Tuesday, October 29, 2013

If we have the courage

at Two Writing Teachers!
"All our dreams can come true, 
if we have the courage to pursue them." 
-- Walt Disney

Teachers don't get many chances for outside input on our work.  Every once in a while, an administrator might drop in to observe or evaluate, but most of the time, we're on our own in our little classroom bubbles with the kids.  We reflect, we seek student feedback, and we collect evidence, but we are so closely involved in our work that it's easy to wonder how others might perceive it.  We know our students are learning... but what would an outsider see?  Would someone else, unfamiliar with the detailed inner workings of our instruction, notice all the learning that we work so hard to facilitate?  What kind of a difference are we really making?

That's why I've been amazed at the reactions of several doctoral students are observing my classroom in preparation for a research study: after just a few observations, their comments and questions to me articulate my most ardent beliefs and philosophies.  It's evident that they're seeing exactly the atmosphere I've worked so hard to foster.

"Your students are all so happy and comfortable!"
"Your classroom has many opportunities for real communication."
"I'm so interested in how you use technology to help your students interact."
"Do you believe that reading and writing are interconnected?"
"Your class activities are so meaningful for students!"
"You really know each student's writing and what they need!"

I've been feeling the sparks of magic in my classroom this year, but it's even more incredible to have my perceptions validated by outside observers.  I feel like my classroom is finally becoming the place I've dreamed of, and I'm really becoming the teacher I want to be.  When I think about how this has happened, that Disney quote pops into my head and I realize just how much courage it's taken:

  • Courage to share your real self with a roomful of teenagers.
  • Courage to let them raise their voices and share their stories.
  • Courage to try things you've never done before.
  • Courage to fail and try again.
  • Courage to challenge the way things are.
  • Courage to do things that nobody around you is doing.
  • Courage to reach out to people you've never met.
  • Courage to go where the learning leads, even if it wasn't where you'd planned.
  • Courage to give up control.
  • Courage to keep searching.
  • Courage to have the tough conversations.
  • Courage to keep showing that you care, even when it doesn't seem to make a difference.
  • Courage to be the one they can trust.
  • Courage to stand up for them.
  • Courage to keep believing.

Thank you for helping me find my courage. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

My First Eid Al-Adha

at Two Writing Teachers!
As we walk from our car to the apartment building, H. comes bursting onto the front step, a whirl of wispy sky-blue sari and hijab.  Beneath her matching blue eye-shadow, her eyes sparkle with a giddiness that instantly reminds me of Christmas morning.  "Thank you for coming!!!!" she gushes as she leads us through the door.

Once we're ushered into the kitchen, a tantalizing mix of new and familiar sights and aromas floods my brain.  
Ooh, what are those?  
Oh boy, that's the same meat and rice she brought to school last year!
Wow, that dessert looks like just flan!

It looks like a reasonable amount of food for her family and us... until they declare that they've eaten so much all day that they're not going to eat!  All this food is for four people: me, my husband, my colleague, and her husband!
What a feast!
They grin while we take pictures of the food and giggle as we attempt to learn the Bengali names they teach us for each dish.  I can't remember them to save my life, but that doesn't stop my taste buds from relishing each new taste!

First, appetizers: something like egg rolls with an extra crunchy coating, and some little crispy dough balls.  My first tentative nibbles turn into enthusiastic mouthfuls.  Next, a delicious soup made of something similar to chickpeas (but whiter) with a special sour sauce to mix in.  H's mom absolutely glows with pride as we emit a chorus of "Mmmmmmm"s and dig in.  For the main course, the tender roasted meat and savory rice that I remember from the feast H's mom brought to school after finals in June.

Between bites, we chat about what I've read about the holiday and the family tells us about going to the mosque, visiting relatives, and preparing all the food.  Some family members actually went somewhere to butcher their own meat (an important part of Eid Al-Adha), and most of the vegetables are fresh from their garden!  As we pass food, laugh, and share stories, we are not two Christians, two Mormons, and a Muslim family.  We are not teachers, students, and parents.  We're just people learning from each other, discovering what we have in common, and enjoying time together.

And when our stomachs aren't sure they have any more room... not one but THREE desserts! I'm excited to explain to the family that one looks and tastes just like flan, which they've never heard of.  Another of the desserts is a different kind of custard, and the third is an intriguing bowl of tiny red balls, which H. keeps calling "the egg one".  All are delicious!

