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Monthly Archives: March 2010

On Saturday, March 6th, I attended the Annual Anti-Bias, Anti-Racist Conference hosted by the Educators’ Network for Social Justice. It really stirred up some intense feelings and provided some serious food for thought.

The keynote speaker, Sonia Nieto, is a noted author, speaker, and Professor Emerita in the field of multicultural education. She spoke about her research for a new book, in which she focuses on teachers who are thriving in an environment of diverse learners (linguistically, racially, and socioeconomically). One of my favorite concepts that she brought up was this: Successful teachers have a sense of mission, in that they feel that they are doing something vital and meaningful by being in the classroom. However, it is a mission not in the sense of “sacrificing for these ‘poor’ students” but rather a mission in the sense that teacher and students follow a communal calling to pursue and reach their classroom goals. This really resonated with me. Often when I say that I teach in an urban school, I get the, “Oh, you’re a saint” reaction. But that’s simply not the case–I don’t see my work as a “sacrifice”. I do, however, feel compelled to give of myself everyday, knowing that my students are giving of themselves, too, to keep our class going. The everyday work of counteracting prejudice, poverty, and other social hurdles is a mission we all must recognize and buy into.

Sonia Nieto was incredible, and left me hungry for more knowledge in the breakout sessions. What I wanted most was practical strategies that I could implement in my classroom the next day. Strategies that would help me to understand my own position of privilege, and that would encourage greater respect, tolerance, and interaction between my diverse students. Lately, I had been struggling to keep my seniors from taunting each other with racial slurs and making comments about a homeless student’s odor. I was dying for something beyond my everyday messages of respect, professionalism, and compassion that would help us work on this problem. Unfortunately, I didn’t find exactly what I was looking for in the first two sessions I attended. I picked what looked like the most relevant titles in the program, but I was disappointed in the “historical overview” type of presentation that I found. It was important, urgent information that was presented, but it was information that I (and I’d argue any informed teacher) already knew. I know about the issues. I want someone to tell me how to better help fix the issues! Luckily, the third session was presented by one of my former mentor professors; I guessed that she would deliver, and she did. She modeled an activity for exploring bias and assumptions about authors based on their names and countries of origin. It was what I was looking for–an activity and rationale that I could immediately put into action in my classroom. Thank you, Donna!

While I came away with many of the same questions I had going in, I feel like the conference just brought home the point that educators everywhere need to work harder at making their classes places that actively resist social injustice, and that many methods remain to be discovered! (I still maintain that the best place to find such things is Teaching Tolerance at Tolerance.org. Rethinking Schools also has excellent social justice teaching materials.)

All in all, one of the most remarkable things I took away from the conference was simply the physical experience of being at the Indian Community School in Franklin, WI. It is one of the most beautiful, serene, organic, and dynamic works of architecture I’ve ever seen. Take a look at some of the publicity photos from the architect (Antoine Predock) by clicking HERE. A private elementary school for the local American Indian population, this is a place that just captures the imagination and seems to have sprouted right out of the landscape. I felt so inspired just being in the building and thought to myself, “just think how much more comfortable and happy my students could be just by virtue of being in this building!” Every kid deserves a school like that. It reminded me, again, of the importance and impact of aesthetic environment on learning potential. While we don’t always have the financial means to build a show-stopping school, we can create a physical enviorment that stirs pride in our students. And we can–must–create an ideological environment where students act as one united human family. Let’s keep working on this, teachers!

Let us pause for a monumental moment of celebration. All year long, I’ve been working with my seniors on their ability to infer, interpret, and analyze. It used to be that if the answer to a question was not fact-based or found right in the book at hand, my students could not handle it. After months and months of discussion training, open questions, and constantly asking students to find and explain their own truth, they are finally getting to be pros at thinking for themselves. (I think they might even like it!)

I realized this today when I gave my students a simple worksheet that featured background information about the history of African American oral tradition. It featured questions afterward that were more of a “reading check”–each answer could be found on the sheet without much trouble. As my students began to work on it, they were actually confused by it. One raised her hand and said, “Ms. H… these answers are all right here in the text.”

“I know,” I replied, “I’m just checking to see if you understood the reading.”

“Really?” she asked, “That’s it?”

More kids started to look bewildered and added things like, “So… this isn’t asking what we think; it’s just asking for the simple answer?”

“Yes,” I told them, cheering in my head. “But don’t worry, tomorrow will be back to normal with some nice questions that are impossible to answer in less than a paragraph.” They smiled and groaned–but I know they were secretly relieved.

I finally did it. They are finally starting to think and crave the opportunity to give and support their own ideas. HOORAY! Once you get there, you can’t go back. Once a mind is opened, it gets sick of simple data processing with no heart and no meaning.

