Beginnings (Our Endings) Are Beginnings

“We should learn to accept that change is truly the only thing that’s going on always, and learn to ride with it and enjoy it.”

“Fear is real, but so is love.”

Alice Walker

Saying goodbye is something we protect ourselves a lot from in this society.  Just the commonality of the phrase, “See you later” indicates that we like to leave things unfinished.  We like to leave people with the reassurance that the conversation and connection will continue, it’s not over.  Generally, we run from endings and closure.  There is a collective and very human fear of the unknown, and the future is not yet written which, if you think about it, can be scary.

A student of mine said to me this week over our Senior lunch outing as we were talking about growing up, and life, “I know that I have to grown up, Miss.  I just don’t like the idea of it.  I’m scared to graduate.”

I get it.  Change is often scary because we lose the false sense of security and control we have built around ourselves in most situations in order to feel safe.

But what if, rather than avoiding, fearing, or dreading endings, we learned to see them another way?  What if we saw endings as beginnings, as the chance to have a fresh start, to begin anew stronger, bolder, better–with all that brought our last conversation, adventure, relationship, situation, to it’s finish.  It’s never easy to say goodbye to someone if a part of us fears we will never see them again, but what if we knew that separation is an illusion, that everyone we’ve ever loved is just a thought away at any time?

This is the way I’m choosing to see the end of this school year.

This year, throughout the year, students from all eras of my teaching life have come back to visit which I just love.  I’ve received surprise DMs with photos of a yearbook note I wrote five years ago.  I’ve been asked to officiate weddings for kids I taught so long ago they are now approaching their mid-twenties and rapidly moving toward a phase of life where they know who they are and how they want to serve humanity.  I’ve gotten late night requests for homework help from students on the verge of graduating college–and I’m honored that of all the people they could ask, they would choose me, that teacher they had that one year (or in some cases several years) in high school.

All of these encounters remind me that the love I have for them and the memories that we’ve shared don’t ever die, that our relationship, though no longer technically that of teacher and student is a reciprocal exchange that will go on infinitely.  I know that my students, and the experience of being their teacher, will be a part of me wherever I go, and forever.  I know that for many of them, the feeling is mutual.

This isn’t going to be a long, or complicated blog post because

  1. I’m in the middle of an INSANE amount of projects and collaborations that need my attention and energy.
  2. The message is simple.  I don’t need a lot of words to say it.
  3. Whatever reading this post does for you will be your own medicine.  I have no simple tips or tricks for this lesson in letting go, because I’m still learning it.

I will say that as we finish the school year, and all kinds of feelings of nostalgia descend on our hearts, making them tender, let’s just remember that endings are beginnings too.  As our relationships with our students transform into whatever they are going to be, we serve ourselves and them best by being open to transformation and by remembering to express gratitude for all the lessons we have learned through being a part of their stories.

It’s a strange thing to meet someone, pour all that you have into nourishing, loving, hoping for, challenging, cheering on, mentoring, and doing your best to inspire them.  It doesn’t take long for that connection between teacher and student to be forged.  Then, (I’ll use the Portuguese because I like it ‘de repente’) suddenly, the year is over.  It’s time to say goodbye.

I cannot think what my life will be like every day without Karely, Oscar, David, Juan, Daiana, Bethany, Nayellie, Emily, Christian, Noemi, Brian, Joseph, Maria, Daniel, Carolina, Monica, Giovanni, Ingrid, Julio, Gisel, Lizette, and Katya in it.  I’ll be honest.  I don’t even like thinking about it.  I don’t like it at all. My Seniors.  My people.  My lovers of Macbeth and WingStop #hiphoped and procrastination. My 2017-18 school year Period 9/10 class– met for the last time today.  I have learned so much from them.  We have shared each other’s sorrows and triumphs.  When one of us got suspended, we all were willing to go down together in order for things to be made right.  We’ve stayed after school for hours just to prolong the time together.  We’ve traveled half-way around the globe both on the pages of books and in the real world.  We’ve created a classroom community, complete with shared jokes and shared pain that belong only to us.  This is what teaching is made of.  This is the good stuff.  This is why this work is the best work, the real work, the only work.

So I leave you with this: May your beginnings that turn into endings become new beginnings.  May you find peace in transformation that comes when we learn to let go or say goodbye perhaps with a little sorrow, but with more joy and gratitude for all that has passed and with even greater optimism for all that is before us–the wonders of which we cannot yet know.

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A Labor of Love

“When I had nothing to lose, I had everything.”–Paulo Coelho

Dear Teachers,

I can’t remember the precise moment I fell in love with teaching, can you?  If you really think about it, do you really think falling in love with teaching is something one decides to do?  Those of us who have made it past those tumultuous first five years when (statistically speaking) our chances of quitting are far greater than our chances of staying, know that teaching isn’t what we do, it is who we are.  I come from a long line of teachers. My grandmother, two great-aunts, and both of my parents were teachers. So, you could say that I was cultivated in conditions that would make this path undeniable, unavoidable.  I like to believe it was written in the stars, that my intuition, the circumstances of my birth, and timing placed me in just the right position to find my life’s work.  I knew, from the very first class I taught, that I belong with the children.  I belong with you.  So here I am, and here I will remain.  

Not a day goes by that I am not appreciative of the gift that teaching has been and still is in my life….

This love is constant – There isn’t really a moment when teaching isn’t on my mind.  I think about my students when one of them has had a particularly hard day, or had to leave my classroom in tears.  I feel the love for my community when Seniors or other alumni come back to visit with their babies or stories from college, or good news about trips they have planned.  I show love for teachers by writing blogs, joining Twitter chats, and doing my best to capture small moments of the agony, and beauty that characterizes the mood in many classrooms these days.  There is no moment in which I am not thinking about how to make things better for teachers and the children we serve.  At this point, I don’t think I could stop thinking about the work if I tried.  It has become a part of my life, and my identity, and I feel I am better, stronger, able to live more fully because of it.

