Leap of Faith: Keeping Promises Made to Myself and My Students

Remember that scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? You know, the one that still makes my stomach fall through me, the one that has me holding my breath like I’m 11 years old, sitting too close to the TV, unable to look away or even close my eyes? This one:


Indy’s big leap of faith, wherein his only chance to retrieve the Holy Grail and save his father demands that he walk across this gaping chasm of certain death, trusting that, despite all visual evidence to the contrary, there is a bridge and he will not fall.

By the time I was 11 and seeing Last Crusade for the first time, I was well-acquainted with Dr. Jones. I’d seen him fight bad guys, dodge bullets, survive Shortround’s driving skills, live through Spielberg’s extremely racist representations of Indian culture (thanks, by the way, for years of being asked if I’d brought monkey brains for lunch), and not have his face melted off by vengeful ghosts. I already thought he was dreamy and daring. But this scene, this terrifying moment, his determination to do what seemed to me impossible at the time – this was the bravest thing I’d ever seen him do.

Faith is, I think, at the center of bravery. Often I have had students examine and define and redefine “brave.” Their beginning definitions focus on physical strength, fighting, and protectiveness. But as we consider the actions and people that count as brave in our eyes, and share those stories and experiences, the definition of “bravery” evolves. Different groups of students regard the word differently, but many students note that the people we consider brave are admired for believing in things that no one else did, carrying on when situations seemed hopeless. That’s having faith, isn’t it? Believing when there is no evidence to support you, holding on when no one is on your side.

Of course, we can go too far. The line between confidence and a closed mind can be finer than we realize. But I can’t deny that it takes courage to have faith, and bravery requires believing when it is least possible, least convenient. It doesn’t mean not being scared, or never having a doubt. It means facing that doubt, that fear, and taking another step forward anyway.

At the beginning of the year, I made some promises to myself, about my classroom, my students, and my teaching. I’ve tried to be true to those resolutions, but I’m finding myself looking down right now, staring straight between my feet into the yawning darkness below. Because there’s no bridge, not really, no tried and true, foolproof way to get x result by y deadline. There is what I believe, what I know has worked in the past, and what I’ve promised to myself. These are the supports I count on carrying me across the chasm of this school year. I tell myself not to look down, like they do in the movies. And then, like they do in the movies, I look down. I look down because maybe I am not reflective enough and what I believe needs to be updated or reexamined. And I look down because, yes, these things worked in the past, but this is a whole new year, a new group of students; this is not the past, it’s now. And I look down because the promises I’ve made don’t focus on state test scores and Common Core Standards and buzzwords that are repeated and rebranded at every PD meeting. Those promises are about what I believe is best for my students, but doubt is starting to creep in.

It’s testing season in New York City – today starts January Regents Week. January is generally a frenzy of test prep – review packets, paragraph templates, acronyms for testing strategies. Meanwhile, my classroom routines proceed as usual: quote of the week, TED Talk or NPR story, slice-of-life writing, peer feedback days. I try to be the calm center of the test prep oasis, redirecting pent-up energy and soothing rising anxiety, but my own panic clamors. As test practice consumes the rest of their day, am I being too lax? Years of experience have led me to believe that, while students should be familiar with the state assessment, practicing by taking old English Regents over and over does not help them pass the upcoming exam. But what if I’m wrong? What if developing reading and writing skills and independence isn’t enough? I can’t help but look down, hoping that the bridge is still there. Not that looking does much good. The tricky thing about faith is that you can’t see what you’re looking for.

If I could make a graph of New Year’s Resolutions and our attitudes towards them, the first two weeks of January would show a steady climb. Enthusiasm is high at the beginning of year, generally. But around the third week, many resolvers start to waver. And some just plummet. The graph would show a mountain’s downward slope around now, and it’s not because we can’t accomplish our resolutions, or that they’re too hard or unrealistic. It’s that we start to doubt ourselves. We lose faith in our ability to stick to the resolutions we set. Around here, the line of my graph would split. One branch would continue sloping down, but the other would start climbing back up. Because many of us give up when we start doubting ourselves. Many of us can’t recover. But some of us face that doubt, and come back. Some can renew their faith, strengthen their resolve.

I have to believe, like Indy, even when the course I’ve set seems impossible, even when I doubt that I will make it to the other side. My faith isn’t blind, my path is not reckless. But it is difficult, and this won’t be the first time I look down and wonder if I’m actually standing on anything. I just have to decide to be brave, and take the next step forward anyway.

How’s your faith holding up? What are you doing to keep your and your students’ faith in the classroom? I’d love to hear your comments!


New Year, New ______ : Reflecting on Resolutions for the Classroom

I’ve never been big on New Year’s resolutions.