Excited by our interest in how the food was prepared, H's mom starts bringing plants in from the garden.  She shows us a chili pepper plant with the tiniest baby peppers I've ever seen, proudly flips through her phone to find pictures of out-of-season plants, and finally leads us out the back door, where the whole patio is covered in potted plants and trellises.  Her eyes shine with excitement as we "ooh" and "ahh" over the incredible variety of unique plants.

They told us the name of this vegetable in Bengali, but they didn't know it in English.
Does anybody know what it is?  I've never seen anything like it!
Too soon, it's getting late, and the family starts shoving leftover containers at us.  "We have much more," they urge us as we place modest amounts of food in a few containers.  When H.'s mom stops Husband from closing a container and starts shoveling in more rice with a serving spoon, we get it.  We are supposed to take ALL of the food!  They all beam as we pile it in the containers.  "Come back any time!"  "Yes, next time you must..."

Near the front door, H's dad is actually bouncing with excitement like a little boy. "We are so glad you come!" he keeps repeating as we try to thank him.

As we drive home, Husband and I can't stop chattering with that same Christmas-morning exuberance, and the same thoughts keep running through my head:
This is why I teach.  
I just made their day. 
World cultures are so cool.
What if I could connect this way with ALL my students' families?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

All kinds of people

at Two Writing Teachers!
She doesn't even ask anymore if I'll be around after school. Now, she just shows up with an armful of books, grinning.

Almost every afternoon, we sit in my classroom: her dark hair hidden beneath an intricately decorated hijab, my blond hair partially tucked back with a barrette. Her Bengali accent gently lifts her words up and down; my steady American speech sounding flat by comparison. We furrow our brows over biology and chemistry, wade through pages of history, and dive eagerly into writing. Chats about books and classes morph into discussions of families, culture, government, and values. Gritted teeth and stress give way to giggles and smiles.

"I like to be around all kinds of people," she often tells me, as we discuss America or school.  

Lately, she's been teaching me about Eid Al-Adha and how her family prepares. I can't imagine having to do so much cleaning, cooking, shopping, and visiting in the midst of homework, and studying -- let alone actually having to miss school for the big day!  What would it be like if Christmas was just a normal day in a normal week of school?  I know the stress I see on her face would bubble up inside me as well.  However, that doesn't stop her eyes from lighting up with animated anticipation as she chatters away.

"You should come to my house for Eid!" she exclaimed one day last week.
"Really? I'd be honored... Check with your family, though!"
The next day, she walked into my class beaming. "My mom says you can come!"

So I asked what clothes I should wear ("just your normal clothes") and I started to read about the holiday. I'm captivated by the spirit of generosity that permeates the celebration, and I'm fascinated that it has its roots in that story about Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son. I learned that story in Sunday school. How can so many wars have been fought between people who share the same stories?

When it comes right down to it, all kinds of people have a lot more to bring us together than to separate us. H. knows that, because she sees people's hearts.  With students like her building the future, I hope a lot more holiday celebrations will look like the one I'm attending tonight: all kinds of people being human together.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


at Two Writing Teachers!
This fall, something has been different in my classroom.  Yes, the room is completely mine this year, and I gave it a massive makeover.  Sure, I have some new students mixed in with some of my students from last year.  Certainly, I'm more confident in my teaching and more comfortable in the building this year.  But there's something else...

Something buzzing.  Something humming.  Sparks.  Magic.  DELIGHT.

It started with the postcards.  (By the way, today I got a letter in my school mailbox from a would-have-been incoming freshman who ended up withdrawing before school ever started. I never even met her, but she loved the postcard so much that she wrote me at school to say that she's sorry she can't be in my class!)

Then I carefully cultivated our writing community, and the StoryBox helped it blossom.

In the midst of pre-assessments, meetings, and plans, myriad little moments with students sparkled with joy and reminded me that, while I'm exhausted, it's worth it.

Last week, the sparks came together into a bright shower of fireworks as we began the Global Read-Aloud.  This is the first time I've read a novel aloud, and I just love the experience of talking and thinking through a story together, day after day.  I love the incredible discussions that Sharon Draper's Out of My Mind is generating.

