Saturday, December 10, 2011

NHS + a 2nd chance

The last couple of weeks have been crazy and rather stressful, but right now I'm just going to focus on and share with you some of the positive things that have been going on:

Two weeks ago, I attended the National Honor Society induction ceremony per an invitation from one of my absolute favorite students from last year. He came up to me about a month ago, and said, "So I was trying to think of who I'd like to invite, and the first name that popped into my head was 'Debbie G.'" (They love coming up with nicknames for me. I'm desperately trying to discourage it....) The ceremony was very nice--the kids were all spiffed up and trying not to giggle and trip, the parents looked so proud, and we teachers felt honored to be included. There are days in this profession where we feel underappreciated and worry that what we are doing is making no difference at all, so this type of thing is like a nice little affirmation that there are students whose lives we've impacted and who we have meant something to. This student was so excited to have me there, and I was beaming ear to ear. As a thank you for including me in this special occasion, I gave him a B&N gift card and a letter that was a combo of corny and slightly obnoxious (since that's how he and I talk to one another). I also had the opportunity to congratulate my other former students who were there, a number of whom gave me hugs. I'm really proud of how hard they have worked to get to this point, and I hope it's just one in a long list of great things they'll achieve in their lives.

The next topic I'd like to share is about one of my seniors. This is a kid who, for most of the year, has done almost no work and just screwed around during class. His grade for Term 1 was an very low F. I mean, you'd need scuba gear to dive down far enough to see how low it was. And he didn't turn in a paper that was assigned during Term 1, but the grade for which went on Term 2, meaning he started off this term in the hole too. But the last couple of weeks, there's been a big change. He's started doing his homework, and on the last couple has actually been writing more than most of the other students. He also turned in a short writing assignment and earned a 9 out of 10. In addition, his participation has been getting better. Yesterday, the class actually had a really great discussion about Night (they are very into this book right now). We had just read the part about Wiesel's dilemma about whether or not he and the other prisoners should fast for Yom Kippur while in the concentration camp. This student argued that he should, saying that he has already lost everything else that is important to him in his life, and that G-d is all he has left, so he shouldn't just give up on his faith. That's a pretty profound idea from a CP2 student, and quite unexpected from this particular one. He ended up being a leader in this discussion, and I was so happy to see that.

I pulled him out of class at one point for a short talk. Now, to preface this, I should say that I have some tough policies, because I firmly believe in the importance of students learning about responsibility. I don't accept big assignments after three days (and they lose 10 points for each day they are late), and I don't do extra credit, because I dislike giving students the idea that it's okay to goof off for the whole semester because they'll just get to make up for it later. And I'm certainly not one of those teachers to say, "Well, he's a senior, let's just pass him so he can graduate." So back to my student: This senior's progress report is going to say that he has an F. If I were to stick to my usual policies, it is quite likely that he would not pass and graduate this year. However, I am feeling very encouraged by his recent 180, and during our conversation he seemed very sincere about changing his ways (and this is a kid who I have almost never seen be serious or sincere about anything). I told him that I am going to make an exception for him and give him an extra credit assignment, but that in order for him to earn this opportunity, he must keep up with the rest of his work too. He agreed to this, appreciative of the second chance he is being given.

Even though I broke my rule, I feel good about this decision. It is only December, and if there was already no way for this kid to pass, I know that he would just shut down for the rest of the year, and I doubt he'd take the course over again in order to graduate. I want him to learn, and it seems that he has realized his mistakes and learned from them. He also seems to be someone with low self-esteem, as he has previously expressed that he's not good at anything and doesn't really have anything going for him. I hope that by being given this second chance, he'll understand that he has someone who believes in him, and maybe he'll start to believe in himself. So if ever there were a time to make an exception to a rule, I suppose that this is it. I hope it will prove to be the right decision.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Overheard: "Lord of the Flies" edition

Funny quotes from Lord of the Flies discussions:

"I think Simon is kind of like Switzerland."

Student 1: "Nobody is pure good."
Student 2: "Oprah is."

Me: "Where should we put Piggy on the scale [of pure good to pure evil]?"
Student 1: "Everywhere."
Student 2: "Is that because he's fat?"

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Issue with Barnes & Noble

Those of you who have been reading are probably well aware by now that I am a huge dork. I blame my father for much of this. Today, I became like him just a little bit more: I spent a good chunk of time this afternoon crafting a complaint letter to Barnes and Noble, which I have copied and pasted below. I'm hoping I get a letter back from them, and that they seriously consider my suggestion. If you have any thoughts on the topic, feel free to post them!

