A Kinder World

I was at the water park with my family when my step-mom called to tell me that my grandfather had just passed away. He was 94 years old when he died and had been ailing for some time, so the news didn’t come as a shock to me. There was relief in knowing that he was no longer suffering and was finally at rest.

Pop (as we called him) was always jocund, always smiling, and spent much of his life volunteering his time. Everyone would say that Pop was the nicest man, and he was. By being kind to others, he lived the way we all should—and in doing so, he’d had a happy life. 

In the wake of that news, I thought about my family. I especially thought about my own father who had just lost his dad and wondered what that must feel like. No matter the age, it can’t be easy to be without a parent. And even though I was sad, what I felt most was gratitude. I was grateful that Pop had lived a long and joyous life. And here I was. It was a beautiful day. My children were splashing in the lazy river under a cloudless sky. I watched them playing, and thought about how I would tuck them into bed later that night, kissing their cheeks made pink from the sun.

Just then, a woman on a blue tube floated by me. Tomorrow is never guaranteed was tattooed across her foot.

The day before my grandfather passed, Melania Trump boarded a plane to visit a migrant detention center wearing a coat that told the world that she really doesn’t care. I’ve had a hard time stomaching the political news this summer especially around issues of immigration. There’s been an ache in my heart unlike any I’ve known before, and I found myself unmoored by my emotions.

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{Photo: Andrew Harnik, AP, via TimesUnion}

As I struggled to make sense of it all, I realized that many people in America—myself included—cannot fathom living in a war-torn country or getting sick from a lack of clean water. Many people will never know what it is like to be denied access to doctors and medicine. We take for granted that our children will be afforded an education, that they’ll grow up in a country that is, for the most part, safe. We suffer our first world problems and falsely equate being better off to just being better.

Here in America, we are privileged.

Around the same time my newsfeed was flooded with the tear-stained faces of migrant children, I was reading Strength in What Remains. In it, Tracy Kidder narrates the story of an African boy, Deogratias Niyizonkiza, who barely survives a civil war in his home of Burundi. As his name suggests, with thanks to God, Deo escapes the genocide of his country. Arriving at JFK with two hundred dollars in his pocket, knowing not a single person nor the English language, in a matter of years, he goes from sleeping in Central Park as a homeless man to attending Columbia University as a pre-med student. His tale is remarkable and it is courageous.

The writing depicts gruesome scenes from his homeland that continue to haunt him long after he’s left—a baby crying at his dead mother’s breast; dogs running the dirt roads with severed heads in their mouths; an entire family murdered, the husband’s genitals cut off and shoved in the wife’s mouth. Still, this is no work of fiction. I kept reminding myself of that as I read.

“I know I have these unrealistic beliefs and thoughts, that the world can be peaceful, can be healthy, people can be humane. But is it feasible?”

This is a question that Deo asks as he returns to Burundi after the war to help build medical clinics for his people. This summer, it’s been a question I have struggled with too.

Regardless of one’s political beliefs, regardless of one’s religion, regardless of imaginary lines drawn in the sand—beneath everything, we are first all human.

“That shared humanity, like it or not, doesn’t end at our southern border, nor any border. It’s the same humanity that understands there is a risk in entering another country illegally—possible consequences, some severe and difficult to bear, though none as unbearable as knowing that your child and family are in certain danger …in many cases because a father or mother or child has already been killed,” Oscar Cásares writes in a piece titled, “A child doesn’t cry in Spanish or English. A child simply cries, and we respond.”

Warsan Shire addresses those same risks in her poem “Home.”

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.

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When I return to teaching in August, I will start off the school year reading To Kill a Mockingbird with my classes. Like Atticus, I will ask my students to stand in someone else’s shoes and walk around in them, and while we will finish Harper Lee’s book and move on to other works of literature, I will never stop trying to teach them to have empathy.

We may never come to a consensus on how to fix the problems of our world, but if we could start with our shared humanity, I believe we’d create a kinder world…the kind of world I wish for our children.

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{via Instagram @justinteodoro}

My grandfather cared. With his affection for cardigan sweaters and helping others, he reminded me of Mr. Rogers. He raised three sons and a daughter who each would hold up a torch and welcome a stranger to supper. They’d open their door and invite them in, especially when it seemed they had nothing to offer in return.

When I was younger, I was often surprised to see faces I didn’t recognize at our table come Christmas Eve. I didn’t understand why a person I’d never met was living in a camper on my uncle’s property. When a man who I deemed “crazy” approached my father in public, invading his personal space, I watched as my father looked him in the eyes, shook his hand, and asked him how he was doing with such sincerity that I immediately felt ashamed of the judgement I’d passed on him.

I believe what Pop showed us is that, “first and foremost, we meet as human beings who have much in common: a heart, a face; a voice; the presence of a soul, fears, hope, the ability to trust, the capacity for compassion and understanding, the kinship of being human.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel). It’s what I strive to teach my own children and the children that I teach.

As often happens in the wake of a loss, I regret that I didn’t spend more time with Pop when I had the chance. When I learned that there wasn’t an obituary for him, I desperately wanted to write one, but I realized, sadly, that I didn’t know enough about his life. If only I could sit by his side and ask him questions. If only I could listen to his stories and hold his hand.

Sometimes we need a reminder, like the passing of a great man or a tattoo on a foot, to remember that tomorrow is never guaranteed.

If we want to create a kinder world, we need to begin today.

Maybe I couldn’t write Pop an obituary, but I could write this. Like everything done with a giving heart, I know it would make him happy.

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In Loving Memory

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Dear Fifth-Grade Teacher, 

I know we haven’t met. In fact, we won’t learn your name till the end of the summer, and even then, chances are I won’t know who you are. However, as my daughter’s teacher for the next school year, there are some things I’d like you to know.

My daughter was never one of those children who cried on their first day of school, not even in the early years when she was dropped off at Pre-K. She’s always been eager to learn, eager to play, and eager to please. Every day when I would pick her up and ask her how her day was, she would tell me, Great! Amazing! Awesome!

Even if she couldn’t articulate why, her enthusiasm spoke for itself.

This last year, however, things changed. Many a day I would hear her describe school as boring. While she still never complained about going, come morning, it was a little tougher to get her out of bed.

On the return from Spring Break, a glorious two-week reprieve from school, we sat in the car at 7 am outside in the parking lot as I prepared to drop her off.

“Are you excited to go back?” I asked. “To see your friends?”

“I’m excited to see my friends,” she said, “but not to go back.”

“Why not?” I asked. “I thought you loved school.”

“I used to, but now all we do is test.”

Oh, Fifth-Grade Teacher, I watched as she walked away with her backpack slung over her shoulder and my heart sank.

Believe me when I say that I don’t blame her fourth-grade teacher. I blame the system. It’s a system that I know needs to be changed, and as an educator myself, I also know that in many ways, we are powerless to change it.

