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.

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.

Grateful in 2012

This time last year I anxiously awaited 2012, also known as the year of the Dragon in Chinese astrology.  As a fire Dragon, I fully anticipated this to be MY year.  Dragons are known for being rather lucky, and really, who can be luckier than a Dragon in its year?  However, the year of the Dragon is a tumultuous one, fraught with changes and upheaval. No one escapes unscathed… even Dragons.

2012 did give me a year of fortune and luck. I have a loving family and husband. I went to Palm Springs (three times), Michigan, Chicago, and New York; I took four students to London and Paris and brought them all back.  I started this blog, got back into writing, and met wonderful people from all over the world.  I have a job I love with an administration and staff that supports my goals.  I coach our school’s Academic Decathlon team and advise our Book Club, Health Careers Academy, and Adventure Club.  As a result, I spend a lot of time with students who give me a lot of hope for our future.  Then there are my own students who bring me many smiles and laughs.  In their reflections of the class, a few wrote about how they learned to love reading.  As an English teacher, is there any higher compliment?

2012’s upheavals served to remind me how lucky I am.  In February, my cat Toby fell ill and we were quite sure we’d have to say goodbye to him; fortunately, after a weekend at the vet’s, he came home more chipper than ever.  In April my MIL fell and broke her hip.  This resulted in a full hip replacement and pelvic reduction and exposed a whole host of other issues.  Anyone who has a stubborn, fiercely independent aging parent in complete denial about her bad health and habits knows what we’re up against.  There were many tense moments at home as my husband tried to acquire care for her even though he is 400 miles away.  Right now everything is “stable”– whatever that means.  Meanwhile, my health went bonkers with recurring bouts of getting sick (ie. vomiting) that landed me in the ER, my doctor’s office a few times, and the gastro-entologist.  We’re still pursuing tests to find the root of the problem.  Next up is my colon (yay.).  The most recent tests revealed that I am anemic, which helps explain my lethargy and constant need for sleep.  Oftentimes, I come home from work, take a nap, eat dinner, and go back to bed; hence, no blogging.

2012 taught me how to be grateful for everything I have.  I am grateful for my husband who takes care of me and makes me laugh.  I am grateful for my family who is always there for me.  I am grateful for my friends who all inspire me.  I am grateful for my cats, Toby and Molly, who melt my heart.  I am grateful for my job and my students.

I am also grateful for all of the readers who read my work regularly and those who stop by every now and again.  Thank you for making this so much fun.

Happy New Year!

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.”

Sigh.

“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.

Shooting Star Or Falling Star?

The traffic moved steadily down the highway yesterday morning as the sun made its ascent from behind the Sierra Nevadas.  It’s a dramatic sight to see the rugged silhouette edging above the mist-laden countryside.  The sky lightened into its pinks, oranges, and periwinkles.  The scene allows for quiet reflection of how lucky I am to witness dawn’s arrival– it’s a time to embrace a new beginning.  Yet, I was not embracing new beginninings; I wondered instead if maybe I should have called in a sub and stayed home.   Did I really have the energy to make it through another day?  Fatigue and exhaustion creaked in my bones.  News of my friends’ personal tragedies, setbacks, and questioning weighed on my mind and heart.  In the past two weeks I shared tears with three friends and colleagues, and many of my students were also on the verge of tears.  Many of us, it seemed, were barely hanging on.  In that moment on my drive a meteor shot across the sky.

Meteors are also known by the more fanciful names of shooting stars or falling stars.  After watching its bright light pierce the sky, I wondered if it was an auspicious sign of fortune– was it something I wished on?  A sign of hope and potential of shooting towards goals and destinations?  Or was it an omen? A sign of falling , burning out, extinguishing from shining so bright for so long?  It symbolized the crossroads that many of us are in.

