Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Our Students are Terrified

Last night, I could only get a few hours of fitful sleep after staring at the ceiling and repeating the litany against fear.

Today, in my school, after a faculty meeting that felt like a group therapy session, I taught. I taught my students of color and my white students. I listened to the conversations they had with each other, and I tried to offer some peace and hope to them.

I don't know if I was successful.

Here are some things I heard today:


"Run fast, he's going to build the wall!" "Stupid, if you run, you'll be stuck on the other side."
"Can he actually build the wall? That's a joke, right?"
"Can he kick me out?"
"How long can I stay in the country?"
"RIP America."
"Can he take our rights away from us?"
"If Trump can make fun of people, why can't I?"
"If your president can curse, why can't I?"
"If I'm not here, it's because I got deported."
"If my grandmother has to leave the country, do I go with her?"
"When's the purge going to start?"
"How long before someone kills him?" "If they kill him, Pence becomes president." "Oh yeah, that's worse."
"He grabbed women. How come he can still be president?"
"He becomes president in January? My birthday is in January. He just ruined the whole month."
"Is it true that China's going to war with us because of what Trump said?"

I think that Clara Jeffrey of Mother Jones said it better than I can, but I feel terrified and energized, filled with nervous energy and a reminder of purpose. We have a long fight ahead of us. I couldn't answer most of my students' questions - and I don't even know if Trump could, as he seems to be just as cloudy about his policies - except by reminding them that we will find out, and we'll find out together, and we'll respond together.

I know of at least a half dozen students who cried in school today. One of them wrote this. She is young. She is afraid. She is not alone. She said I could share this. Minor edits made / details changed to protect her identity.


Donald Trump he worries me
My brother my friends and family
are they going to be deported or killed
I don't need my friends and family to leave me or die
because my Mom died when I was young
it was sad and tragic and I can't do this again.
Donald Trump scares me
he makes me cry in front of my friends
he is racist and sexist in so many ways
Joanna is Puerto Rican my brother is Black
does that mean they'll be deported back?
NO NO NO
This is not happening
no I won't let it happen
I won't let it go
I don't like Trump or Clinton in fact
I don't really care but honestly
Donald Trump scares me
and I have a lot to say but not enough time now
so I guess good bye
before I cry again.
This is the voice of youth.

On the plus side...

I had multiple discussions with students about youth activism. I got to explain the branches of government a few more times. I was able to get students to talk to each other. I taught about the national debt, about gerrymandering, and began organizing a defunct anti-racism project. I had students explain the difference between atoms and molecules in three languages, a bunch of pictures, and two raps. I was reminded again and again how dedicated, caring, and hard-working my faculty is. 
I am reminded that Trump is one man, this is one moment, and there will be more humans and more moments. Half of the country, at least, knows what's up. Hopefully more.

Always further, never finished. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

On Reflection

I'm on Edutopia! How exciting.

Reflection: A Tool for Assessment, Empowerment, and Self-Awareness


Overall I am very happy with how this article turned out - my original draft was much more anecdotal, which is my preferred style, but the editors suggested that a listicle format generally did better. They seem to be right!

Now I just need to find the time to do this more regularly...

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Artists of Room 1

My youth are great.

It began so innocently.


And then....






I was distilled down to my essential features, endlessly transposed.



I inhabited many bodies.


A tree.


A science and music cat. 


A shooting star.


an elf.


Even a whole month. Who knows what the future might hold for me.

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Holidays

I've always had issues with the Holidays.

That's an exaggeration - as a kid, I double dipped. We celebrated both Chanukah and Christmas, so I had a whole month of candles and lights and holiday cookies and family parties and presents.

As I've grown older, I've come to appreciate the excuse to spend time with my family, to make the trek back down I-95 to New Jersey, to smell that familiar smell of Elizabeth's refineries and the pizza place down the street from where I grew up, to see with nostalgia and detachment the site of all my childhood success and mistakes. Mostly the latter. 

I also resent the holidays. The forced awkwardness of yearly gift giving. The social acrobatics of attending the necessary events, of missing others, the politics of family and friends. But more than that, I resent the quantum of grief that appears around the holidays. The coalescing of anxiety and worry and fear that is the necessary complement to holiday cheer.

I am lucky enough to dodge most of that, but I see its effects, feel them ripple. People who are torn between sides of split families, dragged about and forced, unwilling, into the middle of arguments that are not their own. Children who still hope that their missing fathers will return with presents, with love, with anything. The spike of violence, both self-inflicted and external, which always happens around this time of year.

And of course, with that, my own inability to help, to soothe wounds, to salve the souls and spirits of others. It is hard, any year, at any time, to hear about death, violence, crime, drama. It's even harder to hear about it now, as we are all supposedly turning our minds towards peace on earth and goodwill towards humans.

I can't watch dramas anymore. Most of my media consumption is comedies, documentaries, cartoons, fantasy - things that poke fun at the world and play with reality. I don't need any added atrocities from faux-life on television. I get them aplenty, secondhand, from my youth. This time of year especially.

So educators, parents, friends, and humans out there - be extra kind to each other in this next month. These are the moments where we are bound by the expectation of joy, and are all equally stressed by the same. Time alone, time to process, time to reflect, time to heal - all these must be a part of our holiday celebrations. Beyond the glitter, there is something hard underneath that must be acknowledged and dealt with, not ignored. 

I hope you have Happy Holidays, and that those around you share in the brightness.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Birth and Democracy

Obviously, as with all previous efforts, I have not succeeded in regular blogging. Regardless:

Thanks to my involvement in the Teacher Leadership Initiative - and through my work with my local union, the EAW - I am currently in Florida at the Representative Assembly.

It is incredible.