This love is true – I tell my students often, “If you are going to write something, make it from your heart, and make it true.”  If you read something I’ve written, I can promise you two things –  it will definitely be from my heart, and I can promise you that it will be MY truth.  You may read echoes of the student you once were, the teacher you once had (or are), and you may come away with a better understanding of how we’ve gotten ourselves into the current mess, but what I hope most that you will come away with a sense of empowerment and conviction at the fact that we can and ARE changing this educational landscape for the better–by standing, and acting, together.  When I share my truths with the world, it is with the goal of opening up a space for conversation and transformation, to remind folks that the job of educating a child is a responsibility that belongs to all of us.  When we  do it well, the truth of that is very evident–just as it is when we do it poorly.  I am here for the truth, and I’m here for you, however long it takes us to get to the heart of things…and to begin healing. 

This love is a force – In order to reclaim education, the future, and our intellectual freedom from forces that would willfully contribute to our miseducation, and that of the children, it is essential to speak, but more importantly do the work, letting actions speak for themselves.  I am a black female educator who stands in front of our children every day.  Yet I am well aware that I am one of many voices.  Due to the inequities regarding who gets recognized as an “expert” in educational spaces, I am well aware that there are others, from all walks of life, who do not get heard, who do not feel seen.  Sometimes the inequities within education are enough to make me feel knocked over.  But, I know that together, we are a force equal to, or greater than those that are in opposition.  I know that love is the most powerful force in existence, and when it is applied with passion to a given cause or situation, it can work miracles.  So I stand beside you.  All of you.  Listen, if you see me out there in the world, know that I give hugs.  Hugs are miracles, laughter is a miracle, teamwork is a miracle, and I am here for all these miraculous events.  We are better and stronger, together. Together with our students, and other allies and advocates, we are a force for change.  


But these are strange times…Never before, has the world seen a group of students like those in classrooms today.  Fluent in most forms of technology, multicultural, multilingual, multiethnic, able to travel the world via YouTube, Google cardboard or Oculus, they are able to find introductory information on anything in an instant using Wikipedia–these children are learning all the time.  In an age where information belongs to everyone, and no-one, do we really still need teachers?  This is the eternal question, isn’t it?  When politicians and policy makers get together and make decisions that affect us, yet leave us out of their conversations, they try to make us feel that we are not worth discussing.  TV shows and movies reduce us to our worst stereotypes.  Large, for-profit corporations tell us what to teach and how to teach it, then publicize our inability to produce uniform results in a country that claims it values diversity.   Teachers’ unions are being systematically disassembled.  Tenure has all but disappeared, yet school calendars, bell schedules, and core class selections have stayed the same.  It sometimes feels like society does not trust us–as viral videos of ‘bad teachers’ float all over the web.  Yet, most people have no problem leaving their children with us for hours every single day.

In all honesty, this calling isn’t for everyone.  The insulting trope that, “Those who can’t do…teach” had to have begun with somebody who never set foot in a classroom.  Being an educator is a humbling way to spend the day.  Almost every teacher I know has, at some point or another, been brought to their knees with frustrations about educational inequity, systemic dysfunction, lack of communication, lack of funding, teacher pay, or a host of our other “educational family” problems. 

We regularly say that, “The struggle is real”–because it is.  With cell-phone culture giving birth to a society of insatiable voyeurism, there is the potential for a window into every classroom, and criticism of every teacher.  Each of us, sooner or later has to wrestle with antiquated notions of “professionalism” and an educator “double-consciousness” wherein the self is divided into public, and private.   And so, I have questions: What does it do to a person to have to split oneself in order to survive emotionally, or to maintain job security?  Why can’t society accept us being our true and whole selves?  Is it because we are supposed to be role models for the children?  Why are we held to a higher standard than those leading the country?  What could possibly serve as a foundation, helping us to survive all of this?  Love.  All things are endurable when we, ourselves, are the source of the love for this work.  We are the fountain from which hope springs eternal, along with the courage, talent, and endurance necessary to continue the fight, despite the odds.


We know that teacher enrollment programs across the nation have experienced a staggering decrease in the number of people willing to sign themselves up for the often gratifying, sometimes soul-crushing life of a public servant.  Perhaps the biggest consequence of this is that most high school students will tell you readily and openly that they would rather do anything than sign up to be a teacher. What does that mean for their children, and future generations?  Though Google has made information available in a way that has never been known before, contrary to popular belief, one cannot learn all that one needs to know in life from the Internet. We do more than deliver content. We forge relationships, and help young people navigate the often troublesome waters of childhood and adolescence (think about seventh grade for a minute–yeah–that happened).  We give students a home away from home, with each classroom in every building, in every school acting as a mini-ecosystem, a microcosm for the world, a family of sorts.

So this post is my love letter to teaching, but it is also my love letter to every educator who knows what it really means to dedicate one’s life to the betterment of our world by investing in its children.  This is my tribute to all who are about this messy, chaotic, demanding, frustrating, uplifting, and eternally hopeful life.  I hope that my words, my work, and my love, will uplift, sustain and strengthen you.  I hope that you will feel my eternal optimism–my faith in the power of transformation that comes from minds and hearts meeting each other in spaces where we learn and grow together–willing a better world into existence. I hope that next time we have a presidential debate, education won’t be completely left out of the conversation. I hope those whose path is made a little easier because someone else receives a little less will consider that the true cost of their privilege may be much greater than it initially appears.  I hope we in different communities, states, and regions can work together to re-invent our system of education so that students develop a love of learning that lasts a lifetime.

At its core, education is love in action.  All love requires some kind of an investment, and sometimes, a multitude of sacrifice.  To depart from a system of indoctrination and conformity to one that prizes authentic learning experiences and intellectual exploration above all–is an enormous undertaking.  I always say that children know the value we place upon them by those we place in front of them.  It is always an aspiration of mine to represent the best of us, and to deserve the love, trust, and respect that has been extended my way.  I stand before the children, and before you with a determination to always do better, an unquenchable thirst for more knowledge (always), and a fierce desire to make sure the children, ALL children, are provided with the education they deserve.  The children deserve the best.  May we come together, each with our own flame, and start a fire in the heart of the movement to take education into its next, beautiful stage of transformation.  Happy Teacher Appreciation Week 2018.

Yours with love,

JET ❤

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See what I heard…

Listen, folks.  I may seem like I’m on 10 all the time, and a lot of times I am, but as soon as I sit down, I remember that I am tired.

So, because it is May…

…and because I’m still living and breathing (for the moment).

