The Risk of Being Bad

Yesterday, as the temperature in NYC dipped into the 20s, we boarded the buses that would take our 6 classes of 9th and 10th graders ice skating. They were bundles of nervous, screechy energy, even before we got near the ice. Most of our students have been in the US for less than 2 years, though we do have some who have been living in New York since middle school. But very few had been ice skating before, and even one of our students who went skating year-round as a child in Russia was anxious, having not been on the ice in over 2 years.

We arrived at the rink as another school trip was finishing up, so our students sat in the bleachers to watch as this group of teenagers glided and fumbled around the rink. Some seemed more assured at seeing other people creep hesitantly around the perimeter, or fly by like they might know what they were doing until a sudden lurch in their balance had them shrieking and windmilling their arms in panic. Others clenched their jaws and shook their heads. “Ooooh no,” one of my students said, resting her head on my shoulder. “I am definitely going to fall.”

“Maybe,” I told her, patting her arm. “But you’ll get back up. And then your butt will be too cold to feel anything, so it won’t hurt the next time!” She laughed, looking pale.

When they took the ice, they were a blizzard of activity and noise – from those clinging to the side and screaming in terror at the surreal feeling of standing on two thin blades above a sheet of frozen water, to those who barreled forward, fell spectacularly, and scrambled back up to try again. Two of my students glided alongside of me, slowly, as one held the other’s arm and gave her soothing encouragements.

Why am I so bad at this?” she wailed, grasping her friend’s arm desperately as she wobbled.

“It’s ok!” her friend assured her. She helped her straighten up before they continued inching along. “You have to be bad at something before you can be good!”

It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard this idea. I’ve seen it as a snappy aphorism on Instagram, said some version of it several times, and even glimpsed it in student journals. It’s good advice, I think, and true in its core, if over-meme’d. It’s a nice reminder not to let imperfection stop you from trying.

It wasn’t working for this girl, though. After she had been dragged screaming around the rink a few times, she clambered off to the benches to take a break. I sat down beside her a few minutes later. She turned to me: “Never. Again.”

I asked her why she was ready to give up, repeating some variation of her friend’s advice that everyone is bad the first time they try something.

“Not me,” she said firmly. “I only do things I am good at.”

Her friends and I laughed and teased her a bit, and she shook her head over her hot chocolate at the ridiculousness of the whole concept. But it’s had me thinking. How do we get students to take the risk of being bad? Showing students that it’s normal to not be good at something right away invites some students in, but what about students who, like my non-skater here, just do not do things they are not good at?

These are puzzles I am constantly working on, building on and adding to my approaches, searching for more ways to model falling on my butt for students to feel comfortable to do the same. More than reminding me of this tension, the trip and my student’s reaction encouraged me to pause and appreciate the young people I work with. Whether it’s hurtling across the ice (slash, inching around the wall in terror) or writing and speaking in our classes, it is amazing how bravely my students will attempt what they do not know. The risks we ask them to take are not small, and yet even when we demand them with mid-year impatience, they try and try again. So, maybe I’m asking the wrong questions. Instead of focusing only on how to get my students to take more risks, I should be asking myself how I can learn from their willingness to take the risks they do, and how they can share that with each other.

Right now, we are talking about what it means to be brave, as we warm up for Katherine Applegate’s Home of the Brave, and I have encouraged students to mine their own experiences for examples of bravery. I’m excited after our Friday of winter fun to show them one more instance of their courage, and share how they inspire me.

Onions Have Layers

I spent the weekend having an identity crisis. Each day, I engaged in activities that nurtured different pieces of me. I came home on Friday to indulge in books and silly television, and spent Saturday at an education conference. I read fitness and body image blogs on the way home, where I dove into some writing. Sunday was a day of comfortable domesticity, cleaning a bit and running errands with Boyfriend. NYC public schools had Monday off, so I headed uptown to talk shop and plan with some of my teacher family, before returning home for an evening of cooking. It was a well-rounded, full weekend, and looking back over it as I waited for the last dish to be done in the oven, I expected to feel both nourished and ready for bed.

Instead, I was a live wire of anxiety. I tossed and turned through the night; I dreamed of paralysis, collapsed buildings, pits of snakes, the flu, etc. Early in the morning, I whispered to Boyfriend, “I don’t want to go.”

It wasn’t until I was sitting at the train station, packed and prepped and totally ready but completely not ready, that I could attempt to articulate the crushing guilt I was carrying. That’s what it was: guilt. I want to want to be excited about a new school year, new students, new colleagues, new opportunities. I mean, I love this stuff, don’t I?

… don’t I?

Every time I ask myself that question, or wish for more unstructured, self-directed time to write, read, and move, the weight of my guilt grows. Every time I let myself think about goals I have outside of my teaching practice, I feel the pit in my stomach threaten to swallow me whole. You’re not a writer, you’re a teacher, I scold myself, trying to drum up some enthusiasm. As if I didn’t just write this whole thing about multi-facetedness.

As we begin our units on identity, my students are thinking about onions today. Onions, I told them, have layers. All of the layers together make an onion. What are your layers? They draw, and label, and crinkle their noises, and talk, and write.

