Inspire That Student! (To Do Something! Anything!)

To hear some people tell it, all teachers need to inspire and motivate students is to clearly state the day’s standard and objective. Students will obviously feel energized knowing what it is they are responsible for and will work diligently to “Create equations in two or more variables to represent relationships between quantities; graph equations on coordinate axes with labels and scales” or “Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.”

The sad truth of the matter is, besides the standards sounding really boring, many of our students do not have the vocabulary to understand what the standards mean. However, that is for another blog post. The happy truth of the matter is that most students are nice little worker bees who want to do well (or at least slide by) and respond to the objectives. They also respond to the lesson plans and classroom management expectations; they may even go so far as to catch the teacher’s enthusiasm and love of the subject– all of the things that help motivate and inspire them. But what about those other bees? You know, the “lazy” bees, the “screw you and Jane Austen” bees, and the “I don’t care what you do, I’m not gonna do it” bees? Every year they fly into the classroom, and instead of squashing them as we are tempted to do, we have to get them to make honey. We live with the knowledge that they don’t/won’t. And it stings.

So what do we do to motivate and inspire them? I mean beyond calling home, setting up appointments with school counselors, and setting up an IST. My school in particular is on its journey to becoming a Professional a Learning Community (PLC) to help strengthen instruction, collaboration, and response to intervention, but the full implementation is a few years out (this is a slow process). How do teachers, as individuals, get students to do something (and maybe learn a thing or two)?

It’s a crapshoot, really. In my experience those who don’t do anything have reasons for doing so that go beyond the classroom walls and have problems much greater for one teacher to bear. This doesn’t preclude that we just give up, and it also doesn’t preclude that once we reach a spark, that the student will be suddenly transformed. It’s a day by day process, and I try to celebrate each success in the moment knowing that tomorrow could land me back at square one. The kicker is finding that spark.

I teach US History, but I hate packet work and work sheets. Instead I have my students write paragraph responses, read primary documents, do creative projects, and analyze and respond to document-based questions among other things. In one class I have two boys–both who refused to do the work. One flat out told me that he didn’t like it and wasn’t going to do it. He then criticized me for not having a packet; a packet is easier, why do I have to make things so hard, blah, blah, blah. We both left that discussion heated and upset. I stewed. How dare he, that lazy bum, criticize me and my teaching when he does nothing, NOTHING? I bet, I thought, he wouldn’t even do a packet if I made one! Yeah, that’s what I’ll do! I’ll make him a packet! Then what will he have to complain about? That afternoon I made him a packet. The next morning when he sat at his desk, I plopped the packet in front of him. “Here.” I said, “Here is your packet.” He picked up the offensive packet gingerly in his hands and gave me a wide-eyed gaze. “You made me a packet?” he asked, “Thank you.”

While I thought I had been calling his bluff, he really wanted a packet. We decided that I was still going to teach the way I planned, but he would work out of the book and do packets. This requires him to bring his book everyday even when the rest of the class doesn’t need it. He is still a lazy kid who still tries to beat the system and has violated my trust, but he slowly does his work and cares about passing the class, because he knows there’s a chance.

The other boy called my class a “farce”. I didn’t know whether I should be annoyed or impressed. However, I did know that the response was aimed to blame me for his inactions. I had asked him why he didn’t answer the essay portion of the test (when I knew he knew the answers) in order to determine what we could do so he could do better next time. He flatly refused to do anything, but with the attitude that he was too good for my farce of a class. But he would talk to me. We share a love of reading and the classics. He constantly checks out books from the library and shares his opinions with me. The one thing we would not discuss is history.

One day he decided to write a poem for the library’s poetry contest. He kept telling me about it. The day he finished it I tentatively asked if I could read it. He said yes, so I asked if he would allow me to comment on it, and yes again. It was quite good. I highlighted the especially poetic phrasing and made comments on how he could tighten up areas. After class we discussed it in order for him to understand why I made the suggestions I did. He submitted it to the competition and received a positive response. Wanting to capitalize on his new found interest, I asked if he would consider writing poems about what we were studying in class. He thought that an “interesting prospect”. After a couple of days on his own, he finally asked for help and guidance, “I don’t know where to begin.” With the rest of the class working independently, he and I discussed Shakespearean sonnets and how to write one. He took down notes, asked questions, and looked up some sonnets on-line. Once he felt like he had a grasp of the sonnet form, he cracked open his text book and started to read. That night he wrote a sonnet on Imperialism and then another just for fun.

My students had to do a creative project at the end of the semester, so he chose to do a poetry book. He wrote four sonnets, two villanelles, and a sestina covering the themes learned so far in American history. The room took on the feel of an author reading as he pulled a chair up to the front of the class and began reciting his work. He read well and with passion; the class was floored. His face beamed with pride at their applause.

Both of these ways to get these boys to work are flukes; there’s nothing in the teacher guide that says “give the kid the packet” or “teach history through sonnets”. My class is still not rainbows and kittens. There are other students who weigh on my mind, and I wonder if I will find that spark in them during the last semester of school. One has told me that he prefers summer school, because, “Ms. L, the teachers are so chill, they don’t care what you do, and it’s so easy.” I don’t know what I am going to do about him. Another responded to my request for suggestions for things to do once we get back from break: “I don’t like creative projects. I like book reports and essays.” Hm. It looks like my students will all be reading more next semester.