Here are some of my favorite #heardinclass moments and why I love them so much.   I’m here to let my children speak, be seen, and heard.  Each one of these little anecdotes represents the reason I love what I do, why this work, and being with these kids all day every day means so much to me.  And I know that it means so much to you too.  May these moments bring you a smile, laughter, just a little bit of joy when you need it.  May they remind you of why it is wonderful to do what teachers do and to make what we make–spaces where learning, love, exploration, and magic, happen.  Lord knows laughter really is the medicine that’s best.


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The priorities. The exceptions that get made.  The charity that gets begged for.  For a high school teacher, especially one teaching Seniors, this is what May is made of.

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This is Carolina keeping it real about the workload Seniors face.  She also kept her grades all the way up in spite of how “horrible” things were and is graduating at the top of her class.  She is fierce, loving I don’t think I’ve ever seen her be grumpy, not even when a certain teacher kept falling asleep on her shoulder during that 13 hour flight to Brazil.  Her classmates respect her for always speaking her truth.  I respect the way she unselfishly helps anybody who needs it, in Spanish AND English.  She’s definitely a soul daughter of mine and I will miss her terribly when she graduates this year.

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These days, there’s a lot of emphasis placed on writing a CLO, and not enough on empowering students to be curious, to find their own unique paths to satisfying their curiosity.  I believe in supporting students by having and identifying a targeted way for them to access class content.  But, I also believe that it’s impossible to encapsulate all that happens (or could happen) in that esoteric and beautiful exchange between learner and the whole wide world–in one sentence.  I will not write this blog post incorporating relevant text evidence using content vocabulary from my internal word wall.  I’m sorry but that’s just not how it goes down inside my mind, or how it has ever gone down, if I’m really honest.  The students tell me they like my honesty.

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The endless debate between Christian and Oscar about which of their employers is better–Wal-Mart or Target–is a never ending source of amusement for me.  It literally never gets old.  I cannot even begin to tell you all the roasting that has transpired on this topic, but these two never fail to make me smile or laugh until I cry, and I’m so thankful.  Beyond that, Oscar has an encyclopedic knowledge of hip-hop that I appreciate, and Christian has had my vote for President of the World ever since he wrote the most FIRE essay connecting “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” and the American (in)justice system.  I don’t even like thinking about graduation this year.  I’m going to be a complete mess.

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I have so much respect for the way my students navigate this digital world they are growing up in.  This will be the only time in history when our students who are digital natives are being taught by teachers who are not–and those who learned in a school system using tools that are DRAMATICALLY different from the tools students use today to access information.  Their independence, ingenuity, and curiosity astounds and impresses me every single day.  It is a wonder to watch.

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…until something like this happens and you realize you’ve been put in CHECK.  The days of the “jigsaw activity” are gone, folks.  This lesson changed course SEVERAL times throughout the 90 minutes as I saw that they were one step ahead of me at every stage.  This tweet captured the apex of it all when they kicked the teacher OUT of their back channel conversation and proceeded to collaborate in a shared document and learn ANYWAY.  My CLO and instructions didn’t mean a thing.  They found a way that made more sense to them–so I let them do it.  I have no regrets.

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One of my favorite classes ever.  It was magic.  It was a battle of poems, and I don’t remember which one won.  I do remember what it was like to sit back and listen to them talk about why specific poems were more “culturally relevant” or less “syntactically varied” or more “difficult to understand because of missing historical context”.  Yes, they used that language, and no, I didn’t give them a word bank.  My children are something else.  I was and am so proud of the work they have put in to get to this place.  I don’t really have words to describe how happy this 90 minutes made me, but I’ve got a picture.

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Then you have the philosophers…“Deep Thoughts”, remember those?  I used to know a person who started every class period with them.  The children drop wisdom on the daily and I just try to be there so I can listen and pick it up.

 

Few things get me in my feelings more than when the students help one another and take care of each other.  We have a smaller school community, and these kids have gone to school with one another since forever.  It follows that they’ve loved, and lost together.  They’ve fought one another over many things…and everyone has dated everyone.  But in the end, they have shaped a school climate with love and care at the center, the likes of which I have never seen before–and I’ve taught at 3 other schools.  It is beautiful, and inspiring, and I’m lucky to be surrounded by it every day.

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Quotes from THE READERS

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The NON-READER(S)

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Who are sometimes unprepared…but at least they are honest about it.

Quotes from the writers…

A few just for fun…

One from the class that just gets it done…

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…and I think I’m gonna end with that one.

Strike?!

Everyone knows, in bowling, a strike equals a win.  In life, (and in baseball) if you’ve “struck out” you’ve lost.  When it comes to the state of public education right now, man are we ever–losing, that is.  I’m not really sure where to begin, but it seems, superintendents, privatizers, and tech giants are the only ones in this current climate winning.  So what about the teachers?  What about the kids?  At present, I feel like teachers in my state, and at least two others are that slow bowling ball that slipped off fingers accidentally, the one that lost speed, but still might get a strike–I’ve seen it happen.  You’ve seen it happen.  It’s possible.

When it comes to the service oriented field of education, unlike some other industries, the word, “strike” is and should be an alarm bell for the public who have trusted federal and state governments to: handle their tax money appropriately, decide what their children will be learning, and ensure that professionals deliver high-quality instruction, and prepare our young people for an uncertain future.  On the other hand, news of a possible strike looming also causes some folks to question teacher dedication to students.  I’ve heard more than a few times, “What will happen to the students, their education, their futures, if you stop teaching them for days, weeks, or even months?”  “Do you even really care about the kids if you would abandon your post just because you want more money?”  Such comments sting, but also get straight to the heart of the dual nature of civil servitude in a country that does not know how to show that it values us, by investing in us.  This country needs us, wants the services we provide, but does not respect–or sometimes even realize what it takes–to be us.

Truly investing in us has to mean more than throwing tax money at school districts, trusting it will be handled appropriately.  It has to mean more than that.  It has to mean including us in conversations about us, trusting us to know what good teaching looks like and rather than hiring outside “consultants” with little to no classroom experience to train teachers–empowering us to lift up one another–and paying us accordingly.  It has to mean that average citizens know how crucial it is to vote more than once every four years–especially in elections when school-board and city council members are chosen.


