A Success Story


A good process produces good results. ~ Nick Saban

Today I gave back my 7th graders’ research projects, so they could share them with the class.  They only got the project back, not the grades. The students worked on them in class for a few weeks beginning with brainstorming topics and narrowing their research questions. Then they started gathering information, learning how to take notes without committing plagiarism, and citing sources. Then writing commenced.

The finished product could take a variety of forms as long as it had the required number of pages of research/writing.  There were brochures, books, posters, and a scuba diving video with voiceover. We all learned a great deal of information on topics such as surfing waves, Ancient Egyptian makeup, bananas, and Presidential perks.

I heard the kids commenting during the week, but I finally asked them today, “What was the best part of this project?”  Here were some of their responses:

“that we go to learn a lot of new stuff.”

“that we could pick our own topics.”

“that we got to work on it in class.”

“that I finished!”

The kids were all very proud of their work, and most of them did well.  It strengthens the argument for giving students more choice of what to write and more time to live like writers. This plan is a keeper.



Won’t You Be My Neighbor?


Spontaneity, the hallmark of childhood, is well worth cultivating to counteract the rigidity that may otherwise set in as we grow older. ~Gail Sheehy

A couple of weeks ago, I was having breakfast with my dear friend, Diane.  Diane comes to my classroom once a week during the school year from her “real job” at Penn Mutual Insurance to “tutor” my ELA students.  She has done a variety of things over the years – revising, editing, helping with oral presentations and such, but the most important thing she does for/with my students is to listen to them.  The few minutes they get to spend with her are a treasured time. The kids always ask me, “Is Mrs. Check coming this week?” It is definitely the highlight of their week.

As we chatted over our breakfast skillets, Diane told me she was planning to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the Mr. Rogers documentary, with her sister at 1:30.  I was so bummed. I had been wanting to see the documentary for a while, but didn’t know who would be a good person to ask to go with me.  Unfortunately, I had an appointment to get my haircut at 2:00.

Long story short, after a few texts to her sister, Diane had rearranged her day so that she could go to the 11:15 show with me instead.  I felt a little guilty that she ditched her sister, but I was so happy to going to the movie! Diane, thank you for your spontaneity!

As we got ourselves settled in our seats, I noticed that there were about eight other people in the theater – not bad for a morning show.  Being the nerd that I am, I promptly got out my little notebook that is always in my purse and patiently waited for the previews to be over.  For the next 90 minutes, I was in childlike wonder of this awesome man of faith and love. I tried to write down as many bits of wisdom as I could. Every once in awhile, Diane would hit my arm and say, “Write this down!”  It isn’t easy in a darkened room to figure out exactly where I was writing, but I did OK. I only wrote over something once.

What follows are my favorites of the notes I took that morning.  I would love to see it again to catch all the things I missed.

  • Love or the lack of it is at the root of everything.
  • There was a lot of slow space in his show but no wasted space.  Silence is one of the greatest gifts we have.
  • The outside world of children’s lives have changed, but their insides haven’t changed.
  • Love is what keeps us together and afloat.
  • Those who try to make you feel less than you are are the greatest evil.
  • Best learning – accept and expect mistakes and deal with them.
  • It’s not so easy to quiet a doubt.
  • You don’t have to special or sensational things to have people love you.
  • No matter our job – we are all called to be repairers of creation
  • Be true to the best you within.
  • Let’s make goodness attractive

Fred Rogers was a man who always saw the best in people.  He was making social statements without hitting people over the head with them.  He loved children, and they loved him back.

I highly recommend that anyone who has children, teaches children, or loves children see this documentary for yourself.  It has made me think about how I want to be when I go back to school. Not only do I want to teach my students, but I want to see the world through their eyes and remember that all that any of us want is to love and be loved in return.

Feeling Inspired

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We all need someone who inspires us to do better than we know how. ~ Anonymous

Last week I had the immense pleasure of co-facilitating a graduate class at West Chester University entitled “Strategies for Teaching Writing.” It never ceases to amaze me the quality of discussion, and writing that pours forth from this class each year. I left on Friday afternoon feeling quite inspired!

My first inspiration was my fabulous co-facilitator and partner in crime, Gregory Maigur. Greg is a Social Studies teacher and storyteller extraordinaire. The way he brought history to life made me want to go back to Middle School (a fate worse than death) to experience American History through his eyes. I learned a great deal from him, and he gave me a lot of food for thought. I hope we get the opportunity to teach together again.

Next were the sixteen dedicated participants (mostly, but not all, teachers) who spent the week working alone and together creating a personal or fictional narrative, meeting in response groups, taking part in writing strategies, thinking about how they could use each strategy in their particular situation, and designing an implementation plan for use in September. The quality of their ideas and the enthusiasm with which they presented them made me want to up my game for September as well.

Inspiration also came in the form of two wonderful presenters. Jolene Borgese helped us navigate the world of revision, and Brian Kelley challenged us to a new way of thinking when it comes to responding to student writing. My notebook is filled with priceless gems that I will be doing my best to implement in the fall.

On our last day together, we shared our narratives. There were tears and laughter, admiration and pride. Again, I was blown away by the depth of the writing and the willingness to be vulnerable exhibited by the class. Some of them have been writers all along. Some of them did not consider themselves writers when they walked in on Monday morning. All I can say is each of them were inspired by their response groups to do better than they thought they possibly could and the results were breathtaking.

I am inspired to spend the rest of the summer learning and growing, planning and revising and coming up with the best plans/activities possible to inspire my students in September.

Thank you teachers for a terrific week!



Do You See What I See?