Teachers: What do you do to find that spark in your unmotivated students? I’d like to hear about your experience.

It’s The Little Things

There are ten days of school left, and if I were any good at math, I’d break it down to the hours, minutes, and seconds. But who’s counting?

Okay. I’ll be honest. The teachers are counting. And we’re counting hard.

This time of year is the hardest. We’re busy. We’re tired. There’s so much to be done and no energy or enthusiasm to do it. We’re completely enervated. Yet, we cannot curl under our desk and hide from the students. We’re on. All of the time. The kids come in and complain about work and offer their unsolicited wisdom: “Hey, Ms. L, do you know what you could do to make your class more enjoyable?”. A part of me dies inside because I cannot respond, “Do you know what you could do to be more enjoyable in the class?”.

Then there’s graduation and all of the kids that teachers wrote letters of recommendation for and did not receive any recognition of gratitude (unless you consider a breezy “thanks” as they saunter out the door with the letter you slaved an hour or two over, dredging your memory for the times they shone in class). And then there’s the AP students who get accepted to prestigious universities, but who also did not take the AP exam after promising you they would. And the student who continuously fails and does not use the rope you continually toss to him to save himself. He prefers to drown instead. Or when you suggest to students to voluntarily write a letter to a teacher–any teacher–for teacher appreciation week and the students’ response is, “I’ll do it for extra credit.” I won’t go into the multitudinous emails and meetings that eat up energy and time. Or how people who don’t teach think they know everything about teaching. Or the stack of papers that need to be graded that miraculously regenerates itself: it never goes away.

There’s a lot that brings us down, makes our hair gray, and deepens our crow’s feet. But there are quiet moments in the class that give a glimmer of hope and catches us off guard. The boy who was scolded for doing a lackadaisical job on his study guide raising his hand and asking for me to check his work on the new study guide. It reveals vast improvement. The boy who seemed like he was humoring me all term suddenly asking, quite earnestly, if I was going to read his name at graduation. The students who did take the AP test excited because they could apply the baptism archetype and students at other schools had been stymied by the same prompt. The unexpected thank you note from a former student who ignores me when he sees me in the hall. The parent who, after the Senior Awards Night, invited me to join the family for dinner.

Teachers don’t need Starbuck’s gift cards, t-shirts, big signs, or coffee mugs to get through the day (but I will admit, chocolate helps a lot). We don’t want an award or fanfare. It’s the signs of life in our students– their displays that they care: about their work, their learning, and even on occasion, their teachers. Anything really that shows that we’re getting through to them. It’s the little things that count.

Of Cats and Kids

It was very tempting to turn around, go home, and just not go to work. All of the signs pointed to a bad day ahead, beckoning me to heed their advice and call it quits. First off, my toilet over-flowed. Water streamed over the back rim as if it were fulfilling its dream of being an infinity pool. It quickly spread over the floor reaching all corners of the room. I scrambled for bath towels to mop it all up. The floor newly cleaned, I made my way to work.

Driving down the semi-country road, I saw it coming: a streak of black hell bent on getting to the other side of the road. I watched in horror as I tried to slow my car and swerve out of its way; my heart clenching inside of my chest as I tried to will the cat to stop. The thwack against my bumper was inevitable and I shot a glance into my rear view mirror and saw its black body twist and convulse against the asphalt. Shocked, I tried to collect myself–I had to go back. I was afraid of what I might see and the damage I caused. I pulled over to the curb and went to his body. His stomach rose and fell in quick succession: he was alive! His face was badly mangled and bloody. I found a piece of plastic in my trunk and carefully placed his body on it, put him on the floor of my car and took him to a nearby vet.

The vet tech hurried him into the back where the team of doctors could run tests and x-rays. The receptionist asked me questions. I sobbed. The cat wore a collar. He was somebody’s pet. Images of his bloody face and his concerned family wondering where he was– maybe he was a child’s favorite — haunted me.

“Okay, I have all of the information I need for the Good Samaritan report,” the receptionist chirped.

I stared at her, bewildered, “I didn’t find the cat. I HIT the cat.”

Distraught, I made my way to work. The only reason I continued to go was the fact that two of my classes were trying the new Common Core tests on chrome books, and after much training and preparation, today was the day to implement the test. I was not looking forward to it. I didn’t want to deal with the test, the chrome books, or the kids. The way my day was going, the Wifi would short out, the tests would freeze, and kids would riot. Not only that, but people from the district office were going to be on-hand to help out. Just what I needed, witnesses to the melt-down.

There’s a funny thing about kids; they’re like your pets in that they sense when you’re upset and try to make it better. One wrote me a poem accompanied with a Kit Kat bar. Another told me about how she watched Pride and Prejudice and loved it. Another connected Julius Caesar to Sex and The City. As we read the play, my “actors” tried to read with feeling. One boy brought cookies for our AP review. One former student came up to me holding something out in his hand, “It’s a lucky penny. I found it and it’s for you.” Another boy, seeing that I was upset, started monitoring the class and quieting everyone down. I didn’t tell them about the cat and had tried my best to be neutral, but they sensed it and tried to make things better.

The testing? For once everything worked. The helpers from the district? They wanted to see my duck collection and learn all about it.

The cat? I called the vet to hear how he was (if he was). “He’s alive, but I can’t tell you any more.” That’s okay. That’s all I needed to know.

