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....