In the words of the great poet Eazy-E, “I’m not a role model or a Dr. Seuss.”
However, even I know that if you want people to listen to you, keep your message consistent and do as you say. Walk the walk, as it were.
But that is not how we treat teenagers. Not at all.
Americans love to talk about the importance of family. Schools are encouraged to reach out to communities. We want teenagers to believe in the importance of being a part of something greater than themselves. At least, we say we do.
Yet, last week we sent them out in droves to work at 5 a.m. on Thanksgiving so that they could sell products to rabid consumers who just could not wait another day. We let them work twelve hour shifts on Friday, folding and refolding apparel for stampeding mobs of consumers. Some, who are over eighteen, we let work overnight, on their feet, just so the shopping cycle never had to slow down or stop.
Fail. Epic fail.
I understand that Black Friday has become a tradition, as much a part of the holiday season as ubiquitous jewelry commercials and that scary carol about the bells. And everyone has something to say about it, be it good or bad. But we rarely talk about the fact that it is our youth who make this mass materialism possible. We never stop to think about what this instills in them about their society’s values.
For my students, having a job is crucial. It not only teaches them the value of responsibility and gives them a little walking around money; for many, it means helping their parents keep a roof over their heads. It means keeping the lights on.
So, when the malls and retail outlets and even fast food joints began adding staff for the holidays, my students were ecstatic. They went out and pounded the pavement. I helped them make resumes. I talked to them about dressing professionally, following up, even having a professional-sounding voicemail and email address.
Some of them did get jobs. And they worked. They worked this whole past weekend, while I was drinking wine and eating pie with my loved ones. They did not get to linger in front of football games or sleep in. They went to work. And they got yelled at and disrespected by their managers and their customers alike. And they came back to school today tired instead of refreshed.
And what did they learn, I wonder, from all of this? What did they learn about the value of respecting your fellow humans? What did they learn about how you demonstrate love for your family and friends and partner? What did they learn about what really matters?
We can tell them it is the thought that counts. We can tell them that being poor is not as important as having love. We can tell them that family comes first. Yeah, we can say these things all we want. But as long as we are sending them out to service our need for commerce every year on what is ostensibly our national holiday of rest and thankfulness, I am not sure they are going to hear the message we are saying. I think something else entirely different might be getting through instead.
Journal Prompt: What are you thankful for this year?
“The first thing I am thankful about is having my father. I’m thankful to have him in my life because my mother left us and my dad was a single father and mother.”
“I am thankful for having a job because I don’t depend on anyone and it’s a good feeling. Also, I can help out my mom with whatever.”
“Two things I am thankful for are my family and Kanye West.”
“This year I am glad to be able to be back in sports after being kicked off last year for slangin’ weed.”
“Two things I am thankful for is that my boyfriend is alive and that I have family. Although my boyfriend is in jail, I’m extremely thankful that he is alive.”
“I am thankful for my life. I am thankful because I have the ability to make as many mistakes as I want and learn from them.”
“I am thankful for my uncle because he does not charge me on my tattoos. May his business prosper.”
“Thanks to God He protected some parts of thePhilippinesduring the typhoon. And all those donations of people all around the world.”
“I’ve been grateful for a lot this year: for being alive, getting my uncle back from jail, and getting another kitten.”
“One thing I’m thankful for is having a roof over my head and my bills paid.”
“I am grateful for having my boyfriend because having someone to talk to makes things better because talking to my dog didn’t really help.”
“I am thankful that I got life and my loved ones, too. That’s because with everything that’s been happening in the streets any day can be your last. So, I am glad that I’m alive.”
Students steal. I do not want to alarm anyone, but it happens. They steal things like rulers, markers, glue sticks, and scissors. They steal pencils, pens, independent reading books. Sometimes they do it unintentionally. They just wander off with things, not even realizing it is happening. And sometimes they do it because they are bored. Once they stole my pencil sharpener. And sometimes their motivations are inexplicable. Like, once they stole my lunch. It was a yogurt and an apple. I was sad and confused. Why, God, why? Is there no justice?!
