Not in Teacher School

Things they didn't teach

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What Does It Mean to Be an American?

For my American Lit class, I asked them, “What does it mean to be an American?” as their first writing prompt. They told me:

“One common mind set Americans have is that we are a country founded on freedom and basic moral rights. For example, kids have the right to education and everyone has freedom of speech to express how they feel.”

“The thing that Americans have in common is fashion sense.”

“Being an American means having pride in your country and being willing to serve it. It means looking out for your fellow Americans. It does not mean that we have to be responsible for the rest of the world. Other countries are perfectly capable of making decisions for themselves.”

“We are supposed to be born with equal rights, but unfortunately a lot of them are broken.”

“Another thing they have in common is the option to break the laws or to accept them. In America there are people that work hard to get what they want but there are others who cheat their way to success.”

“To be an American is to work hard for your country.”

“Some of us Americans actually know what work is, and struggle to survive. Other Americans were born privileged and become successful on their parents’ accomplishments.”

“All Americans have too much pride. Americans think they are better than anybody else.”

“The Patriot Act allows the government to spy on anyone’s personal information. This allows them to invade our privacy. I think if Americans are promised their freedom, why are we being spied on?”

“Americans are the most obese.”

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Back-To-School Playlist

Sooooooo….I took a Facebook poll and the results are in: making a back-to-school playlist is a vital part of preparation and in no (significant) way considered procrastination, so I made one. By extrapolation then, BLOGGING about making said playlist is also a valuable use of my time resources and must therefore be done.
I ride my bike to work, so music has become an even more essential part of my morning than ever before. My riding playlist can make or break my day, so I figured I should invest some effort into making a perfect, motivational back-to-school playlist that will get me going and get me thinking as I pedal my way back to my students next week.
But what to include? I decided there had to be some songs representative of my own time in the public education system, some songs I was into as a young, idealistic student teacher, some songs that represent my attitude in the classroom, and some songs that always come through and never fail to make me feel empowered.
With that, I give you my 2014 list. PLEASE share suggestions and comments because, let’s face it, it sure beats updating your syllabi.

1) Flashdance…What a Feeling- Irene Cara
2) Check Yo Self- Ice Cube
3) Ain’t Nothin’Ta F*&k Wit- Wu-Tang Clang
4) Flawless- Beyonce
5) Eye of the Tiger- Survivor
6) American Idiot- Green Day
7) Hot for Teacher- Van Halen
8) They School- Dead Prez
9) Teach Your Children- Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young
10) Another Brick in the Wall, Pt.2- Pink Floyd
11) Fight the Power- Public Enemy
12) Fight For Your Right- Beastie Boys
13) Hard Knock Life- Jay Z
14) The Final Countdown- Europe

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Setting Up the Space

August 1st is the day I go back to work. Every year I give myself July off. I might (okay, I do) plan a bit. And sometimes I will go to a training or workshop. But mostly, July is time to spend with my family and friends. Especially my toddler nephew, whether he likes it or not. My birthday is at the end of the month and then I buckle back down. Get my game face on. Make it happen.

Part of the annual back-to-school routine has to do with setting up my classroom: readying my boards, arranging my desks, and decorating my walls and desk area. This year I have been thinking a lot about this task. It is a fine balance, really, between pragmatism and personality. How much should this place be a reflection of my increasingly eccentric inner weirdo and how much should it be as ascetic, academic, and non-distracting as possible?

Like the great Mr. Cash, I walk the line.

In the interest of practicality and ambiance, I have tried every arrangement of desks imaginable. And I have a confession to make. I love rows. I know, I know, that makes me THE MAN. But rows are awesome. I can see everything and get around quickly and come up to any one student and help him or her individually. I can walk behind everyone and make sure they are not on social media when they should be doing research. I can separate chatty couplings and reward good grades with “sitting in the back” privileges. The rows stay.

So, too, do the posters my students have drawn for me over the years to represent the great topics of literature: love, hate, oppression, hope, insanity, etc. They are interesting to look at and helpful to refer to throughout the year. Plus, they remind me of the talented teens who have passed through my classroom in the past.

Around my desk I keep the wall of fame photos. I am not going to lie, after twelve years, not every photo is still on the wall, but there are dozens and dozens of former students represented there, many of whom are now teachers themselves, presumably making their own decor choices right around this time of year. These familiar faces make me smile. And they convey to my students how much I might someday love and remember them.

But the tough call is about how much of myself, my personal, non-Ms.-S-self  do I allow my students to see? This is the perennial question. It becomes an even more obviously necessary choice when I literally mean what they will see. When I am making actual choices about the way to decorate my room I need to think about how what I put on the walls says a lot about who I am.

Over the years I have found that students respond better to teachers who allow a little of their personal lives to seep into their classrooms. For that reason, I allow myself to wear my Boston Celtics lanyard (we will be great again!) and to keep a couple of student drawings of baby aliens (the cutest creatures ever imagined) around my room. On my computer I keep a picture of aforementioned adorable nephew. And on the wall above my desk, I keep one photo of my boyfriend. This way students know I am a human, which I believe allows them to be humans while they are in my room, too.