If people only knew, in some places “investing in education” today ACTUALLY–

  • looks like tech giants funding technology grants and not following through to make sure systems are implemented in a way that enhances, rather than replaces interpersonal interaction.  Do we really want the classroom of the future to just be about coming in, opening a Chromebook, and not talking to anybody?
  • looks like funding mid-level positions that may or may not produce immediate and clearly measurable results.  My district has “curriculum partners” –look and see for yourself how many of them there are (90+).  Some of their job responsibilities are to create professional development, design assessments, and provide push-in support for the many teachers who come into the classroom unprepared after attending brief and insufficient teacher preparation programs.  Designing curriculum and assessments, and supporting new teachers are all jobs teachers (and experts in such things) used to do–and be paid for–while teaching.  The results of the millions invested in funding this one department within the district remain inconclusive after several years.  The teacher shortage is real, so hopefully these folks will return to the classroom soon.
  • looks like increasing discipline and police presence in schools.  What can be more hopeless than telling our students we don’t trust them, they are violent, they need to be controlled, and policed, and therefore, we will create conditions in which they do not feel at home–or that they belong?

Unfortunately for those of us on the front lines mandated to implement all the technology pilots, attend all the PD sessions facilitated by folks who are not currently (and some have never been) in the classroom, and given directives to enforce the discipline structures, “investing in education” DOES NOT mean increasing our salaries.


The main reason Denver Classroom Teachers’ Association has stalled in negotiations with the district over pay–and a key reason behind the walkout for teachers in DPS is that ProComp incentives are inconsistently, sometimes never, paid out.  Try to navigate understanding the ProComp website.  Let me know if you can figure it out.  I’ve been trying for five years.

Additional incentives are supposed to make teacher life in my district seem so much more desirable than working anywhere else.  That would be true, if the following things weren’t also true:

One year grant money ran out, and leadership decided to get rid of the “extended year/extended day stipend” which we received to start work three weeks early during first semester, in August.  The A/C never worked, and the district really wasn’t prepared for students to come back that early, so everybody just accepted that one.

Another year, state testing changed from CSAP to TCAP to PARCC, the results about growth were “inconclusive” so nobody got the incentive teachers were told we would get for demonstrating teaching excellence with the groups of students we taught.  That stung a little bit, because the message was, “Work hard, deliver results, but we can’t measure the results, so though we have performance based pay–we can’t really do it.”

The next year, the SLO (Student Learning Objective) measurement tool was found to have some “inconsistencies and errors” that made measuring student growth wildly variable and inaccurate, so bonus distribution was inconsistent and answers about when and how much folks would get were never clearly given.

I have been hung up on by payroll several times when calling to ask about payouts for being rated “Distinguished”–that never came.  Navigating the incentive payouts schedule is confusing and one can never be certain of receiving anything.  Excuses and evasions are plentiful, apparently the money for the district to pay what it claims it will pay, is not.

If neither the public, nor teachers themselves can trust that money invested in education has been spent wisely, or economically on technology integration, teacher pay, teacher training, facilities (do not get me started on the state of the 30+ year old building I’m teaching in), or numerous other things, what happens?


You get teacher walkouts and the potential for a strike.

We obviously want our strike (if we have to have one) to signal a win–for us, and for our students who stand with us.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I can say….

I know that I DON’T want increased police presence in my school or any schools.  I do want an organization like Chicago’s No Cop Academy in my city to fight back against moves to increase police presence in neighborhoods that have historically been marginalized and robbed of resources, like Montbello, and so many others across the nation.

I know that I DON’T want more money spent on mandated PD from curriculum partners or specialists hired to make up for lack of education and training in teachers.  It is insulting and a tremendous waste of resources to assume that everyone, teachers and students alike, is operating from a place of deficiency.  With such an obvious and desperate teacher shortage, hiring under qualified staff, promoting qualified people into middle-level management positions so they can then train the under qualified people who will then want to be promoted to middle-level management makes no sense to me–it seems the kids are the ones who lose in that scenario by constantly being subjected to folks who are still learning and perhaps not yet at the top of their game.

I know that I DON’T want more unsupported (or sporadically supported) technology integration billed as “help” from the tech industry to try and make learning more relevant for 21st century learners.  Folks come in with devices and programs and grant funded positions and apps.  Then, the power doesn’t work, so students can’t charge their chromebooks.  Schoology doesn’t talk to Google Classroom which doesn’t talk to Infinite Campus, so one winds up navigating all of the systems separately, or not at all.  The grant funded positions are for folks who are spread thin, running between three (or more) schools–and they are usually two to three year positions, tops. The apps are cool, but my students need a library…


So, tomorrow at noon, I, along with all other educators across the state of Colorado, will be walking out in solidarity with educators in other states who know that we want, and what we deserve.

First of all–and I am still in shock and disbelief about this one–we deserve so much more than to be left out, completely, from the presidential debates (past and future).

We deserve so much more than to have major conversations about the future of education held without the involvement of folks who’ve been in the classroom, and to have a Secretary of Education who was never a classroom teacher.

We deserve so much more than to have to teach in buildings without heating in the winter, and cooling in the summer.  Learning is affected by the environment.

We deserve so much more than to be told that things like an increased police presence and clear backpacks are the only way to decrease violence in schools when in actuality, increased discipline and surveillance in schools creates conditions that empower those with privilege and bias to commit violence against, further disenfranchise, and oppress Black and Brown students.

We deserve to be paid consistently, fairly, and competitively for our efforts to serve our communities.  Almost every teacher I know has one or two side jobs and the teachers I know who have taken international teaching positions that offer perks like grocery stipends, private drivers, paid housing, airfare to see family twice a year, childcare, etc. do not want to come back–I can’t say that I blame them.

We deserve to be seen as professionals who have dedicated our lives to a cause and to the betterment of this country because we love the youth, have passion for our content, and craft, and believe in the future.

Though many of us are blamed for our deficiencies, so many haven’t been in the profession long, others have been in it for far too long, but their dedication and love for kids keeps them from leaving even in the face of tremendous oppositional forces.  This job is not easy for anybody these days.  It would help if people respected that, without us having to take to the streets to demand it.

