Retakes as Mercy

The other evening I went to a housewarming party where there were a large number of current and graduated ACE teachers (I don’t say “former” ACE teachers, because once an ACE teacher, always an ACE teacher).

The topic of conversation inevitably turned to teaching, no matter how many times we scolded ourselves and reminded ourselves that we were supposed to be having “fun.” (Secretly, of course, I was thinking how talking about teaching is fun.) And someone brought up the whole assessments-only model that I have written about here a few times, and someone else brought up the usual objections to the model, and then someone else brought up retakes.

I have written before about why allowing retakes on tests, quizzes and essays is a good thing for students. Most teachers at my school don’t agree with me, and I understand that because this time last year I would have disagreed too. We grew up thinking of school a certain way and it’s hard to see why the traditional model should change. If you don’t prepare for a quiz and you flunk it, you flunk it. Better luck next time.

But apart from the fact that allowing retakes give students who otherwise would never learn the objective another chance to learn what they were supposed to learn in the first place, I’d like to talk about another dimension of the retake policy that just occurred to me:


Maybe it’s Pope Francis’ influence, but I really think Catholic school teachers should model their classroom policies on the Gospel as much as possible. That might be a small step towards solving “The Problem with Catholic Schools.”

So often the objection teachers and others make to retakes is “Well, the real world isn’t like that!” and “If you don’t come prepared to a job interview and you flunk the interview, you’re not getting the job.”

Apart from being a rather poor analogy based on a ill-conceived premise (we should make our policies in school reflect the “real world” as much as possible), such objections are also not very realistic.

Most people have gone to job interviews without enough preparation, or without the right type of preparation. And most of us have also experienced bad interviews. But most of us, after a bad interview, learned from it and tried again, at another interview. And eventually we got a job.

Similarly, if a student fails an assessment the first time, the only reason not to allow him to come see you, learn from his mistakes, and try again on a different but similar assessment is the idea that the student should be punished for his lack of preparation (or, in many cases, his lack of understanding).

But of course that is not a good reason at all, unless you think grades should be used as a form of punishment.

My retake policy requires students to come in during lunch or after school for extra help to discuss the first assessment and their mistakes, to develop a study plan, and the meet again to write a metacognitive letter explain how the student is planning to improve and make better academic choices. Then the student does a “retake”–a different assessment that covers the same objective as the first one.

I would say that the best consequence for not doing something right the first time is to do it right the next time.

“But he can do it right the next time,” you say. “On the next quiz!”

But then the student will never learn what he should have learned on the first quiz. And if your class, like most classes do, builds upon each concept as you go along, the student is now already primed to fail the next quiz because he failed the first one.

Perhaps most importantly, such an approach is not very merciful. The way the “real world” works is the way God works. And ultimately His world, the world of mercy, is the “real world.”

Second chances, as trite and as silly as they may sound, are actually the hallmark of the Gospels. Are such chances undeserved? Of course. But that’s what mercy is. It’s completely undeserved. The “good” thief on the cross, or Saint Matthew leaving his corrupt tax-collecting career behind, or Peter denying Jesus three times and still being made the leader of the Apostles– all of them got second chances, and third chances, and on and on.

God’s mercy is so lavish that we often resist it. But we are called to try to offer that same mercy to one another.

And because I teach in a Catholic school, I can mix theology and education as much as I please.



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Thoughts at a Funeral

Today our school community went to the funeral of a student’s father who passed away last week. It was a very beautiful Mass. But the most beautiful part was seeing so many of my current and former students supporting their friend. We had a half day of school and they did not have to come to the funeral, but they did.

My great aunt’s funeral was last week and I thought a lot about her during the Mass. I wasn’t able to attend her funeral. I thought about the prayer blanket she knitted for me a couple of years ago; it is folded on my bed and contains a lot of Hail Marys. My great aunt had a great devotion to Our Lady, and lately I’ve been realizing that God is probably asking me to increase my own devotion.

I also found out the other day that my eighth grade teacher died suddenly this past week. She was entering her fortieth year of teaching.

All of these deaths were very much on my mind during the funeral Mass today. But I kept coming back to my former teacher. And I feel like my memories of her are the ones I can write about here.

