Monthly Archives: September 2009

Doing Some Things Right

There are good days. There are really good, rock solid days.

…and there are bad ones.

Like many seasoned teachers before me, I now understand that every day in the teaching world is like a little microcosm unto itself. Yes, sometimes it’s possible to feed off of inertia built up early in the week, but more often every day seems different, a clean and wonderful slate to fill. (In my case, literally, since I have an old-school slate chalkboard.) Of course, that slate-filling doesn’t always go according to plan.

But when I have an off day of teaching, I like to think of things that have happened which affirm my belief in myself as a teacher, and nothing speaks truer to that than the words of my students themselves. While I’ve had my share of resistance, I’ve also caught a few young scholars that really “get” the ideas and messages that I’m so desperately trying to get across Monday through Friday.

One senior who is an AP student is taking my regular English section as an elective because she loves my class and the way I teach. Having left Rufus King for “lack of challenge,” she considers my discussion-oriented literature class at MSL intriguing and “awesome.” Bless you, child.

Another one of my seniors named me the “first teacher to make English not boring.” You might as well have handed me eighty dollars. “You make things actually interesting,” he says, “You’re the best teacher ever, you know?” And I respond with my trademark, expressionless, “Oh, I know.” Bemused as they are by my no-nonsense, intense demeanor, my students have no idea how inside I’m yelling, “HECK YEAH!” when I hear things like that.

One girl in my Writing Lab class raised her hand one morning to ask, “What is this? Why do you teach like this? It’s new, it’s different… Where did you get this? Is it just all you? Because it’s amazing.” I told her the truth: that “this” is heavily influenced by the writing workshop model of Nancie Atwell, as well as my college level writing center work, but that also–yes–it is part of my teaching philosophy to be a teacher that asks students every day to think, work together, create, with me by their sides just until they can stand all by themselves. At that point, I can just sit back and smile, knowing they’ve got it.

I don’t accomplish my goals every day. I am not the best teacher every day. I do, sometimes, feel totally tired out and confused. But once in a while, on a great day, I am The Best Teacher. And that’s what it’s all about.

Scenes from Room 201

This is where I spend my days…





Real Talk about Urban Teaching

I have the great honor of being part of a wonderful community of new teachers, the same ones that I “grew up with” during my last three years of college, most of whom are now out in the work force. I respect them all tremendously and I’m especially psyched about the large amount of us that have made the choice to teach in the city of Milwaukee. We are urban teachers. The new urban teachers.

My point with this post is simply to say this:

Urban teaching is not a picnic of idealized, homogenized, hands-neatly-folded-on-the-desk, wide-eyed congeniality. However, neither is it what so many people seem to write it off as: a headache, a lost cause, a poor choice, or (God forbid) a waste of a college education. Urban teaching is waking up every day knowing that you are serving others, that you are choosing to prop the door open for young people that want to be let in, that you are building a community of many colors and classes, that you have the power to–for a set amount of time each day–melt away the overpowering real life that comes knocking much too soon for many of your students. It’s hard, hard work. But it gives a meaning to your work that is ten billion times greater than the highest stack of Wall Street paychecks. Plainly stated, it ROCKS.

Too much, we new teachers end up apologizing for our idealism. One friend of mine in particular brought this up recently, after joyously admitting how much she loves and admires her students at one of the most notorious, “dangerous” schools in the city. She’s refusing to look at her kids with a closed mind. She feels like she’s changing the world. Is she wrong to feel this way? Am I? Some seasoned (read: jaded) veterans might say so, mocking our naivete.

But you know what I say to that? Screw it. This world needs idealists. So we’re here. And we’re here to stay.

Idealism = Reality from an enlightened and courageous point of view. Go with it.

First Couple Weeks: Creating English Scholars

The first couple weeks of my teaching have been going very well. My three preps are so very different–it’s kind of amazing, and it makes every day a veritable potpourri of teaching variety. My writing lab class, which in content and student body is quickly becoming my best-loved hour of the day, is a creative, process-based elective for high schoolers. This is where I can create the curriculum of my dreams: a writing workshop where I can guide every step from inspiration to publication for my community of writers.  The seventh graders are a treat that is new to me–they still very young, confused, and playful, and an absolute breeze as far as classroom management goes. Everything is new to them. The seniors–low on motivation, high on sass, but smart as whips–are my special challenge and in some ways my other favorite. I am determined to be the teacher that, during this last, vital year, leaves the door open for Language Arts in the hearts and minds of these students as they enter the adult world.

