Happy

Two Writing Teachers: Tuesday Slice of Life

In 10 years of teaching, not one high school student has ever told me he or she wanted to teach English.

Some students have mentioned that they would like to be teachers. “But not English,” they’ve always been quick to add. Serious eyes, emphatic headshake. Not English, the horror.

I’ve seen lots of emphatic headshaking in the past 10 years. Most of my students can’t seem to understand why anyone would be a teacher. “I don’t have the patience,” they’ve told me, usually following with the certainty that they would end up smacking somebody. I just smile, because they think that’s where I spend all my patience. They don’t know what I really need all this zen for.

So the other day, when W asked me if he could talk to me after class for a few minutes, I wasn’t expecting we would be discussing career aspirations. I suppressed a flicker of annoyance, mostly because I knew it was anxiety-driven – the period following W’s class is our professional period and our conduct during that time has been under scrutiny lately. But I like talking with W, who presents as generally too cool, strolling on the edge of wayward, but is clever and funny and kind of a sweet dork. So I smiled and said, “Of course,” desperately hoping he wouldn’t ask about his grade. My stack of waiting-to-be-marked assignments, growing by the day, sighed wearily from my desk.

Instead, W told me that he’s thinking of becoming an English teacher. I couldn’t measure my smile, but it was wide enough to have W bowing his head in embarrassment, giving us both a moment to get our cool back. He actually managed to do so; I was just giddy.

He told me that he had been thinking about his future lately, but also his past. He came to the US a few years ago, knowing no English, but he worked hard to learn. His accent is enough Bronx that I had assumed, when I first met him, that he had lived in New York since his childhood. English isn’t easy, he told me. Now, he likes helping people learn, but he especially likes helping them with English. When he thinks about his future, he told me, he feels like helping other people in a similar situation to his would be a good thing to do with his life.

“I think I’d be happy,” he said.

I told you, kind of a sweet dork, right?

My face was still cracked open, so my initial reaction to all this was a firm YAY!!! But I gave myself a pause. Because this was not just a notice. W wanted advice. He wanted to know, apart from the “economic issues,” as he put it, if teaching is a good job. He wanted to know if it makes me happy. And I wanted to be honest.

I told him that teaching engages my whole brain, my heart and my breath, everything. I told him that I see the world as a teacher, that every article or vine or movie or meme I come across makes me think, if only for a second, about how I could bring this to my students. I told him that this job does not stay where you leave it, that even with the boundaries I have set around how late I will stay after school and what physically comes home with me, I can never just clock out or shut down. There is no off switch for the teaching part of my brain, I said, because it’s pretty much all of my brain. Every year, I told him, I meet these fascinating people, and I get to know them, I share with them, and we become something of a family.

All of that, I assured him, is as demanding as it is rewarding. Sometimes – some months – some years – the giving outweighs the getting. This job makes me happy, I said, because learning is amazing. It is amazing to learn and it is amazing to witness the learning of others, and as a teacher I get both. I don’t know how many other jobs can give you that, because when I found this one, I knew that I was home. So, yes, this job makes me happy. But it also makes me angry, and sad, and tired. I told him that this job is hard; that even though – depending on the state he lives in and the lifestyle he wants – he can do ok, he can live, those well-deserved holiday breaks and that hard-earned summer vacation will not lessen the demands this job will make. “That’s just life, though, isn’t it?” I asked him. “Nothing is just one way all the time.”

When W told me he wanted to be an English teacher, Nancie Atwell’s warning to prospective teachers flashed in my mind. I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that teaching grants you this pure, noble career, that the rewards of student achievement can counterbalance, let alone compensate for, the demands, demoralization, and abuse of education reform. It is easy to miss out on the joy of teaching in this current climate; it is hard to grow. For a moment, I imagine my life as a New York City dog-walker and I consider telling W, “Run.” Or at least advising him to do something in finance.

But I wanted to be honest. And honestly, even with the anxiety, the daily madness of working with 100 teenagers (and their 1,000 hormones each, and their completely normal adolescent ridiculousness multiplied by the trauma and anger and abandonment issues that frequent this population), the insult of being told by official after official, none of whom know anything about teaching this subject or this population, that I cannot be trusted with my own professional growth, even with the knowledge that I could be a very happy dog-walker, this job makes me happy. That might not be enough, I know, but it’s what I’ve got for now.

W thanked me for staying to talk to him. I smiled again, and told him, “Anytime.” The stack of unmarked marking cleared its throat, but I ignored it (I’m really good at that). As he left, I asked him how long he had been thinking about this, being an English teacher. He paused at the door, considering his answer over the muffled shrieks of exuberant 9th graders. “Since this year, I guess,” he said. “You’re a good teacher, Miss.” He left and I laid my head down on the desk, pillowed on my arm, thinking that in this job, when it rains, it absolutely pours.

