On June 6th, it will be a year since my husband’s grandfather passed away. Sam Sarao was 92 and I have missed him and thought of him every day this year.

Sam Sarao became my grandfather in every way. He believed in me and asked me (every single time he saw me) how much longer I had to finish my doctorate. No matter how I responded he said, “Well, that’s not very long!” He asked me how work was, what I was doing, what my hours were, when I got vacation, what I was going to do next…it was a conversational cycle I could predict.

I remember when my husband and I told his grandparents I was pregnant. To truly appreciate Sam, you have to realize he’s the one driving the conversation and you’re just along for the ride. He was talking about how he ate some donut holes that morning, knowing we would all tell him he shouldn’t be eating those (as his eyes darted to his wife to see her exasperation and his lips twitched into a smile). My husband said, “You know, you’ve got to take care of yourself if you want to meet your great-grandson in 6 months.” Mawmaw exclaimed “Oh my goodness!” while Pawpaw continued his story about the donut shop. She interrupted him to ask if he heard that and only then did he catch on.

At the hospital, we put a 6-hour old Michael in his arms and told him to meet his great-grandson, Michael Sam Sarao. He continued with his story until someone interrupted and asked him if he heard the middle name. Once he realized it, his eyes flew to mine and I nodded and smiled.

The first time I truly was at a loss as a parent was explaining to my sons that Pawpaw had passed away. I had no idea how to do it and still don’t know if I did it right. Every so often one of them will blurt out “Pawpaw is in heaven with Jesus” or “I miss Pawpaw” and then my throat tightens and it’s hard to swallow.

Lately, my sons have become really interested in their names. They want to hear the story of their first name, middle name, and nicknames. It hurts to talk about Michael’s middle name, but the more time that passes, the more I realize that story, which leads to another and another and another, is how we honor and remember him. His name is how we remember.

The pain of losing him is still here and I suspect it always will be. I miss his stories, his laughter, his hugs, the way he loved his family. I miss the stories he told us over and over again. I miss the imperfect man who was the center of his family.


DuFour & Proficiency Scales

One anchor for planning  is framing PLCs around DuFour’s Four Guiding Questions:


These questions help instructors think about initial instruction, assessment, extension, and remediation.

Recently I was working on a presentation with a colleague that centers on the components of initial instruction. The text we used as our basis is from the October 2016 issue of ASCD’s Educational Leadership.

We have campuses at various stages of using proficiency scales and I wanted to create a visual that showed the alignment of proficiency scales and DuFour’s Guiding Questions. I wanted to validate their hard work.

Take a look at the proficiency scale below, which includes additional rows for Instructional Activities and Assessments (adapted from this book on page 73).


For example, you can see that at the “proficient” level there’s a learning goal/objective, instructional activities and assignments, and assessment tasks.

But how does this align with DuFour’s Guiding Questions? Take a look below:


Returning to the DuFour’s Guiding Questions, let’s see where those are on a proficiency scale that includes assessment tasks:

  • What do we expect students to learn? –> that’s the learning goal or objectives on the proficiency scale
  • How will we know they are learning? –> that’s the assessment
  • How will we respond when they don’t learn? –> We will scaffold instruction. Where to start? With the lower levels of the proficiency scale: “novice” and “emerging.”
  • How will we respond when they already know it? –> We will look to the “exemplary” section of the proficiency scale.

Proficiency scales help PLCs answer those questions. They provide a more concrete example of expectations that is focused on objectives. This creates an alignment that is really beautiful, and hopefully, clear expectations that are also shared with students and parents.



99 and Mason


I can’t be the only one who notices
the split second
when driving on the feeder between 99 and Mason-
the split second
where two billboards overlap-
the split second
where one billboard’s message begins and is finished by the message on another.

The billboard on the right is a permanent advertisement for a
“Delightfully tacky, yet unrefined” restaurant:
The two eyes peer out of the “O”s.

