Choking Back Tears

By Tony Coppola

The day’s sun has gone down behind the mountains

A thunderous boom of compassion consumes my soul

Skies darken

Like fiery bolts of lightning, I see broken hearts flash before my eyes

The forgotten; the unseen; the abandoned

Like waves of mercy, my cries crash down in desperation

Choking back tears, I close my eyes and surrender to love filled whispers

Salty streams touch my lips

Stillness, silence, and fire

Darkness and waiting

And then a humble breath of hope enters like dawn’s breeze hovering over waters

A new day is coming

Undeserved grace shines its piercing rays of light onto my face

And by the smallest seeds of faith, mountains are moving

The taste of salt and choking back tears

360° of Love: Listening to the Whispers

I’ve done many things I’m not proud of. I’ve said things to people that I’m ashamed of. I’ve had thoughts where I should be convicted as a murderer.

What about you? Can you relate to that at all? If so, how does it feel?

For most of my life I’ve been self consumed. I’ve put myself first. Knowingly or not, I’ve worn blinders to keep my focus on the path before me. Like you, I’ve wanted the best for myself and for my family, and so I’ve dedicated myself to work towards those means.

When I think about the work I’ve done to get where I am today I have very few regrets. In fact, I’m pretty proud of the work I’ve done to get to where I am.

But when I stop for a moment, sit in silence, and meditate on what’s most important in life … all that somehow becomes almost meaningless. The heart of life in those moments has nothing to do with me. My success is nothing. Who I am doesn’t matter so much.

In those moments, Love is all that matters. Loving the one who first loved me and loving people is all that truly matters.

In those moments, it’s crystal clear that loving people is all that truly matters.

Also in those moments, I often ask, “Who am I to love others?” Seriously though, what difference can it make if I love other people? I know who I am. I know what I’ve done. I know the hurtful things I’ve said to people. I know the awful thoughts I have at times. Who am I?

I close my eyes and breathe. “Love other people” is the answer. Love people.

The more I meditate on this, the more I hear that message throughout my days. I see someone looking upset or worried and I hear, “Love people.” I see someone by themselves, or just plain unnoticed by others, and I hear, “Love people.”

It’s a constant whisper in my ear, “Love people.”

I’ve recently started sharing an idea I call 360° of Love, with a hashtag #Love360 to follow. It’s an idea based on the message I hear in those moments of silence, and now throughout my days. It’s a whisper in my ear: Love people.

If you’re here, reading this blog, I’d love to know your thoughts. I’d love to know if this resonates with you. I’d love to know if you hear these same kinds of whispers.

I hope so.

And to be clear, this isn’t about a movement or starting up a “brand” to get noticed. It’s about sharing a message that’s been speaking to me, and then asking if it’s speaking to you too.

I hope it’s speaking to you somehow. I hope it encourages you to take those moments each day to stop and close your eyes, breathe, and listen. I hope it encourages you to see if you also can hear the whispers of love … and also believe.

360° of Love: Listening the Whispers

#Love360

What “Education Never Dies” Means to Me

By Tony Coppola

It is a privilege and an honor to be considered a member of the Education Never Dies crew. I am humbled to be thought of as a leader by my peers as I merely set out on this social media journey to learn from and develop relationships with like-minded educators. While I’m confident in my abilities as a classroom teacher, I know I could be so much better. I now realize this is an overwhelmingly common mindset among educators in the Twittersphere. We want to be even better tomorrow than we are today!

When I think about the ideas behind Education Never Dies I’m comforted to know we are not afraid of making mistakes or failing. We often talk about how we fail in some way along this journey. We stumble, and we fall. We skin our knees and bruise our elbows. We even bloody our lip some days. But we get back up every time and keep moving forward no matter what. We hope it is the same way for you too!

It could be that you’re not quite there yet, but you want to be. Maybe you just need a little nudge from a group of people who believe in you. I’m here to tell you we believe in you and we are here to walk along side you on this journey. Moreover, we want you to walk along side us, believe in us, and help make us better just the same!