A broken clock greeted me as I walked into my room.  My failing LCD projector that I need to use my clickers and document reader, to show film versions of Othello and Pride and Prejudice, and to have my students present their power point presentations, said “Hi ya!” from its defunct perch on my ceiling.  My sluggish computer groaned its greeting as it half-heartedly opened my grade book.  The stack of essays panted like a hyperactive Pomeranian jumping at my heels, “Read me! Read me!”  As always I restrained my impulse to kick them.  My whiteboard petulantly demanded the opening activity, and I resisted throwing my dry-erase markers at it.  My overhead projector gloated over the fact that it was the only piece of technology that actually worked correctly; we all know how riveting overhead transparencies marred with my messy handwriting are.  I won’t even go into  the mechanizations that are happening outside my classroom and campus that are working to change our school.  Do I sound bitter and burned out?

There’s one factor that can save teachers from burn out: students. Teachers can list all of the things that suck about their job: lack of technology, aggressive/indifferent parents, poor morale, testing, grading, etc.  There is always one big BUT that saves us: the “but my students are great.”  Yesterday it was my students who carried me through.  They have been working hard for me all year, but yesterday was just one of those special days.  My history students embraced the Spanish-American War news-cast assignment.  They excitedly planned their roles, asked if they could bring in props (including a fog machine), one group wanted to borrow my swords that I use for Othello, and one student, who is the most disengaged, proudly told me that she was going to be Commodore Dewey.   They wrote me nice notes in their self-assessments.  My TAs made me a nice poster and hung it on my cupboard doors as a surprise.

My seniors used their time to review for their exam by reading their notes quietly.  One came up to me and verbally told me all that he had learned (which turned out to be everything).  As some began to finish early, I wrote a quote from Othello, which we will begin next week, on the board and asked them to write a reflection on it.  They quietly got our their pens and paper and uncomplainingly responded to: “Oh, monstrous world!  Take note! Take note!/ O world, to be direct and honest is dangerous!”.  I walked around the room, read some of their responses, wrote my response and questions to their thoughts, and they continued writing to answer those questions.  The amazing thing about this is that I said not a word– all of this happened in silence as we all showed respect to those still taking the exam.  Those who used the entire class time for the test scribbled down the quote to respond to it over the weekend.  It was a teacher’s dream.

Their actions showed me that while I was tired and worn-out, I was not yet burned out.  How could I burn out when my students still burn brightly for knowledge and thought? When they still strive for improvement?  It was one of those days where I saw myself and my students as a meteor shower of shooting stars– reaching, striving, ready to make our mark on the world.

Green Converse

Converse (or Chuck Taylor’s, if you will) have been an important part of my life for a long time.  Steve and I were both wearing Converse when we met, and everyone knew that when they saw a little pair of Converse walking their direction that it was me.  Recently in London I bought myself a new black pair as a souvenir and brought them home to join my white, blue, and grays.  But it’s my green pair that mean the most to me.

I bought my green pair when I first started teaching, because they were the school colors (white, black, and green).  Even though they were on clearance, I debated buying them.  There were numerous doubts in my head: Should I spend the money when I didn’t know how long I’d be at my school?  What if this was my last year?  What if I wasn’t asked back?  Would I be stuck with a green pair of Converse– a color I normally don’t wear?Would these shoes be ridiculous?  Would I be trying to hard to have school spirit?  Would the kids laugh at me?  It’s weird what we remember, but I remember being in that shoe store pondering them.  Purchasing those shoes seemed too hopeful, and I didn’t want to toy with hope only to get its evil twin, disappointment.

Feeling like a girl going to school the first day of wearing a training bra, I wore my green shoes.  One of the assistant principals waxed nostalgic when she saw them and later on dug up an old pair and wore them to school.  The kids began showing me their Converse when they wore them to school, and a couple of years later, another teacher purchased her green pair.  That year I was not let go, but  wasn’t officially invited back either.  Instead it was an assumption that I would just return.  Driving away for summer break I felt odd– I had worked so hard to make that transition from sales to teaching in such a short amount of time (for example, I decided to become a teacher in March, got accepted into a credentialing program in April, quit my sales job on July 4th, and began teaching on July 26th).  Now all I had to do was enjoy myself for nine weeks and then go back and show up.