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An Open Heart

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“Miss–can I talk to you?”

I hear this often.  So often, in fact, that I have become very used to being on call–and the calls are fairly constant.  I rarely (almost never) ask why a student might want to talk to me, because it doesn’t really matter.  They all know that I’ll make time to hear them out, because it is important to me and saying so is a message I repeat, regularly.  If a student needs me to be their person, I will go to whatever lengths necessary to make myself available.  That’s a fact.

As teachers, we are naturally hard-wired with the compassion superpower, so I know that offering a kid a listening ear is not something anyone will find particularly unique.

But, this week, a student of mine had his head down on his desk.  He has his head down on his desk, every. single. day.  Some days, many days in fact, he falls asleep…

I have run out of ways to approach him or try to get him engaged in learning, and believe me, I have tried them all.

Every single day I ask him to pick his head up.

Every single week I have to fill out a behavior tracker explaining interventions I’ve tried and evaluate whether they have worked.

I do this faithfully.  Neither the interventions, nor the tracking form are doing anything.

He tells me he’s that way in every class, so I wonder, are any of his other teachers feeling as confused, frustrated, powerless as I am?


When a student habitually has their head down, I think it’s normal to ask yourself, “What can I do?”  “What haven’t I done?” “Why doesn’t this kid think my class is engaging?” “Does this kid just not like me?”

What we fail to do–what I needed a heart opening experience to remember–is consider the fact that a head down sometimes, just sometimes, isn’t as much about me as it is about them and their need for human connection.

It may be a hard truth to hear, but I’ve had conversations with so many children, and they definitely know how to recognize–from personal experience–when a person’s actions don’t match their words.  Thus is a self-preservation/protection strategy for many.  One thing growing up in an urban educational setting teaches kids is how to be shrewd observers of human behavior.  Nobody is fooling anybody on this scene.

It is crucial, especially in schools like mine, that folks resist the temptation to forge deep connections exclusively with students who most closely resemble our styles of communication or personality type, those with whom it is easy to form a bond.  I’ve found most humans naturally lean in to love.  If, in a given situation, a person doesn’t, they typically have their reasons.  It isn’t always that anyone is to blame, but there is constant subconscious and non-verbal communication about the value we place on a child’s feelings, on them as individuals, and how much (or how little) we value our relationships with them.  It’s important to be conscious of these things.


Over the years, my classroom management style has gone through various stages. There was a time when I had a huge stack of office referrals, and relied on those to do my disciplining for me.  Years later, I have learned that the two disciplinary strategies teachers in my setting rely most heavily upon (kicking kids out of class and/or writing them up for “non-compliance”) are the two WORST and LAST things one should ever do with a child who has been systematically and routinely sent messages that their feelings and lived experiences do…not…matter.

When it comes to discipline matrices, I usually live by the credo that more or better discipline isn’t the answer, better teaching is.  I still, firmly believe that.

But, that’s an easy statement to make for someone who: teaches a class that routinely has only the “honors kids”, doesn’t have a first period class or the accompanying battle over excessive tardies, has over a decade of teaching experience, comes from the same cultural and ethnic background as many of my students, speaks their language, and for all of these reasons, plus several more, generally doesn’t deal with “behavior issues”.

Even saying this, every once in a while, I do have a conflict or power struggle with a student that needs to be addressed.  After this long, I have been through many scenarios, some of them pretty awful, and I have a pretty hefty bag of tricks.  Whenever these fail, we go outside for a hallway conversation. The folks left behind in the room do talk, so I do my best to handle minor issues in the classroom quickly, and quietly, so as to shield the person with whom I’m talking from the gossip or assumptions that they are in trouble. Nine times out of ten, that works for me–for us.

But this week, I ran out of tricks.

This week, it seemed clear that the hallway pep talk was the only solution.

I realized that my habitually sleepy student was not going to ask to talk to me.  I was going to have to reach out to him.


 

What went down was what I call, “a true heart opening experience”.  I’ll skip some of the particulars, but things took a turn when I asked him if he wanted to be in the class because all the signs showed me he was miserable.  Part of this is due to counseling placing a vast number of students in AP classes to help boost the SPF (school performance framework) score–whether they want to be there or not.

He replied with, “I don’t know, Miss.  You can do what you want.”  I inferred this was him somehow receiving a message that he would be removed from the class if his behavior didn’t change.  I have seen this before.  Students will behave in a way that is deliberately against classroom norms–or just disengage due to lack of belief in themselves, then become distant or combative when challenged about their behavior which will precipitate situations where teachers remove them from the class, confirming their belief that the teacher  really doesn’t want them in class any longer.  The root cause of all this is that too many students–especially those with disciplinary records, or ways of communicating that are not socially normalized–do not believe their teachers value their presence in class in the first place.

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I did not engage when he tried to place me in this role.  Instead, I said, “I don’t know what your experiences have been with other teachers, but this really isn’t about what I want…this is about what YOU want.  I am not in this gig to make kids miserable.  I’m just here to help you achieve your dreams.  What are they?”

He talked about removing, repairing, and replacing his first transmission (It can take 6 hours!!)–and a smile started to emerge.  He spoke about how he used to run in the mornings before school, and that he wants to get back to that.  We talked about his habit of sleeping in class, in a non-accusatory way, and eventually, we got down to the real reason why his sleep cycle has been disturbed lately.  As it turns out, two of his uncles and a grandfather died last year–one of them was murdered.  His best friend committed suicide in sixth grade–and he never talked about it–or received any type of counseling.  It still haunts him today.

In return, I reassured him that I believed in him, that I wasn’t giving up on him, and that I would help him find a way to finish the year strong, but also that I couldn’t do it FOR him.  I told him about some of the twists and turns of my life path.  He reassured me that he does think I’m a good teacher, and that I haven’t failed him (as I insisted I would be doing if I let him sleep through class every day).  In this exchange, we each sent a little boost in the direction of one another’s sails.  Ironically, or perhaps it was one of those crazy synchronicities that happens so often in my life, this all took place after my most liked tweet ever:

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I am not an expert in diagnosis or treatment of any condition.  I won’t lie–these days I am absolutely exhausted, in every way imaginable, and at all points in the day.  But, I know how important love is, and that it heals a lot of ills.  I know that I love kids.  I knew that in this event, lining up my actions with my beliefs meant taking the time to listen, offer a hug and some words of advice, empathy, encouragement, and then commit to taking things one day at a time.  I have been called to consider, in these final few weeks of school, whether I am showing up as the same teacher for each one of my students, and ultimately whether that is important.

