Friday, February 25, 2011


Scenes from a field trip to the public library:

**Students in small groups, crowded in shelves, whispering over open books, shhing each other when they get too loud.

**Wide eyes after students leave a session about the revolution in Egypt: synapses firing, connections being made.

**A grandmother convincing her two-year old to "share" the vacuum toy with one of our students as a ploy to get him to leave without crying, and as a result, showering our kids with praises.

**A community member glaring and glaring at our students doing research, which were apparently interrupting her games of computer solitaire.

**Open faces, real dialogue, our kids acting like adults because they are being treated like them.

Thursday, February 24, 2011


"I'm tired," Luke says as the bell rings at the beginning of fourth hour.

"Me too," I say.

"Oh, you look really tired," Michael pipes up from the front of the room.

I do look really tired.  When I was putting on my makeup, I noticed that it looked like I had either been crying the night before or had very little sleep.  Neither was true, but my eyes were puffy and red nonetheless.

"I know," I say.  "I'm not sure why I look so tired today.  But you know you should never tell anyone they look tired, right?"

"Why not?" Michael says.

"Well, because you know what you're really saying is...who knows what you're really saying?" I ask the class.

Craig raises his hand.  "You look terrible!" he says.

"That's right!" I say.

Michael protests, but it eventually clicks.  And another life lesson is had by all.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


I haven't stopped writing.  Last week just got utterly swamped.  Life is good.

My seventh hour and I are sometimes at odds.  Most middle school teachers are sometimes at odds with their last class of the day, I gather. It has been a particularly chaotic week with the preliminary stages of research, and I had rushed down the hall to discuss something with a colleague between sixth and seventh period.

At the beginning of the period, my students are to immediately read or write when the bell rings without prompting from me.  Seventh hour does not usually do so well with this, so I expected to walk in the door, thirty seconds after the bell, to a flurry of activity and noise.

I walked into dead silence, kids (pretending, at least) to be intent on their reading.  Except for the kids whose book was upside down, of course.  My jaw dropped in grateful surprise, a silent “Awwww!”

They held it together for a moment, when Mike blurted out from across the room, “I bet you weren’t expecting that!”

“Shhh!” I said, and I may have stomped a foot.  “Don’t ruin it…”

As I settled down into my own reading, I heard a slight wheezing from the back of the room.  Noah was doubled over, red in the face, trying not to laugh audibly. Something about the whole scenario had struck him funny.

Because class started smoothly, it went smoothly.  We were all warm toward one another.  It was sweet.

Monday, February 14, 2011


I was talking to a group of ninth grade girls this Valentine's Day morning when the conversation drifted to what else--Justin Bieber.  I asked, "Did anyone see Never Say Never this weekend?"

Shrieks and whole-hearted yeses ensued.  "Omigod.  I almost cried.  I cried when I saw him in concert," one girl said.

Another girl turned to me, looked me dead in the eye, and said with a completely straight face, "It is a movie that will change a person."

Happy Valentine's Day!

Thursday, February 10, 2011


Trevor has been to the library the past two days during independent reading time.  He approaches me, book in hand, and says, "I don't like this one.  It's too ________."  Trevor is a kid who loves a book once he gets into it.  He's waiting for the third book of his trilogy to come in.

I'm a little irritated when he walks toward me with his planner to leave for the library for the third day in a row.  But I try to see him as a kid who's struggling to choose a book rather than a kid who wants to beat the system and leave class.  I say, "Would you like a book recommendation from the classroom library instead?"

He nods.  I hand him Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (which everyone, young and old, should read) and he trots back to his seat.

Today I circulate to check pages, trying to figure out who read last night and who didn't, and I peek over his shoulder.  Page 34.  "Do you like it?" I whisper.

"Yeah," he says, and he's a kid with the most sincere voice, "Thanks so much for helping me find it."

I'm not proud to note that I teared up when he thanked me.  I was in awe of my students all day long, so I was sort of on cloud nine, but his sincere gratitude just put me over the top.  I walked away to check the next kid's page, looking up at the fluorescent lights to make sure the tear didn't escape.

It just reminds me that our job is to help kids open doors.  To educate. I know that sounds ridiculously simple.  But it's easy to forget in the daily busyness.  If a kid can't find a book, don't get angry.  Help him find a book.  If a kid doesn't realize that their word choice is disrespectful, talk her through it and help her understand why, instead of saying "That's inappropriate," and sending her to the office.  It gets a lot easier to point out what kids are doing wrong than it does to try and understand where the disconnect is happening.

