseverance, I could guide the next class in making a blog and posting to it, I started the same lesson. Big. Mistake. Errors that had been sporadic in the previous bell were now widespread. Students were becoming increasingly vocal in their frustration, and who could blame them? When the lunch bell rang, I went to my desk and sank into my chair, utterly defeated. What do I do? Put in a tech ticket? There are only two people working in that department, and they have been hammered by teachers requesting help. Even if I did submit a ticket, no one would be able to help me before students came back from lunch.

Aaron Roberts had been my go-to tech guru for the past three years. His new space for supporting teachers who wanted to try personalized learning was diagonally across from my classroom. And, did I mention, I was defeated, dejected, lost. I knew he couldn’t help me with the tech any more, but I knew he could help me look at my problem creatively. I was near tears when I went into his room and told him what had happened.

“Yeah,” he replied, “unfortunately, that happens.”

No! You don’t understand. This has to work. The success of an entire year of independent reading depends on it. I’m taking a big chance here. It can’t not work!

“But, let’s look at it from the other end of the process.”

Right about then, my brain made that Scooby Doo sound when something big is about to happen. I also think my shoulders squared up a little.

Discussion & Innovation

“What do you want the kids to do?” Aaron asked.

“They’re reading independently. I want them to show me what they think as they read,” I told him.

“Okay. Here’s the problem. isn’t working. But. Is that the only way kids can show you what they’re thinking?”

“No…, I guess they could write it down in a journal. They could keep a Google Doc and add to it every time I ask for a reflection….”

“Right! Or they could use Google Slides.” All of a sudden Aaron, Joe (he was also in the room), and I were throwing out ideas and coming up with new and different ways for students to show their learning; as we did, receded further and further into the ether.

“We want them to start thinking about first impressions,” Aaron said. [record skip] “Like, what did they think the first time they met their best friend, or saw a movie for the first time. What are some other categories of ‘firsts’?”

“The first time they went someplace,” Joe suggested.

“First impressions of a class? A teacher?” I offered.


“I tell you what. I’m going to come into your room, and we’re gonna brainstorm with the kids,” Aaron said as he started collecting markers and Post-It Notes. Wait. What? “I need poster paper.”

“I have poster-size Post-It Notes!” I blurted out.

“Great! Let’s do this!”

I went into my room, tore off four sheets of poster Post-Its, and stuck them to my whiteboard. I hurried to my desk to modify the Google Form. As the students came into the room, so did Aaron, carrying two long, factory-sealed boxes of Post-Its.

“I’m just adding Google Doc or Google Slides as an option on the form,” I told him.

“No. Let’s just see where this goes,” he said.

Okay. Let’s just see where this goes.

Application & Elation

I introduced Aaron to my students and told them he had come to help them–and me–come up with ways for them to convey their thoughts about the books they were reading.

“Okay. Hi, everyone, as Mrs. George said, I’m Mr. Roberts,” he began. “Mrs. George came to me for help when gave her problems. She was pretty upset–”

“I was on the brink of tears!” I confessed.

Aaron laughed. “Okay. Before we get started, though, I want to ask you a question. How many of you like to blog?”

Not one hand went up. Not. One. I stared in amazement. Blogging had been presented as the 21st century way for tech- and digital-savvy students to express themselves. And they hated it.

Aaron laughed. “Okay. I didn’t expect that, but thanks for being honest. Another question. Why not?”

The answers varied, but they all boiled down to the same kind of response: blogging is something they have to do for a class. It takes too long to load, the tech is klunky and prone to problems). Besides, doing it gets in the way of what they’re thinking. It just feels artificial.

“Fair enough,” he continued. “Okay. I want you to four- and five-up by the time I count down from 10 to 1. Ready? 10…, 9…, 8….”

Desks and bodies moved fast. Continuing the countdown, Aaron moved from group to group and threw down a pack or two of Post-Its. (He also counted the number 3 about five times, but the kids were fully engaged and didn’t notice.)