I’ve gone through the motions in the past, trying to set goals and get excited about the new year, new ____! But they’ve always seemed somewhat hollow – people declaring they’ll give up a habit as strongly rooted as an addiction, or master a skill that others spend their lifetimes honing, just generally promising a complete transformation in who they are and who they have been. It’s not that resolutions are not admirable, or important, and I’m glad that there is a cultural tradition that encourages people to think positively and move forward with goals in mind. I’m just not good at them. 

For one thing, being a teacher, the year doesn’t start on January 1st, for me. It starts in September, and my reflections and resolutions are continual, year-long practices. Also, the goals I do set rarely resemble the specific, measurable – dare I say, S.M.A.R.T.? – goals encouraged by everyone from lifestyle bloggers to Department of Education administrators. My fuzzy goals should not yield success, but generally I find I make more progress with a vague resolution (“I’m going to write more” = this blog not being totally abandoned) than with a clear, specific goal (“I’ll write for 15 minutes each day” = I’ll write once in my brand new notebook and then accrue daily guilt over not writing in it ever again). This approach isn’t really conducive to sharing New Year’s resolutions; when people say “What are you going to do this year?” all I can really think to say is, “Better.” 

But even though I’m not great at resolutions, I do believe in reflection and improvement. So, I’m making some New Year’s resolutions for my classroom.

I will remember to have fun. Not every day. The notion that every single lesson of every single day can be “dynamite,” as they say in New York City, is a foolish one, I believe. Learning can and should look differently, happen differently, as befits content, mood, class size, etc. But I’m resolving to have fun with my students, even if it’s only for a few moments in a class, because I’ve seen the positive effects of fun. I know that when we’re enjoying ourselves, we all feel better, more connected to the class and one another. I know my students remember more when there is room for fun, and that they’re more motivated, and want to come back again. I have the students that I have. They are struggling with a lot, their lives outside of school are rarely stable, and they are more aware than I was at their age of how easy it is to walk out of the door. I want them to know that coming to school is important, but I also want them to know it is enjoyable. I’m resolving to do my part in communicating that.

I will step out of the center. I generally run a student-centered ship. That phrase has become buzzy in recent months, but it’s true. I try to put a lot onto my students, to make their voices and questions and choices a large part of the direction of our class. Looking back on the past 4 months, I see that I haven’t done as much of that as I feel needs to be done. It’s easy to be pressured to make things look good, or to “help” too much. But I’m resolving to step back this semester. I’m revisiting our lessons on questioning, and I’m going to check in with my students more. Most importantly, I’m going to listen to feedback and adapt accordingly, even if that means moving more slowly or changing direction. I’m resolving to remember that I don’t teach English, or grammar, or To Kill a Mockingbird; I teach 11th grade students. 

I will make sure that we learn what matters. I know that there is an overwhelming and harmful focus on test scores in our education system. It enrages me, and it interferes with my job. And I can attend conferences with like-minded individuals, and share videos like this, and like articles on Facebook, and blog here about how a student is more than a test score. But that doesn’t help my students, the ones I have right now, understand that they are more than their test scores. So I’m resolving to stick to my guns and help my students discover what is valuable. That may be communicating through writing, or reading books that move them, or developing integrity, or telling a great story. I resolve to continue creating an environment where those things matter more than the state test.

I resolve to be kind. To my students, to my colleagues, to myself. I will make sure my students know that they can be themselves, be vulnerable, and be honest with me. I will not take out my frustration at the system, or at the teenage brain, on our classroom. I will not avoid colleagues who seek, or need, help. I will respect my own boundaries, though. I’m not going to surround myself with negativity, or indulge someone who disrespects me or my time. I will read what nurtures us, I will write when I can. I will be grateful, and share my gratitude. I will do what I want to do this year; I will do better.


What are your teacher resolutions? Share in the comments. Happy New Year!

‘Tis the Season: Education Projects and Fundraisers Worth Supporting

Boyfriend gave me this great idea: there are so many opportunities to support educators and classrooms that choosing can be overwhelming, but I can help! Being connected to a few large teacher networks, a lot of fundraising efforts cross my inbox. I give as much and as often as I can, and I share on Facebook, but that sharing relies mostly on my friends’ whims (and their current level of flushness). Often, great and worthy causes simply don’t get the attention they need to thrive. So here are three great projects that could use some attention and donations. (In the interest of full disclosure, these three are all projects of people I know and support. Going forward, I plan to expand the scope of these posts to include projects to which I am not personally connected.)

**UPDATE** My wonderful, generous, awesome boyfriend would like to match up to $100 worth of donations to Mr. Pecunia’s Greenhouse Project! If you donate to this project, please comment here email a copy of your receipt to thomscill@gmail.com. I’ll inform him of which donations should be matched. This is a great opportunity to increase funding for this awesome project! See #2 on the list below for details.