To whom it may concern:
I am a Barnes & Noble customer, and recently signed up for your educator card. I enjoy shopping at your stores, but my visit yesterday to your Hingham store left me feeling frustrated. I was searching for a copy of Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night. I teach this to my 12th grade English class, and I wanted my own copy so that I may make notes in it. My search through the biography/autobiography section was fruitless. I next looked in the world history section, then finally stumbled upon the book in the religion section.
Yes, I know that this may seem a trivial thing to complain about. But I must say, the category that this book was filed under troubles me. While Wiesel is a Jewish man whose book is about his experiences in a concentration camp during the Holocaust, this is not a “Jewish book.” It is not about an issue that is purely about religion, but rather it is about an issue of humanity. Though the memoir does in part discuss Wiesel’s increasing loss of faith, it is most importantly a glimpse into the evils that human beings are capable of committing against one another, and the strength and endurance of the human spirit when dealing with the worst possible circumstances. These are themes that transcend religion and that are vital for everyone to learn.
The Holocaust did not just affect Jews. The Nazis also targeted communists, gypsies, homosexuals, disabled people, and anyone else whom they deemed a social deviant or threat. And genocide is not a problem that has disappeared from our world—it happened in Rwanda in 1994 and has been happening again in Darfur. At the back of Night, the publisher has included a copy of Wiesel’s Nobel Peace Prize speech. In this speech, he says, “If we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.” Well, the world seems to be forgetting what we learned from the Holocaust. Many people even vehemently deny that it ever happened. This seems ludicrous, but they certainly do have their audience, and that is a frightening thing. If we forget what has happened, we are allowing history to continue repeating itself.
 To get to my point, the decision to put this book in the religion section devalues its message and its power. It makes it seem as though it is just an issue of religion, and ignores the larger connections. We need, more than ever, to keep these firsthand accounts alive. We cannot be allowed to forget the nightmare that was the Holocaust. Please consider putting this great book with the other autobiographies, as this will help it reach its proper audience and better serve your customers.
               Thank you for your time and consideration.
Your loyal customer,
D. Greene

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

turkey talk

It's almost Thanksgiving, my absolute favorite holiday. After all, it revolves around food and family, and my family stretches out the awesome by making it a 3-day holiday. Day 1: Stuffing Day. And oh boy, does my auntie have THE BEST recipe for stuffing. Don't even try to argue with me on that. Day 2: The Main Event. Day 3: Leftover Day. This may be even more fun than the day before because we play games like Mexican Train Dominoes, cards, and Rummikub, sometimes with interesting/inappropriate house rules tacked on.

So instead of one of my usual teaching posts, today I would like to say what I'm thankful for:

My family--They provide me with lots of love, support, and laughter. I know they've always got my back no matter what.

My friends--They are great at putting up with my neuroses. They laugh with me during the good times and try their darndest to make me smile during the bad. I make an effort to surround myself with the best people possible, and I think I've done a pretty good job of that.

My job--In this economy, I'm definitely greatful to be employed, especially in my chosen field. I may not come home from work feeling happy every day, but overall I find my job fulfilling and challenging. I am thankful for my amazing colleagues who have been so supportive and taught me a lot, and who have also become my friends. I am also thankful for my students, for the times when, despite their best efforts, they find themselves enjoying learning and making intellectual breakthroughs.

My new apartment--This is a new chapter in my life, and boy is it scary. But after surviving my first year of teaching, I feel like pretty much anything is possible. I always used to be terrified of change, and it certainly isn't easy, but I've realized just how wonderful it can be.

The fact that some people are actually reading this blog of mine--When I started this, I wasn't sure if anyone would care. But I've received some good feedback about it, and hopefully that wasn't just to be polite. I'm glad to have this outlet to share thoughts about teacher and other things that interest me. Because we're in a classroom for most of the day with teenagers, a lot of us teachers really thirst for opportunities to start a dialogue with other adults about what we are doing and dealing with and excited about. So thanks for reading.

I hope you and your loved ones have a wonderful Thanksgiving, with bellies and hearts equally full.

Friday, November 18, 2011

What are books for?

Even though I am exhausted, this has actually been, overall, a pretty good week. Some of the projects and activities my classes have done have really gotten my students engaged and interested, and that's always one of my big goals.

One such project is a fundraiser and awareness campaign that my seniors are doing. We recently finished reading In the Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez. It is based on the real-life Mirabal sisters, revolutionaries who fought against the Dominican dictator Trujillo. Trujillo had three of the sisters killed, but their story has lived on. In the author's note at the back of the book, Alvarez talks about how November 25th, the anniversary of their deaths, is widely observed as International Day Against Violence Towards Women, as the Mirabals have served as an inspiration to women fighting against all types of injustice. Since I am always looking for ways to make my students more aware of important issues in the world and to get them involved, I decided that I wanted to do something for this day. The problem was what that should be. I thought maybe I could have them make posters about various women's rights abuses both domestic and international and put them around the school to raise awareness, but I wasn't fully satisfied with this.

When I asked my students to brainstorm, they were at first reluctant. They agreed to go with the poster idea because it sounded like it would be the easiest option. One student even asked why he needed to do this, because he's "one of the good guys." A female classmate quickly shut him down, saying that she had been a victim of abuse, and that this is an important issue to many people. I also told him that because he is one of the good guys, he has a responsibility to encourage other men to follow his example. I kept on pushing them to think of other ideas, until one student suggested doing a fundraiser for a local women's shelter. Brilliant! The class made the decision to both do this fundraiser and to create the posters, so not only will we be increasing awareness, but we will also be taking action with our own increased awareness.

Because the Mirabals were known as "Las Mariposas" ("The Butterflies"), we will be selling butterfly stickers that, if put on hats, will allow students to wear their hats on a specific day. We'll also be selling butterfly cookies made in the shape of butterflies. I spoke to one of the culinary department teachers, and she loved the idea. She's going to make the cookies for us, and even invited my students to come decorate them themselves! It's not often that two departments that are so different get to collaborate on a project, so I am super excited about teaming up with culinary.