My earliest memory of Ms. A was when I was in kindergarten. That was before the yearly Christmas recital was held in the town hall–it was probably the last year it was held in the main church. I remember standing in front of the altar with my other classmates, a big paper bell taped to my dress. I was very nervous. I glanced to the side and caught the eye of a very tall, thin lady who was minding a group of enormous-looking eighth graders. She saw me and gave me a big smile. Then she winked at me, nodded approvingly, and gave me a thumbs-up.

I felt immensely better.

And I never forgot that moment. I think that for the rest of my parochial school days I looked forward to being in the eighth grade when I would have that kind lady with the encouraging smile.

When I was in the second grade, my middle school “buddy” was an eighth grader. It was around Christmastime again and we were doing some sort of art project with our buddies. They were talking about The Hobbit, since evidently Ms. A was reading that with them.

I was overjoyed. I began babbling about Frodo and Sam and the other hobbits, since at the time my Dad was reading The Lord of the Rings to my sister and me. I think my buddy was a little confused since I was jumping ahead in the series, but she was pretty impressed nonetheless and squealed, “Ms. A! Ms. A! My buddy is reading Tolkien!”

I don’t remember Ms. A’s reaction but I do remember hoping that she remembered that I was that girl in the Christmas recital and that in just a few years I would be her student.

Just a few years went by and I was her student. In the sixth grade she taught us math. In the seventh grade I had her for literature only. Finally, in the eighth grade, she was my teacher for most of the day.

She was far stricter at first than my kindergarten memory of her had suggested, but her strictness was really quite wonderful. All the boys that made seventh grade rather miserable had to shape up for Ms. A. She had very high expectations of us, and she helped us achieve them. I think I earned the lowest grade of my life in her class on a Math quiz because I didn’t follow the directions. I was very upset, but I remember how kind she was when I met with her. She explained to me my mistakes and showed me how to fix them.

She didn’t change my grade. And I’m grateful.

I remember that she had all of us keep writing journals, which we wrote in almost every day about the books we were reading or about current events. And she would read them and respond to us in elegant cursive. There were twenty-six of us, and as a teacher myself I suddenly realize how much time and effort those responses took, and how painfully awkward a lot of our journal entires must have been.

9/11 had already happened by then and George Bush was taking America to war in Iraq. I remember writing a lot of journal entries about that and yet disagreeing with Ms. A’s purely pacifist position. But she was very kind and very patient with me. I was probably a know-it-all. We even put up  a sign on our eighth grade class window: “If you want peace, work for justice – Pope Paul VI.” I think originally we were going to say something very anti-war but we settled on this quote.  I was gratified.

She loved Edgar Allan Poe and read to us the entirety of “The Raven” with gusto. Her passion for literature was very compelling and inspired me more than I realized at the time.

She was very mischievous and had a wonderful delight about her. It was clear to me how much she loved teaching and how happy she was to be there for all of us, especially at the end of our illustrious parochial school careers. She provided sound guidance and kind recommendations as we considered different high schools. She was definitely someone who had discovered her vocation and lived it every day.

I do not think life was easy for Ms. A. Perhaps it was her deep admiration and sympathy for Edgar Allan Poe that suggested to me most that she must know a lot about suffering. Yet, as long as I knew her, she bore all suffering — and teaching eighth graders must have involved a lot of it — with grace and love.

I’m writing this in gratitude to Ms. A for all that she taught me and the many students she had over the years. I am sure my own teaching has been influenced by her example.

And I think it’s really beautiful to remember how young children really do remember the little gestures, and what a difference they can make.

Tomorrow, I will stand in front of my own students. Sometimes I still feel like that little kindergartener with the paper bell, getting ready to sing and feeling very unsure of herself. But I will remember Ms. A’s encouraging smile and her characteristic nod, and I will do my best.


Filed under Catholicism, Christ, Teaching

New Teacher Temptation #3

new teacher


It’s so easy to get overwhelmed as a new teacher.