1. An Organization: Fundraiser for English Teacher’s Friend

The Skinny: A not-for-profit organization that provides free resources, programs to support students and teachers in authentic and relevant learning experiences, and a weekly newsletter PACKED with awesome ideas, materials, and supports, this teacher-run organization is participating in a Crowdrise/HuffPo contest to win $100,000 dollars of funding. Ultimate goal: $50,000 by January 9th

The Details: Founder and Executive Director Tamara Doehring launched ETF in 2009, with 12 years of classroom teaching experience fueling her to push back against the encroachment of standardized curriculum that promised to push student creativity and teacher support out of the classroom. The ETF newsletter reaches upwards of 5,000 teachers across the country, providing them with inspiration and free materials to invigorate their classrooms, even within the pressures of standards and testing. ETF also facilitates amazing programs to foster and celebrate student creativity: Voices in Verse, NAS: Not A Statistic, & the Florida Scholastic Arts & Writing Awards. You can read more about the mission, goals, and accomplishments of this fantastic organization here.

Why You Should Give: As mentioned above, ETF is completely not-for-profit. I came across their booth at NCTE a few years ago, drawn by the “What Would Atticus Do?” buttons they were selling (is this not reason enough?) The weekly newsletter I have received since then has helped me countless times. The newsletters are well-crafted, usually featuring the stories of a teacher, and they are always topical and relevant. They have helped me infuse fun and creativity during the bleakest times of the school year, when seasonal burnout is looming and most of my energy has gone to getting myself into my classroom. Perhaps most importantly, they are a consistent, reliable reminder that we are not alone in wanting more and better for our students and their educations. And if this amazing organization does not reach its goal by January 9th, it is facing shut down. The teachers who run this not-for-profit do so in addition to teaching, coaching, and living, all so teachers across the country can have hope and support. The contest with HuffPo includes publicity incentives: as more funds are raised, HuffPo will tweet, post, and share their progress, attracting more and more attention and funding. So even if you can give only a little bit, you will be boosting this fundraiser toward more eyes and more possibilities. Also, donators are eligible for free gifts & giveaways from Crowdrise! Earlier this month, they gave away two Droid phones. So, helping teachers and getting cool swag? Win-win.

How to Give: Visit the Crowdrise page here and click on the blue “Donate” button. If prompted to pick a team member, you can select Tamara, or me, or anyone! Then share, share, share, and keep your fingers crossed for a cool prize!

2. A Teacher: Mr. Pecunia’s Greenhouse Project

The Skinny: Mr. Pecunia is helping his students at a Bronx high school for recent immigrants create a garden for their courtyard. His mission to bring hands-on learning and green spaces into his students’ lives  promises not only to generate more interest in science, and other classes that incorporate the garden, but also to help students coming from very different environments feel ownership and comfort in the unfamiliar, concrete world of the Bronx. Ultimate Goal$415 ($366 left to go!)

Why You Should Give: Hands-on learning, like trade classes, shop classes, cooking classes, and even arts (including music and dance) classes, are rare gems in New York City public schools. The budgets for these programs have been slashed, and the spaces needed for these classrooms cannibalized as the small school movement packs up to 9 high schools into a single campus. Despite the innumerable studies and research projects showing the positive effects hands-on learning has on students, there is no funding for efforts like Mr. Pecunia’s. His goal of installing two greenhouses in the courtyard of this high school will make hands-on learning accessible to students, and also provide some comfort and connection for students who have come from warmer, greener climates. There is not much green space to be found in the Bronx, and students coming from cultures in which farming and gardening are a part of life experience a great shock when realizing that growing things is not a part of the culture here. The Cornell University Garden Based Learning project has found that school gardens benefit students in so many aspects of their lives and educations, how can you resist?

How to Give: Head over to the DonorsChoose.org page for this project and give what you can!

3. A Student: Raven’s Chilean Expedition

The Skinny: Raven is a dedicated student at the University of Albany who is trying to fund a winter study abroad opportunity in Chile, where she will participate in a medical internship at Hospital Clínico Universidad De Chile Ultimate Goal: $3,500 ($700 and one week to go!)

Why You Should Give: I came to know Raven through a group for survivors, GIRLTHRIVE, and the staggering odds that this amazing young women has overcome astound me. Raven has truly thrived, despite the hardships she has faced, and represents so much hope and inspiration in my own life, that to support her in her goals is a privilege. She is a dedicated, hard-working student, and a powerful mentor for younger girls. She has championed initiatives for intervention and mentoring teenage girls, and has been involved in national conferences around these issues. I know that she will use the opportunity to study abroad for the greatest good. Helping this incredible young women will generate some serious good karma in your life.

How to Give: Visit Raven’s GoFundMe.org page to donate what you can! Just about one week left to give. Don’t forget to share Raven’s page on Facebook or Twitter after you’ve donated.