During the last couple of days, my students have been hard at work on their posters (even I made a few of my own), some of which advertise what we'll be selling, and others which have facts and figures about violence towards women in the U.S. as well as women's rights abuses in places such as Somalia and Afghanistan. Even a couple of students who don't usually work in my class have been taking this pretty seriously. A couple of times I have been asked, "Are we getting graded on this?" I have replied, "No." They'll earn themselves participation points, but nothing else. I strongly believe that they need to learn the value of helping others without expecting any type of reward in return. Instead of a grade, they will have the satisfaction of knowing that they have helped people in need. Interestingly, after I told them no, they didn't put up a fight about it. They just went back to working hard, and continued to be excited about this project. I only had one kid who was reluctant to give up eating lunch with his friends in order to spend a couple of days selling stickers and cookies in the cafeteria, but a couple of his classmates showed their disapproval of this attitude. And, because I only have 10 kids in that class, and two have to leave in the mornings for co-op, I asked a couple of my sophomore classes for volunteers to lend us a hand. A bunch of hands instantly shot into the air, each student willing to help out all four days if necessary, and suddenly I had enough people to help out for all four days of sales.

Some people might find this endeavor odd because it only has a loose connection to the text, and seems largely out of place in an English class. So I pose this question to you: what does it mean to be a good reader? I don't want to only teach my students comprehension and analytical abilities, though those are certainly important. But if they gain these skills and can do nothing with them but sit and read book after book, then what's the point? John Coetzee said, "What are books for if not to change our lives?" While I think that it's perfectly fine for some books to simply entertain, we also need to use books to challenge our ways of thinking. Books teach us about different perspectives and experiences, and if we approach them with an open mind we can learn empathy. Sometimes, if we're lucky, we can even find a book that inspires us to do something with our newfound knowledge and empathy. Last year, when a group of my seniors wrote letters to President Obama arguing why our country should change its position on the Darfur genocide and genocide in general (after reading Night along with material on other genocides), they saw that they could make their voices heard in a forum outside of school. With this project, these students have taken something that I had originally envisioned would extend outside of the classroom, and found a way to take it beyond the school. They are proving that knowledge really is power.

*   *   *

Want to join my students in making a difference? Go to and make a donation to the Cape Cod Center for Women, which provides services for battered women and their children.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Protecting kids

A large and critical part of my role as a teacher is to look out for my students. The teacher who cares about these kids only as students and not as human beings is, in my opinion, not a good teacher. There are laws that state that we must report any suspected abuse, neglect, etc., but we should not do this simply because it is our legal responsibility. Rather, we must do whatever we can to protect these kids because it is our moral responsibility.

I have been thinking about this issue in the wake of the Penn State scandal that is currently all over the news. This case is so devastating not only because children suffered abuse, but also because nobody protected them. Students at PSU are rioting, outraged that their beloved coach was sacked, but the school made the right decision. Yes, Paterno told his superiors about the abuse. However, when it comes to such serious matters, especially in the case of children who have even less knowledge of how to help themselves, one cannot simply say, "I told someone, so my duty is done," and then wash their hands of the whole situation. Why didn't he follow up? Why didn't he question why the authorities were not notified, and make sure Sandusky was not allowed on school premises? His moral responsibility was not fulfilled. He put football before the well-being of children, and as an educator and a human being, that infuriates and upsets me. I won't even go into the cases of his superiors, Curley and Schultz, except to say I hope they both are convicted of all charges of failing to report child abuse, and that they are forced to spend a long time rethinking their decisions while they sit in a small cell.

I discussed this story with my advisory class today. We read the article together and discussed it a bit. One girl asked why the boys didn't just tell someone, and I explained to her why victims often do not report abuse. Another girl shared a story about a case of abuse in her family. Several expressed their disgust with the whole situation. I took this opportunity to tell them that if they are being abused, or if they know or suspect that someone else is being abused, that it is of the utmost importance that they tell someone. And if that person doesn't listen or do something, then they need to tell someone else until somebody takes action. Nobody should have to suffer and feel helpless. I reminded them that even though they often feel as though their teachers just torture them, we truly have their best interests at heart and want them all to be happy, healthy, and safe. That has to remain our priority. If only it had been the priority of those in charge at Penn State.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Grading, and moving, and books, oh my!

Lesson of the week: Do not move the weekend that you have to work on report cards. So. Not. Fun. However, I did it! It was uber stressful and crazy, but here I am, sitting on my new bed in my new apartment, feeling that sense of relief that comes after submitting grades.

One of the good things that came of all this? I graded a bunch of papers faster than I ever have before. I am, shall we say, a bit of a procrastinator. But these last couple of weeks, I had to fight against that instinct with every fiber of my being if these papers were to make it onto the first term grades. I had character diaries for two classes that had to get done before a new set of papers was scheduled to come in (in a way it's a good thing that a number of students didn't do that assignment...). I collected my honors class' papers (a research paper + allegory, an average of maybe 6 pages each) last Monday. That was 28 papers, and I finished them last night. OY. I didn't know if I would have it in me! Especially since a lot of them were rather underwhelming. (Ponderable: Why can one be overwhelmed or underwhelmed, but not just 'whelmed'?) Plus, I moved into my apartment on Saturday, and before that could happen I had to do a lot of shopping, cleaning, and packing. Not really the best timing in the world. But it feels good to have so much stuff out of the way now.

