Tuesday, November 26, 2013

BBF and EdCafes

I have been meaning to blog for a while, so I've got a lot I want to share (though I've limited it to two topics). So buckle up and keep your arms and legs inside the ride, because here we go:

 Boston Book Festival

BBF was over a month ago, so you can see how long I've been procrastinating. This year's event was not quite as spectacular as last year's, but still a darn good day. I unfortunately missed out on the first talk I wanted to go to, as it was filled up, so I went and did some reading in Copley Square, noshed a bit, wandered around the booths, and chatted with a stranger running one of said booths about graphic novels. Next up was a talk called "Memoir: Descendants" featuring Eileen Rockefeller, Najila Said (daughter of famous Palestinian writer Edward Said), and Monica Wood. My favorite was Said, as I found her discussion of her confused identity to be fascinating. Her father was Palestinian but Episcopalian, her mother was Lebanese and yet Quaker, and Said grew up in New York surrounded by Jews (and acknowledged that she herself looks like she could be Jewish) and went to a school with lots of WASPs. She struggled to figure out where she fit in, often feeling like an outsider, and also dealt with an eating disorder. Some interesting quotes from her (because yes, I am a dork and bring a small notebook with me to the festival):

·        "We're given categories, and if you don't fit into them, you don't know what to do with yourself."
·        She said to her father, "I want to be Irish!" To which he replied, "You are Irish--you're Palestinian. What you want to be is a WASP."
·        "I felt horrible, and dirty, and other."

Maybe my interest in her is due to the fact that a number of the books I have taught deal with the subject of "otherness." In addition, growing up Jewish in a very non-Jewish area made me aware of my otherness, even if it was something that I did not struggle with nearly as much as Said did.

One thing that Rockefeller said that struck me was, "I'm still becoming myself; I don't know if I'll ever stop becoming." And Wood talked about how she found it easier to write her memoir than her works of fiction, partly because there was something comforting about revisiting her childhood memories. Another interesting idea from her: "Writing always asks the past to justify itself."

Next up was "Best American Sports Writing," at which point a couple of friends joined me for the remainder of the day. I mainly wanted to attend this one because the great Globe columnist Bob Ryan was the moderator. He is quite funny (he told us, "One of my friends is here from the most forlorn city in America: Cleveland"), though he does stumble over his words quite a bit (surprising for someone who's on TV all the time). One point that was discussed was that the book they were promoting was comprised largely of stories that just happened to include sports--sports was more of an entry point to larger stories and ideas, and many of the authors included in the book do not necessarily write about sports for a living. One of the panelists said, "We don't give a damn about sport, it's just an excuse to write about other things." Another one was discussing his book on the epic demise of Curt Schilling's 38 Studios, and how awkward it was to talk to Schilling about it. His summary: "I love the Red Sox; let's talk about all the lives you ruined." He discussed how the problem with this business was that Schilling thought he could basically will it into success. While this may work when you're an athlete, it doesn't cut it for a business owner. Schilling had "rampant and destructive optimism."

The final talk of the day that we attended was "True Crime." Kevin Cullen spoke about his latest work on Whitey Bulger. He had some humor for us, when saying that the two big obsessions in Boston are the Red Sox and Whitey: "The Red Sox are having a better year....Whitey might wanna think about growing a beard." But he also got very serious, and made it clear how much he despises both Bulger and the FBI agents involved with him. He said that some members of the FBI have tried claiming that Bulger only killed other gangsters, and said that, besides this not being true, he also does not want his government deciding who lives and who dies, and that what they were doing at that time. The author of "The Bling Ring" was also there. Another writer, Mirta Ojito, talked about how "words matter"--the things we say in casual conversation, especially around kids, are more influential than we might realize (her book is about teenagers who killed a man).

Didn't get any books signed this year, but we'll see who the event attracts next year!