I hope you find something worth giving to this season. There are so many hard-working teachers and students who can use our support, and the holidays are a great time to spread the joy of gift-giving. What causes, classrooms, or students are you supporting? Tell me in the comments!

Let Us Learn: On MOSLs, Baselines, & Sucking the Life Out of a Classroom

When I started this blog, I wanted to avoid day-of posts, which I figured would be single-drafted blasts of emotion that would splatter an incomplete picture on the page. I wanted to cultivate pause, let my thoughts steep between drafts. But I am, in my nature, volcanic as a writer, prone to explosions of inspiration & lava flows of thought, not so concerned with looking back on the eruption & revising my path. I don’t wish to just spew rage, but I’m on the brink of spilling over when it comes to education in New York City.

From this appalling New York Times editorial beseeching Bill de Blasio not to undo Bloomberg’s good work, to new evaluation systems that put test scores above students, it’s a rough time. This week, I’m losing two days of instruction to administer a baseline assessment sent by the DOE, a “Measure of Student Learning.” My students are losing two days of discovering themselves as writers to sit against a wall of frustration, trading in the authenticity of writing for publication on our newly launched class website to establish a claim about a prompt meaningless to them, their experiences, their passions and interests and inquiries.

The idea behind the MOSL Baselines is that students are given an assessment near the beginning of the school year with no preparation, and then given the same assessment at the end of the year so that growth can be measured. Teachers have been doing this forever, I think. My colleague, who has been teaching for 35 years, commiserated with me today. Like me, he starts each year with a baseline, or diagnostic assessment, or whatever you would like to call it. The key to his baselines, he told me, is that students want to write them. It’s an opportunity for them to introduce themselves, to show off, to divulge information they don’t normally consider sharing for a class assignment. Baselines have always been the same for me – letters of introduction, written responses to provocative image prompts, story endings based on an enticing opening line – the key is accessibility. I want something nearly every student can and will complete, and I can use that to learn so much about my students. I can identify strengths and areas in need of improvement, and from these observations create a checklist of skills and topics I should cover in our class, determine which I should address first, consider which genres would be appealing and which they’re not quite warmed to yet. I can see what students are comfortable sharing, plan out peer groups, delve into a wealth of information, because this is what I do. This is what teachers do. I don’t need someone on some committee to slap together a selection of loosely connected readings bound by an arbitrary writing prompt based on a narrow interpretation of the standards and mandate that I administer it twice a year to my students.

That committee doesn’t know my students. That committee doesn’t do what I do.

Probably the most valuable thing we do in our classroom is question. I found early on that the students I was teaching, in Bronx public high schools, had internalized the idea that having questions was a sign of stupidity, or disrespect. So I put the spotlight on questioning, on the validity of questions. I love questions. In our classes, we discuss questions, analyze them, create tiers of questions (Tier One = “Huh?” is always a great starting point). During  a staff meeting this week, my principal jokingly spoke of how teachers say, “Any questions?” and mean, “Please don’t have any questions.” Not I, sir. I demand questions. In our classroom, it’s not, “Any questions?” It’s, “Ask a question.” Student questions are our core. They drive our discussions, our writing, our reading. They adorn our walls and notebooks. When they’re particularly deep, they make us pause and hum with appreciation. I catch students stroking their imaginary beards.

I’ve gotten a lot of praise for this kind of approach to questioning, from admin and observers. I don’t say this to brag; rather, well, to question. I am constantly hearing about this need for student-centered classrooms, in which students guide and facilitate as much of their own learning as possible, and I am being told that the new standards and the new evaluations highly prize this kind of environment. But the mandated MOSL I gave today left no room for student-centeredess. There was no choice of written response; it was an argument essay. A claim and counterclaim were required elements. The argument was not based on student opinion, either. The prompt was one of those truly impressive feats of bureaucratic doublespeak that managed to be straight-jacket specific and dizzyingly vague at the same time. These were challenging texts to begin with, but were students given the space to generate their own questions and ideas, at least there would be the possibility of the connection, the opinion, and the wonder that foster writing. Instead, the prompt left students bewildered, and even I had to squint and ponder for almost an entire class before I found a few weak threads to tie text to task. In the Writing Project, we talk about “warm prompts” and “cold prompts”; this prompt was frigid.