It’s always a new day at school.

But it’s weeks like this one that makes me realize how far I’ve come from being that doubting, anxiety-ridden teacher (though I am still both, but about other things).  Here are some things that occurred this week:

Observations: This week I had two observations.  One was by my vice principal and the other by a leadership team.  Before I would have been on-edge and nervous, trying to make my class as perfect as could be.  Now, I’m not bothered by it.  My vice principal and I shot the breeze while my kids did pair-shares.  While the leadership team observed my students, my kids just went about their business like they weren’t even there.  Everyone did what they were supposed to do, and they made me very proud.

Maintaining my temper: I can have a very bad temper, and I don’t mince words when I’m angry.  In the past, I have gotten emotional and let my feelings overtake me.  It doesn’t do much except freak out the kids. The biggest struggle has been to rein in my feelings.  There were times this week when I had to quietly and calmly reassert my authority.  There is much more power in staying calm.  There is also much more power in getting angry less, so when it does happen, it packs a punch.

Letting my kids out: My seniors have been working on media analysis all week by studying rhetorical appeals and advertising techniques.  Yesterday and today they’ve been working on creating a PSA power about how to be a successful student using the appeals and techniques.  Normally I have my students post their work around school, but this time they are presenting their posters to freshman and sophomore classes.  On Monday they will break up into small teams and each team will visit a specific classroom.  There are eight teachers who are allowing my students to present to their class.  Once my students heard they were presenting, my students stepped up their work, created scripts, and are planning to dress professionally (this is extra credit, but I don’t mind giving it since they look so cute dressed up).  Before I would have never let my students out of my sight, and now I’m letting them go present elsewhere.

Clubs:  Advising a club used to give me anxiety.  I advised the Red Cross Club one year, and while we had some fun, the experience was just negative. There was a lot of needless drama, and I don’t do drama.  The last couple of years I have advised clubs that are more my speed: Book Club and Academic Decathlon.  In Book Club, I was the co-advisor.  The main advisor was quite mothering and took care of a lot of their needs as a club; she is now retired.  Through her doting, the leadership team did not have to do much.  The club has mostly been filled with wishy-washy kids.  They can’t make up their minds to save themselves (they’d have to decide if they want to be saved first).  Now that the club is mine, this drives me bonkers, and I want the leadership to do more…. leading.  I suggested this as an area of improvement, and they agreed.  They are slowly gaining more leadership and making decisions.

In the meantime, my Academic Decathlon club has a new president, who is by far, way smarter than I am.  I have also heard stories about how she can take charge of classes, push the teacher aside, and teach the students herself.  So, I assumed my role would be relegated to pushing the power point button.  I am, quite frankly, in awe of her.  This past week they practiced algebraic equations on my whiteboards, while I stayed safely on the sidelines, unnerved at all of the numbers, lines and symbols appearing before me.  The only chart my board has ever know is a plot diagram.  She was in charge the entire time, and I felt superfluous walking around making sure everyone was signed in.  She blew my role as benevolent host after the meeting as she debriefed me on the meeting and asked for my feedback on how I thought it went.  It was nice to know that she cares about what I thought.

All Aboard!: Last summer for the first time I took students to London and Paris.  We had a blast.  It inspired me to put together another trip for next summer to Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales.  If you told me when I first began teaching that I would take kids overseas, I probably would have said, “Yeah, right,” and cited Liam Neeson’s film Taken as a reason to not to do so.  Neeson, shmeeson.  The kids and I are itching for our next take-off.

Drawing my Chinese, Cambodian, Vietnamese “twin” did of the five of us in Europe. Stewart’s in there, too.

Throughout all of my changes and growing pains, my green converse have been right there with me.  They remind me of where I started, where I am now, and how many paths I have yet to walk.