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Beyond the T-Chart

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“I’m going to give you a little dude,” I announced, holding up a handful of paper rectangles. On each is the empty outline of a cartoonish body.

“Now, be kind to this little dude. Don’t draw on his face, or crumple him up, or poke him with your pencil.” In every class, this gets a chuckle.

“This little dude is Junior. He’s going to live in your notebook.”

Handing out everyone’s little dudes there were a few jokes – fake rips, little dude fights between tablemates – but all of my students were taking care of their outlines. They placed them in the center of their notebook pages, quickly taking the two pieces of tape I tore off before moving on to the next student. Some students adjusted the orientation a few times, looking for the best spot before committing to the tape.

“Does everyone’s Junior have a home?” I asked. Most of each class chorused, “Yes,” with some notebooks flipped to show me their secured little dudes. Some students were still labeling him; “Junior,” they wrote, then waited, not drawing on his face.

“What are we focusing on today? Remind me?”

“Internalexternalconflict!” someone called out, every class.

Junior’s internal conflicts – his personal struggles, the problems he carries around inside him throughout this novel – we wrote inside of the outline. External conflicts we arranged around him, drawing arrows that press into him from all sides. Students offered conflicts and suggested where they belong, then defended their positions. There were great (multi-lingual) arguments happening, more like negotiations:

“Poverty is internal because it makes him feel so bad about himself.”

“But I think it’s external, because he was born into this poor family and this culture, so it comes from outside of him.”

“Yeah, so his low self-esteem is internal, but poverty is external.”

“Can we put them next to each other?”

In most classes, I did little more than write. I placed my “marker” on the SmartBoard and said, “Ok, here? What am I writing here? Do we all agree? Where else could it go?” My most energetic class had me dragging chunks of text around the figure on the board, pulling out his insides and swapping them around until we created a Junior they could recognize.

I had them 2nd period, usually their most zombie-like time slot, and their raised hands punched the air with enthusiasm that made me nervous for possible concussions.

My coworker’s son is in 3rd grade. He just made a mobile for his book report. My coworker smiled when he recounted his son’s excitement over making the mobile. Just a coat-hanger, some paper, some string and tape, he told me. So much better than a book report.

What we really had to do on Little Dude Day was review. For a lot of reasons, we didn’t end where I had hoped we would before the winter break, and we were coming back in the beginning of the middle of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Before we jumped back in, we needed to recap. I’ve been trying to decompartmentalize literary elements with my students, who come to me with the idea that plot goes here and characterization here and never the twain shall meet. I want to help them see the connectedness of all those pieces, the overlap and interdependence.

They showed me some beginning understanding of that as we wrote in and around our Juniors – “This conflict is why he is like the way he is,” one student said, after the poverty and low self-esteem connection was established.

“Tell me more about that,” I responded, because it is my mission to make everyone roll his or her eyes at me.

Eye-roll, sigh. “He draws the cartoons and says really crazy stuff because he’s not really happy, right?” I will spare you my torturous replies, though this student was not so lucky.

My number one advice for teaching high school English has become, “Be corny.” Sometimes, I say I don’t know what it is about corny, but I do know; corny is fun. So much of high school is not fun, increasingly so these days. I have seen many teachers do a similar lesson on internal and external conflict, using a T-chart. T-charts are the wrong kind of corny. It should go without saying that fun is effective, even in small doses. It is more memorable, more meaningful. And it is easy. It added about 6 minutes to my prep to print out enough little dudes for my four classes. (I had a student cut the pages in half. In my more efficient classes, they managed the tape without me.) The room was alive, as tired as we all felt coming off a week-plus vacation. Their noise was productive and sparkling, their silences thoughtful.

In one class, a student said the bullying Junior faces (external, they decided) makes him feel very lonely.
“Is lonely a conflict for him? Where should it go?”

They paused, some waiting, some thinking. One of my students was looking down at her little Junior, frowning. She mouthed, “Lonely,” and put her hand over her chest before looking up to tell me, “Internal. Inside.”

“Yeah, inside,” said the student next to her, touching her own sternum. “Right there.”

Making Writing Real

Help support my students and our classroom by donating to and sharing our Donors Choose project! Use the promo code INSPIRE to have your donation matched and doubled. Thank you for your support!