My colleagues tried to offer me comfort throughout the day. I’m fairly sunny on the daily, but today I couldn’t shake my raincloud. Don’t worry, they told me. You actually want them to do bad on this one! Ha, ha. See, the MOSL isn’t really about student progress, at least not as much as it’s about teacher evaluation. So this test, this very mean test that has nothing to do with what I’m teaching, that removes students from the center and smothers their voices as writers, that wastes days of our time together, is not even for my students. This is where I am disgusted, where all I can see is the exploitation of under-informed parents who are not aware of their students’ time being eaten up, and already bleak morale lowered, by meaningless assessment. All so that it is easier to fire me. Lowering the quality of education so that “bad teachers” can be removed more easily? This is reform? This is creating better education for our students? Creating an attitude among teachers that we want students to fail, so that the numbers look better in the spring? And I can imagine that this practice only encourages more teaching to a test. Giving exams students are unprepared for, watching them crumple under frustration and self-doubt, and calling it improvement?

I don’t have solutions to offer. I don’t know what makes this better. What I know is that I watched 100 of my favorite people in the world deflate today, and we have to continue this tomorrow. The most popular question today was, “Why?”

No one had a good answer.

How do you keep your head up when standardized, mandated testing gets in your way? Let me know in the comments! I need all the advice I can get this year!


“Do not spoil what you have now by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among what you only hoped for.” – Epicurus, ancient Greek philosopher

That was yesterday’s quote of the day. My lovely 11th graders were not daunted by the vocabulary, the length, even the loveable mutant of punctuation that is the semicolon. They set themselves to deciphering Epicurus’ meaning with gusto, the day before their four day weekend, giddy from the party they’d had in their previous class, they delved in.

And it struck me, as I moved around the room, watching them chunk phrases to work with and listening to them debate possible interpretations, that they have come to like doing this. By and large, they enjoy the hard work, the puzzle-solving of our daily quotes. And I just felt so grateful.

This quote was a lead-in for short letters of gratitude, and an opening act for the main event: chocolate pumpkin brownie bites. (I didn’t eat any, but I am told they were delicious. No leftovers.) I don’t have much in the way of Thanksgiving tradition, being estranged from my family of origin, and I don’t care for the official history of this holiday, but I believe in being grateful, and expressing that gratitude. I believe that it makes our lives better: happier, fuller, richer. Last year, Boyfriend put me on to daily gratitude journaling. The practice has since fallen off, but the habit of reflecting on what I have to be thankful for has remained, and I find that taking the time to appreciate the good in my life extends those moments and allows me to live in that happiness for longer. This year, I am most thankful for my job and my students, so I wanted to share that feeling with them. I want them to cultivate that same appreciation for the good in their lives, even when it can be hard to find.

This year, for me, it’s easy to know what I am happy about, what I am thankful for. It hasn’t always been so, and I’m thankful for that in itself.

I’m thankful for the school I work in and the amazing students I work with, who I have come to love very dearly, who never cease to impress me, who keep me laughing on a daily basis, who push me to be my best and give me theirs.

I’m thankful for my family of choice, for people who love me and support me and remind me that I have a good, good life.

I’m thankful for all of the hard-working, brilliant, clever, and inspirational teachers I know, through NCTE and the NYC Writing Project, and through my time working in the Bronx. I’m thankful, knowing that we will not go gentle into that good night.

And I’m so, so thankful that people read these posts, and share them, and comment on them. I rebooted this project just to give myself a space to geek out about teaching. At most, I figured my friends would read the posts because they like me. I never dreamed other people – strangers! – would read what I’d written and feel that it spoke to them. Thank you, to everyone who reads this, to everyone who has shared a post from this blog, to everyone who has commented. My heart overflows.

Last but certainly not least, I’m thankful for books! And for great ideas, like thanking authors for books that I love. So I’m on my way to make a pumpkin-pecan pie and send out thank you notes to authors on Twitter. What about you? What are you thankful for this year?

Happy Thanksgiving! xo, Priscilla

Nourished Soul: NCTE 2013 Was Incredible

I had a different post on deck, about grammar in my classroom, but I’m on the bus back from Boston right now scrolling through notes and pictures on my phone and what I really need to write about is NCTE 2013.

The National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention is my yearly rejuvenation. It’s a chance to hear from the best and brightest in education: Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, Linda Reif, Cris Tovani, Kylene Beers, Bob Probst, Donalyn Miller, Nancie freakin’ Atwell, and this list goes ON.

It’s an opportunity to replenish my classroom library with classics, worn-to-the-seams favorites, and brand new titles that have yet to hit the shelves, many completely free. Not to mention building up my professional library.

These aren’t even the best parts. Teachers of all grade levels and lengths of experience present to a national audiences. This weekend I saw amazing performances, glimpsed into the inspiring classrooms of teachers from across the nation, culled brilliant ideas from elementary teachers, delved into inquiry, examined student work, and got my hands dirty playing in the recreated classrooms of these brilliant presenters.

Sitting down for our last Boston meal with my dear friend, conference buddy, and co-presenter Alie, we tried to list our top three NCTE moments. We quickly exchanged three for five, acknowledging that three was impossible, and then five had to be traded in for 10, and now it’s a blog post from my phone at the back of the bus because how can we even begin?

