Ten Blogs Posts to Start the School Year: Why I Keep Teaching

This is not a paid advertisement. 
I love school supplies. All of them. New notebooks, pens, highlighters, glue sticks, dividers, little erasers, and colored pencils. I love all of that stuff, but what I love most of all are Sharpies. I love black ones and all the colors that have come out over the past few years. The thick ones are great, the regular-size, and the fine-tip. There is a job for all of these sizes, and I use them throughout every school year. They write so crisply, so cleanly. They don’t fade over time. I can watercolor over them, so they’re great for projects. They are bold and brilliant. And of all of these Sharpies, the Sharpies I love most are the metallic ones. They have gold and silver so I can write on colored notebooks or black surfaces and those Sharpies pop.

My students love them too. They really are the best for some of the projects we do, and I have all the cool colors and the thick and thin ones so my students ask to use them all the time. I say yes, but every year I have to buy new ones. Somehow these Sharpies manage to walk out of the room. The thing is, students aren’t supposed to have Sharpies on campus. Some kids tag with them, although these days my school doesn’t have any real taggers, so the stolen Sharpies probably head home in a backpack to be used on some future assignment, or for doodling, or for hawking autographs at some YouTuber’s event. Or, worst-case scenario, a student uses it to draw a penis in a bathroom stall somewhere. And the metallic ones? They are guaranteed to disappear.

Disappearing metallic Sharpies. 
But I keep letting my students use them and every year I keep buying them. Why? Well, they aren’t that expensive, and they make me happy, and they make my students happy, and you know what, my students deserve them. They deserve the good stuff. Their schools are dirty. The food we serve in the cafeteria is gross. Their class sizes are huge and they don’t get to have enough fun at school, in general.

My students are like those Sharpies. They are brilliant and resilient. They come in all shapes, sizes and colors. Every year they show up, ready to work. So, as long as I’m here, as long as I still love what I do, I’ll keep getting new Sharpies.

Some days the blinds feel like bars. 
Every once in a while, I feel trapped in my job. I think, maybe I should do something else, something that won’t leave me feeling so wrecked at the end of the day. But I can’t imagine how bored I would be at some office job or working around adults all day. So, I keep coming back. I'm reminded of what a wise former principal ones told me: You don't work for me, or the district. You work for these kids and their families. When I think of it like that, I have to keep going. I'm like a permanent marker that just won’t quit.

And the thing is, I love middle school. I love my middle school and my students and my school feeds me. This work energizes me, keeps me young, and demands I continue learning. Teaching brings me joy like a brand new pack of Sharpies, and it would break my heart to leave it behind.

~ This concludes my ten blog posts to start the year. Thanks for reading along, and hopefully, Geneal, I answered your questions. 



Ten Blog Posts to Start the School Year: How I ACTUALLY Teach~ Routine

I learned early on in my career that what I need, and what students appreciate in a classroom, is routine and predictability. It helps with classroom discipline and planning. It helps us get more work done. So, most of my school days look like this.

My day starts with the Emerson Sports Academy, a program a couple of colleagues and I started eight years ago. Our student-athletes follow a weekly routine of reading and note-taking for two days and three days of sport skill building.

In my English class, students start the day by writing down the agenda in their planners. It’s boring. It’s predictable. It takes no real skill (although it does help me see who needs glasses) and it helps students stay organized.

While I take attendance, a student reads the blog. This is a student’s digital account of the previous day. It helps remind students what we did, allows absent students to see the activities and homework, and gives families and other teachers the opportunity to follow along. Our blog also provides a primary source record of our class and gives every student the chance to present their work in front of the class several times during the school year. We also review grammar here, because inevitably there will be mistakes in the blog that allow us all to review misplaced modifiers, homophones, capitalization and comma rules, etc.

After the blog, we get to work. Students share their homework (reading a summary of the assigned chapter or a book of their choice). I do a quick check to see who is reading, who is not, and to discuss the book with small groups. Then, one or two students share their summaries and we discuss specifics from the book.