It’s important to me as we move forward that I share the impact the Education Never Dies team has already had on me. First and foremost, I’ve learned our hope is that we all help each other grow as educators. We want to put our all into each other and our students, and move education beyond the confines of program and testing. Each member of this group brings a unique perspective to working towards our mission, with a “doing it my own way” attitude, as well!

I’m getting to know Christine and I already think she’s AMAZING! I think about her determined nature and how honest she is, and then I realize all she overcomes to be that way. She makes me want to be determined and honest too. The possibilities are endless … as long as you step out and give it a shot!

I’m getting to know a crazy punk rock skateboarding principal named Mike. He happens to inspire a whole school while riding his skateboard to slow things down. I wish I could be more like Mike. He does it right by putting relationships first. Period. The stronger our relationships, the more we can accomplish!

I’m getting to know a spectacular human you probably know as Pav. I think of her by her real name; such a beautiful name. I know there’s an important story behind who she is. She has a heart so, so deeply filled with calming love. She is an overcomer! I’d definitely get to know her if I were you.

Chey has more energy and passion in his little pinkie finger than I do any day of the week. He is an open-minded, infectious energizer fighting the good fight. Chey shows me how to be confident in my abilities. I’m sticking close to Chey!

I’m getting to know another punk rocker named Joshua. Joshua is a gnarly dude. He’ll punk rock you out with his guitar in hand sometimes. He’ll also fight for you whether you know it or not. Josh has your back!

I’m getting to know a humble, yet passionate man named Michael Murphy. I wish I were as kind as Michael Murphy. He reminds me about the importance of peace. He makes me feel safe and free. He whispers nuggets of wisdom if you’re listening!

Y’all know Taylor! We’re finding north together; his idea. My gut tells me there’s so much more to know about Taylor. He’s so humble I’ll bet he’s laying up a palace full of treasures in heaven, about which, rightfully, we know nothing. I think I’ll keep heading north with my brother, Taylor!

I’m getting to know a soulful spirit who the gang calls Meza. I say soulful because of his brotherly loyalty. I’ve got best friends who are just like Meza. We come from different cultures, but that doesn’t matter. With Meza, iron sharpens iron so get ready!

I don’t know about you, but I OFTEN think about the last days of my life. I think about visualizing the story of my life and hoping, longingly hoping it was worth it. I want to know that in some way I did something that made a difference. I think about that almost daily at times. And while my family and the legacy I want to leave with them is what drives this thinking, I know the work I do in education is a part of my story.

I see Education Never Dies as an open-door opportunity. Not just for this small group of people, but for anyone else wanting to impact the future for our students, our communities, and our families.

We hope you will join us as we begin this journey again today. The END is just the beginning!!

The Girl in the Blue Dress

I remember the red brick on the side of the building behind her because it was all I saw when she was gone.

Most likely I was wearing double-knee Toughskins at the time since, as my mom used to say all the time, I liked to walk on my knees. I wasn’t walking on my knees that day, nor in that moment.

In fact, it’s been almost 45 years since that day, but the memory is etched in my mind as if it happened just this morning.

My eyes turned towards the red brick wall when all of a sudden time slowed way down as I saw the blue dress. Her long black hair following.

I could tell she was running fast because of the way her hair and dress flowed behind her. And like I also had power to breath under water, my eyes captured the moment in still life slow motion.

I could see the curve of her chin. And the blue dress motioning. The black hair, so long. So pretty. I looked closer. I could stare forever it seemed. She was running. The blue dress and her hair dancing so perfectly.

Without warning. Red brick.

No matter where I looked, I knew I would never see the girl in the blue dress again. The perfect girl. My heart ached. I promised myself I wouldn’t let her out of my sight if I saw her again. She made time stand still. Just for me.

My family moved shortly after that. I was at a new school, with a new second grade teacher, and new friends. There were no red brick walls at my new school. I sometimes still looked, but the girl in the blue dress wasn’t there either.