We met Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird and she asked if she could come visit our classrooms.

I hovered over Linda Reif’s shoulder as she paged through a student’s notebook from her class and revealed that, even when you’re Linda Reif, grading is hard.

I got to present to a room filled with dedicated and brilliant minds about the value of struggle and collaboration, and I got to do so with two of my favorite people on the planet.

Laurie Halse Andersen stopped signing books to hug me because six years ago I shyly approached her at an NCTE event to show her that I, too, have a Beowulf-inspired tattoo on my wrist.

I met Temple Grandin, and listened to Ishmael Beah tell us the most beautiful stories about his life and language, and I was transformed forever by the spoken word performance of First Wave Hip Hop.

I was blown away by the great work being done by students and teachers in Wamogo, where the school has gone paperless and fully digital. It is a sight to behold.

Donalyn Miller pulled a baby blue Polaroid camera out of her bag to take a picture with us at the Nerdy Book Club Cocktail Hour. There was a Nerdy Book Club Cocktail Hour!

I could take the next three days off of work to process and write about this experience, and forego Thanksgiving dinner to continue, and type furiously through Black Friday and on, and I would not come close to doing justice to the inspiration, revitalization, and motivation coursing through me after this weekend, the fuel that will sustain me and push me farther and higher for months to come. Years, even. So much of what I do that works dates back to my first NCTE convention eight years ago.

Along with being the most useful and engaging and successful professional development I’ve ever experienced, the NCTE convention is a family reunion. When I reconnect with Toby Khan-Loftus and Jeff Williams, I wonder how I survive with these pieces of my heart scattered across the country, coming together only once a year. Even some of my New York kin (looking at you, Christy Kingham) are only closer geographically, but rely on NCTE to transcend our busy schedules and being us together. Every year, our family grows, and as we sat around the table for our annual Saturday evening dinner, I felt the warm comfort of being in one place with so many kindred spirits, dedicated educators who do not necessarily replicate but complement my mindset. I felt at home.

My mentor teacher and heartprint soul sister, Jennifer Ochoa, teaches 8th grade and she often asks her students to share “one smart thing” they heard a classmate say during class. Here are just a few smart things I heard people say at NCTE 2013:

“You’ve got to show kids interesting things to get them interested in things.” -Temple Grandin

Students are not really digital natives but digital tourists, and they will gravitate toward what’s popular, like McDonald’s in Paris. -Linda Bickford, Wamogo English Dept.

“You have to teach the way you believe is right.” -Penny Kittle

“We read nonfiction and informational text because we want to learn something.” -JoEllen McCarthy

“The purpose of a story is to pass it on. If it is not passed on the story dies.” -Ishmael Beah

What about you, #NCTE13 ? What smart things did you hear this weekend? Share with us in the comments!

Banned Books: Censoring is Silencing

It’s Banned Books Week! Every year, I think about doing something with banned books in class, but I never make it work. Usually, September is a month of holiday interruptions – in NYC, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur shorten our first few weeks – so by the time we make it September 22nd, I’m afraid of derailing the momentum we’ve begun to build with a diversion into censorship. And of course, every year I think, “Oh, right, so next year we’ll incorporate censorship into the first unit!” But that’s September me who thinks that. June me thinks, “Ow. My brain.”

So, here we are in Banned Books Week, and I’ve got nothing planned to tackle the issue. But I think I might have to this year, even if we don’t get to it until next week. Two reasons: Dreaming in Cuban and Eleanor & Park. These two novels have recently been challenged as profane and pornographic, and it’s surprising to me. Not that parents would object to sex or swearing in books that children read, but that we’re still responding to these objections with attempts to ban books. I think censorship is, in essence, an effort to silence dissent. If you look at a list of the most challenged books in the United States, you’re looking at a list of books that have tried to, often successfully, change the way we look at issues in society. Check out bannedbooksweek.org’s page, Banned Books That Shaped America. Change like that comes from shifting perspective, endeavoring to see in ways that we cannot, have never before. And isn’t that learning? That flexibility, the empathy we develop when we step into others’ shoes, the ability to understand how one’s actions affect others, these are all traits we value in coworkers, employers, leaders, and members of our communities. So maybe instead of censoring books that alarm, frighten, or challenge us, we should be teaching them.

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First Day Reflections: Why You Should Be Jealous of Teachers

Tomorrow is the first day of classes here in NYC public schools, and I know I’m going to be too excited to sleep. Many people who are not teachers have been jealous all summer, longing for the ability to sleep in and go out for drinks every night. People get jealous of my job all the time. They’re jealous of my summer vacation and my 8 to 3 workday. They picture a roomful of teenagers raptly attentive while I lecture and assign homework. Then at 3 o’clock I prance out the door into the sunlight, off to revel in my responsibility-free life.

