Dear Ms. Rhee….

It could be that it’s the “vacation” head cold talking, but I don’t think so.  I was working in my classroom this morning, when I opened up my school email account.  And here, for the third time in  the last couple of months, is – unedited – what I found:

From: Michelle Rhee, StudentsFirst []
Sent: Thursday, April 19, 2012 10:19 AM
To: Bisson, Amy
Subject: An important battle


Dear friend,


This isn’t about politics — it’s about what’s best for our kids.

But in their desperate attempt to defend the status quo, the entrenched special interests try to turn everything into a partisan fight. That’s why I am writing to you today about an important battle brewing in Connecticut.

Right now, Connecticut has our nation’s largest achievement gap in math — African American students are three and a half years behind white students. Governor Dan Malloy, a Democrat, knows there is no room for party politics in this fight. He’s got a plan to tackle this issue, and he’s got bipartisan support.

Polls show that Connecticut residents support the governor’s plan, but special interests are on the attack, trying to sway public opinion back to the status quo.

We’ve got a TV ad on air right now in support of the governor’s reform efforts in Connecticut. Donate $10 to keep this TV ad on the air:<

This is not just a racial divide in Connecticut. Math scores of eighth graders from poor families are three grade levels behind their wealthier peers.

Governor Malloy’s plan maps out the necessary steps to bring equality to education. His plan calls for the establishment of meaningful teacher and principal evaluations, which would allow us to recognize our effective educators and support those who need improvement.

The governor also aims to reform tenure so that it serves to elevate effective teachers rather than protect ineffective ones. And lastly, the plan would expand the number of high quality public charter schools so they can serve more students.

I know Connecticut is not the state you call home, but there are kids there who need someone to stand up and fight for them. Help us win support for reform in Connecticut with a donation now:<

Thank you,

Michelle Rhee
CEO and Founder

825 K St, 2nd Floor

Sacramento, CA 95814


I don’t know, I felt OFFENDED by this email in my WORK email account. Especially since I am most likely one of “those” teachers who would be classified as underperforming.  I don’t shy away from challenges presented by the students in my school or District because I believe every child deserves to have a good education. But I am not the second coming either and there are factors out of my control that impede learning.   Please Ms. Rhee, explain how this isn’t “political”.

So in a Quixotic moment, I fired off the following:

Dear Ms. Rhee,

Please STOP sending mail to this address. First of all, you are not “my friend”.  I work as a public school teacher and have for nearly 25 years. Wouldn’t that make ME one of your targets, a public school slacker? 

Just FYI, it  is a vacation week here in Massachusetts. I am not paid for this “vacation” nor is any other public school teacher here in Massachusetts. However, I AM here on my own time working hard to prepare a learning environment for my students when they return to their studies next Monday.  

I don’t have time for this kind of nonsense on my WORK email account. I feel that your solicitations, and I have received 3 so far, are inappropriate for the workplace.  I have no intention of donating $10 to your Political Action Committee or you rconsulting firm – however you wish to define your
money-making scheme today.

Remove my name from your list permanently.

Amy Bisson

Most likely that won’t stop a thing. But I have to admit I feel better.

Marathon Monday

If you’ve ever visited Boston, you know that this view of Boylston Street (taken near the BPL) is fairly unusual.  This weekend, Boston was teaming with tourists, Red Sox fans, and New Englanders just wanting to get outdoors and enjoy a warm Saturday afternoon.

We were no exception. On Monday, the locals will watch as hundreds of runners push themselves beyond what seems humanly possible to run 26.2 miles from Hopkinton, MA into Boston.  As a testament to persistence, the Marathon inspires me.

Reflections on a Classroom Library

About 3 years ago now I spent a winter-spring weeding and reorganizing the library in my classroom.  Lots of people have lots of ways to do this — and lots of reasons for what they do.

The first thing I did was to throw/recycle or donate books – relentlessly and without much sentiment. I teach in a school where many children do not have access to their own books so, whenever I could, I gave away books. What I was left with was a collection of material that I would enjoy choosing from, and that is key. If you personally wouldn’t touch the book, your students probably won’t want to touch them either.

Responding to what I felt was a need to level books so that children read within a range of levels and a need to expose students to varieties of genres, I did lots of research and found the system Beth Newingham employed in her own third grade classroom was the best fit for what I intended. I color code baskets so that, even on the most basic levels, students can select and return books without any intervention from me (well, most of the time).  I have red bins designated for any fiction genres and green bins for any non-fiction genres.  I keep a larger browsing crate of poetry.  Within each of the two major categories, fiction and non-fiction, there are sub-genres: for example realistic fiction, historical fiction, informational text.  Sometimes I’ve subdivided those categories further: Science and Nature, Lands and People for example.

