A space to reflect on my readings and musings, scattered and rescattered



I have a reputation of being a teacher who is constantly eating in class. Usually it's something "weird" (translation: healthy, unfamiliar, and unprocessed). I've found out from older siblings of current students that my eating habits are strange enough for kids to discuss outside of class. Teaching a unit on the U.S. industrial food system has amplified this to a great degree. My sharing of baby carrots, hummus and pita, fruit, etc. has a whole new meaning now that I've positioned myself as an environmentally aware eater. Today I was munching on broccoli out of a bag clearly marked organic. J. happily took one, dipped it in some baba ghanoush, and then nearly spit it out in surprise. It was the first time he'd eaten raw broccoli and the texture alarmed him. However, after the initial shock and a few more dips in some yummy baba, he was hooked.

P.S. The backdrop of this photo is a bulletin board where we all responded to the question, "If people are what they eat, I am..." I think J. put that he was a Burger King Whopper with a side of ketchup-smothered fries. Raw broccoli is a big departure.


Shitty First Drafts

Thursday I walked into one of my afternoon classes--the class that collectively hates to write the most--and realized that none of my students were prepared for the peer review workshop I had planned. I asked them do a bit of silent reading while I regrouped and then I headed to the back of the classroom and picked up the copy of Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird that I had eyed. I opened to a chapter I'd read with my creative writing students last year--a chapter I love called "Shitty First Drafts." In it Lamott details the gory, self-loathing, not at all glamorous fits-and-starts writing life of most writers--the anxiety of getting started and verbal garbage that too often flows from our pens on the first try until we somehow begin writing the really good stuff, the stuff someone else might actually want to read.

I read aloud to students and watched as they giggled when I read "shitty," shocking their little 15-year old minds that their teacher would read profanity at the front of the room. (Nevermind, I'm regularly asking many of them to reduce the number of F bombs they drop in my room.) Regardless, they seemed kind of into it. Shock value helps. But you never really know when you're reading aloud whether they're paying attention or daydreaming or, more likely, a little of both. However, when I finished reading, I said, okay, start writing. And you know what, they did. They just wrote--they decided to trust the process. Somehow hearing in beautiful detail that they didn't have to (and probably weren't going to) create stunning prose the first time, they just went with it.

One student quickly filled a page with a mess or words and then handed it to me and said, "Here read this. It's terrible but read it." As I read through his rapid, hurried, at times nonsensical prose, I found bits and pieces of greatness. I said, "Wow, I like this part. And this inspires me too. And oh wow, yep, this part totally represents you." I walked away saying, "Why don't you do the same thing on the other half of the page focusing on one of these parts that sings?" He gave me the "but I already..." look and then he started to write. And you know what, the second page was even better. Two whole pages from a kid who barely writes two sentences on the regular. Even more, the words had more heart and soul than most student writing I read. It was a good day--better even than if they'd actually been prepared.

Yet the story gets more exciting. This morning I opened my inbox to an email with the following subject line: "My Shitty Draft........ Tell Me More About What I Need To Do ....." It was from another kiddo who more or less abhors writing. His story was a brilliant recounting of learning to cook at age 9 or 10 by boiling hot dogs with hot sauce and spices in the water. His kicky, smart prose had nodes of self-deprecation and gave way to a rather funny story of family love ad frozen entrees. I haven't responded to his email because I don't know what to tell him to do next except dig down somewhere deep and find more of the same honest, lively stories to spill onto the page. His writing was real and unselfconscious and moving.

Teachers don't always have days like this.


What Happened to the Techy Teacher?

When I came back to my school in September, it felt like a foreign place. I schlepped my stuff down the hall to a new classroom and felt displaced. I plundered a teacher desk from another room, jammed boxes of my belongings and old student work in the closets because I don't know how to toss anything out, and then sat down and let myself be maudlin for 10 minutes because my closest teacher friends left and my students had graduated.

On the second day of school I found out that 10th graders throw markers at each other. And spit balls. Really. It's kinda hell. When 6th graders do it, it's annoying. When 10th graders do it, it's infuriating. I started throwing them back--the markers, not the spit balls. I aimed for desks, not heads, but only because I didn't want to get fired.