I’ve been given the great honor of being selected as a National Writing Project fellow, as part of the UW-Milwaukee Writing Project site.

My Writing Project work will start this summer, and I couldn’t be more excited to explore this chance for graduate credit, professional development, reflection, and my own evolution as a writer as well as a teacher of writing. I’ll be working with a select team of other educator-writers, with a wide range of teaching experience and writing strengths.

Here’s the research proposal I’ll be working on, along with a brief reflection on myself as a teacher-writer:

I am fascinated by the often overlooked connection between student image-making and written composition. It is my belief that creating visual art can prompt, guide, and enrich student writing, and I’ve experimented with this idea in many ways in my own classrooms, from illustrating grammatical constructions to using drawings as an alternative notetaking technique. However, one type of visual art hasn’t been used in my lessons very frequently—photography. I have the feeling it has potential to explode (in a good way) the possibilities of my writing-lesson repertoire, if only I can figure out how to use it!

Formalized, my question is this: How can photography be used in tandem with writing of various genres? The composition of image and the composition of writing share many traits—focal point, contrast, imagery, symbolism, mood, perspective, purpose… I feel that illuminating and working with these similarities would make students stronger, more mindful writers. Other possible uses might involve students composing visual essays with a companion written portion, using photography at the idea-generating stages of writing, documenting evidence of research with photos, or even using reactions to the images of others as a pathway to writing. Also, beyond just generating ideas for methods, I’d like to investigate this: How are these methods beneficial in learning, motivation, community building, and preparing students for our visually demanding cybersociety? Adolescents live in photographs. They are constantly taking, sharing, and posting digital pictures—this is how they record their lives. If implemented well, translating this tendency into classroom work may help students become impressive, image-savvy writers of today… and tomorrow.

As a writer, I am voracious. I write to understand myself. I write to communicate. I write to create. I write to get things from my brain out into the world in permanent form.

Being an author was definitely a consideration in my search for the ultimate career. I’ve been blessed with an easy grasp of grammar and mechanics from an early age, which freed me to use my time entirely to refine my ideas during revision. I’ve had a few pieces of fiction published in literary magazines, and I have a creative writing binder that’s thicker than a phone book. I love writing, plain and simple. When I worked as a college writing tutor during my undergraduate work, I realized that I loved tutoring and teaching writing almost as much as I loved doing it. My current writing class for 10th-12th graders, too, is my gem of the day. It’s a joy to teach.

My flaws as a writer also spring from my personal connection to the task of writing—my words can tend to become self-involved. I sometimes get so caught up in trying to express exactly what I’m thinking that I miss explaining clearly what I mean. For some reason, when I write, I sometimes turn into that too-mysterious movie that nobody truly understands, even when the credits roll. So my main challenge lies in making sure that my writing makes my thoughts clear to my readers. This carries directly into my writing instruction as well. The students who are authors-to-be get all dreamy-eyed when I wax poetic about, for instance, sensory imagery. However, that other 90% of my students may not be receiving the message. I need to make writing accessible for my students, and let them find their own reasons to love it, rather than expecting them to absorb mine by osmosis. None of us is alone in this world; nor should our writing be.

I am so looking forward to summer, anticipating the fresh new ideas that will come with rest and study, and knowing that I’ll find things to translate into my teaching. Year One is going great, but I’m already looking forward to Year Two, because I can’t wait to start building on the (still small!) base of techniques and curriculum that I have at the moment. I’m ready to work hard, and–again–I’m so grateful for the chance to become part of this academic community!

For more information on the National Writing Project, visit their website HERE.

The teacher who had my classroom before I moved in stopped by for the first time since he moved out in the summer. (It’s amazing how some staff members rarely venture out of their wing to see the rest of the school! I, myself, can be guilty of this.) As he peeked in the door, his eyes popped. “Wow!” he said, “You’ve done wonders with this room!”

“Thank you!” I replied, thinking to myself: Oh, my friend, you have no idea how happy you have made me with that single statement.

“Yeah,” he added, “Well… you saw it before.” And with that, he gave me a smile and headed back to the first floor.

I am insanely proud of my room, and while I know it’s not perfect, I feel like I’ve been able to do a lot with what I was given. When I came on the scene, the room was set up in long, straight rows, with little more than a giant chalkboard, graffiti-ridden bare bulletin board, and beige walls.

This is what it looks like now, complete with Semester Two improvements!

Message Board

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Full View of Class Arrangement, “Circle of Rows.” This was a new design that I came up with to keep me always within three desks of any student, plus it makes it easier for them to see both the chalkboard and the projection screen, which are on different walls, without their views being obscured.

