Monday, December 20, 2010


I lean over Harry's desk.  He is a kid with shaggy dark blonde hair and an attitude problem.  He's brilliant.  He won't do homework.  He fails all his classes and there's no good reason for it.

He's in my writing elective; he's just mentioned that he's not planning on publishing in our print issue coming out in a couple weeks.  I'm checking in.  This kid has written an excellent biography and several short personal narratives that could be polished with minimal work.

"We're probably not going to have another chance to publish for several months.  I'd just hate to see you miss the opportunity," I say.

"I know.  I'm working on this story.  I just don't have anything that's ready, anything I want to publish this time."

His blue eyes meet mine.  I want to believe so badly that he will work hard on this story--that he will do what it takes to make himself proud.  "Okay," I say.  "It's your work.  It's up to you."

Harry has days that he gets minimal work done.  He also likes to socialize and stare off into space.  Today, he works the entire period, neat rows of blue ink in his writer's notebook.

I hope what he needs this time is a choice, a sense of control.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


I am reshelving books and generally bouncing giddily around my newly remodeled classroom while seven or eight students work in my room after school.  I rush next door for a minute to find out if we're still planning to go out tomorrow after school.  When I return, one student is on the floor, howling in laughter.  All the others are chuckling heartily albeit less dramatically.

"You don't even want to know," Charles says.

"I imagine I don't," I say, "so don't tell me and get back to work."

They try.  They really try.  But they can't hold it together.  Finally, Charles blurts out, "Jordan farted!" And they all lose it again.

I am reminded of a time in eighth grade when my best friend let out a ladylike little toot in U.S. History, then daintily raised two fingers and squeaked, "Excuse me."  Mr. Fitzgerald left the room so we could all enjoy a laugh.  I imagine he needed one too.

I tell this story while laughing with them.  Sarah looks up from her math and says, "You have to admit: farting is funny."

There is a thirteen year old in all of us.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


I'm circulating the media center, checking in with individual students as they read. We are working on writing on-demand essays, and their needs are so distinct that I've spend the last couple of days talking with each kid one-on-one. It helps their writing more than anything else I know.
I stoop down to listen to Melissa, who worked for hours on a narrative about her uncle's basketball team. As high school students, they served as her elementary role model, and she wrote a fabulous and sweet piece about how much they'd meant to her from afar.
We talk about her essay writing for a moment, but I know there is something else lingering. She is blushing a little. She looks like she is searching for words.
"You know my narrative I wrote about Jason and Chad?" she asks. I nod. I had urged her to share it with them, and the fragmented nature of the piece was quite sophisticated for an eighth grader's first narrative attempt.
"Well, my mom saw my uncle this weekend and got Jason's address. I'm going to send it to him to say thank you," she says, beaming.
"He'll love it," I say. "That's the power of writing."
I move on to the next student.

Monday, December 13, 2010


I have moved my students out to the hallway so we can hear each other reading a play.  It is our second-to-last day in the temporary classrooms, and the speech teacher has decided to go out with a rousing, loud game of charades or something similar.

It is sixth hour, and I cannot describe how angelic my sixth hour is. If you saw them, you'd think I was paying them in cold hard cash to behave.  To not have to manage any behavior between fifth and seventh hour is completely awesome.  They are fun.  They joke.  And they know when to work.

As our school is under construction, we've been holding class in the gym for the last ten weeks.  The kids know that nothing makes me angrier than outsiders disrupting their instructional time.  There is one construction worker who is constantly walking about the building, blasting his hip radio and dragging heavy boxes.  Whenever we hear a noise from inside our not so soundproof classrooms, we all look at each other and say, "that guy."

Anyway, we're in the hallway, trying to hear each other read aloud.  The students are holding themselves up against the lockers and I'm sitting at one end, in the middle of the hallway.  Class is clearly in session.  We hear "Stairway to Heaven," faintly at first and then coming closer. It is that guy.  Our laughter ripples like the wave--as soon as he passes one pair of students, they double over in silent glee.  By the time he passes me, the only person left reading is the poor girl who started the monologue.  She has not looked up from her lines.  Someone says, "That guy."

Tears are seriously rolling down my cheeks.  Shared human joy is so easy when you let them be people.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


Tuesday night I emailed a bunch of parents to voice concerns I had about their students' progress in our last unit.  I invited many of them to come after school tonight to work, so at 3:15 today, I have several yahoos messing around, getting their sillies out before they must get to work.

They happen to all be boys.  