“All right. Does everybody have Post-It Notes?” he asked them. “Now. Here’s the problem: Mrs. George needs to make sure you’re learning something, and you need a way of showing her.”

All eyes were on Aaron.

“What I want you to do is write down every idea you have for how you could show Mrs. George what you think about the book you’re reading. No self-editing. Any idea. There’s only one rule. Only one idea per Post-It. Got it? Good.

“Siri, set a timer for three minutes,” he told his phone.

“Okay,” Siri said, and a ping went off.

“Okay, start! You’ve got three minutes. Write your ideas down!”

Reluctantly at first, students began discussing ideas. Pretty soon the room was buzzing.

“Write one idea per Post-It Note,” Aaron reminded them, but they were way ahead of him. Soon every desk had at least one Post-It on it, and some had as many as seven. The timer went off.

“Okay, Now I want you to go over to that wall,” he said, pointing across the room, “and put your sticky notes on it.” Students looked at each other. “That wall. Over there. Put your notes on it, then sit back down.”

“You’re going to have to get out of your seat to put your notes on the wall,” I added. “Go. Now!”

They all got up, and as they jockeyed for wall space, I saw some had lined multiple Post-Its on their fingers, up their arms, on their faces. In other words, they were into it.

When they had sat back down, Aaron said, “Good. Now I want you to go back and take one sticky note up with you.” He continued. “You’re going to make an X on THREE ideas that you like, got it? One X, three times, okay? BUT. You have to write down the ideas you put an X beside on the Post-It you take up there with you. Come on up…, spread out so everyone has a chance to see all the ideas.” The last part was necessary; there were so many ideas on the wall!

As students marked the ideas they liked, Aaron opened my classroom door and invited students to go out in the hallway once they had made their selections. Out in the hallway?! Okay. After all, I had to trust Aaron more than the kids did.

When the whole class was done and chatting in the hall, Aaron and I herded them back into the room. It was time for Aaron to start the “first impressions” discussion. “What are some things you remember your first impression of?”

“Do you remember what you thought of your best friend the first time you met them?” I offered. “How about your first impression of AP Bio or Words from the Wild?”

We came up with four categories: People, Places, Food, and Books. (Okay, they needed a little prodding from me on that last one.)

“Now I want you to write down a first impression you had of at least one of those four categories on a Post-It,” Aaron told them, “and then go stick it on the poster it goes with.”

“Guys, the bell is going to ring in about five minutes,” I told them, hardly believing it myself. “Don’t think too hard on this one, just jot down at least one first impression.”

One by one, they came up and stuck their Post-Its on a poster, not really certain what would happen next, but clearly engaged and curious. They were talking and laughing, putting their desks back, gathering up their backpacks.

“We’ll pick this up on Monday,” I told them. “Have a great weekend!”

As the students left, I turned to Aaron. “That was amazing!”

“Yeah. It kinda was.”

I’m a Believer

I wanted to cry again, but this time, tears of joy. That was awesome! I saw a transformation right before my eyes. The kids were so into it! And why? Because Aaron had given them the chance to tell me how they could show me what they were learning.

It isn’t often that a teacher notices a radical change in the way she approaches delivery of content. Friday, August 24, 2019, was definitely one of those days for me. I barely knew what personalized learning meant when school started this year, and now I can’t wait to do that same lesson with my other classes–and to do it for every other assignment.

Cue The Monkees (not Smash Mouth): 

Then I [took a chance]

Now I’m a believer.

Without a [glance],

[Or] doubt in my mind.

I’m in love, ooohh, ahhhh,

I’m a believer

[In personal learning,

Cause I tried.]

Yeah, I’m a believer,

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeahhhhhh,

I’m a believer.

Photo Credit:
Jake Ingle

Pat George

Pat George is an English/Language Arts Teacher at Mason High School.

View all posts by Pat George →

Leave a Reply