I love wondering and predicting and finding more information together.  I love noticing great words and phrases as we read.  I love composing tweets as a class as we connect to the larger shared experience of the GRA.

Most of all, I love how students walk into my classroom already chattering about the story.
 "Could you believe how mean Dr. Hugely was? What a jerk!"
"There's a girl kind of like Melody in my math class!"
"I can't believe how people treat Melody just because her body doesn't work right!"

I love that before the bell rings at the beginning of class, they grab their notebooks & vocabulary sheets and scurry to the open area on the floor... whether or not the whiteboard actually says read-aloud is first!  (And I love that they whine if it's not!)

I love that when someone has been absent, I don't have to ask students to fill her in... because they're already re-capping what happened!  "D, you missed the funniest part yesterday!  Melody's mom went crazy!"

Last Thursday, I hadn't planned to read aloud because students buddy-read an article about cerebral palsy that another class had tweeted out.  I wanted to reserve the rest of class for writing our StoryBox pieces.  However, after reading and discussing the article with their partners, my 6th period students started begging to still read aloud!  

"I was so excited to come to class today to read this book," one student whined. 
"Me too!  I couldn't wait to come to this class!" another interjected.

"Don't you want to keep working on your writing for the StoryBox?"  Ever since we started the StoryBox Project, they've been begging to write every day, so I couldn't believe they wanted to skip writing to read together, especially when they just spent the first part of class reading an article!  However, the begging and whining was pretty priceless, so I put it up for a vote.  Every single hand went up in favor of reading more of the story together!  Their eyes twinkled as they looked around the room and looked at me.  How could I deny such DELIGHT for learning?

"Ok, let's go back to Melody's world... we'll write tomorrow!"  As I grinned and mentally began re-arranging the next few days of lesson plans, they scampered across the room to fight over the pillows, claim the rolly chairs, and situate themselves on the floor.  

The icing on the cake?  Three Korean doctoral students were observing my class for the first time that day.  For several of them, it was their very first time seeing an American high school class.  They thought I was magic!  I think the magic was mostly Sharon Draper... but I also know something special is brewing in my classroom!  

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A good kind of tired

at Two Writing Teachers!
Lately, I'm barely able to drag myself from the table to the couch after dinner.  Keeping my eyes open until bedtime is a chore.  As soon as I lie down in bed (and get myself to stop thinking about school), I'm sound asleep.

However, it's a good kind of tired.  It's the kind of tired that leaves your heart happy, because you know the work is good.

How good?

1. Just in case my students weren't excited enough about writing for the StoryBox Project, our local newspaper did an article about our work with the project!  My students were absolutely beaming with pride when it was published!  Moreover, one of my former middle school colleagues shared the article on Facebook with a note about how proud she was, and our district ELL coordinator emailed it to all the other ELL teachers with a comment about how special it was.

2. As we're finishing up our StoryBox stories, we're beginning another exciting project: the Global Read Aloud!  Students are loving Out of My Mind so far, and we're excited to build relationships with other classes through our reading.  There's just nothing like the feeling of being part of something bigger than our classroom!

3. So many other little moments that sparkle like grains of crystal in the shifting sand of everyday work:

  • The new student who was so proud of being quoted in the newspaper article that he kept pointing at it, saying "That's me!  Right there!" and reading his name.  ("I've only been here for two weeks!!!" he exclaimed.)
  • The student who ran in and hugged me yesterday morning because she loved the Get Well card my classes made for her: "It made me feel special."
  • The teacher from another building who emailed to say that my students "had good things to say" about me when they babysat for her parent meeting.
  • The staff meeting where my principal told everyone about my summer postcards because he was so excited about how I'm working to build positive relationships with my students.
  • The middle school colleague who emails every once in a while to say that he's enjoyed one of my blog posts or to compliment me on something I've done.
  • The student who stays after school for help with homework nearly every day, and the giggles we usually collapse into at some point while working through a difficult question or attempting to find a creative way to remember a certain concept.
  • Furrowed brows and slight smiles during writing time.
  • Gasps and sighs and wide eyes during read aloud. (and whining when we stop!)
  • Happy sparks in student eyes when they walk into my room, and exclamations of "This class always goes so fast!" when it's time to leave.
Yes, it's a good kind of tired.