School is coming! I love the first day of school, as I’ve said in the past, but this year feels especially exciting. For one thing, this will be my second year at a school I really love, and that’s so different than being at a school where I love my colleagues or (as always) my students. Feeling attached to a school and its mission and vision is so much more rewarding and invigorating, and I honestly can’t wait to be back in it. Even better, after such an enriching summer, I know I’m going in strong. Between the Invitational Summer Institute with NYCWP in July, building up my PLN on Twitter, and my awesome week with Facing History and Ourselves, I’ve been immersed in deep reflection about my practice, connected to so many inspiring and dedicated educator minds. I don’t think I’ve ever looked forward to the first day like this.

I owe a special thank you to Penny Kittle, for the wonderful book, Write Beside Them: Risk, Voice, and Clarity in High School Writing. I had been neglecting my professional reading lately, and this thoughtful, beautifully written, honest look into Mrs. Kittle’s writing workshop classroom was a perfect reintroduction to the value of reading “teacher books” – if you’ve been wary of implementing writer’s workshop in your classroom, or if you are looking to breathe some life into it, or if you need some commiseration and celebration of the struggles and joys of writing with students, do yourself a favor and check out this book. The print version comes with a DVD of scenes from Mrs. Kittle’s classroom (I’ve been reading the digital version). I want to give Write Beside Them a more detailed review in the near future, but I’ll mention that one of the gifts of this book is that, while Mrs. Kittle is clearly a great teacher, she is also a very real teacher. I haven’t been reading this book thinking, “Ok, that’s great that you can do these wonderful things, but I could never do that because…” Kittle’s honesty and straightforwardness have helped me approach the book with an attitude of, “What would this look like in my school?,” far more helpful and productive.

As I prepare for this upcoming year, I’m thinking about what classroom resources could further benefit my students. I made sure last year that new furniture was on the way, to get my students out of the molded desk-chair units that drive me crazy – incredibly uncomfortable and they make flexible seating (moving in and out of groups and pairs) a major pain. Someone recently told me about Bouncy Bands, and I’m already planning the pitch to my principal to get some of those in our school. Most importantly, I’ve posted a Donors Choose project for an ELMO document camera, a tool I plane to use to make the writing process more visible and less scary for my students. Check out our Donors Choose project – donate if you can, and please share! Remember, the promo code INSPIRE will double your donation.

What are you doing to make this new year great? Share in the comments!

Untested: Growth That Tests Can’t Measure

Favi called me over to her desk one recent afternoon, leaning forward over her notebook urgently. “I have to thank you,” she said. “You remember how you told Raymond that writing is a way to deal with being upset? Well, I took that advice, too. But I don’t wait to be upset. Every day, I write about a quote. & I really have to thank you. It makes me feel…lighter, if that makes sense. I just feel better every time I do it.”

New York’s school year is ending, & tests are bursting into bloom around us. MOSLs, field tests, the NYSESLAT, all sinister roots winding their way to the towering trunk of Regents exams. It’s a tough time of year, to put it very, very lightly.

Times like this, when my students are emotionally manic balls of stress that ricochet through outbursts & mood swings, when all of their self-esteem & confidence plummets & they find themselves forgetting the most routine of behaviors, when they are bleary & cranky from lack of sleep, or surly & defensive, or on the verge of tears after the slightest frustration, it is easy to feel like I have taught them nothing. They certainly feel as though they’ve forgotten everything. During an after school session, a student working on an essay for another class told me he didn’t want to work with that other teacher, because asking questions was embarrassing there. He knew he would be reprimanded & told, “You should know how to do this! I already taught you this!”

“I know I should know,” my student told me. “I just forget or maybe I’m not sure. Sometimes I ask the question even if I have the right answer, just to check. I don’t want to get it wrong.”

That feeling of I’m not sure & I don’t want to be wrong so I have to ask while I still can seems a direct result of excessive testing. It’s an intense anxiety, one that even self-confident students will suffer through as exam after exam crashes upon them, like so many waves.

But there’s so much more than the test. Tests. The growth & gains my students have made this year can’t always be measured by one test, or even four, or even more. I need to make space to celebrate those moments, so my students can join me in recognizing that increased confidence, stepping outside of their comfort zones, playing teacher, asking questions, & writing independently are huge accomplishments.

Like Favi’s discovery of the healing of journal writing, many of my students have achieved in ways these tests can’t & won’t measure.

There’s Ivy, who began the year so fearful of writing that she did not trust herself to put down more than a  sentence before asking me to read it and tell her if it was “right.” How many hours a week she sat in our classroom after school, tears threatening her eyeliner as I reminded her to write down what she was thinking. “It isn’t going to be perfect, but that’s good. Nothing is perfect.” I can’t pin down Ivy’s exact turning point, but somewhere this year, her anxiety eased up a little. She took risks writing down her thoughts without triple checking her ideas against her classmates’ opinions. She wrote whole paragraphs before asking me to look, & didn’t crumple when I asked a question about her work. & after a reading response activity of drafting coming to America poems, Ivy returned after school to proudly present me with a second poem, one she had simply felt inspired to write. I was so proud I wanted to shout, especially when she handed the poem to me & said, “it’s not perfect, but I like it.”