 Increasing student choice

I've been working lately on finding ways to give my students more choices in the learning process. With my sophomores I've given them some different options on writing assignments (both creative and formal) so that they are still achieving the same learning goals but can do so in a way that is more likely to interest them. With my seniors, I recently tried something new (which I'd like to modify for my sophomores eventually). My friend Ms. K and I love swapping ideas about education, and I have picked up some great things from her over the last few years. One of her big innovations is something called "EdCafes." This is a form of student-led discussion that emphasizes student choice. What I had my students do was sign up on a calendar for a day to lead an EdCafe (between four and six students would go on each day). On the calendar was written which chapters they'd be discussing and where in the room they'd be stationed (the filing cabinet, the podium, the closet I've dubbed "Narnia," etc.). The night before their EdCafe, they had to email me their topic and its title, and if they got it to me by the deadline I'd send them feedback in case it needed to be strengthened.

On each EdCafe day, the student leaders would stand up and inform the class of what they'd be discussing and where. (I would also have this information projected on the board.) Then the rest of the class would choose which EdCafe to attend (I stressed that it was important to choose based on interest rather than friends) and move the desks around. The leaders had to provide their groups with a handout and then stand up and present their thoughts on the topic to their groups for 1-2 minutes. Then they could sit back down (much to their relief) and facilitate a group discussion, which the group members were expected to take notes on (by the end of the four sessions they were required to have at least a couple of pages of notes). I floated around the room listening in on snippets of the discussions/presentations and sometimes nudging the groups along if they got stuck or off-topic. When the discussion time would start winding down, I told the groups to work on coming up with a takeaway from their discussion, which the leaders presented to the class and which I typed up to project onto the board.

I'll admit that a few of the EdCafes were only so-so; it was clear when leaders were not fully prepared. But a lot of them were very interesting and successful. Students were almost always engaged--it's not as though they would start chit-chatting the second my back was turned. The students were truly listening and responding to one another, and having a group leader helped get them to delve deeper into the topics. Some of the discussions were still going strong when I told the groups to write their takeaway, and I felt sad about having to cut them off.

Another interesting observation I made was that successful EdCafes can come in different sizes. Some of the best discussions had five or maybe six students, while others had only the leader and one other person. One such tiny EdCafe was really wonderful to watch, because not only was the dialogue between the two girls flowing superbly, but the non-leader is normally rather quiet in class, and I enjoyed seeing how comfortable she felt to speak freely and express her ideas in this alternative setting. Other students who are similarly quiet on normal days showed great leadership when running their EdCafes, and I loved seeing them step up to the challenge. One girl is quite shy, and looked terrified when I told them they'd need to stand up during their presentations, and yet she presented for probably almost three minutes. I made sure to tell her afterwards how thrilled I was to see her crush it like that.

I enjoyed giving my students this kind of freedom and seeing most of them rise to the challenge. I told them how important it is for them to take ownership of the learning process and to learn to work more independently, as these are skills they will need in college and beyond. They still had some scaffolding in place, because independence is a learning process, but soon enough they'll be better at figuring these things out for themselves. I also had them choose their own topics for their essays, but required them to submit topic proposals and thesis statements so that I could conference with each student and help them craft stronger arguments.

I told my dad about what I'd been up to with my classes, and he said it was so interesting to see how much my charter school education has influenced my teaching practices. Independence and public speaking were two concepts I was VERY familiar with growing up. Every year, even in elementary school, we had to present an "Exhibition of Mastery"--mine were on such topics as Civil War photographer Mathew Brady and female sports journalists (for which I did a phone interview with the great Jackie MacMullan). As I've written about before, the workshop/project classes we took (I did theater for three years) taught us to take charge of the learning process. We often had to find the resources we needed in order to accomplish our goals. In our classes we were encouraged to share our ideas. Independence became second nature for us. And in this day and age when kids are coddled far too often, I've realized how important that independence is. I want to keep on experimenting with these different methods of giving my students more choices and encouraging them to take more ownership of their education so that they will know how to think for themselves rather than just depending on strict guidelines. If I can make them more independent thinkers, I will know that I've accomplished something meaningful.
A few examples of handouts:

For more on EdCafes, go to http://whatisanedcafe.wordpress.com/

Friday, October 4, 2013

Happy days

I am now a month into my new job, and the verdict is in: I am happy. Six months ago things were tough, but it was also scary to think about having to make a change. They say, "Better the devil you know than the devil you don't know," right? Plus, I loved so many of my students and it was tough to think of leaving them behind (I miss a number of them terribly). But even though this is just a half-year long-term sub position, I'm so happy to be where I am, and I think that, in the long run, this is going to be a positive transition year for me.