Also, true story, students are wasteful. They enjoy, for example, playing with tape. I catch them all the time. “What are you doing?” I shout frantically. I have been known to throw myself on a stapler when I see it being used as a weapon. Not because of safety. Because staples ain’t free, ya’ll.
You see, schools are broke. The national mantra is, “Do more with less.”
So teachers horde. We are hoarders. All of us.
I have a whole drawer full of sticky notes. I have no intention of telling you where it is.
In the back, behind the sticky notes, is my last package of Crayola markers. It cost me a dollar and I am not about to lend it out to just anybody.
Underneath it are my last three purple pens. They must last until winter break.
On a secret shelf in my house is the last package of poster board. I will not take it out until I determine which of the classes I have now is worthy of the the honor of doing the last of the poster projects. The verdict is still out.
Every time I do laundry I find paper clips that I forgot to take out of my pockets. This is because I pick them up off of everything and from everywhere. I am not above spotting some in the recycling bin and digging them out. Don’t judge me. I got paperclip needs. Do not get me started on binder clips. Those big, beautiful clips are like black pearls, rare and priceless. When I come up on one, I try to look casual, slip it in my pocket, walk away quick.
I send all of my correspondence on the back of old vocabulary tests. I think it must confuse the bank personnel who process my loan payments. Either that or they have taken to quizzing one another on literary terms like “oxymoron” and “dramatic irony.” But I cannot bring myself to put them in the recycling bin. Paper is valuable. It is the foundation of everything we do. I have stacks of it at the back of my room. And still the students want to use fresh, lined paper. Not on my watch…
I have been given cause to reflect on this, because this year there are way more advertisements for Black Friday than for Thanksgiving and Hanukkah combined. This is the time of year when American consumerism and materialism are at their peak. And I KNOW I want no part of that. So, maybe the lesson here is to learn to let go, not to be so greedy. Maybe all this hoarding, in its own way, is just as evil and wrong. Maybe, in honor of the real spirit of the season, I should share my post-its with a friend.
In grad school I took classes with an aspiring English teacher and opera singer who told us his mom had a saying, “When life hands you poop, make poop juice.”
I had cause to think of that yesterday when I opened my email to discover two messages, both of which centered on the idea that this blog has become less optimistic of late. Two. In one day.
I guess I should take note.
I do not mean to convey that I have lost hope. But rather, to convey that sometimes one must dig just a little deeper to find the positive.
Some days, I just need to work harder on reminding myself of the necessity to make poop juice.
Sometimes all it takes is a simple attitude shift. For example, on Thursday I was a little bummed when I found, “F*&k M$. $,” written on the desk until an old friend exclaimed, “You are just like Ke$ha!” That put the smile back on my face.
Sometimes all it takes is a supportive administrator. Like on Tuesday, when a student tried to get me to change his grade so he could be eligible to play football. I told him I do not change grades and he knew the consequences when he chose not to do his work. He said I was interfering with his chances to go to college. I stood strong. But I felt terrible. Then he went to my principal. And my principal said, “Did you know the rules from the beginning? Yes? Well, then…” Knowing she had my back made me feel good again. And so when he cut my class for two days straight (to punish me), I did not feel responsible for his zeroes.
Sometimes all it takes is knowing I have reached at least one student, on one topic, at least one time. On Friday, we were watching “The Dark Knight” in order to cement the class’s understanding of literary devices. When I turned on the lights at the end of the period to go over the foreshadowing and symbolism we had seen over the course of the day’s viewing, one young man raised his hand and pointed out the irony in the film’s use of Harvey Dent’s coin. He was eloquent and thorough in his explanation. And I felt joy. Because I have always believed that if students leave my class understanding irony, then they are a great deal more prepared to face life.