Speaking of moving, one of the first things I did to set up my room, even before putting clothes in drawers, was arrange my bookcase. I knew it wouldn't feel like home until it was all set up. When I was in college, I always took maybe at least 10 books with me, even though I didn't really have the space. As silly as this sounds, even though I rarely looked at them, it was like having some familiar friends with me. Now I've got a brand-new bookcase (assembled by my fantastic friends, because lord knows I have a hatred of things that require reading directions) that actually fits my books and some tchotchkes. It looks so pretty and homey, I just love looking at it. Being a nerdy English teacher is the best.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

"Help! I care about what I'm learning!"

The discussion was getting heated in my honors class today. It seemed like a straightforward lesson at first--the students had to create a list of what they think a good leader is/does and what an effective leader is/does. (This is meant to tie into our discussion of leadership in Lord of the Flies.) While I figured they'd have a good discussion with some deep thinking, they took it even further than I had anticipated. The question of morality came into play, there were questions of whether or not a good leader always has to be successful, and so on and so on.

Near the end of class, one girl finally turned to me, her hands on her head, and exclaimed, "This class is giving me an existential crisis!"

My response? "YES!" My mission had been accomplished.

Anytime a student has a strong reaction to a class discussion, be it anger, excitement, or a reassessment of beliefs, I've done my job. That reaction means that they are feeling invested in what we're learning, and that it doesn't feel like the material is a burden. Last week, another teacher told me that two of my CP1 students arrived at her class continuing the heated discussion they'd just been having in a Socratic Circle about utopias in my class. She obviously understood just how exciting it is for a teacher to know that their lesson is spilling out of their classroom, that kids are passionate enough about a topic that the passion doesn't just evaporate when the bell rings.

So even though I've been feeling rather frustrated lately, mostly due to the apathy I'm seeing with a lot of my students, these have been a couple of little signs that in some cases, I have been successful in getting kids to care. I need to keep developing more of these types of open-ended questions that students can make strong connections with, because I love how it takes their critical thinking to another level--and they don't even always realize it! Seeing them being passionate about the material reminds me why I'm passionate about my job.

Monday, October 31, 2011

athlete & artist

Soccer player Brek Shea has been making a splash this year with the U.S. Men's National Team. But I recently learned that he has another talent: painting. Now, I'm not usually a fan of abstract art, but some of his pieces are actually pretty cool. And what's even better is that he uses his work to help raise money for children's charities. So if you're looking for a new piece of art for your home, check it out: Left Foot Studio

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Dear Mr. & Mrs. So-and-so, your kid is awesome.

One of my least favorite parts of my job is having to call or email a parent about their delinquent or slacker child. Even though most of them are usually grateful to me for informing them, no one enjoys being the bearer of bad news.

On the other hand, it is great fun to be able to tell a parent how awesome their kid is. Last year, I had a class that really gave me a run for my money....there were maybe 5 or 6 students who drove me absolutely bonkers. (And it wasn't just me--these were some of the usual suspects in the administrators' offices. Thanks for putting them all in one class together, guys....) I did have some nice kids in there, but one stood out above the rest. He worked hard, behaved, participated in class, and joked with me about soccer. Also, for a short paper assignment in which students had to use careful observations about the world around them, this student wrote about how it really bothers him to see so many of his peers making irresponsible life choices, and how they often don't deserve the priviledges they are given. (I photocopied that paper and saved one for myself and put another in the teachers room for others to enjoy.) He was like a shining beacon of hope in a class that perpetually gave me a headache, so I wrote to his parents to tell them that. Even though they were already aware of what a great kid they have, they were very glad that I took the time to tell them so.

I just finished sending an email to the parent of another student who has a very refreshing attitude. This girl is in my CP2 class and is on an IEP. But while many of her classmates haven't been doing very much of their work, she has been working her tuchus off. She does her work, earned one of the only good grades on a recent exam, and is now hard at work on a research paper. While the other students have chosen pretty typical, familiar topics (9/11, the Boston Massacre, Hiroshima, etc.), she has gone with one of the ideas I gave the students--the Rwandan genocide. So already, loving the ambition. Then last week, on the first day I brought my students to the library to begin their research, she came in and excitedly told me that she had already started her research at home the night before and had a page and a half of notes! That seriously made my day right there. A reaction to an essay assignment that doesn't range from begrudging compliance to hostility is like Hanukkah come early. And this student now has over 80 notecards of facts she's written down. That's more thorough than my honors students! Oy, so much kvelling going on here.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Bust a move

The Homecoming Dance is coming up at my school, and the very thought of it is enough to trigger a teacher's gag reflex. Last year I chaperoned the prom (which is for juniors) and Senior Dinner Dance. I actually had a great time at both, and I love seeing my kids all gussied up and having fun, but some of the dancing...oh my lord, the dancing. Sometimes they're cute or even funny when they dance, but when the grinding starts, I want to grab the pin from a boutonniere and gouge my eyes out. Last year, I saw one of my students grinding with some girl, and all I wanted to do was yell, "GET OFF OF HER!" And I've heard that Homecoming, which is largely attended by underclassmen, is even worse.

