(Another) One of These Years

Last year, a friend alerted me to the existence of Penny Kittle’s podcast, Stories From the Teaching Life, & I immediately grabbed my phone to download every available episode. Yes, please, I thought. This is exactly what I need. 

I listened to four episodes before I had to stop.

The podcast is the most beautiful & heart-rending experience. Kittle has always won me over with her honesty & authenticity – when she shares these amazing moments from her classrooms, she never lets me think that they are more than moments, that she is some super-teacher who never deals with the students or the days that the rest of us have to slog through. I’ve never found myself rolling my eyes at an idyllic & preachy tale of how she has “saved the children.” Kittle has a knack for sharing a monumental moment without promising or even alluding to a happily ever after. It is nourishing to take in, a reminder of why I love this job & how easily I let these moments slip by without stopping to savor them.

But it was painful, too. I could ignore the gap – one that seemed to widen by the day – between myself & my “paperback mentors,” even between myself & my teaching family. I would listen to & read about them transforming their classrooms & schools, tackling teaching tensions with colleagues, taking risks to bring students what they need, & I wanted to feel inspired & invigorated.  & I do. I couldn’t ignore the longing for administrators who trusted me enough to teach, who valued the work I was doing & the growth we were all making.

I’m having one of these years, I told myself, but I realized then that I’ve been having one of “those years” for the past six or seven.

I’ve come a long, long way in how this environment affects me. I don’t lose (as much) sleep, I don’t skip (as many) meals or replace them with junk food (as often). I don’t convince myself that I really am a terrible teacher who has been greatly harming children for the past 10 years. But it hurts, a lot, for what feels like always.

In 10 years of teaching, I think I had 2 years of working with administrators who had confidence in me & who respected my commitment to professional growth as what it was – a desire to improve & learn, not a defiance of the methods prescribed or enforced by the bureaucracy of our education system.Looking back, I think I can remember what it was like to have post-observation conferences that were collaborations rather than punishments, to be allowed to assess my students’ progress in meaningful ways & interact with them as if we were all humans & learners together. Vaguely, I recall it.

Since those first few years of working in one of the last remaining “big” high schools in the Bronx, with a department of veteran English teachers who met weekly to discuss pedagogy & best practices, I haven’t worked in a school that has trusted me to know how to teach my students, or to invest myself in figuring out how.

This, despite the conferences I attended on my own time & dime, despite the thousands of pages of professional reading, despite my memberships & contributions to professional organizations, despite the hours spent at school before & after hours, despite the fact that my teacher family & I volunteered 40+ hours of our time, including our Saturday mornings, to facilitate a teacher book club on revisiting the teaching of reading. Everything I did was suspect, & in this I represented the vast majority of public school teachers in the Bronx. I know this because I know so many of them, and I have spent these past 10 years immersed in networks with other teachers so that instead of running across disgruntled educators at mandated PDs, I connect with teachers like me. There are many, & we are tired, & even knowing that the others are out there, we feel lonely.

There are days when I can savor the moments with my students. & I’m lucky, because there are great moments nearly every day. But there were also so many days when my colleagues & I would shuffle the halls & shelter in our classrooms, too diminished by criticism & doubt to rally together.

I’m writing this in mostly past tense because my most recent school change will take me out of a toxic work environment, but it will also take me out of the Bronx. I am optimistic about my new place of work, for many reasons. I wonder what it will be like to be valued again. A handful of planning conversations with my new colleagues already indicates that my voice is appreciated and desired. I am taken aback by how foreign and delightful this feels.

Over the past 10 years, I have known so many teachers who have become apathetic after so many years of being treated like the problem. We come to believe that this is just what the job is, who administrators are, and how schools work. It is easy for things to become hopeless. And that things might not be this way everywhere is a tough sell. But I’d always rather take a chance on hope. Besides, I really want to be able to listen to that podcast again.

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.

My People: Sustaining a Teaching Life by Staying Connected With My Tribe

With a nudge from Donna JT Smith, I’m jumping back into Two Writing Teachers’ Slice-of-Life Challenge!

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We’re in the last week of the NYC Writing Project Invitational Summer Institute. I can’t believe we’ve gotten here so quickly.

This is my 6th year involved with the NYCWP & my 2nd year co-facilitating the ISI. Every summer is a gift. Every summer I say, “This is the best group we’ve had!” I can’t help it; every summer, it’s the truth.

These past few weeks, many of our Fellows have thanked me, for workshops, for the opportunity to be here, for my contributions to potlucks. One of our participants got me right in the feels when he thanked me for helping him connect with other teachers like him, his people.