My students rock. I've dealt with a lot of student apathy in the past, and it's been frustrating, but most of these kids show up prepared and get their work done. In addition, discipline issues are almost non-existent. It's nice to feel less like a babysitter and more like a teacher. Thus far I have not had to write anyone up or send anyone out of class, and the students have been quite respectful of me. As a result, I feel that I have a much more positive energy in the classroom this year. Part of that is also a conscious effort on my part--I keep reminding myself to give praise more often and to encourage them to keep up the good work, as well as to tell them how excited I am to do an activity with them or to see the work they've done.

Yesterday, my senior classes did Socratic Circles. For those of you who aren't familiar, a Socratic Circle is, in a nutshell, a student-led discussion that they prep notes for ahead of time. These Socratic Circles came at the end of our unit "Genocide in Literature," which includes the memoir Night. The students discussed ideas about social responsibility and the importance/role of personal narratives, pulling not only from Night but also from the memoir A Long Way Gone (their summer reading book), plus articles and videos on the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides and the bystander effect. I invited the department head to come see what the kids were doing, and he came to my last block. Even though most of these students had never even heard of Socratic Circles before this year, they did a fantastic job. The department head told the students he was so impressed with how they synthesized information from all these different sources and then used it to formulate arguments (gotta love those great higher-order thinking skills!), as well as with how they were talking about issues that are still very relevant in our society today (for example: the students made connections with what's been happening in Syria). I was also quite pleased with them. One group earlier in the day didn't do as well, but I know that the next time they'll understand what to expect and will nail it. I told both classes that even though I'm not a morning person, I had been so excited to come to school that day and see them discuss all of their ideas. They chuckled at me, but I hope that positivity rubs off on them. They seemed to enjoy the experience, and asked me if we could do more of these. Hurray! One kid even wore a suit jacket and tie, because he felt it was a special occasion. I'm curious to see if he gets his buddies to join him next time. :)

There have been a couple of students I've been struggling with. One of them was turning in almost no work and had a bad attitude, and it was really frustrating. But after communicating with home, I got him to stay after school with me last week and we had a really good talk. This week he has been turning in assignments and participating a lot more in class. Today the students were rehearsing some scenes from the stage version of To Kill a Mockingbird, and he was really putting in a great effort. I high fived him at the end of class and told him how great it was that he was buckling down. Hopefully he sees that I believe in him and will stay on this better path.

This weekend I'll be reading a bunch of college essays. I helped them on their drafts and it seems like it should be a decent crop. Wish me luck!

Sunday, July 7, 2013

What "should" we read?

I was just reading this post on the Brookline Booksmith blog, and thought it brought up an interesting point. A student said, "I read New Moon, but then I made myself read Emily Dickinson before moving on to Eclipse. I always read a book I should read before one I want to read." Her professor lamented, "But that's tragic. You're treating literature like...vitamins."

So why do we often treat classic literature like it's our duty to read it, like it's good for us but not enjoyable? Too many people have this perception that all classics are stuffy. Sometimes, after reading a classic like Lord of the Flies or Macbeth, a couple of students will say, "I actually really liked it!" While I'm pleased that they enjoyed it, I wish they wouldn't sound so surprised. After all, the classics became classified as such because of their great impact. However, I think that one thing that's important to remember is that you're not going to like every single classic, and that's okay, but just because you don't like a couple does not mean you should automatically condemn the rest. Though in general I like Shakespeare, I despise Antony and Cleopatra. I have a love-hate relationship with Jane Austen. I love such classics as Jane Eyre, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Great Expectations, but dislike Wuthering Heights (except for this version...skip to 1:05), Catcher in the Rye, and Cranford (ok, I didn't even get past page 50 of this one it was so dull, because apparently nothing happened in country life in the 19th century). Different people just have different tastes, and it's important to try out different classics to see what appeals to you. 