Bring It!

It’s happening again.  Yes.  Again.  As a matter of fact, it will happen this, of all days, Friday.  I will wake up before the dawn, reacquaint myself with near-forgotten rituals such as doing my hair and putting on my make-up, leave my house as the neighborhood sleeps, cruise through my commute, unlock my classroom, and welcome students.  Yes.  It’s the first day of school.  And I say, “Bring it.”

After a taxing, trying 2012-2013 school year during which I experienced a mystery illness that left me weak, sore, and anemic; burn-out; and a strong desire to sleep– so much so that I would pass out at my desk on my prep period only to come home and pass out again.  I trained a student in each class to call the school secretary just in case I had to run out of the room for an “emergency”, and one day I had to run out of a meeting because of an “emergency” (as one student said, “You drove all the way to work just to vomit?  That sucks.”)  My response to my very good students, who I was very lucky to have during this time, slowly deteriorated to, “Me-no care-oh” (translated: “I don’t care what you do, just turn it in.”).  Doctor’s appointments and going home sick impeded my ability to be a good advisor to my book club and my Academic Decathlon team.  The kids had to rearrange their schedules and find other teachers who could take over for the day.  Once again, the AcaDec materials weren’t ordered correctly (cough, cough, district office, cough, cough), and we didn’t get our materials until late October.  Competition is in January. I questioned myself.  I knew I was not the teacher or advisor I could be, but I couldn’t muster the energy to be that person.

My questioning deepened after I attended a Common Core Conference in Monterey and the keynote speaker, Kate Kinsella, chastised teachers who had pictures of the Eiffel Tower and posters of kittens dangling by a paw from a tree that say, “Hang in there!”.  There is no place in the classroom for these non-academic distractors!  My co-workers gasped, glancing my way.  In lieu of the Eiffel Tower, there is a big poster of Central Park over my desk, next to my Kandinsky poster, over my Warhol Marilyn Monroe -inspired rubber ducky picture.  There are no posters of kittens, but there is one of a silly-looking frog that says, “A day without laughter is a day wasted.”  This doesn’t take into account all of the rubber ducks that line my desk and cupboards, the student art, my travel postcards, and the cutouts of Toy Story characters that had been on a Kleenex box.  One of my TA’s cut them out once it was empty and made me a collage.  My room was clear, undeniable evidence that I was not A Serious Teacher.  Fortunately, Kinsella also alienated every other teacher in the room by telling us to do our “damn jobs” and implored Social Studies teachers to actually teach kids something.  However, once made, the wound was slow to heal.

It was a challenging year.  Too tired to be creative or care too much, I stopped blogging.  There was nothing really to say except express my own uncertainty.  I turned to my books and novels.  I read and read and read.  There just didn’t seem to be enough words that I could gobble up.  I did not want to write or create.  My book clubs with my friends were the  life lines that kept me afloat.  They forced me to not recede to wherever it was that I could possibly go.  My husband, stymied by the fact that I requested white bread, made me endless bowls of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.  During my two-week spring break, I broke tradition and stayed home.

Slowly, the universe shifted.  I learned that I would be teaching AP Literature the 2013-2014 school year.  The fact that I was chosen to teach it was a boost to my self-esteem as an educator, but I was still plagued with doubt.  I still smarted from Kinsella’s implication that I am not a Serious Teacher and considered ways to make my classroom more “academic”– befitting of an AP teacher.

The universe, it seemed, wasn’t done with me yet.  One day I sat reading my students’ personal statements, allowing me to glimpse into their real lives and thoughts.  One student wrote about her two inspiring teachers: her Spanish teacher and…. me.  She wrote about how much I encouraged her and challenged her, and blah, blah, blah.  “Is she trying to butter me up and get an “A”?” I asked myself.  The next line proved that she was not: “In Ms. L’s room she has a poster of Central Park over her desk.  I look at it everyday.  This inspires me to do well and be successful in life so I can go visit wonderful, magical places in the world like Central Park.”  With tears welled up in my eyes, I decided that Kate Kinsella could suck it.  My student, on the other hand, earned her “A”. And a hug.

As I was leaving on the last of school, I glanced in the mailroom.  There, on the floor, was a delivery from the US Academic Decathlon.  My materials for this upcoming year arrived– early.

After a positive end to the school year, gaining back my health and energy, much collaboration for cross-curricular teaching with a history teacher, much fun in Ireland, the UK, and Michigan, much learning at the AP training, and planning a curriculum that includes short stories, poetry, Like Water for Chocolate, Oedipus The King, Death of a Salesman, Othello, Pride and Prejudice, Their Eyes Were Watching God, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, and John Trimble’s Writing With Style:A Conversation on the Art of Writing, I am ready for this school year.

Follow The Leader

Our destination for our morning hike in Wales.
Our destination for our morning hike in Wales.

You might be hard pressed to determine how an early morning hike up Welsh hills, dotted with wildflowers and contented sheep, to ancient castle ruins could inspire anger, but inspire anger it did. It was hardly the setting that made me angry– I was hiking in Wales!  To ruins!  Nor was it the exertion of charging up the hill; nor was it the early start.  The blue sky peeked through the gray clouds, and the sun hovered in the distance.  The company that surrounded me was charming and equally enthusiastic.  My anger was the anger of “what-might-have-been”.

