Archives for category: Students

Or, how do you prepare?

This has always been a mystery to me.  How do you prepare to teach a bunch of kids you haven’t met yet?  You can’t know how to speak to them or connect to them until you know a little bit about them.  .  .  But you have to do something on the first few days while you size them up and they do the same with you.

What I have done in the past is to ask them to read V.S. Naipaul’s beautiful short story “B. Wordsworth” and then a letter I’ve written and photocopied about the story, and on the back of that they write a letter to me talking about the story, about my letter, and about themselves.  I wish I could say that took up most of the 90 minutes I typically see them, but it’s only about a half an hour.  “B. Wordsworth” says a lot about paying attention, about mindfulness, and about teaching.  It’s great.  But they can’t really take in anything on day 1 and maybe that’s better saved for later.

I’ve been told that you should do your most pizzazzy lesson on the first day so they go home all agog and tell their mums and dads.  That’s poor advice in my opinion.  Why would you want to set yourself up so the entire rest of your course is a let-down?  And anyway, they won’t remember it.  Day 1 is a blur.

I’ve also been told that you shouldn’t smile til Christmas.  This reminds me of a saying my father used to cite:  “A woman, a horse, and a walnut tree: the more you beat ’em, the better they be.”  I can’t speak for walnut trees, but I bet even the horses reject that piece of cruelty.

Image result for walnut tree

(Don’t let them hurt you, kiddo!)

No, the thing to do on day 1 is something that comes out of your own heart, expresses your values, respects the kids and yourself, and recognizes that we all need time and space to decide our feelings on anything so important as our new teacher.

I myself am not a fan of icebreakers, so I don’t do one.  If you like them when they’re offered to you, great.  Go for it.  For me, that would be phony.  This year I might give them an article (The Atlantic has one now about smartphones ruining a generation) and ask them to read and discuss in small groups and then open it up to discuss all together.  Or go over procedures, introduce myself, and give them the article to take home to read and begin Wednesday with a discussion.

I don’t know.  So the true answer to what am I doing this weekend is that I am sleeping as much as I can, buying plastic containers to pack lunches, visiting with my family, re-stringing my guitars, going for walks, having dinner with friends, and altogether living my life– invoking the muses to grace my creativity and imagination with lesson ideas that will inspire my students big time.

In other words, I’ll figure it out.  Ideally before the first kids arrive on Tuesday.


(Can’t wait to meet those scary, wonderful kids).

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.

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.

Yesterday some fellow teachers and I traveled to Lehigh University to see the indomitable Diane Ravitch.  It had been conceived as a debate between her and Michelle Rhee, but Michelle, having agreed to the date, punted when unable to comply with the conditions she herself imposed.

Diane called protecting public schools “the civil rights issue of our time.”  She named eight steps to that imperative:

1.  Prenatal care for all expectant mothers.  We are 134th of 180 nations in the number of our mothers who receive prenatal care, on par with Somalia.

2.  Early childhood education, starting at age 3.  This has been shown to have profound and long-lasting effects on kids’ ability to learn.  We rank 24th out of 45 nations in our availability of early childhood education.

3.  Reduce class sizes to 20 or fewer students, especially for younger children and especially for poorer or disabled children.

4.  Provide a full, rich, well-rounded curriculum for all kids.  Put the arts first, not last.  Learning to play a musical instrument ought to be an encouraged option for all kids:  it teaches discipline, perseverance, and harmony with others.

5.  Raise the standards for preparation for teachers.  Nobody should get to be a principal without ten years of teaching experience.  Teaching is not for resume builders.

6.  Allow teachers to teach more and test less.  What tests there must be should be written and graded by teachers, so they can have information about how well the kids are learning what they’ve taught.

7.  Adequately fund all schools so they can have librarians, nurses, guidance counselors and all the other necessary staff that makes a school into a community that can serve the needs of kids.

8.  Ban for-profit charters.

The saddest part was when she pointed out that finding common ground with those who advocate vouchers, charters, and what they call “choice” is impossible until we can agree on the facts.

  • our public schools are not failing.  Our scores are up (not that this is such an accurate measure of our achievement), our graduation rates are up, more kids are going to college than ever before.
  • merit pay is a “zombie” idea:  it never works and never dies.
  • we impose many restrictions, laws, and requirements on public schools because we say they are necessary and important, but we allow charters to operate free of those restrictions.  There is a double standard.
  • kids are not widgets.
  • teachers are not the reason kids are poor.
  • tenure does not mean lifetime security for bad teachers:  districts with tenure outperform those without it.
  • standardized testing encourages conformity and discourages creativity, resourcefulness, initiative, and the love of learning.
  • nobody has a quick-fix, easy answer.  If they did, we’d be doing it by now.
  • nobody should be getting rich off of taxpayer dollars.

“Reformers” often care deeply about kids’ lives.  They then turn on the very people who have been working to help those kids and blame them, thinking that they, who have very little experience in schools, will be able to find The Answer.  It’s understandable, but naive, arrogant, and insulting– and a distraction from the hard work that will actually make a difference.