Then we get to work in our English notebooks. We take notes answering text-based questions or analyzing plot or character. This would also be the time for a mini-lesson about figurative language or the use of allusion or whatever else we might be examining. If it’s a reader’s workshop day, we might look at a reading strategy or read an article or poem.

For the last 15-20 minutes of class, students start writer’s workshop or reader’s workshop, depending on the day. Students work on assigned writing or free-choice writing, read assigned texts or books of their choice.

We end the day reviewing homework and cleaning up our spaces and that is the basic routine we stick with. In a classroom, of course, things change every day, so no two class periods or days are ever the same. The more I think about it, the more I think routine might actually be why I've taught for so long. It's the structure that keeps me going. 


Ten Blog Posts to Start the School Year: How I ACTUALLY Teach

As I’ve alluded to in these first seven blog posts, I prepare for each school year emotionally because my teaching philosophy depends on connecting with students. I’ve written about how my teaching has evolved over the years so that even though I try to be THE TEACHER for every student, I also know this is impossible. My philosophy is about connecting and building community, activism and nature. It’s about processing a challenging world with my students and learning their names. But I think when my friend asked about how I teach, she was asking more about specifics.

The book that informed my teaching the most is Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle. She’s an award-winning middle school English teacher in Maine, and even though she teaches much smaller classes at a tiny independent school with students who have a much smaller range of needs, her reader’s and writer’s workshops still guide what I do. I’ve adapted much of it, mostly because I can’t keep up with weekly letters and her version of written feedback to every paper, but my students still read and discuss books the same way I discuss books with friends. I use mini-lessons in my writer’s workshop and respond with an editor submission form to address individual student needs. I focus on revision and student ownership over their throughout the revising process.

My other guiding influence has been the writing project from UCLA. Their summer institute got me doing classroom blogs (which you can follow daily to read about what we do in class every. single. day) and writing with my students. Part of the professional development philosophy of the UCLA Writing Project is that in order to grow as a writer and teacher, you must write with your students, side-by-side. So, from essays to poems, I write with my students. I share my work with them. I revise, edit, and publish right alongside them. This helps provide a model for every assignment and it also helps me understand how easy, challenging, and time-consuming a writing task is.

So, with reader’s and writer’s workshops we read and write together and learn the standards. My focus is on making them lifelong readers and writers, not great test-takers. So, even though curriculum constantly evolves, new effective strategies emerge, and required texts change, I make adaptations with these educational beliefs in mind. Even though there are days when I have to take my students to a lab for test prep, when I have to give an interim assessment, and we take a break from the "real" work, most days I manage to stay true to who I am as a writer and educator. So, I guess this is the four paragraph version of how I teach. 


Ten Blog Posts to Start the School Year: Knowing Your Names

Reboot that brain, Nakada. You've got names to learn!
It’s Sunday night. We are a two-teacher household. Our own kids are in bed, and our minds are prepping for the week ahead. I have papers to grade and enter in the grade book, but what I’m struggling with tonight is names. We’ve had four days of school, but I still haven't gotten all of the new names to stick.

I know most of them, probably more than half, but as I make my way through sets of papers, there are names that don’t bring a face to mind. So, that is my first order of business. I've got to get all of the names to stick. 

Because that is how I teach. Even though my class sizes are above the contract cap, even though I’ll have turnover with students leaving and new students checking in from now until the last week of school, even though my teacher-brain rolodex is already teeming with thousands of names, once you are my student, you are forever my student and I will know your name.  

How can I know who you are or what you need if I don’t know your name? How can I call on you at random or say hi to you in the halls? It’s impossible for me to teach, to build a community, or for my students to believe I care about them if I don’t know their names.

So, this is for Auzzie, Austin, Makeda, and Mariela in second period, Evelyn, Emily, Elias, and Evan in third period, Aaron, Adi, Aniyah, Athena in fourth period, Nicodemus, Norberto, Raheem, and Rhaybhe in fifth period, and my two Diamonds, two Davids, Deborah, Diana, and Daniel in sixth period. The alliterative dominance in your classes will not defeat me. I will know your names. And for Jacob (2), James, Jenesy, Jeremy, Jonathan, Jack, Jordan (2), Julie (2), Jean, Jerry, Joshua, Julissa, Jackson, Jasmine (2), Jesselly, Jonatan, Janan, Giselle, Julian, Jason, Jemieh, and Jazlynn: don't worry. I got this. 


