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Write Away

Teacher Magazine (print edition)
January 2007

—illustration by Matt Collins

Chris Cheshire has been a stay-at-home mother, an artist, and a Web site editor. Now she’s a 7th grade language arts teacher in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. But what she’s always wanted to do is write a novel—specifically, a cross between history and horror that she calls “vampire fiction.”

A full teaching load at Shelburne Middle School, though, made it difficult to find time to write. That’s why National Novel Writing Month appealed to her. Sure, she would have to work furiously to finish a 50,000-word novel in only 30 days. But without that looming deadline some other priority might push her writing to the proverbial back burner.

“It’s really inspiring just to have [a novel] and know that you’ve done it,” Cheshire says.

National Novel Writing Month (called NaNoWriMo by enthusiasts) takes place each November. It’s become something of an Internet phenomenon in the eight years since 21 San Francisco Bay-area writers got together to see if they could each complete a 50,000-word book in a month. It turned out that they could—if they focused on quantity over quality. “I had seen time and again the miracles that deadlines work on writers,” says Chris Baty, NaNoWriMo’s program director and one of its originators. “The impossible became possible as long as you had a deadline.”

By 2000, the event had its own Web site and 140 wannabe novelists. Five years later, the number of participating writers had grown to 59,000. Nearly 10,000 of them “won” by producing a verified 50,000 words in 30 days. An active online community sprung up around the event, with forums covering everything from the authenticity of particular plot details to a “NaNoWriMo Ate My Soul” message board for novelists feeling distressed.

Limited-time novel writing has especially appealed to many teachers, who, like Cheshire, face time constraints that make sustained scribbling difficult.

“I’ve always been a believer that if you love to do it, you find a way to make the time,” says Amy Brodbeck, an elementary and middle school music teacher in Ripley, Ohio. Still, progress on her 30-day novel about a boy who wants to be a pirate was slow initially. “On the first day, I only had 693 words, and I couldn’t find more than an hour to sit down and write. The kids told me they didn’t think I was going to make it,” she recalls. Brodbeck posted a paper thermometer outside her classroom so her students could follow her writing progress, and she promised to read them excerpts from the novel when she finished it—or even if she didn’t.

Some teachers use the occasion to jump-start their students’ interest in fiction writing. Susan Midlarsky, who teaches an integrated English/language arts and history class, has worked on a novel the past three Novembers alongside her 5th graders. This year, she decided to edit the 67,000-word manuscript she completed last year while her students at Jewish Community Day School in Watertown, Massachusetts, worked on their own. With Midlarsky’s help, each student set an individual word goal—high enough to be a challenge, but low enough not to overwhelm. She reserved at least 15 minutes of class time each day for novel writing, and many students also joined her for writing time on Tuesday nights at More Than Words, a bookstore in Waltham, Massachusetts, run by and for teenagers.

“It’s a great process—falling in love with writing, finding that you can do more than you thought you could do, finding a fluency in writing without making yourself write ‘well,’” Midlarsky says. And novel writing helps her students get excited about writing in general, she adds. “They want to know: ‘How do you write dialogue?’ ‘How do you spell this?’ When I do grammar lessons, they have something to immediately apply it to. They want their stories to be good!”

That excitement and internal motivation affects the adult writers too. “We hear all the time that our culture is becoming more TV-oriented and we’re passive consumers of culture,” Baty explains. “But here’s this writing contest where the prizes are horrible. You get a certificate that you have to fill out with your own hand, and your name on a Web site. Yet thousands of people want to do it.”

Neither Brodbeck nor Cheshire hit the 50,000-word goal by midnight on November 30th. But it’s not always finishing something that matters most. “It’s important just to do it and get words down,” Cheshire says. Midlarsky, who hopes to eventually publish her novel, says the social aspect of NaNoWriMo keeps bringing her back. “Writing can be a really solitary activity. NaNo provides a community.”