And sometimes, all it takes is a reminder from my friends and family about who I am and what my approach to this profession really is. I get bitter, but I am not a bitter person. I get exhausted, but I am not tired of this work. I get frustrated, but I do believe in my students, in this job, even in myself. Receiving those emails reminded me to regain my perspective, my optimism, my sense of humor. It reminded me to stop looking at things that happen at school as a plate of poop, but to change that poop into something different, something better.
When daylight savings time ends, everything changes. I leave the building and it is dark. I go home in the dark and when I get there I seriously do not know if I should make dinner or go to sleep. Shorter days are unnerving. They mess with one’s equilibrium.
Maybe that is why everyone I know had a tough week last week. I mean everyone. The days may have been shorter, but the week itself lasted for approximately a year and a half, even by the most conservative of estimates.
Some people probably had a rough week because of elections. Other people, in districts like mine, are into our third straight month of school, with no breaks to speak of, and we are growing weary of one another. Last week I caught myself snapping at people I like and, terrifyingly, feeling (at the time) completely justified in doing so.
Even the machines are tired of us. On Tuesday, for no earthly explicable reason, the printer decided to quit printing Excel documents for me. It happily continued to print from Word or even from websites, but it drew the line at Excel. The documents would not even appear in my queue. The printer just felt like ignoring them. Which is what I told anyone who would listen. This led to a great deal of patronizing “help” from a great many people around my campus, all of whom seem to feel that I am too technologically inept to understand the printer icon on my screen. Just because I enjoy imbuing inanimate objects with human attributes does not mean I don’t know enough to realize that the computer ought to be linked to a printer before I attempt to create paper documents. I was born in the seventies, but not the 1870s…
See, see what I mean about how quickly we are getting on each other’s nerves around that place?
In the midst of all of this, the students are whiny and tired. They are sniffly. They are prone to putting their heads down in class. To staring into space. To feeling horrifically put upon when asked to do things like write ten complete sentences in a reflection journal or make graphs of who has the power in each act of The Crucible. They are recalcitrant about working at all, preferring to make empty promises about what they WILL do, at home, in an unspecified time called LATER.
I am trying to coin a new phrase. I keep telling them, “Gonna in one hand and poop in the other and see which one fills up first.” I am not sure it is catching on, but I hear myself saying it several times a day.
One girl did tilt her head skeptically, make eye contact, and inquire, “Are you saying I am full of sh*&?”
I advised her not to take it personally. I said most people who promise to do things in an unspecified future never actually get around to them.
“So, would you prefer if I said, I AM working on that right now?”
At least in one case, my message is getting through. Her Crucible poster is getting an A.
I think we are all, teachers, students, printers, etcetera, going to be exceedingly thankful in a couple of weeks for some time off. Now we just have to get there, one somehow simultaneously short and incredibly, inconceivably long day at a time.
In the 90s we listened to a ska band called Operation Ivy who had an awesome song that went:
All I know is that I don’t know
All I know is that I don’t know nothing
We get told to decide
Just like as if I’m not gonna change my mind
I had forgotten about Op Ivy. In fact, I had forgotten about ska. But this week I had cause to remember.
Cuz all I know is…I don’t know nothing.
I always think I have this teacher thing on lock and then something goes and throws me for a terrible loop. Like on Halloween when I read a young woman’s “scary story” assignment and she explained, in full sensory detail, what it was like for an eight year old girl to be raped by a grown man. And then what? What could I say? I just got a sinking feeling. How could I help? I hugged her. I walked her down to a counselor. I knew it was not enough.
Other than that, I know nothing. I do not know how to help that girl.
I do not even know how to help myself. I can barely deal with my average, run-of-the-mill problems.
I could not help myself when I told (shouted at) a student, “You will not disrespect me in front of my class!” I could not stop myself when I explained to (shouted at) this young man, “You are so far over the line you cannot even see the line anymore!”