With the seniors, I spent the first week centered completely around WHY we study literature in the first place. I know I certainly didn’t understand or even think about the reasons behind literary study as a high schooler. In fact, I avoided AP lit by taking a theater class instead. I just didn’t get it. And either did my current students. While there’s still a long way to go, I felt some glimmers this week, some hints that they are starting to think about the value of the written word, and that makes it all worth it.

My two best recommendations for “Why Literature” lessons:

1. Selections from Mario Vargas Llosa’s essay “The Premature Obituary of the Book: Why Literature?” This is, when approached from an open-minded point of view, a staggering argument for literature that students enjoy both debating and considering. It contains such gems as this, which made my literary geek heart swoon: Nothing teaches us better than literature to see, in ethnic and cultural differences, the richness of the human patrimony, and to prize those differences as a manifestation of humanity’s multi-faceted creativity. Reading good literature is an experience of pleasure, of course; but it is also an experience of learning what and how we are, in our human integrity and our human imperfection, with our actions, our dreams, and our ghosts, alone and in relationships that link us to others, in our public image and in the secret recesses of our consciousness.

2. I had my students, in groups of four, come up with at least ten reasons why someone might want to study literature. Then, I fused all the good reasons together and published it, giving each student a copy and posting it, LARGE SIZE, on the wall. As I explained to them, “If I came to teach every day just to get paid and go home, I’d be a poor teacher. Just the same, if you come to school each day just to pass and go home, you’ll be substandard students.  To be good at something, you need to find a reason behind it. Here are your reasons for literature. Dig deep and find one, or more, that work for you, and you might surprise yourself by the wealth that you find!”

Here’s our list… Is your reason on there? 🙂


by English 12, Hours 3 and 6

1. To seek answers to unanswered questions.

2. To expand our imaginations.

3. To feel or express an emotion.

4. To reflect on the state of the world around us.

5. To expose ourselves to viewpoints outside our own.

6. To appreciate the artistry of great authors.

7. To learn passion.

8. To understand other cultures.

9. To improve our society.

10. To imitate the masters in our own writing.

11. To explore different value systems and philosophies.

12. To learn how to live or how not to live.

13. To stand out.

14. To approach important ideas.

15. To hear a good story.

16. To gain reading and critical thinking skills.

17. To think about something strange, deep, or interesting.

18. To learn about other historical periods.

19. To experience something we’ve never physically encountered.

20. To see ourselves reflected back to us, with both flaws and admiration.

21. For comfort or encouragement.

22. To be respected by others.

23. To expand vocabulary.

24. To escape into an alternate reality.

25. To read and write poetry.

26. To delve into the minds of greatness.

27. To teach others.

28. To maintain a set number of intellectuals in our society.

29. To learn different genres and styles of writing.

30. For inspiration.

31. To challenge ourselves.

32. To become more intelligent.

33. To learn about famous authors.

34. To learn about new or little-known authors.

35. To impress members of the opposite sex.

36. As part of a career.

37. To better visualize a thing, place, or idea.

38. Because it’s been studied for centuries.

39. To stay out of trouble.

40. To pass Ms. H’s class and graduate from high school.

Drawings: Critical Thinking with Texts and Making Connections to Literature

Below I’ll post two visuals I made to portray some very key but very tough-to-grasp literature skills: critical thinking with texts and making connections.

The first image shows a curious stick person fall “into” a text as he deepens his understanding with each new level of critical thinking, moving from familiarizing to analysis to independent, critical thought. ( I made this for my summer school freshman group as I asked them to analyze a chapter from our novel at each level.)


The second puts into picture the oft-cited connections between a text, oneself, and the world around us. (I made this today for my new twelfth graders who didn’t have a clue how to respond to the question “What are some ways that we can make connections to literature?”)


 Enjoy, and remember to take care of your visual learners!

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