And it’s so easy to think you have to get everything right your first couple of weeks. Great teaching books like Harry Wong’s The First Days of School emphasize how important a strong start to the year can be. My favorite Teach Like a Champion has 49 techniques that put students on the path to college. Version 2.0 has 62.


So new teachers are often tempted to think they have to get everything right at the beginning of the year – or at least implement an overwhelming number of teaching techniques.

But I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to get everything right. You don’t have to start off with 62 techniques. You don’t even have to start off with half of that.

You can start with 2.

I wish someone had told me, when I was a first year teacher, the 2 most essential things I needed to be able to teach my kids so I could focus on those things instead of obsessing over the overload of advice I felt like I was getting. I mean, I had been educated at Notre Dame’s ACE program…


Apart from the most important thing – which is to love your kids – there are only two things you really need to start teaching. Obviously other things will help you. But you can start with these two and start becoming an effective teacher right away:

1) Create an Entrance Routine

2) Create An Attention Procedure

If you can teach your kids how to walk in your classroom every day so that you have their attention from the get-go, and if you can teach your kids how to give you back their attention every time you ask for it, you can teach.

The best part is, if you mess up your first couple of weeks of school, you can always reteach those two things and practice them with your kids until they get it right.

What is an entrance routine? It’s the specific way your kids start class every single day. Whether you have your own classroom or you are a “floater” and borrow other classrooms, you can have an entrance routine. The idea is that you want to START class with the kids’ attention, not try to get it after class has begun. If you start with the kids’ attention every day, you’re already a long way towards being an effective teacher.

1) Here’s how I teach an entrance routine at the beginning of the year.

I don’t allow kids into my room. I have them line up outside my door. After the bell rings and other kids leave the hallways, I say, “Period 2, welcome! As you come in, I will give you your seating chart and your Do Now. Find your seat silently and start your Do Now without talking.”

And I shake the first kid’s hand. I give him his seating chart and point him towards his desk. I remind him of the directions.

I make the kid behind him wait until that first kid has begun working.

I repeat the process. It doesn’t matter that it takes a longer time – this is an investment of time that will pay off later.

I pause kids at the door. I make sure I can check the room. I narrate positive behavior to make sure my expectations are clear: “Period 2, I see everybody working on the Do Now silently and without talking. That is the expectation.”

Inevitably, someone will want to say hi to a friend or will have trouble finding her seat. I immediately call the student back and whisper, “Hey, I know you were just [insert innocent violation of expectation here]. But you can’t talk during the Do Now. Go back and try it again.”

Do this every day for the first week of school. Do it longer, if you need to. I’m still doing it with my high school kids and we just finished the second week.

2) Here’s how I teach my attention procedure:

“Ladies and gentlemen, there will be times in class when you will be talking a lot and that is a good thing. However, when I need your attention, I will always ask for it the same way. I will stand here [indicate the spot in the room you will always use] and I will say, ‘Back to me, please.’ That means you need to stop talking, turn and face me with your hands free, and listen silently.”

I make sure my voice is very calm but very firm when I say this.

“Alright, let’s try it. When I say ‘go’ – but wait until I say ‘go’ – you will turn to your partner and talk about [insert Do Now topic or whatever you like]. I will call you back to attention. Okay – go!”

I walk around and listen as they talk. Slowly I go back to the front of the room. Some kids might pause in their talking as they see me do this and that is okay.

With a firm but calm voice I say, “Back to me, please.”

Usually the first time goes well, but to enforce high expectations I always say, “Pretty good. But I think we can do better. Let’s practice again. This time, when I say ‘go’, talk to your partner about ______. Ready – go!”

And we practice again.

I make sure to practice this at LEAST two times every class period for the first week of school.

Your Entrance Routine and your Attention Procedure do not have to be the same as mine by any means. But you need to have them.

So, new teachers: don’t give in to the temptation of being overwhelmed by procedures. If you teach your kids an entrance routine and an attention procedure, you will have enough classroom management to get some real teaching done throughout the year.

All teachers: are there any other procedures you believe are essential?

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The First Day of School

It’s 8:01, and I am sitting in my classroom on the first day of school. My new students will enter my room in about forty-five minutes.