As for why I read the classics, it is not simply because they are "good" for me, though I certainly think they are in that they challenge one's mind. Though Jane Eyre is of a different time, I admire that she is a strong-willed woman who goes after what she wants. Atticus Finch strives to be a good role model for his kids, just as my parents have been for me and I hope to be for my children someday. Miss Havisham shows the dangers of bitterness, regret, and revenge. Truly great stories have timeless themes, even if some of the details become dated. Absorbing their lessons can help us gain a greater understanding of our own lives. Yes, sometimes the language can be a bit difficult to grasp at first, but it's worth working through. I always enjoy when my students come to understand the Porter scene in Macbeth, and realize that good ol' Billy Shakes had a dirty sense of humor. Furthermore, I enjoy having a greater understanding of how literature has developed, how it's influenced people over time, and how it represents the hopes and fears of society in any given time period.

As for "guilty pleasures," there's nothing wrong with them. Reading is a great activity, even if your chosen book is the latest Lauren Weisenberger novel. Those kinds of books go down easily and amuse us, and amusement is worthwhile. Yes, I do think that it's important to also read books that challenge us more and are a bit deeper, but as said before, deeper thinking doesn't mean that something is boring and unenjoyable. I love hiking, even though not every hill is easy. But the conversations I have along the way, the sense of accomplishment I feel, and the view from the top sure make the challenges worth it. Great literature will give you similar feelings. Lighter books are maybe more akin to a walk around your neighborhood. Not as challenging, and perhaps without as big a payoff, but it's still good exercise as well as fun to chat with whoever you're with. Each type of book has its rewards, and they shouldn't be categorized as stuff we "want" to read versus stuff we "should" read.

So far this summer I've read Beautiful Creatures (dreadful writing, but amusing), Peter and the Starcatchers, and The Outsiders (so many students have recommended this to me, included kids who generally hate reading, and I loved it!). Also on my list is The Professor and the Madman, Middlemarch, And the Mountains Echoed (the new Khaled Hosseini novel...so excited), To Kill a Mockingbird (since I haven't read it since 9th grade), some short stories, and whatever else I end up fancying. I like to mix up the types of books I choose, and not just by "classics" versus everything else...different books suit different moods. What are you reading this summer?

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

50 things my minor in secondary education didn't teach me

1.       How to call students’ parents (and avoid letting them hear your knees shaking)

2.      How to deal with students who are distracted by your classroom’s leaky ceiling

3.      How to keep a straight face when your students say something ridiculous and slightly inappropriate

4.      How to control your anger at inanimate objects and technology when they don’t work when you need them most, and then how to (attempt to) fix them

5.      You need to be fiercely protective of your pens.

6.      How to make sure you get something resembling a normal night’s sleep

7.      How to accept that you’re officially an old person who has a difficult time going out and staying awake on Friday nights

8.      How to bite your tongue when a “that’s what she said” opportunity, or something else equally inappropriate, presents itself

9.      How to deal with not having time to pee all day

10.   How to dodge unwanted hugs

11.    Dress in layers or have a sweater/jacket on hand, because your classroom will rarely be an acceptable temperature.

12.   Boys enjoy drawing penises. Everywhere.

13.   Students expect you to be a bank: “Do you have change for a $20?”

14.   Your eating schedule will be greatly thrown off; some days you might eat 4 meals, and most days you will snack multiple times, all of these at odd hours.

15.   Keep granola bars or something similar in your desk for when you get hungry or for when a student does not have a lunch.

16.   The fact that a significant portion of your paycheck will go towards purchasing pencils for kids who don’t have them, tissues, hand sanitizer, colored pencils, tape, various other classroom supplies, and decorations to make your classroom look welcoming. And then the students will complain that you don’t have something else they need.

17.   How to find creative ways to keep a book interesting for yourself even after you’ve taught it a dozen times

18.   How to respond calmly when the 4th child in a row asks you what page we’re on

19.   How to tactfully tell a girl her shirt is too revealing or a boy that he needs to pick up his pants

20.  When you expertly quote a book or play from memory for your students, they will be dazzled. Use this to your advantage.

21.   When people tell you, “I thought you were a student!” you should laugh as though it is not the 87th time you’ve heard that.

22.  You will spend approximately 23% of your life making photocopies and stapling/3-hole punching them

23.  The importance of hydration

24.  How to create a rubric

25.  How to write helpful comments without spending 20 minutes on each essay.

26.  It is important to take care of yourself and have at least somewhat of a life outside of school in order to keep your sanity intact.