Image result for quotes people who believe in you'       Image result for philadelphia eagles    Image result for quotes about the importance of your words

Today I am tired, but it is a good tired.  It is a tired that comes from staying up late to celebrate the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl win. It really was a magical season with a fairy tale ending.  There are many parts of the game I could talk about that were noteworthy, but it was an interview I watched during the pre-game festivities that stays with me.

NBC10 sports reporter, John Clark interviewed Brian Dawkins (Eagle’s free safety for 13 years) about being named to the Football Hall of Fame. John asked Brian if he ever thought he would be this great. In his usual humble way B. Dawkins responded.  I paraphrase below.

‘I was blessed to have individuals along the way who have seen small things in me – more in me than I thought of myself. My coach, Emmitt Thomas, would not let me settle.  He kept telling me – you could be this great.  If he were the type of coach who got angry with my mistakes and yelled, I probably wouldn’t be here now. He and others along the way kept telling me what I could do.  I started to hear those words and believe them. That is something we are missing today.  Words are so powerful, and we should be paying more attention to the words we use with our young impressionable people.’

WOW!  How powerful were his words!.  They got me thinking about myself as a teacher and the young impressionable minds entrusted to my care.  I am pretty positive and very rarely get upset with my students.  When I do, I do my best to put a positive spin on my words to make each situation a learning experience rather than a punitive one.  But do I tell them enough how great they are?  Do I help them see in themselves that little something that I see in them?  

I keep telling them that if we want this world to be different it has to start with them.  They are the voice of our future, but am I helping them find that voice?  Am I helping them “not settle” for less than their best?  I hope so, but just in case I will carry the words of Brian Dawkins with me each day and make sure that I keep telling them just how great they can be!



A New School Year

Great teachers empathize with children, respect them, and believes that each one has something special that can be built upon. ~ Ann Lieberman

Tomorrow I begin another school year.  It never ceases to amaze me how much I love meeting my new students.  No matter who sits in front of me, I enjoy getting to know them.  When I tell people that I teach 7th grade English, they often make anguished faces or ominous sounds.  They think that middle school kids are like some unfamiliar beasts or space aliens.  What do they know?

Middle school kids are just like little kids only in bigger bodies.  They want to be loved and accepted.  They want to please and be successful.  They just have a couple of obstacles in the way – hormones and peer pressure.

I didn’t really enjoy grades 6-7-8.  Believe it or not – I was a NERD!  I spent most of my time reading Nancy Drew mysteries.  My parents were pretty strict, so I wasn’t allowed to do some of the things the other girls were doing.  I played intramural basketball, but I am not athlete.  I wore glasses sans makeup so my eyes looked kind of beady, and the long straight hair of the 70’s did nothing for my then long slender face.  I was never one of the “cool kids” or one of the students that teachers paid any extra attention.  I was a goody-goody and hardly ever got into any trouble which made me almost invisible in class.  I was smart and got good grades, but that wasn’t something you talked about with other kids.  In 7th and 8th grade I had to go to speech class (very new at that time) to correct a lisp.  I hated going out to speech – well until 8th grade when the captain of the basketball team had to go too.  I had a terrible crush on him!

When my students come through the door tomorrow and every day this year, I want them to know that I care about who they are not just what grades they earn.  I don’t want them to feel the way I did in middle school.  I survived, but thriving, not surviving should be the goal of education!

Haunted House Build – Take 2



Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much. ~ Helen Keller

The haunted house build is complete, and it was a huge success!  The kids were engaged each day of the build without much redirection needed from me. (Well you always have a few!) The students presented their houses to the class yesterday and explained why they design certain features in their homes.  One house even had a witch who “flew” down from the roof on straws and landed seated in a chair.  So cool!

The kids are finishing up their personal reflections about the process and the product.  I can’t wait until Thursday to read them.  This makes me want to find a way to use Project Based Learning more often in my ELA classroom.  I am just not sure how or what to do next?  I will keep thinking though.

Please take a look at my iMovie documentation of the process.



Haunted Mansions


We just need to make that building come alive.  Together, we can figure this out. ~Sue Black

Today my ELA classes began a two-week adventure.  They started their Haunted Mansion STREAM build.  Each group of students received a Halloween Character and a box of various items.  They are working in teams to design and build a mansion by following the engineering process while documenting their process in writing.  

The room was buzzing with energy and ideas.  They perused my “shop” and looked at what they might “buy” with the Haunted House “cash” that they have earned over the past couple of weeks. Students will have another class period on Thursday to finalize their plans, then the actual build begins on Monday. What a joy it was to listen to the kids interact with each other. This is a lesson in creativity, cooperation, and collaboration. I will check in again next week and let you know how the process is going.  You can follow us on Twitter @RitaDiCarne.


Labor Day


“To find joy in work is to find the fountain of youth.” –Pearl S. Buck

Going back to school has always been exciting for me as a student and as a teacher.  I get to start over the way the rest of the world does on New Year’s Day.  I make resolutions and have new plans to complement my tried and true ones.  Each year I reflect on my past work, like on New Year’s Eve, and decide how I can be better than the year before.

Being a teacher is not easy.  It is a daunting task set before me each day of each school year.  I am charged with teaching students what they “need to know” while nurturing their sense of wonder. I want to encourage them to love learning while still having to “grade” their best efforts.

I want my students to rejoice in their successes and learn from their mistakes.  I want them to understand that perfection is a futile goal for it is in the mistakes where the learning takes place. Most of all I want each and every one of my students to know that they are not their test scores.  They are each unique with their own special voice and ideas that will make a mark on this world some day.