There are sticky notes with numbers on every desk. There are Do Nows with seating charts on the back. The Do Now is posted on the Smartboard. The objective is posted. The schedule is posted. The homework is posted. I’ve prayed for my students and for myself and for all teachers – especially ACE teachers on their very first day.

Everything is as ready as it will ever be.

But strangely, when I think about how I want my students to react to their first day of English class with me, and although I’m a little ashamed to admit it, all I can think of is Michael Scott:


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Reading to Learn and Learning to Read

There are lots of assumptions about high school students you have to get rid of when you become a teacher.

The first is that most high school students know how to read.

This group of kiddos, born around the year 2000 (!), grew up with internet, cellphones and an increasingly frantic cultural emphasis on the soundbite, the status update, and the hashtag. It’s sobering to realize that most of them do not remember dial-up.

Even when I was in elementary school, computer typing classes with boxy, green-screen machines were in vogue. Judging by the widespread pushes in education nowadays about iPads for every child, I can only imagine that for many of my kids technology already was a big part of their elementary school experience – Smartboards, Youtube videos, Powerpoints, even “educational” video games… again, useful vehicles for condensing information into small, digestible bites.

Baby food, but not meat and potatoes.

The point is that unless these high school students had parents who read to them every night, access to lots of books, encouragement from their families, and a special type of intellectual thirst that can’t be quenched by television or wikipedia, they inevitably suffer from an inability to read in order to learn. 

They are still too busy learning how to read for extended periods of time in the first place.

Unfortunately, in high school, most textbooks assume that you already know how to read. Most teachers do, too. For social studies you might be assigned a chapter about the origins of the American revolution and quizzed the next day, under the assumption that you learned something from reading it (or that you read the chapter tat all). Or in science you read a chapter about mitosis and meiosis and later you’re expected to explain the process yourself. Or even in math, the text gives you charts and graphs and directions – and sometimes even word problems – and you must have both sides of your brain working at once to tackle the problem.

But of course all that kind of reading requires a lot of patience, mental stamina and an awareness (learned in fairytales and other classic literature) that people often do not say what they mean, nor do they really mean what they say. But if you haven’t read about deceptive witches and foolish greedy children who eat Turkish delight, then you come into high school totally unprepared for the biases and hidden agendas sprinkled throughout most texts you encounter.

I find myself, when teaching, trying to find ways to make complex directions and concepts as short and simple as possible. I have even adopted catchy phrases to help my kids remember how to write thesis statements (“A is B because of 1, 2, 3!”) and explain quotes (“remember, quotes can’t speak for themselves!”) and even sit up straight (“SLANT!”). That is what the teacher books tell me to do.

I’m trying to meet my kids where they are, so that’s okay I guess. But sometimes with my own use of Youtube videos, graphic organizes, and gimmicks, I feel like I’m exacerbating the problem and catering to their infirmities rather than helping them learn how to really read.

I’m not saying that all my students suffer from this malady. I do have a few very strong readers – far better than I was at their age. But year after year, that number is growing smaller. And I am faced, as an English literature teacher, with introducing Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, Sophocles’ Antigone, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and Dante’s Inferno to a group of people who need to learn how to read before they can to read in order to understand.

High school teachers are not themselves prepared to teach reading. Our own certification is based largely on our content knowledge – not on our ability to impart basic skills. There are many times when I wish I had been in ACE’s middle school or even elementary English content class so that I would have a better grasp of how children learn how to read in the first place.

It’s very difficult to teach someone how to do something you don’t remember learning how to do yourself. This is true with teaching writing but even more true of teaching reading. All I can remember is being constantly read to and suddenly — seemingly out of nowhere — reading C. S. Lewis for myself. I doubt this was the actual course of events but that is the way I remember it. And I read Lewis in order to learn – because I was curious about miracles and the problem of pain and all the rest of it.

Unfortunately, many of my kids read in order to avoid bad grades. Or to get good ones. Or they simply don’t read.

Cris Tovani, a reading strategies specialist, has been a huge help to me in the last few years in breaking down the complexities of the reading process. If you are at a high school teacher like me, often at a loss as to how to bridge the gap of years of little reading in your kids, check out her books.