Perhaps, more than anything else, it means the most for me to be the teacher each child deserves and who has committed to see them through to the finish line. Being that teacher may mean being different things for different people at different moments, and maybe that’s okay.  I am also pondering whether I’m taking the time in each of my daily interactions (which are so many) to get on a wavelength of communication that might be different from mine–and what it truly means to show up as we say we do, even when the well of compassion feels like it has run dry.

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Literary Canon–Boom!

Several years ago, I worked in a school where some folks debated whether it was appropriate to use Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson in an honors English class.  I won’t go into the details of who said what, because it doesn’t really matter, but I will say that my pedagogical practice has come a long way since then, and these days, I wonder, what was the issue with somebody wanting to do this?  Was their professional judgement, knowledge, expertise being questioned?  Did the work itself not seem “rigorous” enough?  [I have feelings about the world “rigor” and how it’s used to shame folks into feeling that their classes aren’t challenging enough, but more on that at another time.]

This semester, I’ve taught not one, but TWO YA novels in my AP English classes–and I’m confident every single student will tell you they loved them–and got what they needed to progress toward mastery of skills for the course.


Back in the day, when I was a little less sure of what I was doing, and more dependent on others for validation, I believed that canon snobbery was a legitimate thing.  I was teaching with people who had experience teaching and learning to teach in England, at Oxford no less, so I awarded them status and assumed they were better than me.  Someone I once worked with told me, “I’ve decided to become a grammar snob,” as a point of pride–and I blindly accepted that.  In that environment, thoughts like “What do I know?” invaded my psyche almost daily.  In other words, I believed in my own inferiority, both as an educator and navigator of the language arts landscape.

These days, one MAEd, one MFA certificate and many years of experience later, I now know that my strength as a teacher lies in my ability to listen to my students, read their reactions, learn beside them. THIS (not some experience in the birthplace of the English language) is what makes me fully qualified to make decisions about what my students can, should, and will want to read in class.  I don’t need someone else to make those decisions for me.

Though the district would love to make me, I’ve rejected their canned curriculum–enforced by curriculum “experts” in the effort to “bring everyone in line”.  To some people’s chagrin, I continue to do what I’m gonna do with a strong bias for reading and learning from works students themselves create.  I spend hours each summer writing and tweaking my syllabi until they reflect what I want–a class that meets the standards and/or content requirements of the course, while still staying true to who I am, who my students are, and the world that we inhabit.  My administration (thankfully) has supported my desire to teach the class as I see fit.

The AP English Language and Composition standards are as follows:

  • Revise a work to make it suitable for a different audience.
  • Demonstrate understanding and control of Standard Written English as well as stylistic maturity.
  • Converse and write reflectively about personal processes of composition.
  • Gain control over various reading and writing processes, with careful attention to inquiry(research), rhetorical analysis and synthesis of sources, drafting, revising/rereading, editing, and review.
  • Demonstrate understanding of the conventions of citing primary and secondary sources.
  • Evaluate and incorporate sources into researched arguments.
  • Create and sustain original arguments based on information synthesized from readings, research, and/or personal observation and experience.
  • Respond to different writing tasks according to their unique rhetorical and composition demands, and translate that rhetorical assessment into a plan for writing.
  • Write for a variety of purposes.
  • Use effective rhetorical strategies and techniques when composing.
  • Analyze images and other multimodal texts for rhetorical features.
  • Analyze and interpret samples of purposeful writing, identifying and explaining an author’s use of rhetorical strategies.

Nobody is trying to dictate how I go about making sure students meet these standards–and I have the education and experience to make sure they can/do.  We read a variety of works, and as long as students are progressing toward skills mastery, developing reading and writing identities, I believe the end justifies the means.  But, I am fully aware that this is not the case everywhere AP English is taught.  It is not uncommon in urban ed, for a first-year educators to be teaching AP English–even if they hold no advanced degrees in (or passion for) the content area.  What do we do, then?


In my class, AP Lang students have read numerous essays, poems, and songs, and also the following novels: Motorcycle Diaries, Native Son, (choice novels), The Things They Carried, The Poet X + Electric Arches

AP Lit students have read a few essays, numerous short stories, lots of poems, and the following novels/plays: The Bluest Eye, Macbeth, Siddhartha, Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Long Way Down, Poems from an anthology, A Raisin in the Sun, Oedipus Rex, Antigone, Hamlet (if we have time) and Ragtime.

I have blended canonical works with those I know students will find interesting, and others they might find challenging, but will learn a lot from being exposed to because this is what my actual reading/writing life looks like.  This is not the only way to design the course, but it is one way, and I’m pleased with how it has turned out.  Wouldn’t it be great if all teachers felt empowered to bring their authentic reading and writing lives into the classroom?

The College Board shies away from dictating that certain texts are used in the courses, but there are certain texts that show up again and again on the test.  I’m a pretty intelligent lady (I’ve worked hard to become so) and I know how to figure out the way passing tests works.  In looking at the works most commonly referenced on the AP exam, I know my students are at a statistical disadvantage.  The likelihood that they will be familiar with a work that shows up on the test is slim.  I know that the only way around this is to help my students learn skills that are transferable to a variety of contexts and situations.  I know that students in predominantly white suburban environments–which the test is still designed to cater to–spend years preparing for the test, knowingly or unknowingly from an early age.  They get introduced to texts and vocabulary that might appear on the test gradually, from as early as 6th grade.

My students do not.  They cannot count on any kind of consistency (with regard to instruction) from one year to the next, and it is highly unlikely that they will encounter a text they have already read on the rhetorical analysis, poetry, or short story free-response portions of an AP English Lang or Lit test.  So, I prepare them the best I can be having them practice skills with texts that will not bore them to death, in the hopes that the skills will be transferable to whatever excerpt they encounter on the test.  Though I do not believe all learning boils down to how well it can be measured by a test, I am a realist, and I know the students and I will be judged by the outcome of the AP exam.  Furthermore, some students rely on the economic advantage that comes from entering college as a sophomore due to advanced credits from college classes taken while in high school.  The stakes are fairly high. I want to give them this advantage.