Still, there is hope, and that hope lies with the teachers who decide, every day, to teach students, not standards. Teachers who focus on creating relationships, who really get to know their kids, and who use that knowledge to make them love learning.

So, as you tackle the enormous task of taking on another class of students this next school year, these are the things I want you to know about my daughter:

Should there ever be a thunderstorm, you will find us sitting on the front porch to watch the sky; she’s been known to bring in facts about lightning that she’s researched and written down to share with the class. This is a girl who talks of one day becoming a meteorologist (that is, if she doesn’t become a veterinarian or a preschool teacher or an artist who lives on a farm). Her dreams stretch wider than the horizon, and I want nothing more than for her to continue dreaming.

When given the chance, my daughter still creates things out of Play-Doh and when she gets a Lego set, she doesn’t stop building till it is complete. She won’t let me sell her Lincoln Logs at a yard sale either, and it’s not uncommon for her to bring home treasures she’s found on the ground—a broken pen or scrap of metal—for what purpose, I’m not sure, but she collects them all the same.

I want you to know that she is good at math, but she doesn’t think she enjoys it. She’s been given packet after packet and she has told me, that when she has one, she stares at the clock and wishes time would speed up so she can go to lunch. Yet when she and her sister organized their Beanie Boos alphabetically by name, they created a graph of the data, and from her time spent in the kitchen with me, she understands fractions and units of measure, and she can tell you firsthand what happens to a sticky toffee cake when you mistake a tsp of baking soda for a TBSP.

If you take my daughter to the swing set, I know she could learn physics. If you allow her to build a bird house, she will learn about angles, but if you put another worksheet in front of her, I fear she could lose math forever.

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My daughter will tell you that she doesn’t like reading, but when a graphic novel is placed in her hands, she will devour it in one day, yet from the time she was little, she’s preferred non-fiction. Many a night we sat on her bed reading What Do You Do With a Tail Like This? As the child of an English teacher, my daughter will never want for books. Still, when I’ve tried to read the classics with her, beloved titles from my own childhood like Where the Red Fern Grows, we both gave up, and we only made it through the first of Harry Potter.

When my daughter began school, she was eager to learn about bones and bugs, and over the years, we’ve watched every nature documentary available on Netflix. When she asks a question we don’t know the answer to, like what makes a cat purr, we look it up. When we’ve had nothing but clear Nevadan skies, she searches for lightning storms on YouTube.

You see, in this world of technology, there’s another thing we will never want for, so it’s no wonder why she tires of writing her spelling words in ABC order week after week.

The other evening, we sat on the back deck and I asked her, “If you could learn about anything you wanted in the fifth grade, what would you want to study?”

I’d just finished reading What School Could Be by Ted Dintersmith, a book I believe every teacher should read.

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{via Goodreads}

She thought seriously about my question for a few minutes before she answered.

“Animals,” she finally said. “Like the human body, only animal bodies.”

We talked at length about which animals she’d study and what she hoped to learn before she asked, “Wait. Do you know who my fifth-grade teacher is going to be?”

I didn’t.

“So how do you know I am getting to learn about whatever I want?”

I spoke honestly. “I don’t.”

“So that’s not what I’m doing next year?”

Disappointment shadowed her face. “Oh man, you had me all excited.”

This. This is what I want you to know.  

There are a hundred embers burning in my child. I’m trusting you to kindle them. Ignite her imagination. Watch as they turn into sparks that jump into flames. Make school a place where she can be on fire.

Between the tests, between the things we cannot change, make sure there’s enough oxygen to keep them aglow. Do whatever it takes to not let them die.

My daughter is counting on you.

We all are.

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Why I Teach

Yesterday I hung “Tearable Puns” all around my classroom and outside my door. My freshman students are reading Romeo and Juliet and these free printables from Laura Randazzo make my students chuckle more than William Shakespeare does.

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At the end of the school day, I sat at my desk and heard several students giggling outside of my classroom door as they took a pun or two.

This is why I teach.

Today, I walked into a colleague’s classroom in the morning to say hello. As I was getting ready to leave, a student I had taught last year walked in. He was just as happy to see me and I was him and we hugged. I remarked that he is “a true gentleman” and his current teacher agreed. In the wake of that compliment, he beamed.

This is why I teach.

I’m teaching Animal Farm for maybe the second time, the first being many years ago. I rely on the AP History student in the class to make connections to Stalin and The Great Purge for us. I am no Russian Revolution expert, but he is, and he becomes the one we all turn to for clarification.

This is why I teach.

A hard lesson in plagiarism. An essay that makes me cry. A student who says something new about the content I’ve taught for over a decade that has me consider it in a whole new way.

This is why I teach.

From the occasional happy hour with colleagues where we commiserate over our frustrations in education (of which, there are many) to sending a parent a positive email on a Friday afternoon—getting a response filled with gratitude and knowing I just made that kid’s weekend.

This is why I teach.

The untapped potential of every student, our world’s greatest natural resource. I spend my days trying to draw the possibilities out of them and get them to see the power and hope and wonder they possess.

This is why I teach.

In my class, we hold Socratic Seminars where students learn to use accountable talk, to listen to the ideas of their peers, and to disagree without starting an argument or placing blame.

But, they also learn how to craft an argument, one where they acknowledge the counterclaim, and then refute it.

This is why I teach.

Fake news stories? We analyze them. Logical fallacies? We study them. Credible sources? We find them.

I teach my students to think. I teach them to dig deeper. I teach them to know when to call bullshit.

I teach, “Enemies to peace…throw your mistempered weapons to the ground.”

And, “Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win.”

And, “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

I teach my students to yield their words and I show them how to use them, for I believe that “The Pen is mightier than the Sword.”

 Yet, you want me to teach while armed with a gun?

That—is not why I teach.

That—will never be how I teach.

That—is not the solution.

Those students? That’s why I teach.

Those students. They’re the solution.

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Gym Subs vs. School Subs

Minutes before my Saturday yoga class was scheduled to begin, I ran into a colleague at the gym. The class she was in had just let out and as we chatted, she mentioned that it was terrible.

“We had a sub. Hope yours is better,” she called over her shoulder as she made her way to the locker room.

I got into class and rolled out my mat only to realize that we also had a sub that day. A man walked up to the front of the room and I noticed the regulars around me start questioning, “Where’s Kim?” But before long, we were meditating and there was no more time for questions.

After a challenging yoga class, I thought about the role that substitute teachers play.

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{photo courtesy of @musclesmusicmotherhood}

How is it that the expectation for subs is higher at the gym than it is at schools?

My yoga teacher didn’t have to write out a plan for her sub. She didn’t have to tell him how to spend that hour of class time. He came in understanding it was a power yoga class and he taught one.