I’ve been turning that over in my head since then, because this past school year was one of those years. I came to the end so ragged & drained that even the thought of the magical, restorative, wondrous ISI seemed daunting. But after a few hours with this summer’s amazing group of teachers, I realized that I’d forgotten one of the most important things I’ve learned about teaching when times get tough: I need my people.

When that Fellow thanked me for helping him find his people, I told him that we can get through a lot by knowing there are people like us, with us, along the way. That was a reminder for myself, a truth I need to carry with me & hold dear as I ride waves of school reform that threatens my students, as I clench my jaw through meetings with close-minded colleagues. You have people, I can remind myself. They’ve got your back.

Every summer with the NYCWP ISI is a gift. This summer has reminded me of my people, & reconnected me with who they are.

My people believe in stories, their power, the privilege of hearing & sharing them, their wisdom, their pricelessness.

My people know they are never done, and they remind me of the joy in that never. My people know that never comes with always, & never done means always learning, always open to the wonders ahead.

My people hold their brilliance in their hands, ready to share & exchange & collect.

My people heal with humor & open ears, with emphatic nods & exuberant faces. My people know that listening is active & their whole bodies attune.

My people are teachers & writers & readers, storytellers & sharers. They are thought-provokers, who challenge assumptions not to antagonize but to agitate the mind, because an active mind is a mind ready to learn. They are welcoming & warm & full of wonder. They know when to advise & when to just let the tension hang in the air while they hmmm. They know it’s not about having al the answers, but asking all the questions. They delve into the mess & honor its value. They treasure, they collect, they celebrate. These are my people, & just knowing that they are out there keeps me going.

Free-falling/Free-writing

Free-writing with students terrifies me. 

 Every time! I always think at some point the fear of the first free-write will subside, and instead of inwardly panicking while my students gape at me in horror – You’re asking us to write? By ourselves? Are you crazy? – I’ll remember that I’ve done this before and no one died. But no, I can’t convince myself of that on Day One; even as I reassure my students that they can do this, my inner freakout perfectly mirrors their outer. What am I going to write about?! they cry, and I smile serenely while a voice in my head shrieks WHAT ARE THEY GOING TO WRITE ABOUT?! 

 There’s a lot to be said for faith. Often, I forge ahead with what I know will benefit my students even when the risk of failure threatens, and I’m only able to do so because I’ve done it before. It’s a small comfort, but it’s real and when I clutch it in my nervous hand, I find I have enough in me to keep smiling, encouraging, nudging. 

 “Miss, I don’t know where to start,” G. said on Day One. The class around us was completely ignoring the independent volume I’d requested (aka shhhh) as they traded topics across tables. 

 “Me either. Actually, that’s how I started,” I replied, tapping my pen against my mostly blank page. 

 G. narrowed his eyes a little, which is sort of his pre-smile, and jutted his chin at my notebook. “You’re writing, too?” Suspicious, slightly smirking. 

 I nodded and glanced down as I read him my first line, “‘I don’t know where to start.’ Yep.” 

 “Let me see.” G. wasn’t even trying to hide his doubt this time.

I could’t help smiling as I folded the notebook over and flipped it around, pointing at the scant 3 lines of writing. 

“I’m a little stuck, but I got some words on the page.” 

 G. raised his eyebrows and nodded, stoic teenage boy for, “Ok, cool.” His pen touched down and I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding. Words on the page.

That’s what I’d told them: Just get some words on the page. You can do it.

Most of them didn’t believe me. I could tell by looking. 

And by them telling me, “I don’t believe you.” 

 Some didn’t get a word on the page. “It happens,” I told them. “Sometimes, the words aren’t ready to come out of our brains yet. It’s ok.” And then I repeated that to myself all day.  It’s ok, it’s ok. Reminding myself that this practice is important, vital, in developing writing voice, that this is how we become independent and thoughtful writers – we write.

This constant justification is a big part of my teaching life now. Where I used to feel confident in my choices because I had seen their effects, I feel uncertain even in the most tried and true routines, under the ever-more looming shadow of evaluation. Frankly, I feel like a marked woman; my days in this job feel numbered as I approach the inevitable Ineffective. But even though I’ve made up my mind to teach the best I can for as long as I can, I’m not immune to a freak out here and there.

But one of the greatest things about this job is that, while I’m often playing the long game and not seeing the results of some moves for years to come, there’s some amount of instant gratification. It comes in the form of students who press their notebooks into my hands at the end of class and say, “Please read.” And students who say across the table to the classmate with the blank page before them, “I’m writing about this, you should try it. Don’t worry. You can do it.” And looking around the classroom to see almost every pen moving, and students thanking me for giving them this space and time, and just one of my most troubled and disruptive students telling me that writing really helps, and he feels ready now. And when I ask, ready for what, he tells me, ready to learn. And when I say, I think you’re learning right now, he laughs and says I’m right.