I don’t think anyone will argue that the AP English Language and Composition and AP English Literature and Composition tests have historically been heavily biased in favor of those who have exposure to texts from the “Western” (European–White) canon.

So where does that leave us?

I know a few teachers of color who refuse to teach AP classes, because it is their belief that the College Board perpetuates a status quo that marginalizes and excludes students of color and their lived experiences.  It is also their belief that the AP test and AP classes create a divide in school systems between those students who are considered “gifted and talented” and those who are not.  This carries with it shades of elitism and classism that do not sit well with the educator truly motivated to fight educational inequity.

On the other side is the argument that the more AP classes a student takes, the more prepared they will be for college.  Then, the statistics and charts get drudged up about how they are more likely to succeed in post-secondary education if they take AP classes while in high school.  So, what’s an urban ed high school AP English teacher to do?

While I’m compelled to believe these statistics, I am also one who does not believe or trust that The College Board will ever design a test that reflects the strengths and lived experiences of my students.  While I work in pieces from the “traditional” or “Western” canon, I also bring in culturally relevant and FUN pieces as much as possible–even if that means moving the more “established” pieces to the side.


This is where the YA comes in.

Without a doubt, my students have loved Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds and The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo more than any other text we have read.  Every single time I ask them, they are very vocal and expressive with their praise.

 

 

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Reading these texts has allowed my students to access exemplary storytelling, hightened and meticulously crafted authorial style/voice, and socially conscious messages that elevate our students to a higher humanity.

Surely, such works are worthy of in-depth academic study.  Though they have deliberately been written for younger audiences, aren’t they still for everyone?

This begs the question, “What makes a text canonical?”  Typically, it is the acceptance and study of a work by the academic (read “post-secondary”) community.  Though I’m sure they have a lot to offer to the conversation, they are not the ones teaching the texts to high school kids.  So, I have felt for a while now that it might be time for secondary and post-secondary folks to come together to re-imagine, and re-invent the literary canon.  While we are doing this, why not include the texts that transform our students and make them fall in love with reading again as this student from my class did?

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Jason was not alone.  I legit got “boos” when I told them we were going to do something OTHER than reading in class today.  In my environment, a passion for reading is what we all strive to achieve–and help students want to develop.

It is what we ALL want.  The students wish they had it.  I want it for them.  This book (along with several others classified as “YA”) made it happen.


If stories written in poetic verse make reading seem less intimidating for my students, so much the better–we’ll study elements of poetry, and hip hop lyrics.

If authors of color write stories that help my students feel validated in who they are by representing the lives they live, so much the better–we’ll learn about what it means to be a young person from a marginalized community today, and center those stories.

The AP English test may never have lyrics from Cardi B. on it for FRQ 1, an essay about Chance the Rapper from They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (not technically YA, but full of pop-culture references still the same) as FRQ 2, or list Electric Arches as one of the options for FRQ 3.  But, in teaching these works, I know that my kids are getting a taste of what real writers do: write for an audience that can relate to their work.  In my case, this is the Black, Brown, and Indigenous children.  I know that the writers who created these works are every bit as talented as those who created works considered worthy of inclusion in the canon–perhaps more so because they have a pulse on what it means to be alive today and trying to navigate this complicated world, not the one of generations long gone. #TeachLivingWriters

 

 

Anaïs Nín says, “We write to taste life twice.”

In the end, what are we doing in Language Arts class if we are not encouraging students to examine and “taste” life?

I believe the skills my students practice will transfer to whatever performance task they encounter on an AP test, and if they don’t, they will have gained a valuable experience in reading a text they can relate to and learning that, as my student Oscar A. told me [after reading Long Way Down] “There really is a book out there for everyone.”

Sometimes that book is a classic from the fossilized canon.  Sometimes, that book is classified as YA, and it hits at just the right time in a young person’s life–but means so much more to them because the characters, and setting, are those they can relate to.  Adolescence is a time rife with uncertainty and feeling misunderstood–like one’s life is not one’s own.  So, why not make that time a little gentler–“grease the tracks”, so to speak?  There is room for both old texts that preserve voices from our history, and those that bring the lived reality of various cultures and traditions to the forefront. So let us transform.  We can do this, and it will be good for us–and the students we serve.

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Continuing to teach the canon of books we are supposed to read and teach shows loyalty to the idea that certain stories are embedded in our collective consciousness and must be continued forward.  But, what about loyalty  to the stories created today and the kids living/creating them? It is past time we re-imagine the texts that are considered “literary canon”.  I’ve even got a Google doc with my master plan for envisioning just that. If it is fear of losing “rigor” that is holding us back, I am confident I can come up with a list of prospective titles that would rival The Grapes of Wrath for the title of “Mastery of the Craft” (Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones comes to mind).

If it is academics leading the charge, I respectfully propose we let them try to teach the students we teach and make the case for their choice of text with your average high school student.  It would be a healthy exercise.

PS.

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Those of us teaching and reading works with students in k-12 classrooms, and cultivating collections which students will read have the most power to impact what will be considered “canonical” in the future.  But, those who should hold the ultimate power are (or should be) our children–our students.  Let us listen to them, take heed of what they like and what they need, and adjust our practices (and the content of our courses) accordingly.

 

 

On Vulnerability (and Snapchat)

When Snapchat first came out, I had an account.  Generally, when deciding whether to put myself out there on social media, I look for an app that gives me a level of connection, without the threat of exposing myself too much to any of the more negative aspects of social media I have encountered.  Snapchat seemed cool at first, then I heard stories about privacy invasion, I couldn’t figure out all the tools for manipulating photos and videos (or why anyone would want to), and I didn’t understand how to chat with people when the messages seemed to just disappear.  Add to that the fact that it had filters that lightened people’s skin tones to make them more “beautiful”, and I was out [even though other apps do this too].  The whole love affair lasted about 3 months, ended abruptly, and I moved on and never looked back–until today.


