Why I freaking love my job

pexels-photo-672358.jpegI originally intended to publish a blog about my new grading practices, which I am all fired up about. But then I had one of those moments, a moment that reminds me why I love what I do. Warning. This might be a long blog. But it’s why I love my job, and it’s why I keep teaching.

A few days ago, I was having a mini existential crisis about some of my students’ poor showing on their final personal narratives. I was feeling depressed that this new writing workshop thing was a bust, and I should just go back to seizing control of the writing process and return to bossing kids and telling them what to do and when to do it.

This morning, I sat down to assess more narratives, and this happened. I read Alex’s narrative. It took me back to the beginning of the year. Without further ado, here is Alex’s story.

During our beginning of the year poetry unit, I watched as Alex avoided-or appeared to avoid-writing poems. He would hop up, sharpen a pencil. Hop up again. Sharpen another pencil, this time down to the nub. Not writing. Definitely avoiding writing. There was a small pile of tiny pencils gathered on his table by the laptop he was not currently using.

In my head, I made the assumption that Alex was checked out and disengaged, especially since my pencil sharpener was getting a thorough workout.  However, when I cruised on over to Alex in my sweet office rollie chair to conference during Writing Love time, he surprised me.

“Watcha writing your poem about?” I asked, expecting him to glance away, avoiding my eyes, and say, “I dunno,” which had been his standard response this fall.

Today, he paused. He glanced away.

I waited. I let the space be silent, too, even though I was dying to break it with my probably not helpful comments.

He said, “Donations.”

My eyes, I know, lit up like a Christmas tree. “Donations! That’s fabulous, Alex! What kind?”

He paused again.  Again, I waited.

“Donations you can see.” Long pause. “And donations you can’t see.”

I love to be proven wrong with my assumptions.

Flash forward to two weeks later. Our poems were done. Students selected one poem to read out loud to the whole class as well as share with the class in an anthology. Alex was absent on the big celebration day, where we ate doughnuts and I told the class how when I was in junior high, I’d rather jump out the window, breaking both arms and legs, than do a speech in front of my peers. He missed all of his classmates launching up to the front of the class, quietly reading their poetry to us while we wiped the glaze from our mouths.

I failed here. I should have prepared Alex more. I should have given him a bigger heads up, some time to practice reading his poem out loud, some wiggle room. I didn’t. I said, “Hey, Alex, time to read your poem!”

He started shaking his head back and forth. Then he started rocking back and forth. “Can I-can I just read it from my desk?”

Here was another mistake from me. I’ve got this non-negotiable thing with public speaking. When we perform speeches, everyone does them from the front of the room. It’s part of the deal. Kids can’t read from their desk or make them up at lunch just in front of me or avoid it completely and take a low grade. Believe me, I understand the fear. I almost didn’t become a teacher because of my terror of public speaking, and I tell my students that very thing. However, I know these kids will have to stand up in front of other people at some point in their lives, and I want them to have pushed through their fear before that happens. Alex didn’t hear any of my heartfelt, vulnerable, understanding encouragement because he had been absent that day.

“No,” I said gently. “It needs to be in front of the class.

Tears started rolling down his cheeks like lava pouring from the mouth of a volcano. Choking sobs shook the table. Now he was heading towards a complete eruption.

The class was silent. Then a few kids said, “Come on, Alex, you got this,” God love them for being more compassionate than I was in that moment.

I guided Alex out into the pod. He dropped his head onto the table with a thud, shoulders shaking in his black hoodie sweatshirt. I brought him a Kleenex and let him be for a bit. I did have twenty kids waiting. Five minutes later, I checked on him, trying to convince him to read his poem in front of the whole class.

What was I thinking? I know better. Teaching days are filled with moments like this, and while there are plenty of moments where I handle a situation with the right amount of heart and compassion, I don’t always. Sometimes I just want kids to do what I say, whether they are ready or not. I am all too human. Often, my mess ups and missteps and mistakes haunt me. I worry that I can’t repair the relationship, that I’ve scarred this kid for life. This is me taking things WAY too seriously. I’m working on it.

It turned out better than okay, don’t worry.

But here’s me again, still trying to control things.

The next class, I said, “Alex, how about we get a bunch of kids to stand up here with you, and they’ll all read a line from your poem?” I thought this was a brilliant solution to the problem.

Before the sentence even finished, he was shaking his head no.

“How about if Jake stands up there with you and reads it for you?” Jake is one of my top speakers, and he and Alex are friends.

No way. He shook his head with vigor and determination.

I decided to shatter my bullet-proof, ironclad law for the first time in twenty years. I asked Alex if he would be willing to stay after class for a minute and read his poem to me and Jake. Lo and behold, he agreed.

When he finished reading, Jake said, “WOW. That was really great, Alex!” I could see Alex’s pride in that moment.

