Hearts and Seasons

Hearts and Seasons

As teachers, kids come and go in our lives like a revolving door. I’m about to finish my tenth year in education, so the door has been revolving for a while.

I’ve had the honor to teach about 300 students. Some come and and go like an easy breeze across a sandy beach. Some I miss. Some not as much. Some kids are quiet, and I don’t get to know them as well.

Others sink their hooks in deeply. Those are kids we’ll never forget. Those are the kids that not only enter our lives for a season, but touch our hearts for a lifetime. I’ve had a handful of students like that. I was fortunate to have one this year.

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On Purpose, For a Purpose

God brings you every student on purpose, for His purpose.

I try to make this my prayer during the days before each school year starts. Frustration has been getting the better of me lately. I've been slipping with it.

Teaching is not just a 9-5 gig for me. It's an extension of who I am. It taps into my very core as a person. On my best days, I truly feel I'm doing the work God has put before me. I need to remember it on my worst days too.

I don't believe in coincidences. The sovereign God of the universe isn't going to leave something as important as a class roster up to chance. My students are with me this year for a reason. Each one of those kids that crosses my classroom doorway is there on purpose for a purpose.

It's time I start acting like it again.

Disappointment and the Bee

“How many words can we miss before we’re out, Mr. Stortz?”

I cracked the cap of a well-worn hi-lighter.  Pushing the dulled neon tip across the first word on the list, I felt that familiar anxiousness as we began.

Bee day.  I have to confess, word nerd that I am, that I always dread it a little.  Today was our class spelling bee.  We have to pick winners from our classes to participate in the school-wide spelling bee next month.

But the whole thing is just a tough nut.  I remind the class that only a few people will win today.  Losing is a part of life.  A hard part of life.  Disappointment will linger long past the time you’ve asked it to leave.  The thing is, everyone thinks they’re going to win.

Round one ends.  Only six kids remain. Two kids are already crying.  A tough nut, indeed.

One of the sweetest (and brightest) girls I’ve ever taught missed her first word.  She really wanted to win.  And she most definitely could have.  But she didn’t.  She missed her word by one lousy letter.  Her wide-eyed smile faded as quickly as her shoulders slumped.  Tears began to well up along the rims of her eyes.  She became visibly upset and couldn’t hold back her tears.  I told her we could talk in the hallway after the spelling bee was over.  Definitely a tough nut.

Ten minutes later we were talking out in the hall.  Her crying had eased a bit.  She told me how upset she was with herself.  The more I listened, the more I could feel her frustration.  I pulled her close and put my arm around her as we spoke.  I told her that disappointment is okay to feel- just don’t let it consume you.  I reminded her of all her accomplishments this year, and told her how everyone still cared about her.  She went down to the restroom to wash off her face.  I think she was feeling a little better, although I’m not sure I was.

A little later, she trotted over to ask me a question about the novel she is reading.  Her eyes were wide and her smile was sweet once more.  Disappointment is certainly a tough nut, but one that must be cracked.

I Know What Books My Students Are Reading

No one ever asks me what books my students are reading.  Admins want to know about test scores or grades.  I understand.  Kind of.  Maybe that's why I'd make a terrible principal.  I don't usually know that stuff off the top of my head.  I also probably put less stock in it than I should.

Students are people.  I try to treat them as people instead of numbers and plot points.  When I'm at the library or bookstore, I see books that remind me of students.  I don't see books that remind of .xls files and report cards.  Books remind me of students because I think they would like to read them, not because books will help their screen time in front of our reading intervention app.

Do you know what books your students are reading?  Maybe I need to start asking more of that.

A Need for Vision

Where there is no vision, the people cast of restraint...
-Proverbs 29:18
I heard this simple proverb in church yesterday.  It got itself lodged in my mind like a Milk Dud in a back molar.  I've been thinking about these words and how we need them at school too.  I realize that this is not an exact application of this verse, but the idea is sound.

"Where there is no vision"

Gag.  Vision is such an overused, butthead word in much of today's parlance.  Yet it still remains a true need.  Who has the vision in your classroom?  Who is responsible for spreading it?

This responsibility falls square on the shoulders of teachers.  Students need to see the big picture of how school is helping their lives.  They need to be reminded that the little day-to-day things in the classroom are playing a larger role.  Students need to see themselves in a future tense end product, as well as a present tense work in progress.

I'm not sure if I have been effectively communicating a clear vision to my classes lately.  I'm loathe to tell them, "You'll need this for 5th grade."  I do say things like "This will help you be a better reader or writer."  But some kids need much more detail than that.

"the people cast off restraint"

The people are our students.  One possible reason for apathy or misbehavior could be a lack of vision.  Many students are not going to get a vision on their own.  They need you to show them how their work plays in to a larger project or adds to a growing skill set they will need for life.

The next time a student is off task, I need to ask myself a question.  Does this kid have a vision for how this is going to help him?  Maybe he does.  Or, maybe he just feels like ripping up the carpet.

How is what we are teaching our students fitting into their lives now and in the future?  There could be some scary answers to that question.

Compliance Was Not Worth the Price of Admission


I lost it.  I lost my cool today.  I didn't yell.  I didn't raise my voice.  I did something much worse.  I insulted a student.

I'm not one to lose my cool at school.  I’m sad to say that usually happens when I get home.  Today was different.  I had a rough morning getting my kids up and ready.  My school computer was acting up.  And several students were shouting things across the classroom during the morning announcements.  That shouting was the last straw.