I know this makes me sound a little old-ladyish. Adults always seem to be shaking their heads at the dances the kids are doing. And I certainly remember kids doing this when I was in school; don't worry, I understand that I'm not that many years removed from my students. (And yes, I'll admit that I'm a big fan of "Dirty Dancing"--who can resist Patrick Swayze?)But it really has gotten worse. I was talking about this with a few other teachers last week. One remarked that when she was in school, the big dance craze was "The Carlton":

It's ridiculous, yes, but it's better than pretending to have sex on the dance floor. Things like the Dougie also can look a bit funny, but again, at least it's not painful to watch. We talked about how we just have a hard time understanding how students can feel comfortable grinding the way they do in front of their teachers. I mean, you wouldn't do that in front of your parents, right? Although I must say, it's not like I just have an issue with kids dancing like that--I'm grossed out when people my age do it too. Get a room, people, because the rest of us don't want to watch that.

Okay, now back to my knitting.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

funny moments

This week's edition of 'Overheard at School':

During a lesson on utopias:
"Is a cornucopia a utopia with corn?"

Kid #1 has his Spanish homework out. I tell him in Spanish, no Spanish in my class, only English.
Kid #2: "Whoa, you speak Spanish?!"
Me: "Un poquito."
Kid #2: "That wasn't un poquito, that was like mas grande!"
Me: "Your mouth is mas grande!"

Ms. K: "Do you hyphenate T-Pain?"

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

motivation frustration

One thing that teachers always struggle with is how to motivate students. I've been discussing this with a few colleagues, and we all agree the apathy we see from many of our students is discouraging. We try to give them a lot of extrinsic motivation, but while it works for many students, it is lost on others. And intrinsic motivation is a whole other challenge. After all, we'd rather not just have the students learn in order to get good grades--we want them to be as passionate about these subjects as we are!

Grades for term 1 close in a couple of weeks, and I have a bunch of students failing. I told them at the beginning of the year that failing my class is a choice: people who choose to do no work or almost none will fail. Last month, I even emailed a bunch of parents of students who hadn't turned in any homework. It's frustrating when I want them to succeed more than they want to. However, as my cooperating teacher from my student teaching days told me (and this has been said by others as well), sometimes kids just have to be allowed to fail. After all, they're in high school now, and while we of course need to push them and reach out to them, we can't coddle them. They have to make their own choices and then live with the consequences.

I'm really hoping that report cards will be a wake-up call for a lot of students. And I also want to keep finding different teaching methods that will engage students more, especially the reluctant learners. Hopefully I'll be able to tap into something that appeals to them a bit more, or perhaps feels more accessible, so that they (or at least some of them) will finally start completing their work. One of the best and worst aspects of this job is that it's always changing. This keeps it exciting and intellectually stimulating, but it's also quite tough to constantly be searching for, testing out, and reevaluating new teaching methods. But whenever I find something that works, it always makes me happy. As I continue to gain experience, my bag of tricks will get a little bigger. And I'm glad I have my colleagues to learn from and occasionally commiserate with.

pretty things

On Sunday, my lovely friend R.M. and I had a delightful brunch (possibly my favorite meal) at Gaslight in Boston, then made our way over to the SoWa Open Market. My favorite find of the day was this gorgeous handcrafted tile (the picture doesn't quite do the cobalt blue justice):

I plan on incorporating this into my future kitchen somehow, perhaps over the stove or sink as part of a backsplash. Strange as it may be, I've had my kitchen planned out for ages, ever since I saw Metcalf's painting "In the Cafe" at the MFA:

I plan on painting the walls a sort of golden yellow, the cabinetry black, and have some cobalt blue bottles and seaglass on a windowsill. (Yeah, I watched way too much "Trading Spaces" as a kid....) Having this tile just makes the whole plan seem like it'll actually happen some day. Plus, I love the idea of having something unique and non-factory produced included in the design. Little details like that can make all the difference.

If you want to check out info on the people who produce these tiles, check it out:  Their work is beautiful, creative, and eco-friendly!

Friday, October 14, 2011

In Soviet Russia, blog posts you.

I recently did a unit on Animal Farm with a couple of my classes. One of the lessons was on propaganda, and in order to help them understand how propaganda works (and in a creative, fun way), I had them create their own propaganda posters from the p.o.v. of Napoleon and the pigs. These are a few examples from my honors class. They're pretty cool! I love it when kids are given the opportunity to use their imaginations and then really run with it.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Procrastinators Anonymous....It's okay, you can join later.

Today is one of those days where I have very little motivation to do the work I know I should be doing. I've got a stack of papers that need to be graded, but I'd much rather sit here and go on Facebook, watch "Easy A," and nosh on something. I swear, sometimes I am as bad as my students. Which is why I try to teach them to not procrastinate--I understand the guilt and the stress that comes along with it. So why am I posting here right now? I guess it's a form of "productive procrastination." Sometimes in college I would clean when I was supposed to be doing homework. I mean, how could I feel too guilty when I had actually accomplished something? Right now, this blog is replacing the vacuum....