By 3:30, they have all settled down and are working.  They are working on essays about hero myths, using terms like impossible task and deity intervention, creating thesis statements that make a claim about modern culture based on the content in our hero stories.  This is not easy work, and these are, for the most part, struggling writers.  I ask questions, listen, and press on.  They can do this if I will listen hard enough.  3:45 rolls around and three of the four have a solid idea.  By 4:00, one has committed to staying until he finishes--until five, even.  

I was planning to leave at 4:00.  For once, I didn't have pressing work to grade and I let myself leave early on those precious nights.  I look forward to it all day.  I tell them that I was planning to leave at four--before thinking--and then correct myself: "I'll stay with you until five--until you finish."

At 4:30, when I ask how he's doing as he's typing away, Lonnie says, "Good.  I didn't understand it before, but I get it now."

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


A new ninth grade student arrived in my writing elective.

He's "downgrading" to junior high.  His former school housed ninth graders at the high school.

He observed the room as the buzz of writing started.  The girl next to him is between projects.  She welcomed him; he started to ask her questions.  "Why can't we carry backpacks here?" he said.  "I mean, I wasn't going to carry my backpack around anyway, but they said it like it was a really important rule."

She responded, "I dunno.  We have some stupid rules here."

They turn to me.  "Why do we have stupid rules here?"

I love it when they ask questions like this and they truly want to know the answer.  They aren't being belligerent; they are truly curious.  I happen to agree with them. We do have some stupid rules.  My personal favorite: students are not allowed to stop at their lockers on their way to see a teacher in the morning.  This means they must walk all the way down the hall to a classroom, get a pass to return to the locker bay, and eat up at least five minutes of their allotted twenty to gather supplies instead of receiving help.

I love it when I can be honest with answers because I know they can handle it, and I know they crave it.

"Well, honestly," I say, "I think it's important for junior highs to have some stupid rules.  So that you can gain privileges when you go to high school.  Otherwise it's nothing special to move up."

They look at each other and figure out if it's good enough.

 "Yeah, like how you couldn't chew gum at elementary school..." Lisa says.

I guess it's good enough.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


I approach a male group of former students this morning before school in the hallway.

They are playfully roughhousing and trying to impress those around them as usual.  We say good morning.

Randy leans toward me and says, "Hey, do you want to know a secret?"

This is a dangerous question at the junior high level.

"I'm not sure," I say.  "Do I?"

"Oh, yeah."  He stage whispers.  "My shirt glows in the dark." A discussion about Hypercolor shirts from my time in junior high ensues.

In that moment, I know that Tuesday is going to be better than Monday.

Friday, December 3, 2010


Today was one of those hard, rewarding days. As we work through the essential question "Why do humans hurt each other?" there are bound to be difficult moments. In some ways, the most difficult teaching moments are the ones that make it worth it.

The piece I had the kids read today was not particularly daring. In October, People did a special report on bullying, in which they profiled six teenagers who were bullied for different reasons. They finished the statement I was bullied because... and the responses were:
1. people were jealous
2. we are overweight
3. I am muslim
4. I am biracial
5. just because
6. I'm gay

Before we started reading the profiles, I prepped the kids. "I know that some of these profiles are going to make you uncomfortable because you are going to recognize some of the people here. You are going to see reasons that people here at our school are bullied. And you might want to deflect it by making a joke. I am going to ask you to dig deeper than that, and really consider our essential question. Why are humans--kids you see every day--choosing to hurt these kids?"

Responses throughout the day were interesting. Most kids tried very hard to look within. A couple bullies snickered. Some excellent questions arose, particularly in seventh hour. Roger was laughing and bragging a bit because he said he guessed all the reasons why the kids were bullied based on their photos--and then he was right. Then he stopped laughing and said, "That's probably not a good thing." I said, "I think it might say something about you, but it probably says more than that." Another student stated that Joey, the gay kid in the article, could have prevented his own bullying by not coming out. A girl in his group pounced: "We are all different. Why should he have to hide who he is?"

The toughest moment--and my only one like this--was when Tyler approached with the article about Joey in his hand. "I don't like to read anything about this," he said. "I don't want to read it." I took a breath. I suppose I had considered this, but maybe with a short story with a gay character or something more obviously "controversial" (since people are controversial, as we all know). Not in a People article featuring six different kids.

 I looked into his dark brown eyes and said, "There's nothing sexual in here. (Don't even know if I should've gone there at all, but you can't take it back.) This is a person. I want you to read it."

He is a super compliant kid. He nodded and went back to his seat. I went and checked in with him later, saying, "The reason why, Tyler, is I want you to know how all kinds of people feel when they hurt."

