Hook ’em on day-one

First day of school!

First day of school!

Although I have conveniently forgotten most of my student-teaching experiences (oh, the magnitude of what I did not know that I did not know), there is one critical piece of advice that I have tried to heed each year since: on the first day of school, do something that makes the students want to come back on the second day. Our students might be required to return to school the second (and the third and the ninety-third) day,  but that certainly doesn’t mean that they want to. So instead of boring my students out of their minds on the first day of school with rules, policies and a curriculum map, I try to engage them in at least one activity that will surprise and intrigue them enough to bring them back to class the next day curious about what is in store for them in 8th grade English this year.

In an effort to motivate my students to read good books, I begin every class period with Storytime. Rather than read an entire novel to them (one chapter per day, which makes me a little crazy when repeated with all five of my classes), I read aloud one compelling excerpt from one really great book each day. (Here’s a list of books we have loved.) That way my students are exposed to a huge variety of books and authors, and hopefully are enticed enough to check out a few of them. This year, I decided to greet my brand new 8th graders with a hilarious (and a bit scandalous) excerpt from John Green‘s Paper Towns. I introduced the reading by telling them that although Paper Towns has some inappropriate-for-school language that I will edit out as I read, it is a great story that I am sure they will enjoy.

So here’s the gist of the excerpt:  four teenage boys are traveling in a van, on a very tight time schedule, in an effort to find and help a friend they think might be suicidal. They have so tightly calculated the timing of the trip that they will only stop for gas, where they will also stock up on food and take necessary bathroom breaks. Unfortunately, one of the teens has some bladder trouble and needs his potty break a good two hours before the next scheduled stop. What follows includes great panic, warnings to “hold it!”, the frenzied opening, emptying and refilling of a beer bottle (quickly followed by a second bottle) and the disposal of the refilled bottles. The combination of the potty humor, taboo content and high school situation has my students fully engaged, their mouths open in shock and laughter — which is pretty exciting to see on the first day of school. And so all went well when I read to my 1st period class.

I gave the same pre-reading explanation to my 2nd period class and started the chapter. Just as I read, “I think I’m going to cry and pee tears will come out,” my classroom door opened and in walked my principal. I stopped reading, assuming she needed to see a student, but she said she was just there to observe. So… I kept on reading. My students couldn’t decide who would get in more trouble, they or their teacher, so they kept looking from me to my principal and back again, hiding their laughter behind their hands, their eyes dancing with delight. When I finished, my principal smiled and said, “I think you got their attention,” and walked out.

I’m pretty sure I’ve got my 2nd period class hooked for the year, but I’m afraid I may have set the bar a little too high on the first day. (Check out my 8th graders’ list of favorite books here.)

OMG Mrs. B!

Sometimes you just gotta’ laugh…getwellsoon

Pushing open my classroom door, I sighed at the mess that greeted me.  After battling the flu for a week, I had finally returned to my classroom to face the music: as hard as I worked to establish a daily routine for my students and leave detailed lesson plans for my substitute, I knew I would be lucky if a week away didn’t turn my classroom into a zoo.  On the way to my desk, I grabbed a Starbucks cup from the windowsill, wads of paper from the file crates and a Pepsi can from the bookshelf.  Although the custodian had swept in my absence, he had missed these little gifts tucked away by my students.  I dropped them in the trash, then faced my desk, which was covered with the remains of too many days without me: memos from my mailbox, stacks of student work, (to be graded) and a note from the sub: “No problems, Mrs. B.  All went fine.”   Sure, fine, I thought, knowing otherwise.  If they had stashed their trash all around the room, I can be pretty certain that all was not fine.  But this was typical of 8th graders who felt abandoned by a teacher.  In their mind, I wasn’t home nursing the flu; I was sunning myself on a beach somewhere while they slaved away in the classroom.  They communicated resentment with each crumpled soda can and wad of paper.  But 8th graders are fickle, and I knew they would be back on track once they saw me back in the classroom.

I glanced at the clock, and with only 10 minutes before the first bell, did a quick triage of my desk.  Ungraded papers into one daunting stack, office memos into another, and my mug of tea safely off to the side. Buried under the mess was my lesson plan book.  I grabbed it and a whiteboard pen, and jotted an agenda on the board.  The bell rang as I stepped behind my desk to retrieve the day’s journal prompt.  Sliding open my desk drawer, I pulled out a file and felt the familiar tickle of a cough dance up my throat.  I stood up, hoping that an upright posture might push the cough back down.  My classroom door flew open and students bounded in.

