Archives for category: Classroom

How do we prepare for the year?

I would like one day to ask a thousand teachers what is their ritual for beginning a new school year.  A stop at Staples?  A list of goals?  Mani and pedi?  A freezer full of portioned casseroles?

Image result for race horses starting gate

It’s a nervous time for us as we push ourselves into the starting gate.  Lots of stamping and snorting.  The odd nightmare.

I keep a folder in my desk at school with notes for Next Year.  Then I go and just walk around my classroom, thinking my thoughts, imagining the kids coming in on the first day.

This year’s big change is going to be cigar box cell phone garages.  I have my desks arranged in groups of 4.  Each group will have its own cigar box with a stout rubber band.  Part of the opening ritual will be for kids to take out their cell phones, silence them, and place them in the cigar box with the rubber band holding the lid down.  I can easily check to see they’re all there, out of reach.  Inaccessible.  Ha!  Take that, distraction!

We’ll see how it works.  I’ll let you know.  Today I will ask my AP Lit kids to read the article in The Atlantic about cellphones destroying a generation as an introduction to the cell phone garages.  What would be great is not just compliance but buy-in.  (Who am I kidding?  Even compliance would be great.  But if they could see for themselves that they have to find a way to put some limits on their social media and electronic connectivity, I would have improved their lives).

But the point is that for teachers, hope springs eternal.  THIS will be the year we get it all figured out!  This is the year that we break away, out in front, with the wind in our manes, kicking up the divots and feeling our power.

Image result for race horses starting gate

And we’re off!  May it be the best year ever.

Sometimes you see something and you know you’ll be talking about it in class one day.  This one struck me as highly useful.

Picture a beautiful summer day and I’m walking on a sidewalk on a quiet, not heavily traveled street, on my way back from walking the labyrinth.  Outside the Michener Museum, a car stops.  The driver, a woman on a cell phone, makes no effort to pull over and make room for another car, but there’s nobody behind her.  She is dropping off her daughter, as I supposed, who is in the passenger seat, texting or handling some kind of business.  Someone comes up behind them.  The two women don’t see that car.  The car waits a little bit, and then gives a little toot on the horn as it pulls around them.  The woman looks up from her phone and puts her hand out the window to give them the finger.  I hear both her and the daughter say something angry, but I didn’t catch the specifics.  The daughter gets out of the car and crosses the street to go to maybe a job at the Michener and the mother roars off in the car, angry and nettled.

If the woman had pulled over, or even into the adjacent parking lot, she and her daughter could have had some quiet to handle their business and not trouble anyone.  So why not do that?  She set herself up for an unpleasant interaction.  She did everything she reasonably could to guarantee a rotten start to her day.  The car behind her wasn’t behaving aggressively.  They just wanted to get where they wanted to go, along a public street.

That seemed to me a perfect example of how placing yourself at the center of the universe will teach you that everyone is a jerk and out to get you.  But if you see the world as full of reasonable people who all have stuff to do, you pull over and they go around you and you’re happy for them and they for you.

Consideration is its own reward.  Selfishness is its own punishment.  I plan to use this story with my students.  Feel free to adopt it if it’s a parable for your classroom, too.

Image result for michener museum

(It happened right about here.)

As I read the newspapers and hear the noise, this is what I’m learning:

  • Good teachers are crucially important in kids’ lives.
  • There aren’t enough good teachers. Too many aren’t worth what we’re paying them.
  • Those who are no good are disproportionately congregating in the schools of low income kids. That’s why those kids are not succeeding.
  • Therefore, we need ways to measure teachers against one another, to make sure we have more good ones.
  • Thus we have to make teaching as miserable, standardized, and soulless as possible, bleed the creativity right out, so we can have better teachers.

I totally agree with the first one! Yes, good teachers are truly important to kids. I should know, for I had many superb teachers and I don’t live a day when I don’t owe them my thanks.

The people I’m trying to speak to in this blog are teachers, teachers-in-training, and those who care about them (which should be everybody, if we care about our future, but oh well). So how, under current circumstances, do you become a great teacher? Given that just about everything you read is about judgment, antagonism, ignorant assumptions, and punitive measurement, how do you let your light shine?

I think the first step is a vow: I will treat my students with respect.