One of my colleagues, before he retired after 35 years in NYC public schools, once told me that teaching was never easy, but recognizing good teaching was very easy.  He said good teachers figure out what their students need, and they figure out how to help them get it. And that’s the best answer to the why, to the what if, to the should we. They need this, and my job is to help them get it. 

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!

The Struggle is Real: Facing Setbacks, Moving Forward

I don’t deal with setbacks well, which is why a back spasm that left me bed-bound for two days had me in a whirlwind of panic and self-doubt. When I described my day of playing Hungry Shark Evolution, dozing, and getting sucked into “Doctor Who,” my friends told me I was enjoying what sounded like a perfect end-of-summer day. Why then was I so miserable? Not only because I was in great pain, though there was that. It was more the shame.

In my family, getting hurt was a punishable offense. At best, I would get yelled at, which didn’t feel great what with already being hurt. As I got older, it was more likely that I would be chided for my carelessness, or just my me-ness. The message was always clear: if I got hurt, it was my fault and I should have been better. That has stayed with me. When I get hurt now, I get frustrated with myself. I tell myself this happened because I did something wrong or stupid, and I take my injury or pain as a sign that I am not strong or graceful or disciplined or just plain thin enough to do what I’m trying to do.

Between Boyfriend and the fitness enthusiasts I follow on social media, I’ve become more acquainted with the experiences of people who get hurt. These are strong, athletic, disciplined people, and they get hurt sometimes. And they don’t berate themselves for getting hurt. They don’t abandon their goals, or give up on the things they were trying. They take some days off to recover and, when they’re ready, they start working again. Maybe they’ve decided to start from a different entry point – reinforcing some basics or building from a different strength – but they don’t just throw up their hands, declare themselves unfit, and sulk in the corner.

These are revelations to me, every time: people get hurt, people struggle. Most importantly: I can, too.

I’m reminded of so many students right now, past me included, and how setbacks affect them. Being “behind” the majority of a class has been so demoralizing for many of my students that they’re ready to give up on the whole school thing, rather than trundle along at the back of the class. Reassurances that they’ll get there or are doing great sound like lies designed to make them feel better, especially coming from a teacher, because most teachers don’t show their students what struggles and setbacks look like. We’re not really allowed to, in a system of rubricked evaluations and high-stakes rating. There is a lot of pressure to bring into the classroom only what is proven and guaranteed to work. Sharing one’s struggle as a learner is too great a risk for many teachers, I know. But the implication for struggling students is that only they flounder and face setbacks.

fail-again-fail-better-samuel-beckett

Learning, growing, improving, etc., it all demands trying and failing. It’s the only way we’ll ever get to failing better, doing better. This is well-worn territory, even here, but it’s worth repeating. I’ve only just met my newest group of students, and I want to remember how to make space for them to just straight-up flail toward progress.

Praise the work. It’s not that I don’t want to tell my students how brilliant and creative and wonderful they are. But I need to remember that many students see working hard as a sign of inadequacy. I’ve had many colleagues and adults in general bemoan “this generation’s” lack of work ethic, but it’s not a secret that hard work is hard. Everyone deserves snaps for working hard, especially people who don’t realize how important it is to do so.

– Share the struggle. It’s scary to be vulnerable with students, and overshare is a very real, very inappropriate thing. Some of my colleagues, great teachers, swear by the sharply delineated professional personas they maintain with students. Boundaries are important, but so is being human, and I think modeling the process of learning with examples from a real learner’s life is one of the most valuable things students can get from teachers. I talk about learning new things with my students. I share with them what I struggled with when I was doing what they are doing for this first time, and I make it a point to try new things with them and make sure they know it. Mistakes are shared and discussed in our classroom; we’re works in progress, and we can all help one another.

Reflect often. Time is at a premium in a school year, but checking in with students has to be non-negotiable. They need opportunities to think about and process what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, and I need to hear and see their journeys. This is how we all learn from each other, and from our own selves.

Get off the stage. I don’t stay in the front of the room for long, and every year I aim to take myself further from the center. But my favorite time of year is when students step up there. Whether it’s a Ms. Thomas impression or an expert presentation, I love to see students taking center stage and leading us through their learning processes. This coming year, I’m hoping to introduce these opportunities earlier than ever.

How do you deal with setbacks? How do you help your students move past what feels like failure? I’d love to hear your thoughts 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? 

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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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:

Leapoffaith

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!