Steam ahead through junior high and high school. Lots of pretty girls. None of them ever quite like the girl in the blue dress. That’s okay. Time doesn’t need to stand still. My powers to breath under water silenced.

I met my wife when we were in high school though. It wasn’t long before I fell in love with her. She was so pretty with her pixie cut. So loving too, the way she gave to others so effortlessly.

I’ll bet the blue dress girl was just a dream, I would think. It didn’t matter anymore. But I still remembered.

Then one day time slowed down for a moment as I noticed a picture on the wall at Debbie’s house. It was so cute. She and her brother must have taken a school picture together. It was obviously an old colorless picture, but still so lovely.

Wait. Debbie has long hair in this picture. And a dress. And as I looked closer, a familiar curve in her chin.

“Debbie?” I ask.

“Are you wearing a blue dress in this picture?” I ask.

Time stands still for me, and I swear I can breath under water.

Lifelong Readers make Lifelong Learners

I want to share a couple routines I’ve been developing in hopes of fostering a culture of readers in my classroom again this year. More than merely teaching standards, I believe every child can develop into a lifelong reader; a lifelong learner.

There’s an idea in one, well maybe most if not all, of Richard Allington’s articles about teaching reading to our most struggling readers. He talks about ensuring that ALL students independently read books they choose, understand, and enjoy. He repeatedly talks about the impact reading with almost 100% accuracy has on learning. Nothing less than 98% does the trick.

When I stop and think about that for a minute I also think about my most struggling readers and how accurately they typically read books from my classroom library, if they choose to read at all. Then I think about the task of matching those students to texts they both enjoy and can understand (read with at least 98% accuracy). How do I take them from pretending to read books their peers are reading to actually reading and understanding books they want to read?

This, for me, is one of the greatest challenges of teaching reading, especially to struggling or non-readers. The last option I should choose as a teacher, according to Allington, is to skip this critical piece of a balanced reading program. Without it, my whole group AND small group skills lessons are a waste of time. Thus, I must make it the foundation of my program. Let me repeat, given the time to only choose one reading activity, I will choose independent reading of self-selected books over every other reading activity EVERY time.

Besides that, I wouldn’t be opposed to fostering a program where students write all day long. Hmm, I’m going to have to think about that. Anyway …

Additionally, Allington repeats that even our most struggling readers make the greatest gains when they read books they choose, understand, and enjoy for at least 15 minutes (an hour would be ideal) EVERY DAY. Again I say, how am I to ensure ALL students in my class are choosing enough books they can read with 98% accuracy so they can read for 60 minutes each day at school? Oh, and they should also be reading at home every day for 60 minutes. Hmm.

For the sake of keeping this post at a manageable length, I’m going to dance around this issue by making an assumption. I’m going to assume that if my students are genuinely enjoying books they’ve chosen to read and can tell me about them with significant detail, making those metacognitive connections I listen for, that they are reading with high enough accuracy to make accelerated growth as a reader.

I say this because the routines I’m about to share do not include traditional fluency testing procedures where I calculate accuracy and rate. I sparingly use them any longer anyhow. But what the routines do, at least for the children in my class this year, is eventually get all students reading books they both enjoy and understand.

The first routine starts with a simple question, which very well could have been the first question I asked my students this year. Smiling and happy, it goes like this, “Raise your hand if you’ve read a good book lately.”

Raise your hand if you’ve read a good book lately.

The first couple of times I asked I needed to extend my normal wait time. It obviously was a question my students weren’t used to hearing, yet. I get many eager hands every time I ask these days. Honestly, I still extend my normal wait time; the more raised hands the better! I ask the whole class at least a couple times a week. I ask individual students about the books they are reading EVERY DAY.

The second step of this routine is just as simple. Call on a student to tell the class about the book. This includes details like 1) the title, 2) a little bit about the book, 3) maybe a favorite part of the book or a connection they’ve made with the book, and 4) how they ended up choosing the book. For example, did a friend recommend it, or is it a book from a series they’ve been reading, etc.? I like to choose a total of three students to share.