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Turning Four

I found this in my inbox a few days ago and I felt… flummoxed.

How have four years past? I genuinely believed it to be three, at most. Probably two.

I remember starting out with NITS. I remember my good friend helping me get a URL and a Tumblr and a Twitter and linking me to Facebook. At the time, I was only dimly aware of what he was doing, though grateful to have a friend who had the knowhow and the patience to actually help me do something I wanted to do quite badly, but could not start for myself.

I also remember my motivations. I really believed I would just write a blog and suddenly have thousands of followers, a sweet book deal, and dozens of speaking engagements at schools around the country, for which I would need to buy dozens of flattering pant suits, preferably purple ones.

Spoiler alert!

This is not how it worked out.

I do not have thousands of followers or a book deal. I still have only one pants suit and it is black and I wear it to weddings, as I have not yet become a motivational speaker.

I do, however, still have a great job, albeit one with fewer pants suit wearing occasions. I am still a teacher. Now I am also a teacher who blogs.

My first instinct when I received this email was to recall my original goals, see I had not realized them, and shutter Not In Teacher School forever. But I am not in that place anymore.

This blog has not made me rich or famous (or thin, which somehow always goes along with my fantasies on this issue). But it has connected me with a wonderful community I had never before realized existed. Through writing NITS, I have come to realize there are lots of teachers who blog out there and lots and lots of them are very cool. Every day, it seems, I find out about more of you. I have discovered you are wonderful and creative and supportive and always just a click away when I need to feel rejuvenated and valued. When I need a laugh. When I need an idea. Even when I just need some schadenfreude.

Over the past four years I have also come to use NITS to give me a little perspective. When something goes wrong in my classroom, or a student says something out of the ordinary, I now think, “I can blog this!” instead of, “Why is this happening to me?” Writing NITS has allowed me to be more chill and accepting in my classroom and for that, I am very grateful.

Even as a little girl I wanted to be a writer. As a teenager, I wanted to be the voice of my generation. In college I majored in journalism. But life takes interesting turns. Recently, I got to have an Old Home Weekend with my dearest friends from high school. I turned to two of them and said, “We all ended up with the perfect jobs for us.” And it was true.

I love being a teacher. And I am still grateful to that friend who helped me become a teacher blogger. I may not be rich and famous, but my life is richer for having this outlet.

Happy Birthday, Not In Teacher School, and Happy July, teachers everywhere! Enjoy (what I hope) is a whole month off to pursue whatever outlets bring you all joy and fulfillment.



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Learning From Preschoolers

Until the 4th of July, I had never before spent a day with a bunch of four year olds. One four year old, maybe. Two was pushing it. But on the 4th, I got to spend the afternoon playing kickball with a bunch of mini-patriots, many of whom happened to be four.

And I learned something. I learned that there are infinite ways to be four. One can be four and be totally introspective. Or one can be four and remember a woman met only once, a year before, and shower her with cute affection. One can be four and be super athletic and bike ten miles and still run bases. Or one can be four and already be able to read entire magazines. (I witnessed both of these feats with awe). And one can be four, as my goddaughter is, and actually be going on twenty-one.

Probably this is not revelatory for most people. But as our forefathers reminded us, we do hold some truths to be self-evident, and the one I discovered while celebrating this declaration is that all humans, from babyhood to adulthood, are strong and distinct individuals.

Duh.

Except…

We do not really treat them this way in our institutions. We do not treat them this way in the education system and we do not treat them this way in the criminal justice system and we do not treat them this way in the social service system. And these are just the systems that are trying to treat them at all.

In schools we talk about differentiating instruction. We post memes about square pegs and round holes and everyone being a genius in a different way. However, when it comes down to a problem, when a kid needs to be instructed differently, or sanctioned differently, we become uncomfortable.

Contemplating our system, I can think of far too many occasions when we put the enforcement of rules ahead of the recognition of individuality.

In no way am I advocating for abdicating rules. We needs structures and guidelines. But when those fail, when a student is not learning in the way in which we hoped he/she would, why do so many educators default to the one-size-fits-all model when we know it does not work?

After watching a group of joyous four year olds run bases and kick balls whenever they wanted to do so,with little regard for batting order or scoring, I realized what a shock it will be for them next year when they all start kindergarten. Again, we need to help them realize they are a part of a communal society, and as such, we do need structures and systems, but we need to nurture their individuality as we do so. Neither can be lost. And putting a rule or a convention ahead of seeing a person and a person’s individual character and needs is too, too sad and misguided a practice to be allowed to continue.

Filed under education

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Summer Lessons

One of the great benefits of being a teacher is that it gives me enough time off to go and visit my family during the summer. I would be remiss were I not to admit this essential truth. I live a long, long way from my immediate family and oldest pals and I love them all a lot and I feel very fortunate every late June when I get to get on a plane and fly out and see them for a few weeks.

