Category Archives: great teaching moment

Update on a great kid

Remember Mohawk – from, like, seven years ago? Well, he’s a senior now. And guess what? I just found out that he’s a National Merit Scholar. His mom said he’s the first one from his high school in twelve years. I’m elated – and not at all surprised to hear this about him! This is hands down one of my favorite parts of my job. I love hearing about the cool, wonderful, and awesome accomplishments from all the cool, wonderful, and awesome students I’ve had over the years. It humbles me that I know I got to be a part of their journey.

 

And on a personal note, let me just tell you that this news made me cry because of the way it juxtaposes yesterday’s news. Finding out that one kid is pregnant and another kid is receiving awards of national distinction…Well, they’re just two really different things. And it feels weird somehow – and hard – to be a part of both of their stories.

Teach on.

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So you want to talk about your penis?

I have a kid in my class who I think is really awesome for an eleven-year-old. Except he’s 16. And he’s (probably permanently) stuck in that period where he thinks it’s funny to talk about his penis in public. He used to (as in: earlier this school year) get in trouble all the time for drawing penises on things, but now he draws roosters on things instead. Because, you know, penis—>cock—>rooster. Right. Probably I didn’t need to explain that, but I explained it to my principal too, and boy, you should’ve seen the way he looked at me like I was an idiot for explaining that to him. I was far more amused than he was for sure and it was totally worth it.

Anyway.

He is always – constantly – saying stupid things in class about sex in the same way that a rooster is a substitute for a penis. It’s because he’s really eleven, remember. And when he says it everyone rolls their eyes and I tell him to stop and we carry on with our lives.

But…

The other day in class I said something about going hiking and the kid says, “My girlfriend went hiking once. On my happy trail.” And he was all smug and proud of himself for his joke alluding to oral sex, nodding and looking around for approval. I put on my best facial expression of pity and said in my most pitying tone, “Only once? Bummer for you.” And then I went on with what I was saying beforehand. Or, rather, I tried to go on with things, but everyone was applauding me for shutting him down because a) I think they didn’t think I had it in me and b) he just sat there opening and closing his mouth like a goldfish and that, my friends, is truly an accomplishment.

And then the next day, he gets up to this sign I have in my room pointing the way to Neverland and makes the sign point right at his crotch, again looking around smugly, waiting for high fives and guffaws of male approval. I looked over and laughed hysterically, right from the belly, with an open mouth and everything. I said, “Oh my gosh, that is the most ironically appropriate joke you’ve made in perhaps your entire life!” He looked confused. I said, “Neverland is where Peter Pan lives. It’s where children go and never grow up! It’s also the name of Michael Jackson’s ranch!” And I’m still laughing this whole time and then he just sits down and stops talking. Other students cheered again.

Today, I said, about something (obviously, because it was during class in front of a dozen teenagers) not at all about sex: “It just feels really big.” So the kid said, “Heh heh, it feels really big,” and used his elbow to bump the elbow of the boy next to him, who just sat there staring at him like he’s an idiot. So I say, “Ugh, stop pretending like you have ever in your life had someone say that to you,” and went back to whatever else I was talking about. He just sat there quietly. The rest of the class commented that the score this week was 0-3 and that they’re really enjoying how easy it is to shut him up.

Poo-tee-weet?

Last year when I taught Slaughterhouse Five, it was difficult to help students take all the notes they would need to take – and then keep those notes straight so they would be able to access them at the end of the novel for our big project.

This year, I arranged for the English department to purchase books for my students. Each student received their very own copy of the novel to write in and mark up and highlight and sticky note…and then take home at the end of the unit and keep for ever and ever. I was so, so excited for them. They were so, so surprised, and, most of them, really appreciative.

Well I had this girl. Great girl. Sad story. Issues with mental illness, problems with homelessness, off-and-on drug use. Collapsed social network and nonexistent adult presence. She’s been in and out of school my entire three years here (because of the aforementioned issues). She started strong in my class last quarter, but then things got rocky and she stopped coming every day. Then she just stopped coming altogether.

Yesterday, I saw her in the hall. She ran up to me and said, “I love that book! I finished it and then I read it again! Twice! I’m going to start it again this weekend! I love it so much! Thank you for buying me a copy! I’m so glad I took it with me when I left!” And then she ran on and caught up with her friends.

I don’t know all the demons she’s wrestling with. I don’t know how OK she’s going to be a year from now or ten years from now or even tomorrow. But knowing that she has Kurt Vonnegut and Billy Pilgrim to keep her company makes my heart swell and my eyes leak. I wish that she, too, finds peace on Tralfamadore.