The third step is to tell the students they all now have a minute or two to talk to each other about the books they enjoy. Even if all students don’t raise their hand in the beginning, most if not all students will talk about books they enjoy. Notice I didn’t say “books you’ve read.” I am building a reading culture and want to include EVERYONE. I had to be patient. When the timing was right it changed to something like, “Tell each other about a book you’ve been reading lately.” Many of my students have two to seven books in their desks at all times these days. Hopefully that comes across as a small celebration rather than a brag?

That’s it. That’s the first routine. Talking about and sharing books is what we do. Many times while conferencing with students I find out a small group of them are reading a series together. Many tell me it was a friend who recommended the book they are currently reading. All this, and much more, from one simple question. No elaborate planning. Just talking about books because that is what readers do.

The second routine I’d like to share is called Sometimes Readers Read Out Loud. The purpose of this activity is to improve or build confidence with reading self-selected books out loud. The fancy name for the skill is Oral Reading Prosody. It’s the most simple way I know how to tell if a student has figured out how to self-select books they can read and understand. This, in conjunction with conferencing.

As you probably already know, prosody is the ability to smoothly read out loud with proper pace, inflection, phrasing, and volume. The reader should sound as if they were the author themselves, paying attention to conventions and the flow of the story.

Prior to introducing this routine we watched several YouTube videos of famous actors reading books on Storyline Online. Along the way we talked about the way they read the stories with so much expression and enthusiasm. I guided them through the elements of prosody so that they were able to start properly labeling what they noticed.

One day, when I felt the timing was right, I simply said, “Sometimes Readers Out loud.” followed by, “Let’s see if we can read our books out loud like the actors.” I told them to pull a book they were enjoying out of their desk and start reading out loud. I told them we would try for five minutes and see how it goes. While students read, I circulate and listen. Each student reads just a bit louder when I get to them. They did great!

The second step is Buddy Reading. Each student gets a chance to listen to their Study Buddy read out loud for two minutes (the time was arbitrarily chosen 🤷‍♂️). I circulate again.

The third step is nomination time. I ask, “Raise your hand if you’d like to nominate your buddy to read to the class for a minute.” So many hands! I make sure to ask the nominated student if they are willing to read to us. So far, all nominees have agreed.

Once the student finishes, we give a polite round of applause and talk about what we noticed. We talk about pace, smoothness, phrasing, expression and volume.

Readers don’t always read out loud, but sometimes they do.

Well, what do you think? Do you think these routines help foster lifelong readers? I feel like they’ve helped get us started on this journey. I also feel like I’ve gone long with this post. If you are still reading, you are a brave soul and deserve a prize of some sort!

One final thought. It’s important to give the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. I know, random.

Thank you for reading! Cheers! Leave a comment if you like.

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I Married My Hero

It’s true. I married my hero.

She wasn’t always my hero. She hasn’t always been my best friend either. But she’s my hero now. And my best friend too.

If you knew Debbie like I do, she’d probably be your hero. She’d probably be the best kind of friend you knew too.

What is it about her that makes her my hero? Many things. Her drive is amazing. Watching her work has helped me develop quite the work ethic too.

She routinely devours the meatiest of books and then proceeds to share the most detailed regurgitation of them, as if she was the author HERSELF. She is superhuman if you ask me! Watching her read has helped me become quite the reader too.

She’s been our daughters’ teacher at home since before they started kindergarten. Our girls are both in high school now and they are amazing people because of her. They aren’t perfect, that’s not the point. Neither is she.

The point is that despite all of these wonderful things she has shown me, the superhuman qualities she possesses that inspire me, there’s one trait that stands out and humbles me most.

As much as my work habits have improved over the years, I still am no match for her.

As much as I’ve increased my reading volume over the years, I still have a lot of catching up to do.

As much as I’ve honed my teaching craft over the years, I’m still nowhere near the master teacher she is (oh, I neglected to mention she’s also been a first grade teacher these last 20 years, as well). She’s marvelous in so many ways.

