with Rick Wormeli:
The Intrepid Teacher: Compassionate, Witty and Wise
Ted Danson’s charm, Steve Martin’s wit, and John Dewey’s wisdom and you get
the real deal – Rick Wormeli (pronounced worm lee). He is an accomplished
educator, writer and sought after speaker. One of his favorite mentors is
Aristotle. He passionately practices and preaches much as Aristotle did in the
The Art of Rhetoric (Freese, Trans., 1926). To be effective, a teacher must
artfully blend three forms of rhetoric: Ethos (character), Logos (logic) and
Pathos (emotion). He believes a teacher should be courageous, 10% sage on the
stage, unabashed dog and pony show and 90% guide on the side, compassionate
facilitator of high standards.
Rick Wormeli is a National Board Certified middle school teacher and
columnist for Middle Ground magazine. He has taught science, math, English and
history. Rick was the winner of Disney’s American Teacher Award in English in
1996. He has been an educational consultant for National Public Radio, Court
TV, USA Today , the Smithsonian Institute and numerous school districts. Rick
has appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America and spoken at the White House.
The topics of Rick Wormeli’s books have included engaging adolescents with
substantive content, teacher leadership, professionalism and differentiated
instruction. Meet Me in the Middle (2001) and Day One & Beyond: Practical
Matters for New Middle-Level Teachers (2003) address best practices for the
key teaching challenges of accountability, assessment, management and
motivation. Summarization In Any Subject: 50 Techniques to Improve Student
Learning (2005) show secondary teachers how to teach readers to restate
essential text information through writing, orally, dramatically,
artistically, and musically. Fair Isn’t Always Equal (2006) is a practical
guide for middle and high school teachers on effective grading and assessment
The following interview took place on September 18, 2006 at the University
of North Florida. Mr. Wormeli was the invited speaker for the Andrew Robinson
Eminent Scholar Lecture series.
“Today’s teacher needs to be 10%
dog and pony show and 90% high standards!”
Stanley: How do teachers go about forming connections with
kids and building strong learning communities?
Wormeli: One of the first things is to have a mindset that
you want to form connections. You should view cultivated relationships with
kids as a purposeful process. I am a real big believer that you do not leave
those relationships to chance. In fact, when I work with teachers on classroom
management, one of the first things we talk about is to what extent they
cultivate relationships with students.
How do you bring that out in education? I do a whole series of things to
build community. We negotiate the classroom rules with the kids rather than
bestow them from high. It means that I am actually going to get down on my
knees or on a chair right next to them, rather than standing up high. I am
going to try to get on their level. I’m going to allow them to come up and
teach the classroom a few times. I am going to do some things that build in
some sensitivity training. We might negotiate a discipline response, a
consequence for something. We discuss how to deal with chronic versus
occasional behaviors. I present the world as not a place of playing “gottcha”,
but more of “let me guide you in becoming successful.” I am here to look out
for you and that’s the way the world really is, that we extend mercy to each
For me the two highest goals in education are to create courage and
compassion. I remember Helen Keller, as a kid I was reading her works and she
said, “The highest goal of education was tolerance”. This is a theme that is
going to run through what I do.
I make sure that I teach in terms of readiness as opposed to ability. It is
very threatening to kids if you start talking about low ability, high ability
or no ability. I want to speak in terms of readiness, you’re ready for the
next step or you’re ready for the early steps, the basic ones. The kids find
that much more palatable; for it seems as if I am in their court. I am always
coming across as I’m out for your success not just to document your
One of the greatest things that I do is make sure that the kids see that
they’re the number one person in the room, not the teacher. For example, every
single period, each and every day I would say the kid’s name, which might be
the only proof that he/she exists or that he/she are worth having their name
called by a respected adult in the community. Then I make sure the kids use
each others names. For instance, you can’t just say “what do you think?” or “I
disagree with him.” I will make sure all the walls in the room are filled with
student work to make them realize that they are the most important people in
the world. I do not use cookie cutter bulletin boards.
I am going to be very quick to laugh at my own mistakes. In fact I will
keep myself accessible and open to corrections because the kids need to see
that adults can be fallible. They need clear models to know how to learn from
mistakes. So that means I will make a mistake publicly in front of them and
hopefully handle it with grace and in a constructive manner. I’ll do that ever
single month not just one time in September and then the rest of the year.
