A New Story: a poem by 24 of my 8th graders

Monday, December 15, 2014



We just wrapped up our poetry unit, and as a culminating assignment I had my students write a poem of their own. I gave them total creative license in writing it (no form/length requirements), but they had to turn in a paragraph along with it in which they analyze their own poem for theme, structure, literary devices, tone, and diction. We've been working on these things all year, so this was kind of a big assessment of their skills. 

Their poems (and analyses!) were awesome. We did a gallery walk last Friday and the look of pride on their faces-- for their own poems as well as their classmates-- totally melted my grinchy little heart that has been twisted up in finals, emails, and other end-of-the-year tomfoolery.

As kind of a way to show my appreciation for how hard they worked, I took one line from each of their poems per class and arranged it into a class poem, which I'm going to give it to them after their final exam as a Christmas present because it is free. Yay!

Then I arranged another mega poem using lines from 24 students in various classes instead of just one. The entire thing is written by my students-- these come from poems about their families, friends, themselves... one was even from a poem about cheese! All I did was arrange the lines and add punctuation and line breaks in some cases.

Here it is!

A New Story

I guess we are like seasons.
I learned that in a way that is known as “the hard way.”
Ask the scars for yourself.
They speak to everyone.

Everyone comes and goes
In and out of your life
Just like the door that’s never locked
Every alley filled with darkness
And no matter what, always against the odds.
It’s like getting dipped in pain.
Black is the universe,
Blank, like the spot next to me
That moment where you feel alone in your soul.

But then
A shout echoes through the darkness,
And a hand takes up yours,
Pulls your weapons away.
You rode a white horse into my life,
You were the person that taught me I’m worth something,
You lifted me up into the light,
Ripping all the bad pages from my heart,
And handing me a new pen to start writing a new story
Under the beautiful sky.

In my book you will never be forgotten.


You filled it with flowers. 


Isn't that sweet? I hope this made you feel a little better than Christmas traffic does.

You fill my story with flowers.

Love,

Teach

Why I Hate Going to My Students' Games

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


Each year, I get a little better at understanding what it means to support my students. My first year, I had no clue. I thought that to be a good teacher I would just need to be like Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds; that if I handed out candy bars and told my students that they matter, they would instantly cooperate and do whatever I ask.

(No offense, Hollywood, but that’s a ton of crap.)

Now that I have the teaching thing more under control, I’m able to support my students as people. I look forward to their concerts for choir, orchestra, and band. I love seeing the artwork they create. I’m always psyched for the night of the talent show and the school plays. But sports games are another story.


You see, I work in a district whose neighborhoods represent a variety of income brackets. Some schools in the district are a part of one of the country’s wealthiest zip codes. Other schools, Title I schools like mine, are in a different part of town and have a high percentage of students labeled at-risk and on free or reduced lunch. When my school’s sports teams play against schools similar to ours, it’s usually fine. But sometimes when we play the more wealthy schools, it’s difficult for me to be there on the sidelines.

A few weeks ago, some of my students on the boys’ basketball team asked if I would come to their game that evening. I told them I would, then asked who they were playing.

“Woodridge!” they told me. “We’re going to beat them this year, Miss!”

My heart sank.

Woodridge Middle School (which is not actually the school’s name), is the wealthiest school in the district. They consistently have the highest test scores, the greatest amount of parent involvement and financial support, and easily the best sports teams. I can count the number of times I have seen or heard of our teams beating theirs on one hand.

“I’ll be there!” I told them. I gave them a thumbs-up.

After they left, I let out a sigh. My boys were so excited, and I’d already told them I would go. I did want to support them and let them know how much I value them and their interests, but I already dreaded going. I knew what would await me.

I knew I would see the look on my students’ faces as they stole glances at the other team warming up. They would see their brand-new shoes. Their effortless lay-ups from years of playing in community leagues, their camaraderie from knowing each other since kindergarten because they don’t move as much as the families at my school do.

I knew I would see the Woodridge side of the bleachers full—parents, grandparents, siblings, and students who were able to have their parents drop them back off at school just to see the game. I would look at our side of the bleachers and see about half as many people there. I would know that one of our players’ mom works the night shift and will never see a game. I would know that less than half of our players would ever have both parents there cheering them on.

I knew I would hear the parents of the other team grumbling—sometimes quietly, sometimes belligerently-- about my students’ fouls, their lack of sportsmanship, and I would know that they are right, and I would wish that these parents could understand that it’s not because my students are bad or scary but it’s because they haven’t had someone around to teach them the value of those things.