We should all say this aloud, ten or fifty times a day. Everybody needs a reminder. For the fact is that kids can be exasperating. They don’t turn in their work, they talk in class and ignore you, they put on their makeup or reorganize their book bag or ask to go the bathroom precisely when you’re baring your heart and the soul of a poem, and when you ask for their attention, they can pull a face and sass at you and give you names of all the other people who are so much worse than they are right at that very moment so it really can’t be their fault atall. You want to leave them out in the rain.

But this will not help them learn. Indeed, if you start to hate them, even a little, they will either suck up to you so they’re on your good side, or they’ll make it their business to thwart you as far as they can. Teachers, of all professions, know what it feels like when you’re doing your utmost and all you get is grief—hardly encouraging of that extra measure of effort.

And our students have the added excuse of being kids. This is where (I blush to disclose) I have a distinct advantage over many other teachers, for I was a smart-mouthed know-it-all when I was in school. I do not forget that as annoying as my students can be—and yesterday I had to take a moment in a colleague’s room to hold back the tears of frustration and furor—I was pretty bad myself. I sometimes imagine some of my former teachers smiling contentedly down from heaven on my red face and brimming eyes. So I understand the rebellious spirit.

After all, if the kids came to us rarin’ to learn and laser-focused, they could teach themselves and we’d be out of a job. It’s precisely because they are annoying, chatty, distracted, ignorant, entitled, callow intellects-in-bud that we’re worth our paychecks.

It’s very tempting to go into high dudgeon and decry “kids these days,” refuse late work, teach by packet, sneer and snipe, create picky quizzes and tests that reasonable readers can’t pass, and make the whole thing into a power struggle, but it’s a bad idea. For that isn’t teaching but withholding, ranking, scrabbling for status.

And the fact that our secretary of education, “reformers,” and sometimes even our administrators take that tone with us is no excuse.

So I propose that no matter what else we do, we respect our students, individually, as human beings of unknowable potential. Only in that way can we realize our own potential as teachers, which every kid needs more good ones of.

Doctors have their oath.  We need one, too.

Doctors have their oath. We need one, too.

There are three strands to this post and I hope to braid them together into something coherent.  We’ll see.

First, I’ve been thinking lately about self-improvement and how it can feel like self-rejection.  Alan Watts talks about this, the sense that we have to white-knuckle our way out of being who and what we are to become something a whole lot better, and how the real message there is self-hatred.  I had a big checklist at the New Year, with all sorts of improving things to do each day (exercise! practice guitar! floss!) and I kept it faithfully, most unlike me, for twenty plus days, to find life had become miserable.  The whole time I was doing one thing, I was eying the rest of the undone tasks and scheming on how to cut corners on each so I could squeeze them all in.  It was horrid and I’m still recovering.

I think about this with some of my students, who, some of the time, are playing me.  They don’t want to do the work I set for them and they find ways to kick against it.  The message of an assignment is, after all, that I’m not accepting them the way they are.  I want to see them grow.  That’s not bad, but it is a potentially annoying part of the relationship.

Second strand: this morning I read a long article in about Steinbeck and the journal he kept while writing Grapes of Wrath, detailing his many crises of confidence, his self doubt, his granite commitment to this important novel, and his fears about not having the skill to bring it off.  He suspended his life to write the book, all the while wondering if his ability could do justice to his conception.  And yet not to write it!

Inspiring to think even these kinds of writers have doubts.

Inspiring to think even these kinds of writers have doubts.

Third strand:  Mister Rogers.  Watch this:

Mister Rogers Good-bye.

My transcription of part of it: “I’m just so proud of all of you who have grown up with us.  And I know how tough it is some days, to look with hope and confidence on the months and years ahead.  But I would like to tell you what I used to tell you when you were much younger:  I like you just the way you are.  And what’s more, I am so grateful to you for helping all of the children in your life to know that you’ll do everything you can to keep them safe and to help them express their feelings in ways that will bring healing in many different neighborhoods.  It’s such a good feeling to know that we’re lifelong friends.”

So how do they go together?  Is the answer to refuse to write a Pulitzer/Nobel book, since it’s so painful?  Or to accept that some kids will take advantage of their teachers and brag about it to others?  Or to grind our molars and force ourselves to do what we think we ought, regardless of the heartbreak?