Amid my highly intellectual musings about how to stop my students from throwing markers at one another (throwing them back doesn't particularly work, by the way), I have been pretending to write a dissertation on technology in the classroom and teaching a graduate class on the social aspects of internet ICTS. Yet, I didn't wheel the laptop cart into my room until December. We were doing test prep. A lot of it. When you live in a state where high stakes tests determine student graduation and prevented some of your beloved former students from graduating and going on to colleges that had admitted them, you worry about the tests--in the sleepless nights sorta way. You teach the test. So that's what we did--September thru December. My students now hate my class and, I'm pretty sure, want to bludgeon me with markers. But, dammit, they can more or less write Critical Lens essays, persuasive listening responses, and can even make a decent pass at literary response though I'm a horrid teacher of literary analysis, mostly because I hate it. (English major rebellion, methinks.)

Anyway, the computers are back in the classroom...4 days a week now and we're all much happier. Students are making CDs of their favorite music accompanied by written sales pitches and personal essays, They might still be groaning that I'm "making them" write a whopping 6 paragraphs, but they're smiling as they select and organize the best songs and design well-thought out album covers to persuade audiences to buy their "mix tapes." More on why this is working later...well, more on whether it works...old assignment for me, new kids to try it out.


When Tenuous Feelings of Hope Start Slipping Away

Today is one of those day in which the weather perfectly matches my mood. It's cold and rainy and the heater in my NYC apartment has yet to be turned on. I'd rather crawl back under my down blanket. I feel hopeless, like staying in my pajamas and hiding from the world outside. The only thing I'm feeling hopeful about is that my relationship with my grumpy roommate is improving. He made extra coffee this morning and offered me some. Sounds little, but it matters. It's a measure of hope. We're informally starting to take turns make each other coffee in the mornings and it's helping, cup by cup, little by little. It's hope and it's human.

At the beginning of this school year, I felt some simple little moments of hope with colleagues. I found unexpected common ground and even professional friendship with an entirely new grade level team. I had some fun co-planning and curriculum sharing time with departmental colleagues. I began feeling like we could deepen our work together and I'd have interested folks with whom to share ideas with and create curriculum with. Last year the two colleagues I'd worked most closely with left my school and I'd been really unsure about how things would be without them. They were my sounding boards, they were the ones with whom I had real, deep conversations about teaching and learning. When they left, I feared that I'd be alone in terms of that deep learning that helps me grow as an educator.

I was wrong. I'm not alone. In fact, I have brilliant colleagues who love students as much as I do and are full of great ideas. From a distance last year, I thought the person who just became my team leader was a cold fish. Looking a little more closely, I found that he's warm, funny, compassionate and, really, one of the most thoughtful and effective teachers I've ever worked with, not to mention one of the most organized. A new addition to our school, my CTT (collaborative team teaching) colleague has reflected with me about my overall curriculum planning and helped me build some pretty exciting classroom habits that support our students even more. My grade-level teammate in the Math Dept, also new, is incredibly generous and committed to community-building in productive, exciting ways. I could learn a lot from/with these teachers and, on a personal level, I really like them. I shouldn't be glum, but I am.

There are two hours each week set aside for me to talk with the brilliant folks on my grade-level team and another two hours set aside for me to reflect with my equally wise, innovative and kind departmental team. So why I am I so glum? Partly because our meetings are stifled by protocols and procedures we were handed that don't at all reflect what we think we need to be doing/working on. Our meetings are structured for us and must be thoroughly documented with meeting notes emailed out to all participants and all three administrators. It's also not uncommon to have one or all of these administrators stop by to "check up" on our progress on their goals. Last time I checked this isn't how teachers learn.

Furthermore, this year, I've been told exactly how my room should be set up (particular labels for everything on the walls), how my class periods should be structured, and I must have each one of my learning goals approved by an administrator who is ideologically in a very different space than I am. I have someone in my room at least weekly, sometimes more, toting a clipboard and rating my teaching with a checklist that includes such pedagogical criteria as "System for Addressing Late Students," "Clean Up," and "Orderly Dismissal." What I'm really learning: how to turn my kids into robots, to structure things the same way every day so that they know exactly what to do if an outsider walks in. I agree that there's something to "classroom rituals and routines" that I believe can be effective, but this is a bureaucratic twist on the teacher knowledge, expertise and autonomy that usually drives effective classroom routines. These are not my or our "rituals and routines;" they're mechanical structures from on high. It's the factory model and I'm wondering why no one has handed me a hard hat. It's possible to get everyone doing the same thing at the same time; Ford Auto has assembly line workers do it all the time, but it makes me feel more than a little uneasy for teachers and students to be put in this position, particularly with a lack of pedagogical conversation and innovation.