I knew I would hear one particularly loud Woodridge parent yell something like, “What are you doing, ref? Are you just going to let number 55 stomp all over our boys?” and I would see number 55, my student, and he would hear it, and I would see his face tense up with a rage that know runs much deeper than this basketball game and I would see him miss all his free throws after that.

I knew I would watch Woodridge take the lead by ten points, then twenty, then fifty. Then I would see the Woodridge coach call a time-out, and in the huddle all his players would smile suddenly, and I would know that the coach had just told his players that they have to stop scoring.

Then after that I knew I would see a Woodridge player make a lay-up, and his point guard would shout, “Hey, coach said we’re not supposed to score!” and the other player would shout back, “What am I supposed to do, just give it to them?”, and I would see the look on my players’ faces as this exchange would happen.

Then I knew I would go up to my students after the game. I would say, “Hey, you did great!” and they would hang their heads and mumble something, and they would all look like their spirits had been punctured, and I would get a lump in my throat because I would know how much this game meant to them, and they would know that I was saying what I was saying to make them feel better.

I knew these things because it always happens. Every year, year after year, every game when we play teams like this. In football. Basketball. Volleyball. All the school sports.

And I hate watching it. When I go to games where we play Woodridge or schools similar to them, I distract myself from what’s going on around me by being obnoxiously upbeat to the point where I often annoy myself. I bring posters. I yell things about sports that don’t make any sense (i.e. “GET THIS REBOUND, WOLVERINES!” when it’s about to be the first shot of a set of two free throws.)  I do this in the hope that their crazy, screaming teacher will, by comparison, make losing feel just a little less embarrassing.

I should be clear that I’m not trying to say I hate going to games because of Woodridge, or that this is Woodridge’s fault. They are not bad people—the coaches, the parents, the players. In fact, I went to a school like Woodridge and I very much value my education and childhood there. I don’t hate Woodridge. And I don’t hate the fact that my students lose.

I hate poverty.

I hate the systems in place that are keeping down neighborhoods like the one where I teach.

I hate that my students have less of a chance—at everything—because of circumstances they can’t help.

I hate how their sports games remind me of all of this.

And most of all, I hate that I don’t know what to do about it except to keep teaching in my little classroom, to keep hoping things get better, to keep showing up, and to keep being loud.

We actually beat Woodridge in that game a few weeks ago. It was a nailbiter—I’m pretty sure it took a couple of years off my life—but we came out on top. My boys were true sportsmen, in every sense of the word. When I talked to them after the game, they didn’t say anything negative about the other team, or the Woodridge fans being vocal at the refs (and on some occasions, at them), or even about winning. In fact, they could barely say anything because of how huge their smiles were. The second I got into my car in the parking lot, I put my head in my hands and cried.

It felt like I’d just had a small taste of the world I dream of.

Love,

Teach

A Thankful List, From a Lady and a Huntsman

Wednesday, November 26, 2014


 Family and friends top the list, per usual. But here’s the rest of my “thankful” list:

-DEVOLSON IS OVER!!! Fill the goblets! Bring out the pheasant! Strike the lyre and play a merry tune on the lute! The Dark, Evil Vortex of Late September, October and November is but a dark and distant memory! (Can you tell I miss Game of Thrones?) 

-My student teacher. I can’t talk about her too long or I’ll start crying. But she’s an angel. Here is what 90% of our conversations look like:

Me: I’m a terrible human. I’m a mess. I’M THE WORST!
Her: No you’re not! Here, do you want a cookie?
Me: Yes. (with crumbs flying out of my mouth) Do you know where I put the vocab quizzes?
Her: Oh, I graded them and recorded the grades in your binder for you when you weren’t looking. And then I filed them in their student folders. 
Me: Are you sure you want to marry your fiancé and not me?
Her: Yes.

She’ll come around one day.

-Carbs. Have you made it to my Pinterest board for DEVOLSON food? I think I’m going to rename it “Highway to Diabetes,” or maybe “Elastic Pants Are My Soul Mate, #blessed.” I made these ham and cheese sliders for our faculty Thanksgiving potluck and my principal loved it so much he started crying, right there in the teacher’s lounge in front of everyone.

Just kidding. But everyone loved them..

Speaking of carbs, a few years ago I started making leftover Thanksgiving grilled cheese sandwiches that I would highly recommend. Layer one piece of buttered sourdough bread (or something sturdy), Havarti cheese, leftover turkey, another piece of cheese, stuffing (spread thin-like), cranberry sauce, your other piece of bread. Grill on low so the cheese has plenty of time to melt and your butter crisps up like it was born to do. It’ll change you.