No.  I think there may be a quietly insistent inner calling.  We know what seeds we contain.  Having a baby isn’t the easiest thing, either, but some of us wanted to be mothers badly enough that we braved it.  And it was magnificently, opulently worth it.

We have to love ourselves and one another just the way we are, and know that that also means loving the seeds we contain.  Some, like Steinbeck or my mentee, are going to have to give up the present to grow those seeds to fruit– but the cost of not doing it is so great that we can’t bring ourselves to pay it.

And I must continue to love my students, even the advantage-takers, just the way they are and hold out faith for the seeds that they contain, even if right now they cannot muster Steinbeckian courage.

A master teacher.

A master teacher.

Magic writing teacher!  Answer lady!  Hamlet untangler!!

Magic writing teacher! Answer lady! Hamlet untangler!!

The purpose of this blog is to celebrate what teachers do, to tell the truth about what happens in lively classrooms, to encourage new teachers who are learning their craft, and to speak to any who care to interest themselves in this fascinating, exasperating profession.

To that end, I’d like to talk about spending a couple of hours today listening to high school seniors’ ideas for papers about Hamlet. Ooof. Picture sitting in your chair while half a dozen really bright kids come up to bounce ideas off you, saying stuff like, “Well, I’d like to talk about the idea of invasion. There’s the whole Trojan war thing, with the Hecuba speech, and then of course Fortinbras, but there’s also lots of invasions of privacy and personal space and even of family. Do you think I could work with that?” Yes! I think you can work with that.

Then I ask for a moment to consider and then trot out some ideas of where else that motif applies, how it might illuminate something thematic, warnings about how not to organize it (so as to avoid dreaded plot summary), suggestions of where to look for more. . . and so on. . . times as many students as need advice, which is most of them.

It’s highly rewarding and highly depleting. Shakespeare is hard and they are young and the opportunities for misunderstanding are many. Plus, they some of them still cling to the scaffolding we gave them in middle school, and think that outlines come out of the brain whole and pre-numbered. The technique of pouring all their ideas out on paper, searching the text for more and putting those on the paper, and only then gathering them into piles and seeing the connections between them—all that comes hard for some of them.

Interestingly, this comes equally hard to the outstanding and challenged writers. A few of my kids have the lyrical, poetical thing down and they have never written a paper that required them to do this puzzling, step-wise process. Others haven’t yet written a super paper—they are still struggling with the basics and for that reason, want to know how they’re going to organize their paper before they know what they’re going to write. Neither set has faith that if they just search and keep an open mind, they will find something interesting and insight will descend like a dove.

Meanwhile, those who do know that sudden ah ha! seek me out and request my help in achieving it. I come home with spongebrain.

When someone picks your brain hard enough for long enough, it hurts!

My brain is a sponge!

My brain has turned to sponge!

But then, one hopes, the papers they turn in will be fabulous and it will all have been worth it. Or one day soon, their papers will be fabulous, whether I get to read them or not. Or maybe it will take a hundred more spongebrains before the papers are fabulous.

It’s like brain donation. I know I needed to piggyback on my parents’ and teachers’ brains to write a couple of good papers, before I caught the sense of it and could do it for myself. And so I only hope that this brain-picked, spongebrain feeling means that I’m returning the favor.

Teachers need and ask for more time, which is one reason why we rejoice when we have a snow day. Yes, there’s some extra sleep in it for us, but what it really means is that we have a few extra hours in which to get the grading and prep done. There is more of this than layfolk may believe.

A former student of mine is now a teacher in my building. She is having to force herself to take off one day per week, either Saturday or Sunday. I would estimate that she spends two or three times as much time planning and grading as she does in front of her students, which is 4 and a half hours per day. In addition to the 90 minutes of plan time she has per day, she puts in 3+ hours after school and 6+ hours each weekend day. At this rate, she will burn out.

I’ve been doing this for a long while and the longer I teach, the more efficient my use of time. It used to take me a half hour to grade each paper, back when I was unclear on what the kids were likely to master or find challenging and when it was harder for me to put what I wanted to tell them into words. Now it takes me about 10 minutes for a good paper and 15 or 20 for a bad one. So let’s say I have 25 kids per class. Each time I collect papers, that means

25 x 15 (average amount of time per paper) = 6 ¼ hours x 3 classes = 18 ¾ hours

That’s in addition to my contracted hours, plus meetings (faculty and department), clubs and activities, extra help for kids after school, and all the rest.