He didn’t come in and say, “I can’t find the plans, so you can talk quietly amongst yourselves.” He didn’t try to get rid of us by sending us to the library elliptical machines. True, it was not the same experience as when our regular yoga instructor is there, but I still left with the benefit of a power yoga workout. In fact, I had a personal best when it came to my crow pose and I enjoyed experiencing a different teaching style that day.

For teachers, it’s almost not worth it to stay home sick or take a personal day. I spend hours writing out detailed plans, making sure all the copies are there, and labeling with sticky notes which stacks of papers are for which classes. I make sure there are instructions on how to use the technology in my room, instructions on what to do if the lesson doesn’t get completed, and instructions for what to do if there is remaining time. I even include who to go to in my hall if there are problems and send them an extra copy of my plans, too.

Just because I am out for a day, shouldn’t mean that my students stop learning.

Yet despite this, there are still days when I return to work after having been out and the plans haven’t been touched.

I think the worst was when I was teaching a class of juniors. We were studying Macbeth at the time, but someone in the office had mistakenly handed the sub a DVD for another teacher in the school who taught history but shared the same first name as me. That day, my students watched a documentary on The Civil War. I wasn’t sure what annoyed me more: that the sub didn’t question the content of the film versus the content I teach, or figure out that the plans I had meticulously written (assuming he read them) didn’t mention a DVD, or that my students never said a word.

Imagine if this happened in the gym?

The sub for yoga comes in and sees the exercise bikes in the corner of the room.

“I guess you guys are supposed to spin today. You brought shoes, right?”

It doesn’t help that there’s a shortage of substitute teachers out there either. You would think that having a colleague cover a coworker’s class might help matters.

It’s sad to say, but often it’s worse. Many a teacher prep subs grudgingly. Regardless that they are getting paid to do so, mentally they are still on prep. I get it though. We need our prep time. Still, when the “lesson” doesn’t include some busy work or a film, they get miffed.

Let’s take it back to the gym.

You ‘re stretching on your yoga mat waiting for class to begin when, at the last-minute, the aerobics instructor walks in. There’s a sheen of sweat on her brow from the class she just got done teaching. She saunters to the front of the room, tells the class to get into Savasana, then sits down with her protein shake to crochet a new pair of leg warmers.

Many a teacher has gotten so tired of their plans not being followed that they stop writing them. Instead, they leave a movie because it’s easier—but I still can’t bring myself to put my student’s learning on pause just because I had jury duty or my kids got the flu. Even if the film connects to our content, I know they won’t watch it. They’ll silently Snapchat while the substitute sits at my desk and naps.

If the subs at school were like subs at the gym, I wouldn’t have to write plans at all. What the sub taught might not be what I would have taught that day, but they might come in with their favorite poem—a poem that I may never have included that year, one that might spur a student to check out the complete works of Cummings or Dickens or Giovanni. Or maybe they’d bring in The New York Times and get my students writing opinion pieces on current articles. But whatever they had them do, it would be something they loved about literature or writing, something that would challenge my students’ minds, and something that might actually give the “real” teacher a break.

Hey, a teacher can dream, right?

Actually, I can’t. I need to start writing up my plans for when I take my personal days come May.

Hopefully, I’ll get a good sub.

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Accepting Them

As a veteran English teacher, I found myself in some new territory this year. There were several students in my classes who identified with a gender other than the one they were born with. This, in and of itself, was not the problem for me; however, grading writing where plural pronouns were being used to identify one person was.

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One of my best student writers submitted an assignment where “they” and “them” replaced “he” or “she” and “him” and “her.”  A creative piece, otherwise near-perfect in its composition and execution, I struggled with my role as teacher and grammarian versus liberal and humanitarian.

In the end, I gave the writing the grade it deserved: an A. I had seen enough of this student’s work; they clearly had a strong foundation of grammatical constructs, so instead I wrote a note at the end of the paper. It read:

I think the writing in this piece is very strong. As a teacher, I struggle with the pronoun use in it though. “They” and “Them” gets very confusing when you are talking about one person. I get that pronoun choice is part of the battle of gender dysphoria/transgender/gender fluid et al.—but I think a singular “he/she,” “him/her” would help. Unless there is a reason for “them/they” that I am ignorant to, in which case—Please educate me. 

I was all set to return the paper to the student at the start of the new semester; unfortunately, they moved to another school and I never had the opportunity; I would have to educate myself.

The book Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout was suggested by a friend/colleague after I had discussed the pronoun dilemma with her. She had seen an interview with the author, Laura Jane Grace, a transgender woman, and thought it might offer me some insight.

Another book I read was Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family. In it, the author discussed gender as a spectrum, and some of the research behind the human brain and gender identity was truly fascinating. I read the book in a day.

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As I was reading, my oldest daughter asked me about the book. I explained to her that it was about two identical twin boys, one of whom felt like a girl, and so the title Becoming Nicole is because the boy, originally named Wyatt, becomes Nicole- a girl.

My eight-year-old nodded her head sagely. When I asked, “Does that make sense?” She said it did, and it reminded me of something else I had read: an article by Janet Mock which was published in The New York Times shortly after Trump rescinded Obama’s rules on bathrooms for transgendered students: “Young People Get Trans Rights. It’s Adults Who Don’t.”

When taking attendance on the first day of school, I routinely ask students to tell me if they have a nickname or something else they prefer to be called other than the name on my roster. Last year, I had a boy I called Batman for the entire year. Often I get Alex for Alejandro or Nick for Nicholas. Occasionally a student will go by their middle name or first and middle initials. But this year, the names some students preferred weren’t simply nicknames, they were self-selected names that match the gender they identify with. Over the course of the year, I have forgotten these students’ birth names; I accept them for who they want me to see, who they really are.

Yet when students in my creative writing class were deciding who their partners would be for workshopping their latest writing assignments and one student said that he would partner with someone else because “they” were going to use the restroom, and then gestured towards another peer, I was confused.

“Wait. Who is going to the restroom?”

“They are.” And again, the gesture—a point at one individual student.

Because it is a small class, we openly discussed the use of they as a singular pronoun. I expressed my struggle with it, especially when used in writing, or in the case in which it had just been presented. “As the teacher, I need to know how many students are leaving for the restroom. When you say they, I assume there is more than one.” I shared with them the last two books I had read, and they shared with me who they felt they were.

“I’m a male” one student told me, matter-of-factly.

“I know.” I said, even though the student’s records report otherwise.

However, when the class ended, I still felt conflicted. I didn’t want my student who preferred “they” to think that because I felt the pronoun use was wrong, that they were wrong. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that for people who identified as male or female, a he or she pronoun made sense. But if you’re smack dab in the middle of the gender spectrum, which pronoun should you use? My research continued.