-Moving up with last year's students. My students came to me last year fresh out of 6th grade, super behind where they needed to be, and definitely unfamiliar with working hard. Yesterday as I was grading their analysis essays on Anne Frank, I realized how far they have come. I found myself writing things like, “Wow—great point. I never thought of it that way,” and “Nice justification here” and “Holy cow! This is college-level thinking!” Ramon, one of my nuggets whose very first essay for me in 7th grade probably contained a total of four correctly-spelled words, turned in an essay that probably contained a total of four misspelled words. I know sharing this probably sounds conceited and/or braggy, but I don’t really care, because they’ve worked really, really hard, and I’ve worked really, really hard, and in teaching, especially at a Title I school, you just really have to savor and remember moments like I had yesterday during grading. 

-Frozen meals. Between this year’s DEVOLSON and being in grad school full time, it’s a wonder I’ve even remembered to eat things. Frozen meals have been a total lifesaver this semester. My favorites: anything Amy’s brand, the meatloaf and mashed potato Lean Cuisines, and, if you’re feeling particularly naughty, Beecher’s in Seattle makes this frozen macaroni and cheese that may just make your face fall off from dairy splendor.

-This pencil sharpener. Some of you held my hand this summer as I made the important decision on which pencil sharpener to get (thank you), and I don’t regret this one at all. Christopher, also known as X-Acto Teacher Pro, is a fine gentleman and we love him very much.


-Workshop teaching method. Oh, man. This has changed my life. It requires very careful and specific procedures being in place, but is so totally worth it. “Here are your assignments for the next three days. Work at your own pace. I’ll be checking in on you.” It’s. The. Best.

-Dogs. I want to adopt an adult dog over Christmas break and name him/her after a character from literature. What do you think? (Note: this is actually a cry for help. I need a reasonable, logical person to talk me out of it and tell me they are expensive and I don’t have enough time for one.)

-This poem. The past few months have been pretty brutal for me, not as a teacher, but as a lady and a human*. I came across this poem in my reading for grad school, and I think it has saved my life in a small but important way. If you’ve found yourself in a rut, or a valley, or a pit full of snakes, or whatever you want to call it, or even if things are great and beautiful and perfect for you (yay!), I hope this poem is something for you to hold onto.

(Something onto which you may hold? Grammar is so stupid sometimes.)

-You turkeys. I love hearing from you—your crazy stories, your notes of encouragement and solidarity, your reassurance that I’m not as much of a freak as I think (and occasionally the one person who’s like, “Whoah, you are a freak,” and I’m thankful for you, too, because you make me laugh out loud). This year in particularly I’m just very thankful to know you and feel heard. So thank you, and go buy yourself a milkshake for being so awesome.

An overflowing cornucopia of love,

Teach

Besides family and friends, what are you thankful for? Tell me right now. Pretty please. Also share your recipes with me.

*later I reread this phrase and thought I'd said that I was a lady and a hunstman and it made me cackle.

Starting School Later: Hater or Advocator?

Monday, November 24, 2014



Guess what? National Geographic emailed and asked if I wanted to join their team as an explorer!

Just kidding about that last part. But they really did email and asked what my thoughts are on the possibility of legislation being passed for schools to start later in the day. Have you heard the buzz about this issue? Basically, school-age kids aren’t getting the amount of sleep they need, which creates a whole slew of problems for them. There’s been a ton of research that supports the benefits of secondary schools starting later in the day, like 8:30-9:00-ish, yet very few (less than 1%) of school districts have actually made the switch.

If you had asked me during my first year of teaching how I feel about school starting later in the day because students are sleepy, I think I would have laughed out loud scoffingly, like Gaston from Beauty and the Beast and said something like, “Well maybe if the students went to bed earlier they wouldn’t be so tired!”

(I was cranky about 97% of the time during my first year.)

But now, with a few years under my belt, my answer is a little different.

First, let me be clear: I am a morning person. Through and through. At sleepovers growing up, I was always the kid who woke up before everyone else and either went to town on my friend’s bookshelf or crept into the kitchen and chatted awkwardly with the hostess’s parents. So, of all the things that are difficult about the teaching life, I’ve never really minded the waking up early part. In fact, I get to school about two hours early because I am way more productive in the mornings than I am after school. If I ran the world and everyone were exactly like me, schools would start at 6:15 so we could be out by 2:15.