Mental Illness

Sometimes, the topic of mental illness comes up in class. It usually goes something like this: the kids without mental illness say things that they don’t intend to be inflammatory but are, and the kids with mental illness get offended. You know, things like, “All you have to do is decide to be happy.”

Well, if you’re born with a chemical imbalance or if the events in your life have thrown your system so far from normal that you’ve developed a chemical imbalance, you can’t just “think your way out” of that shit storm.

But that’s a tough concept for people to understand.

So I tell the kids this story from my own life – well, my sister’s life – that really helps. You’re free to borrow the analogy if you ever need it.

My sister always made sure she sat in the front of the classroom so that she could see the board clearly because she didn’t want teachers thinking that she was one of the “bad kids” who sat in the back. She thought it was unfair that schools were built with classrooms so large that someone was forced to sit in the back of the room and she thought that kids who chose to sit there were clearly inferior students who didn’t care about their grades.

Then she got glasses. And then she realized that those “bad kids” in the back of the classroom weren’t choosing to sit there because they didn’t care; they were sitting there because they didn’t have problems seeing the board.

The thing is, my sister didn’t know she needed glasses until she was 15, when she said something in class about not being able to see the board and her teacher sent her to the nurse for a simple eye test. Until she said something that someone else paid attention to and recognized as a problem, she didn’t know anything was wrong with her. She had no way of knowing that the rest of us didn’t have problems seeing the board because she was in her body with her eyes, not in our bodies with our eyes. And when she did realize something was amiss, she needed glasses to fix it. She couldn’t just decide to see the board better or to stop squinting at road signs and subtitles in movies. Glasses were her only way to see and experience life like the rest of us.

Mental illness is like that. Sometimes, people don’t know they have a problem until someone else says something. Sometimes, people need help from something outside of themselves (glasses…medication) in order to experience life in a more “normal” way.

Phrasing the story like this usually leaves my class quiet for a moment until someone – usually someone with a mental illness – nods slowly and says, “Yes. It’s exactly like that.”

Phrasing the story like this also gives kids without mental illness something real and physical to hold on to, especially since so many of them wear corrective lenses and understand my sister’s story because it’s also true in their lives.

Oh.

Remember when I wrote about that fight a couple weeks ago?

Yesterday in class, my student who was in that fight was talking about it with another girl in class. The girl asked her, “And Ms. H was there?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I don’t know how she got there so fast, though. Her classroom is way over here and we were in the middle of the school by the stairs.”

“I was walking back from the copy room,” I said.

“Oh.” It was the sound that comes when you mix surprise with understanding.

The girl who wasn’t in the fight but was just asking questions asked me if I had been so mad about the fight.

“No,” I said. “It made me sad. Really, profoundly, sad.”

The girl who was in the fight said, “Oh.” This time it was the sound that comes when you mix understanding with humility.

Members Only

In my study hall, I have a second teacher in there with me. Recently, she had a conversation with a student who was learning about the early foundation of the KKK in history class. She shared with him that she had gone to high school with the son of a then-leader of one KKK chapter. A girl on the other side of the room overheard and yelled, “Your husband is in the KKK?!?” so we all laughed and talked about how that’s how rumors get started.

Today, she was talking about something with another boy that another girl on the other side of the room misunderstood and asked about. Then, things got out of control quickly.

Me: Remember: That’s how rumors get started.
Girl: Oh yeah, we talked about that before. Because isn’t it, like, your ex-husband who like started the KKK or something?
Other teacher: No! I graduated with a kid whose father was in the KKK.
Boy: I think it would be cool to be in the KKK.
Other teacher: What?!?
Boy: Yeah, you get those free clothes.
Girl 2: You mean the white robes they wear?
Boy: Yeah, I could like wear it for Halloween and it would be all authentic.
Me: Or, as a suggestion, you could shop Sears’ clearance for white sheets and avoid the hassle of actually having to join a hate group.
Boy: But Sears sheets aren’t authentic.
Girl 2: It seems like a lot to go through just for some sheets and a Halloween costume.
Me: Plus, no offense, but I don’t think the KKK would take you. They have standards for membership.
Girl 2: Yeah, white standards.
Boy: Wait, how do you know that they wouldn’t want me?
Me: OK, I’m not a paying member of the KKK, but they have historically been pretty up front with their membership requirements. They’re pretty uninterested in people who aren’t white. But you’re not the only one; the KKK wouldn’t take half the people in this school.
Girl [who had been on her phone most of the time]: Wait, you’re in the KKK???
Me: No! For crying out loud! People! Rumors get started when we don’t listen to all the facts!
Girl: Whew! I didn’t think it made sense for you to be in the KKK. I mean, it’s OK to do what you want and I don’t judge and all that, but Ms. H, you’d make a real shitty KKK member.
Me: Thanks. I think that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.