He said, "I read it."

Tyler didn't respond further. I don't know if today did any good--for him, or for others. I know they're better off thinking about it than not, and better off with someone who won't let them shift away from the hard questions.  This is why I teach.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


Two of the best things you can hear as an English teacher (both on the same day, wow!):

a.  As I peeked over a kid's shoulder during writer's notebook time (they choose the topic): "Reading used to suck, but I'm starting to get into it.  Once you like a story, it's easy."

b.  In a discussion about human nature as we start our new unit:  "I thought I agreed, but then I talked to Nathan, and he changed my mind."

The second one reminds me of this gem of a poem by Taylor Mali.  You should check it out if you don't know it: 

Good stuff.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


Imagine an after-school book and movie club.  Imagine a fantastic discussion of the book Coraline happening, and then students munching popcorn, and then this scene coming on:

Imagine me shifting uncomfortably, wishing I had remembered this scene from when I saw Coraline in the theatre.  I had to love Kaleb's blushing and embarrassed face throughout, though--he proved innocence still exists in the junior high.

After we stopped the movie to discuss differences they liked and didn't in the movie, the lone seventh grader raised her hand: "I have a comment.  The theatre scene was just a little awkward."

"I agree," I said.  "I'm so sorry."

Monday, November 29, 2010


White boards snap up across the room with eager faces behind them.  We are playing a review game for their grammar test tomorrow.  Anytime I can incorporate tiny white boards, I will have immediate student engagement.

Three groups tie at the end.  There is no prize.  I want to give final tips for studying and preparing, so I opt for this instead of a tie-breaking round.  One of the winning groups does not like this call.  They taste arbitrary victory, and they want to claim it.

I review the expectations for the test, and look to the back of the room.  Brandon, one of the tying group members, is grinning from the couch.  His white board is in the air.  "Grrr," it says.

Brandon is a kid who is so quietly funny that I had to call home one night just to tell his parents how much I appreciate his sense of humor and how well he manages appropriate timing and delivery so it doesn't interfere with instruction.  

I continue with directions and suggestions, reminding students of the low-stakes nature of the assessment and what their options are if they don't do as well as they'd hope.  My gaze finds Brandon again.  He's holding up his white board.  "This is ridiculous!" it proclaims.

I can't imagine laughing so much in any other profession.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

5. (continued)

