Erica Dibello-Hitta

Imagine Life If You Couldn’t Read

Returning to school amounts to an act of courage for many adult learners.  As an adult education teacher I’m no longer surprised when students tell me that they never finished elementary school, or that they were discouraged from getting an education because, as a woman, they were just going to get married and have children.   I’ve heard many stories, but the most touching are those of students who have admitted that they cannot read.  I’ve learned that, sometimes, it’s not about the mechanics of learning to read.

Every semester I share with the class that I’m affected by glare, especially the glare of fluorescent lights on a white page, and that I have trouble concentrating on my driving if someone is talking to me.  If I’m driving to a new destination with my children in the car, I have to ask them not to talk to me.  Otherwise, we’re sure to get lost.  I only learned a few years ago that those are symptoms of Irlen Syndrome.  I’m lucky that I’m low on the spectrum.

People who have Irlen Syndrome have trouble reading.  They may see words move on a page and can’t understand how others learned to read when the text is moving.  Reading a text may cause them to get headaches or stomachaches.  The most common symptom, one that I experience, is that they get sleepy when they have to read something they are not interested in.  Interestingly, this does not occur when one reads for pleasure.  As an avid reader, I can attest to that.

People with severe Irlen Syndrome suffer in silence, sometimes all their lives, because they don’t know that what they experience, is not what the rest of us experiences as we read.  Every year I’ve had at least one student who learns that they, too, have Irlen Sydrome.  The good news is that using a simple colored plastic sheet (colored overlays) can often dramatically improve the reading experience.

If you’d like more information, please watch this video narrated by a teen  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9N5qbMFtKQ4  or go to the Irlen website: www.Irlen.com


Erica Dibello-Hitta teaches ESL 4 class and GED Prep in Spanish at Montgomery Adult School.  Her students never cease to amaze her!


Aly Martinez

Cracking Eggs – Making Messes in Math Class

Yesterday, as I was cleaning up nail polish off the wall, I wondered – as I often do – if I was in a secret Mr. Clean Eraser commercial. I spend a lot of time cleaning and you would too if you had three kids ages 6, 4, and 3. I’ve come to the conclusion that if making messes translates to success in life, my husband and I will retire at the ripe age of 40 on a tropical island.

Which brings me to eggs. My 4 year old daughter is an early bird and it has become her recent obsession to participate in cooking breakfast with me, particularly to crack eggs. Are we making cereal? How about I crack an egg? Toast? How about with an eggy on top? Peanut butter with apples? Should we put a “circle” egg on top? It’s official, this girl wants to crack eggs.

My immediate reaction was obvious. NO! Definitively, I never ever EVER want you near an egg. No thank you. Here. Let me crack the egg for you into a bowl. Then, you take this bowl and pour it into another bowl I’m mixing in. The look on her face said it all. Disappointment. One morning I got to thinking, why don’t I want her to crack an egg? And, it came to me. The mess. At all costs, I wanted to avoid the shells, the soupy yolk and egg white smooshed in her little hands, on my counter, and on my floor. And I wanted to avoid the wasted time. Even if I didn’t care about the n-1 eggs, I’d lose time in my busy morning making breakfast.

That’s when my daughter served me some wisdom. She asked, “When am I going to learn how to crack eggs my very own self?”. How could she ever learn to crack an egg properly if I robbed her of every single opportunity to try it herself? I mean, how many eggs did I break before I “mastered” it? Carefully removing slippery egg shell fragments from batter is a skill and me, well I’ve gotten lots of practice. If I remove all of the difficult parts of cracking an egg for my daughter and all she ever does is see me do it, will she learn how to crack an egg?

Back in the math classroom, I realized that this is a common phenomenon. When a challenging topic approaches in your unit, you might feel anxious thinking about the impending struggles. This concept is complicated! Kids are going to feel uncomfortable and they’re going to give up. It’s just too hard. The students need me to help them. I’ll just walk them through all the hard parts and they can finish it up at the end. But I wonder, how much do they really learn from watching the problem solving? From observing someone else reason through the obstacles? Are we not robbing students of richer learning by avoiding a mess?