Vol. 18, Issue 04, Page 48

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Taking Anxiety Out of the Equation

Teacher Magazine (print edition)
May/June 2007

The signs of math anxiety vary: Students sometimes act out when it’s time for math class, rush through problem sets, brush off low grades by saying they didn’t try, or simply proclaim that they hate the subject.

The apprehension and self-doubt at the root of such behavior isn’t just an emotional matter; scientific research has shown that these feelings can hamstring students’ ability to do math. What happens, explains University of Chicago assistant psychology professor Sian Beilock, is that anxious thoughts crowd the brain and occupy memory that would otherwise be dedicated to computation, causing students to choke under pressure.

What caused those anxious thoughts in the first place? Some students pick up negative attitudes at home. Others experience what researchers call “stereotype threat,” a self-fulfilling fear of confirming a stereotype—in this case, that girls and minorities aren’t good at math. And some students develop math phobia because of a teacher’s negative feedback.

Hands on: Manipulatives help students grasp abstract math concepts.

—photo by David Kidd
Hands on: Manipulatives help students grasp abstract math concepts.

But teachers can also help undo the anxiety, experts agree. The first step is to acknowledge that a student’s apprehension is real but fixable. Then go back through the curriculum to figure out where the student started getting lost and apprehensive.

“[Students] are often embarrassed about what they don’t know,” says Joan Marie Rosebush, a senior lecturer at the University of Vermont who taught elementary and middle school math for 10 years.

“Never say to a kid, ‘You should know this,’” says George Poole, a math professor at East Tennessee State University who works with prospective K-8 teachers. “They’re asking for a reason: because they don’t understand.”

Math-anxious students typically respond well to nonnumerical representations of concepts, such as pictures and graphs, according to David Fowler, an associate professor of secondary math education at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. He has found that the best teachers always employ multiple explanations when introducing new ideas.

Students develop computational fluency the same way they gain reading fluency: by practicing the same material many times. So treat math like a foreign language, Rosebush suggests. Translate unfamiliar characters and symbols and practice using them. Fowler advocates out-loud recitation, especially for younger students learning multiplication and division tables. “We recall facts because we hear them,” he says.

Students with math anxiety are most successful when the subject doesn’t feel like work, says Elizabeth Hughes, a former Birmingham, Alabama, 4th grade teacher who now tutors Washington, D.C.-area middle-schoolers in math. Her students go on “shopping sprees” using advertising circulars to work on computation skills, and use Skittles to practice percentages—determining what portion of the candy from a package is purple, for example.

Hughes also tries to get her students out of their seats as often as possible. In an “angle hunt,” for example, kids search the room for acute, obtuse, and right angles. “Math anxiety is mostly [students’] frustration with themselves,” Hughes says. “If you can get them engaged, they like math.”

Vol. 18, Issue 06, Page 12

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Lights! Camera! Learning!

Teacher Magazine (print edition)
January 2007

When teaching science to kids, a visual approach is good. Humor is also good. And blowing things up is really, really good. At least that’s what educators at the Exploratorium in San Francisco have found in the nine years since the museum began producing a live, off-the-cuff competition called Iron Science Teacher. Modeled after the Japanese cult TV favorite Iron Chef (and The Food Network’s American spinoff), Iron Science Teacher pits educators against one another in a fast-paced competition to produce the best classroom science activity that can be presented in 10 minutes.

All the teachers win, of course—even those sitting in the audience—since the real point of the contest is to produce ideas for science lessons that will hold students’ attention. IST “contestants” come from the ranks of middle and high school educators who attend the rigorous professional development Teacher Institute at the Exploratorium, a “learning laboratory” for science, art, and human perception.

The show, which is Webcast live four to six times each summer, has very few rules. Contestants’ experiments must include the “secret ingredient” revealed to the audience at the beginning of the show and be safe and replicable in the classroom. But beyond that, almost anything goes.

And most everything has, as more than 60 past competitions demonstrate—they’ve featured secret ingredients ranging from eggs to corks to fruitcake to crayons.