You see, it was the fifth morning of a sixteen day tour through Ireland and Great Britain, and this hike was not on our itinerary.  Daniel, our tour director and outdoor enthusiast, saw opportunity to offer this trek, and offered to guide us up to the ruins.  He could have opted to sleep in, but why stay in the hotel when you’re in Wales?  The night before, unable to take us out and about Llangollen, he asked if I would lead a walk along the River Dee that coursed through the town.  I didn’t really lead, but I had the map and directions from the guy at the front desk and away we went.  Again, why stay in the hotel?  In Killarney, Daniel found us venues playing live music, and in Dublin, he took those of us that did not want to go back to the hotel just yet to Temple Bar.  We weren’t just going to tour Ireland and Great Britain, we were going to experience it.

Enjoying the ambience of Temple Bar in Dublin.
Enjoying the ambience of Temple Bar in Dublin.

Flashback to a year ago when I took four students to London and Paris, and this is where the anger sets in.  Our tour director for that adventure happened to have lived in both cities, but instead of giving him a wealth of knowledge of fun things to do and check out, he was befuddled, lost, and unenthusiastic. He was a slave to our itinerary, didn’t tell us any information about what we were seeing, and seemed out of his depth.  He got us lost, and when he finally opened up to talk to us, no one wanted to listen to him.  My group and I had a good time because of our own initiative and our enjoyment of each other’s company.  But as I walked up the Welsh hills, I reflected on this time and wondered, “What did we miss out on?”  What could have we seen or done had we had an enthusiastic leader with a “the world is your oyster” attitude?

This experience, like most experiences, reminded me of the classroom, our role as teachers, and our power to set the tone in our classrooms.  This isn’t rocket-science, but it was good reminder how our own enthusiasm , flexibility, and willingness to try new things pushes our students to adopt the same attitude.  Daniel wanted us to have meaningful experiences as a group and individually.  He offered us a hike from William Wordsworth’s home at Rydal Mount to the next town.  Seeing first-hand what Wordsworth saw and walked through everyday gave me a greater appreciation for the Romantic sensibility.  In Edinburgh, Daniel pointed the National Gallery out to me, because he knew I wanted to visit it during my free time.  As teachers, it is important to respect the class goals as a whole and those of individual students.  When we support everyone, everyone will rise.

Wouldn't you be a Romantic Poet if you lived here?  At Rydal Mount.
Wouldn’t you be a Romantic Poet if you lived here? At Rydal Mount.

This adventure was pretty amazing.  My mom joined me, and we had our first (and hopefully not last) overseas adventure together; one of my school’s counselors, Mary Jo, joined me, and we became good friends; Max, who went with me last year, accompanied me, and again we had more fun and laughs; and Maria, a quiet and reserved student, also came along, and it was wonderful to see her blossom, make jokes, and assert her independence.  Then all of the other group leaders and their groups were so much fun.  I now have friends in Florida, Houston, Tracy, and Colorado.  However, I doubt all of this would have been possible if we didn’t have such a good leader leading the way.

Fancy a row in Killarney National Park?
Fancy a row in Killarney National Park?
Looking across Lake Windermere, England's largest lake.
Looking across Lake Windermere, England’s largest lake.
Stewart and I with Vermeer's Christ in the House of Martha and Mary at Scotland's National Gallery.
Stewart and I with Vermeer’s Christ in the House of Martha and Mary at Scotland’s National Gallery.
Mary Jo, Daniel, me, and my mom enjoying our Rob Roy Specials (hot chocolate with brandy) on the Sir Walter Scott at Loch Katrine in the the Trossachs.
Mary Jo, Daniel, me, and my mom enjoying our Rob Roy Specials (hot chocolate with brandy) on the Sir Walter Scott at Loch Katrine in the the Trossachs.
Stewart, Jane, and I at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath.
Stewart, Jane, and I at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath.
My new friend, Angela, from Florida-- so much fun!
My new friend, Angela, from Florida– so much fun!
My new friend, Erika, with Stewart outside of the church where Shakespeare is buried.
My new friend, Erika, with Stewart outside of the church where Shakespeare is buried.
At the top of Calton Hill with Edinburgh in the background.
At the top of Calton Hill with Edinburgh in the background.
Haunting scene from Cashel Rock, Ireland.
Haunting scene from Cashel Rock, Ireland.
Mary Jo, Maria, Max, my mom, and I in front of Fort Ross (?) in Killarney National Park.
Mary Jo, Maria, Max, my mom, and I in front of Fort Ross/Ross Castle (?) in Killarney National Park.

Why I’m Jealous Of The Pencil Sharpener

Yesterday I wrote about a moment in my English class where a boy refused to be bested by my passive-aggressive pencil sharpener.  This event not only stuck in my mind because it was funny, but it gave me a feeling that I never thought I’d feel before: jealousy of my pencil sharpener.  I know this sounds like I’ve fallen to a new low, but let me explain.

Jerry, the subject of yesterday’s story, averages a low B in my class.  He could easily earn an A, but instead he spends class leaned back in his chair and complains to me about the work.  Half of the time he doesn’t look engaged, and the quality of his work leaves much to be desired.  The day he decided to tame my pencil sharpener he was motivated, focused, and engaged.  The sharpener gave him a challenge and frustrated him and put his pride at stake.  Jerry didn’t give up, nor did he give a half-hearted effort, and in the end, he succeeded. Granted, what he was doing wasn’t rocket science, but it is why he struggled so hard for the sharpener, but not for me, that gives me pangs of jealousy.