His "thank you" today is another reminder that the little things--and the ways we handle them--matter.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


We are working on social action research projects.  Beginning major research units with students is so exciting.  It's some of the easiest planning I do all year and some of the most exhausting teaching.  Teachers make lots of decisions in a day--I've read some estimates between 800 and 1500, and it seems like that figure must double when we embark on research.  Students began narrowing topics in small groups today, and already some students have a good resource or two and others are completely unsure what they want to do.  My days are full of thinking on my feet and trying to connect students with resources they need in that moment.

One group struggled to figure out how to approach poverty as an umbrella topic.  Which direction did they want to go? Which community did they want to try and help?  At the end of the class they were still stuck. I said, "You are not doing this wrong. This is just hard work. Keep thinking.  Keep talking."  Eventually, they divided into two groups: one was interested in looking at hunger in a faraway place, and the other pair was struggling with the idea of wealth distribution.  Really struggling.

Isaac said as he looked at his group, "I mean, I just don't get it.  We have people who are starving and we have people in huge fancy houses that just keep buying more stuff.  It doesn't make any sense.  You learn it in kindergarten.  Share."

There was something very powerful in what he said.  I don't know how this pair will go about their process.  I don't know if they will decide the government should look at our tax structure or if people should just give more away to each other.  I'm not sure where their research will take them.  I do know that his comment made me think about how my dad used to call me his little socialist because I used to make comments like that.

I know there are things about "the system" that teenagers don't know and don't fully understand.  I also love it when they call on our best human ideals because that it what seems right to them.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


I am currently teaching an overage.  Five classes is considered full-time.  I am teaching five and a half (a writing elective that meets every other day) in exchange for an additional planning period every other day instead of every day study hall.  As an English teacher, it isn't worth it most days.

"Worth" it is a funny thing to think about it.  It's not worth anything monetarily.  The time difference is nominal.  Study hall is really the luck of the draw.  You might get 10 awesome kids who will let you use your study hall as an extra planning period anyway.  You might get 25 rowdy seventh graders who need to be taught study skills as they work.

At the beginning of the year, I didn't think I could do it.  I was burning out.  I couldn't read everything.  I had no idea how I was going to get anything published.

And then I realized I didn't have to do everything.  The kids LOVE my response on their work, so I try to give them that as much as I can.  But they can respond to each other.  They can be responsible for publishing.  Which is what I told them.  If you want to publish anything, you are in charge.  I will answer your questions.  I will help you.  But you have to design the layout.  You have to edit each other's work.  It is YOUR publication.

It is February 8th, and we haven't published anything this year.  To be honest, I've lost sleep over it.  I feel like it reflects poorly on me as the instructor.  I wonder if some of the kids are disappointed that we aren't publishing more.

But... today I sent it to the printer's.  I helped with compiling the final pages, putting it all together, filling out the order.  They did the rest.

And as I looked at it and prepared to send it away, I thought, This is worth it. I can see their faces as the look at the crisp color cover and open it.  I imagine their parents, finally open to a glimpse of their teenagers' worlds.  I am so proud of them.

It is worth the pride they will feel when they see it.  And next year, maybe I'll be able to do it in a way that I won't lose sleep.

Friday, February 4, 2011


"Why'd you put that sweater on over your dress?" Gina asks as she comes into class.  I see her earlier in the day for a different class.  The temperature fluctuates in my room.  I layer.

"I was cold," I say.  

"You're always changing clothes," someone pipes up from the back.  The way he says it, it sounds like I jump into the closet like Superman, emerging in a new costume once an hour.  

"I regulate my temperature with layers," I say.  "It's not like I'm changing my clothes all day long."

"Well, I like it better without the sweater," Gina says.  "We were talking about it earlier.  You looked like a wolf."  I raise my eyebrow.  "In a good way," she continues.

I wonder if my bewilderment shows on my face.  "A wolf?" I ask.

"Yeah.  You know, you're wearing all gray and black.  Your hair's down and long around your face.  Kind of wolf-like."

I'm thinking about how lions are the ones with hair around their faces, but I don't say anything about it.  I'm thinking about the randomness of the eighth grade mind.  I decide that wolves are beautiful, after all, and I'll take it as a compliment.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


Eric is writing a pirate fiction story for his independent writing goal, and I was talking it through with him after school.  He didn't know where to start.  He's a creative kid who gets sucked into details and sometimes gets stuck in the minutiae, unable to pull himself out and finish the story.  I know this about him because he's also able to talk through his process.

"Well, if I were you, I'd probably make a list of scenes I want to include, and then pick one to start with," I say.

A few minutes later he comes back up to my desk.  "Okay, I know where I'm starting.  I'm going to write a scene where the family receives their invitations to go on the cruise."