I still remember the day I fell in love with her. She had on a red shirt, gold earrings, and had the cutest of pixie cuts. Even more than her beauty, there was something else about her that drew me in. It’s the same thing about her that draws me in again today.

Now that I think about it, I’ll bet it’s what fuels her drive. Yes. It’s got to be it! It’s what makes her superhuman, I think.

Compassion for people.

My wife, Debbie, has compassion for people. It’s why she can’t sleep many nights. It disguises itself as worry, but it’s not. It sometimes looks like frustration and impatience, but I know the truth. It’s compassion for people. She goes through her days being led by her love for people.

This humbles me greatly and is the superhuman quality I long to have most.

It’s like I’m back in the moment over 30 years ago when I first realized this about her. I wish I had that same kind of compassion for people.

Don’t get me wrong, I try. I sometimes feel like I’m even getting pretty good at serving others, but it’s not the same.

For me, the greatest trait of any hero is the unending willingness to put others first. And I think this trait is instigated by having compassion for people. The kind of compassion that leads to action. The kind of compassion that leads to serving others.

My hope is that we all long to love others.

May we all be blessed with the desire, the compassion that leads to loving people.

Achieving More by Assigning Less Homework: the story continues

There can be a lot of pressure out there to maximize every minute of every day in the classroom. And rightly so. What does that mean, though? I ask because one of the best parts of my day is first thing in the morning when many students are vying for my attention.

Mornings in the classroom reminds me of coming home from work when my girls were young. They came running to me, with open arms and smiles, yelling “Daddy” as soon as I came in the front door. It was the best part of my day! I wonder if they felt the same way?

Some students can’t wait to tell me about a book they read at home. Some can’t wait to show me the picture they drew or story they wrote last night. Some are eager to trade one self-paced math packet for the next. And some just want to tell me about a part of their life they find exciting.

It’s a little loud. It’s a little hectic. It may even look as if we aren’t maximizing our time to unbelieving eyes. My guess, however, is it’s the best part of the day for many kids, especially the kids so excitedly waiting to talk to me. And I’m not their parent. I’m their teacher.

Back to homework. Back to my story.

What if more of my students were just as motivated to learn as the zealous mathematicians I told you about in my last post? What if, tragically, more of my students were as bored as they were, but never said anything? These questions lead me to wonder the following.

I wondered what would happen if I offered the same opportunity for acceleration to all of my students? What if I stopped directing the learning of my students when they go home, but instead encouraged them to follow their learning passions?

I also started to wonder, what if I was wrongly interpreting my disdain for homework this whole time? It’s not right to be lazy. I’d been told I was lazy most of my childhood. I was. Unless, of course, I was doing something I enjoyed. Something about which I had passion. Something I WANTED to learn. Hmm.

That day I stopped assigning homework. Instead, I started promoting opportunities. You would have thought math packets were free cheese pizzas the first day I told the kids they could go ahead of my lessons. I told them that if they finished one grade level I would let them go onto the next. I told them they could go as far as they wanted. So many cheers! They were so motivated!

The motivation quickly died for many. But not for my zealous mathematicians. Another third grader joined, as well as two second graders. Those five kids completed at least two years of math work that year. Many others surpassed what they would have normally done too. It was an amazing year in math for those five students, and many more.

I wonder what you think. Did I do the right thing letting those five kids freely do as much math as they wanted? Would it have been more ethical to keep them with the rest of the class, one lesson at a time?

As I look back on that year I realize the many mistakes I made. But more so, I think I made more progress than ever before in my 20 years of teaching. That year was a new beginning for me. I loved teaching again. And I loved students more than ever before too!

One final thought:

Assigning homework is boring. Collecting and grading homework is boring. Passing back homework is boring. But watching my students follow their passions isn’t boring. I’m NEVER bored when a student tells me about a book s/he is reading. I’m NEVER bored when a student enthusiastically reads her/his writing to me. And I’m NEVER bored when students are fired up to learn as much math as they can.