I have known that the United Stated was not a democracy for quite a while. We are a republic, or a bureaucracy, or an oligarchy, or a mercantalist state, however you want to put it. But we are not a democracy. I thought for a long time that a democracy was a myth, that there was no way for large bodies of people to truly progress instead of bickering.

Turns out I was wrong.

Stepping on to the floor of the RA, almost 7,000 teachers are speaking, working, talking, sharing, making motions both grandoise and petty, making smart comments and foolish ones. Some are focused on the screens and comments like lasers. Some are asleep. But they are all there, and when they vote, every voice rings out across the room.

I have reservations, but I won't post them today. I just want to remember for the rest of my life the feeling of being part of the voting body, part of the group making decisions to guide a national organization, being there and listening and speaking and shouting and laughing. The goosebumps as I was part of a two hour debate on supporting the removal of the confederate flag. The highs and lows and at the end of that segment, a feeling that I would have liked something more radical passed, but knowing that something in the right direction moved, because the body willed it so.

Someone asked Lily Eskelson-Garcia a question from the floor today. I don't even remember it was, but it began "Can I..." and Lily's response was "You can do anything. You are the RA."

I'm excited for two more long, grueling, exciting, tedious, substantive days of doing the work of the RA. 

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Narrative of the Classroom

I have been preoccupied with all manners of things - the incipient warmth, teaching, becoming more involved with my union, learning to play guitar, napping - and have not been writing as much. That being said, having a blog actually set up again makes it easier to come back to this world.

I've been working my way incredibly sporadically through Jay Gillen's Educating for Insurgency, which is a fascinating read. I skipped to a section today which speaks to me: a discussion as actions in the classroom as scenes in a play. Depending on the eyes of the observer, the scene speaks differently. As a believer in narrative living - that the stories we identify with shape our lives more than anything else - this is right up my alley.

Gillen's initial example is of a teacher quietly talking to a student and offering math advice as the student keeps repeating "Fuck you, get away from me." I've lived this scene, or a version of it, a few times.

The standard interpretation of this is something along the lines of "the student is rebelling. They are acting inappropriately. The teacher's response should be to remove the student, call the vice principal, send the student to detention, etc."

An alternate interpretation might be something like "the student is having a bad day. They're trying to push away, but the teacher should do their best to re-engage them. The other students in the class are still working, so what real harm is done? The teacher knows it's not a personal attack; the student has larger issues in their lives."

The second narrative is a harder one to live through and a harder one to deal with. It is not one that can be legislated. The Department of Education will not write up "School discipline must be enforced unless a student is having a really bad day." Yet, as educators, that line is one that we need to be aware of and to walk.

That first narrative - the authoritarian and punitive one - leads nowhere. It leads to suspensions and expulsions. It leads to poor relationships and disengaged students. It is the beginning of the school-to-prison pipeline, of high blood pressure for educators, and for despair and disengagement for students. It is also more traditional, easier to fall into, and a crutch for teachers, students, and administrators.

The second is more difficult. It continues into constructive talks and positive change... or maybe it doesn't. Maybe it leads into more outbreaks and continued tensions. It does not lead to an easy fix, but it does lay the groundwork for a difficult fix. It starts building trust and empathy. Perhaps, eventually, it leads to success.

This narrative change is at the core of great teaching and great classrooms. Great teachers must change the narrative of oppression in schools into one of real, difficult, and true empowerment for their students.

Let's get to work.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Toolbox: Motivating with Secret Challenges

In an attempt at clarity and organization, I'll be labeling some practice-based posts as "Toolbox" posts. Like this one!

Youth need help to build their own internal motivation, both for being good academics and for being good people. Some of them develop this early, from their home environment - others take much longer.

To sum up a lot of research: strategies which build internal motivation and positive environments help youth build strong behaviors. Strategies which incentivize good behavior and create external reward systems don't - they will create good behavior in the short term, but lead to issues in the long term.

In my classroom, I think I've hit a fairly solid balance between internal and external motivations for my students, pulling a bit from behaviorism and traditional psychology as well as some of the research behind motivation and habituation.

I use Secret Challenges - secret, directed goals which recognize good behavior.

Every day, there is a secret challenge in my class. At the end of the class (or sometimes right as the action is completed), with much embarrassment and applause, I reveal who won. They winner gets to take a prize from my box of dollar-store goodies - things like spider rings, finger lights, glowsticks, temporary tattoos, etc.
(and cheap, too)


The challenges fall into two broad categories: academic or social. Academic challenges are for academic, high-school ready behavior. Social challenges are for social behavior as good friends, classmates, or citizens.

6 of ~30 that I useStudents get introduced to the secret challenges at the beginning of seventh grade, and the idea is always met with bewilderment and delight. For the first week, the secret challenges are easy. "Be polite" and "Ask questions" and "explain your thinking" are common. Youth start to do those things more often each day - often including daily loud compliments just in case

6 of ~30 I use

Academic challenges get introduced later, and generally align with specific goals. They are achieved by being a good academic. Common ones include "take exceptional notes" and "be a good group facilitator", but they vary to include all sorts of things.
Some days there are no challenge winners. Students always ask me what the challenge was - and I tell them that they'll find out tomorrow. There is some slight competition among them, but since I don't make the list of winners public, they mostly just congratulate whoever has won and continue doing their best the next day.

Since the students never know what the challenge is, they can't just tailor their behavior to that one incentive. In order to have the best chance of winning, they just need to be amazing people every day. In addition, secret challenges are a great way to point out kids who are not normally recognized. Secret challenges for impulse control can acknowledge students who succeed in not interrupting others. Secret challenges to do their bellwork quickly can help build the routine of coming in and getting to work.

In essence, a secret challenge system lets you encourage good behavior every day, in different ways, while still keeping some fun and mystery in your class.

Like the idea? Use it!