Category Archives: education

A Thumbless Handshake

photo (11)[Cross-posted to The Teacher Challenge]

That’s what each of my students received on the first day of school.

So, as you can imagine, things started off a bit awkward. A new year, new class, a new teacher standing outside his door shaking everyone’s hand as they entered. And boy, there’s something just a little off about this handshake here.

Let me explain if you don’t know this about me already. I was born without thumbs.

Most students seemed a bit surprised to get a handshake at the door, especially a thumbless one. They were even more taken aback when I tracked down a couple students who slipped by me. When I asked who I missed, no one fessed up. I picked them out of the crowd eventually.

A few students needed a reminder to use those thumbs of theirs to tighten up their grip.

One student refused to shake my hand. “I just saw you last week Ziebarth,” she said, as if some law kept her from formally greeting her teacher too often in too short a window. I persisted. She caved.

I LOVE that we’re kicking off our Teacher Challenge with a personal greeting for each student. Traditionally, on the first day of school I memorize every student’s name and then practice them over the first week of school so I can consistently match their face with their name. I can’t imagine doing otherwise! I’m responsible to know these students, their strengths, their weaknesses, their learning styles. The least I can do is learn their names before I expect them to learn anything from me.

Memorizing their names is difficult enough, but greeting each student is probably tougher.

We only have seven minutes between class periods and if it takes any time at all to erase the board, clean up after the previous class, or do any last minute preparations, students stream easily into class before I can get to them. Then, like on Friday, I literally ran between the students who snuck in early and the students who were just entering the classroom. It was like catching sand with a sieve. The students got a kick out of my frantic ping-ponging between them though, so it was worth it.

One period I had to resort to greeting them on their way out of the class. I definitely prefer greeting them as they enter, but better late than never.

On the second day I welcomed students with a fist bump. It just happened that way. I like to mix things up, avoid ruts, and there I was fist bumping my way through 37 students in less than seven minutes.

The third day I used my elbow. Elbow bumps are a very effective way to greet someone who’s lugging around a tower of books in their arms.

By day three the students were totally hooked. If they had missed their greeting, they’d come up to me to get an elbow bump. Then students started suggesting other greetings, a high four, high eight, the turkey!

This challenge has been so humanizing. It’s way too easy for students to slip into class, unnoticed, take a seat, fly low and avoid a teacher’s radar for the entire class period. Maybe even for days at a time. Then they’re just a seat, a name on a chart, a grade, a face in the crowd.

Greeting each student on a daily basis shows that you respect them as people, as members of your community, your class. They are part of your class, right? It’s not their job to greet us. They are our customers, our students under our stewardship. They deserve a smile, a hello, a handshake. With or without thumbs.

The Courtly Love of Books


When I walked into class this morning I flipped out over one of my students reading Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, one of my favorite reads ever. Lost in my enthusiasm for the book, I grabbed the book from her desk, clutched it to my chest, and rocked back and forth, performing my twitterpation for the book in front of the class. Unknown to me, this student, Tiffany, had purchased the book for a friend and she sat silently in horror, terrified at my handling of the book. When I noticed the nervous juxtaposition of her broad smile and arched brow, she said to me, “Mr. Ziebarth, I’m a courtly lover.”

Talk about juxtapositions. I had no idea what she was talking about.

“You’re a what?”

“A courtly lover of books. Just like the essay we read over the summer,” Tiffany said.

Well shame on me for not recognizing what should be a common allusion. She was referring to the essay “Never Do That to a Book,” by Anne Fadiman. As she reminded me of the essay, another student, Tabatha, blurted out, “Me too!” as she quickly produced from her backpack a copy of the next novel we’re reading, The Catcher in the Rye, lovingly embraced by a padded manilla envelope. A small group of students burst into chatter about how hard it is to write in their books, while others proclaimed how much they enjoy putting pen and pencil to page, marking their books and making them their own.

Fadiman calls this drive to draw and annotate in books a “carnal love.” She explains, “to us, a book’s words [are] holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contained them [are] a mere vessel, and it [is] no sacrilege to treat them as wantonly as desire and pragmatism dictated.”

I don’t care how my students treat books, just that they love them.