Here is Alex’s poem. He chose not to read his other poem, “Donations.”

Blue

How eyes can be blue
How some cars are blue

How paper can be blue
How water looks blue

but isn’t.

How cabinets are blue
How my binder is blue
How my pencil is blue
How most of everything

is blue.

Blue is in the RGB scale
Blue is anywhere

I look.

Blue makes up every color

but I

never knew it.

til now.

Flash forward to this morning. I was reading more narratives. I was dreading it based on my  mini-existential crisis last night. Then I saw Alex’s narrative.

At the beginning of the personal narrative unit, we had a number of conferences where I was trying to help Alex find a topic. “Nothing ever happens to me,” he kept repeating. None of my usual cues were working. In desperation, I used the ol’ Phone a Friend strategy. I had seated Alex next to Jake, which turned out to be a minor stroke of seating chart genius on my part.

“Jake, do you remember anything happening to Alex last year in sixth grade?” Jake’s freckled face lit up, and he said, “Yeah! Remember when you slipped on the ice and broke your collarbone?” I slid away and let them talk it out.

Flash forward to yesterday’s narrative celebration. I brought in some chocolate, and we popped a bunch of popcorn while kids got up in front of all of us and read a paragraph or two of their choice. Last but not least was Alex.

“Your turn, Alex,” I said, and I took a deep breath. I had not prepared him. I had not even given my big speech about public speaking to kids today. I just didn’t make a big deal out of it. We share all the time in class now. I had no idea how Alex would react. Would he start crying again? Would he run out of the classroom? Should I have prepared him more for this moment? Here we go again, I thought. I really screwed this one up.

With no hesitation, Alex rose out of his seat and read, loud and clear as a bell. No tears. No volcanic meltdown. He was calm, poised, and confident-at least it seemed that way. I resisted the very strong urge to tell the class to give him a standing ovation, but in my head, I pictured all twenty-two of us rising up and cheering him on. After Alex finished,  I whispered how proud I was of him and that he made my day. Once again, I made assumptions. Once again, I was happily proved to be wrong.

This morning, I read Alex’s narrative. He tried a hook. He used thoughts, feelings, and opinions. He tried dialogue, experimented with figurative language, broke up his paragraphs, and used a “So What” (theme) at the end. He was experimenting with many of the strategies we have been practicing. He went from having nothing to say to writing three pages.

I think I need to buy Jake a doughnut.

I think I need to remember these moments more when I get so caught up in my tangled webs of doubt, feel frustrated with the kids who keep misbehaving in epic ways, when I can’t figure out how to get kids to care about their writing, or when I question whether any of my effort does anyone any good. It’s January, full of grey skies that block our sunshine, snow that covers our green lawns, fog that hides our mountains, and doubt. But my students give me hope every single day when I open my eyes, get out of my head, and pay attention. 

This is why I freaking love my job.

Books save lives.

quote-the-story-from-rumpelstiltskin-to-war-and-peace-is-one-of-the-basic-tools-invented-by-the-human-ursula-k-le-guin-3464651Years ago, when I was attending yoga classes regularly, we would often ask our teachers for heart openers. Yoga poses crack open the heart. They let the heart not just spill open but widen and grow.

This may sound odd or strange, but the biggest heart opener I have experienced recently was the NCTE conference, otherwise known as the National Conference of English Teachers.

A CONFERENCE opened your heart, you say?

That’s right. I spent the whole weekend talking with my hand over my heart. I caught myself doing it more times than I can count.

My school district sent me and an amazing friend and colleague to Atlanta, Georgia. And I hope we make them proud with what we do with what we learned.

All weekend, we talked about the power of words. Words we read. Words we write. Words we speak. Words we hear.

We discussed how books can be windows and mirrors.  When books are like mirrors, we see our faces reflected back, and we might just realize something new about ourselves. And, when books are windows, we can look out, see the faces of others, and realize how our experiences, our meanings, and our souls diverge and converge with others. Then we don’t see ‘others.’ We see how we connect to other human beings.

Books can connect us in ways that are specific and unique and universal.

At this precise moment in our history, I believe it is more important than ever to put books in the hands of our children, to say, “This is good. Try it. Maybe you’ll like it.” It is more important than ever to seek those mirrors to lead to greater self-knowledge. It is more important than ever to remember to look out those windows and see how we are more alike than different.

I listened to a Palestinian author named Ibtisam Barakat discuss how Arabs invented numerals, how no one can pronounce her name and how few try, and how afraid she is right now. I listened to one of my son’s favorite authors, Jason Reynolds, talk about how he loves when his writing speaks to kids who never knew racism exists. He co-authored a beautiful novel called  All American Boys. An African-American teenager experiences extreme police brutality and almost dies. A white teenager witnesses it and is afraid to come forward and share the truth because the police officer had been like a brother to him. Their book is all about the struggle to do what is right after horrible wrongs have been committed. Their story is about so much more than that.