Vocabulary Lesson

Set scene: Every day, I start every class with five or so minutes of silent writing time. Every. Day. I expect students to write silently. Well yesterday in one of my classes I had to ask a couple of girls to stop talking multiple times. So then since I was harassing them they got sassy. Obviously. Then, this:

Me: If you’re going to continue being insolent, I will ask you to separate and I will write a referral for each of you.
[Girl who I will from now on be calling “Red”]: Ex-cyuuuuse ME! But it is pronounced insubordinate! THANK you!
Me: No, the word I’m using is pronounced “insolent.” However, you are also being insubordinate. They are both good words to describe how you’re acting right now, and either will earn you another conversation with the vice principal if you keep it up.
Red: Ptchch. Whatever.

End of Term

Tomorrow is the last day of school this year, so that means that today and tomorrow are finals. And that means that I’m seeing students I haven’t seen in a while. Because nothing says “last ditch effort” than showing up to take a final exam in a class that you haven’t attended all quarter. By the way, in case it isn’t clear, those students won’t be passing.

This has been a transformative year for me. I’ve gone from being sure that I need to quit my job to being sure that I’ll retire from teaching in another 25 years. I’ve also realized that there’s a little bit of love inside me for this job and for these kids. I never thought I went into teaching because of the people side of the job, but after ten years and some really incredible teacher friends sharing their version of what their passion looks and feels like, I’ve come to accept that yes, I really did want to teach because I wanted to work with people. One teacher friend told me that at the beginning of every year, she tells her students that she intends to love them, and that being together in the classroom every day and reading together and writing together are the glues that form that bond. I like that: I intend to love you. Love has always been a weird thing for me – difficult to recognize and accept and even difficult to pinpoint within myself. But this year I’m seeing it more and more, and in fact I’m seeing it enough that I’m even seeing it in my classroom.

I recently went to a graduation party for a student who I had in middle school. Do you remember that class four years ago? It was a tough year, but we made it through and now those kids are all going off to college. Anyway, the party was for Sweet Girl (read more about her here and here) and it was so, so wonderful to be invited to her party and to hear all about what her and a bunch of those other kids will be doing in the fall. In a strange way, it has been this class coming full circle that has helped me decide that I needed to stay in teaching. Maybe the events of that year were what gave me doubt in the first place, but it has definitely been those kids who have had the greatest impact not only on my decision not to leave, but also my realization that I’m in this for the love, for the heart, for the people. They are all where they are today because of me – not just academically, but emotionally as well. We processed together, healed together. And that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t loved them.

As I clean my desk and get ready for summer vacation, I find that I’m looking forward to next school year more than I have possibly ever. I’m going to enjoy my summer, spending time with my kids at the pool and taking day trips and reading books and laughing with friends, but I think next year is going to be great. I’ll be in the same room (remember, I moved schools two years ago, then changed rooms last summer), teaching the same thing (English 11!), and I have a leadership position working with teachers as we make some pretty drastic (for some) changes to our grading policies district-wide. Things will be good at home, too: my kids will be attending the same school all day for the first time ever, we’re getting a foreign exchange student from Spain, and we’re starting some really awesome remodeling projects. All in all, things are looking bright. And I’m grateful.

Career Options

Keep in mind that this conversation happened during an observation (I had another teacher in my room, not an admin).