Are you bored? Are your students bored? It doesn’t have to be that way. If you haven’t yet tried assigning less homework … there’s a possibility just that one change could be the beginning of making the difference you’ve been longing to make!

Not Your Typical Blog on Homework: this is my story

Homework, homework give me a break.

Let me get to the punchline right away and tell you that I’ve noticed achievement rise in my classroom since I stopped assigning homework. Let me repeat, not only have I not seen a decline in learning since I quit assigning homework, I’ve seen learning accelerate in my classroom. The debate is over for me, and the evidence in front of me daily is clear. Not only is assigned homework not necessary for kids, it can hinder motivation. There’s much more to it than just that!

This is my story.

I’ve never been a fan of homework, but mostly for the wrong reasons related to being lazy. I never felt like prepping it, collecting it, grading it, or even passing it back. It always felt like that one chore I hated as a child, but my folks made me do anyways. So, begrudgingly, I did it. Besides, everyone else was doing it, right?

Has this ever happened to you? Every year, without fail, I would get at least one or two parent complaints about their child spending HOURS each night on homework. I swear, one year I had back to back conferences where one family complained about too much homework, and the next family complained I wasn’t sending home enough! Yes, those families are out there. Oh my goodness, talk about failing to make anyone happy. Needless to say, homework was a huge thorn in my side.

About ten years ago I actually went through a short season of not assigning homework. The season was short because, once again, it was for all the wrong reasons. As proof, when a colleague pulled me into her room and said, “You have to send home homework,” I had no reply. She certainly wasn’t going to be persuaded by my whiney, “But I just don’t feel like it” voice, regardless of how eloquent I could make it sound. So, off I went back to the copy machines with my reams of paper.

Skip ahead through a few years of unmotivated burnout, a three year BORING break from the classroom, and a new beginning at a new school. I reached my bottom and decided to change my mind about teaching. I was not going to be lazy about anything. Instead, I was going to pour all I had into teaching like my mentor had been modeling for me for years (That story is for another day. Here’s a hint though. I’m married to my mentor, who also happens to be my hero). Don’t get me wrong. I still had daily struggles and poor attitudes to overcome. But something was different this time. I said “NO” to my natural desires! One of the first things I noticed was I started to look at my students more. I started to see their eyes, their smiles, their differences. I started to see the children as people who deserve my best. I had a mission!

I know, I know, what does this have to do with homework? Well, part of my mission was to make homework meaningful for each individual student. Yep, you guessed it, I quickly got that burnout feeling again. I told myself it was for the kids and pushed through, but I knew in my gut this effort wasn’t sustainable. Moreover, I wasn’t seeing the happy, smarter kids I was expecting to see. I wasn’t getting notes from parents thanking me for all my efforts. In fact, I still heard from parents about too much or not enough homework. My heart was sinking again. Still, something told me not to give up, but to listen more closely to my students. And what I heard eventually changed everything.

It was nothing I did in the beginning other than listen. It started with two zealous learners in my first ever combo class. Two of my third graders were hungry to learn as much math as they could. My typical lesson a day program was so boring to them. They finally asked if they could take their math books home so they could go faster. My initial response was fear. What will I teach tomorrow if they already finished the lesson? What will I teach EVERY day from now on? But then I heard in their voices and saw in their eyes that I couldn’t say no. How could I hold these kids back just to make my job easier? So I said yes, and my job as a teacher changed that day.

As I thought about these two ferocious learners, I looked around the room and had an epiphany: each and every one of my students had a passion for learning. Not all of them were passionate about math. Some loved reading most. Others wanted to write instead of do anything else. Moreover, I simultaneously realized some of these kids couldn’t do anything else first thing in the morning until they showed me the book they were reading at home, or the story they wrote at home, or the picture they drew at home. Could the homework I assign be hindering their passion? If I stopped giving them extra class work to do at home would they read more? Questions like these swirled around my mind for days. But the loudest question was, “What if …?”

Stay tuned as my story continues on my next post …

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