I need something, that is for sure.
And it is with that hope, that need, that I got out of bed this Saturday morning and biked downtown for a little professional development. It was chilly and I got a flat tire and there was a pile of work that needed grading on my desk and my shower still needs scrubbing, but I went to professional development the same way some people got into lifeboats on the Titanic. With desperate hope.
But I should have known if I were not in the right head space it might not be the best use of my time. When the presenter started talking about approaching education with a pedagogy based on love and this actually made me angry, I should have known it was not going to be a good day. When he asked us about our educational philosophy and my colleague and I agreed ours was “sarcasm,” I should have realized this would not be my most productive session.
But by the time I got into a very terse, yet polite argument with this genuinely enthusiastic and well-meaning young man about what texts and approaches best serve students from disadvantaged backgrounds, it was too late to turn back.
And why? Why did I feel like I had to challenge him at his own workshop? Why couldn’t I keep my mouth shut?
I used to be this guy. I used to believe many of the same sorts of things he believes. I used to have heartfelt idealism and a damn-the-man demeanor. Somewhere I just lost that exterior. Though I am sure, deep down, this young man and I have far more common ground than I was acknowledging at the time. We were just coming at it from two different places.
See, over the years, I have changed my mind about some things. Life does that. Experience does that. Now I am more pragmatic and less dogmatic. But, I still love the crap out of my students. I still hurt when they hurt. I still burst with pride when they are awesome. I still work one million hours a week to try to bring them the best lesson plans and feedback I can.
But now, now I know. “All I know is that I don’t know. All I know is that I don’t know nothing.”
The difference between this young session presenter and me is that he still thinks he has answers and I no longer think I do. And that confidence of his is a beautiful thing. Why am I coming around like the ghost of inadequacies past and rattling my dusty chains at him? Why couldn’t I just let his beautiful certainty survive as long as it can?
I guess, when I feel like I don’t know a thing is when I feel I need to shout what I think I know the loudest. And I guess there is a lesson there for me the next time I feel my students are getting in my face. Sometimes, when we feel weak and confused we challenge anyone who seems to have a firm grip on what they believe and know. Maybe the next time I want to shout at a student for disrespecting me, I will do well to remember this.
Rest in peace, Colleen Ritzer.
Rest in peace, Michael Landsberry.
In my head I thought, “Rest in peace, Ms. Ritzer. Rest in peace, Mr. Landsberry.”
Then I started crying.
When people die, it is always sad. When innocent people die, it is always tragic. When teachers die, it always makes me cry.
I did not have to know these teachers to know that I respect them.
Mr. Landsberry walked up to a young man with a gun and asked him to put it down. Mr. Landsberry died to save his students. You were a blessing, Mr. Landsberry. Thank you.
Ms. Ritzer died in her school. Her death is inexplicable. She was an amazingly enthusiastic person. I have been reading her Twitter feed (https://twitter.com/msritzermath) and I wish I could have taught with her. She seems lovely.
It was almost a year ago I was writing to try and process what happened at Newton. Now there is this.
Schools are not safe. They are less safe all the time. And we have to talk about that. We have to think about that. We have to work on that.
But schools are still safer than most places. Schools are still safer than highways, safer than nightclubs, certainly safer than the streets. Schools are still places where beautiful souls like Ritzer and Landsberry work.
When terrible things happen, people get angry. They are frightened and they want the world to make sense again. But the world does not always make sense. There is no sense to what happened to Ms. Ritzer and Mr. Landsberry. And if we panic, if we react badly, if we start to distrust one another too much, the world only gets worse.
People say things to me about what I do and how they would be scared if they were me. I am not scared. My classroom is like my apartment; it is my home. I feel safe in my home. No one can take that from me.
We cannot live in fear. We cannot be angry all the time.