Couple this with learning a new, clunky online grading program that is supposed to be "empowering to students" but feels a lot like "big brother" and I'm feeling tired, hopeless, and alone. I'm getting "Proficient" evaluations on the classroom checklist for my little student robots and informational wall decor, but I got my hands slapped for not translating my paper-based grade book into the online system according to the calendar outlined in one of the 20 or so bureaucratic emails I get every week. I'm exhausted, harried, and demoralized. It's October and I'm starving for a real teaching and learning conversation. I'm also anxious and full of fear about whether I'm meeting all of the "accountability" protocols dropped off by school leaders.

Even given all of this frustration, I don't for a moment doubt that my school leaders are doing the best that they can, that all of these protocols and procedures and new systems come from with the best of intentions. Frankly, they're terrified of all of the city and state-based accountability measures put on their heads and the anxiety is getting disseminated like handouts warm off the photocopier. My school is preparing for it's annual School Quality Review (SQR) and those tend to cause everyone worry and strife--principals and teachers alike. One of the teachers in my school is hosting a Halloween-themed "SQR Stress Relief" party at her home, where she lives with two teachers from other schools, who are also feeling suffocated by dramatic accountability measures being implemented in their schools. What I write about above is happening all over NYC and, I suspect, NY state and the US at large.

As schools work to demonstrate that they have good systems, the really good stuff, the reason we all do this, slips away, right along with the feelings of hope I so desperately want to have for public education. It's getting harder and harder for me to imagine how we're going to sit down over coffee and have a real conversation about what teachers think they need to make schools better.


PSAT Proctoring

I sit here proctoring an exam. Twenty-one young people--all about fifteen years old--sit before me utterly silent, calculators and #2 pencils in hand, bubbling in empty holes on their PSAT answer sheets. Many of them were particularly exuberant and playful when they walked into the school early this morning--teasing and joking with one another, gently pushing and slugging, scowling and name-calling, smiling and laughing at one another. I'm chalking it up to anxiety--right alongside the handful of headaches and tummy aches--because I never see them so rowdy this early in the day. After they'd all found their room assignments and the handful of little test-takers under my charge had sauntered in from the hallways and settled in to the classroom a minute or two beyond the 9:00am start time, I passed out the 39-page test booklets and fold-over, purple printed answer/info. sheets. I then stood at the front of the room deconstructing how to bubble the 2 full pages of info. sheets right along with them, puzzling through the questions that were at times utterly confusing even to me--a seasoned test bubbler.

As we worked together completing this form for 40 mins, students grumbled, sighed and got confused but stuck with it, figuring it out right along with me. They asked the usual, "Do I have to mark my race? Can I mark more than one?" And, of course, cried out in exasperation over forgotten social security numbers and zip codes. As we worked through the blanks, my mind raced through all the high-stakes, stardardized tests I've taken--this one--the PSAT, the real SAT, the ACT, the GRE--a couple of times, the GRE English,three teacher certification exams in Missouri and, when I moved, three more teacher certification exams in NYC. As I recall all of these exams that were requirements of my career in one way or another, it does not escape me that I'm teaching students a valuable skill as we work our way through the seemingly endless circles with our #2 pencils--that impersonal, computer-assessed exams will be part and parcel of the rest of their academic existence. From the SATs they will sit for--likely more than once, the Scantron exams they'll take in over-sized psychology and science courses at large public universities where they'll be number 787 on the quiz clicker to the myriad of professional certification exams they'll take for their respective fields.

I never really feel good on these standardized exam days. I feel like we've all gotten short-changed. And I think we have. This isn't what education is supposed to be, but it's also what education has become. If my students want to move on to careers where their talent, intellect, and innovation is truly valued, they have to learn to bubble effectively, erase completely, and read and understand directions that sometimes confound this teacher.