“We have an odd cult following,” says Linda Shore, director of the Teacher Institute and mistress of ceremonies for Iron Science Teacher. “People stay the entire hour. These fidgety little kids—I’m astounded that they sit the whole time.”

That is, after all, the point: to get school-age children to focus on the science that’s taking place before their eyes. And by all accounts, it’s working. Over the past eight years, archived IST competitions have been downloaded more than 450,000 times.

“I’ve learned a lot watching the other Iron Science teachers doing their thing,” says Brooklyn teacher Avery Pickford, who’s been a contestant twice. “My kids thought it was the coolest thing in the world that I was on ‘television’ talking about science.”

The heavy doses of audience participation also help captivate the budding scientists, who are charged with the important task of choosing the IST winner by the volume of their applause.

And young audience members take the competition very seriously. “Kids will come up after and swear someone else got louder applause,” Shore says. “We kind of have to tell them it’s not about the winning. It’s about the science.”

Vol. 18, Issue 04

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The Long Run

Teacher Magazine (print edition)
May/June 2007

The Long Run: These educators measure their careers in decades.

Hazel Wilson

Teaching 47 Years

—Photo by David Kidd

Maybe Hazel Wilson wasn’t destined to become a teacher, but she felt the signs pointing her in that direction were pretty clear. She was named after a schoolteacher, and when she was a student in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, she had two inspiring teachers named Hazel. At age 16, Wilson left home to attend Winston-Salem Teachers College in North Carolina (now Winston-Salem State University). She was the youngest student in her class.

After nearly half a century working in Washington, D.C., elementary schools, Wilson, 73, has seen a lot of changes. She likes to find creative ways to inspire her 5th graders and doesn’t think much of the current standardized-test mania. “Standards are good for setting up what to do, but it’s too procedural,” she says. Wilson prefers to teach by what she calls her Teacher Guide—a document she developed back in her student-teaching days. Its first imperative is optimism, followed by faith, planning, and determination. “I’m a very firm teacher,” Wilson says. “But you can make learning interesting for the kids. Every day is a new day in a classroom.”

Former students often come back to visit, including a young man who stopped by to thank Wilson for keeping him inside during recess to make sure he learned to read. He drove up in a Cadillac, which he admitted he’d bought with drug money. “I’ve been to so many funerals of young men, boys,” Wilson says sadly.

But she’s very proud of the adults most of her former students grew up to be and will happily retire in June, knowing her career has been a job well done. “I haven’t regretted one moment of teaching,” she says. She plans to substitute teach next year, but only on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, or Thursdays. “I want those long weekends,” she laughs.

Agnes Zeiger
Teaching 61 Years

—Photo by Greg Ruffing

Agnes Zeiger taught for an impressive 42 years before she retired. That was in 1988. Since then, she’s been a mostly full-time substitute at public and parochial schools in Tiffin, Ohio: a “retirement career” that’s been longer than many teachers’ regular careers.

When Zeiger, 80, was a young woman, she was a religious sister—a nun who works in the community. She graduated from Mary Manse College in Toledo, Ohio, and taught 1st grade in Catholic schools. But her aging father needed her help, so Zeiger went home to Tiffin to care for him and teach. Around that time, her brother introduced her to one of his friends. “I thought I would just be a teacher,” she says. “But I met someone, and I got married.”

Zeiger has taught every elementary school grade, though 1st grade is her favorite. She’s also taught children with speech and hearing difficulties—a specialty she grew to love, even though she didn’t originally choose it. “The mother superior told me to go to school and learn to teach speech,” she remembers. “So I did.” In the 1960s, Zeiger spent a summer at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., learning to teach sign language—a somewhat controversial practice at the time. “Parents in Toledo didn’t want their kids to learn [sign language],” she says. “They thought it would draw attention to the children. Things were really different back then.”

That’s no exaggeration. In contrast to today’s blizzard of state and federal standards and regulations, Zeiger says governments played a very minor role in education when she first started teaching. And she questions whether schools today have moved too far away from the basics that students once had to learn. “There’s so much extra stuff now, trips here and there. But do they know all the things they need to know?” she asks. “Of course, I’m an old-fashioned teacher.”