The first article that I came across was published in the San Diego Gay and Lesbian Newsletter (SDGLN.com), titled “Is ‘They’ insane? The awkwardness of using plural pronouns to address one person.” Authored by a transgender woman, it captured exactly how I felt about the issue. Holly Maholm wrote, “This was not just a change in ‘gender’ in the grammatical sense, but a change of ‘number’…I found this change befuddling. I could make the ‘gender’ change in conversation, but the change in ‘number’ absolutely stymied me.”

Yes! I thought. But then I scrolled through the comments. A few attacked the author as “transphobic” but even more mentioned usages in the English language where they was singular, referencing authors (Shakespeare amongst them) who had used it in their writing.

Maybe I was wrong.

Then I came across The New York Time’s “Who’s ‘They’?” and my ignorance was confirmed.

Amanda Hess wrote, “central to the appeal of the singular ‘they’ is that it’s often deployed unconsciously. It’s regularly repurposed as a linguistic crutch when an individual’s gender is unknown or irrelevant. You might use it to refer to a hypothetical person who, say, goes to the store and forgets ‘their’ wallet. That casual usage has a long history — it has appeared in Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen and Shaw. It wasn’t until 1745, when the schoolmistress-turned-grammar-expert Ann Fisher proposed ‘he’ as a universal pronoun for a person of unknown gender, that the use of ‘they’ in the same circumstance was respun as grammatically incorrect.”

Respun.

Yet another article “Pronouns Affect Transgender People—And All of Us” published in the Chicago Tribune quoted Carolyn Schneider, a counselor of transgender people, who makes the case that, “A pronoun is part of our core identity.” If my student identified with they, who was I to deny them? The author of the article, Mary Schmich, concludes the piece by saying that learning how to use the correct pronouns is, “A journey, a negotiation and an education that all add up to one word: respect.”

In my classroom, it has always been about respect. If my students feel less respected because of my discomfort in using they as a singular pronoun, then I needed to become more comfortable with it. I knew I was going to make mistakes, but if I could acknowledge those mistakes and show them that I was trying, then I could maintain their respect.

The next day they was absent.

“Where is they?” … Where are they?

This was not going to be easy.

As one of our daily writing prompts, I asked my creative writing students to write from the point-of-view of two non-binary characters using “Pronouns—A How To Guide” from the University of Milwaukee’s LGBT Resource Center.

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They all struggled with the prompt, but afterwards, a few of them shared what they had written. Even the student who had successfully used vever, and vis in their writing found reading it aloud to be a challenge.

One student commented, “That was hard, but I think we should try it again.”

They agreed.

I did too.

 

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If You Teach Writing, You’ll Want to Read This…

I love when I stumble upon a great book. I equally love when I discover an amazing lesson to use in my classroom. Often an idea for a lesson will be pieced together from something I discovered on the internet, something I read in a book, something a colleague shared with me, or it will simply come as a result of quiet contemplation (usually found whilst standing in a hot shower). When I have that Ah-ha moment, the result is instant elation and the urge to return to my classroom as soon as possible to try it out.

It’s like getting a new recipe where all the ingredients sound delicious, you can almost taste it, but until you get in the kitchen and make it, you can’t decide if it will be a keeper, a dish that you’ll put in the rotation for years to come.

Cooking—and teaching—require a bit of trial and error. The first time you attempt a new recipe, you follow it to the T, but then you decide that next time you make it, you’ll add shallots, or perhaps decrease the amount of cayenne, you’ll substitute chicken for beef, or double the amount of sauce it calls for. Eventually the recipe becomes your own, suited best to the tastes of your family.

A few years ago, I heard about a book called Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. I can’t recall exactly where I stumbled upon it, but I believe it was mentioned in one of the many teaching texts I’ve read by Kelly Gallagher. When it comes to educational philosophy, that guy would be one of my main gurus. For as long as I’ve been teaching writing, I have been on the mentor-text train. I love when students have a published text that they get to use as a model for their own writing. If you aren’t familiar with Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, it is essentially a non-fiction, memoir-style text told through a series of humorous vignettes that are categorized alphabetically. In addition to the vignettes, Rosenthal includes other text features like charts, graphs, pictures, and see also footnotes.

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I immediately started using Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life as a writing assignment in my creative writing class. After thoroughly examining the book with my students (a document camera is great for this), each student picks two letters of the alphabet at random. From the two, I allow them to choose one they will use for their Encyclopedia entries. The assignment is to write five vignettes for that letter and to model their writing after Rosenthal’s style. My students love this assignment for many reasons: the shorter entries, the fun and quirky writing style, the abandonment of the rules, and the challenge of working with a single letter.

As a teacher, you know a book is good if it gets stolen.

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life is one of those books I’ve had to replace. If you’ve never read it, it’s worth checking out, and not just for its teaching potential.

Over the summer, I was on one of my favorite websites: Amazon.com. Scrolling through the recommended items based on my purchasing history, I came across Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal. At first, I didn’t want to order it as it was only available in hard copy. Being cheap, I thought I could wait and buy it when it was in paperback.

I could not wait. I tried, I really did. (#NerdGirlProblems)

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Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal got devoured. I read it, I loved it, and I got not one, not two, but THREE lesson ideas from it. Like Thanksgiving turkey leftovers that provide you with ammunition for a week’s worth of delicious meals, I had hit the jackpot.

Lesson idea one is similar to the idea from Encyclopedia. Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal is categorized by subjects rather than alphabetically: social studies, geography, music, language arts. Many of the text features are the same as Encyclopedia, but some are new. Textbook uses an interactive texting feature that is so much fun. It also includes a pre-assessment, midterm, and final exam. My creative writing students were able to pick this year whether they would complete the Encyclopedia assignment or the Textbook assignment. We brainstormed different subject categories like Psychology, Mythology, and even P.E. Students were still writing five vignettes, but if they chose to take on Textbook, I allowed them to select the subject matter.

One student decided to use Culinary Arts as her category. She wrote a vignette inspired by each of her friends and the food that she associates with him or her, including their recipes. For one recipe she says it calls for two cloves of garlic, but then adds, “Let’s be honest, you know you’ll add more.” In another recipe, she incorporates watching a favorite movie as part of the cooking directions, while in another, one fat, loving cat gets added to a pile of catnip during the creation of Mac n’ Cheese. And that was just one student’s assignment. Each was unique, a pleasure to read and grade. (That’s right, I enjoyed grading them.)

In Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal, you are invited to text your idea for an “Amy Rental.” Rosenthal suggests that she has always wanted to have a reason to run to her room, pack a suitcase, and jump on a plane. So if you, the reader, would like her to come to where you live, say to help you host a dinner party, you can text your idea for how you might utilize her and see if it gets her packing. As my students know, I regularly invite authors into my classroom to speak to them about writing. One of my students came over to my desk with Textbook in his hand. “Did you see this?” he asked me. “You should text her and see if she’ll come to our class.”