But, luckily for you/everyone, I don’t run the world* and not everyone is exactly like me. I teach at a Title I middle school, where many of my students are at or below poverty level. Teaching has changed my life for about a kajillion reasons, but one of them is the way I handle kids falling asleep in my class. I don’t punish them anymore. Instead, I listen. “Hey, I noticed you were pretty sleepy today,” I’ll ask them later, privately. “Everything okay?” Sometimes it’s just a one-time thing—they just couldn’t fall asleep, or lost track of time watching YouTube the night before. But more often than not, it’s due to one of the following reasons:
  •  Some of my students don’t always have someone around to make sure they go to bed early. Sometimes it’s because the people who take care of them work night shifts or are elsewhere during the week. But even for the kids who do have someone making sure they go to bed at a certain time, kids having personal access to cell phones, TVs and video games makes it difficult for any parent to monitor how much sleep their child is getting.
  • Many of my students live an environment where it’s difficult for them to get to sleep or stay asleep.  Some of them have family members who encourage them to stay awake or are too noisy, playing music or having guests over into the wee hours of the morning in small apartments where the rooms are close together and the walls are thin. Others may have noisy neighbors right next door, or live in a neighborhood where emergency sirens on their street are nearly a nightly thing. Also, I have way too many students who are responsible for the care of their younger siblings. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a student tell me that the dark circles under their eyes are because their little brother or sister had a stomach virus the night before. 
  • Some of my students are having trouble sleeping because of stuff they have to deal with during the day. Bullying, domestic violence, unstable family situations, abuse, neglect, hunger, homelessness. This is just a short list.
 I know that every teacher’s free time is precious, whether they have a family or not. I know that having another hour taken away from our evenings would be felt very keenly by all of us. But what if we didn’t have to look at it that way? What if having better-rested kids would actually make our jobs easier? What if starting later would cut down on failure rates, absenteeism, and other things that are so widespread at schools like mine, and are actually part of the reason that we have so much work outside of school hours? So, while I’m not totally psyched at the idea of not being able to beat rush hour traffic anymore, I am also aware that there’s more to this issue than me. Even though starting early might work for me, it’s clearly not working for my students. And I don’t get up and go to work every day so that I can learn to write an expository essay or so that I can tell the difference between there, they’re, and their. If they’re not getting enough sleep and there’s a way for us to fix it, we owe it to them and their success to try. (See what I did there?)

For more information on this issue from people way smarter than I am who don’t compare themselves to Disney villains, check out Sleepless in America, a TV special on the National Geographic Channel premiering Sunday, November 30th at 8 PM Eastern time. And here’s a short clip about the education part of it for you to take a gander.

What’s your take on all this? Holler at me.

Love,

Teach


*I mean, really, it would fall apart in about twelve seconds.

Things I Said Out Loud Today: DEVOLSON Edition

Friday, November 14, 2014





This past spring I wrote a post about the crazy stuff I found myself saying out loud. Then this week I realized that, due to the Dark, Evil Vortex of Late September, October, and November, I am running completely on empty, both patience-wise and motivation-wise, which has led to some pretty questionable content coming out of my mouth. It has also led to sentence you just read that contained far too many clauses.

Here are some things I said out loud today.

“I wish explosive diarrhea upon you.” After a student hid underneath a table and grabbed my ankle.

“Did someone take my gloves on accident? Joke’s on you; they smell like dead hamsters.” They were my running gloves. And by running I mean jogging. And by jogging I mean it looks like I’m casually cross-country skiing but with no poles.

“Can I see a head nod from everyone to indicate, ‘Yes, Ms. Teach, I understand that you did not intentionally show us that advertisement?'” I was showing a YouTube video that had to do with what I was teaching, and apparently the version I looked up yesterday was different from today’s, which had an incredibly age-inappropriate advertisement preceding it. Hooray.

“Please stop losing your minds.” A good minute and a half after said advertisement was shown.

“Oh, it’s your birthday? On the count of three, everyone creepily whisper ‘Happy birthday’ to Melinda.” Have you ever done this with your class before? It’s way quieter and way more hilarious than singing.

“Eliud, you’re not allowed to talk in time out.” Keep in mind I teach 8th grade.

“You did your packet in hot pink pen? Who do you think you are, Kim Kardashian?” I don’t know why I chose this celebrity—I have no knowledge of her ever having written in hot pink pen. Also, this was a male student. Also, I KEEP A PENCIL CUP ON MY TABLE. 

“Bye, don’t participate in any stupid or reckless behavior.” I say this to my classes as I dismiss them every Friday.