27.  How to get your students to stop giving you nicknames

28.  How to be realistic about how long your lessons are actually going to take

29.  Sometimes, your students will teach you just as much as you teach them.

30.  There will be days in the winter when you not only drive to school in the dark, but also don’t leave until at least 4:30 when it’s dark again. If you’re lucky, you’ll at least see some sunlight if you have a classroom with windows.

31.   For at least the first year, you’ll feel like there’s a good chance you’re screwing up kids’ lives.

32.  Sometimes, you need to grade kids on different scales, because they come to your classroom with different abilities and prior knowledge.

33.  And for some, a C or a B is a huge accomplishment, and you need to congratulate them accordingly.

34.  How to act happy even when all you want to do is crawl back into your bed, and convince your students that they should be happy too

35.  The importance of Friday afternoon “poetry club,” or whatever other departments might call it

36.  Suck up to the secretaries. It will come in handy at some point.

37.  Say hi to other teachers in the hallways, copy room, etc., and get to know as many people as you can.

38.  How to stay awake during epically boring staff meetings

39.  How to sneak in some grading during said meetings

40. How to “play the game” without actually buying into all of the stupid school politics

41.   You will tell yourself that you’ll be more organized next year. This’ll be true for about a month and a half.

42.  Teachers are probably the only people who take one or two fake sick days a year in order to catch up on their work.

43.  There will be times when you love teaching, but hate your job. It is important to remember the difference between the two.

44. How to scarf down a meal in 20 minutes

45.  How to come to terms with the fact that you will sometimes preach what you don’t practice (good organizational habits, writing outlines, etc.)

46. How to figure out which kids you can joke around with a little more than others

47.  School dances can be fun when you’re a chaperone, because you’re allowed to dance like a goof (the kids already think you’re weird, so who cares?).

48. How to tell when a kid is having a bad day, and then get them to feel comfortable enough to talk to you about it

49. Sometimes, students will say such awful things that you’ll need to sneak into the book room and have a good cry.

50.  And sometimes, they’ll write you the most wonderful letters that also make you cry. Save those letters; heck, hang them up on your wall for whenever you need a reminder as to why you’re doing this.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The times they are a-changin'

Graduation was this past weekend. It was a long ceremony, but I was happy to be there. I love seeing their smiles as they proudly and nervously cross the stage, leaving behind childhood. One of my former students was the valedictorian, and gave quite a wonderful speech. He talked about all the mixed-up emotions he’s feeling right now as he gets ready to embark on this new phase of his life: happy, sad, excited, nostalgic, etc. But there was also one emotion he said he hadn’t shared with anyone before: he’s scared.
Change is most certainly a scary thing. I too am at a point where big things are changing in my life, and I’m anxious and terrified. Terrified of encountering rejection, of hating where I end up, of knowing what I want but not being able to grasp it.
Growing up, my life was always so stable that change was one of the things I feared most. I viewed it as a swear word, a circumstance to be avoided and resisted. As I got older, I learned to look at it in a more positive light. When graduating college, I was certainly sad to leave behind a place and people I loved so dearly, but also excited that I would finally be pursuing the career that I had dreamed of and worked towards for so long. I’m trying to remember that feeling now, that feeling of possibilities in various facets of my life.
I saw that excitement in my students’ faces the other day, ready for bigger and better things. I hugged them and wished them well, and I hoped that we’ve helped prepare them to face the world. There are some who I am confident will be spectacular, and some who I worry about, especially if life has already been difficult for them. I know that I’ve been well-prepared to face life’s challenges, and I know that I have a family and friends that are there to help me along the way. I’m hopeful that, as I prepare to turn a quarter of a century old and another year wiser, I too will be on to bigger and better things. And who knows? There may yet be some detours along the way. But I am going to do my best to hang on to that feeling of hope.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Senioritis with a dash of sweetness

So the seniors have been driving me (and everyone else) absolutely bonkers. It's frustrating when everyone seems to be making the push for them to do well and graduate but them. However, they're taking their finals now, and then for the last month of school I have two extra free periods! Hurray for more time to actually get my work done during school!