This school year has held so many of these moments, demonstrations of learning & development that will not be assessed by a formulaic written response to a standardized test prompt. Students reading aloud for the first time, finishing a book independently for the first time, writing in English for the first time after months to years of anxiety & fear. These huge accomplishments do not mean that they will pass their exams, though, & in the end, they will be made to feel like none of these achievements matter.

I’m left with two areas of tension, knots I need to work at as I prepare for next year (next week, next day). One: how do I honor & value students’ growth throughout the year in a way that allows them to honor it, too? Beyond reflective writing & portfolio building, beyond conferences, beyond inspirational speeches; how does the recognition & celebration of improvement become a core piece of our classroom? Two: How do I continue to build a classroom environment that helps my students do the things they have never before done, and extend that safe, productive feeling beyond our walls? It is invaluable, the work I put into creating a classroom that encourages students to take risks & push themselves, but that needs to continue happening when we are apart. How do we create a class environment that allows students space to achieve great things both inside the classroom & out?

This is my favorite place to be as a teacher: holding the tensions in my hand, learning their shapes & textures, feeling for a starting point. What do you think? How do you honor students’ growth, & encourage them to keep growing independently? 

Book Review: A Long Walk to Water

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue ParkA Long Walk To Water, Linda Sue Park

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128 pages – Middle/High School – Historical Fiction/Based on a True Story/Global Issues/War

In Short: Based on Salva Dut’s account of fleeing the Second Civil War in Sudan, this brief but intense novel takes readers on a journey across Africa and through time. Park alternates between two narratives: Salva at 11 years old in the 1980s, and Nya’s life in present-day Sudan (2008). Salva’s moving story will draw in readers regardless of age, though the honest depictions of violence and hardship make this novel appropriate for middle school and up. A Long Walk to Water would make an excellent companion for Ishmael Beah’s memoir A Long Way Gone, or Terry Farish’s novel-in-verse, The Good BraiderALTW could also support a unit on war, historical fiction, or interviewing. Continue reading for a more detailed review, and more ideas for bringing A Long Walk to Water into the classroom!

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Take a Broccoli Break: Reevaluating Grammar’s Place in the Classroom

Teaching at an international school, where everyone is learning English, has been amazing so far. I have trouble even beginning to explain how great it is to teach this population, how warm and bonded our community has become, the richness of my students’ backgrounds and stories, how ridiculously sweet and adorable they are, with such consistency. But one annoying thing that keeps popping up is grammar.  Not my students’ grammar, not the way I teach grammar, but this obsession with grammar instruction. Even before teaching at an international school, I often encountered this idea that, as an English teacher, grammar is my whole job. Teachers of other subjects have sent students to me with their history essays or lab reports, expecting me to read and correct the grammar in these papers. Non-teachers apologize in advance for their poor grammar in emails or conversation. “I’m not a teacher,” they say sheepishly. Even my students, on the day an essay is due (or, like, a week after an essay is due) come to me in a panic, asking me if I can “fix” all their grammar. And it always seems to come as somewhat of a shock when I explain that I just don’t think grammar is the most important thing.

Certainly, it’s an important thing. I want my students to be able to express themselves clearly and appropriately, to understand their punctuation and not mix up homophones. I want them to be great writers. And that takes more than impeccable, even passable, grammar.

The thing is that grammar is like broccoli. Or Brussels sprouts, or cooked carrots. As a grown-up adult responsible enough to take care of myself (because it’s on me to keep myself alive now), I consume my vegetables with gusto. As a kid, vegetables were not my thing. I didn’t like to eat them – taste, texture, smell, lack of resemblance to ice cream, it all just wasn’t working for me. I had parents and Sesame Street and health class, so I knew that vegetables were good for me. I knew that I should eat them. They were there on the plate every day. I just wasn’t one of those kids that loved their greens, and I was probably a serious pain about this. But what’s great about my journey from veggie-hater to veggie-lover is that it has really informed my approach to grammar in the classroom.

Here are some things I’ve learned about grammar instruction from eating my vegetables:

  1. “Good for you” is not good enough.
  2. If it’s not appealing, change the recipe.
  3. Healthy and delicious as they may be, vegetables do not need to be a main course. They make great sides.
  4. Play with your food!

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Thankful

“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