Me? I’m a book lover of the latter sort, as you can tell by the photo of the Murakami novel above. See the little dog-eared corner of the first page? I did that. Much to Tiffany’s courtly-lover’s chagrin.


Show Your Work : : A Networked Reading 2

Reading @Braddo Reading @AustinKleon continues as Show Your Work: A Networked Reading

The old writing adage holds true with student work: Show, don’t tell!

I love John Green’s question: “is there a way that we can use this technology to build places for engagement, instead of just places for distraction? ” As Douglas Rushkoff has pointed out, yes the youth of today are digital natives, but they’re thoroughly worked over by social media. It’s not just the digital natives by the way. We all need to act more and not let ourselves be acted up, in other words: Program, Or Be Programmed.


Reading @braddo Reading @austinkleon 1

I’ve been stealing ideas from Austin Kleon for my classroom for about five years now and I’m thrilled to have other teachers join in the looting. Brad Ovenell-Carter started blogging his reading of Kleon’s new book Show Your Work over a month ago and since then I’ve been itching to join in the fray and blog my reading of his reading.

I’m starting 76 pages into Ovenell-Carter’s reading and that doesn’t bother me. It also doesn’t bother me that I’ll be working backwards and forwards as he continues. We’re getting all McLuhan on Kleon’s little book, ya hear!

I’m floored by flow of ideas and insight that this process encourages and I can’t wait to see how all these things will blossom, wilt, flower. Feel free to join in the conversation.

A note on the process: While I’m jealous of Ovenell-Carter’s hand-drawn work (and I dig his handwritting—those loops!),  I decided to differentiate our ideas by diving into a digital toolbox, namely Skitch for Evernote.

Show Your Learning

Screen shot 2014-03-12 at 10.08.27 AMTeaching is a science—that’s how it feels when I’m collecting and combing through student data looking for how to proceed next. Teaching is an art—that’s how it feels when I’m in front of the class trying to hook them in with an introduction to metaplasmus, zeugma and other rhetorical tropes, schemes. Wait, that sounds like science. That’s because teaching is both an art and science—especially when I’m deep in a stack of essays working to understand the thoughts and  arguments of students while at the same time helping them craft their way to clarity with cadence and rhythm.

Either way, teaching is a creative and rewarding effort. And ever since I stumbled upon 20% projects and the work of writer and doodler Austin Kleon it’s only become more creative and more rewarding as I’ve worked with students to do what Kleon calls for in his new book Show Your Work!

David Theriault, a colleague/cohort, and I have been obsessed with this idea of showing our work: making our classrooms transparent, our work and that of our students laid bare for the world to see.  Not to show off what we do in our class, but to try it out in public, share it, and hope in comes back new and improved. Thus our activity on Twitter and in the edublogosphere (wow, that’s an ugly word). We’ve brainstormed hashtags, schemed up entire books on the subject. We’ve read the books. We’ve encouraged other teachers in our district to do the same. We follow people with similar obsessions.

But nothing really gets to the heart of the matter like Kleon’s book, which just arrived in the mail yesterday! And it’s much more rewarding to take a breather from the pummeling of pedagogical jargon, kick back with this bright, rakish tome and dream up ways to twist and tweak Kleon’s principles for my curriculum, my class, my students.

Screen shot 2014-03-12 at 10.04.40 AM

I’m not the only educator stealing from Kleon.

Show Your Work! is subtitled 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered, but a better way from my students and I to think about it would be: Show Your Learning! 10 Ways to Share Your Learning and Discover: Your Thoughts, Your World, Yourself.

Consider this one example from Zara who realized that she writes the same way she plays volleyball: timidly. But as she writes you can see her writing grow more assertive. I can’t wait to see her on the court next year.

Do you want to see the rest of my students learning? Stay tuned here, here, or here.

The Great Common Core Swindle: Denying students an audience

SwindleZYou may be tempted to take the title of this post the wrong way.

No, I’m not going to argue against the Common Core standards. I’d be happy to discuss their drawbacks elsewhere. In fact, if you care to dive deep enough down into my Twitter stream you’ll discover I’ve done just that on several occasions with colleagues and acquaintances.

Here and now I’d like to address what I see as one of the key strengths of the Common Core. A focus that’s been missing, from the California State Content Standards at least.