What was nice this week was that a couple of seniors gave me little parting gifts. One girl, who is just the sweetest thing (and a darned good writer) gave me a homemade cupcake, saying it was a thank-you "for being such a great teacher." She and her twin sister gave them out to a whole bunch of teachers that day, and we all were just so touched by their thoughtfulness.

After school, a student stopped by to give me a card. I taught him two years ago as a sophomore. He's a brilliant young man (seriously, he's amazing at everything that he does and is really going places), and I remember that when report cards came out for that first term, he was indignant about the fact that mine was the only class in which he'd gotten an A rather than an A+. I told him that he hadn't reached perfection yet. But eventually he managed to forgive me, and he and I have made sure to catch up and chat every now and then. He's also done Drama Club with me. The card was such a nice gesture, and was really what I needed at such a crazy/frustrating time of year. He said:

Thank you for all that you've done for me throughout high school. This note started off as a thank you for writing me a college recommendation letter but it's about much more than that. You were the first teacher to really challenge me. I think we argued about my grade at least twice a week, but I needed that. And I guess only an A is not the end of the world. Then our Festival play was legendary, so thank you for letting me be a part of that. We got robbed at this year's festival, but I know we'll do better in the years to come. Thanks for everything!

It's a strange feeling, seeing these kids getting ready to go off to college. I taught a number of them when they were little sophomores and I was a brand new teacher who didn't know what she was doing half the time. So I'm grateful that it seems like I at least didn't screw it up too badly. And now I get to be the proud but scared mama bird, watching them leave the nest. At the same time, I too am preparing to leave this school in search of new challenges. It's interesting to think how, though we're at different stages in our lives, these students and I did a lot of our growing up together. And they taught me just as much as I taught them.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Last week

I know everyone’s been writing about this and talking about it for the past week. And I know you’re probably terribly tired of it by this point. So don’t worry, I won’t resent you if you stop reading now. But I guess I need this to be part of my healing process.
Last Monday I went to the Boston Marathon for the first time in years. I think the last time was when I went to see my elementary school teacher run in it. But every other year for my whole life I’ve watched it on TV. After all, when you grow up in Massachusetts, it’s a beloved tradition. Every year you hear about the inspirational stories, hear the stories of great marathons past, make bets on whether the winner will be from Kenya or Ethiopia, and laugh at the funny costumes. We even refer to the holiday of Patriot’s Day as “Marathon Monday.” My college didn’t give us the day off, and I’d always grumble about having to be in class when I ought to have been watching the marathon. This year I decided it was high time I go watch in person, and I recruited a friend to come with me.
We went to Kenmore Square, a mile from the finish line, beginning the morning by sharing a doughnut (because let’s face it, there’s nothing like watching other people exercise to make you want to eat junk food. Especially Dunkie’s). For the next few hours we clapped and cheered for the elite athletes and ordinary folks. Whenever someone struggled to keep going, everyone started telling them, “You can do it! Keep running!” and whooped when they started picking up those feet again. When one man started swaying, on the verge of passing out, and fellow runner crossed over and put an arm around him, walking the man over to a police officer to get help. And yes, there were some great costumes—fairies, a bumblebee, superheroes, etc. The day was a great celebration, as it was always meant to be, and it was bringing out the best in people.
We left at 1:30, after being there since 10. After a little stop in Park Street (yes, to visit Brattle Bookshop….couldn’t help myself), I headed for my home outside the city. Soon after I got back, the friend I’d spent the day with texted me about the explosion at the finish line. I hurriedly turned on the TV, horrified.
When it was becoming clear that these were attacks, I became increasingly upset. I spent the next two days watching the news, crying, and checking in with friends and family so we could all make sure everyone was okay. And then on Friday, the horror hit again with full force. I was completely shaken up, and I felt violated. How could someone do this? At an event so dear to my heart? On a street I’ve walked down a thousand times in the city that I love? To people who were doing just what I’d been doing that same day?
I don’t need to relive for you all of the events of that week. But I am grateful that it was school vacation and I was able to spend time with some people that I love who helped me work through my emotions and anxiety, then distracted me with talk of all the good and wonderful things in this life. And I am extraordinarily proud of the way the good people of Massachusetts responded to the horrific events. From running after the finish line to the hospital to give blood, to opening up their homes to the stranded, to running towards the blast to help the injured, to pledging to not let this incident scare them away next year, the bravery and kindness shown was beautiful.
As we move forward, I hope that the lessons learned don’t fade quickly, as they often seem wont to do. And I hope that people do not condemn an entire religion for the acts of a couple individuals. This was something I had thankfully been addressing with my sophomores the week before vacation as they began reading The Kite Runner, and I hope they kept it in mind. I hope that they keep asking me questions so that we can openly discuss our fears and prevent ourselves from giving into them. One of the powers of literature is that it can allow us see ourselves in others, and can help ease our fear and mistrust of that which we previously did not understand. And I hope that Boston, and all those affected both directly and indirectly, can begin to heal together.