Monday, October 10, 2011

Cosby & the classroom

I've been looking for an apartment lately, and today I saw one that might be The One. Afterwards, my dad and I were discussing finances in the car, figuring out what all my expenses would be and how much I'd have leftover at the end of the month. At one point I reminded him we needed to figure in the cost of groceries, and we both immediately started going into this old "Cosby Show" routine:

This is one of my favorite scenes from one of my favorite shows. I decided I needed to look it up on YouTube for a millionth viewing, and it got me thinking. Now that I've learned more about what kind of a teacher I am, I think that my style is somewhat like the way that Cliff Huxtable parents. I'm a loving person, but I also tell it like it is. If this were "Full House," after Theo makes the speech there would be a big "awww" moment. But instead, he calls the kid out, telling him his excuses are stupid and he'd darn well better shape up. And then, at the end, they hug it out. I try to give my students a lot of encouragement, but they also quickly learn that I'm not just going to sugarcoat everything. If I think they're being lazy or not living up to their potential, you bet I'm gonna tell them. Not in a mean way, mind you--that won't get you anywhere with kids. But what most of them need simultaneously (one of our vocab words last week!) is a hug and a swift kick in the ass. Also, we teachers can't just tell them to do better; we have to show them how to do better and point out their strengths so they have something to feel good about, all while making it clear that we will be holding them to a high standard.

I've had this style rub a couple of people the wrong way. One girl last year told me that she thought I talked down to her. The truth is, she expected me to coddle her and tell her that everything she touched turned to gold. Instead of working hard and turning in all her work, she just complained about everything. But I've had plenty of kids come to me for extra help who ended up staying for a while afterwards and talking to me about school and life, and not all of them were doing well in my class. I think (I hope) that they recognized that I am always willing to listen to what is on their minds and will try my best to help them find a solution. And they had learned to understand that even though I demand a lot from them, and that they truly have to earn good grades in my class, that it is all because I want them to be successful and to reach their full potential.

Friday, October 7, 2011


I came across this website called Out of Print. They've got a blog, but best of all they sell T-shirts and tote bags with famous book cover designs. Love them!

A friend also recently shared a link to a site that sells shoes with literary designs. So delightfully nerdy. I'll take a few pairs, please.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Silence is golden. Duct tape is silver.

I think I may have witnessed a miracle yesterday: two classes that worked in almost total silence. It was like being transported to an alternate universe. Or heaven. These two classes had to take a vocabulary quiz, then afterwards begin working on reading the next chapter in their book and answering the questions. Whatever they didn't finish would become homework.

When I've done something like this in the past, I had a lot of issues with kids whispering afterwards. Also, if students know that they'll be able to finish something at home, they'll often try to interpret that as "I don't have to do any work during class" (which is so dumb--you think they'd want to have less work to worry about at home). But this year, I'm trying to establish my expectations right off the bat so they don't get into bad habits. At the beginning of class, I told them that if they talked during the quiz, they'd receive a zero, and if they talk while other people are still finishing up, they'd lose points for taking away from someone else's ability to do well, and that working on the chapter assignment was not optional. BAM! Laying down the law this year. And best of all--it actually worked. Those classes are usually kind of chatty, and this was the quietest I've ever seen them. I only had to remind a couple of kids to not whisper or to get working, and that was it. Last year, sometimes when I would tell students to stop talking, they'd loudly ask, "Is anyone even still taking the quiz?" So obnoxious. And of course it probably makes the slow test-takers feel self-conscious. I refuse to let that sort of thing happen this year.

I really want to continue improving my classroom management. This is something that you have to learn through experience and trial & error. And so far what I've learned is to be friendly and fair, but firm (the only time 3 F's are a good thing in school). I've never bought into the "don't smile until Christmas" way of thinking, because while a teacher like that may be able to run their classroom well, kids will never be passionate about the material if they feel like they've stepped into a military classroom. I want to engage the students in what we're doing and to be approachable. At the same time, I think what my students are learning is that while I am friendly, I also don't take shit. Bad attitudes, rudeness, sneakiness, misbehavior, etc. don't fly with me. I know "The Look," and I'm not afraid to use it. I've also developed quite a good 'teacher voice.' I think it's especially important to make this intolerance for bad behavior clear because I'm a young woman. I won't receive some of the automatic respect that older teachers and males get, so I have to be clear about what is or is not acceptable in my classroom.

As I said, improving my classroom management is going to be an ongoing process. I'm certainly still making some mistakes. But I think that yesterday was a sign that I am definitely learning. (After all, students aren't the only ones learning in school!)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Marcel the Shell--the book!

Marcel the Shell is now going to have his own chilren's book and eventually a TV show! So excited. :) Check it out:

And if you have no idea what I'm talking about, this is the original video:

Monday, October 3, 2011

The only thing we have to fear of public speaking.

Jerry Seinfeld said, “According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” Now I don’t know about all of you, but public speaking scares the bejeezus out of me. Maybe not as much as death, but it’s still frightening. So then why do I teach? Well, for some reason, speaking in front of a group of kids is less scary to me, at least after the first week or so. But put me in front of a group of adults, whether it’s a speech or just my thoughts during a faculty meeting, and I can actually feel my heart trying to escape my chest.

Despite this fear, I have forced myself to speak in public on some occasions. After all, facing your fears can make you feel more powerful and confident, and most of us could certainly use a little dose of that. I also had practice when I was growing up—I attended a charter school where public speaking was a requirement. Each year, students had to complete and present an “exhibition of mastery”—a project on a particular subject for which we wrote a paper and created some sort of a visual aid, then presented to our classmates and a couple of teachers. As much as I may not have been such a fan of this at the time, I do recognize and appreciate the goal—to make public speaking more of a habit in order to make us more skilled and comfortable in this area.