I am not a bold person by nature, but know that I totally chased Jason Reynolds down in a hotel and said, “This is one of my son’s favorite books!” He smiled wide, asked my son’s name, and then fist-pumped, “Go, George, GO!!!” I was star-struck.

Right now, and always, students who struggle sit in my classroom. Students who are depressed, anxious, worried, stressed. Students who are lonely, scared, angry, frustrated. Students who feel different. Students who don’t feel accepted or included or loved. Books can reach out to that dark, scary, strange part of ourselves. They show us who we are, and who we can become. They remind us  that there is hope beyond darkness. They bring us light if we allow it.

Since I’ve returned from my heart-opening conference, I’ve read parts of All American Boys to my seventh grade students during our study of stereotypes. I am trying to show them windows  as well as mirrors. We have all been affected by stereotypes-that’s the mirror. And we have all stereotyped. And some of us are affected by stereotypes in ways that we cannot always understand or comprehend. Until we hear their stories. I keep gently suggesting. Hey, let’s look through this window. Now, how about this one? What do you think? Why do you think that?

For three days in Atlanta, I was not doing yoga poses. I was listening. I was thinking. I was absorbing. I was learning, growing, changing. Molecules, I swear, were shifting. When I was asked how my conference was, the only word to encompass it was this one. Transformational. I got what I needed. One of the reasons I haven’t written about it yet is because I am still figuring out what to do, where to go next, how to change, and why it matters so much.

And I can’t stop thinking about how books change lives, how books save lives. Stories about people like us or unlike us not only open hearts but widen them. Sometimes we are lucky enough to experience our hearts being broken open and filling with precisely what we need. Sometimes we are ready to hear the message we already know, as loud and clear as music.

My heart has grown, and I am ready for change. Now I am reminded of what I have always known since the moment over forty years ago when I learned to read.

Words have power.

 

 

 

 

 

Middle schooler in the house!

Recently, my husband was eating Cracker Jacks and gave his prize, a Baltimore Orioles sticker, to our eleven year old son.

“Why’d you do THAT?!” I heard my husband cry from the living room.

“What’d you do?” I called from the kitchen.

“He stuck it to his cheek..” my husband responded exasperatedly.

I couldn’t resist. For probably the millionth time since school started, I said, “Welcome to my world.”

I teach middle school kids, and they are so bizarre. They love to stick objects to their heads. They ask for tape, and thirty seconds later, it’s on their cheeks or lips or even their hair.

Look, you can fight every battle, but sometimes, I’m like, “Sure. You can wear that scotch tape like it’s your job for the next two minutes if it makes you happy. Then it goes in the trash.”  And don’t even try to teach if it starts snowing, or if there is a tiny spider in the classroom, or if a loud airplane flies by. We all have to take a moment to freak out and honor the distraction, and then we can move on. One of my seventh graders ran up to me with a metaphor she wrote comparing seventh graders to toddlers, and I had to laugh and agree with her insight wholeheartedly. It’s true. Everything is a big deal. Everything is either hilarious or horrifyingly worthy of a full-body tantrum. Life is one big emotional roller coaster, and, by the way, you adults? You are JUST SO UNFAIR.

Every other minute, I remind my husband, “See why I am so worn out after teaching seventh graders all day? Picture twenty of our son in a classroom.” They all vibrate. Luckily, I think they’re funny, too, at least part of the time. Meanwhile, they do stupid things on a regular basis. They often make terrible choices. The logic chip is often missing. And we have all been there. We have all been idiotic, emotional preteens who think the world revolves around us.

I see it all beginning with my son..the silliness, the mood swings, the INCREDIBLY LOUD VOICE, the constant gross motor madness, the oblivious disinterest in the lives of others.  We recognize that he’s a great kid, and we also dread when one of his many sports seasons ends because this child needs to move. Movement helps everything settle.

For the first time, my son attends the school where I teach. I never see him after we part ways in the morning-the sixth graders are tucked away in their own pods with their own separate scheduled deals going on, and it’s a big school. It’s probably better for both of us. When we arrive at school together, he walks all the way to the bike racks with me and then veers quickly to the left. I have told him that I will stay out of his business unless there’s a reason for me to be in his business, and so far we have coexisted beautifully.

I am an expert as far as teaching middle schoolers, but parenting one middle schooler is very different from teaching large groups of them. I cannot tell you how many parents have almost fainted at conferences when I tell them how well-behaved and awesome their child is in class. It’s true-parents get the vast majority of the pouting, the drama, the attitudes. I always sing the praises of parents whose kids are respectful and kind at school, who are willing to be themselves amidst intense pressure to hide or act like everyone else. At this age, it’s hard to remain true to yourself when you’re not sure who you are.