WBUR posted this article on their website. It discusses why we so often feel the need to write about our connections to traumatic events. Many thanks to Ms. K for showing me this!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Learning to think before you speak

I love it when kids surprise me with moments of real maturity. Last week, one such moment came out of a much uglier moment. One kid drew on another's face with marker, and the young man who was the canvas responded by swearing and calling the kid a "faggot." Now, I've made it quite clear to my students that I will not tolerate derogatory language, and discussed with them how such words are not only offensive, but can also be very hurtful without them even realizing it. Both boys were sent to the office, and I told them the next day that they'd have to serve a detention with me.

The following morning, I came into school and found a letter in my mailbox from the boy whose language got him into trouble. It was a very nice apology letter, and he maturely acknowledged that what he said was wrong and took responsibility for it. He explained that he'd been so upset because he had a job interview later that day and was afraid that the marker wouldn't come out, but said he knew this was not a good excuse. Here are some excerpts from the letter:
"I just hope you know it was not intended to disrespect anybody, I just allowed my anger to get the better of me, and I'm really, really, really disappointed in myself for allowing those words to come out of my mouth. Because not only did I make people uncomfortable by saying that, I lowered myself down to something I never wanted to....I want you to know I'm sorry and had no intent to disrespect the gay community by my use of vocabulary by any means. I was just stupid and didn't think of others before I reacted. I feel ashamed of myself because I know what I said could affect somebody. And I hope you know that's not the kind of person I am. This has taught me a lot and I know I will always remember to think before I speak."

I pulled him aside that day and told him how much I appreciated his words and that he took the time to really reflect on what he'd done. He could have just simply served his detention (which he'll still do) and let that be it, but it took maturity to admit he was in the wrong and to show a true understanding of WHY. I love these moments, because teaching is really about so much more than just making the students better readers and writers; we also want them to become good, consciencious, compassionate citizens. This young man took a good step in that direction, and I hope that he really does keep this lesson in mind.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The good kind of drama

Last month (good lord, have I really procrastinated writing this post for a whole month?) I took the Drama Club to the Massachusetts Educational Theater Guild High School Drama Festival. Once you’ve caught your breath from that mouthful of a name, please continue reading. This is an annual festival/competition that I participated in for three years in high school, so it was quite exciting and nerve-wracking for me to participate this year as an educator. I found myself getting nostalgic about my high school experiences with the festival, and it seems that my students also had a wonderful experience.

I went to a tiny, weird, awesome charter school for just about my whole life. We had these classes called “Projects” or “Workshops” which students could choose according to their interests—art, engineering, environment, etc. From 10th through 12th grade, I chose theater. This class met several afternoons a week, though we would frequently continue our rehearsals after school, turning it into a hybrid of class and club. In addition to our spring performance of a professional play, each year we also all wrote our own one-act plays, then chose one to perform at the Drama Festival.

Being a poor school, our budget was basically whatever we made at fundraisers and some donations from our parents who took pity on us. Our costumes were dug up from closets, attics, and the Salvation Army; sets were kept as simple as possible, and what we didn’t have lying around we had parents help us build or borrowed pieces from a kind school nearby; props were similarly scavenged for. Our teachers were not trained in theater, so mainly they were our supervisors and gophers, devoting many unpaid hours to us. I can only hope we thanked them enough. We students were given nearly limitless creative freedom—we were the directors, producers, stage managers, actors, and designers. This often put a lot of pressure on us, because if we wanted to make something happen, we had to figure out how to do it. And it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.