“Mrs. B!  Oh my God, you’re back!  I can’t believe you gave us that sub!  He was, like, such a loser!”  Sarah’s dimples showed her delight at both slamming the sub and seeing her teacher again.

“Mrs. B., dude, where were you?”  Anthony’s tone accused me of welching on my responsibility to live in my classroom for his convenience.

“I was sick,” I started to say, but before I could finish, the cough that started as a tickle turned aggressive.  I put my hand to my mouth, cleared my throat, and tried again to speak.  By now a crowd of students had gathered around my desk.

MrsBradley“Did I miss anything?  I wasn’t here last time,” Tommy said.

“I wasn’t here either,” I said.  “Did you check the homework file?” I coughed again, and fluids began to seep out of my eyes and nose.  I grabbed a tissue, dabbed my face, and reached for my tea.  Before I could take a sip, another student clamored for my attention.

“Mrs. B., my printer is all messed up; look what it did,” Ashley said, shoving a crumpled document in my face.

“What are we doing today?” another student asked.

“Is our homework due now?  Should I staple it?”

“Why were you gone?  You can’t do that again!  That sub was so lame!”

I raised my hand toward the students, a traffic cop in an intersection signaling the cars to stop, but the gesture went unnoticed.

“Is anything due today?”

“I have to change seats, Mrs. B.  Jessica is like totally harassing me on Facebook and my mom said you have to move me.  So can I sit next to Shawna?”

“I don’t have my homework.  I was at my dad’s and my book’s at my mom’s and she’s out of town and I’m going to my gramma’s after school.  So, like, is it late?”

Their voices melded into one as I lost my battle with the cough.  Tears streamed from my eyes as I struggled to get the tea to my mouth.  A quick swallow, though, only aggravated the situation.  I grabbed for the side of my desk, gasping for air at the same time that my lungs expelled it.  Ignoring my students, I felt for my chair, fell backwards and surrendered.  The faces around my desk blurred, their voices muffled, and just as I slid out of my chair and onto the floor, I heard, “OMG, Mrs. B., are you OK?  You look awful!”

Finally!  A student who saw my distress!  A student who understood that I too, am human!  A student who could see past his own immediate needs …

“So, Mrs. B., is there, like, any homework due today?”

Rallying from the kitchen table

Today is the perfect day to take a drive down to San Francisco: the sky is blue, the air is crisp, and a tiny bit of snow (the first in 30 years) dusted the City this morning. But while my friends and colleagues rally today in San Francisco (and across the country) for our fellow workers in Wisconsin, I am at home, working.  I would rather be in San Francisco — I am an activist and protestor at heart — but my work, as it so often does, has crept into my weekend.  And so this is what I will be doing today as I rally from my kitchen table:

1. Grading papers. No, I don’t mean the “right/wrong,” “true/false,” “noun/verb” kind of grading.  Instead of “grading papers,” I really should say “responding to papers,” but most people wouldn’t know what that means.  I teach English, which translates to reading and writing.  And although the state assesses my students’ reading and writing with multiple choice tests, I know that the best work and assessments I can have my students do is read, read, read (a lot), write about what they read (a lot), and then write, write, write (a lot).  And my role?  To read their writing and give them thoughtful, constructive, questioning, prodding feedback.  And that takes time.  While I might attempt to do some of this work during the school week, my best responding calls for a clear head and alert mind, which I rarely have after a day of working with 8th graders.

2. Working on my master’s degree.  I am in the fourth semester of a master’s degree program in Education (Curriculum, Teaching and Learning), which means that most of my weekends are spent reading research and writing papers.  There are some who think teachers with master’s degrees should no longer receive a bonus (they question whether or not a master’s degree has any impact on the teacher’s students), so why am I spending all this extra time and money going back to school?