So, I gave my daughter an egg. True story….she made a mess. Like, somehow she managed to explode the yolk from the inside using the grip of Wonder Woman and the scientific wonder of, “I wonder if I squeeze it…” I cleaned it up. Stayed calm. Gave her another egg. And MAGIC. She cracked it. Her hands were covered in egg white and there were egg shells everywhere in the bowl, but she improved. She learned. This summer we repeated this process over and over again. Today, my 4 year old cracks eggs like a professional chef. She is an old hat at it and frankly, is bored by the whole process now. She really only cracks eggs because I am so damn proud every time she does it. And, a few weeks ago my 3 year old joined her on the step stool and as if they knew I was planning a blogpost about it, my daughter taught my son how to crack an egg.

Which brings me back to the math classroom. I wonder if, as math teachers, we can all join in reflection about what messes we have been avoiding in distinct lessons. Is the reason students fall below our expectations because we have not set them up to experience the failure and challenge that a “mess” presents? Are students poor problem solvers because we’ve never given them authentic problems to solve? And if a student makes a mistake the first time, does that mean they will never understand or reach mastery? How many times did you fail at cracking an egg before you truly understood the nuances and delicate nature of an egg? And even if you met “mastery” of cracking an egg, can you make a delicious meal and still have “messed up” when you cracked the egg?

Messes get a bad reputation. From experience, I’m sure it has something to do with the ease at which they are created and the inverse exponential time period it takes to clean them up. Perhaps it’s time to think about how a mess with purpose can produce rich learning.

Not every lesson needs to produce a mess. But if we never provide opportunities for students to truly puzzle and attempt something challenging, what learning are we robbing them of?

Consider. What if you engaged in a problem that had no answer? What if you started planning the lesson wondering how much they might learn rather than how many students might not “get it”? What if we took some time to value the divergent solution paths instead of the “right answer”?

Here is what I know:

  1. Mr. Clean Magic Erasers really are magic. Thank you weird smooshy white sponge that gets all stains out of all things.
  2. When we remove obstacles from difficult content, we remove learning. Following steps may lead to memorization, but it rarely leads to conceptual understanding.
  3. Creating opportunities for students to make a mess takes bravery.

My Math Unicorn Call to Action is:

Let your students make a mess this week. Don’t avoid the hard topic. Take on that wordy application problem. Open the investigation door and the let the warm wind blow in. A mess is like a roller coaster. You can choose to scream the whole time or you let yourself sway with the ebb and flow of learning and emerging ideas and see where you land (hopefully on the ground safely!). BE brave and see what happens when you let your students do something you might not have ever thought they could do. Spoiler alert: Your kids will surprise you.



Aly Martinez is a math teacher and induction mentor. She has a thousand children, loves donuts and math, and will always accept chocolate if you offer it. She believes she will sleep through the night one day again soon and is an avid fan of coffee, legos, and her induction candidates.


PLC Perspective – Teacher response to the recent SLT Newsletter

Mr. Tom Winters recently sent out an SLT update to the entire district staff.  Below is one teacher’s response, from his/her PLC perspective.  We would love to hear from more teachers!


Our General Science 2 team has a fantastic and unified team of people.  The history is interesting going way back 15 or 20 years such that, in spite of the normal coming and going of talent, the underlying foundations of the team have persisted in maintaining a high quality professional team.  Stupid me, I thought all other teams on our site and across the district were like this and only recently in the last couple of years have I realized we’re more of an exception.  This realization has become evident as colleagues, district leaders, and our own site team come to observe what we’re doing which really surprised all of us in 8th grade science.

Here are a few things that have helped us maintain our friendships, professional capacity, and outlook to do our best.  (I only share these not to brag but to reflect that sometimes, there’s a gap between what we ‘get’ from reform efforts and what actually ‘gets done’ when teachers get back to their sites.) Each 8th grade science teacher willingly has internalized the following values/morals/ethics.  A few might be classified as soft-skills but each of these translates into a vision and commitment towards excellence.


  1. Humility – None of us on our GS 2 PLC believes that we’re better than our colleagues, much less perfect and we make fun of ourselves when we make mistakes.  The bigger the mistake, the greater the cause for celebration during PLC.  We hand out ‘monkey wrench’ diplomas during PLC and have them framed on our team wall.  We especially like share faults that our students catch and we find ways to reward each other and our students when they catch us making a mistake of action or omission.  ‘We know how not to do X, Y, Z, next time’
  2. Forgiveness – Today is the best day to make an improvement.  No baggage allowed, no ‘go backs’, and no gossiping about how someone screwed something up whether it was yesterday or a decade ago.  Each person on our team makes a sincere, immediate, and clear effort to make things right by apologizing.  Almost always, there’s a hug, a joke, or a funny moment.  When things go sideways, it stays in the team and everyone is 100% confident that nobody is going to go outside the team to gossip.