Ten Blog Posts to Start the School Year: Nature Education and #ParkLit

I'd thought about taking the day off and posting my next five blogs for the school year next week, but then I stumbled on the twitter hashtag for #parklit. This online hashtag book festival hosted by Los Angeles writer Bronwyn Maudlin, @GuerillaReads, poses the question: what do parks and books mean to you?

Not only does this question serve as an excellent writing prompt, but some of my favorite LA writers are participating. Cheryl Klein has a blog post up and Kathy Talley-Jones is about to start an online interview I can't wait to check out.

Breathing in the Deschutes.
In the spirit of my ten blog posts this week, I thought about how parks and books have influenced my teaching. Growing up in the middle of the Deschutes National Forest, a mile away from the Deschutes River and all of the parks of Central Oregon, meant the smells of juniper and pine. River water, wet rock, and high desert scrub surrounded me. My family visited State Parks all over Oregon, and California on summer trips. I spent weeks at outdoor school and on camping trips with friends at high lakes and on desert properties. Just like books, I grew up breathing these parks every day.

When I moved to Los Angeles, I wanted my students to have the chance to connect not only with books I loved, but also with nature. I learned that some of my students who lived inland had never been to the beach, and many of my students were unaware of the mountains surrounding our city. I began to see that I had been privileged to grow up around so much natural beauty. Many of my students had never seen a night sky splattered with more stars than they could count. Most of them had never been truly worried about being lost in the woods. They didn't know snow or lightning or thunder. These were tales of books we read, but not real experiences.

Over the past twenty years, I've tried to expose my students to nature. We've spent time at Clear Creek in Angeles Crest, Astro Camp in Idylwild, at Santa Monica Beaches, the Baldwin Hills Overlook, Runyun Canyon, and parks all over West LA, the Santa Monica and San Bernadino mountains. These spaces help remind us that even in this concrete and asphalt city, we are surrounded by beauty and nature. You just have to seek it out.

And now that I'm a Mom, I love taking my kids back to that forest and that river in Oregon, but that only happens a couple times a year. Most of our park adventures are local to the boat park or bee park by the beach. We go to the airport park or the big park. Or our vacations take us to parks like the ones in DC this paso summer.

Parks and books.

What's not to love about #parklit?


Ten Blog Posts to Start the School Year: Summer Solitude

Summer had just started when I first saw the footage of the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille. I watched, and then couldn’t watch, remembering how wrecked I’d been after listening to Trayvon Martin’s last moments a few years ago.

Then, I read all about these cases and about who these men were. I watched the news conference where Alton Sterling’s son wept: raw, confused, angry and in mourning. I read about Philando Castille’s school and his students and wondered how those kids and families were healing while they were on summer break. And then the shootings in Dallas left four police officers dead bringing a whole new level of madness and bafflement to my summer vacation. The vilification of the #blacklivesmatter movement intensified, and when I came up for air, I felt so alone.
One of our city adventures this summer...

I talked about these events with my husband, my sister, my friends, but being home with my kids instead of teaching, I felt so disconnected from any sort of community where I could discuss gun violence, racism, and police brutality.

Our family took a little trip into the city that week. I was eager to reconnect with the world again, and as I rode the train, it hit me how much I was missing my students. If events like this occurred during the school year, I would talk about it with my classes. We would process it, frame it and attempt to make sense of it. But while on summer break, that couldn’t happen. I wondered if my students felt it too, this isolation in the midst of devastation. 

My kids watched our city pass by with wide-eyes, bouncing knees, endless questions, and wants. And on the trains, coming in and out of stations, talking with people on the street and as we ate lunch, people were friendly and engaging, despite the ills of the world. People were kind even as the world seemed to have lost its rational mind.