Building student motivation is a struggle for all teachers.  In a perfect world students would show up to our classrooms ready to learn– excited to learn rhetoric, analyze theme, practice using semi-colons, and write essays.  They would arrive with their homework completed, armed with thoughts to add to discussion, their textbooks, paper, and writing utensils.  For many students this is the reality. They work hard, learn the material, and really want to improve and do well.  For many others, they are content doing the very bare minimum and, some, nothing at all.  And it’s not like teachers are ignorant about what motivates students.  Every book about teaching will explain that motivation arises from building connections with students, stating lesson objectives, building lessons around their interests, showing how the information connects to what they have learned, will learn, and their life, providing timely and constructive feedback, being enthusiastic, and the list goes on.

All of these are great strategies and contribute to the overall ambience and expectations in the classroom.  But they’re not a panacea for motivating each and every student.  The tricky thing about motivation is that it’s personal and individual.  How was I to know that Jerry had a great motivation to work my pencil sharpener?  In reality, Jerry’s motivation is the least of my worries.  He does his work, asks questions, and we have a good rapport.  It’s the others I worry about.

One student of mine from a few years ago stands out.  I’ll call him Ford.  Ford was a lovable knucklehead who was failing all of his classes– including PE.  In my class he goofed off, wore his hat even though I asked him to take it off, never did his work.  His only motivation it seemed to me was to write rap lyrics and get me to call him by his “tag” name (his graffiti nom de plume).  In order to motivate him, I bantered with him, refocused his attention, stayed one step ahead of his antics and created lessons where he could write rap lyrics in connection to our readings.  We got along, but there was nothing on the production end although many of the other boys enjoyed writing and performing their rap songs.

One day there was meeting after school with his counselor, teachers, admin, and his father.  Since I had him in during the last period, I felt it was my responsibility to get him there.  He refused to go, told me his dad wasn’t going to show up, and worried that he would miss his ride home.  To convince me, he called his dad and had him tell me that he wouldn’t be there.  His father explained that something came up “last minute”, but he did tell me that Ford walked home everyday. Ford was shocked when I asked his dad if I could drive his son home after the meeting; he agreed.  With no out, Ford walked with me to the conference room.

The meeting was a revelation.  The only one who really seemed to be fighting for Ford to get back on track was the AP; everyone else seemed disengaged.  The AP spoke frankly to him about his behavior and the resources on campus to help him.  She peppered her talk with profanity, which he responded to.  She seemed to be the only one who had a modicum of his respect.  As he and I walked out of the meeting, I developed a plan of how he could be successful in my class.  He constantly “lost” his work, so I gave him a notebook to keep in class.  If his hat was near him, he would put it on; we agreed to keep in the cupboard during class.  We had a research project on American authors coming up, but I knew that he would be bored by them.  I agreed that he could research Tupac Shakur.

The result was astounding.  He started doing his work and following directions.  He proved that he had the skills to write and research.  He decided that he didn’t want to research Tupac, but Lil’ Wayne instead.  I told him that he had to build his case for Lil’ Wayne by showing me that he had info about him and a true desire to research him.  The next day he brought me a file folder of printed articles and song lyrics highlighted and organized.    Everyday as he walked into class he told me of new information and connections he discovered.  Even my over-achievers were impressed.

I wish I could finish this story with accolades of his finished product, but there was no finished product.  He was expelled.  You can imagine my level of disappointment.  I was disappointed in him for not transferring his good behavior to his other classes.  I was disappointed in his father who showed that his son was not a priority.  I was disappointed in his other teachers for not cultivating an area of success for him (this is pure assumption on my part, but I was disappointed all the same).  I was disappointed by the fact that for all of the motivation I could help bring about in him, it still competed with the negative influences outside of school.

So when I see my pencil sharpener, without exerting any effort on its part, motivate a student to succeed at doing something, I get a little bit jealous.

Jerry Versus The Pencil Sharpener

Public Enemy #1
Public Enemy #1

Jerry’s body language told me that he was bored.  Heck, I was bored.  Unlike him, who had his face planted on the top of his desk and was probably taking a nap, I was at the front of the class reviewing the syllabus and classroom procedures.  I wanted to take a nap, too.

“This is the in-box– turn your work in here.  This is the out-box– once your work is corrected, it’ll be here.  This is my desk.  Don’t touch it,” I explained as I made my way to the pencil sharpener, “And this is the pencil sharpener.  If you need your pencil sharpened, ask me to do it.  It doesn’t like students.”

Jerry lifted his head sharply, giving me a look that clearly said, “What the hell?!”.  Ah, he was paying attention.

The pencil sharpener is a run-of-the-mill shiny silver dial-a-hole, crank-handle model mounted to the side of a cupboard.  There’s nothing that separates it from the hordes of sharpeners the world over, except that the user has to earn its respect.  For the last six years it has taken fiendish delight breaking, eating, or just flat refusing to sharpen my students’ pencils.  It can turn a brand new Ticonderoga into a stub in no time flat.  Students, who have learned their lessons the hard way, just give me their pencils and watch in awe as I return it to them sharp and gleaming.