Yesterday, when I was going over some last minute instructions before (FINALLY!) finishing our essays, two girls were balancing pencils on their noses. The rest of the class was listening intently or at least seemed to be. A part of me still becomes irritated, and a part of me realized that these pencil-balancing, snowflake-obsessed, spider-watching creatures are what keep me so engaged in my job every single day. You have to think they’re funny at least some of the time, or you will lose your mind.

Then you come home to your son singing the words from the newspaper out loud and poking his little sisters to yank their chains, and you think, now it’s time to laugh while my child is taken over by aliens. Pretty soon, the surliness will overcome him. And then, some day, he will return to us. This is what they tell me, anyways. I can hope.

The Butterfly Effect

imgresIn chaos theory, the butterfly effect relates to how a initial, small change can lead to significant differences later. The metaphor, which I love, mentions that a hurricane can be affected by something as minor as a butterfly fluttering its wings several weeks ago. A tiny change can lead to a drastically different outcome.

So far, this has been a challenging year of  teaching, and I need to remember the butterfly effect.

Last night, I had a terrible teaching dream. I haven’t had one of those in a long time. In this particular nightmare, I walked into class, late and unprepared. Then, I got two new seventh grade students. One boy sat quietly, but every time I looked at the the other boy, he yelled, “WHAT?” at me.  Also, he kept changing shape. I’d look at him and he was short with thick glasses. Then, when I’d glance at him a few minutes later, he transformed into a tall, lanky, surly youth, his face covered in red acne boils. Eventually, he handed me a little white pill, and said, “You might want to make sure I take THIS every morning first thing.”

I stood by helplessly while my class continued to lose their marbles-ignoring the boring lesson, talking, walking out of class whenever they felt like it. Worst of all, one of my colleagues, who I admired a great deal, was observing me that day, and every time I looked over at her, her face was full of intense disapproval.

My teaching nightmare reminded me all too well about my first years of teaching, when my class often resembled barely controlled chaos. Kids threw things. I  had to break up more than one fistfight. I wanted to quit every single day.

It also reminded me of a recent conversation with a relative, who said, “I think everyone should have to spend an hour in a classroom so that they can marvel at what teachers do.”

I replied, “I think that everyone should have to TEACH a class for an hour.” When I was observing classrooms during my college teaching program, I’d watch teachers make it look so easy. I must admit that it was easy to sit back and judge. “I could do that, no problem,” I’d gloat to myself. Then, when it was my turn to teach fractions, chaos ensued. It was a sobering reality. The pros make managing twenty-five kids look like childs’ play, when in fact it is a masterful act.

And, I still have those days which echo my nightmare. This year, one of my classes contains what you call in the business, ‘a tough dynamic.’ It contains kids who bounce off each other in negative ways, who are unconfident learners for a million different complicated reasons, who stir up excitement to conceal what they are afraid to do, who would rather fail than try. Let’s just say that we are working on these things.

One afternoon last month, my well-laid plans were faltering. Students kept getting called down to the principal or the counselor’s office for various negative reasons. My blurters were in high-blurt mode, my dramatists were stirring up trouble, and my fragile eggshell kids were about to crack in many tiny pieces. With this group, I often remove kids from the classroom briefly to refocus. It is not my favorite strategy, but when kids start to take away other kids’ learning, sometimes a location change is necessary.

Then, the drug dogs showed up. When the drug dogs arrive, we close the shades in our rooms so that kids can’t see whose lockers are being sniffed. No one can leave. We are in lockdown, and it can last for up to an hour, depending on what the dogs find.

In that moment, I flashed back to my nightmare. My class was in crisis, from  for the sweet, silent students who never utter a word and have to deal with boisterous, blurting belligerence on a daily basis to the blurting, high-needs challenges of mine.  We were all trapped with each other. No escape.

I should have taken some deep breaths, but I didn’t, and forty-five minutes felt like an eternity. I surrendered to the chaos and the dysfunction, albeit briefly. It was hard to feel like a rookie again.

But always, always, I reflect. Sometimes, I am too impatient. I want results NOW. Then, I remember; learning takes time. Little wings continue to flutter and flap, and their movements can change the course of a hurricane.

Eventually, I will see growth, and hopefully, my students will, too. Unlike an inexperienced first year teacher, I know that by the end of the year, this may very well be my favorite class. It’s happened before. Those groups who test you, who challenge you, who drive you absolutely insane, who make you want to call in sick every day? Those kids are often the ones who need us the very most.

I’ll do the dance this year with them this year. I’ll remind them about respectful boundaries, I’ll push them to do their best, I’ll nurture their fragile teenage selves, and I’ll keep building relationships. I always hope I’ll reach all of them; I know I reach some. Until then, I will keep reminding myself.

Be patient. Think about butterflies. Have faith.