Of course, if you are a teacher or if you know a teacher, you know the truths about working until 3 pm and summer vacation, and you know that people who complain about the simplicity of this job don’t know the half of it. My mentor teacher has no patience for people who complain about the luxuries of teaching. “They went to school, too,” she says. “Everybody already knows about summer vacation when they’re deciding what to do. It’s not my fault they chose wrong.” This is a good point! But really, I’m ok with people being jealous of my job. As a matter of fact, people should be jealous of my job.  I just think they’re jealous for the wrong reasons.

People are jealous of the free time they imagine I roll in, the months of luxury I spend frolicking around and doing nothing, but that’s not what they should envy about my job (primarily because it’s not really true). They should envy this job because it makes me happy.

Every year, I spend the night before the first day of school with butterflies in my stomach. I’m so excited to meet the 100+ new faces I’ll spend the next ten months getting to know. You know that feeling you get when you meet someone who you know will be your friend? You discover some connection and you find yourself looking forward to seeing this potential new friend. You save up stories or topics in your head to bring to this new person, excited to hear what he or she has to say. For most of us, potential new friends are pretty rare. Meeting new people is tough, pretty unusual once college has ended and you have settled into a career. I get to experience this every year. I tell my stories and listen to theirs, and we find ourselves making room for each other in our lives. Our classes become families, supporting one another, eager to be together, sad to leave each other in June. It beats any team-building activity at any work retreat I can imagine.

Instead of longing for my (mythical) three months of free time in the summer, people should be jealous because my job matters. Throughout the year, every time I hear a student mentioning me or our class, it grounds me. Ties me to the world. The things I do at my job – the decisions I make, the texts I read with my students, the conversations I create space for – they impact people. What I do directly influences my students. Not on a test or an essay or a homework assignment, but in their daily lives. When we read 1984, I overhear my students debating Winston and Julia’s relationship. Their other teachers intercept notes about whether or not O’Brien can be trusted. I get emails over the weekend or during school breaks about the propaganda they have seen in commercials and advertisements, after we begin the year studying media literacy and marketing. They tell me about articles, or news stories, or books, or movies and television that mention or relate to what we are studying, with all the excitement of discovery that our classroom connects to the outside world. Just that, their excitement. How often are people excited at other jobs, I wonder. At mine, it really is almost every day, even if only for a few moments. They are wonderful, sustaining moments.

People shouldn’t be jealous that my workday ends at 3 pm (because it doesn’t). They should really be jealous that I spend all day with interesting, hilarious, insane (in a good way) teenagers. My students are at such a fascinating point of their lives, a place where they are really starting to discover and decide who they are, creating a beginning draft of their identity (if not first, then early). In the right classroom environment, they are willing to question the world and even themselves. I get to be there for that. It’s not easy, but it’s amazing to structure an environment that helps people be self-reflective. And they’re funny. No one cracks me up like teenagers.

Don’t get me wrong: teaching is hard. It is a lot of work and I never feel good enough at it. Sometimes, my wonderful, darling teenagers are serious pains. And often when people are jealous of my job – its fantastic schedule, its abundant time for leisure – I want to wax poetic on how demanding and difficult and exhausting teaching can be. But it’s worth it, completely, because even though I don’t get to leave work behind at three pm every day, and even though I don’t get to lounge on a beach in June with three months of vacation in my carry-on, nothing could make me as happy as this job makes me.

So, NYC teachers, I hope tomorrow is an excellent start to a great school year. Enjoy meeting the newest additions to your school families. And the next time people complain about you not working hard enough or long enough, remember that they’re just jealous.

Book Review: On the Come Up

On the Come Up: A Novel, Based on a True Story, by Hannah Weyer, 320 pages, adult fiction, 4.5 stars, recommended for high school

In short… This wonderful coming-of-age novel, based on the life of actress Anna Simpson, takes readers through the life of a teenager growing up in the projects of Far Rockaway. Through the main character of AnnMarie, readers journey through the foster care system, the projects, teen pregnancy, public school in New York City, dysfunctional relationships of all sorts, the making of an independent film, young motherhood, and more. Hannah Weyer manages to take on the ever-complicated life of this character without appearing to juggle chainsaws, which is impressive in and of itself. Even better is the realism of this story; despite the hardships and trauma of AnnMarie’s life, despite the surprising break an indie film offers, the novel follows a character making a normal life after the flash in the pan has dimmed. Put this in your high school independent reading library, add it to a literature circle unit for students to discuss in groups, or add it to your units on coming-of-age. Paired with To Kill a Mockingbird: the comparisons students could draw between Scout and AnnMarie, the examination of gender in these two societies, the value and influence of setting, and so on! Click more for a detailed review!

