Crazy Good Teaching Stuff

The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy Good Stuff I’ve Learned About Teaching Along the Way
By Rick Wormeli
(Association for Middle Level Education, 2013 – Learn more)

Elizabeth-Stein-brite-120Reviewed by Elizabeth Stein

Keeping our creative side front and center during these times of high stakes testing, common core standards, teacher evaluations, and data-based accountability can be quite a challenging task. Some teachers may feel like they’re losing their grip on the passion that brought them into education in the first place.

Well, fear not! The Collected Writings (so far) of Rick Wormeli can easily be the answer for the teacher who is striving to stay true to his or her innovative self. This compilation of columns, articles and essays — drawn from more than a decade of Wormeli’s writing about best classroom practice — is the perfect source for periodic infusions of positive teaching energy and wise teaching counsel.

Rick is always at my fingertips

wormeli-collected-cvrI had the good fortune to review two of Rick’s books several years ago when I transitioned from upper elementary to middle school teaching. One of the things that makes Rick’s books so valuable is that he fills the pages with realistic answers to questions that everyday teachers wonder about. Teachers horde good resources and stack our favorite books on nearby shelves that keep them at our fingertips. That’s where Rick’s earlier books now live in my learning space, bristling with sticky notes, and this 340-page collection of “crazy good stuff” will definitely be joining them!

So listen up, teacher friends in the middle grades: With the publication of Rick’s latest book, our life just got easier. Some of the best Wormeli commentaries from Middle Ground, Educational Leadership, and online sites and discussions — once printed out or photocopied and stuck in our folders and file cabinets — are now well-organized, bound together, and ready to be reached for on that favorite book shelf.

What’s in the book

The Collected Writings (so far) of Rick Wormeli reveals a road map for what effective teachers need to think about. It’s an empowering experience that validates and extends our professional thinking. This book is ideal for classroom novices who are just beginning to hear their “inner teacher.” It is perfect for the veteran teacher who is ready for a reality check, supporting us as we sort through past experiences and beliefs in order to stay on an effective track. And this book is an invaluable tool for administrators who need to speak the language that teachers need to hear.


The book is organized into nine sections, around various topics of concern to effective teachers. Scattered throughout are great teaching ideas you’ll be excited to implement in your classroom right away, so keep your Post-it notes handy.

  • The Professional Side
  • Motivating and Connecting to Students
  • Providing Effective Learning Experiences
  • Differentiation
  • Literacy in Every Subject
  • Additional Teaching Techniques
  • Assessment
  • Grading
  • Conclusion

Read an excerpt from The Collected Writings: 5 Strategies for Tween Teachers

Three big Wormeli themes

Three key ideas — each a hallmark of Rick Wormeli’s vision of teaching and learning — weave through the more than 50 selections in this book: the need for teachers to be courageous; to need to build relationships and motivate; and the need to keep our minds open and shake things up.

Wormeli-highupIt Takes Courage: I just love this. Being a teacher is about being courageous. It makes sense. As Rick explains it, courage is about deciding what is most important and then using that as a driving force to get ourselves to take the next steps.

One example is the teacher who confronts a colleague who is doing something that takes up a lot of instructional time and school resources, but results in limited student learning. Courage is demonstrated by our willingness to put the importance of high-level student learning ahead of our fear that we will embarrass a colleague or violate the teacher code of silence.

Sometimes we just may need to ruffle a few feathers. Sometimes we may face rejection. And sometimes we may need to break a few rules. The bottom line: we share ownership of all student learning, and because we do, we must act with personal and professional integrity.

Rick acknowledges that stepping out and speaking up is not always easy, but we should “dedicate ourselves to the courageous acts of teaching and collegiality, even when we don’t feel like we’re up to the task.” He adds that if a teacher is not ready to be courageous, he can support others to be courageous and grow from the experience.

We need to build relationships and motivate students to step it up – At the middle level, the foundation of teaching is the relationships that teachers build with students. Wormeli states that students and their welfare are our top priority, and our classrooms serve as a platform to form relationships that make it possible to serve them effectively. “If we find ourselves tolerating rather than looking forward to our students, something is amiss,” he writes.