The other board-
the one on the left,
is ever-changing:
Advertisements come and go.

Yet there’s one split second where
Lost: Chick Fil A’s message to “Get Grilled _____.”
(the last half of the message becomes the restaurant’s name)
Lost: 93.1’s urge to “Listen to Latin _____.”
And my favorite:
Lost: A reminder that “God Loves _____.”

I can’t be the only one who notices.

I chuckle as I drive past,
hoping I’m not the only one.
I don’t want to be the only one.


Wide Open Spaces

We all have those songs that transport us to a different time in our lives. One of mine is the Dixie Chicks’ “Wide Open Spaces.” When I hear this song, I’m transported back to my 22 year-old self, driving in my red Oldsmobile Alero from Willoughby to Richmond.

You see, I never set out to live in Texas- it just kind of happened. During my senior year in college, I had the opportunity to complete my student teaching requirements in a couple of different places. I was an English Education and Spanish Education major, so I had to spend 6 weeks in an ELA classroom and 6 weeks in a Spanish classroom. Since I had recently come back from studying abroad in Alcalá de Henares, Spain, I knew that my college had opportunities for student teaching outside of Bowling Green, Ohio. My options were Montreal, Canada (too cold, too French), Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (too fun, too Portuguese) or Lamar ISD (which I had never heard of).

I packed my clothes in space-saver vacuumed bags and set out. As my mom and I drove me to my new place in the Pecan Grove Apartments in Richmond, I played the Dixie Chicks song that was telling my story:


This was exactly what I was doing- leaving home, finding a life of my own. I didn’t think about it at the time because it was beyond me- but now, as a mother, I wonder what that drive must have been like for my mom. She was traveling with her daughter to some unknown place 1200 miles away from the closest person. I’m thinking of all the conflicting feelings she must have had- loneliness at seeing her daughter leave, being nervous not knowing what’s in store, some sense of happiness in knowing she had raised a completely independent child ready to go out into the world.

When recently listening to the song, I thought back to how much my life has changed in a decade. I finished my student teaching in May, worked as a summer school teacher in Lamar ISD and was offered a job to teach English and Spanish in Katy ISD, a district I knew nothing about. In August, I started my first teaching job, in early October I bought a house entirely on my own and in late October I met a guy named James.

I go back to the refrain of the song:


I think of how the center of my world isn’t Willoughby, Ohio anymore. The center is Katy, Texas. I’ve had a lot of room to grow, make big mistakes, meet new people and form lifelong relationships. The only line I disagree with is “She knows the high stakes” because I didn’t. I was too young and naïve to think I wouldn’t succeed. I took a breath, stepped off the ledge and landed.


We’ve done a lot of work with Strengthsfinder in our district with the premise of “work from your strengths, not your deficiencies.” This makes a lot of sense as people (I) don’t generally like to keep working on things we’re (I’m) not good at. Once you take the assessment, you’ll be given a list of your top 5 strengths. Of the 34 possible strengths, there are 4 themes:


According to Gallup, it’s rare to find someone with strengths in all 4 categories. Normally, people’s strengths center in 2-3 categories. I fit this statistic: my strengths are all in the “Executing” and “Strategic Thinking” category.

Let me add this caveat now: Strengths are what come naturally to a person. It doesn’t mean that a person can’t do something else- it just means it’s not as natural as a strength. For example, just because I gravitate toward “Executing” and “Strategic Thinking” doesn’t mean I don’t build relationships or influence. It just means those aren’t as natural for me.

So, it’s helpful to know this about myself, but if my thinking ends there then I haven’t taken enough out of knowing strengths. I can say “Well, I don’t gravitate toward ‘relationship building’ or ‘influencing’, so when I work with people that have those categories I just can’t find common ground.” No! It means I have to be aware of this disparity and figure out how to maximize our differences.