Rose Gilbert
Teaching 51 Years

—Photo by Steve Goldstein

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president when 22-year-old Rose Gilbert first took her place at the front of a Los Angeles classroom. She left after just a year to work a lucrative job as a contract agent for MGM Studios. But Gilbert felt the pull of the classroom again in 1956, and she’s been teaching in the city full time ever since.

English has always been the 88-year-old’s subject. She mentions all in one breath her favorite books to teach: Camus’ The Stranger, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night, and Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. “My kids read a lot—sometimes a book every week or two,” she says. It’s all part of her plan to instill a love of literature rivaling students’ passion for electronic gadgets, the ubiquity of which, she jokes, reminds her of Brave New World.

Teaching has helped Gilbert through tragedy twice—following the deaths of her husband and daughter—and she has no plans to stop now.

“I always ask each kid a question,” Gilbert says. “‘If there were a press conference for you 20 years from now, what do you want it to be about?’ I want them to have some goals in life.”

Ellie Johnson
Teaching 52 Years

—Photo by Michael J. Okoniewski

In the world in which Ellie Johnson grew up, most women chose among three careers: teaching, nursing, or store clerking. Her mother was a teacher, so Johnson decided to try it too. “I’m lucky teaching turned out to be so good for me,” she says.

Johnson started teaching history in Syracuse, New York, in 1954. After two years, she moved to the city’s newly built Jamesville-DeWitt High School. Fifty years later, the 74-year-old is still there, and still teaching history.

She’s been through many curriculum changes, like the trend that folded her subject into “social studies” and then separated it again. Johnson much prefers “straight history.” “All the concepts in social studies confused kids—it makes it tough to keep the chronology straight,” she says.

The septuagenarian keeps students interested by teaching history as a narrative—something she can do with the authority of someone who’s lived through a textbook full of seminal events.

“You really lose out if you don’t know what it was like in the past, to appreciate what you have and know why you have it,” she explains.

As for her own history, that’s still being written—she doesn’t plan to retire anytime soon.

Roy Clare
Teaching 48 Years

—Photo by KC Kratt

Roy Clare doesn’t like to talk about how old he is—or isn’t. “I never discuss age because it’s not important,” he says. “There are some people who have always been old.”

Suffice it to say that Clare, 81, is not one of those people. Although he’s been teaching music for almost five decades in the Williamsville, New York, Central School District, his longevity isn’t often on his mind. At the moment, he’s more concerned with designing a music curriculum that will be meaningful to students of wildly varying abilities. One of his recent successes was a unit about rap, in which students created rhythmic patterns using the names of desserts.

After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music, Clare began what would become a career-long commitment to teaching middle-schoolers, punctuated by a sabbatical in the early 1970s to finish a doctorate in education. He has also moonlighted throughout his career as a church organist and choirmaster.

Clare’s enthusiasm and commitment to continual improvement haven’t wavered. “I want to be a better teacher this month than I was last month,” he says.

Carrie Hansen
54 Years in Education

—Photo by Nobuko Oyabu

As a girl, Carrie Hansen attended a K-8 school in Oldham, South Dakota, that had only 27 students. She grew up to be a teacher, principal, and advocate for small community schools. “For the students of today, bigger just isn’t better,” Hansen says.

She found herself in front of a high school classroom at age 19, armed with an emergency certification. It was the start of a career that would span 54 years.

The 80-year-old has taught every K-12 grade, but she’s also been a staff development specialist and a director of school personnel, not to mention a lobbyist: In the late 1960s, she took a six-week sabbatical from teaching to persuade the South Dakota legislature to better fund education.

Hansen also spent 17 years as principal of a tiny elementary-only Nebraska district. When the state proposed consolidating such small rural schools with larger districts, Hansen became an activist again, helping found an organization to fight for small schools.

Last year, Hansen returned to the classroom to teach elementary science. After she retires in June, she plans to substitute teach. Says Hansen: “It’s how you stay young.”

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