Thankfully, Boyfriend is really smart, and he had an insightful response to my early morning confessions of guilt. “These aren’t two identities,” he reminded me. “You’ve always been a writer. Up until recently, it just wasn’t a part of you that you considered real. It’s good that you feel it now.”

“You’ve always been a writer,” I remind myself. “You are a dedicated, hard-working, experienced teacher. These aren’t two identities.” I am layered, like an onion, I tell myself, ready to draw, and label, and talk, and write.

 

Don’t Break the Bank on Books, part one

I moved about 30 boxes of books into my new classroom this summer. When I told boyfriend, he said, “and they’re just gonna keep on coming.” He’s right; I have since ordered books for my classroom at least 5 times.

I’m not about to apologize for this, or rationalize it. The steady influx of books is a fact of my classroom life. But as you can imagine (and as many a teacher well knows) books can be an expensive habit. Here are some ways I keep the costs down.

Memberships and discounts: My Amazon Prime membership and my Barnes & Noble educator discount are put to good use. The yearly fee for Prime is made worth it very quickly with the shipping costs saved & Amazon pricing. B&N’s educator discount is free & gets me a 20% savings on titles for my classroom – 25% during the twice a year educator appreciation weeks.

Outlet shopping: While Amazon & BN are close to unbeatable in terms of selection, there are insane deals available on YA and Middle Grade titles elsewhere on the Internet. If you are working in a Title I eligible school, meaning ____, you qualify for a membership to FirstBook.org. The organization serves teachers & students in two ways: a deeply discounted marketplace for books, and opportunities to receive loads of free books several times throughout the year.

Another great discount retailer is BookOutlet.com. As with FirstBook, you probably won’t find newer titles on BO, but there are some notable titles, many that fall into the Popular For Years category, and quite a few readalike titles for students who have devoured the “cool” books & need new material. I bought 31 books for around $150 this August (& I only stopped at 31 because I needed to leave to catch a flight!). Even with $20 shipping in the US, that’s a steal at a $5/book average. I like that BO carries what they call “Scratch and Dent” copies, used books that they warn will show signs of having been read. I love a broken in book to begin with, and if it saves me money, so much the better.

I’ve also recently come across ThriftBooks.com, which is similar to BO but with free shipping for orders over $20. TB also carries more new-ish titles, still at impressive discounts. I only grabbed 6 books on my first order, which cost me $26. TB also carries many used books, and the product descriptions will indicate if the copy you’re adding to your cart is excellent, very good, good, or acceptable. The shopping cart lets you know if a “greener” option is available for one of your choices, offering you a slightly lower price for taking a used copy instead of a new copy. I love the ease & convenience of used book shopping this way – I don’t have to scour shelves & lug my purchases home (as much as I love an afternoon of browsing used books, the tediousness of shopping for my classroom this way takes most of the enjoyment out), & I don’t have to spend hours hunched at my computer reading through product descriptions to determine which copy of a book I should purchase.  TB also offers a rewards program for registered members; points for every $50 spent. Most of the books I received from TB were formerly in libraries, so they were sturdy hardcovers with protective plastic casing – great durability for teenage readers.

This is only Part One of money-saving strategies for book shopping! What do you do to cut back on costs in your classroom? Share in the comments and help me build up Part Two! 

(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.

Starting Over, Again

Coming out of silence is almost as hard as living in it. In an oppressive environment, I survive by turning inward. It’s a strategy that has served me well and protected me through many challenging situations, but the longer I stay in the safety of isolation, the more difficult words become.

It is uniquely brutal, breaking silence. The stakes and the size of what Needs To Be Said have been growing furiously in the corners of my mind, and it all looms over me now, whispering that I had better get this right.

The only way I’m going to get it right is if I get it done. All I can do, is do.

When I think, and talk, and read, and write, about living a writing life alongside my students, this is the part I leave out. Most people do, I find. Even when honestly exploring the challenges of helping students build independent writing lives, I rarely read about teachers struggling through lapses in their own writing practice. “A line every day, even if it’s terrible,” I’ll hear. And I admire it. But what about when you miss a day, and one day becomes one week, and one week becomes months and your writer’s notebook is a brick of guilt you lug around every day? What about how even when you manage to pry open the cover and confront the discouraging blankness of so many pages, you sit with the pen hovering over the paper and let the white noise roar in the space between your ears, and you write nothing?

This is hard to admit, to talk about, to write about. It is hard to come back to this place. I’m ashamed at how long I’ve left it. I’m afraid I’ll abandon it again. But I think there is value in pushing my way through fear and shame, instead of trying to leave it behind me. And I want to have something to say, some experience to draw on, when I sit with my students before overwhelmingly blank pages and pick up a pen. I want them to know that we can always begin again.