Last year, I observed that the public speaking skills of my students were, overall, quite lacking. At our school, there is a speech requirement for junior year English, but no other public speaking requirements in the rest of the curriculum. This year, I have vowed to make public speaking a little more common in my classes. Some of the presentations will be for large grades, while others will just be part of class routines. There are lots of opportunities that I need to exploit. For example, what I’ve done a couple of times already and will continue to do is have students teach each other important information. When I need to discuss some historical background for a book, how many students are going to want to listen to me lecture about it? Yeah, I’m hearing the crickets too. It’s a lot better to have them look at the information, decide what’s important about it, and create posters that they then use to teach their classmates about a particular subject. Another opportunity is when students create little character posters or something of the sort, they will need to present them to their classmates. When a couple of my classes recently presented propaganda posters they created, I made the presentation worth 5 points out of 15 on the rubric. Not only did they have to make their presentations informative, but they also had to speak and present themselves well—stand up straight, hands out of pockets, make eye contact, and speak up. When I handed back the grades, I heard a couple of students expressing their outrage that they had been docked a point or half a point for failing to do one of those things. How could something so small matter?! Well, I want to teach them that how you present information is almost as important as the information itself. After all, when they go to interview for colleges or jobs someday, no one will take them seriously if they are slouching, looking down, or mumbling. This is about more than just a little grade.

Throughout the year, I will continue to look for ways to get students to face their fear of standing in front of their peers and speaking. I’ll also make them participate more during class discussions, whether they want to or not. Yes, some of them will despise me for all of this, but like I said, it’s an important life skill. So many of them have such wonderful ideas, but if they can’t express them, then those thoughts will never be able to be appreciated like they deserve to be, and that would truly be a shame. I want my students to feel confident in themselves and to have a voice.

 And if any of you have suggestions or thoughts on incorporating public speaking into the classroom, please feel free to share!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Need a book suggestion?

Came across this website today: Whichbook. For those of you who are readers, how many times have you tried to decide on a new book, saying, "I want something with a little humor, but kind of unusual, and without the typical happy ending"? Or maybe you're looking for a book that's a serious epic with lots of violence, or a short, beautiful, optimistic novel. It can be tough to find something that matches up with our moods. On this site you can choose different combinations of factors, then they'll generate a list of books that match your needs. Pretty cool, no?

Friday, September 30, 2011

it's the little things.

One thing that is great about kids and teens is how blissfully unaware they often are when they say something that truly warms someone’s heart. I remember when I was a kid, I once remarked to my grandmother, who always keeps a jar of gummy bears in her house (which we grandkids would always delightedly dig into), that someday I would have such a jar when I had my own home. My grandma thanked me, and expressed that she was so genuinely touched by this. At the time, I thought she was being silly and a little overdramatic getting all happy over something like that. But now that I’m older, I understand why. I had acknowledged that that little jar was a part of my childhood and something that made me happy enough that I wanted to emulate what she was doing. And if I do end up having a jar of gummy bears in my future house, perhaps when I’m a grandmother, it’ll be almost like a tiny tribute to her.

One of my favorite things about being a teacher is when my students create these kinds of sweet, small moments. We teachers tend to get wrapped up in the everyday hustle and bustle, the planning and grading and disciplining and meetings and running around and supervising and lecturing and a million other things. Let’s face it: it’s exhausting. And it’s easy to become a little bit cynical at times. Students are constantly complaining, not doing homework, making excuses, and acting up, and it can be easy to forget just how wonderful they can be and why we chose this career path in the first place. Now I’m not saying that every day leaves me feeling drained; there are good days and bad days, good classes and bad classes. I really do love what I do.

But it’s those small moments that we tend to store up for a rainy day. Last year, one of my female students said out of the blue, “Y’know, I feel like if I met you on the street, and you weren’t my teacher, that we’d be friends.” For her, this seemed to be just an off-hand comment. She was simply sharing a sudden realization with me. But for me, it was a surprising moment—here was a girl who was struggling to get a C, who I was pushing and pushing to do better, because I knew she was capable of it, yet she still felt a positive connection with me. And it’s not just the moments when students like me personally that make me happy (because I don’t think that being liked can be a successful teacher’s first priority). Recently, one of my CP1 students (which is the average level), a boy with gauges in his ears who wear the same sweatshirt every day, asked me, “When are we reading that ‘flies’ book?” I asked if he meant Lord of the Flies. He enthusiastically responded, “YEAH, that book sounds AWESOME!” A few days later, when I handed out the chapter 4 homework for The Secret Life of Bees (a book whose characters are almost all women), he said, just sort of talking to himself, that he had already read chapter 4, so all he had left for that night was the questions. Wait, a kid not only did the reading, but voluntarily READ AHEAD?! What alternate universe had I entered? His enthusiasm for reading was beyond thrilling to me. If I had told him my reaction, he’d probably think I’m an even bigger dork than his initial impressions of me indicated. But his attitude was just so refreshingly fantastic that I couldn’t help geeking out over it in my head.

Then yesterday, I saw something else that made me very happy. A couple of my former seniors, who just graduated last year, became Facebook friends with me over the summer (though they’re on my extremely limited profile, so they can see almost nothing). I saw on my newsfeed that one of them had posted about “Jersey Shore” (gag). But here’s where it gets good: another one of them commented on it saying, “Guess what movie is on, but I can’t watch it….THE JOY LUCK CLUB!” (We read that book in class, and the students usually complained about it.) She then continued with “….I miss English classss :/” It’s just really nice to know that my class wasn’t just something that she sees as having survived—she actually misses it. And those CP2 students (which is the lower level) once told me that I was making them work harder than they had ever worked before in high school, so that just makes the comment extra special.