  • It’s not the money, that’s for sure.  My school district offers teachers a small stipend ($1100./year) for a master’s degree. While the recognition (tiny that it is) is nice, it won’t make a change in our lifestyle, nor come close to paying back what it cost me to earn the degree.
  • It’s the kids. Effectively teaching writing and literature to 150 8th graders each year, adolescents who represent a wide range of cultures, abilities, gifts, struggles and dreams, is a challenge of magnificent proportion.  This challenge has taken me on a career-long journey to identify, adopt and hone the strategies, methods and curriculum that will bring the most success to my students.  This ongoing professional endeavor has led to certification from the California Association for the Gifted, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the Bay Area Writing Project, plus nearly 20 years of reading books and participating in conferences and workshops, and now working towards a master’s degree.  While “data” may not confirm the value of this degree, I can certainly speak to the significant impact this work has already had on my classroom and my students.
  • It’s the teaching.  My degree emphasis is Educational Technology, which means I have been reading research on the tremendous impact that new technologies are having on today’s youth, as well as the profound effect they can have in our classrooms.  Integrating blogging into my 8th graders’ curriculum has already opened my eyes to the powerful potential that new technologies can bring to my students, and since then e-mail and Google docs (and soon digital storytelling) have revolutionized my classroom, my teaching and the potential for my students to learn 21st century media and new technology skills in schools that too often look like the 20th century.  Without the research and work associated with my master’s program, I am sure that my students would still be writing with pencil and paper, wondering when their tech-savvy lives would be reflected in their classrooms.

So while my heart is with those across the country who are standing tall and proud for our embattled colleagues in Wisconsin, the rest of my body is here in my kitchen, working to provide my students with the best education I can possibly give them.

I {heart} public schools!

When I met my husband, he was teaching at a small, private school. On more than OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAone occasion I joked that if he wanted to marry me, he had to get a job at a “real” school. There was nothing wrong with his school, but I just didn’t see private schools in our future. I had always assumed that my teacher/coach husband would join me in the world of public school education. By the time we were married, we had both started our journeys as public school teachers. Now, 25 years later, I can say with all honesty and enthusiasm that I love public schools! And this is why:

  • Equal Opportunity: Although our country holds to the ideal that “all are created equal,” we know that any semblance of equality disappears as early as preschool. But our public school system strives to provide every child, no matter where they come from or what they do or do not have, equal opportunities to earn a quality education. And that makes me proud.
  • Diversity:  Since public schools welcome all students, it means that our classrooms mirror the population of our communities. My students’ parents are construction workers, chefs, writers, grape harvesters, business people, artists, teachers, domestic workers, winery owners, bus drivers, Pixar animators, university professors, prison guards, secretaries and unemployed adults searching for their next job. And their children sit together in class, study together in the library, eat together in the cafeteria and now blog together online. And while birds of a feather do tend to flock together, our students have the opportunity to chill with a different bird every day in our diverse public schools. And that makes me proud.
  • Democracy: Dating clear back to the founding fathers, a public school system has been considered one of the most critical elements necessary for the success of America. Thomas Jefferson said it best: “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppression of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day. . . . the diffusion of knowledge among the people is to be the instrument by which it is to be effected,” and, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” I am part of a system that endeavors to provide the knowledge and skills for all students to actively and wisely participate in their communities and government. And that makes me proud.
  • Parents: When the parents in my school volunteer and donate, I know that they do it because they believe in our school, they care about the system and they want to do their part to make it even better. They aren’t obligated by a system that “strongly encourages” (i.e., requires) parents to give of their time, talents and money; they do it because they know that their child’s school is a village — a village that is made stronger when all of its residents contribute. Parents of my students have generously given of their time, their resources (copy paper, boxes of tissue, Staples gift cards) and – best of all – their homemade goodies at the holidays.  They give because they care, and that makes me grateful.
  • Loyalty: The town I live in is neatly divided, at one time by railroad tracks, but now by the freeway, east and west. Each side of town has a sprinkling of elementary schools, plus a middle school and high school of its own. We have a traditional cross-town rivalry that is bandied about in grocery stores, churches, soccer games and the local newspaper. My middle-school students wear their east side school colors and mascot with pride, and they look forward to the day they promote from our school and don the colors of the high school down the street.  But navigating adolescence takes a toll on even the coolest of kids; our public schools provide a community of support that teaches them that they are cared for by their entire town… well, the east side of town anyway.
  • My students: After two decades in middle school classrooms, I continue to be amazed by my students. They are 13 years old, battling adolescent hormones, self-consciousness, and the humiliation of parents, yet every day they make me laugh. They inspire me, challenge me, test me and reward me. They write, illustrate and bind books for children in Uganda. They pen poetry honoring parents, grandparents, pets and friends. They publish magazines filled with writing on topics that matter to them: fashion, friendship, cars, music, video games, dogs, books, movies and food. They would rather be hanging with their friends, yet they give me their best. They say they don’t like school, yet they laugh and write and read and teach me what matters. I raise the bar, and they jump. I say I’m sad, and they get quiet. I say well done, and they smile. They act too cool to care, yet when June comes, they bring their grandma over to meet me, they sign my yearbook, and they hug me. And eventually they friend me on Facebook. They invite me to their graduation, they contact me from college, they remember me even when school fades from their memory.  They make me so very proud.