One day as we worked on imagery and figurative language posters, Jerry brought me an orange colored pencil and asked if I’d sharpen it.  He watched me closely as I inserted the pencil, cranked the handle, and returned it to him.  As far as he could tell, I used the sharpener the exact same way he was taught how to use it way back in kindergarten.  He looked at the sharpener.  He looked at me.

“I can do this.  I can use this sharpener!” he exclaimed.

“Oh really?,” I retorted, smiling at him, “You want to take on the pencil sharpener?”

He nodded his head, “Yeah.  There’s nothing special about this.”

“Go for it,” I challenged.

He marched back to his group and grabbed two more pencils and marched back.

“Now watch this,” he said as he thrust the first one in, cranked, and pulled it out.  The pencil emerged, its round wooden tip formed a cave around where the lead should have been. “What the…?!”

I grinned up at him as I took the pencil out of his hand and expertly returned it to him healthy and whole, “As I said.  It doesn’t like students.”

Jerry gave me a look meant to wither me.  This had escalated from a mild skirmish to an all out war.  Nothing was going to get the best of him– especially not his pipsqueak of an English teacher and her demonic pencil sharpener.  And especially not in front of the entire class whose attention was now directed at this heated battle.

“Move aside,” he commanded as he tested his abilities on his second pencil.  He again cranked the handle.  A hollow sound emanated from the sharpener’s belly. “What!  It’s broken now!  It’s not even sharpening!”  He cranked some more.  It was clear the grinders hadn’t caught the pencil.  The class tittered.

“It can’t be broken. I just used it,” I replied as I took over.  It worked and sharpened the pencil.

He was stunned and visibly frustrated as the class laughed.  “Look,” he said as he glared down at me, “you’re crazy.  Your pencil sharpener’s crazy.  This is crazy.”

He marched back to his seat, plopped down, and crossed his arms.  He shook his head at me as I grinned and pet the pencil sharpener.

A couple of minutes passed.  He grabbed a yellow pencil and made his way toward me.  One of his classmates alerted everyone, “Look!  He’s going back!”

He stared down at me, rolling the pencil in between his fingers. “I’m going to do it, Ms. L. I’m going to sharpen this pencil.”

“By all means, please do,” I responded.

Shaking out his shoulders, he squared up to the sharpener.  He gave me nod; the class looked on in anticipation.  He placed the pencil inside, grabbed the handle, focused, and cranked quickly.  As if waiting for a sign, he suddenly stopped.  He pulled it out and there it was: just the curl of a wood shaving dangling from the pointy yellow tip.

He brought the top of the pencil up to his mouth like a tip of a gun and blew off the shaving. He smiled at me as the class burst into applause.

Slow Down, Casanova!

I think we can all agree that there is no such species quite as, well, unique, as the high school student.  Really, is there any being that can be so profound, yet so mystifying at the same time?  High school students teach us teachers a lot.  They teach us such edifying knowledge on how to use the computer, how to manipulate the thermostat, how to access pirated versions of The Dark Knight on the web (long story), and, most of all, how to dougie. Sometimes though, they go beyond the call of duty to teach you a lesson that transcends all others: how to woo your English teacher.

Wooing your English teacher takes a little more finesse than one might think.  It turns out that you can’t be like a besotted six-year old boy sitting next to his favorite camp counselor on the school bus and beam at her from departure to arrival.  Nor can you be like the college student visiting his instructor during office hours drenched in Drakkar Noir to describe how he lifted very heavy weights the night before.  No, these tactics won’t do.  Remember, these are devised by the teenage mind and are aimed at befuddling, bewildering, and beleaguering your beloved literature-lover and grammarian.

Now pay close attention to learn how you, too, can turn her heart away from the likes of Atticus Finch and Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy and make it your own.

Show Initiative: Even after you have disclosed your fear of public speaking to her, volunteer to present your project first.  She will remember you for your gallant and brave action.

Greet Her Everyday:  This is a very important step in making sure that she knows that you exist.

Say “Goodbye” To Her Everyday:  Just in case she didn’t notice you when you walked in the door to greet her, make a point to look her in the eye, and say goodbye.  If she’s trying to discuss an issue with another student, stand there, wait, and stare until she turns, looks at you, and says, “Do you have a question?”

Remind Her Of Your Outstanding Qualities: Your English teacher is most likely a very busy woman.  My, with all of those essays to read, lessons to plan, and lectures to write, she may become a little forgetful of the various ways that you have dazzled her in class.  Be sure to remind her, often, that you say “hi” and “bye” to her and that you courageously went first for the presentation– oh, and don’t forget the one time you passed out papers, too.

Render Her Speechless With Your Keen Observations Of Her Favorite Novel:  After you have read, discussed, written about, and  completed projects about your teacher’s absolute-most-favorite novel, ask her that one elusive question that has been burning in your brain, the mother of questions, the questions of all questions: “I don’t get it.  How could Darcy and Elizabeth love each other?  Like, they spend no time together.”  This will certainly stun her into silence as she stares at you in wide-eyed wonder.  She will for sure be brought out of this state of incredulity at your brilliance by another student who will revive her by suggesting, “Ignore him.  He’s a boy.  What does he know?”