The #blacklivesmatter "meeting" that became a march. 
A few night's later, some other educators and I showed up for a #blacklivesmatter meeting in Inglewood, and the size of the crowd gathering there let me know that I wasn't the only one feeling alone. Thousands of Angelenos yearned to do something to stand up against brutality. That meeting became a march, and we walked through the streets of our city speaking the names of the fallen, hoping to be heard, hoping to will our country to believe that Black lives matter and when they don't we all suffer. 

The difficult news cycle of this summer reminded me what a huge impact my students have on my life. They bring with them such a diversity of experiences, a wealth of stories, and an energy that I miss during breaks. Getting to hear and read their thoughts and experiences fuels my work and helps me better understand our world. In the face of tragedy, they remind me how resilient people how, and they help me remain hopeful. They keep me sane when the rest of the world seems mad.

I realize how incredibly lucky I am to have a school with such diversity, and I'm so fortunate my students continually allow me see the world through their lenses. 

Teaching is not easy work. Some days it's my students who I think have lots their minds. But it is also work I miss profoundly when I am away.


Ten Blog Posts to Start the School Year: Teacher as Activist

The summer of 1992: Oregon Governor's School
I approach teaching as activism. The year before I started at the University of Oregon, I worked at OGS, Oregon Governor’s School. I had political aspirations and thought working with young leaders to help them find themselves through service fit with my future plans. On the last night of that program, the director, Tony Gerlicz, an educational leader, told me I should consider teaching. I heard him, but had other ideas about where I was headed.

In college, I was a political science major and activist. In organizing work I found that much of my time was spent trying to gather people in a room who may or may not be perceptive to whatever message the organizers were promoting. I enjoyed working for causes I cared about, but didn't feel particularly effective. 

Then, I took a year off from school to work with AmeriCorps, a national service organization kind of like a domestic peace corps. I was placed with the I Have A Dream Foundation in Portland where I worked everyday in high schools. Unlike political work, where you are organizing to get people somewhere, at schools, students magically show up each day.

It was that year of service learning, when the seed planted by Tony Gerlicz at OGS, combined with my growing understanding of what political organizing looked like, and a blossoming love for school communities, that a decision grew: I would finish my degree and give teaching a try.

My teaching is activism, but it’s not a form of political indoctrination. When my students show up, I am the teacher in the room and I am unapologetically myself.  My classroom challenges my students’ thinking but doesn’t tell them what to think. We explore diverse historical perspectives, whether it’s re-examining Columbus or our our past presidents’ relationship to slavery. It’s reading an article about poverty, or a poem about racial profiling, and the thoughts and responses my students bring lead our discussions to exciting and interesting places. It’s about building trust and community and empowering students to feel ownership over their words, their thoughts, their stories, and their lives. It’s hopefully cleaning up some of the muck that has built up over the years with so many preconceived notions of what school is and what English class should be. Hopefully, the muck will be replaced with a glistening opportunity: this class is a chance to learn, think, and grow. That’s thing about my teaching: it's activism. 


Ten Blog Posts to Start the School Year: How I Became a Veteran Teacher

Yesterday, as I was wrapping up the day, putting some finishing touches on my room, a friend stopped by. We hugged, and she asked how the first day went. She admired my classroom and said, “You’ve been working on this a while.”

I told her, well, no. I just came in for a couple hours the previous week, but the more honest answer was yes. I have been working on this for twenty years. It has happened. I have become a veteran teacher. I have become one of those educators I looked at in awe when I first started this gig.
And just like that, I'm a veteran teacher. 
Maybe that is why answering the question about how I teach is a hard one. Teaching the way I do didn’t happen all at once and couldn’t have happened in my first years of teaching. It has happened after two long decades in the classroom.

When I first moved to LA and taught at an elementary school, I was too busy climbing the steep learning curve to teach the way I do now. It has taken me years to get comfortable knowing that I’m a good teacher, and that I can’t do everything or be everything. This is an impossible job. I can always do more, stay later, work harder. But I am not that teacher. I learned from veteran teachers that I had to set reasonable limits. I couldn’t put in those kinds of hours and still take care of myself.

I also let go of the idea that a perfect teacher exists. I can’t be THE TEACHER for every student. I will connect with some students and drive other students crazy, and that is ok.