We’re still waiting to find out if she picks us.

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Lesson idea number two came from Textbook’s Science section. Rosenthal includes “The Short, Collective Biography Experiment.” The idea behind this experiment is that people gather around a table and come up with statements that are collectively true for all members. One person acts as the note-taker and in the end, a short, collective biography is written.

It seems so simple, I wonder why I never thought of it. Since we were in the beginning of the school year, my students were still getting to know each other. I have my desks arranged in six groups of six, but I allowed students to pick their own seats initially, so of course, students sat by people they knew. With five feeder middle schools, many of the students do not know one another. The first thing I did was number students off and mix up the groups. Then I told them to introduce themselves and determine a note-taker. Once that was done, I explained they needed to converse and find collective truths for their group, trying to be as specific and narrow as possible. “Don’t just say we all have a sibling. See if you all have an older sibling, a sister, a younger brother, or a sibling who annoys you.” Avoid the obvious: We are all in fifth period honors English. They talked; I circulated the room and pointed out places they had written something lame.

Then I stopped them and I read to them the example from Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal. I told them they would be writing their own collective biography and that they should use the example for inspiration. Now they started to get more creative.  

I distributed copies of the example for each group and they began drafting their collective biographies. In the end, they did recite them, in unison, as Rosenthal suggests imagining she and her cohorts doing.

Let me just list a few of the things this lesson does: addresses speaking, listening, and writing standards; requires very few resources; engages all students; includes elements of social and emotional learning; builds classroom community; tricks students into learning while simultaneously having fun; and teaches them that they have more in common with one another than they might initially think.

As a teacher, I love eavesdropping on kids when they are in groups, especially when they are so engrossed that they don’t realize you are there. I would have shot milk out of my nose had I been drinking it when I heard one boy ask his group, “Have you all been hit by your mom with an object?” Or the one boy who had been grouped with all girls and as I looked at their list I saw, “we have all worn tights.” Later on, I heard him telling them that while he would agree to having tights on the list because, well, football… he was not going to admit to EVER having watched Hannah Montana.

Meanwhile, another girl asked me, “Wait, are we going to read these together to the class?” When I told her yes, she said, “I’m so excited for this!” (Me too.)

Lesson number three is for a poem and it’s found at the end of Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal. While I’ve not done this yet, I intend to. Throughout the poem, Rosenthal uses last lines from a variety of texts—including her own—and cites them via footnotes. For example, she includes the ending of Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life (“I was here, you see. I was”) as well as ending lines from Our Town, The Tale of Despereaux, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (among others). These last lines are woven throughout her poem much in the same way song lyrics are incorporated into a lullaby weave (another awesome writing assignment that teens really enjoy).

Wouldn’t it be fun to ask students to log the last lines of the books that they read throughout the year and then use this as a culminating writing assignment come May or June? Or the last lines from their all-time favorite books throughout their lives? Or ask each student to contribute the last line of the independent book that they are reading at that time to a “last-line bank” and then let students pull from them as they write their own individual poems? Think how engaging it would be to see how different students used the same line in various contexts. What if a last line could inspire a student to check out a book they hadn’t previously considered reading? (Hey, one can dream, right?)

Whether you teach elementary, middle, or high school—you could adapt these lesson ideas and use them in your classroom. Make the recipe your own, and then share with me how it went.

Happy Teaching and Bon Appétit!

 

Enablers

My friend/colleague was venting to me the other day. We were in the final days of the school year and a parent had contacted her “very concerned” about her son’s grade. It’s always fun to get those emails which make it seem like the child’s grade has come as a complete surprise. While that may have been the case many years ago (like, when I was in high school and teachers had paper grade books), today there is an abundance of communication and transparency when it comes to grades in school.

Grade books are electronic and when a teacher enters a grade, it immediately shows up on the parent’s portal. These portals can be accessed through the computer, or through an app. Parents can get notifications the exact second an assignment is entered as missing. Report cards are mailed home four times a year, and progress reports are mailed home at the mid-way point of each report card. And that’s only the start of it. Most teachers have websites and use communication devices that send text message updates and notifications to students and parents alike. If a parent doesn’t know what is going on with their child’s grades, it’s because they don’t want to know, not that the information has been covertly hidden from them.

Even so, that wasn’t what really irked my friend. Her complaint was that through emailing back and forth with this mother, she had outlined all the ways that this boy could raise his grade; the mother seemed grateful for this information, but then, not a few hours later, when she had the boy in class, his mother calls the school and gets him released early because the boy didn’t feel like staying in school for the whole day. He had texted his mom and said that they weren’t doing anything important…And she believed him.

So your kid is failing a class, but you allow him to leave the class and go home early? Hmmmmmm.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a one-time phenomenon.

This year, I had a girl in my class who struggled. She suffered from anxiety issues which affected her attendance, but in an honors course, these attendance issues made it difficult for her to maintain a passing grade. At the end of the first semester, her mother and I had a lengthy conversation about moving her into a regular English class. The mother told me that she wanted her daughter to stay in the honors class and that she would not allow her stay home from school any more…And I believed her.

Fast-forward to second semester.

In addition to her anxiety issues, this girl now also had “stomach issues” which is interesting seeing as how when she arrived late to class, she was almost always toting a super-sized soft drink from a fast-food restaurant. I’m going to assume she didn’t just buy a soda there either. I really enjoy the part where coming to school on time is so trifling that it’s ok to stop for a beverage en route. I guess she’s of that mindset that late is late. And just to clarify, we aren’t talking about five minutes late either. In classes that are one hour and forty minutes long, she usually strolled in during the last half hour. This semester, she was absent thirteen times, and tardy nine. That might not sound like a lot, but with classes that only meet every other day, there are about 45 classes per semester, and she missed instruction in half of them.

My favorite part though was when we had off for school for two weeks for spring break, and after we returned, she informed me that she would be missing an entire week because her family hadn’t been able to go on vacation over spring break. [Sigh]

It’s especially discouraging when I call home on a student and the parent says, “I don’t know what to do. Maybe you can help him.”

Um, hello? I was calling YOU for help!

I’m a reality television junkie. Recently, I found myself watching Family Therapy with Doctor Jenn. If you have ever watched Couples Therapy, it is the same premise, but with, well,  families. This introductory season showcased some familiar names like Dina and Michael Lohan and Tiffany Pollard, better known as “New York” from the reality show I Love New York, along with Bam Margera from the famed Jackass series.

Family Therapy highlighted Bam’s mother, April, learning how she had been enabling her son for all these years which kept him from growing up. While he was mostly detoxing from his drug and alcohol addiction on the show, they talked about how he never learned from his mistakes because his parents were always there to clean up after him. He would trash hotel rooms, but his parents got the bill and the damages were paid out of an account that Bam had no knowledge about since he wasn’t sober enough to handle his own finances. Bam argued that having to face the consequences of his drunken actions may have proved to be a sobering experience.