Discuss Her All-Time Favorite Movie: 
Teachers like it when you go out of your way to learn about their interests or what’s going on in class.  Learn about the version of the film she plans to show in class and engage her in conversation like the following:

You: Are we watching the 2005 Keira Knightley version of Pride and Prejudice?

Teacher (smiling): Why, yes!  We are!

You: Yeah, I started watching it.

Teacher (interested in what you have to say): What did you think of it?

You: Yeah, I didn’t finish it.

Teacher: Why not?

You: It was boring. Yeah.

Trust me.  Follow this script and you will hit it out of the ball park.

Impress Her With Your Progressive Values And Gentlemanly Charm:  Make it a point to walk her to car on those days when you are leaving at the same time.  Take an interest in her outside life; ask her what she’s planning on doing that evening.  If she answers with some activity like “Write”, follow up with a question that values her interests, like, “Aren’t you going to make your husband dinner?”.  If she states that her husband is making dinner, wow her with your ideas of how you expect your wife to cook and clean so you will have to do nothing.

Show her that you are a teenage boy of your word.  When you see that she is carrying two heavy bags, offer to do nothing.

Always be a gentleman and escort her to her car– especially on the day when she’s carrying the two heavy bags, forgotten where she’s parked, and walked past it by forty feet.  At that point, let her know that her car is over there, behind her, and that you wondered why she walked right past it.  Your act of kindness will endear you to her greatly.

Last, But Not Least, Remind Her How Special She Is:  On the last day before break as everyone is scurrying out of the room, loudly proclaim, “Everyone else is not saying goodbye to you or wishing you a good break, but I am!”

There you have it: the sure-fire way to win your English teacher’s heart.  Sure, she may have an apple on her desk, but these strategies will make you the apple of her eye.

The One

One of the issues I’ve had this year is that I haven’t really connected to my seniors.  In general, I really like them all (well, most of them), but compared to last year’s graduating class that had so many students that I had spent so much time with and watch grow up, this year’s class just doesn’t inspire that “tug” in me.  So much so that I have been considering not going to this year’s graduation in May.  Graduation ends late in the evening, I live an hour away, and last year was so emotional that sitting it out is very appealing.  Maybe a couple of kids will be disappointed.  The prospect of not listening to “Pomp and Circumstance” again sat well with me.

But as always, there’s the “one”.

I met Xi by chance last year during sophomore state testing when students who were not being tested were sent to my room for study hall.  I did not know most of the students, but they made themselves at home and quietly studied.  Not Xi.  She came up to my cupboard and my desk to look at all of my pictures and ask me about all of them: Who was this girl in the prom dress?   Was she a good student?  How about that boy?  Is that a picture of you?  Is that your husband?  And on and on.  For two days we chatted, and afterwards I would say “hi” to her when I saw her on campus.

This year she’s my student in my English 12 class.  “I asked for you,” she informed me during the first week of school.  She has been a diligent student and continues to ask me all kinds of questions.  More than any other student, she has been in my class after school asking for help and feedback.  She read ahead during Pride and Prejudice and borrowed my new graphic novel version.  It is now well-worn.  Through the term she has shared her life with me– growing up as an immigrant, teaching herself at school since her parents don’t know English, and facts about her ever-shifting home life.  She stared at me horrified when I suggested that we beat the snot out of the printer when it wasn’t working, “Oh no, Ms. L, we can’t do that!”, and was visibly relieved when it finally produced her essay.  The printer would live to see another toner cartridge.  She has signed up to be my TA next term, and she has joined my book club and cried over the atrocities in Night.

She has personal tears to shed as her mother is currently in the last stages of cancer, and I’m not sure how much longer she will be around.  Xi has been very courageous and determined during this time by maintaining her school work and completing a demanding research project.  Her goal has been to make her family and her mother proud.

Today she let me know that she would be missing the rest of the week so she can spend time with her mom.  Redness tinged her eyes as she said, “My mom doesn’t look like my mother anymore.”  She got out her phone and showed me pictures of her and her mother in the hospital.  She held herself together until she had a realization.

Tears streaming down her cheeks, she whispered, “My mom won’t see me graduate.”

If ever I needed a reason to hear “Pomp and Circumstance” again, it is for Xi.

“And I Teach, Too.”

Monday morning I scanned my email’s inbox– still no word from the local librarian about the books-in-a-box sets I requested. Damn.  My school book club was going on two weeks with NO BOOK.  For my avid readers, this was like purgatory.  I glanced at the clock and figured I had ten minutes to run down to our school library and mine the back room for a selection.  They wanted a book that also had a movie adaptation.  The shelves proved lucrative: The Importance of Being EarnestA Raisin in the SunOctober Sky, The Diary of Anne Frank.  There were also several copies of Night, so I grabbed one of those, too.  There are plenty of holocaust films to pair with it.  I ran back to class just as the bell rang… just in time to teach.


“Ugh.  I hate that book,” said Oz as I pitched A Raisin in the Sun.  I plastered a smile on my face as I tried to make sympathetic noises.  Oz is my most negative book club member and seems to take delight in pointing out the worst in everything, even if it doesn’t exist.  Last year she informed us that she didn’t like any of us “not to be rude.” I calmed my nerves with happy thoughts of her impending graduation this year.

Sweet, mild-mannered Kate spoke up, “Um, Ms. L, I don’t like raisins.”  Sigh.