These students have no idea about the effect their words can have on their teachers. But on days when I’m frustrated or in one of my “I hate people” moods, these little moments have the power to remind me that this is all worth it; I just need to weather the storm until things start looking up again.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Happy autumn?

Lilacs in September make for an odd but lovely little surprise.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

So a Jew walks into a school...

The Jewish holiday Rosh Hashanah is nearly upon us, which means I’ve been preparing to take two days off from work in order to pray and celebrate. I explained to my students why I would be missing, and as usual, the revelation that I am Jewish brought about some interesting results.

Last year, a student asked me if Jews were the ones who visit the cemetery on Halloween. I said no, that would be Mexican people who do that. A couple of kids have also asked if I celebrate Thanksgiving, 4th of July, etc. This year, one girl told me she had never met a Jew before. And a senior, who first said “I know this is going to sound bad...” asked me, “If you’re Jewish, how come you have darker skin?” That time I just had to laugh a little bit first (I’m only human) before gently explaining to him that he’s probably met European Jews before, and that while some of my family is from that region, my mother is Middle Eastern, and that Jews can come from all over.

These stories certainly make me laugh, but they also worry me. This is only example of these kids being sheltered. The community I teach in is very un-diverse and largely a blue-collar town, so there isn’t a whole lot of exposure to different cultures and ways of life. While the town I grew up in is certainly pretty white, I grew up in a household where my parents talked to me about different religions, ethnicities, and cultures. And I suppose being different myself made me naturally more curious—my ‘otherness’ made me want to understand people as much as I wanted them to understand me. Plus, I attended a charter school for most of my life, and the school had a lot of diversity along with teachers committed to educating us about the world.

The great contrast between my upbringing and that of so many of my students has made me even more aware of the impact I can have on their lives. I am not just teaching these adolescents to read and write. I must also help teach them about the world and give them the tools to explore it. They need to be able to ask questions (which is why, though some might view their questions as offensive, I try to use them as “teachable moments), because if they feel they can’t, then their curiosity will be stifled. In their mission statements, many schools talk about making students better citizens. This can be achieved in a variety of ways—teamwork, student council, critical thinking skills, etc. We just have to make sure that teaching them about the world is an essential part of that. I enjoy seeing my students’ curiosity snowball once they start asking questions. They begin to realize just how much they don’t know, and while this can be overwhelming, it is also exciting.

Okay, so we teach them these things, but then what? Should we stop simply at understanding? I think that taking it to the next level—social responsibility—is also a valuable endeavor. Last year, when I taught my senior CP2 (which is the lower level) World Lit class Elie Wiesel’s Night along with stories and articles about the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur, they were outraged that such horrendous acts had happened, especially because the latter two have occurred in their lifetimes. We talked about why history keeps repeating itself, and why hate is such a powerful force. At the end of the unit, I assigned a project—they could either create a presentation and write a short report about a genocide, which had to be presented to the class and to at least 5 people outside of class, or they could write a letter to a politician (they all chose President Obama, partly because they wanted to aim high, and partly because they don’t know of any other politicians) and argue how and why they think our country’s stance on Darfur and genocide in general ought to be different. Some of the presentations were good, but it was the letters where I really saw some passion emerge. All of a sudden, they had an authentic audience—this wasn’t just another paper that only I would ever see. Some of them achieved an eloquence in their writing that had not previously emerged, and it was truly a beautiful sight to see. And when we got a letter back from the president a few months later? That was some damn good buttercream frosting on top of a delicious cake. I really want to figure out how to do more of these “authentic audience” projects in order to get my students to further engage with their world. It’s tough to figure out how to do this, and will certainly require a lot more thought and planning than just another essay. And lord knows I have my lazy tendencies. But if I can get these students a little more interested and involved in issues bigger than themselves, isn’t it worth the effort?

Monday, September 26, 2011

Willkommen, bienvenue.

Welcome to my blog, the first one that I have ever created. Why now, you might be asking? After all, blogs are so 2004, right? Well for starters, I’ve always been a bit slow to jump on the various technological bandwagons; while I love my laptop, I still don’t have an iPod, and I will not get a Kindle until I absolutely have to (and even then I will go kicking and screaming). I guess I’m doing this because even though I realized back in high school that I no longer wanted to write for a living, for a while now there has still been a part of me that has wanted a place where I can share my thoughts and ideas. And now that I’m teaching, I have even more that I want to share.

So this blog is going to help me do all that. A lot of posts will be related to teaching, though this isn’t meant to be a place for me to bitch and moan. I want to discuss some of the issues a teacher, especially a young one, struggles to deal with, share lessons I’m trying out, and tell stories about the funny, sad, uplifting, and ridiculous things I observe and experience. (Don’t worry—none of this will be too specific, so as to avoid any chance of students being identifiable.) I’ll also post other random things—interesting articles, photographs I take, book recommendations, musings on life, etc.

I’ll try to post here a few times a week. I hope you’re somewhat intrigued and will continue to read this. And feel free to comment and share! Being a teacher, I love feedback and collaboration. Dorky, yes, but I’ve learned to embrace that side of myself....