Stanley: Why would a teacher consider becoming Nationally
Board Certified? What are the benefits?
Wormeli: It gives us an inclination and a structure for close
scrutiny, self-examination and analysis in our daily teaching. Otherwise, we
could become quite complacent, very conventional. For example, in my own case
the videotapes were there and the analysis that you use was there, nothing
could be kept in hiding because everything was being revealed. I discovered
that I was more teacher centered than I wanted to be. All the learning in the
room was pivotal on me and the kids were very dependent on me. Looking at the
camera work, doing the analysis late at night for weeks and weeks, I realized
that what I wanted to do is much more student centered. That idea of holding
your practice up to the close scrutiny of esteemed colleagues is a very scary
thing. But once you’ve done it, it opens you up to other forms of corrections
and self-examination and you can’t turn it off.
I was one of the first to be certified. In fact I was in the first
eighty-one to be Nationally Board certified in ’93-’94, in that cycle which
you actually get announced in ’95. Ever since that time, I want to sit down,
and design lessons and interact with kids. I am always thinking, “Is that
National Board quality or is this just trying to get by?” As a highly
accomplished special educator I have to keep up with the latest in pedagogy
and cognitive theory and all the technology and literacy strategies. I
recommend that teachers use reflective analysis to improve their practices.
This is the best professional experience that I have ever had. I used to
have to beg for 30 seconds of time from school board members or legislators to
just share an idea. Now after being National Board certified, so many doors
opened up and so many communities started to accept teaching as a true
profession. So, I got invited to testify and advise the U.S Senate on multiple
occasions. I’ve been invited to the White House four times for dinner with the
president to advise the president and visited with the president of the
Smithsonian on a variety of occasions. I’ve been invited to give advice by the
school board members in my local community, Fair Fax County public schools in
Northern Virginia. I think that process really does give you a voice, but it
also gives you clarity and competence that should go with that voice.
Stanley: You begin your book Meet Me in the Middle (2001)
with a caution, “everything in this book may be wrong.” What does that mean?
Is that true for interviews too?
Wormeli: I really wanted teachers, educators, and anybody who
read it to look at education with a discerning eye and not take it as it must
be true. So many times I have seen teachers go off tangents without seriously
reflecting about whether this is something that will work with my kids in my
A lot of teachers get caught up looking for a panacea, a simple solution of
some sort that they can take as a template. They are looking for something
from one’s school or teacher’s classroom, slide it over, and set it in their
classroom and it works perfectly the same way…and it will never be like that.
So the idea is that I want teachers to be intelligent consumers of anything
coming their way. It’s the idea that we should not be stupefied into assuming
or taking for granted in education.
Stanley: You say you’re a believer in differential
instruction. What advice do you have to give about meeting diverse student
Wormeli: I think that 90% of differentiated instruction is
mind set, the rest is just craft. Most people don’t worry about it; they say
it’s a nice idea. However, some of us say well it’s not like the real world.
Well it is the real world; almost everything in the real world is
differentiated. We self differentiate as we move towards things we are good at
doing. Some people say there is a need to become independent and to me that’s
To differentiate means that you’re doing anything to maximize learning over
what could otherwise have been learned using the one size fits all general
approach. You can’t leave a kid’s learning up to his or her own immaturely
formed level understanding. He/she doesn’t have the tools to decide what is
important for him/her to learn and what’s not and how to and how not. That’s
my role as a facilitator/ teacher, so what is the mind set? Are you willing to
teach in whatever way kids learn and not in the way you best learn? There are
a lot of teachers who really don’t care for poetry or rap or hip-hop or
anything, but they still teach with that because they realize it works for the
kids they have in front of them. That means you’re going to question
conventional practice quite a bit.
I used to think that there were only two ways to differentiate, just say it
louder and slower. That was the end of my repertoire. So what I want to do is
go into a class and have 4 or 5 ways to teach and if I don’t have 4 or 5 ways
I want to talk to colleagues. I want teachers to go to professional list
services to get some idea, or I want them to go ask the kids.