It’s there, listed at the end of the writing standards at every grade beginning with third: “Write…for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.” The old California State Content Standards also covered audience, but never specifically addressed a range of audiences, a key difference.

In a 21st-century, networked world, an audience of one, the teacher, or even the thirty or so students in a classroom is no longer a sufficient audience. And frankly, it hasn’t been for some time. As my colleague David Theriault likes to say, referring to teachers, “You are not your students’ best audience.”

Students who write for their teacher write for a grade. Students who write for an audience write to connect, to argue, to entertain, to inform. And when they have other purposes for their writing other than a grade, they begin to care about the craft, choose carefully their words, shape thoughtfully their sentences. Isn’t this the goal of writing standards?

So the question is: Does your school provide or cheat your students out of an audience?

Or, to cut to the chase: Does your school actively support a newspaper or broadcast program?

If it doesn’t, please stop going on about how you’re meeting the Common Core standards. Because in spirit you’re not.

I can’t think of a better way to prepare students for a larger, even world-wide audience or provide them with a better writing laboratory than a campus newspaper or broadcast program.

Besides offering students an audience and being shaped by two of the main modes of writing called for by the Common Core, informational and argumentative, a robust student journalism programs offers many other benefits.


Students journalists choose what they want to write about. Sports, movies, books, games, and news. Well, students don’t necessarily choose to write news per se, but with a bit of training, mentoring, and modeling, they’ll learn to spot it, gather it, and report it.

What are they reporting? The goings-on at your school, on the field, in the classroom, after school. And hopefully there’s a lot happening. Who better to tell those stories than your students? No one.

Want your students to be writing across the curriculum? Then reporting on the learning taking place in science, history, math, and business classes will do the trick.

Then imagine the range of audience your student journalists will reach: the student body, faculty, staff, families, community, world.

Photo ©2007 Flickr user Jessica_Hopper CC-BY-2.0


This is where students like to begin: expressing their opinion. But before they can argue a point, they need to gather the facts—a good habit for any writer, thinker, or citizen. If they jump the gun, they may end up on the bench where CBS reporter Lara Logan found herself recently.

So once they’ve gathered the facts they’re ready to form an opinion which in journalism will take the shape of an editorial or opinion column. Inevitably, students expressing opinions, especially in public, make adults squirm. But guess what folks? The adults don’t have to like it.

And that’s OK. Remember, we teach students who are in the same stages of adolescent development year after year, decade after decade. We encounter the same impulses and opinions every four years at least: the dress code is stupid, supervision bugs us, we don’t like the new bell schedule, why do we have to sit through assemblies, the campaigns for student leadership positions are just popularity contests. The list goes on. And on. Can you really blame them? If so, you’ve forgotten what it’s like to spend thirteen years of your life micromanaged by bells, adults, rules, procedures and the last five or six years befuddled by hormones and growing pains.


Adults won’t be the only ones who can’t quite stomach the editorials, opinions, or story angles. Many students won’t like them either. Fantastic! Guess what they can do? Write a letter to the editor, submit their own opinion piece, join the newspaper staff, start their own newspaper or blog. It’s called civil discourse; it’s the exact thing we’re training our students to engage in. At least we think that’s what we’re doing, but without a healthy journalism program we’re denying our students a safe place to try out and feel their way around civil discourse. Instead they turn to all sorts of social media, much of it hidden and anonymous, to hash out their opinions. Maybe, just maybe, if students had an authentic audience to air their grievances to, and training to gather all the facts first (which often puts out the flames of frustration), maybe there’d be less rantings and more discussions.


Newspapers and broadcast programs also provide a variety of tasks and audiences, requiring them to be precise in their work. Gathering news encourages students to see a story from multiple perspectives, not just one or two. They’ll quickly learn to see the world around them is much more complex than the either/or mentality so many suffer from. Writing headlines and photo captions also require an exactness and one you can assess by analyzing online traffic data should your newspaper also be online, which it should.

Broadcast news programs really hone students’ precision. Writing for TV is a different, more exact beast entirely. Plus the visual elements brought to bear on a story add a complexity and grammar all their own.