Thank you to Diane for all her hard work and clear insight.

Stephen in his backyard playground.

Stephen in his backyard playground.

A student sent me the following link and implored me to watch it, saying that this guy lives so much of what I’m trying to teach:

Stephen Jepson:  Growing Bolder interview

Boy did she get that right.

Beside the inspiration of his energy, humor, agility, coordination, and all the rest, I came away with this urgent question: How did we let our lives get so boring?

I used to play jacks, climb trees, jump rope, and ride my bike so much that when I was finally snatched off the seat and forced into bed, it felt as though my feet were still going round and round and round. Exploring in the woods, making up games, hopscotch, tossing a ball in the air and seeing how many times I could clap my hands before it came back down—what happened to that spirit?

When I mentioned the tyranny of goals and checklists and doing this to get that and purpose and all the rest of it to a friend, she said of those folks they are trying to pave a road rather than following a path. Stephen Jepson does what he does for the joy of it and the results he receives are a bonus.  He’s following a path of play.

My poor students. So many of them have already drunk the poison of thinking that what we do today is merely so we can get what we want tomorrow. Our culture is full of that poison. I’m full of that poison and I’d like to find the antidote.

Stephen Jepson:  making the world less fall-y-down-y and also less goal-y-obsess-y.

Here is his website:  Never Leave the Playground.

Is this his morning's  commute?

Is this his morning’s commute?


Sometimes things don’t go so well.

You’re going along, teaching for all you’re worth, and some one student rankles, irks, gets under your skin, hurts your feelings or “presses your buttons.”  Weeds spring up in the happy garden of your cultivating:  the weeds are your unskillful responses to that kid.

It can happen that a student is difficult and awkward. If you can see that this kid has trouble everywhere with everyone, it can get easier. Every kid deserves a safe place where the teacher will at least not add to his or her troubles. Every kid is somebody’s child. Knowing what that kid must have suffered can often dissolve the harsh response.

But not always. Teachers are human and we can feel manipulated and played, one-upped and put down. What do you do when a kid lands a barb in the quick?  How do you respond if you’re all weedy with anger, frustration, and defeat?

My former neighbor (Nancy, I honor you) told me a story about when her son, Jeff, first got his driver’s license. She had told him he could use her car and a number of friends came over for a ride. She watched out her bedroom window as the car motored down the rocky driveway, teenagers hanging out the passenger windows whooping, perching on the door ledges, pounding on the roof, and she just about threw up with terror. There were no cell phones then, so all she could do was hold her fear and wait. In time, Jeff came home, and Nancy was at the kitchen table, waiting.

What did she do? Did she yell and scream? Did she take away his license? What is the wise response?

She told him simply and without embellishment of her fear. She told him she loved him and wanted him to be safe. And (in a highly surprising move) he cried and told her of his fear, that he could not control his friends, that he had no power to control them. Together they came up with a way. I don’t remember it, but that scarcely matters. Jeff knew that his mother would provide the cover he needed to inform his friends that dangerous behavior was off limits, and Nancy knew that Jeff needed her to set the limits that would protect him. Because both of them could own their feelings (which in this case involved fear, the purpose of which is to keep us safe), they could work out a plan.

If they had instead gone to passing the fear back and forth, Nancy yelling, Jeff defending—who knows?

Illustration by Irene Trivas, copyright 1983-2015

Illustration by Irene Trivas, copyright 1983-2015

Playing Hot Potato with feelings makes them hotter and bigger and more unmanageable, not to mention burning everyone’s hands in the process.

What Nancy did not do:

  1. Observe erroneously, exaggerating, dramatizing, self-pitying.
  2. Go wild: allow the fear to possess her.
  3. Scream, yell, and in all other ways discharge her feelings so that they were Jeff’s problems.
  4. Abandon Jeff to deal not only with his unruly friends but also his irate mother.

What Nancy did:

  1. Observe accurately: look clearly at what was occurring.
  2. Feel and own her feelings without becoming lost in them.
  3. Communicate both her observations and her feelings simply and directly.
  4. Contain her feelings enough to hear what Jeff had to say.
  5. Work with her son to create a workable framework for the future.

Our emotional feelings are as much our responsibility as our physical feelings. If we feel pain, we have to look at that, figure out what hurts and why and deal with it.

I’ve had a number of difficult interactions with kids recently where I felt a bit like Nancy up at her bedroom window, although my response wasn’t fear. More like offense, feeling disrespected and taken for granted. The weedy response is to act out and thrust the feelings back at the kid.

Note to self: How to uproot mean weeds of unkindness to students.

  1. Observe accurately.
  2. Feel and own my feelings.
  3. Communicate my observations and my feelings.
  4. Contain my feelings enough to hear what the student has to say.
  5. Work with the student to create a workable framework for the future.
Take 'em right on out.

Take ’em right on out.

I’m glad to write this out and put it where I can find it again, because I’ll need to remind myself.  Weedy feelings make me stupid and forgetful.  Weeds crowd out the other plants and try to take over the whole lawn.  Plus they keep coming back, so you have to break out the weeding tool again and again.

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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