The thing was, his mom was so sweet on the show. She didn’t think she was enabling him. She thought she was just being a good mother. She would mother all the members of the cast, making them smoothies and bringing them out to the pool for everyone. What she didn’t realize- at least not right away- was that for every time she did something “motherly” for her son (buying his deodorant, making his lunch, washing his dirty laundry) she afforded him a free pass to not do it for himself.

It reminded me of how I kept putting lotion on my eldest daughter after she got out of the bath long after she was capable of doing it herself. How I wouldn’t force her to make her bed because it was so much quicker when I did it myself, and anyway, when she did it, it was always sloppy.

That shit needed to stop.

Last Sunday we decided we were all going to do housework. My husband was in charge of the lawn and I was attacking the bathrooms. I made my eldest vacuum and my youngest dust. My eight year-old started with her own bedroom.

“I’m done!” she yelled. I walked in and looked down at the dog hair that still lay on the floor. A giant dust bunny hopped out from behind her door.

“No you’re not. Look.” I pointed it out, then I walked back to the toilet bowl and kept scrubbing.

Eventually, she got the house vacuumed to the best of her ability. I’m not saying it was easy. Easy would have been sending her outside to jump on the trampoline while I vacuumed the house myself in half the time and with all the dust bunnies slaughtered. But easy would not have benefitted her. Easy would have enabled her.

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One of my favorite parenting experts is John Rosemond. He has a traditional, no-nonsense approach to raising children. Not befriending them. Not entitling them. Raising them. I was turned on to his philosophies by my mother and step-father who read his weekly column. They always agreed with what Rosemond advocated for, which often was in stark contrast to the parenting they observed in the world around them, but which resembled the parenting they themselves had done and the parenting that their parents had done.

Rosemond has a pretty straight-forward viewpoint on chores. Children should do them, and they should not be paid to do them. To summarize, he believes that chores allow children to contribute to the family. He likens this to when there were agricultural families and everyone pitched in to keep the farm running. Today, chores help children to learn responsibility, it keeps them accountable, as well as it grows their self-esteem.

While I agree on all fronts, I’ll be the first to admit that it’s still a struggle. That was one of the first things I realized when I became a parent and had to start disciplining my child. Parenting is tough. Good parenting is even tougher. It’s a lot easier to be a bad parent than a good one. It’s a lot easier to give in to your kids and let them win. It’s way more fun to be celebrated as “the best mom ever” for buying McDonalds than forcing them to eat the dinner you served them which consists of things they might not like, but are good for them…like vegetables.

I want to be a cool mom, but as a high school teacher who witnesses the result of that style of parenting on a daily basis, I know how harmful that can be in the long run. In reality, I think I’d rather have my teenage children say, “oh my God, my mom is such a bitch.”  There were often times I wasn’t fond of my mother when I was a teen, but as an adult, I am so thankful for everything she did for me. But even more thankful for all those things she didn’t do for me.

Nowadays, when my daughter is complaining that her skin is itchy or she breaks out in a rash, I remind her why she should put lotion on, but I’m not slathering it on her after ever shower. She’ll learn. And even though my house might not be as neat as it would be if I had cleaned it all myself, we’ll live with it.

After all, the goal is to raise children who one day can move out, right?

I’m sure there are other ways I still enable my kids though that (like Bam’s mother) I’m not even aware of, especially with my oldest. She was my first baby, and sometimes I don’t realize that she’s not my baby anymore. But every time I give her an opportunity to do something for herself-making her own scrambled eggs for breakfast, for example- I’m reminded why I need to do that more often. I birthed a perfectly capable human being. And when I ask her how her eggs are, she cracks a gigantic smile and tells me they are delicious.

What about you? Are you an enabler? As a parent, how do you find ways to stop enabling and start empowering?

Be the Village

This winter, my district called a snow day when it wasn’t really necessary. As a result, teachers ended up having to spend a glorious day of professional development on June 10th. It was our make-up day. A day we otherwise would have been off, sleeping in, and nursing our first hangover of the summer. Instead, we were back at work, after we’d submitted our final grades, painfully attending six morning workshops on 21st century learning and then an afternoon session attributed to Social and Emotional Learning, otherwise known as SEL. You can imagine how excited we all were.

This was a tough year too. I won’t get into all the particulars, but I will say that the morale at my school is at an all-time low, which is pretty bad since our morale hasn’t ever been that good to begin with. Teachers just aren’t feeling supported or appreciated. And we work really hard, so that sucks.

A few of my work friends and I went out for lunch in between sessions and one of my friends asked each of us what was something we would have liked to have been acknowledged for. We each took a turn saying the thing we had worked hard at that year that went completely unrecognized by our administration. At least we had each other.

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Then we returned to school for the afternoon session hoping that the time would go by quickly so we could start our well-earned vacations.

I actually was interested in learning more about SEL. After all, I’m expected to teach it now, there are standards for it, but no one has told me how to teach it or trained me in it, so I was eager to hear what our speaker would have to say.

One of the last units I taught this year, I thought, tied in nicely with SEL and my content standards, but was not appreciated by everyone. I started by having my students read, annotate, and respond to an article about a gender-neutral bathroom in the LA Unified School District. The article discussed how students had petitioned to get the bathroom, but then it was protested by a local church and fights broke out as a result. Next, my students performed a close-reading of an essay called “A Clack of Tiny Sparks: Remembrances of a Gay Boyhood.” In this essay, the writer discusses how he struggled to come to terms with his sexuality during his teenage years. Lastly, we watched a TED Talks called “Love, No Matter What.” The speaker, Andrew Solomon, does address homosexuality, but he also talks about the deaf community, dwarfism, those with Down’s Syndrome, and even the parents of the Columbine shooters. The big idea behind his talk is acceptance. My students practiced non-linear note-taking, writing objective group summaries, and answering text-based questions. Everything we were doing tied into Common Core standards, as well as the SEL standards of my district.

Still, I knew that there would most likely be a phone call or an email from a parent who didn’t like what I was doing. And I was correct. I had to have a “parent meeting” which was fine, really. The mom got to say what she felt, and I got to smile and nod. She said she had an uncle who was gay; they liked him and he was allowed to come over to dinner, but they did not approve of his lifestyle. She was concerned that this particular unit took two weeks to teach, but she failed to see that it was only five classes (because we are on block schedule, we only meet every other day.) Her big argument was that two weeks is a long time for a student to come to class every day feeling uncomfortable. Meanwhile…many students spend every day of their lives coming to school feeling uncomfortable, but who was I to knit-pick these points?