Some students are troubled and sad and they do terrible, terrible things. But most students are funny and smart and lively. They love their families, their girlfriends, their boyfriends, their pets. They love sports teams and animated movies and cars with extra features. They love Hot Cheetos and classroom pizza parties and songs like “Wrecking Ball” by Miley Cyrus.
And we love them. I do. Colleen Ritzer did. Michael Landsberry did. And the thing we can do to best honor their memory is to believe in schools, believe in kids, believe the future will be better than today. Treat each other with respect, kindness and trust.
In the words of Colleen Ritzer, “No matter what happens in life, be good to people.”
I was talking with an old friend the other day about how we each felt about our own experiences with learning writing in high school. We talked about where we felt the gaps had been in our education. We talked about how important it is to write well and conversely, how hard it is to feel good about our own writing. The fact is, no matter what we thought when we were teenagers, it is necessary to be able to write. We need writing more than we could ever have imagined.
And the other fact I told her is: teaching writing is hard. Really, really hard.
Teaching writing requires equal parts patience and repetition and understanding. Then it requires more patience and more repetition and more understanding.
The fact is, most people have a lot of fear when it comes to writing. It makes them hesitant. It makes them short-tempered. It makes them do a lot if sitting and staring at the blank page, at the blank screen.
Last week I taught my students about the components of a good essay. I started with necessary vocabulary. Thesis, for example. We spent an entire day reading the rubric and benchmarking essays together. Then we took notes on thesis statements, how to write them, what makes them good or bad. Then they wrote thesis statements for personal narratives, based on personal memory sketches they had already written. They wrote three types of thesis statements; they selected one they liked the best. And I checked it off and helped them revise it. Then I handed them back and gave these same students some notes on introductions. Then we looked at sample introductions and conclusions and how they related to one another.
I figured they were ready. I really thought I had laid some groundwork. I thought the scaffolding was in place. I assumed they were ready to go.
Well, we all know what happens when you assume.
Student after student gave up with varying levels of dramatic intensity. Around my room there was a collective whine, “I don’t get it!” Papers were crumpled. Posture got really bad.
But my same wonderful old friend is also a teacher. She teaches yoga. And she teaches her students that, “Can’t lives on Won’t Street.”
So, I went to the front of the room and I held up my hands, palms facing my students. “Hold up!” I shouted. And then I told them that Can’t lives on Won’t Street. I told them they needed to believe in themselves. I urged them to stop being the antagonists in their own lives. And it worked. For a minute. In that period. On that day.
I think I need a sign for my classroom that says, “Keep calm and just write.” Because students need to know that they can write something and it does not have to be perfect the first time. They need to know that it is okay. And if I have to tell them that every day, a few times a day, then so be it. Eventually maybe they will remember.
My dear old friend, the strongest woman I know, confided in me that sometimes when she writes she feels like a fraud, like she is just tricking people and getting by. And if a woman like that feels that way, well then, something we are doing as writing teachers needs to change.
It is not enough to teach the attention grabber and the connecting phrase. Somehow, we need to instill our students with some confidence as well. And I guess I will just have to keep trying to do that. Keep being patient and keep repeating myself. Keep being understanding.
Because I know better than to think I can’t.
Yesterday another English teacher and I were packed up and sent off to a district training for a course we both teach. She and I plan together, so we sat side by side, sharing a laptop, like sixth grade besties. And that part was fun.
But sometimes, these trainings just make me feel stupid and lazy and sad. And yesterday was one of those days.
First, we read some articles by an English teacher guru. These articles proved to me that I know nothing about my craft. Apparently, I am supposed to have deep, personal feelings about the process of writing. I am even supposed to have an opinion on hand writing versus typing. And that opinion should be steeped in the research I am supposedly reading in my spare time. My spare time? I barely have time to brush my hair. I look like Edward Scissorhands most mornings.