The idea in differentiation is that you have to open your mind up that
teaching and schooling is collaboration, not bestowing knowledge to a passive
recipient audience. The moment that I figured out that my students were
partners in this task called lessons and schooling it became so much easier,
there was so much more respect in the room.
Stanley: What is the effective assessment? What do you
advocate, formal or informal?
Wormeli: Whatever works, follow the pragmatist’s credo. There
are 3 basic types of assessment: pre-assessment, formative, and summative. The
summative assessment is very anti-climatic, it’s post learning. It really
isn’t impact learning and most teachers spend an inordinate amount of time
designing a test. Designing comedy projects and putting cartoons on it in
different fonts is pretty and they go…oh, I’m going to publish this and share
it with others; it’s a really cool project, but that’s not where the impact
is. The impact is in the formative assessment.
Summative assessment does not impact anything, because there is no way to
change as a result of it. Formative assessment is probably my first
bottom-line principle. There must be more emphasis and more time spent on
that, instead of the anti-climatic summative assessment. The second point of
good assessment is that we gather a ton of information and never use it to
guide our thinking. In some education circles that’s called “time suckage”,
for totally wasting the time of everybody.
We literally say and I am fond of doing this…here are the questions on the
test you are going to take four weeks from now, lets work towards that. It
evaluates everything to its importance. It keeps me from hobby teaching, just
throwing everything in; it’s not in the curriculum but I like it and I want
you to know it anyway. It keeps me very focused.
If I was teaching a class a historical era through a written summary and I
knew a particular child could not write very well then I would differentiate
assessment. If I knew that he or she really understood this historical era,
then I could opt to assess orally or maybe we would do this musically or
whatever multiple intelligence or learning style was needed because I would be
assessing on knowledge of history; not on the writing format. I will teach
writing so that later in the year the child will be able to demonstrate what
he or she knows through writing. But right here at this moment I have to take
a step back and say, what is it that I am truly going for, and make sure the
format allows me to accurately gain that from that student.
Stanley: You draw upon a wealth of teaching experience to
back your recognitions; we call this “craft knowledge”. What do you say to the
skeptics who say your advice is not research based?
Wormeli: I have been in the classroom for 23 years and that
has been a heck of a research run. A lot of things I say and what I do in my
class are based on research. Then I test it out in my class to see if it
works. There’s some rational behind it, and that rational is based on research
presented to me by my district or in my professional reading
I have read every line of the No Child Left Behind and a ton of federal
legislative…yeah I have and I have analyzed it… and it was a part of my
doctorial program. In order for you to receive federal funding everything must
be research based. However, the next paragraph would say that we realize that
not all the good things in teaching are researched or have research behind it
and that there is craft knowledge.
Stanley: What’s the role of poetry in the schools?
Wormeli: First thing, two things come to my mind right away;
one, poetry over the years has become associated with elitism and only the
intellectual can truly understand, and feel the poetry. Then poetry started to
speak to people, with the idea that poetry originated in the majority and has
been associated with the everyday man. So the idea that it would speak to
everybody’s experiences is one thing; there is a role that speaks to us.
I think the other thing that is so powerful is that poetry and poetic
formats allow us to express things that are otherwise inexpressible. We can
manipulate content and manipulate my reaction to things in poetic form of
whatever I am studying: science, math, P.E, technology, history, or drama. To
manipulate that information in that poetic form and poetic expression
internalizes that content to me. I get much more intimate with it. It has
opened up to me much more than questions at the end of a chapter. So one of
the struggles is what if you’re a teacher who can’t name a poem, let alone
recite a poem or analyze a poem. Do you still teach the children your class to
write poems on polynomials? Yes, of course you do, and it’s a stepping stone,
it’s a higher order thinking skill in some ways and it’s a lower order
thinking skill. It’s bringing so many worlds together and getting kids to
think in unique ways, how could it possibly not be good? And truly it is. I
have taught 5 different core subjects in primarily K-8, but some subjects in
high school and I have taught summer school as well, and poetry speaks to
everybody. Remember, we have to broaden our idea of poetry. Poetry includes
rap, hip-hop, and music lyrics. So there are lots and lots of ways we can use
it, so we don’t want to limit it in any way.