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Afuera de la idioma: Thinking like an ELL

Boyfriend and I are in Oaxaca right now. It is our first ever time visiting Mexico, and we’ll be here for one week, then off to Mazatlán for another week. Life right now is a lot of sleeping until noon, wandering mercados, marveling at how rich we are in pesos, and eating everything (except the chapulines – I’m way too chicken for that). And of course, amid all this relaxation and the excitement of being somewhere new and different and really not at all like New York City, as we sit in the zócalo watching men shoot fireworks off of their heads, as I lounge in the courtyard of our gorgeous hotel under a tree that bears fruit like miniature mangoes, as I find myself so far from my regular life and contemplate walking down the road to get a manicura at the Todas de Uñas salon, I’m thinking about teaching.

In September, I’ll be teaching at an international school for the first time. In New York, international schools are schools that teach English Language Learners (ELLs), and while I will be working with 11th graders, almost all of my students will have started at the school with no more than four years of experience living and attending school in the US. The idea of teaching at this school and working with a population like this is ridiculously exciting – I have never worked with so large a group of ELLs and I cannot wait to learn from my students about language development and acquisition, about emergent bi- and multilingualism. The prospect is also terrifying. I am worried – and it is a constant undercurrent of anxiety – about not being a good enough teacher for this group. Colleagues and friends keep reassuring me that I’ll be great, because I am dedicated and thoughtful, because I’ve worked with struggling readers and writers, and because I bother to worry about whether or not I’ll be good enough. So I spent the lead-up to this long vacation planning and reading and making lists and searching the depressing Education shelves of NYC Barnes & Nobles for a trace of Danling Fu (to no avail).

From the US side of this trip, two weeks seemed like it would offer plenty of time to sneak in some reading and planning in order to prepare for September. But here, making our way through Oaxaca on only my mediocre Spanish and the (unending) kindness of strangers, this is the learning experience. This is the professional development.

I said to boyfriend – or I guess he should be novio here. I said to novio, that every teacher could benefit from the experience of being outside of one’s home language, of trying to communicate on only a handful of words. Schools (and policy and testing and the Daily News) expect miracles of students and teachers – jumping multiple math or reading levels in a year, passing arbitrary and artificial high-stakes tests that are kept secret, so that test prep cannot be relevant and useful. It’s worse for ELLs, who come to US public schools from very different systems. Many students have not had steady enrollment in their home countries, and, along with an interrupted education, a language barrier, a slew of new social norms and kid politics, they are expected to demonstrate proficiency and master English. I don’t think we appreciate how daunting a task we have set for these students. I don’t think many people can. And it is so easy, with the one million other things teachers are thinking and worrying about, to get frustrated that one’s ELL students are still mixing up these two words, or are nodding to say they understand when they clearly do not get it, or are always a step behind, whispering to a classmate during the lesson.

I can’t remember the past tense of most Spanish verbs. It’s driving me a little crazy, because I know it’s in there somewhere, hiding in my memory. But I can’t get at it. I’ve got past tense ir down, but dormir? Estar? Ver? Don’t worry, I’ve got Google. But I don’t break it out on the street when I’m approaching, or in the midst of, an interaction with a patient and friendly Oaxaqueño. Instead, as I frantically  plan my next sentence in my head and I realize that I can’t say “were” or “saw,” anxiety overwhelms me, and I find myself searching for some way out of this conversation. “Quick!” I think. “Before they know!”

Last night, I asked for a daiquiri sin sabor, and after smiling and nodding as the waitress talked, and agreeing to en las rocas, I ended up with a glass of rum and ice. It sat on the table for a few minutes while I worked out how to ask for a swap. And I haven’t yet worked up the courage to get that manicura.

It’s easier now, a few days in. Things are coming back to me, some things I’m just picking up. I’m not as concerned with seeming stupid, because everyone is really so nice. But our first few days here, the anxiety of not being able to communicate (correctly, proficiently) had me on edge. The idea of asking a question was terrifying, because I probably wouldn’t be able to understand a good portion of the answer. And what would people think of my baby talk – We go to Pochote Market? You know? And I’m on vacation. This is two weeks of my life, with the lowest stakes. What do I have to lose for trying? A nail color that clashes with my skin tone? A drink I didn’t order? Maybe I end up eating some grasshoppers. For my ELL students, this is every day, and it’s so much more – it’s the way people will regard them, and the way they will feel about themselves, and the pressure of being successful and making their families proud.

So as I think about next year, working with 100% ELLs, I think about how to share this story. I don’t know if we acknowledge how scary and overwhelming a new language can be. I know I haven’t made enough of a point of that in the past. I like to start the year with memoir, with writing about ourselves and our lives, and I think we will all have some interesting language stories to share. I’m collecting mine right now.