“This isn’t about raisins.  The title’s from Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem” in which he questions what happens to dreams when they are constantly deferred– put aside.  The line from the poem is ‘or do they (dreams) shrivel like raisins in the sun’?  There are no raisins.”

Kate seemed almost interested in the book, but stopped again, “Ms. L, you won’t put raisins in any cookies will you?”  I assured her that, no, I will not put any raisins in any cookies, cookies, cupcakes, or bread that I might bring for discussion.

Secretly I hoped they would choose The Importance of Being Earnest, a nice pleasant, funny read.  They voted for Night.


I checked my mail-box for the red Netflix envelope.  I sent the past movie back last week, and should have received the new one by Saturday.  Book Club and Adventure Club needed The Ring for our Tuesday Movie Night fundraiser.  Obviously, the mailman would have put it in my box today.  Shifting through the political fliers, ads, and bills, I found nothing.

I got back in my car and drove to Best Buy.


Tuesday. “Don’t you get discouraged?” Liz asked.  It was after our Academic Decathlon meeting, and Liz, the president of the club, was underwhelmed by our team.  Last year’s team was predominately made up of the class of 2012– a group of motivated, driven, extremely intelligent superstars who went on their way to Stanford, Berkeley, UC Davis, UOP, UCLA, and other UCs and state colleges.  The class of 2013 is, well, playing Jan to last year’s Marcia.  Liz wanted to know if teaching such students (she missed being in the class of 2012 by being born a few days late) made me frustrated.

“Yes and no.  It’s frustrating because I can’t teach at the level I want to teach, nor can I teach one of the books I want to teach.  However, I’ve been teaching the class of 2013 for a long time now– I had them as sophomores.  I had them as juniors.  I knew what was coming.  They’re like a storm, and I’m waiting it out.”

She sighed, “I want the club to do well, but I don’t think I can change them.”

“You can’t change them,” I replied.  Liz, a perfectionist, holds the same high standards that she has for herself for everyone else.  Compared to her, everyone including our best and brightest, come up short.  As the leader, she found the other members not excelling at the pace she expected.  As the advisor, I see students who come in and spend two hours every week practicing math or economics and practicing their speeches; I was impressed.  “You can only get to know them and find their strengths.  Work with what they have.  Don’t give up on the team.”


An hour and a half later as I attempted to get some grading done, Hal and Puty came in early to help me set up for movie night.  They shot the breeze by discussing their love of Pride and Prejudice, and Puty complained about not being in my class, for she loves Mr. Darcy, too.  Their conversation turned to Shakespeare as Hal reminisced about reading Othello.  Puty lamented at having to read Hamlet.

Hal glared at me, “Ms. L, why didn’t we read Hamlet?  It looks so interesting.  I wanted to read Hamlet!”

“I hate Hamlet,” I replied, pursing my lips.  Hal let out a shocked gasp and demanded to know why.

“Because he can’t make up his mind.  The ghost of his dead father tells him twice to kill his uncle, the man who murdered him, and Hamlet can’t decide if he should do it.  Geez, he can’t even decided if he wants to kill himself, ‘To be or not to be?!'”.  I followed this up with a five minute rendition of all the rotten things in Denmark, and ended it with, “And what happens at the end?!”  Both of them looked at me, “Everyone dies?”

“Yes!” I exclaim, “Everyone dies!  Because he can’t make up his mind!”

I looked over at Puty to get her approval, “Did I get it right?”

She shrugged her shoulders, “I don’t know. We’re starting it in a couple of weeks.”


“But what about the witches?  What part has the witches?,” Hal questioned.

“Witches?  Are you talking about Macbeth?”

“Oh!  It’s Macbeth!  That’s what I want to read!  Why didn’t we read that, Ms. L?”


An hour later, Tiny, the president of book club, watched the students lining up outside the theatre for what was to be the book and adventure clubs first really successful fundraiser.  The members had sold many pre-sale tickets, and now there were more lining up to watch The Ring.  She gasped, “Look at all of this!  We did it! We made it happen!  I’m so proud!”

She had a lot to be proud of.  The book club members are all quiet and shy wall-flowers.  Everything that they have done has been on a small scale.  This– using the school’s theatre, selling concessions, showing a horror flick– was all very big.  For them, it was momentous.


Nguyen, one of my two Adventure Club members, informed me that they probably wouldn’t be able to raise enough money to go on the trip to Ireland, Scotland, and England next year.  They wouldn’t be able to go.

“Well, that doesn’t mean that we still can’t have an adventure.  We’ve raised money.  We’ll raise more.  We’ll have a local adventure.  How about that?” I offered.

His face brightened, “I’ve never been to Washington, D.C.!”

“D.C. is fun, but I meant local, like in the state.” I refrained from saying “on this side of the Sierras.”

I could see his brain working for closer destinations.

“Nguyen, there is one stipulation.  No tourist traps.  This is an adventure.”


The new teacher towered over me.  Nguyen had recruited him to chaperone movie night, and it was my first time meeting him.

He looked around the crowded theater, “This is really great!  So how are you connected to the clubs?  What do you do?”

“I’m the book club and Adventure club advisor.  And I coach Academic Decathlon.  I’m also an advisor for HOSA.”

He stared at me, flabbergasted, “That’s like, what, four clubs?”

I nodded, “And I teach, too.”


Wednesday.  I opened the mailbox.  There it was: the red Netflix envelope.  The Ring.