And that’s just the papers. There is also all the other work that needs to be graded (quizzes, classwork, projects, etc.). And that’s not even glancing at the time I need to prepare lessons—and no, I don’t recycle them from year to year. It’s far more effective to make up lessons with these particular kids in mind.

And don’t forget college recommendations. And helping them with their college essays. And reading their poetry and short stories, which they’d like to share out of pure exuberance at loving to write.

Does this strike you as a complaint? It isn’t. I love my work and see the grading and preparing as an integral part of it. It’s a fact that, no matter how long you do it or how efficient you get, teaching is a labor-intensive art, requiring enormous skill and oodles of time out of the classroom.

Time in the classroom is only the tip.

Time in the classroom is only the tip.

TIME is what we could give teachers that would help to make them more effective. Not money. Merit pay is a stupid idea that works absolutely nowhere—and it’s been tried many times and in many places. Merit pay posits that money is the main motivation for all people and that teachers aren’t trying as hard as they would if you dangled a bonus in front of them. Both assumptions are wrong.

No, what we need is time: days in the building, built in days for which we could plan, when we could collaborate, plan units together, meet with kids, catch up on grading, college recs, etc. We ask and ask and ask, but generally, it seems that to mollify crankypants columnists and their ilk, administrators feel constrained to fill what little time there is with more responsibilities.

There should be designated days, built in to the calendar at regular intervals, for teacher collaboration and planning, for assessment, and for meeting with kids who need extra help. The suggestion that we use snow days, which happen rarely if at all, for that crucial work shows how little it is actually valued.

I don’t know what the economists who want to institute Value Added Measurement think it means to teach, but what it really is is offering up what you have to kids who may or may not see its value. It feels really personal. You give them what you have and if they don’t want it, it hurts.

Earlier this year I typed up a particularly, remarkably beautiful sentence from Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men and photocopied it multiple times on a page, then cut the sentences apart so there was one per slip and gave them to the kids. I told them that a really good way to expand their toolkit of syntactical effects is to take a masterful sentence and replace all the nouns and verbs to match some observed experience of their own. I pointed to this model sentence as a minor miracle and suggested they try the exercise. It was, to my mind, like offering them a piece of candy, like those chalky mints they used to have in cut glass dishes at restaurants when I was a kid, and we’d grab a big handful, as big as we thought we could get away with when our parents weren’t looking, to munch on the way home in the station wagon. Only better.

At the end of the day, there were great drifts of the slips left behind, as much as to say, “As if.” No sale. Who is she kidding? Ha. Joke. Teachers are lame.

I felt hurt and sad and a little ashamed of my own naivete. I wanted to have a fuss, too, and yell at them for being the swine before whom I’d cast my pearls, or rather Warren’s pearls.

I now see my reaction as a weed, as one of those natural sources of pain that only hurts because I’m seeing it wrong. Just as calling a parent to tell on a kid in a fink-him-out way prevents trust and progress, so does minding that students aren’t going to embrace everything I bring them cause me pain and them guilt.

I don’t quite know the antidote to this kind of pain. It springs from the desire to give them good gifts, but what can any teacher know of what those unique kids actually need? Do you get mad at your friend’s toddler if he doesn’t play with the toy you bought? In that case, you know that your gesture was the most important thing and the toy was merely the vessel for the love.

So why is this so hard in the classroom?


Bonus: here is the sentence:

“Across the street lay the little park of trampled brown grass, now glistening with moisture, where the bums sat on benches and the pigeons cooed softly like an easy conscience and defecated in little lime-white pinches on the cement around the fountain.”

How you do that, RPW?

How you do that, RPW?

Inasmuch as trees are my role models, plants make rather good analogies for people. We need what we need and we dwindle if we don’t get it, under the right conditions we bear nice fruit, it takes a long time for us to mature and when the seeds are just sprouting they don’t look like much, and we’re surprisingly varied and diverse, both in what we need and what we’ll produce if we thrive. In the same way, the garden makes a decent metaphor for the classroom, with the teacher as gardener (although in fact the teacher is more nearly a co-plant, but no analogy is perfect).

And in this garden, reflected of course in the word kindergarten, there can be weeds. It’s disheartening to come across an infestation of poison ivy or stilt grass or crabgrass or bindweed, but they’re out there and we have to watch for them and then confront them when they invade.