This worries me a little because he's got this great idea about pirates taking over the cruise ship and the parents getting killed and the kids having to solve the problem themselves.  I don't want them to get stuck in the living room, double-checking their suitcases.  This is a common problem with kids learning how to incorporate detail into their writing: they want to incorporate ALL details.  I've learned to talk about the balance of showing and telling, not just showing instead of telling.

I consider how to address this with Eric.  And then I decide to be honest with him about my concerns, just as I would with an adult peer writer asking for help.  I wouldn't do this with all writers because they might let me in to unintentionally take over their pieces.  But Eric won't do that, and my speaking to him directly could save him hours in the long run.

"I think that's a fine place to start," I say.  "But remember that your action takes place on the ship.  And that's going to be an awesome story.  And I want you to get to it," I say with a smile.  He knows what I'm thinking.

"Yeah.  I promise I won't get stuck with them packing," he says, and starts typing.  It's a really good feeling to know what a kid needs and do your best to meet it.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


On my second snow day, a blast from the past.  This is one of my favorite memories from teaching at my old school.

The primary goal of the field trip was to connect kids with resources.  This was an equity issue.  It was a city, and our population was hugely diverse in economic resources, race, and languages spoken.  There were small branch libraries.  Students could use public transportation to get there.  If they had access to a library, they had access to a computer, books, after-school homework help.  This was huge.

After helping students map routes using public transportation to their local branch, we all took public transit to the library that day.  It was everything you might imagine: thirteen year old girls huddled around poles and squealing at every turn, me constantly reminding students that we weren't the only ones on the bus, eventually giving up.  For those fifteen minutes, my kids reinforced every stereotype the three elderly passengers had about teenage students.

But they couldn't see my kids once we got inside.  They didn't see their footsteps suddenly soften when we entered the modern atrium.  They didn't see their eyes widen at the computers upstairs, the vast shelves of material they could take home for free, the absolute kindness in the librarians' eyes (I'm convinced that most librarians are actually saints).  They didn't see smirks turn to grins as library cards were passed out.  They didn't see my rowdiest boys fight the temptation to play in the fountain as they ate sack lunches because we were at the library, and you acted civilized.  

They didn't see the long-term impact, months down the road when I asked kids if they could work on this assignment at home.  "Do you have a computer?" I'd say.

"No, but I'll go to the library."


We waited at the bus stop for our public transportation to take us home.  We had to make this bus in order to get the kids back to school in time to catch their own buses.  There were sixty of us.  It was going to be packed.  The bus approached, the driver looked at us standing there, and kept right on driving.  He was not interested in giving us a ride.  I made a split second decision and took off after it.  We had to get on that bus.

A block later, the bus stopped, the driver glared at me, and we took deep breaths as we poured up the stairs.  The kids packed themselves in, buzzing with the energy of the day. As we rounded the first corner and the girls at the back screamed, I made eye contact with a man sitting across from me.  He was about sixty, wearing a dirty jacket, sporting a weathered face.  The girls' screams were loud, and I always forget how loud in general the kids can seem for people who don't live and breathe that environment.

He rolled his eyes.  One at a time, slowly, the words came out of his mouth: ""  I couldn't restrain my smirk, and I didn't try that hard.

But I thought of Juan's arms lugging a huge pile of graphic novels sprinkled with a biography and James' carefully selected novel.  I saw Karen's face at the rows of computers: "These are ours... to use?"

I wished that man could see the light in my students that I did.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


I'm feeling the doldrums of winter and sometimes finding it hard to share a great story every day.  You've probably noticed, if you're reading.  :)  In some ways, I find it important to find something great about my job (almost) every day.  It makes me see the kids in a different way.  On the rough days, it makes me consider the growth I'm making.  These are really good things for me.  I wonder if they are interesting to read, however.  It might be better for me to choose just the best stories to share.  This is where you, gentle readers (all five of you), come in.  Give me some feedback if you are so inclined.  Would you prefer fewer posts of only the best stories or more frequent posts that provide a snapshot of a teaching day, even when it isn't very exciting?  Let me know.

Today's post isn't about students because I am home on a snow day.  For me, snow days as a teacher are just as wonderful as they were when I was a kid. It's funny because it's common for some teachers to complain about snow days: "We're already in school until June 3rd!" I found myself doing that some until my husband pointed out to me that it was just plain silly as most people work all year round.  Now I try just to enjoy them as a pleasant and unexpected break.

I did my homework last night just like I did as a kid so I wouldn't have any school responsibilities today.

I slept in a little (not so much that I won't be able to sleep tonight).

I will enjoy a slow breakfast of steel-cut oats and berries.

I will read: reread Frankenstein for my master's comps and something else from the shelf for fun.

I will write my 750 words (I'm participating in the February challenge).

I will refresh myself so I can be a better teacher tomorrow.