Again, the reason for this is to be sure children are exposed to many different genres. Also, it helps me ensure that I have a balance of book genres; my natural tendency is to load up on realistic fiction. It’s been enlightening to see what gaps there are in our library.

The labels for each book are afixed to the book front as is the colored dot designating the book level range.  I tape the label onto the cover with clear mailing tape and have not have any problem with a student picking off the label.

Because the levels in each color range are somewhat broad, I haven’t found any problem with students trying to read books at their frustration level, known by my colleagues as “fake reading”. We “color conference” frequently using Modified Miscues or Fountas Pinnell Benchmarks and students are coached in conferences.  I have found that when the children know there’s an opportunity and an expectation for movement from one color to the next, competition is less of a problem. When I had baskets of books in just one level, that was not always the case.

Children are fairly accurate in replacing the books in the bin. This is a task and responsibility that I expect from each child. Not every book in the room is leveled or labeled; there are opportunities for children to self-select and decide for themselves whether or not a book is a good fit.

Additionally I created a spreadsheet/database for tracking which books are in the library. I keep an alphabetized list (by title) in an index notebook that the children can access in case they are looking for books with more than one copy for a buddy reading or in case they are looking for a particular book title.  My children consult this book often when they are swapping books in and out of book boxes. The list also is useful as every so often we get asked to provide an inventory of the books in classrooms. I can sort the list in several ways: color code, Guided Reading Level, author, genre. This is helpful when replacing or adding to a library.

For more on how my personal journey in organizing a classroom library progressed, check this link. As Beth Newingham states “Every teacher organizes a library in her own way”. This is one that works for me.

A (Non)-Writer Discovers Notebooks

A while ago, our Literacy Coach began talking to us about revisiting notebooks as a means to developing writers and authors.  I’m possibly the last person in education to discover Aimee Buckner and Notebook Know-How, but I am so glad I have made that connection.

Not being a writer myself or at least not a disciplined one, I found notebooks and their use just one more thing to do with kids. Our school-wide writing calendars, focused on responses and one new genre of writing every two months was quite time-consuming. I couldn’t imagine when we would fit in using notebooks.

And then I read this

— we shouldn’t write for significance, but rather that we should write as a habit. Sometimes we’ll write something significant and sometimes we won’t. It’s the act of writing — the practice of generating text and building fluency–that leads writers to significance.

Wow! Did those words speak to me! What I had been doing “wrong” all this time, both as a non-writer and a teacher of writing, was expecting each morsel to be significant. The notebook is a place to practice, to try out, to experiment. Not only in writing, but in any endeavor, a learner needs a safe place to practice without worry as to the significance of the outcome.

This is a discovery that I can relate to. As an amateur photographer, I’ve been reticent to take my camera with me because I would not have anything worthwhile to show for it.

My students are starting to use notebooks now. And while they are not yet a habit, we are learning together to find a safe place to experiment with some of the strategies that professional writers and authors use.

We are learning to be learners through our experimentation.

A Life on the “Outside”

Often I excuse my compulsive need to read and research all things educational with “I don’t have a life.” It is true that my child has long grown past needing me as a parent – I no longer do homework or nag to complete projects or carpool to sports. So I don’t have obligations or promises to keep in that regard.

So why don’t I live a “normal” life – one where you leave things at work, not to worry over them until the next day?

Teaching, believe it or not, is an insane profession. Piecing together the puzzle of why one child masters a topic while the other struggles – and what to do about that – is a riddle I not sure I’ll ever master. Twenty-five years later, I continue to struggle with delivering lessons effectively, lessons that children enjoy and connect to other learning. That takes research. Thank goodness for the World-wide Web or I would need a cot set up in the local library.

Lately, I’ve begun to wonder about what life will be like for me outside of teaching. I have two – or three if our investments tank – years left in the classroom before I feel financially secure enough to back away from a “regular job.”

I know I’d like to travel. I know I’d like to explore a book writing idea that Adrien and I have had on the back burner for several years. Throughout my life I have done something in the arts, I enjoy cooking and gardening and reading and knitting. But mostly what I’ve been for nearly half of my life is a teacher.

I regret the lack of balance in my life. That my profession overwhelms and consumes me most days. But I am hopeful that I can find my place in the world – my life on the “outside”.