Me: So you’re all done with your paper?
Boy: Yup.
Me: Great. How about you work on something else until the bell rings? You have about 20 minutes; you could get a lot done.
Boy: No thanks.
Me: Well, you can’t just sit here and watch YouTube videos.
Boy: Why not?
Me: Because this is class, not your living room. We work in here.
Boy: That’s dumb.
Me: OK, maybe, but it’s still what we do. So what are you going to work on?
Boy: I don’t have anything to work on.
Me: Nothing? Are you sure? I know you only have, like, a 63% in here.
Boy: So?
Me: So that means you’re missing work. Which means you have stuff you could work on. Would you like me to print off a grade report?
Boy: No thanks.
Me: Or if there’s another class you’d like to catch up on, you could work on that instead.
Boy: It doesn’t matter anyway.
Me: What doesn’t matter?
Boy: My grades.
Me: But it sure is nice to pass classes.
Boy: I don’t care. I won’t be here much longer anyway.
Me: What does that mean?
Boy: I’m dropping out.
Me: Again?
Boy: Yeah.
Me: Why?
Boy: I need to get away from teachers.
Me: Ah! Sure! That’s cool. No one will try to teach you anything outside of school.
Boy: And because school is dumb and I don’t need it.
Me: Oh! So you already have something better to do?
Boy: Yeah.
Me: A good job waiting for you “on the outside”? [NOTE: My prison joke went unacknowledged, unfortunately.]
Boy: Yeah.
Me: You have a job already?
Boy: Yeah.
Me: Where do you work?
Boy: Taco Bell.
Me: Very cool. You planning on working there for a while?
Boy: Yeah.
Me: Maybe you could be the manager some day.
Boy: Yeah.
Me: Do they let employees without a high school equivalency become managers?
Boy: {shrug} Probably.
Me: Maybe you should look into that.
Boy: {shrug}
Me: You know, some day, when you’re, like, 35, and the manager of a Taco Bell, you’ll get to, like, teach the teenagers that you hire how to do their jobs. That would make you a teacher.
Boy: {laughs like I’m the one being ridiculous} I’ll never become a teacher.
Me: Well, probably not at a school, but anyone who teaches anyone else anything is, by definition, a teacher. So if you’re teaching people how to build a burrito, you’re a teacher.
Boy: I guess.
Me: So are you pretty sure that’s what you want to do forever?
Boy: What do you mean?
Me: Do you want to be a burrito teacher for the rest of your life?
Boy: I guess. I don’t know. Not really.
Me: Well, what other job could you get that you would want to do forever that wouldn’t require a diploma?
Boy: I don’t know. Lots of jobs.
Me: Hmmm. I don’t know either. I guess you should figure that out before you drop out again, huh? We have about 15 minutes left in class, how about you use this time to research your career options?
Boy: {defiantly} I guess I could.
Me: Absolutely. Because, I mean, you’ve got it all pretty well figured out right now, but still, it’s nice to know what’s out there, you know?
Boy: Yeah.

Then he took out his phone and actually did some research. I turned to walk away and there were two students and the teacher observing me trying hard to hold in laughter.

Sometimes I just can’t even.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bank

Yesterday, I had a conversation in one of my classes where I asked them if it’s worth it to work more than 40 hours a week in order to be financially secure. The class was made up of six teenage boys, all under-performing high school students in an academic support class, all who identify as non-white.

I’ve asked students this question before. At my old school. At my old school where my students were mostly from two-parent households where one or more parent have a college degree. My students there were all high achievers, socially conscious, and carried a basket full of ambitions. When I asked them this question, they almost unanimously said no. Those students wanted to have families. They wanted to travel. They wanted leisure time. And they counted on their future job opportunities to be salaried positions that would grant them the time and flexibility to be able to enjoy their evenings and weekends. Forty hours, they said, is enough, and very few jobs are worth the extra stress and time away from personal interests.

But yesterday, my students mostly said yes. They said that sometimes you have to work more than 40 hours a week if you’re going to support your family and still have enough money to do extra things like go on trips or buy a new TV. Then they decided that it was more about money – specifically how much they were making per hour. They settled on $9.50. “If I am making $9.50 an hour,” said one of the boys, “then I will definitely work more than 40 hours a week. I would work 100 hours a week!” Some of the other boys tried to tell him that 100 hours a week was too much, but he insisted. “Do you know how awesome it would be? That’s like $900 a week! I would be making bank!” There were no arguments with that. Nine hundred dollars a week would, they decided, be bank.

At first, I smiled inwardly. This kid is newly 16 years old and I don’t think he’s had a job yet. I remember as a younger person when I got my first job that paid me more than minimum wage and how rich I felt then. Of course, if my job now started paying me $9.50 an hour, I’d walk out and be furious and frustrated with my stupid little paycheck, but there was a time when that giant paycheck of $400 felt like it could easily solve so many problems. This kid is naive and simple and doesn’t understand adult finances.

Then I realized that it’s not just that. I was the one being simple. This kid doesn’t have the same chance to get a job that pays enough in a 40-hour work week that my students from that other school had. He can barely read. His math skills are years behind grade level. His work ethic is virtually non-existent. Yes, he incorrectly thinks that $9.50 is going to make him rich enough to buy the fancy car, clothes and house that he sees in his future, but he probably correctly thinks that that’s the amount of money he’s going to make some day. The amount of money he’s probably going to make for a long time.

This is where I spin off to philosophical points about opportunities and giving children what they need and taking care of poor people and educating the masses and inequities in the system, but I’m not going to do that here. Not now. But as you finish reading this, please consider all those topics. Because they’re huge topics that aren’t getting any better on their own.

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