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."