Stanley: You said you have over 23 years experience teaching
middle school. What’s your approach to classroom management?
Wormeli: Extra Wheaties in the morning and spinach (laugh).
One is a sense of humor and the other is empathy, not sympathy but empathy. I
can really feel what they are feeling like. When kids are absent, I go sit in
their desks to see what the classroom looks like from their point of view as
much as possible. If the kids are doing a learning log, I am doing a learning
log at the same time. There is real community there… that we are in this
together, and that I am going to open up to you guys.
I think also that I am willing to respect them as highly capable. One of
the things that most people do, they take videos of my class and they ask…how
do you get your kids to do that? My first and most straightforward answer is I
ask them. There’s an assumption that they are already trustworthy and capable.
Also, we have very famous guest speakers come to our school including
scientists with the Smithsonian and National Geographic. I live and work right
outside of Washington D.C., so they come to the school and my kids organize
the whole thing. They make their contact calls, they are the escorts, they
provide everything, and they set up the AV materials. People who come to the
school are just “floored” by this.
We do literary magazines in a math class, science class, or P.E class.
Those magazines are printed and distributed throughout the community. Who
handles that? The kids do that. I think that helps them see me as somebody
that’s a support for them. It creates emotional brownie points between me and
them too. And I think a large part of it is I am willing to have
Stanley: A big debate is going on with homework. What’s your
take on homework?
Wormeli: This is huge and no matter what I do every year I
give too little or too much homework depending on the parents in one year. One
of the things we’ve found is that in my opinion, homework does make a
difference in kid achievement in school to a certain extent. And I’m still
subscribing to that you add a zero to the grade level and that’s the amount of
minutes of home-work for the night, 5th grade 50 minutes; 6th grade 60
minutes. So roughly when we look at middle school it’s about an hour of
home-work. When you get to high school it might be an hour and a half to two
at most. Beyond that it creates resentment. I want to make sure that the
home-work is purposeful.
I am a huge supporter that homework that is sent home should never require
the use of a parent to pull it off, whether it is supplies or interpreting
things. Homework is purely to practice and to reinforce, maybe to elaborate
but never to learn it for the first time. That means that I adjust homework
for different levels of mastery or competency. Over the course of three days
the homework burden will be shared out. I’m also not going to send homework
home that is not absolutely directly related to what we are doing.
Stanley: Is there an issue you would like to address?
Wormeli: One of my biggest pushes is keeping good teachers in
the field. It is horrific that about one half of beginning urban teachers
leave the profession after three years. We need successful teachers to not
dropout but become leaders with vision. There is a drought of principals
because of the specter and the dark cloud of accountability. The fear is that
“if the kids don’t succeed then I will lose my job. “
All of us need to be ambassadors for our profession. We should be teacher
advocates saying, “Let me tell you the great stuff that happens in teaching.
We need a mind like yours leading the way.” Every single year teachers must
have an easy access to professional development. We find teachers who seek
their own professional development and get it. You know they are supported in
doing that. They have more self efficacy and stay in the classroom longer and
they are more effective. Principals need to be able to say things like, “We’ll
find a way so you can subscribe to an educational journal or two. We’ll send
you to one conference per year. Let’s set up some case studies so we can do
action research on what works.” We need to foster a risk taking culture in the
schools, so teachers are encouraged to try innovative teaching methods without
the fear of being ostracized or fired. In conclusion, I encourage teachers to
dare to be brave, and to fight the two greatest obstacles of poverty and
complacency facing education today.
Aristotle (1926). The “art” of rhetoric. (J. H. Freese, Trans.). London:
Wormeli, R. (2001). Meet in the middle: Becoming an accomplished
middle-level teacher. Westerville, OH: National Middle School Association.
Wormeli, R. (2003). Day one and beyond: Practical matters for new
middle-level teachers. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.
Wormeli, R. (2005). Summarization in any subject: 50 techniques to improve
student learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum
Wormeli, R. (2006). Fair isn’t always equal: Assessing and grading in the
differentiated classroom. Westerville, OH: Stenhouse Publishers.
For more information about Rick Wormeli, visit Staff Development for
Educators (SDE) at