The rest of the story... (started on Monday's post)
Fatima looks down at her paper, and she looks like she might be ready to try it.  She looks at Andre, at Nancy, and then at the audience.  Then she buries her face in her hands and says, “No—I can’t do it.  Can Andre PLEASE read it for me?” she pleads. 
            I look at Nancy.  The girl is clearly in pain.  I am ready to cave, but this isn’t my call.  Fatima has written this story as a grade for Nancy’s class, and even though I am here with my class as an observer, she makes the decision.
            “Nope.  But let’s try this.  I want everyone in this room who is willing to be supportive of Fatima in this situation to raise your hand.”  Hands start to shoot up, but Nancy motions them down.  “Wait—this is serious, and I don’t want you to raise your hand unless you can really commit to it.  Being supportive means you will sit silently through her story, and you will remember how hard it was for you to present your story in front of the class.  You will think about how hard it would be to present your story in a language that was not your native one.  Now, who can raise your hand?”
            Hands shoot up—every single one in the room.  There is James Hughes-Morales, who has two parents in prison, but comes to class each day beaming.  He’s smiling widely at Fatima even though he’s just been messing around with a friend at the back corner of the room.  There is Janice White, who took some convincing to read her poem during second hour, but she finally went through with it.  As she raises her hand, she says loudly (she does everything loudly), “I didn’t want to read mine either, Fatima, but it all turned out okay.”  There is Marissa Davis, who isn’t a mean girl at heart, but for some reason has all the social capital to be that way when she wants to.  She’s the girl who has the right clothes, but you always wonder how she got so popular until she stays after school three days in a row helping organize our fundraiser for AIDS orphans.  Marissa stands up and raises her hand, even though she doesn’t have to.
            Fatima is gaining confidence, and her eyes are smiling even though her mouth is still scared.  “Okay, Fatima,” says Nancy, “Andre is going to sit up there with you, and he’s totally got your back.  He’s going to follow along with you, and if there’s a word you come to that you don’t know, he’s going to say it for you.  Got it?  He’s there for you, and we are all going to be supportive.”
            The room is quiet.  Without any reminders, it is quieter than it has been all afternoon.  You can hear small breaths—the students are even trying to breath quietly. 
            “You got this.  Gimme a pound,” says Andre quietly.  He holds out his fist in solidarity.  It takes a couple beats for Fatima to know what to do.  Pounding a fist isn’t second nature to her, it’s a reaction that is filed away in her dictionary of cultural references that will eventually become more like second nature.
            She looks down at the table, at her story, at Andre’s face, and then she reaches her hand over and weakly taps the edges of her knuckes against his.  The class continues to wait and watch.  I still haven’t caught Nancy’s eye.
            Fatima reads the first word, then Andre backs her up by reading the second.  As they continue, the story is impossible to understand—the fluency of the story is broken by the changes in voice; plus, Fatima is speaking so quietly you can barely hear her.  I can actually see students straining forward in chairs, their ears pressed toward the air at the front of the room, trying to understand.  I keep a special eye on my especially loud students: Janice, Alex, Jasper, ready to pull my index finder to my lips with stern eyes to remind them to be quiet.  As I glance around the room, though, I realize this won’t be necessary, and I can keep focusing my energy on understanding the story as well.  My eyes fill up with tears.  I glance sideways at Nancy sitting next to me, and realize that her eyes look the same way.  If we make eye contact now, they will spill over and the kids will know how touched we both are.  I don’t really care, because if that happens, they deserve to know how amazing they are.
            As the story comes to a close, Fatima says, “The end.”  It is said with satisfaction, but not with pride.  She is still ashamed of how her words came out.  Andre gives Fatima a pat on the back, and says, “Nice job, dawg,” but you can’t hear it over the applause in the room.  The students, silent as stones moments before, have jumped to their feet and giving Fatima thunderous applause for her strength and her effort.  I manage to suck my tears back inside by looking at the light, even though I don’t need to, and I sit back down to watch them. 
            Louis Johnson has said twice throughout the day, “That should be published in a book,” after his peers read stories he thought were particularly writerly-sounding.  He doesn’t say this to Fatima.  There are no patronizing comments about the quality of her work, but there is solid applause for her.  Andre stands near her, but does not make this moment about him, which would be easy for him to do.  He is a ham, a popular one, and if he wanted to break into a dance, it would probably be cheered for and encouraged.  He bows quietly and returns to his seat.  Fatima follows.  The next student comes up to the front of the room, ready to share her poem, which will be interrupted by a string of announcements—superficial ones about good and bad behavioral choices that students have made, accompanied both by gaudy prizes from the Cougar Closet and threats that people will be sent home, and won’t come back.  I watch the students squirm through these words, and each time the intercom beeps in the middle of Emily’s poem, groan.  They refocus at the end of each announcement, with varying degrees of encouraging reminders from Nancy and me.  They will not receive orange Cougar cards for what they just displayed, and they will not need them.  After Emily’s poem is complete and the bell rings, they will herd out to the hallways, yelling and flicking each other.  They may not remember this scene, ever again.  Seventh graders are impulsive beings.  They were just doing what seemed right at the moment.

This is why I teach.  
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!  I'll return on Monday with real-time stories.

Monday, November 22, 2010


This is the first third of an old piece I wrote.  Our students don't have school all week, but I'll share a bit of this each day.  It's one of my favorite teaching stories.