When our lessons go the way we planned, and our students are engaged and cooperative, we celebrate. And when other lessons fall flat due to students’ moods of the moment, we should not look at those times as interruptions in our march to cover all the content, but as another dimension of our responsibility and an opportunity to teach and care about our students as we fulfill the social-emotional part of our job description. Teaching our students is a privilege, Wormeli says, and “We can’t leave our relationships with students to chance.”

Wormeli also states a case for genuinely motivating students in the middle grades, and he shares 18 motivation strategies that teachers can easily incorporate in their daily plans. “It’s time to vanquish the notion that our students aren’t motivated or that we don’t know how to motivate them. We know exactly how to motivate students, but there’s a gap between knowing what to do and actually doing it.”

And then Wormeli says something very important: “Motivation is not something we do to students; it’s how we help them reveal themselves.”

wormeli-differen-cvrKeeping an open mind is the best way to shake up our teaching – This collection includes some or Rick’s best ideas about keeping your instruction both engaging and moving forward, while also taking into account the strengths and needs of individual students. It wouldn’t be a Rick Wormeli book without plenty of commentary on differentiated instruction. When you’re planning to differentiate, Wormeli recommends five strategies that can give you the focus you need for successful planning and implementation. And guess what? One major article about differentiation, found in the book (and originally published in ASCD’s Educational Leadership), is posted here at MiddleWeb as an excerpt.

Wormeli shares many more super teaching strategies that can’t help but energize teachers into the mindset of thinking, “Hey, I can easily do this!” or better yet, “I will do this!” Most importantly, taken as a whole the articles create the perfect blend of support and encouragement for a teacher who wants to close the personal achievement gap between thinking about what he or she would like to do in the classroom — and actually doing it! Attentive readers (and note takers) can leave these pages with an action plan in mind to implement in their classrooms.

Some other highlights

Wormeli-Rick-MeetSome other popular Wormeli topics found in The Collected Works include the right way to assign and assess homework, and teaching the valuable skill of summarization (which eventually became a book.) I was particularly drawn to the section on “Sponges and Warm-ups.” As a special education teacher, I am in a few inclusion classes with another teacher. I need to be flexible to teach alongside so many varied teaching styles and philosophies. The activities shared in this section really validate and push my thinking about ways to create daily warm-up and transition activities that will help me align my style with the various teachers I work with.

Another strategy Rick shares that I hold particularly near and dear is to invite compelling questioning. He points to research showing that students learn the most when they generate and ask the questions themselves. It just makes sense. I apply varied questioning techniques every time I teach. I have come to see that if we develop students who can think analytically enough to pose meaningful questions, it should follow that they will be able to think critically and successfully when they are asked such questions.

Throughout this book — which represents more than 10 years of writing and thinking about effective teaching — Rick Wormeli includes stories from his personal experience meant not to only inspire us but to make us laugh and realize that teaching is about risk-taking and sometimes falling on our faces — and then getting up and doing it better the next time. As I read these columns and articles, I always have the sense that Rick is right there with me, encouraging and supporting my personal and professional growth — and ultimately the greater achievement of my students.

Buy and read this book. Then keep it close at hand on your top priority shelf. It’s crazy good teaching stuff.

Elizabeth Stein is a 20-year teaching veteran, specializing in literacy and special education, with experience in both upper elementary and middle school. She’s currently a middle grades teacher and new-teacher mentor in Long Island NY’s Smithtown Central School District. Elizabeth is National Board Certified in Literacy and a contributor to Education Week and other publications. Her first book, Comprehension Lessons for RTI (Grades 3-5), is published by Scholastic (June 2013).


MiddleWeb is all about the middle grades, with great 4-8 resources, book reviews, and guest posts by educators who support the success of young adolescents. And be sure to subscribe to MiddleWeb SmartBrief for the latest middle grades news & commentary from around the USA.

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