Both print and broadcast train students in visual literacy, a skill that grows more critical day by day as they’re bombarded continually by images.


So what’s stopping you from starting up a journalism program, or jump-starting one that’s lagging?

Perhaps your stomach and/or laws that protect student expression. Currently only eight states have laws that protect student journalists, enhancing their First Amendment rights. Even with those protections, student journalists and their advisers too often have to battle school and district officials for those rights. That’s good practice too though. Even professional journalists continue to vye for rights and access.

The California Student Free Expression Law offers students a pretty large field to learn on. Unless a story contains obscenities or libelous statements, or incites “the commission of unlawful acts on school premises or the violation of lawful school regulations, or the substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school” (CA Ed Code 48907), students can write it, print it, and distribute it. Remember, they’re learning, and even the New York Times makes mistakes.

Only eight states. Two others include student speech rights in their education codes. I know someone who couldn’t even count up these states on both his hands (sorry, inside joke. Shake my hand when you meet me and you’ll get it). Until the forty other states offer these important protections, which also protect schools and their administrators, this country will continue to suffer from a lack of student journalism programs, programs which give students the opportunity to write for and interact with an authentic audience and prepare them to participate effectively in a democratic society, a society which depends on a free and functioning press.

So while states continue their transition to the Common Core standards, here’s hoping they don’t just talk the talk. Stop the swindle, walk the walk.

Zero Drafting: Falling in love again with a simple pleasure, timed writing.

Zero Drafting. I stole the term from a young adult author. I’ll have to go track her down after I’m finished writing. See that’s the point with zero drafting, the first rule: don’t stop writing. One of my college writing teachers, Darrell Spencer, taught me the method. We had to write three pages a day for his class and zero drafting was the most effective way to hit that mark. I can still hear Darrell say, in his small, hesitant voice: “kill the editor.”

That’s the second rule in zero drafting. Kill the editor. Don’t get in the way of yourself. Don’t erase, don’t cross out, don’t fix spelling, don’t stop pushing your pen forward. Zero drafting is pure writing. Revisions and edits can wait. Right now, just write.

Before the practice got branded, Natalie Goldberg referred to it simply as a timed exercise. Peter Elbow calls it freewriting and that was in vogue for a while until it was co-opted by quick writes, loaded with required topics and questions aligned with curriculum.

You hear a refrain sung by many writing teachers, in high school especially, that goes like this: our students don’t write enough. Our students need to write more than we can grade. And then guess what we do? Not write. We fret about assessing student writing or giving feedback on student writing and we ask colleagues for advice, go to workshops and conferences looking for advice. Nothing but a bunch of not writing. No one has ever learned to write by not writing.

I’ll be honest. I’ve been hot and cold with zero drafting. I once went an entire year without using it in class. My students still wrote, but we could’ve and should’ve written more. Never again, as long as I’m a writing teacher, will I deprive my students of this simple exercise.

Here’s how I do it…

…and what my students think about it (I’ll detail the benefits and outcomes later in this post):

Use a spiral or composition notebook. The cheaper the better. If it’s too fancy they’ll want to be careful what they write. Zero drafting doesn’t do careful.

Same goes for the writing instrument. I prefer the trusty Bic blue

Photo ©2008 Wikimedia Commons user Trounce. Licensed under CC-BY-SA

Use a prompt. You can get these from anywhere. I love I’m amazed at the prompts he cranks out. I try to put a week’s worth of prompts together in one sitting, but I’m always open to last minute inspiration. Prompts are great because no one can just sit there wondering what to write about.

The prompt is optional. That’s right. Don’t force them to use the prompt. It’s only there to get students started. But plenty of students don’t need prompting; they have lots of things they want to write about. I tell my students they can write journal entries, letters to friends, short stories, poems, novels, rants, reviews, wish lists, bucket lists, to-do lists. And if they run out of things to write I tell them to write their name over and over again until they think of something to write, or write about the last meal they ate. This is rarely necessary because a good prompt usually does the trick.

The prompt is mandatory (I love exceptions to rules). Sometimes. Make it mandatory sparingly. You’ll assign a prompt at the beginning of a unit, or at the beginning of a debate perhaps.