Did I mention this mom is also a history teacher? I wondered if she would cut her unit on the Holocaust short if there were Jewish kids in her class, or refrain from teaching about the KKK if she had students bothered by that content.

Aside from this one parent though, none of my students openly complained. Yet a few did write about it in their end-of-year reflection letters to me. There was one student who said homosexuality is tied too closely to religion and since we aren’t supposed to “teach” religion in school, they felt I shouldn’t be “teaching” about homosexuality. I had a few others who expressed their displeasure, but the thing is, for every student who didn’t like it, there were others who were thanking me.

At the end of the year, my students had to write a personal essay on one of their beliefs and also do a presentation on it. I really feel that the unit on acceptance helped them to be a little more tolerant of their peers as they stood in front of the class and talked about things like religion and atheism, self-love and suicide. There were some deep topics addressed and tears were shed. But what touched me the most, was the way that my students listened to and supported one another, even if they didn’t necessarily share the same belief.

Still, I didn’t know if this is what I was supposed to be doing as far as SEL goes. And if it was, how much of this was I expected to do? None of these questions have been answered, and I was hoping that maybe, just maybe, I’d get some clarification at this training.

I didn’t. But that’s not to say it was a total loss.

Firstly, the presenter began by acknowledging that he totally understood where we were at, as teachers, sitting in a training, on the last…..day…..of…..the…..school…..year.

Thank you. I like you already.

He talked about how important it is for students to learn how to give a good handshake, look people in the eye, and introduce themselves—a skill that is being lost in a world where we are always virtually connected, but not always present in. He mentioned the importance of learning how to be active listeners, a skill he claimed was an investment in our relationships. He discussed how students needed to learn how to disagree without being disagreeable, and he used the quote, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem becomes a nail.” And he stressed how important it was for people to know how to apologize.

Just days prior, I had witnessed this inability to apologize occur not once, but twice, in my classes. The first time was when this girl had borrowed another student’s notes to copy, but despite the lender giving her detailed instructions on where to find him to return the notebook, it was not returned. The lender was annoyed he’d not had his notes, which he needed to prepare for the final. I watched as the borrower offered up, not an apology, but excuses.

The second incident was only a few days later when I had to speak to a student who had turned in plagiarized material for his last essay of the school year. As I addressed this with him in the hall, he tried to explain all the reasons he turned in the web-essay, but he could not seem to utter up the words, “I’m sorry.”

These incidents replayed through my head as our presenter asked how much better our world would be if our students learned just one of those skills. I was reminded of a recent movie I watched. The title character, Ashby, tells the teenage boy he’s befriended to “don’t just say you’re sorry, make amends.” I was reminded how heartfelt apologies had benefitted every relationship I’d ever been in, and times when the lack of one seriously hurt them. And I was reminded of how much time I spend- as a parent- teaching my children when and how to say they are sorry, and why it is important.

As we were pairing up for an activity, a colleague commented how SEL is the job of the parents, but the presenter also said that many families today are missing two healthy parents who are actively rearing their children.

It takes a village to raise a child, and schools today have become the village.

As teachers, we can cross our arms and say “that’s not my job,” but as members of society who witness tragedies occur and who know that mental health issues are not being properly addressed, it is our civic responsibility to do everything we can. If teaching SEL addresses mental health issues, then I’m on board.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

The presenter reiterated this point time and time again. Social and Emotional Learning is, as he put it, “mental health first aid.” And here’s how: we create our thoughts, which create our emotions. Our emotions create our actions, which create our impact on the world. If we can teach our children to change their thoughts, it will change their emotions, which will change their behavior, which will change the world.

It will change the world.

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In the wake of what occurred in Orlando, it makes one think.

While I may not have left that training with the answers I was looking for, I did leave with some confirmation. I am going to continue to teach acceptance in my classroom, even if that means presenting students with texts that showcase the perspectives of people whose beliefs they disagree with, even at the risk of momentary discomfort. I am going to continue to look for teachable moments where I can tell a student: stop making excuses, and say you’re sorry. I’m going to continue treating my students as “my kids” and acting in loco parentis, because unlike my children, they may not be getting the parenting they need at home.

I am willing to be a part of the village so that my own children can live in a world where, hopefully, things like Columbine and Orlando happen less and less.

 

 

 

 

 

If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say

It’s Teacher Appreciation Week. Early May. We’ve been teaching since the beginning of August. This is the home stretch. There’s six more weeks of school. Spring Break is a faded memory and every morning is a little harder to get out of bed. The weekends are busier; time goes faster as the days get longer. It is Monday morning. I am tired. The students are tired. And I forgot about the breakfast that the PTO was hosting this morning.

Teacher Appreciation Week isn’t the same for high school teachers as it is for elementary school teachers. I get it. As an elementary student, you have one main teacher. In high school, you have seven. Even a five dollar Starbucks gift card for each would cost more than most families are willing to splurge on, and high school students don’t always love all their teachers.

My school tries to show its support. In addition to the breakfast, we usually get a free pizza lunch from our Leadership Club and some desserts from a student club that would be the modern-day equivalent of Home Ec. Our administration sometimes gives us something useful with our school logo on it- a flash drive or sticky notes. One year we got a plastic travel mug although I’m fairly certain it wasn’t BPA free. This year we got gum and a pen.

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Occasionally a student will give me a gift. Usually they are the sons and daughters of teachers. If I’m lucky, it will buy me a Carmel Frappuccino. If I’m not, they made it themselves. One year a student gave me a broach that he found. He told me it was a cougar- our school mascot, but it was a jaguar. And since I’m not 85, I never wore it. I think it is still in my desk somewhere.

My friend teaches at an affluent elementary school and every year she sends me pictures of her swag. Spa Finder gift certificates, Coach Bags, gift cards to restaurants and bottle upon bottles of wine. I’m not jealous though. She usually gives me the wine she doesn’t like. I’ll drink anything.

So on this Monday morning, I was already a little bummed at having forgotten about the free pancakes when I began teaching my class. As I distributed their new monthly calendars, I mentioned that this was their last instructional calendar when a student, let’s call him Peter, said, “Good. I hate this class.”

I stopped and turned to face him.

“Thank you, Peter.” I said. “That really made me feel good.”

He mumbled an apology.

Now first of all, I know that teachers are told NEVER to use sarcasm in the classroom. But say that to any high school teacher and they will laugh in your face. Also, I technically wasn’t using sarcasm, it was more verbal irony, BUT in hindsight, I probably should have avoided that too but ONLY because Peter takes everything very literally. Like an elementary school student, he does not get irony or sarcasm.

In the nine months I have known him, this is what I have learned. Every class he takes out about a dozen pencils-each is about 3-4 inches long- and lines them up on his desk. He also takes out his pencil sharpener and continues to whittle each one down to a pointy stump. He then takes said pencils and stabs holes in his binder. When he writes sentences for his vocabulary quizzes, they are all about cats. He loves Minecraft. Peter reminds me of a sixth grade boy.