Since I have been here I have been around more children under the age of sixteen than I have even been around before in my life. It is strange to associate with minors who are not teenagers. Strange and lovely.

Toddlers, for example, are a wonderful education in language usage. They speak in short, declarative sentences. In doing so, they manage to communicate their desires beautifully.

It really makes me think about how much obfuscating we do as adults. Why do we squander so much energy not getting to the point? Why do we use so many words we do not need? Would my students perhaps benefit were I to be a little more direct when explaining what it is I want them to do and why? I suspect they would.

These wonderful nieces and nephews of mine are also teaching me a lot about patience. They do not get across the parking lot quickly. They do not get in and out of the car quickly. They do not get dressed quickly. In fact the only thing they excel at doing rapidly is taking off their clothes, which they do readily and with abandon. There is a marked contrast between this pace and the pace required to get them to reverse this process and do something else entirely.

Again, probably a little of the patience I can discover within myself for my not-quite-three-year-old nephew would go a long way when it comes to explaining embedding quotations.

Perhaps the greatest revelation for me has been that sarcasm is a remarkably ineffective tool to use on a wet five-year-old or a hungry baby. It goes right over their heads. Having to dial down the caustic remarks has been a real eye-opener for me. I never realized how often I was resorting to this old habit in my dealings with other humans. I now see why so many students have commented on it over the years and I now see how hurtful it can be.

Sure, there are a lot of key developmental years and stages between even my charming seven-year-old bestie and my youngest junior, but there are some universals there, too.

And it certainly doesn’t hurt me to be reminded of this once a year, at least.

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Summer Me

A couple of night ago, my boyfriend came into our bedroom and expressed surprise to see me up, reading in bed. It was almost midnight. This is a real walk on the wild side for me. I rarely make it past ten thirty. In fact, I have to go to extreme measures just to get through an entire episode of Mad Men (would it kill them to start it at nine?!).

Then he smiled and said, “Oh yeah, Summer You.”

Summer Me. A whole different person. A relaxed person. A reasonable person. A person less prone both to fits of crying and to militaristic adherence to schedule and routine.

Summer Me rocks. I would hang out with that broad.

Of course, Summer Me has many advantages over Regular Me. Regular Me always has a stack of papers somewhere that needs grading. Summer Me has a stack of novels to plow through at my leisure. Regular Me is exhausted, literally ALL the time. Summer Me hardly even needs concealer for my undereye circles. Regular Me needs to plan out even my spare time months in advance. Summer Me actually has the freedom to do spontaneous things sometimes.

Summer Me also has a handle on my laundry and my dishes. Summer Me has clean floors. Summer Me is experimenting with new hairstyles and takes the noon yoga class more than once a week.

It is mind blowing how much school takes over my life, my personality, my perspective. I love my job. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. But it is nice to have these few weeks every year to recharge, to reconnect with what might actually be the Real Me.

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On Being Old

It was almost twenty years ago to the day that I donned a white graduation robe and marched out onto the field to the tune of Pomp and Circumstance, wearing no shoes and a sweet pair of Lennon-style shades.

How can that be? How can I be at this milestone already? Weren’t there myriad other things I meant to accomplish by now?

I am good enough at math, both actual arithmetic and the more complex mathematics of crow’s feet and regret, to have known this day was approaching, but I still find myself jarred when students tell me their birthdays were in 1998 or when someone shows me a picture of Kurt Cobain’s daughter and she looks like this:

image

It does not seem possible to me that, by the proverbial inexorable progression of time, I have become so far removed from the experience of my students. But I have.

When I graduated from high school I did not have an email account. My car did not have a radio and I rode around with a boom box, which like that of Radio Raheem, ran on D batteries. Cigarettes, which I reprehensibly smoked in aforementioned car, were around $2 a pack and Biggie had not yet released Ready to Die. It was a simpler time.

We got jobs. Easily and quickly. We quit them and got more jobs. The economy was booming. And the average total cost of a year of college was $5,625.

All of which makes me wonder what on earth I have to say about life to a roomful of seniors this fall. Their world is a tad different from mine at their age. They carry phones in their pockets upon which they can speak, text, listen to music, surf the web, exchange message and videos, take photographs, and create art. College tuition rates have doubled, but the national minimum wage has only increased by $3 an hour (a non-comparable increase of about 70%). Jobs are still scarce, despite the desperately hopeful monthly reports from the Department of Labor. And jobs for unskilled high school graduates are scarcer still, and abysmally unfulfilling.

But there are some things which are never going to change. The expressions on their faces at graduation. The way they laugh with their friends. They still come to school tired. They still become indignant at perceptions of inequity. They still feel passionate about bands and sports teams. They still fall unhesitatingly in love.

So, what can I say when I meet my classes in the fall? What I have always said, I guess. “In here you will work hard. You will read a lot and write a lot and talk a lot. Ask questions when you do not understand. Never give up. Be creative. Have fun.”

Because those activities, learning and thinking and trying one’s best, they never go out of style.