(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?