Inspirational Teacher Mugs

My collection of inspirational teacher mugs gifted to me by students is growing. And how hilarious/awesome are they?

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Something No One Mentions About Teaching

Every year I have taught in my career thus far has been at a new and unfamiliar school system. I taught at Lawrence Public High School for one year before moving on. My student teaching at Newburyport High School was only meant to last a single semester. My first year teaching at Lexington Christian Academy was a dream. And now, for the 2017-2018 academic year, I am returning to a familiar school and faculty for the first time. And I am finding some things I didn’t expect!

While I am unequivocally and wholeheartedly thrilled to be back in Room 212 with my LCA family, I was not prepared for the sense of loss and heavy-heartedness that comes with a transition of this kind. Let me preface this by saying that I absolutely adore my new group of 10th graders. They are precocious, enthusiastic, hilarious, messy, and creative; I’m very lucky to have them in my classes. But they are also a change from last year. They don’t know me, and, despite the fact that we are a month into school, I don’t really know them. Yet.

Looking back through the rose-tinted glow of my first full-time year of teaching, I think I forgot how hard it is for students and teachers to learn one another in the first few weeks of a new school year. Before we can joke, take risks, go deep, and really work together, my students and I have to develop rapport, relationship, and trust. Last year my students and I labored alongside one another, sharing successes and hardships in their academic, social, personal, and spiritual lives. We grew together as individuals and as a small community of learners that was part of a larger community of learners. By the end of the year, we had built something unique and complex and wonderful. But, as I said, that was the END of the year. All of that work came to a kind of end with the final academic semester.

My students graduated from 10th grade. They are in 11th grade now, and their job is to build entirely new learning communities and relationships with new teachers. It’s important that they move on from the community we built together. It’s important that they move on from my classroom, and I find deep joy and beauty in the natural evolution and growth that reflects. But it is also somewhat naive to overlook the sense of sadness that accompanies this whole process. It is important that most, admittedly not all, of what we built together comes to an end.

At the same time, I am now responsible for starting over with an entirely new group of faces, lives, backgrounds, fears, passions, and dreams. I begin again with students who might not love the lessons that last year’s community loved or who might not be ready for the playful banter I so enjoyed with my group from last year. This group will have different strengths and unfamiliar or unexpected weaknesses. I have to learn them, and they have to learn me. We have to make mistakes together and create our own rituals and memories. It’s a daunting prospect.

I am so deeply honored and excited to be working with my current 10th graders. And I love them just as much as I loved my 10th graders from last year. But they are different and new. They mean something else has ended. And, while they are the best and most laughter-filled way to spend my days, they are a significant change from what I knew and loved last year. I have a firm sense of peace and certainty that my class and I will create our own sense of community and scholarship this year. But, especially as I ask around and find that so many of my coworkers exprience the same sadness, I do think it’s odd that no one really mentions how starting a new school year means ending an old one, which is both somber and stunning all at once.

 

 

My 2017-2018 Teaching Manifesto

The 2017-2018 academic year is right around the corner and, per the urging of fellow teacher/blogger Susan G. Barber, I have set aside some time to compose my manifesto. These are my commitments to myself, to my colleagues, and to my students for this academic year. My goal is to be intentional, focused, and public about my standards for this academic year. I want to be transparent and tenacious about this manifesto, and I hope to make a yearly ritual out of this process, regularly assessing and refocusing my attitudes, philosophies, and standards for myself and my classroom. So, for my 2017-2018 manifesto,

I will honor my students.