One such weed is the tendency, when dealing with parents, to want to win. Some teachers call parents as a way of ratting out the kid, as if somehow being able to prove to a parent that his or her kid is a little twirp is beneficial to someone. I wonder who? There is no doubt that kids can be twirps—as can teachers, parents, administrators, and everyone else. Fortunately it’s a state most of us move into and out of readily, less a function of permanent being than a mood or reaction. Fixing that identity on a kid helps nobody, especially not the kid, and unsurprisingly parents are really cranky when you try to go there.

What works every time, in my experience, is to make the subtext of every call to parents your desire to help the kid thrive. “Hello, Mrs. X, this is your kid’s teacher. I’m calling to see how I can help your kid to thrive.” How can that get a negative response? Even if they’re mad at you, when you frame it in this way they have to be on your side, since there aren’t any sides except the side of the kid. Even if the kid has done something terrible and you have to inform the parent, you can still make the thriving the top priority, using this transgression as an event from which much can be learned.

So that’s a weed I’ve not had much trouble pulling. I don’t want to pit the parent against the kid, or make the kid a rope in a tug of war between parent and teacher. I just want to help the kid thrive.

The weed I’m looking at right now is taking kids’ responses to my lessons personally. More on that tomorrow.

Seeing them is step one.

Seeing them is step one.

So strap your bones right to the seat Come on in and don't be shy — Just to make your day complete You might get baked into a pie

So strap your bones right to the seat
Come on in and don’t be shy —
Just to make your day complete
You might get baked into a pie

Somehow I missed this entirely—my kids were too old and I wasn’t watching kids’ TV in these years. Lily Tomlin was Miss Frizzle! To me she will always be Edith Ann and Ernestine.

And that's the truthhhh.

And that’s the truthhhh.

But as I talked along in class on Friday about how my new class has my number (one kid said something like, “This isn’t really about English at all. You are not doing the hard sell on poems and stories and all that. This is about making us better people- and I like it.” They are so onto me), period 4 totted up my role models: Mary Poppins, Maria Von Trapp, and Miss Frizzle—but I’d never heard of her. So I pulled up an episode on YouTube and there they were, transformed into bees, with their proboscises (probosces?) sipping nectar and turning it into honey and solving their problems and there was Miss F. cracking wise with one awful pun after another.

So yeah, The Magic School Bus is IT. That is what we teachers are all trying to do. Or jumping into chalk drawings in the sidewalk

Prepare to jump.

Prepare to jump.

or dancing around Salzburg singing in harmony.

Now that's a classroom.

Now that’s a classroom.

But these days I observe that lawmakers appear to be driving the Magic Schoolbus off the cliff of test scores. How can we turn it around so we’re back doing what we ought to be doing: leading daring expeditions into the unknown?

You said it, Frizzle.

You said it, Frizzle.


One of the best things about being a teacher is that we get do-overs. Each new set of kids is a fresh start. Yesterday I met my new batch of tenth graders for the first time and I spent the class chatting with them about expectations (mostly mine) and attention. I want to explore attention directly. How far can it be taught? Can we teachers develop routines and exercises that help kids pay better attention? Can we help them manage the stressful or joyful thoughts that distract them? Can we inculcate in them a sense that boredom is a function of one’s own mind and not an essential quality of the thing they find boring?

Mainly what I wanted them to take away is a sense of my philosophy: the sense that curiosity and discovery, adventure and exploration are paramount. I also told them I didn’t want them to converge onto a spectrum to be measured against one another or against a “standard.” I want them to ray out and be ever truly more themselves in all their unique vibrancy. (It would be fun to take a photo of them when I’m talking like that. Their faces are so intently human, so full of peaceful dignity.)

And I told them that if I had my druthers, I would begin our time together silently, leading them down the stairs and out the door to a waiting bus, where we would depart for adventure number 1. The logistics and expense of that are insoluble, so instead we will venture out imaginatively, beginning with Emily Dickinson:

There is no Frigate like a Book

To take us Lands away,

Nor any Coursers like a Page

Of prancing Poetry –

This Traverse may the poorest take

Without oppress of Toll –

How frugal is the Chariot

That bears a Human soul.


All aboard!

All aboard!

100 Day Journey

In which we explore and discover.

Katherine Good

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