And over the years, I’ve seen so many amazing teachers at all points in their careers. I know there isn’t one way to do this job and that gives me faith in our schools and in my practice. There are good teachers doing good work everywhere.

As I work toward the end of my career, I think about teachers who are also parents: who balance this demanding work with the demands of family. I think of those teachers when I’m tired and not sure I can keep doing this. And the thing that these teachers do, year after year, is they connect with their students. I have to connect with my students if I want to teach them anything. That connection is the risk that inspires my practice.

So, when I crack my heart open to my new students this year, as their opening letters bring me to tears, it is this connection that keeps me coming back. Before I know it, this year will be over. Before I know it, I'll be able to retire. I'm going to enjoy being a veteran teacher today. 


Ten Blog Posts to Start the School Year: Fuel for Fire or I Got This

Yesterday, I posted about how this summer didn't provide the restorative break I'm used to between school years. I don't know if it's that I've been teaching so long (20 years!), or because of the two-kid life, or just because I'm getting older, but refueling wasn't as easy this break.

Fortunately, I'm surrounded by inspiring educators who helped remind me what it takes to reenergize and I get to watch many of these journeys on social media so their adventures get to be mine as well.

Heather, an amazing special ed teacher wrote this (note the parallel structure even though she's a science teacher): "Eat well, drink well, sleep well. Spend tons of time with family and friends. Unplug and go off the grid." I've seen Heather do this (well, not sleep, but the other stuff) as she and her family take a cross-country road trip each summer.

Jessica, a high school history teacher, not only planned a quince this summer, but also managed to refuel with a trip to Europe and Iceland. She wrote: "Travel, exercise, and tons of sleep!"

I think I may have figured out what I missed this summer. I needed to sleep more!

A few years ago, I traveled with Steve, a middle school history teacher, and he refuels with travel, exercise (specifically bike-riding at the beach), catching up with former students and their families, getting more sleep, watching movies and reading.

Again with the sleep!

And Veronica, whose food adventures are inspiration enough, focuses on creativity with scrapbooking and crochet.

Some other teachers responded with sleep, travel, time with family and friends, doing NOTHING, catch up on TV, play video games, eat ice cream, grow things, and experience joy. I'm so thankful for these responses. They remind me that next summer I need to read, exercise and sleep more. Writing is one way I always refuel, and I managed to get that in. I was fortunate to have some travel as part of my summer, but the sleep and doing NOTHING were missing!

Today, the new school year starts and I feel so much more ready today than I did yesterday. I'm going to attack this school year like a badass gymnast.

"I got this." ~ Laurie Hernández

This is my fifth first day of school post. Click here if you want to read the others.


Ten Blog Posts to Start the School Year: How Do You Refuel?

Summer, summer, summertime!
Tomorrow is the first day of school and today teachers are officially back to the grind. Last night, I didn't feel ready. A summer that started with daily swimming lessons and constant sunscreen application, bore trips with carsick kids to Oregon and Washington DC, and closed with days of writing bookended by life with two kids is over. This summer didn't provide the rest and reflection I'm used to having to reboot for the new school year. But tomorrow the kids are coming, so I need to ready my mind and my heart in a hurry.

In the early days of this summer break, I got a message from an acquaintance. She is a mother and a teacher too, and she wanted to know more about my teaching philosophy. Do I use a certain program or strategies? Is there a workshop that has been my model? In essence, she wants to know how I do what I do.

All summer I've been thinking about how to answer her questions. I think about my teaching all of the time, but I hadn’t written my thoughts about teaching down since my credentialing program almost twenty years ago. So, I'm thinking about her questions and others that have come up this summer, and I'm going to try to write something about my work for the next ten days to remind myself why I do what I do. 

But, I'm also crowd-sourcing this question: How do you do it? How do you find motivation in the day-to-day grind? And teachers, I'm looking for your wisdom in particular. It wasn't until I started teaching that I realized the necessity of summer vacation, so how are you refueled by summer? I'll post my response and hopefully some responses from readers tomorrow.