  • I will be careful with their time. I will not overload them with homework, but will instead be conscious of spacing assignments and deadlines. I will only ask them to do what I feel is most necessary for their success, and I will not intentionally ask them to sacrifice necessary sleep, extracurricular, or family time for my class.
  • I will place their personal and educational needs over my desires for how my classroom looks and unfolds. This may mean shifting deadlines, rearranging schedules, adjusting assignments, or repurposing my carefully planned class time. I will not cling to my own visions for my class out of vanity, selfishness, or personal goals.
  • When my students share reactions, emotions, or expectations, I will carefully listen, process what they say, and incorporate their feedback into our class time as much as I can.
  • I will build relationships with my students. I will attend games, performances, and awards ceremonies. When students stop by to talk, I will take time to stop what I am working on and have conversations with them. I will make an effort to stay aware of what is going on with them inside and outside of my classroom so that I can understand and pray for them as people as well as students.
  • I will work passionately and diligently to make sure that the lessons, assignments, and assessments I am providing my students with are high quality, well-researched, and deeply thought out. I will create opportunities for collaboration, real-world experience, experimentation, and exploration.
  • I will only speak with positivity and respect about my students, whether or not they are there to hear what I say. When my students can hear what I am saying, I will make a conscious effort to praise and affirm each one of them.
  • I will resist the temptation to rely on quick grading schemes, easy teacher-centric lessons, and passive teaching. I will continue to push myself to do the extra work required to promote student choice, empowerment, and involvement.
  • I will allow my students to be individuals, celebrating their differences and creating opportunities for them to engage with literature and composition in ways that interest and challenge each one of them. I will not ask for uniformity or standardization, and I will push myself to recognize unique gifts, interests, and abilities, explicitly affirming each student individually.
  • I will enjoy my students, laughing, learning, and playing with them. We will drink tea, eat snacks, and take breaks together in addition to working and learning alongside one another.

I will honor my colleagues.

  • I will seek out guidance and advice from my colleagues on questions I have in my classroom. I will ask for support and rely on their experience, even if I  feel am capable of resolving my concerns without their assistance.
  • I will cheerfully provide them with my encouragement and support whenever I possibly can, even if it detracts from my free time or cramps my schedule.
  • I will continue to build personal relationships with my colleagues, taking time to get to know them better, remembering interests that they have expressed, and responding with prayer and support when they share frustrations or struggles in their lives.
  • I will enjoy my colleagues, laughing, learning, and playing with them. We will drink tea, eat snacks, and take breaks together in addition to working and learning alongside one another.

I will honor my scholarship.

  • I will stay current in my field. I will continue to make time to research, write, and publish during the school year, resisting the urge to place my scholarship on the back burner. This may be as simple as continuing to read articles and books within my areas of research, or it may involve conference presentations or publications.
  • I will not guilt myself into dedicating time to scholarship just for the sake of continuing my research or achieving career status. I will only give my time to topics and opportunities that capture my interest and authentically spill over into my classroom practice.
  • I will continue to reflect on my practice and connect with others in my field through my blog and Twitter account.
  • I will make time to continue my own practices as a reader and a writer, creating space to read and write for a variety of personal and enjoyable reasons.

I will honor myself.

  • I will make time for my life outside of school. I will spend quality time with my family, cuddle my dogs, and allow myself to forget school work intermittently.
  • I will prioritize my physical well-being. I will do my best to keep myself reasonably well-fed, well-rested, and physically active.
  • I will maintain a healthy, guilt-free faith life, praying, worshipping, and resting in ways that bring me closer to God, enrich my daily life, and shape my pedagogy.
  • I will push myself to be my best, but I will be kind to myself when I fall short.

I am sure there are things I should add, but this, at least, is my manifesto for this next academic year! And I can’t wait to start.

 

Revisiting the Student Experience

It’s been quite some time since someone has marked up my writing with red pen or given me a homework assignment with a deadline that I was genuinely worried about meeting. I had almost forgotten that unpleasant feeling that settles in my stomach as an instructor starts writing rapidly and prolifically concerning something I have only a very vague understanding of.

But one of my goals for this summer is to dive headlong back into Arabic classes. Back when I was visiting my family in Syria each summer, I could read, write, and speak much more capably than I do now; however, as my knowledge falls into disuse, I feel my hard-earned conversational skills eroding. So, for the last 3 weeks, I’ve been driving into Boston to meet with a tutor 2 days a week for 2-hour Arabic classes.

I told her I wanted to move quickly. I told her not to go easy on me and to expect me to use my time in between classes ambitiously and effectively. And she really took that to heart. So, as I hurtle through the dusty archives of my Arabic language skills, I find myself once again seated in the place of one of my students, sitting in observant silence and wondering what in the world I have gotten myself into.