My mother once asked me if I ever regretted going to that school, as it offered no AP or honors courses at the time, and had only a fledgling sports program. I told her that while I do wish I hadn’t missed out on those aspects of high school, what I gained instead was of much greater value. One of the many things it taught me, especially through the Theater Workshop, was self-sufficiency. We had to make something out of nothing, and work hard for anything we wanted. Nothing was handed to us on a silver platter, and that made us even prouder of the final product. At the Drama Festival, we went up against schools with established theater programs and actual budgets, and most used professional plays. And even though we never moved on to the next round, we always knew just how special our experience was, because it truly was OURS, every last detail. Moving on would have simply been icing on the cake.

At the school where I teach, I began getting involved with the Drama Club last year. This year, I am one of the co-advisors, and I knew that one of the things I wanted to do was participate in the Festival. I soon learned just how stressful being on the other side of it was…paperwork and scheduling and busses, oh my! I often felt that next to my credit as director it should also have said “child wrangler,” as getting all those students into one room together proved nearly impossible, and they were often not good about telling me when they could not be at rehearsal. I told them how lucky they were that they’re so darn funny. After all, it’s hard to stay too annoyed at a kid when they’re performing a scene for the 12th time and STILL finding ways to make you laugh.

In some ways, this felt like my high school experience. Granted, the Drama Club had some money for us to spend, but as the play was about people auditioning for a play, the stage consisted of a table, folding chair, and a ghost lamp that my dad constructed (thanks, Pops). Costumes were closet pulls that the students and I collaborated on. Plus, our school doesn’t have much of a drama program—we don’t have a real theater (just a little “backstage” theater and a big stage in the cafetorium), no light/sound board, and no professionals who really know what they’re doing (because lord knows I’m not trained in this stuff, unless a little acting/directing experience and watching a crapload of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and some of the great comedians and studying their timing and whatnot makes you qualified to direct a comedy….). And just like when I was in high school, many of the people in the cast had never acted before. I badgered several of these kids for weeks about auditioning because I’d seen them act in class and knew they’d be great. What was really fantastic was that a couple of the new actors are members of the football and wrestling teams, and these two worlds are usually kept quite separate at this school. Bridging that gap felt like a victory in itself.

The day of Festival had its heart-attack-inducing moments, which I won’t go into (other than to say that at the end of the night, there was about a twenty-minute period during which I thought I’d have to go to my principal on Monday morning and say, “Hey, sorry, we lost one….”). But mostly it was great. The show went well, and even when a couple of kids messed up, one of their castmates covered for them beautifully. I was a nervous wreck in my chair, schvitzing like I’d just gone for a run, but delighting in how confident they looked up on that stage and in all the laughter coming from the audience. The rest of the day was filled with watching other shows, which was a fantastic learning experience for my students that made them want to improve to those levels, socializing with kids from other schools (I tried not to get too grossed out when a few of the boys had already picked which girls they wanted to chase after within an hour of our arrival), and having a great time with each other. And it’s fun for us teachers to have a chance to talk to these students and connect with them in a different way than we would in the classroom.

The long day/night ended with four members of the cast receiving recognition awards for their excellent acting, and yes, I cheered and took pictures like a proud mama. We didn’t move on to the next round, but the victory came on the bus ride home when the kids all started asking me about next year. Those who had been most skeptical about this experience at the beginning admitted that I was right about this being fun (duh) and said, “We have to start working on next year’s play TOMORROW!” I wish I could just bottle up the enthusiasm they displayed that night and take it out whenever I need a lift to my spirits. Even though the road to the Drama Festival was bumpy (as it always seems to be), I managed to turn a whole bunch of kids into Festie enthusiasts. Don’t hate me for being clich├ęd and corny, but there really are things more valuable than winning. When the host school was announced to be moving on to the semifinals, the person that went up to the stage to receive the award was the teacher/director, rather than one of the kids like the other schools had done. I don’t ever want that to be me. I always want to remember that it’s about the kids, about them having a positive experience. Knowing that my students were proud of their work, had learned a lot, and wanted to keep getting better was one of the best feelings I’ve had so far as a teacher. And I’m so grateful for my high school experience for making that possible.