What Doesn’t Kill You

The Monday after the mass murder at Pulse in Orlando, FL was also the last day of classes before end-of-year testing began. Attendance was low & classes were loosely structured – test prep, last minute grade savers, can I please just read my book? I had thought about the shooting all weekend, but I had no words yet. 
I teach students who are newcomers to the US, who have immigrated from countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America. Many of my students practice Islam. Many look like the Latinx clubgoers who were attacked at Pulse. Many come from places where governments are corrupt, violence is public & frequent, where homosexuality is considered a capital offense, where gay people are proclaimed subhuman. 

I only spoke to one of my students about the shooting. L brought it up to me, asking if I’d heard about it. I braced myself for a conversation about homophobia & respect; L is the kind of student whose anger & desire for attention manifest in making deliberately hateful comments for their shock value. I was raw & stinging underneath my skin, angry beyond coherent words, & I wasn’t sure I could be calm enough to handle what he might throw at me. 

I told him: Yes. I heard about it. It made me so angry, & scared. 

L was quiet for a moment, looking at me thoughtfully. Then he said, This stuff isn’t supposed to happen here. 
A friend of mine, another high school English teacher, confers with her students after their daily freewrites by asking them what they have written about & jotting quick notes in her log. On Monday, one of her 9th graders told her, I wrote a list of reasons why people who don’t know me might try to kill me. 

How am I supposed to write that down for my conference notes? she asked me. How do I even begin to say something that matters to that student? 

& she told me, she shared that story with a few friends, some teachers & some not. One of the fellow teachers said, Oh, 9th graders are so dramatic. 

I have made the same list. More than once. 
Who I teach & what I teach, & who I am, brings me often to the intersection of politics of language, identity, religion, culture, feminism, & more. I’ve heard a lot of frustrations that adults feel about “politically correct” thinking & language – that words will not change feelings & ideas, that these are band aids on broken bones, that oversensitivity is going to raise our children to be weak & useless. I have heard teachers use justify their refusal to bring issues of race, gender, & sexuality into their classrooms. To them, I say that I don’t think it’s about us, necessarily; it’s about the younger generation we have a hand in raising. Maybe the words I use & those I choose not to use will do nothing about my own cynicism, my apathy, my held biases. But 10 years of teaching has shown me the power of words & how they influence mindset, openness, & thought. When I ask myself what I want my students to learn & take away from my classroom, it is never my lack of faith in humanity. If we want them to do & think & live better, then we have to teach them how. 

Some people like that. Many do not. But it’s not about us. 
Right now, teachers are being discouraged from talking about the massacres & murders of their students’ time. Sometimes, it is test pressure. Often, it’s that teachers aren’t trained or prepared to have these conversations. Sometimes, there are direct orders from administrators, or protests from parents who do not want teachers pushing political agendas on their children. 

Passing a test cannot be more important than becoming the kind of adult who has agency & knows how to maintain it, who both wants & can plan how to improve their world. 

We need to accept that educators need to be trained – really taught & practiced at – teaching through trauma, even more than they need a scripted & leveled curriculum. 

& maybe part of our problem is that people consider teaching students that everyone is human, everyone deserves recognition of their humanity, is a political agenda. 

I don’t have any answers, any profundities to share about the victims of this massacre, or of any other. I am not adept at teaching this way or bringing the real world into student discussions, with getting over or going through my own fear. I have only the dread I carry deep in my belly, dread that my students navigate a world that sees them as less & less than what they are, that reduces them to slivers of their identities & judges them. That dread, that fear that I will walk into my classroom to find another of my students has been murdered or attacked because of their ethnicity, their clothes, their sexuality, their neighborhood. That, the certainty that we can & must do better, & an aching raw wound for a heart. It still works, though. 
A prospective teacher in my friend’s graduate class once confessed to me that she was just not comfortable putting any LGBT-themed books in her future classroom library. “I’ll just set some aside for a student who is dealing with…that issue,” she said, flustered. 

“What if you don’t know?” I asked. 

She looked confused, like maybe I was not as smart as she had thought, like, how would she not be able to know? 

“I mean, what if you have students who are hiding themselves & too scared or feeling too alienated to express themselves, or students who are even in denial themselves? How can you know what they need if they’re hiding it from you & everyone?”

She shook her head. “Um…”

“& what about your other students?”

“What do you mean?”

“Shouldn’t they learn that gay people are normal, that they’re teenagers who do all sorts of teenager-y things, like have favorite music & fights with siblings & best friends & crushes & everything?” Shouldnt they all learn that being a different kind of person doesn’t make anyone less of a person?
It’s not about us. It’s about our students, their futures, & doing right by them. If it’s about anything else, then isn’t it part of the problem? 

4 Ways to Manage Student Choice in Argument

I can’t believe that my last post here was within this school year! As you can imagine, given the months of absence, it has been an eventful year. I’ve found myself talking about argument units a lot lately, sharing the triumphs & the pitfalls of new approaches to teaching structured debate. From state standards to mandated assessments to curricular demands, argument units are becoming larger pieces of elementary through secondary classrooms.

Most teachers I know are always thinking about how to engage their students in any writing or thinking they bring to the classroom, & argument offers a unique challenge: teachers want students to have choice, but structure often gets in the way. In talking to many educators of different grade levels, here are 4 suggestions for keeping student choice alive & well in your argument units.

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