While I am excited about and grateful for the opportunity to brush up on my Arabic language skills, I am also finding an unexpected and deeply valuable treasure in revisiting the student experience. During the school year, I spend my days asking students to push themselves, develop trust in their own intellectual capacities, take risks, embrace failure, and ask questions fearlessly. With what is really only a little distance between myself and my time as a student, I am finding that I have already begun to forget the challenges and emotions surrounding these undertakings. Being a student is really really hard. And scary and overwhelming. When it goes well, it is also exhilarating and empowering. But there is no way around the need to operate outside our own comfort zones when sitting in the role of a student exploring some new skill, field, or idea. And if I’m going to ask my students to do this boldly, it is important that I be willing and able to do the same in my own life.

I can already feel the ways in which this experience will strengthen my ability to empathize and connect with my students as they grapple with some of the very challenges I am facing as a student this summer. My hope is that, as I intentionally observe my own responses and struggles in my own learning experience, I am able to more gently, insightfully, and effectively encourage my own students in their extremely complex and important roles.

I Believe 3 Things About Reading for Fun

Summer is here. My manic school year days are slowly decelerating into a warm, easy rhythm. Although my time still feels full with a myriad of small tasks required to get our somewhat derailed lives back on track, I am finally able to set aside the time to reach into my pile of “for fun” reading books. The stack has been accumulating since the end of last summer, which was the last time I could plausibly read for pleasure. But summer is back again in all its humid goodness, and I couldn’t be more ready to sink into the pages of a book that I chose simply because I thought it sounded good.

Over the years, I’ve gotten fairly good at reading for a variety of purposes OTHER than for fun. I am pretty good at reading to understand, to memorize, to meet a time crunch, to search for specific information, to check facts etc. I mean, I’m an English teacher now, so these tasks are kind of inherent in my daily life. I have even learned to enjoy reading for some of these end goals. But returning to my pleasure reading pile this summer has reminded me of 3 very important personal beliefs.

  1. There is no kind of reading like pleasure reading. I can sometimes forget the immersive sensation of losing touch with the world around me as my mind and emotions detach from reality and latch organically and enthusiastically to some novel or short story or poem that has captured my attention. It is a welcome and familiar thrill to find myself elaborately constructing my own, unique visions and interpretations of places, people, and situations in my mind, creating my own reading experience and building something that draws in both my own life story, imagination, and personality as well as the author’s carefully crafted composition. There is simply nothing quite like it.
  2. Teachers of reading and writing need to make time to read for pleasure. So does everyone, but especially teachers of reading and writing. If we want our students to be fascinated, intrigued, or consumed by the compositions they interact with, we need to model that. We need to have an intimate familiarity with the feeling of that magnetic connection to and investment in a story, idea, or image so we can explain it, recognize it, and work towards creating it in our students. I see in myself how easy it is to forget the joy and simple sense of play in reading just for the fun of it; as an educator, it is essential that I not forget.
  3. Teachers of reading and writing need to create time and opportunities to allow their students to read for pleasure. This is difficult; as with most things in life, you have to give something up to achieve this. In my classes last year, I sacrificed a few assignments I had planned in order to keep the pace at a place where students could enjoy what we were reading. I also did the extra leg work required to give students some choices in their reading, allowing them time and opportunity to recognize and choose what they gravitated towards. Student life hurtles by at a breakneck pace; even students who love to read won’t have time to read for fun unless their teachers give it to them. And if we don’t give it to them, how many kids will forget entirely what it feels like? Or never even get a chance to feel it? It’s our job to make the time for them.

I won’t make the claim that these are particularly complex or scholarly beliefs. Nevertheless, I find myself consistently forgetting them, sliding them into the back of my mind and letting them gather dust while I crash through my days in a frenzy of productivity.

Thankfully, there is quiet, warm summer to remind me of my dusty beliefs. Thankfully there are porch swings and glasses of lemonade and happy dogs all just waiting for me to pull up a good book and dive in. Thank goodness.

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Reflecting with My 9th Graders

As a final assigned post on their freshmen blogs, I asked my 9th graders to reflect back on their rapidly dwindling academic year, answering (in at least 300 words) one or more of the following questions:

What has been the hardest thing about this past year?

-What is one thing from this past year that you are deeply proud of?

-What is something you have learned about life this year that you will remember going into 10th grade?

-What is something you have learned about yourself this year that you will remember going into 10th grade?