I was recently talking to a colleague whose top three strengths are in the “Influencing” theme. She works with a group of 4. Out of the 20 strengths those 4 individuals have, 14 of their strengths are in the “Relationship Building” category- with one person having all 5 strengths in the ‘relationship building’ category. Wow!

My colleague could have easily said, “Yep. We definitely see the world differently” and moved on. But she realized that in order for them to truly complement each other as a team, they have to recognize and value their different views of the world.


If it doesn’t come naturally to her to work from the “Relationship Building” category, then she can prepare and remind herself how to use those strengths to maximize the team. Why? Because it is ultimately about the work of the team, not the individual.

Using the Strengthsfinder reference book, I skimmed through their strengths, jotting down notes. Each strength has a 1-3 page description, but the gold is in the last 2 paragraphs under the heading “Working with Other Who Have [Insert Strengths].” I made some notes, synthesized them, and created a visual:


How can she use this?

  • Bring the reference sheet to meetings
  • Before / after meetings, quickly skim the card as a refresher
  • Share her thinking with the group, making sure to state she wants the most powerful group ever!
  • Ask the group to look at it and add to it
  • Use the left-hand column to develop a survey or have individuals rank how important those actions are- then adapt and proceed accordingly

The goal isn’t for her to not work from her strengths: it’s for her to maximize their strengths. Because of the unique dynamics of the group (so many strengths in the “Relationship Building” category), this will hopefully be a valuable resource for her.


A quick detour near Faneuil Hall
on our way to dinner
led me to six glass towers.

Four glass panels
enclose me as I step forward
steam rising from the grates.

The sidewalk is engraved with one word:

There’s something written on this panel-
I squint.
It’s a small, white number- half an inch-
that used to be a person.

My view gets bigger- how many numbers on just this panel?
I look up, up, up- more numbers on panels going up 30 feet:

Realization dawns as I figure out
what I’m look at.
I step forward- Chelmo.
Then Sobibor.

132 panels in all
6 million names that have become numbers

A girl, maybe 10, asks her mother,
“Why didn’t they just hold their breath?”
Gently, her mom whispers a response.

I watch the girl’s eyes shift from confusion
to understanding.
It’s that moment- that shift-
even after what I’ve seen
that spill my unshed tears.

I see this moment through a parent’s eyes-
as she loses a part of her innocence
when she realizes it was deliberate,

I leave Auschwitz-Birkenau
(6 days after Night has passed away),
read the famous words of Martin Niemoller,
And return to the Boston streets.



My favorite book club recently started Thomas Guskey’s On Your Mark: Challenging the Conventions of Grading and Reporting and, only 60 pages in, I find myself reading this book so slowly because I want to discuss the ideas on every page with the nearest person.

One idea I want to reflect on here is the purpose of grading and how that connects to student collaboration. Guskey distinguishes between two purposes (page 55):

Guskey- purposes of grading

Guskey builds his argument that normative grading, by its definition, breeds a competitive system- a system where students compete against one another.

This is nothing new.

But what caught my eye and interest is the connection that a competitive system discourages collaboration.

Guskey- Doing Well does not mean learning excellently

I know this world. This is the system I experienced in high school and college. And, to go one step further:

Guskey- students hiding books

This seems to be in direct opposition with the proposed (not yet approved) learning standards in Texas for K-12 English Language Arts. Although not yet approved by the State Board of Education, the new ELA TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge & Skills), slated for 2018-2019 (K-8) and 2019-2020 (9-12) implementation have a strand solely devoted to collaboration. Click here and then “Strand 4” to see the proposed collaboration strand.

How much have we heard about the importance of collaboration as a 21st century skill? Interestingly, discussions I’ve had about collaboration have all revolved back to: “And how do we grade that?” PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) has developed a collaborative problem-solving collaboration assessment in which students work virtually to…..collaborate and solve problems.

To cut to the chase: this book and these ideas have continued my learning journey and are making me process, process, process our current practices.



Guskey, T.R. (2015). On your mark: Challenging the conventions of grading and reporting. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.