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Plus it gives TONS of space in the middle for me to roam around in as I lecture. 🙂

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Ask and ye shall receive -I finally got my laptop and projector, which lets me do Powerpoints, video clips, interactive internet stuff, and more! AWESOME.

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I keep this guy by my desk to remind myself that not only do I have a cool job, but I also get PAID to do it.

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Publication wall for student work.

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Every morning, I gather my things on a sunshiny table, look out the window at the pine tree, and beyond that, the city streets. I take a deep breath, smile, and get ready for another day!

One of my senior students waltzed in my door during my prep hour for a meeting that we had scheduled to work on some scholarship applications. “Hello, Ms. Cranky,” she said, smiling, and plunking her books down on a desk. “I hate it when you’re cranky. It makes me feel tense.”

Ah, yes. I deserved that. That particular day, I had been forced to regroup my morning senior class several times after they had erupted into various disruptions. The yelling across the room, petty remarks, and general sense of simply NOT PAYING ATTENTION had been building in a steady crescendo over the previous two weeks. Day after day, I became increasing irritated by their notorious line-walking, their immaturity, and their resistant attitudes. I began to get frustrated with myself. What was I doing wrong? The same class who was peacefully co-existing with me for weeks was suddenly reverting back to the way they had behaved the very first time I met them. Where did I fall off of the classroom management wagon? In an effort to reclaim my territory, I just started snapping at any student who put a toe out of line.

However, it didn’t seem to be doing much good. And now I was “Ms. Cranky” on top of it. To hear my student’s reaction caught me off guard. I mean, I knew that I was cranky. But I had no idea how evident it was, nor how much it was affecting the mood of one of my best students. That night, discouraged, I flopped in front of the TV to indulge in a guilty pleasure–The Dog Whisperer on the National Geographic Channel.

Now, if you are a dog lover, as I happen to be, The Dog Whisperer is one of the greatest shows ever. Cesar Millan, trainer and dog psychologist du jour, works with animals and owners to create behavior changes (both in the dog and the human) that correct damaging habits that range from aggression to barking to fear to anxiety. While Cesar’s touch seems to be magical, it really comes from a very small set of simple concepts. Number one is that the human must be a pack leader. And this leader must demonstrate calm, assertive energy at all times. If the pack leader becomes fearful, tense, or anxious, that behavior will trickle down to the other members of the pack, making them erratic. Or, worse, the dog may see weakness in the owner and try to take over as pack leader! That makes perfect sense, I thought to myself, I know that my emotions are definitely influenced by those around me.

DING. A lightbulb went on in my brain. Calm, assertive energy. Even animals recognize this as leadership, and people certainly look for it. I started to envision myself in front of my class, shoulderblades clenched, just waiting for what I believed to be an inevitable outburst. I was tense, on-edge, shaky. Definitely not very assertive, and surely not calm. Just as Cesar accuses dog owners of “creating” their companion’s bad behavior, I started to question whether I, too, was in part creating the bad behavior of the morning class.  So a plan started forming in my mind. Ok, I told myself, Tomorrow, we will test out Cesar’s theory with people. Seems to work with dogs. Why not try it? With that in mind, I set out to purposely project an attitude of calm, yet assertive energy. If it was to work like it did on the show, my students would become calm when I was calm. (Of course, this seemed a little, well, crackpot. But what was there to lose? At least I wouldn’t be called “Ms. Cranky.”) I opened day one of C.A.E. with a deep, slow breath, a small smile, and the simple words, “Welcome back. I’m glad to see you guys. Let’s get started.”

Believe it or not, this simple, conscious change in my voice, body language, and attitude throughout the hour made a GIGANTIC difference. Seriously, it was a very visible change. I was blown away by how much more calm, pleasant, and open my students instantly became. It was kind of ridiculous how well it worked! It’s been about a week and we’re still going strong. I am now making a renewed effort to be more aware of what type of “energy” I am projecting when I teach. A very calm, happy person by nature, I am gifted with a natural talent for leading groups of people with a gentle authority. However, if I let negative emotions of anxiety, fear, or frustration to corrode that natural zen, I have nothing. I do love what I do, and I want my kids to see that. A person who loves her job is not on the verge of screaming or pulling her own hair. A person who loves her job is in control, with that small smile lurking on her face, saying, “Wait ’til you see what I’ve got for you today.”

Take it from me, and from Cesar. Half of being a leader is showing a calm, assertive energy at absolutely all times. It’s great psychological advice for puppies, for people, and likely many other species.