-If you could change one thing from this past year, what would it be?

As I was explaining the value in reflections such as these, I got to thinking that I might as well take my own advice and join my students in the exercise. And so, as my freshmen ponder their experiences over this past academic year, I am choosing to do so alongside them, looking back carefully at my first year here at LCA as I sit in my sunny spot on the school’s lawn.

-What has been the hardest thing about this past year? Grading. I don’t at all mind spending time at home reading student papers and giving comments. The harder part for me has been trying to assign meaningful numerical values to somewhat subjective, nebulous qualities like voice, flow, intensity, depth etc. I try to be objective while still considering my personal tendencies. I’ve also gotten to know my students very well, and I like to think that I have a sense for where each one is at. I know what they are working on in their writing, what is particularly difficult for them, and what aspects of assignments bring out their creativity and potential. I’m often aware of factors at home that absolutely must be impacting their scholarly work. I have struggled this year to assign numbers to work that students have done when I know each student personally and at least something about the process each one went through to create the thing sitting in front of me waiting for a number grade. I want my grading to be honest, ethical, and fair, but also supportive and safe; this has been difficult.

-What is one thing from this past year that you are deeply proud of? I actually predominantly teach 10th graders, whom I love so much it’s ridiculous, but the thing I am the most proud of this year is the writing quality of my 9th graders. They were a ragtag gang when we started the year, representing a remarkable range of ability levels and content knowledge. They will tell you this themselves; some of them were very far behind in skill and experience. We worked really really hard together this year, and I am so deeply proud of the ways in which their writing has developed and strengthened. Each student has made tremendous progress in their own ways.

-What is something you have learned about life this year that you will remember going into 10th grade your next year of teaching? My colleagues are a storehouse of support, wisdom, solidarity, and insight. They know me, they know the school, and they know their craft. Anytime I have reached outside of my discipline or my own grade level to get feedback from one of my fellow teachers here at LCA, I have been richly rewarded. They also humble me with the way they love their students. They are fiercely protective of their students, and they inspire me with their tenacity. This year I have learned how stunningly impressive my colleagues are and how willing they are to support me as I grow into my own as an educator. I’ll make sure to use that knowledge next year.

-What is something you have learned about yourself this year that you will remember going into 10th grade your next year of teaching? This was the year, to the best of my own knowledge and self-awareness, that I learned how much I love to teach. This was my first  year with a classroom that was entirely my own. It was my first year in a school that trusts me enough to give me autonomy over my curriculum and coursework. It was the first time I was responsible for the academic, emotional, mental, and spiritual wellbeing of a group of students for an entire academic year. It was the first time I designed every single lesson plan for every single text in every single class. And everything in me rang with just how right it is for me. I love digging deep into words, how they work, how we use them, and what they can do. I will never get tired of laughing, playing, and learning with groups of students who constantly humble me with their insight and capacity to cut right to the heart of complicated issues. I don’t foresee myself getting tired of hearing a student say, “OHHHH!!!!” as understanding dawns or “Mmmm, this is just like when we talked about _____________ last week,” making connections I didn’t see. I love teaching, and I think that this was the year I learned with certainty that I was made to teach.

-If you could change one thing from this past year, what would it be? Seeing as how I’ve met my own 300-word benchmark, I think I’ll answer both honestly and succinctly. I’m not saying it was a perfect year, but I don’t really think I’d change a thing. I’ve grown and learned so much this year, and I can honestly say I enjoyed each moment and phase. I am genuinely sad to see this year draw to a close.

So there you have it! My past academic year in at least 300 words. It’s been a beauty!

 

Using Words for Good II

In a recent post, I blogged about the power of words to make tangible differences in and for communities and individuals. I talked about this specifically in light of some of the ways I had seen Lexington Christian Academy students use composition and words to support and connect with one another.

Well, at 6:30am on this dreary Thursday morning, I strolled into the freshmen hallway, and those LCA students were at it again. Anonymous freshmen scrawled simple, but powerful messages of kindness, acceptance, and encouragement on happy yellow post-its stuck to the front of every single freshmen locker. No one was left out. Everyone was included. Simple, but powerful. I love my job almost as much as I love my kind and clever students.

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