In this season of bash the public schools and throw the teachers under the bus, I am especially proud to be a public school teacher. I know that in times of devastated school budgets and rhetoric of blame, my students and my colleagues and my school and I continue to do professional, inspirational work. And thanks to groups like Save our Schools, America’s public schools will continue to strive to be the ideal system envisioned by Horace Mann, the father of public education:  “a school that would be available and equal for all, part of the birth-right of every American child, for rich and poor alike.” Through public schools, poverty and crime would decline and social harmony would be attained. If we are ever to see that vision realized, it will be through the fully funded, nationally supported, public education system that I do love.

Will writing get me in trouble?

Magazines produced by my 8th graders.

Magazines produced by my 8th graders.

My students were hard at work outlining the first essays for their self-published magazines.  They were writing about cars, gymnastics, football, teen fashion, traveling, music, cooking, skateboarding and whatever else grabbed their fancy. This project would carry them through the rest of the semester, and because they get to choose the topics for their magazines, they usually enjoy the work.  Writing is an art, and the more freedom and power I can give my students, the better.  Every year, though, there are a few students who struggle to find a topic for their magazine.

Jessi is one of them.  A shy student who barely completes most assignments, Jessi appears uninterested in most of the work we do.  When I try to talk with her one on one, she swings her black, stringy hair in front of her face, looks away and shrugs her shoulders.  Since she needs to choose her magazine topic before she can move on to the writing, I ask her to join me for lunch so we can work on it together.  She sighs and rolls her eyes, grabs her backpack and moves to a desk next to mine.

“So what do you like to do after school?” I ask, unwrapping my sandwich.  She shrugs again, her face blank and unreadable.  “Do you play any sports?”  Jessi shakes her head ‘no.’  I sigh a little myself, frustrated with the apathy that so often afflicts my students.  “How about movies?  Or food?  You must love to eat!”  But no, not even food catches her interest.

“Has anyone ever gotten in trouble for what they put in their magazine?” Jessi asks, her make-up smudged eyes making contact with mine for the first time this year.

Now I know she really has a topic in mind, but she’s too afraid to ask about it.  “Well, since I read the drafts of the magazine pieces before they are published, I usually know what the magazines are about.  What are you thinking of?”  I set down my sandwich, lean forward and look into Jessi’s sad eyes.  This may be my only chance to show a lost student that she really does matter, that those thoughts swirling through her confused adolescent mind are the ones she really should be writing about.

“Well, what about Prop. 8?”  Jessi’s eyes twinkle a bit, her narrow chin juts forward and her face reveals a bit of a challenge as she waits to see how I will respond.

“What are you thinking about Prop. 8?” I ask, urging her to own the topic.

“I just think it’s dumb.  My uncle is gay and he has been with the same guy for years and they want to get married but they can’t but my parents are divorced and they hate each other and why can’t people who are in love just get married?”  Jessi pulls back, as if startled by her own words, caught off guard by her own honesty.  Her eyes hold onto mine, though, and she seems to hold her breath in fear she will be reprimanded for her voice.

“Jessi, that’s a wonderful topic for a magazine!” I assure her, smiling wide and clapping my hands.  She smiles too, her posture softens and she laughs at my glee.  “What would you like to focus on for your first essay?”

By the end of the lunch period, I am overjoyed at the new Jessi that I see.  No longer hunched and silent, frowning and apathetic, she has outlined her first essay and has a vision for her entire magazine project.  She has a passion for her topic and the guidance and freedom and power to explore what she thinks.  Maybe, just maybe, this will be the ticket to keeping her engaged in her own learning for the rest of the year.

Sadly, when it comes time to assess what she has learned this year (and to assess how I have performed as her teacher), Jessi will be asked to read short, unrelated passages that range from fiction to informational to historical to poetry, and she will be assessed on her ability to correctly bubble one of four possible answers.  Even her writing skills will be assessed this way, as she will be asked to choose the best revision of a sentence pulled from an excerpt.  She will have no voice, no passion, no interest in the topics at hand, but she will be expected to engage in the process as if it really means something to her.