  • What we’ve seen is that lacking 1 and/or 2, it’s almost impossible to get anything done, regardless of the organization, team, or relationships among individuals.  Nothing will ruin an effort faster than arrogance and a ‘payback’ mentality.


  1. Charity – Show others you care by saying good morning, please, thank you, and I’m sorry every time, every day.  If you have something you created, you modified, you think someone can use, give it away.  No transaction, no ‘you owe me’, nothing.  Freely give of your kindness, your smile, talent, resources, etc.  We like to remind one another that we don’t own our classrooms, we don’t own the lab equipment, we don’t own the master schedule, etc.  It makes it easy to share.  We show charity by rotating the burdens of leadership, section assignments, and so on.


  1. Empathy – a principal always reminded us that ‘everyone has a story’ and in a high support / high trust relationship those stories are shared with food, snacks, and sometimes tears.  The fabric that’s woven among our team is strong enough that any professional tasks always pale in comparison to the human needs that we all have.  At the end of each PLC session, we close with ‘Happy Monkey Time’ so we all share some personal or professional success that was significant to us as individuals, no pressure to make any glamorous pronouncements, just honest personal successes and a highlight of the week’s most rewarding moments.


  1. Supported Risk-Taking – Sometimes it’ll be just one person from the team, sometimes two, sometimes all of us that are trying something new in either professional development, leadership, or instruction.  No matter who or how many, we all pitch in to make sure that person has every support possible.  Communications, materials, contacts, insights, and a feeling that they’re not alone or that when the process is over their effort is forgotten.  There’s a real importance to embedding that experience moving forward into our daily practice as a way of honoring what other people contribute.


  1. Individual but Public Accountability – There are regular checkpoints that we all have agreed to for materials, planning, sharing, supporting, revising, fixing, accepting.  These checkpoints were agreed to in PLC with full consensus and we openly share with each other when we feel we’ve missed the mark.  Nobody picks on anybody, nobody has hard feelings, everyone provides feedback for improvement with the realization that nothing we do is ‘one and done’.


  1. Self-Directed and Team-Directed Reflection – Similar to above but we have lots of ‘thinking aloud’ and ‘if we had no limits, here’s what we would do’.  These conversations allow full access to big vision items with pull-back to a tighter focus on the daily instruction.  I’d actually have to say that we rarely – almost never – look at our instruction from a ‘daily’ perspective.  We view our instruction through outcomes and interventions for success because it allows us to focus on the ‘how’ rather than the ‘when’.


  1. Continuous Improvement – Think Deming and the Toyota Way.  Lots of lessons we’ve embedded from those foundational models and here again, the concept of human capital as a resource to be developed is at the core of our interactions with one another.  Seniority, rank, educational degrees, financial status, religion, sexual identity, all take a back seat to the idea that all of us have chosen to be part of an active team that wants to improve what we do (relationships, instructional delivery, content mastery outcomes).


  1. Direct and Open Communication  — Some of us are super assertive, some are deferential, some are great listeners, some are always coming up with lots of random ideas, some are really good at ‘bean counting’… we openly accept and honor individual strengths by not only recognizing them but by eliciting contributions from those who have a strength that we don’t have.  We work really diligently to make sure our ‘bean counter’ checks NGSS standards, our random idea person generates innovative ways to approach content, our assertive person keeps us on track, our deferential person is listening and points out things we miss by going too fast…. Synergy has never been better exemplified but it’s always there whether we have ‘new interns’, ‘new BTSA’, or 20 year veterans.  Everyone works on improvement of what we do.


  1. Willingness to Volunteer – Whether it’s sharing a classroom, travelling on assignments, or covering a class on prep.  Our default position is yes and the ‘no’ only happens in extenuating circumstances. Nobody counts, nobody keeps track, everyone steps up for each other and for our students.


I share these with you because oftentimes, even with programs that have a great track record, or processes where things are clear and well organized, or in organizations with superb talent… the outcomes aren’t always easy to produce.  Over time, it’s made me realize that people have to be willing to ‘go in dumb and come out smart’.  Individual Humility –> Organizational Pride