At the end of the each of the 5 sections, which I logged on the white board up front, I wrote silly things like, "Woot, woot! Wer're over half way done. :)" and then, "We're 80% thru! Yay! Hip Hip Horray." They rolled their eyes and shook their heads at me as they stifled smiles. When the test was through, I was the dragon lady teacher. I checked over each answer sheet and helped them correct errors. They sorta wanted to bludgeon me, because their friends from other classrooms were already in the hallways whooping it up. Yet, instead of letting them enter the mayhem of the hallways without reflecting on what they'd just accomplished, I quieted them down once again and quite simply said, "Congratulations, you've taken your first step to going to college. You should be very proud." As they filed out of the classroom, bumping into one another, pushing to get out of testing zone relatively unscathed and into freedom, I patted them on the backs, smiled, and congratulated them again. Then, I went and sat at my desk and let a few tears fall for the pride I feel for these children I'm growing to love and frustration at yet another injustice of our educational system.

I think for a moment about the dissertation I'm writing on literacy and technology in education and dream of all the wonderfully creative design projects we'll do this year with laptops on our desks, all the books we'll read and share with one another sitting on our bean bags, and all the interesting topics we'll discuss and probably even heatedly debate. Alongside these exciting valuable learning activities, I also resolve not to forget to teach my students the code too--to teach them to be good little test bubblers so that they have access to the really good stuff in the world of education. I can wish these tests didn't matter, don't have real consequences, but they do and kids need to know how to be good little test-takers right along side being designers, composers, and dreamers of new worlds. Perhaps it will be their over-tested generation that creates the new way of doing things that we so desperately need.


UAMA SlideShow for Graduation


Regents--the DJ Pep Talk

The Day of the English Language Arts Regents

On Tuesday morning, I grabbed hold of all of the 12th graders I saw entering my school building and flung my arms around their stiff bodies. Then I pulled back, still clinging to them, looked each one in the eye individually and said something like, "You can do this. I know your work. If you just do your best, you're going to pass this thing. There is no doubt in my mind. You're gonna be fine, just stick with it." I was fighting back tears and anger, trying to demonstrate only the hope and love in me. As I looked at their anxious faces, all the beautiful papers and projects they'd written for my class turned pages in my mind--proof of my words. I repeated, "I've seen your work. I know you can do this." I believe in my students. I believe that they're smart and capable and can pass this exam. But I also don't believe that their getting a diploma on June 26 should depend on the first draft of an essay undoubtedly on a topic they could care less about. In short, I think the test is a sham. I think they can do it, but only if they're in the right emotional space.

After the hallway hug attack, I dragged all four of them into Room 709 and gave a fierce but sincere pep talk. It went something like this: "Take it slow. You have plenty of time. Write as much as you can. The more words you get on the page, the more we have to work with when we grade these. If you skip anything, I'm personally gonna come find you and take it up with you. You can do it. Just write complete answers and do you best. I know what you can do. There is no doubt in my mind that you can all pass. No doubt." Followed by more hugs.

Then we all marched upstairs to the testing room. Inside I found more of "my" 12th graders and a couple of 11th graders to hug and then I decided to try out my speech on the large scale. About 15 more kids got the DJ pep talk. "Okay, listen up. You need to know this. Write a lot. Answer thoroughly. Take your time. The English test is an endurance test. It's like running a marathon: finish the race. If you skip an essay question, it will be very hard for you to pass. No matter what you write, I can usually give you 2-3 points and that could make all difference. Write as much as you can. Do you best. And if you don't write enough, Mr. R is going to hand it back to you and make you write more." Mr. R nodded in agreement. And then I walked them through the various parts of the exam, giving a quick tip on how to conquer each one. In closing, I said, "What's the most important thing I've told you?" One person responded, "Write a lot?" Yep, even if you're uncertain. It won't hurt.

I popped my head in an hour later to give encouraging hugs and back rubs. Kids looked up, moaned, shook their tired hands, stretched, "Deeeejaaaaaay, this sucks" and one pulled me over and innocently asked, "DJ, do you think I wrote enough for this one?" I nodded, smiled, "Yes and keep going. You got this."