, Derry, New Hampshire


December 13, 2012


Teachers are shameless kleptomaniacs. We steal everything we can get our hands on.

I’ve taught long enough that I struggle to remember which of my most effective moves in the classroom are my own inventions or ones pilfered from a graduate class, a book, or a colleague down the hall. Still, a few instances of grand larceny stand out.

I launch my writing workshop classes the same way every year. Thanks to educator Nancie Atwell, my sixth-grade students learn on day one that writing topics are everywhere, if only they’d open their 11-year-old eyes to find them.

I share with them that I noticed this or that on the way to school that morning — a boy riding a bike, a girl waiting at a bus stop with her dad — and how these mundane occurrences spark my own memories and unearth an event worth writing about. It works every time.

But Atwell’s classroom management tips left me flummoxed. I couldn’t deal with multiple notebooks in which I was supposed to keep copious notes on each of my students.

Then, lo and behold, a workshop presenter, whose name I’ve long since forgotten, solved my problem.

I learned that I should cut out a portion of a cardboard box, cover it with contact paper and attach large, lined index cards to it. During a writing conference I simply had to flip to a student’s card, where I had plenty of room to jot down pertinent information. No muss, no fuss. It’s the beautiful organizational tool I’ve used for 20 years.

I’m amazed that so many of my colleagues remember so little about their own educations. It’s as if those 12 formative years were just a hazy dream. I remember almost everything — the good, the bad, and the ugly. I stole one of my most effective teaching practices from a high school English teacher who taught me 40 years ago.

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