“I love throwing away other people’s trash! It’s my favorite!” I think I read somewhere that middle school teachers in particular should avoid using sarcasm with their students. Oops.

“Whoever organized the binders without being asked shall feast in Valhalla! I’ve been thinking about Vikings a lot lately.

“Because the government.” In response to, “Miss, why do we have so many more kids in our class this year?"

“Oh, look! You’re tardy.” Then I laughed way harder than necessary.

“Well, could you see that singing ‘You got a fast car’ repeatedly was upsetting him?” Just another day of middle school conflict mediation.

"I can't." After school, out loud, alone in my classroom, upon considering and immediately rejecting the idea of changing my bulletin board.


Come on, Thanksgiving. Mama needs you.

Love,

Teach



10 Real Things I Wrote While Grading

Tuesday, October 28, 2014




Hi.

I haven't posted in a while because I've been grading fictional short stories for the last twelve hundred years. Why? Because I told my students there was no page limit for the assignment. I'll pause while you laugh at me and point and shout, "ROOKIE MISTAKE!" jeeringly.

(Pause.)

Thank you. I needed that.

Now that that's done, I actually did enjoy grading them. Their stories were awesome and they actually read their rubrics, which figuratively speaking made my heart explode with never-ending confetti. I also enjoyed grading them because I began to realize that some of my feedback would sound very, very strange if taken out of context. 

So I decided to publish it on the Internet.  

Here are 10 real things I wrote while grading:



I mean, don't we all?


Super stinky scarf, or superhuman senses? This is important.


If you've had the popcorn in Chicago you will understand that this is a valid question.


Or a governor-appointed granny?


(Note: It was in the linen closet.)


Can't believe I fell for the old bait-and-switch!


When only the last paragraph of a paper is messy, you may as well make a note to your teacher that says, "Rushed to finish writing this on the bus, xoxo"


This would be a strange thing to shout in a movie theater.
Or anywhere.


This story was AWESOME and I am still thinking about it.



And finally, the comment that gave me the idea for this post:



I already can't wait to grade next year's short stories.

#thingsIneverthoughtIwouldsay

Love,

Teach

My DEVOLSON Dream Journal

Saturday, October 18, 2014


I've been keeping a dream journal for years. If I wake up from a dream, I grab my phone from my nightstand and fumblingly type out everything I can remember. Later in the day, I go back to read my dream journal and find things like:

"Stuck in rich lady's mansion who kept trying to kill herself and blame it on me. Got out and got invited to swim in essentially a silo packed full of dolphins."

and

"Baby ducks hatching out of expired mini corn muffins."

Normally, I have 1-2 vivid dreams per week. But this DEVOLSON*, I have been dreaming almost every night. I don't know if it's from stress or lack of sleep or what, but this girl's been cranking out dreams like a factory.

And they have been crazy.

Let's take a look at them, shall we?


Do you have any idea what it's like to watch your laptop and credit cards spontaneously combust? It's terrifying. So part of this, at least, qualifies as a nightmare. Also, I still remember what the dog looked like.  The fur on its belly grew long and stuck straight out, making it look like a tutu. Also, "Dave"= gave.  (Name of friend blacked out to protect the innocent.)


I looked it up later. Iceland is not between England and Ireland, FYI.


I remember this one perfectly! I woke up (in my dream) to my appraiser standing at the far end of my bedroom holding a clipboard. She was like, "Well, you tossed and turned a few times, but I'm willing to ignore it because of your lack of snoring. Excellent work!"


I forgot to add, "Everyone else hated it." Who knew people would be so picky about having to lodge in a pet store?


Fact: I actually enjoyed the haunted carousel. HOW ABOUT THEM APPLES?


Maybe the dorkiest dream I've ever had. And why, Dream Self, would you ever trust a friendship wafer from Amy?!?!


Yep. Jealous?


Those little Armenian rascals! Also, I think more than one dream about synchronized swimming in the same month is a cause for alarm. Also, Armenia is not on the way to Ireland. At least from where I live.


I meant "rites." I started opening a bunch of what I thought were jewelry boxes and then someone told me they were seahorse coffins.


This was actually my first DEVOLSON dream. But also, obviously, the most amazing. I laughed so hard when I woke up I almost vomited.


What happens in your stress dreams? And does it involve synchronized swimming and/or faulty geography? I need to know.

Love,

Teach

*DEVOLSON is an acronym I made up that stands for The Dark, Evil Vortex of Late September, October, and November. You can read more about DEVOLSON here and here.

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