I went over and stood between the two shouting girls' tables.  I should've made eye contact and pressed my index finger against my lips.  I should've looked at them with the teacher eye and slowly moved my head back and forth.  I should've whispered, "No talking during announcements."  I should've.  But I didn't.

Instead, I went for the easy kill.  I did something that would make me feel good for about half a second and terrible for the rest of the day.  I used my tongue as a weapon.  I insulted two nine-year-old girls.  I said something to the effect of, "Did you release your brain into the wild this weekend?  Why are you shouting during the announcements?"  Wow.  It's even worse when I type the words out.  Way to go, teacher of the year…

I called the girls over to my desk when the announcements were over.  In earshot of the class, I apologized to my students.  I told them that I was very sorry for saying that to them.  They should not have been hollering, but I should have handled that much better. 

One girl said, "That's okay, Mr. Stortz.  We'll do better tomorrow."  The other girl looked at me for a moment.  For the first time I noticed tears pooling near the bottom of her red-rimmed eyes.  Her eyes met mine.  She nodded and went back to her seat as she wiped her tears with the back of her hand.  I wanted to crawl into the bottom of my file cabinet and hide until lunch.  Then I wanted to crawl into my lunch bag and hide until tomorrow.  I’ve rarely felt worse in my years of teaching.

Well, I got what I wanted- silence during the announcements.  But at what price?  Their compliance was not worth the price of admission.  I took out a huge withdrawal from those girls today.  It's going to take a while to get us back to ground zero.  If I truly believe that great learning happens in the context of great relationships, then I've got some work to do on these relationships.  I'd better get started.

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue,
and those who love it will eat its fruits.”
-Proverbs 18:21

The Definition of Inauthentic


My school was fortunate to be selected by our state to field test their latest standardized weapon of mass instruction.  Fortunate.  You know, like when you step in gum, and you're fortunate that your errands are over and you're on the way home.  Fortunate.

We just had our state writing test a month ago, and have our state math and reading tests in a few weeks.  Now we get to field test next year's writing test.  More scantron bubbles; more prompts.  We're fortunate.  I'm not sure the kids thought so.

Groans and moans filled the room when I announced our good fortune.  Groans and moans about the test, and groans and moans about writing.  I understand the first, but the second broke my heart.

The Test

"The test is practice,” I told them.  “You're just test driving it to see what needs to be adjusted for next year.  We'll send them off and never see them again.”  “Don't stress," I said.  "It's not even graded."

Of course a kid asks, "Then do we even need to try?"  That's what happens when kids are graded.  They quickly figure out what really needs their attention.  A few other students echo the sentiment.

"What do you think?"  I threw it back on the student.  Another student chimed in and said, "We should always try our best on everything we do."

Then, silence.  I let those words settle to the ground like dirt kicked up on a playground soccer game.  I didn't know what to say.  It's kind of a cross roads question.  I feel like the field test is a waste of time, but I think each student needs to make up their own mind about it.

The Day Of

One girl is fed up.  She said she did not want to take the test.  I'm secretly proud of her, but I can't tell her that.  At least not now.  Kids should have some say in their education, right?  A short talk with the AP and she was off to work.  I wonder what that conversation was about.

One boy was excited about his written composition.  He liked his prompt, and he's writing something he cares about.  He asked, "Can I copy this on to notebook paper when I'm finished?  I want to keep my story."

His expectant eyes made my heart sink.  I knew the answer I had to tell him.  "I'm sorry, buddy.  I can't let you have any extra paper during the test."

He raised his hand thirty minutes later.  With confidence he said, "I'm finished with the test, but I'm going to sit with it for a while.  I want to memorize my story so I can write it again when I get home."  I just nodded my head.  The response I wanted to give was not on the approved phrases list that I carry around on my testing clipboard.


This is the definition of inauthentic writing.  The student doesn't own it- literally or figuratively.  Tests like this are why kids hate writing.  Writing like this is why I hate testing.

Stripped Learning

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Cue the Imperial Death March

Testing day.  It’s finally here.  For the last week, my class has been going through labor pains as we prepare for the inevitable day of our state writing test. 

We are in our room this morning, but it’s different.  The whiteboard is blank,  The SMART Board and computers are off.  Our learning artifacts on the walls have all been removed or covered by dull butcher paper.  The fluorescent lights are fully on.  The desks are all in rows facing the front.  It’s still our classroom, but it’s different.  It’s been stripped.  Not only physically stripped, but stripped of its dignity.

Why the formality?  Why the radical transformation?  This environment is not how I teach the students, so why must it be how I assess them?

I caught myself a few times lately saying things like, “When this is over, we can get back to real writing.”  The state test is, unfortunately, real.  It’s just not authentic.  It’s easy to forget the difference.

*     *     *

I paced the room, both anxious and confident, as I actively monitored the students.  I knew many of them were fighting the feeling of being trapped and constrained, just like I was.  Some students sped through, and others took their time.  But, in the end, I’m not completely sure it mattered. The hour hand took six trips around the clock, and it was all over.  The fear, anxiety, and tears came to a close.

Each of my students will now get a number- one number assigned to their learning.  This number is assigned from one day out of their lives.  It reduces their learning down to a quantifiable digit.  This number strips their learning.  It strips it of context and authenticity.  Their learning is stripped of its significance.  There’s a word- significance.  Where does that fit into bubble sheets and scripted prompts?

In our race to the top, there’s pressure to quantify as much as possible, whether that number represents significance or not.  But, we must never forget that there is a face behind that number.  It’s a face of significance.