This Spring, AP Lang students are reading The Poet X and Electric Arches, while working on a dope ethnography project that encompasses rhetorical analysis, argument, and synthesis reading and writing.  If you know me at all, you know that these are the books I have been waiting for my whole life, and not just because they have girls that look similar to me on the cover.  With both texts, from the very first page, I knew that they were books my students and I needed to experience in the classroom.

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There are so many reasons why, and I will dedicate an entire blog post to it when we finish the unit.  For now, here’s an overview:

  • Rhetorical analysis – Reading and writing informational pieces about identity (cultural, social, gender, community)
  • Argument – Writing poetry and essays about identity, oppression, language, power, and resistance
  • Synthesis – Multi-genre projects and student created podcasts/videos about the evolution of their identities

More on that soon…


I’ve noticed that when adults decide to adopt a social media platform, it’s not long before the kids abandon it for somewhere else–where they can feel free and unwatched.

My view of the social media evolutionary timeline so far:

Myspace —>Facebook—>Instagram—>Snapchat—>Twitter

As such, though I’ve dabbled in them all, I go where I feel most comfortable and can best rationalize the time spent scrolling as productive.  These days it’s Twitter, because Facebook and Instagram became toxic for me for reasons I won’t go into here. But I digress.  Usually, when students ask me to add them on Snapchat, my answer has historically been, “No, baby.  I don’t Snap.”  I respect their need to have their space.  My daughter, like every other teenager I know, uses Snapchat all day every day.  I don’t have a need to get on there and “befriend” her so I can get into her business.  That is not how I parent.  As an educator, it has been interesting to see this new generation of digital natives use the various platforms for a variety of purposes.  I do believe that if you work with teenagers, you have to at least know HOW to be in their space and in their world, even if you don’t choose to go there on a regular basis.

Enter the Book Snaps annotation experience.

The lesson for students was to make some Book Snaps of The Poet X.

The lesson for ME was in vulnerability, and sharing power.

The students taught me how to use Snapchat today….and it was soooo uncomfortable.  I am not exaggerating in any way when I say that at several points today, I felt helpless.

Since most of my readers are educators, let me break this down for you in a relatable way.


Step one: Download the App

I downloaded the app and installed it, but then couldn’t get it to sync with my Bitmoji account.  I encountered a weird anti-robot verification screen that kept asking me to identify things like stop lights and cars in photos.  One of my students noticed my distress and said, “Miss–are you a robot?”  I said, “No”.  He said, “Then you shouldn’t have any problem.”

This snarky comment is exactly the type of thing I  know I have said to students many times when they are fumbling around with some tech 2.0 tool or trying to circumvent the school’s very arbitrary Internet firewalls.  It’s not helpful.

Script we tell students: “This app/website/tech tool is so easy to use.  Anybody can do it.”

My lesson: Sometimes navigating technology isn’t as smooth as it seems, and individual experiences with the same technology can and do vary.  Have patience, and persistence.  Don’t be a smart ass when somebody is struggling.


Step two: Learn how to use the App

I literally had to be taught the most basic parts of Snapchat, things like taking a picture, making stickers [which I found out they do of us ALL the time without us knowing.  It’s okay, they do it to each other too], and adding/changing the colors of text.  I learned that there is a character limit to what you can type in a text box, and that if you use too many images, it looks like you just found out how to use stickers–which makes you look desperate and uncool.

I can tell you what went down, but it’s a crazy and wonderful thing to admit what I FELT while all this was happening.  I felt bad that I had to keep asking for help with various features.  I felt like I was the opposite of smart, because some parts of navigating the app weren’t intuitive (at least not to me).  I felt embarrassed that I didn’t know even one quarter the amount of what they do about how to use this app.  Shouts to Imaan, Sammy D, Cristal, and Irving for helping their teach out, being loving and patient with me, and taking me under their wings.

Script we tell students: “I already told you the instructions, you just need to follow them.”

My Lesson: Have patience when people ask questions, need to be shown the same thing multiple times, or take a little while to master a skill or understanding.  Sometimes instructions aren’t enough, and some people learn best by being shown, or given an example.  Be understanding when people act like they want to give up, or get discouraged by seeing people around them mastering skills really quickly.


Step three: Mastering Snapchat

The activity incorporated several Lang Arts skills and content pieces:

  • Students had to read and annotate a poem and incorporate academic language in their annotations.
  • Students had to call on their familiarity with style features, like diction, imagery, detail, language (figurative language), and syntax.
  • Students had to recall the characters, themes, symbols, motifs, setting, and plot from the text.
  • Students had to make connections between the text and images/emojis/bitmojis/GIFs that would communicate their reactions and experiences.

and…

  • Students had to know how to use Snapchat, Padlet, and Schoology–proficiently.

With surprisingly little fuss, students made the Booksnaps, uploaded them to the Padlet that was in Schoology, and were ready to play Kahoot to practice vocab (our culminating activity) in less than an hour.  A few people throughout the day came to me asking for validation that their work was good.  This is normal.  It was refreshing to say, “We’re all learning together here and I’m sure whatever you’re doing is better than the mess I’m making over here.”

But…not so normal for me.  I’m pretty independent, have worked hard to develop mastery in my content, and I’m not usually one for seeking approval or validation from folks.

So, this activity was a little confidence shake up for me!  A few kids who aren’t on Snapchat were also struggling a bit. Even so, as digital natives, they grasped it pretty quickly, and when I saw how THEIR Book Snaps looked, I felt like MINE was pretty basic…I still feel like it is.

Script we tell students: “Be confident!  That’s really all you need to get you through.” “To get an A, you need to be doing above grade-level work, consistently.”

My Lesson: Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know, until somebody shows you.  Then you have to deal with all the feelings of self-doubt that show up when comparing your work to others, and it takes a bravery to push through.  Students naturally compare their work to that of their peers, and that of mentor texts we place in front of them.  It’s tough to feel like your best just isn’t as good as THE best.  It’s not easy to accept that usually, excellence and mastery in anything comes with practice–which just takes time.  If someone comes to me wanting validation for their best work, they deserve to be reassured that their best is exactly what I’m hoping for, and to be reminded that the road to mastery is often long, hard, full of potholes, and rarely straight uphill.

 

Also, check out this Twitter Moment for a more serious meditation on the importance of flipping the script from time to time and occupying that space where one sees and feels how much our students can really teach US (if we let them).

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