You’d be reading to learn yourself – but perhaps eventually you’ll be able to pass that invaluable skill on to your students.



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How I Start the School Year


For the last 2 years in a row, I have begun my school year teaching “Growth Mindset” as an integral part of my introductory writing unit. It was a good way to go since usually the summer reading essays are pretty bad (no matter what they learned freshmen year) and many students tend to feel discouraged when they first get those papers back, covered in red pen.

This year, I’m actually going to just devote my first two weeks to 1) classroom culture and procedures and 2) growth mindset.

We’ll tackle essay writing in Unit 2.

One thing I’m really excited about is the Retake Policy I and another former ACE teacher at my school introduced last year.

I feel like my grading policies now really do reflect what I “preach” about growth mindset.

Basic grading policy:

  1. ONLY assessments are included in the gradebook. That means no homework or completion or “participation” grades. Only quizzes, tests, essays, presentations. In other words, their grades now reflect only standards-aligned learning objectives – what they actually mastered.
  2. Students may choose to retake an assessment (within a given timeframe) to show stronger mastery of the learning objective. The highest grade (almost always the second one) will go into the gradebook.  *I’m still deciding whether or not to provide that opportunity only if they did not show basic proficiency the first time – i.e. earn a 75% or lower.
  3. Students must meet with me twice to discuss the mistakes on the first assessment, learn how they can improve, and create a study plan.
  4. Before they actually retake the assessment, they must submit a typed letter that shows their reflection on their mistakes, goals for improvement, and learning process.

I can’t even begin to tell you how helpful this policy was to so many of my kids last year. Poor initial assessment grades, instead of a death sentence to their GPA, became opportunities for growth and deeper learning.

Of course, I cannot force them to engage in the retake process. They must make that choice for themselves. But the ones who did experienced a wonderful transformation in their approach towards school and their own abilities.

Carol Dweck on mindset:

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Everything That Rises

Summer is a good time to be reading Flannery O’Connor again.

On a flight to Boston a few weeks ago I read one of her more disturbing and controversial stories, “Everything That Rises Must Converge.”

You can read the full story online here.

The title comes from the philosophical work of a French Jesuit, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and like all of O’Connor’s titles ought to be closely attended to while reading. You can look up excerpts from Chardin’s “The New Spirit” here and try to decipher his complex mystical theology, but just considering O’Connor’s title “innocently,” with the plot of the story in mind, I would guess it could mean that as things “rise” closer to the truth, they also come closer to — that is, “converge” upon — one another.

There are also several instances of “convergence” in the story itself.

Brief summary: the plot centers around a young man (whom Flannery herself would probably call a “big intellectual”) who is bringing his mother to her exercise classes at the local YMCA. He is embarrassed by her racism and narrowness, and she is proud of his college education.

Some instances of convergence that I noticed: The mother’s ugly purple hat, described in detail at the very beginning of the story and a frequent topic of conversation, is echoed by the narrator’s description of the sky: “The sky was a dying violet and the houses stood out darkly against it, bulbous liver-colored monstrosities of a uniform ugliness though no two were alike.”

So – the hat and the sky converge? I say that with a complete lack of authority.

Later, the hat comes up again while they ride the bus. A black woman who sits down across from them is wearing the exact same hat as the mother. Despite racial and societal divide between them, they match. (The son is delighted by the irony of this convergence).

The black woman also has her own son. The mother plays with the little boy and condescendingly offers him a penny — which the black woman angrily rejects.

The mother’s intellectual ignorance is matched by her son’s emotional ignorance.

And the son’s persistent judgment and disgust throughout the story is completely reversed at the end to… well, I won’t spoil the ending. If you’ve ever read O’Connor, you know it will be interesting.

But it’s the title itself that continually arrests me – everything that rises must converge – and the following story acts like a lyric poem – responding to the entitle, enfleshing the title, challenging the title – but never really explaining the title. I don’t pretend to understand it.

Still, this short story gives me hope that no matter how twisted and damaged our attempts at truth are, they nevertheless eventually converge into the truth of God, rising little by little until they finally reach His peace.





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