Peter came to our school as a new student to the area. He had previously been in a much smaller school system. From the first time I met him, I questioned whether or not he was placed accurately in “honors” English. I wasn’t the only one. My student intern was concerned. The counselor was concerned. The only one who didn’t seem concerned was his mom who swore that he belonged in honors. Throughout the year, I have been in contact with his mother probably more than any other student this year. We have spoken on the phone, emailed one another, and had face-to-face parent teacher conferences. Peter struggles to get his homework done and has barely maintained a D, but he has passed mostly due to my efforts to communicate with his mother and her support.

As any teacher knows, parent communication is a time-consuming part of our job requirement. At the high school level, with 160+ students, it is an area I work to improve every year because every year there is room for improvement. (Similar to how every New Year, I resolve to floss my teeth more.)

So when Peter declared that he hated my class, it bothered me.

Now don’t get me wrong, I know that not every student is going to love my class. I also know that not every student is going to love English, or love me. But until you have tried in my class, I don’t think you have a right to judge it. Much like a food critic can’t review a dish he hasn’t eaten, Peter has not earned the right to pass judgement on my class.

I also don’t think that Peter hates my class. I don’t think he likes that he isn’t doing well in it. I don’t think he likes when I email his mother and she makes him do his homework instead of playing video games. But like a juvenile kid, I think Peter spoke before thinking and I think he wanted to be a little mean.

Next year, Peter is not taking an honors English class. This is probably a good thing, but it also is going to present him with more struggles. Peter will still not do his homework. His peers, in a regular class, are likely not going to be as accepting of him. For Peter, who has struggled with bullying in the past, this worries me. His teacher might not make as much of an effort to communicate with Peter’s mom as I have. Next year, Peter might authentically be in the position to say, “I hate this class.”

For Teacher Appreciation Week, I don’t expect a lot. I do, however, expect a lot as a teacher. I expect students to try. I expect that they do their best. I expect that they treat each other (and me) with respect. And that includes following the age old adage: If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m headed to that luncheon before all the pizza is gone.

What Are You Waiting For?

I have been teaching a creative writing elective called Writer’s Craft for three years now. My first year, I knew I wanted to bring guest speakers into the classroom, but I was so busy with creating the curriculum and getting my National Board certification that I wasn’t able to. So my second year, that was one of my goals for the class.

That second year, I reached out to local authors and was successful in getting a few of them (three to be exact) to volunteer their time to come speak to my Writer’s Craft class. Not only did the students enjoy it, but I did as well. Listening to real, published authors was inspiring. My students were learning strategies and tips from professionals—people who made their living through writing.

In year three, I upped the ante. This year, my goal was to bring in a guest speaker once a month. Of course, there would be some months that wouldn’t happen, like August when we had first returned to school and I hadn’t had the time to network yet. Or December, when we were only in school for two weeks before winter recess and one of them was finals week. And March, where we were again off for two weeks for our Spring Recess. But overall, I was successful. We had a total of SIX guest speakers this year, and only one of them was a returning author from the previous year. (I would also like to note that only one presenter was paid to come speak to my class, and that was made possible through a donation.)

This year, my students learned about creating character from Jacci Turner. They learned about archetype and voice from Virginia Castleman. They learned how to write their own story from Terri Farley and about stakes and tension from Heather Petty. Todd Borg drove for over an hour to instruct my students on the hook, the twist, and the cliffhanger. And the last speaker for the year was Tracy Clark, whom my class met via Skype.

Previously, I had never used Skype as a teaching tool. I’d Skyped with my parents before on occasion, but I never thought about how I might use Skype in the classroom until Tracy Clark offered to gift my class with a 30-minute Skype session. I was immediately intrigued and terrified. As a teacher, panic sets in when technology doesn’t cooperate. I had flashbacks to when my mother-in-law wanted to Skype but could never get her microphone to work and we spent the time both on the phone and on Skype simultaneously so that we could both hear and see one another. However, my librarian worked on my behalf along with our IT department to make sure it was all working for the arranged date and time. And while we lost connection once and had to call Tracy back, other than that, it was probably the coolest thing I did in my classroom all year.

My students got to see the inside of Tracy Clark’s home. They got to imagine themselves living the writing life. It was so personal and intimate. It was like taking them on a field trip without leaving the school.

All of the authors who volunteered their time to speak to my students were amazing. Each one of them has said things that stuck with me. However, something that Tracy said in this Skype visit really made me think.

One of my students asked Tracy how she started writing, and in response, she told us this story. She said that she always loved to read and she was reading to her daughter one night before bed when her daughter said to her, “Aren’t you so happy? All of your dreams have come true.” Tracy realized that all of her dreams really hadn’t come true. That while she was happy being a wife and a mother, there were other things she aspired to, and writing was one of them. When she explained to her daughter that there were other things she wanted to do, her daughter asked her why she didn’t do them. And that’s when Tracy Clark started writing.

This all happened just as I was thinking about starting this blog. Wait. Scratch that. I had been thinking about starting a blog for a few years, but I had never actually gotten around to doing it. Just like I had started that novel. And just like I had that really great idea for that teaching book that I’d written a query letter for. For each of those things, I’d let my life get in the way. And it was easy to make excuses because excuses meant that I hadn’t failed. You can’t fail at something you don’t actually do.

I’d also gotten in the habit of trying to enlist friends into my great schemes.

I had decided that my friend (I call her Hooker) and I should do the blog together. We like to get together and craft (and drink). We could call it “Two Hookers and a Hot Glue Gun” or “Crafting with Cocktails.” But Hooker never said she wanted a blog, so why was I pawning off my dreams on her?

I was talking to my mom and explaining this to her when she said that we like to have someone to blame other than our self. And she’s right (moms usually are). It’s another excuse we can add to the list for why we never got to do ________________.

Into_the_Wild_(book)_cover

In my English classes, we just got done reading Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer and we ended with a Socratic Seminar. As I sat there literally biting my tongue (as a teacher, it’s so hard not to speak during those things!) I was struck by the conversation of my students and my own thoughts on Chris McCandless. Among other things, my students were discussing how he lived his life, how he died happy and at peace doing what he loved, and how his escape into the Alaskan wilderness was his way of rebelling against society. Society expects people to go to college, to graduate, to start a career, to get married, and to have children. So many people wait till they are retired to do the things they want to do. When they are retired and the children are grown, then they will travel, or then they will have the time to golf, to start a garden, to hike, to paint, to read War and Peace, to learn Cantonese. But how many people never get to do those things?

The time to live your dream is now. The time to stop making excuses is now.

So here I am. This is my blog. What are you waiting to do?