I really wish we had more than 8 minutes to write, though. sometimes I want to continue that zero draft the next day or something, but by that time I’m not able to remember what I wanted to write anymore. —Karen

Time the prompt. I usually go for eight minutes. But it’s good to throw in longer sessions occasionally. I wouldn’t do it for less than five minutes though. You’re barely getting to the good stuff at that point. Once the timer goes off I’m usually still finishing my last thought or two. Let students do the same.

You heard that right. I write with my students. Write with your students. No excuses. Just do it.

Picture 8
“Blindfold,” © 2006 Dr Case, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial license.

Don’t read their zero drafts. Not ever. Never. No! As soon as another set of eyes are on it, it’s no longer zero drafting. Students have to feel free to write whatever they please without anyone reading their work. It’s not ready yet. And please, whatever you do, don’t try to assign zero drafting some kind of grade. I think I just threw up in my mouth a little at the thought of this impulse.

The best part about zero drafting is that no one else will read it. I don’t have to worry about what others think or if what I’m writing makes sense, I can just write whatever I think. —Katherine


On your marks, get set, go! I think humans are natural procrastinators. To delay is probably the marquee problem for writers. Beginners especially. Writers are among the most skilled procrastinators. One of the biggest obstacles to writing is getting started. The blank page haunts us. But as soon as we throw down some ink on that page, the hard part is over, and it’s hard to stop.

Inspire more writing, collect more fodder. After my first zero drafting session this year I heard a student say, “I have so much more to write,” and another said, “I could go on and on.” I’m thrilled they walk out of my class feeling like they want to keep writing. And when a longer piece is assigned they’ll have a lot of writing and ideas to mine. Zero drafting kills writer’s block dead.

I don’t like that some of them are only 8 minutes! Sometimes I have so much more that I want to say and talk about! — Ashley

Force students away from the screen. Ray Bradbury imagined our addiction to and dependence on screens decades ago. It goes without saying, computers are essential tools. But they’re also great distractors. Hundreds of apps, sites, programs, tweets, and texts draw our attention elsewhere, but zero drafting cuts through the noise and keeps our nose to the page. Sure, you could probably type faster than you can write, but the physical act of gripping a pen and running it over paper has a power all its own. Sometimes the best tech is low tech.

Give students choice and voice. My summer reading really hammered home the importance of allowing students ownership of their learning. Thomas and Brown assert that “students learn best when they are able to follow their passion.” Yong Zhao says that giving students choice rather than prescribing their learning “helps preserve creativity, another quality of entrepreneurs.” Zero drafting is an easy, risk-free gateway strategy for teachers who are hesitant to turn the learning over to their students.

It’s amazing to have a non intimidating school activity where we have so much power to choose what we want to do. —Katherine, again

Practice filling the blank page. An underrated skill. If you can demolish that blank page in front of you when faced with an essay test, research paper, business report, client pitch, or letter to your local member of congress the heavy lifting seems bearable.

I’m just too tired at the end of my day to do so this activity allows me to write for a little on a daily basis. —Tiffany

Discovery. Even though the quotation comes from one of his fictional characters and not E.M. Forester himself, this line still rings true: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” It’s not in any standardized standard, but learning about yourself is as worthy an outcome as I’ve ever encountered.

I also think zero drafting helps you realize things you haven’t realized before, like how much you might love a sandwich. —Calvin

It’s really making me realize all of the ideas I have about certain issues before my brain gets the chance to dismiss them for being too ‘silly’ or not well-phrased enough. I think it’s an excellent technique to help us see where our actual priorities and interests lie. —Alexis

It adds up. Students average about one page every eight minutes. They start wrapping their brains around how long writing takes and they realize it doesn’t take much. A student who decides to double their zero drafting time at home could crank out one hundred pages in little over a month. That’s a first draft of a novel.

Zero drafting allows my thoughts to consistently flow without pauses. I think that’s a lot of writing for only 8 minutes; if you think about it, you can accomplish about 10 pages of writing in 80 minutes. —Nam

Writers write. Obvious? Yes. But one of the key outcomes of part zero drafting is that students start to think of themselves as writers.

I don’t really like writing but zero drafting makes me feel free and that i can write whatever i want to without restrictions. —Christina