I remember back in my teacher preparation program, we were cautioned against beliveing in the idea of the “hero teacher” that gets glorified in the occasional movie that comes along with a classroom as the setting. True, these stories are often exagerrated to make the main teacher character look like a magical being that can take a horrible situation with underachieving and troubled kids and turn it into a college prep school in a matter of months with very few struggles. Not completely realistic.

The real teacher heroes, my professors told us, are real teachers just like us–teachers that have moments of brilliance, but also a day in, day out job that will be full of challenges and problems that take real time to solve. To some degree, I agree with that. Men are not angels–we cannot transform every life we touch. But you know what? I do believe that teachers can do incredible things. I see them do inspiring things every day. And I’m fairly certain that I know a couple people who could have movies made about their teaching experiences. So don’t tell me that hero teachers don’t exist. They do.

In honor of this unrelenting belief in the teacher hero, here are my top five teacher heroes of contemporary cinema. Watch these heroes in action, and see if you can find anything familiar about them–you may recognize a former teacher, a colleague, or even yourself.

**Honorable mention: Dead Poet’s Society (Mr. Keating is on his very own level of awesome), Stand and Deliver (Jaime Escalante: so good, people were convinced that his kids cheated on their tests).

5. The Ron Clark Story,  Matthew Perry as Ron Clark

“The problem isn’t the kids. It’s not even what they can achieve. The problem is what you expect them to achieve. You are setting the bar here. Why? Set it up here! They can make it.”

I like this film because it felt incredibly real to me. Teaching in an urban district will give you a fierce loyalty to kids that outsiders like to put down, and Mr. Clark is right there with us. Also, just like any elementary classroom, this film offers many opportunities for the unexpected, the uplifting, and the comical. Up against a seemingly impossible task in one of the roughest neighborhoods in the country, Clark became one of the top teachers in the nation. Best thing? Based on a true story.

4. Finding Forrester, Sean Connery as Forrester

“PUNCH the keys, for God’s sake! No thinking – that comes later. You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is… to write, not to think!”

This film is an amazing portrait of the power of words as well as the bond between teacher and pupil. It’s also the perfect tribute to all of those seemingly crochety, old, rough-around-the-edges teachers out there who in fact have nothing but love and devotion for what they do. The two lead characters are perfect counterparts, and remind us that the teacher often learns just as much as the student. Finally, it’s a great model for classroom feedback, both good and bad!
3. School of Rock, Jack Black as Dewey Finn

“Are we gonna be goofing off like this everyday?”   “We’re not goofing off. We’re creating musical fusion.”

Dewey poses as a substitute teacher to scam cash off of his legit roommate, Mr. Schneebly. Despite his early efforts to be the laziest teacher of all time, he ends up leading his students through the ultimate creative project: the creation of a rock band. Don’t dismiss him as a hack, though–Finn’s uncanny knack for bringing humor and utmost reverence for rock music into his classroom ends up being one of the best educational experiences his students could ever have!

2. Remember the Titans, Denzel Washington as Coach Boone

“This is where they fought the battle of Gettysburg. Fifty thousand men died right here on this field, fighting the same fight that we are still fighting among ourselves today. This green field right here, painted red, bubblin’ with the blood of young boys. Smoke and hot lead pouring right through their bodies. Listen to their souls, men. I killed my brother with malice in my heart. Hatred destroyed my family. You listen, and you take a lesson from the dead. If we don’t come together right now on this hallowed ground, we too will be destroyed, just like they were. I don’t care if you like each other of not, but you will respect each other. And maybe… I don’t know, maybe we’ll learn to play this game like men.”

If you haven’t seen it, you need to. This story, based on real people and events, is about a man who not only instructed his boys on the ins and outs of their sport, but also how to interact with respect, brotherhood, and leadership. If only Coach Boone could do a community-building workshop with all of our students! Remember the Titans makes me cry, laugh, and cheer every time.

1. Freedom Writers, Hilary Swank as Erin Gruwell

“I don’t want excuses. I know what you’re up against. We’re all of us up against something. So you better make up your mind, because I am not letting you fail. Even if that means coming to your house every night until you finish the work. I see who you are. Do you understand me? I can see you. And you are not failing.”

One of my students once told me that I reminded her of “that one teacher from Freedom Writers.” I considered that the highest compliment of all time. Also a real person, Erin Gruwell used writing to transform a classroom of conflict, hatred, and insecurity into a safe haven where her students could acheive what they never thought possible. She gave up so much in order to be the most devoted teacher she possbily could. She gave her students the power to let their own voices be heard. She’s still out there, fighting the good fight, and that makes her number one.

So, break out the popcorn, and enjoy. Teacher heroes are everywhere! (However, only on the big screen will they look as beautiful as Hilary Swank. 🙂 )