            Andre is named after his dad. His dad’s name is also Andre, and he sounds gruff on the phone.  That’s what Nancy says anyway.  I haven’t called home on Andre because I don’t have him in class.  Andre has trouble with reading, so he’s in a special reading class downstairs.  Right now, though, you wouldn’t know he has trouble with reading.  He’s sitting up in front of the room, on a fictitious Lorax panel, offering to read Fatima’s story for her.
            “No,” says Nancy.  “She can read it herself.”  Nancy is forty-one years old, with fifteen years under her belt, and she has the ability to push kids further than me.  The kids love her, and so do I, but I get easily embarrassed around her with kids, because she knows so much more than me.  I get competitive when I should be completely open to learning.  She sits on a table with a clipboard in one hand, her eyes firm. 
            “Please?” asks Fatima.  She is from Afganistan, just last year, and she’s not in my class either.  She’s still receiving extra English instruction.  She has written a story, but she’s too embarrassed to read it.  She knows that there are words she wrote that she may not know when she returns to them.  In Andre’s hands, her story is separate from her.  Fatima has been concerned about how she appeared to teachers all year, but her interest in the students (particularly male), is fresh.  She has been wearing her waist-length hair down more often, and brushing it in the hallways between classes.  It is black and shiny and beautiful, and during Ramadan she was embarrassed to wear her head scarf.  Now she sits and waits for Nancy to let her off the hook, thinking that she’ll cave if she looks at us pathetically for long enough.
            “No.  I’ll tell you what.   You and Andre can both hold the paper, and take turns reading each word—he reads one, you read one.  How about that?”  Nancy continues to watch them.  I try to catch her eye, but she is too busy observing them.  The rest of the room waits.
            Today is the culmination of a three-day unit between language arts and science involving The Lorax by Dr. Seuss.  Students have read the story, watched the movie, and selected a project to present—being part of a panel to speak on the environment, rewriting the story so that the environment thrives, or sharing a poem to give advice on current environmental practices.  Both Nancy’s class and mine are crowded into her room.  Students are perched on tables, which makes them feel cool because they’re sort of breaking the rules.  They’ve been doing a pretty good job of listening to presentations, but this is the class we were most worried about.  It is the end of the day.  Both of our sixth block classes are chatty.  They are also high-achieving, kind students, but they talk too much.  So with fifty of them in the same room, we were a little worried.  Nancy and I have taken turns reminding them to be quiet, and they have respectfully responded, but they still need reminders.  It is not the easiest environment in which to present a story.
            Andre and Fatima look at each other.  “Okay,” says Andre.  He watches Fatima’s eyes, as I watch his.  He has deep brown eyes, like dark-roasted coffee beans, with long camel-like eyelashes around them.  He is child-like in so many ways—his voice and his stature, his optimism in his approaches to other students.  Everyone loves Andre, truthfully.  He can bring the angriest, most volatile child in seventh grade to a grin with his repeated, pestering jokes.  He walks up to random people in the hallway (including teachers) and tries to dance with them, arms flailing wildly but controlled.  Andre can’t sit still in class, so sometimes he gets in trouble, but he apologizes and moves on.  He wishes he could sit still too.  When I see him in the office with a referral for disrespecting a teacher, I wonder what that teacher said to him, because I have never seen it.  If you can set Andre up for failure, you shouldn’t be teaching.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


Friday was my last day with students for a while, as they received a week off for Thanksgiving this year.  

Days before breaks can be a bit challenging.

However, many students were finishing essays  in which they compare Greek hero myths to modern hero stories.

One student’s thesis almost verbatim:
“The Greeks just needed heroes that were brave; now we need heroes that are brave and nice.”

Yes, we do.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


I sit with Charlie after school, discussing the optimistic setting in David Levithan's Boy Meets Boy. Charlie has been wanting to read this book for a month.  It disappeared from my classroom library, so he finally checked it out from the public library on his own accord.

"My mom doesn't like that I'm reading this book.  She calls it 'the blue book,'" he says.

"Why not?" I say.  "It's so sweet."

"Well, she's a Christian.  And... you know... she has her beliefs."

There are things I want to say about being Christ-like, but I don't.  Instead we talk about Infinite Darlene and how the ideal high school that accepts everybody is not set in the future, it's just an alternate reality because they are still using VCRs. 

I don't know if Charlie is gay.  I know he's struggled with friends and grades and adolescence just like all kids.  I know he could be.  I now know that he can't openly question his sexuality at home.  I know he can, in the tiniest ways, broach his questions with me by discussing a book.  He knows it is safe to be himself here.

This is why I teach.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


I invite my advisory students to make thank you cards today for Thanksgiving.

"I know you can blow this off," I say.  "But don't.  Don't be too cool to thank someone for what they've done for you.  It can be a teacher, a family member, a friend."  I talk a little more about ideas they could use, cards I should write, and then pass out paper.

Three of my ninth graders are too cool for gratitude, apparently. They sit and stare blankly. I'm a little disheartened and annoyed.  I wonder how much I should try and persuade them.

A quiet ninth grade girl, Angela, sidles up next to me.  She has a question.  "Can I make three?" she asks.

This is why I teach.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


I decorate my English classroom with quotes--some crudely done. Correction: most are crudely done. On half of a white poster board, hand-written in purple marker, is one of my favorites from Atticus Finch:

"I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do."

This quote hangs above my computer. Karl, a kid who repeated seventh grade last year, and who many accuse of being apathetic toward school, came back to have me sign a pass today. We are reading short stories, connecting them to hero myth structure, considering heroism on a daily basis right now, so the room is quiet and the questions are deep.

After I signed his pass, he didn't take his planner back right away. He stood staring at the poster, reading it slowly. I watched his eyes. He looked at me when he finished and said, in a dazed sort of way, "That's awesome."

We talked for a few moments about To Kill a Mockingbird, he went on his way, and I looked out at the thinkers in my class trying to become the best humans they can.

This is why I teach.