Then they showed these videos of clean classrooms filled with engaged students who used vocabulary words effortlessly in every sentence. In these videos, no one had his hood up, no one was texting surreptitiously inside her purse, no one’s head was face down on the desk. The plants on the window sills had been watered regularly. There were window sills. The white boards bore no graffiti and no entreaties to, “Follow me @PlayaPimp69!” I felt disoriented from the get. What sort of place was this?
In these videos, wildly enthusiastic, relentlessly positive women, their clothes suspiciously free of either coffee or ink stains, narrated about the plans they wrote that always produce incredible learning results. In these videos the teachers never said anything sarcastic and the students never once shouted, “F&*k this!” Instead, everyone came in motivated and sat in their desks and raised their hands when they wanted to speak.
After setting this unachievable bar, they dismissed us for lunch. I think I can be forgiven for eating my feelings in barbeque flavored potato chips.
After lunch we had the kind of roundtable discussion that robs me of all will to live. Everyone shared their best practices. They talked about all the books they read with their students and the multi-modal lesson plans they write to accompany these books. These plans all sounded amazing. They encouraged all learners, were interesting, and met the common core standards, the state standards, and the standards of human decency.
When it came my time to share I told them about the non-fiction article unit I wrote called “Shooting Kids,” which encourages students to think about issues of gun violence in American culture. Crickets. I have not felt that uncool since I was the only girl in middle school without a perm.
The training closed out with the trainer, who must have one of those magical amulets Hermione Granger used to double her productivity, encouraging us to think about an epic final project she recommended. She assured us it was possible to accomplish by May…if we start thinking about it now because, “It is only October!”
The best thing about the whole day, aside from the free barbeque chips, was how great I feel to be back in my classroom today. I am comforted by the fact that apparently things only got a little Lord of the Flies while I was out yesterday. The sub brought in a tree branch and literally hid behind it at one point, but at least there is an explanation for the tree growing in my corner. I am going to leave it there because in my classroom we honor the random, we say facetious things, we swear a lot, we make mistakes and we tag the desks, but it is home. Home, sweet home.
One of the most popular quotations for pseudo-intellectual swag is, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” It has become such an integral part of the American vernacular that it never even occurred to me to think about what it means until a few days ago.
And maybe this sentiment is true…if one happens to be Albert Einstein. I happen NOT to be Albert Einstein. I happen not to have had the privilege of teaching any Einsteins yet, either. That is not to say I have not taught BRILLIANT students, but I have not encountered any once-in-a-millennium epic geniuses. Old Albert was, as they say, one of a kind.
I do not mean to diminish the importance of imagination. But is it MORE important than knowledge? Of that I am not convinced. Take for example the 3-D printer. Someone had to think of it. And when he did, maybe he thought of it the way I did when the concept was first introduced to me. I laughed and said, “Oh, a magic box that makes anything you want right in your living room?” Imagination gives one the ideas, but knowledge makes them possible. Without the knowledge of how such things work, a 3-D printer is more Harry Potter than Hewlett Packard.
Imagination and knowledge need to be friends. When they are, we get everything from the Taj Mahal to the iPhone. As old Sinatra once crooned, “You can’t have one without the other.”
Like so much else in life, the key to a well-rounded education is in balance and moderation. Knowledge and imagination are not mutually exclusive. Neither trumps the other in importance. And most teachers know this and find a way to create space for both in our lessons. To say that either is the key to helping students become happy, productive adults is dangerous and simplistic. And while a quotation like Einstein’s might look good on a t-shirt, the truth is much more complex.
Like so many other “right-brained” individuals, I worry about the increased focus on science and math in recent years. I feel that English and Social Science are often marginalized in the national discourse. I worry that the arts are being defunded in schools. I worry about the lack of literary terms and response in the Common Core Standards. But I bristle at the suggestion that the public schools are killing children’s natural curiosity. I reject the notion that we do not continue to make room for creativity in our curriculum. We just know we must strike a balance between validating individuality and enforcing rigorous standards. Finding this balance will hopefully prepare students to compete in the society of the future, a society I can now only imagine.