And this is the disconnect I face in my classroom every year: I am a writing teacher because I love the written word and I love empowering teenagers with their own words.  I am a writing teacher because I know the value that writing has, both in our professional worlds and our personal lives.  I am a writing teacher because I know that if we write about what we are learning, we learn what we are thinking.  And I am a writing teacher because, yes, we can get in trouble for what we write, and that may be the best reason of all for writing.  So, yes, Jessi, write about Prop. 8 and your uncle and love and marriage, and write about what makes you angry and happy and sad and scared and delirious.  And maybe you will get in trouble and maybe you will change the world.  But please don’t stop writing just because at the end of the year it all comes down to a multiple choice test.  Please remember how writing made you smile and sit up straight and laugh with your English teacher. Please don’t lose your voice or your passion just because the state tries to silence it with #2 pencils and bubble forms.

I Have a Dream for Students and Schools

(with gratitude to and reverence for the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.)

Ten years ago, President George W. Bush, in whose symbolic shadow our children now shiver, signed the No Child Left Behind legislation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of children who had been seared in the flames of educational injustice. It promised a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their inferior education.

But ten years later, many children have indeed been left behind. Ten years later, many children’s minds are still sadly crippled by the manacles of under-funded schools and the chains of standardized tests. Ten years later, many children still live on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. Ten years later, many children still languish in the corners of American schools and find themselves an exile in their own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

When the architects of our education system wrote the magnificent words of every state standard and the questions and multiple-choice answers on every state test, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all children, yes, all children of America, would be offered a quality, rigorous education. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her children and schools and teachers are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given its children and schools and teachers a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of education is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of learning and the security of education.

I know that not all of my students come from homes where parents have read to them, fed them nutritious meals, engaged them in healthy activities, sat together at the dinner table and spoken with them.  I know that many of my students come to my classroom from places of great trials, homes that are cold, kitchens that are lacking family meals, walls that do not hold shelves of books, conversations wanting in warmth, support and a rich and varied vocabulary.  But I continue to work with the faith that I, a middle school teacher, have the power to make a difference in the lives of my students.

Let us not wallow in the valley of No Child Left Behind.  And even though we face the difficulties of mandated textbooks and standardized tests, I still have a dream.  It is a dream deeply rooted in the dream of the American school system.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that although all children are created equal, and although all children have the right to a quality education, this does not mean that all children should have the exact same books and the exact same lessons and the exact same assessments.”

I have a dream that one day children will learn to read by reading literature of great variety; that teachers will read to them from great books; that children will choose books to read that ignite great passion and that inspire them to read even more; that reading will be made a pleasure for all children, not a task, not a race, not a recitation of meaningless sounds and chunks of meaning.

I have a dream that all of my students will one day attend a school where they will not be judged by the bubbling of a test answer but by the unique demonstration of their talents and abilities, of their knowledge and understanding.

I have a dream that one day even the state of California, a state sweltering with the heat of overflowing classes, sweltering with the heat of one-size-fits-all curriculum, sweltering with the heat of annual assessments that tell more about a child’s parents’ income than about the child’s learning or the teacher’s teaching, yes even the sorry state of California will be transformed into an oasis of authentic assessments and project-based learning, a refuge of writing workshop and reading for pleasure, a sanctuary of art, music, woodshop, cooking, theater, languages, film making, journalism and life-long learning.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, in Washington, D.C., with Education Secretary Arne Duncan having his lips dripping with the words of “merit pay” and “data-driven” — one day right there in Washington, D.C. teachers will be able to join hands with one another as sisters and brothers working together to build the best schools for America’s students based on the knowledge and experience and wisdom and practice of the teachers who know children and curriculum better than any fly-by-night CEO whose only education experience is playing basketball with the students of his mother’s after-school tutoring program.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every child’s accomplishments shall be exalted, and every so-called-researched-based scripted curriculum shall be made low, the cash-strapped schools will be fully funded, and every library will be staffed with a credentialed librarian where the shelves will overflow with books; and the glory of a quality education for all shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

This is my hope, and this is the faith that I go back to my classroom with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the benchmarks of despair a student-designed project of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of API and AYP into a beautiful symphony of respect for the teaching profession. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to read together, to write together, to experiment together, to design, build, create, perform together, to stand up for education together, knowing that all children will have the opportunity to learn one day in classrooms fully funded where respected professionals are empowered to do their work.

And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of America’s children will be able to learn with new meaning, to write for understanding, to read for personal growth, to explore their interests and feed their curiosities.  This will be the day that my dream of enthusiastic, joyful schoolchildren taught by empowered, professional educators in classrooms stocked with books and paper and technology and dreams and opportunities and joy will become a reality for all.