Corona Teaching – Month 2

So, it’s been a while, and a lot has changed. I’m no longer teaching 8th grade, for one. Instead, I’m teaching 7th grade. And now, instead of being the SpEd Teacher and the English teacher, I’m now the Humanities teacher, and I have a lovely co-teacher, who mostly pulls kids out and helps with one-on-one work and building beautiful relationships with the kids, and a para who officially only works with one child in the class but occasionally lectures everyone when the students are behaving poorly.

Or rather, that was the way things were a couple of months ago, before all of this Corona mess began. I really should have been keeping up with this blog the whole time, but I didn’t because frankly, I was burned out.

This year has been a difficult year. Not only was this particular seventh grade class incredibly creative, interested, and social, but they were INCREDIBLY creative, INCREDIBLY interested (but not really in the content, unfortunately), and INCREDIBLY, UNCEASINGLY social. And often mean to one another. And sometimes to me. I was burned out and tired everyday. I was frustrated a lot, too.

But that was all pre-COVID-19. Now, all has changed.

First, rumors of a virus started going global, and right in the middle of sickness season. I was very proud of myself because I was right in the middle of a mass hysteria unit, and got to relate everything we read about in the news to “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” and the “War of the Worlds” broadcast. “Are we overreacting to this news of Coronavirus?” I asked my kids, hoping that I was being provocative enough that they would stop talking for a moment and engage with school. For once, they seemed moderately engaged!

In those last two weeks of school, as NYC teachers and parents petitioned Mayor DeBlasio to close schools, a microcosm of what would soon be happening in the outside world was already happening at school. Non-Asian kids were jokingly accusing perfectly healthy Asian kids of having Coronavirus (as a joke, but things go really quickly from joke to threat in middle school, sometimes even within one spoken sentence). Then students started accusing everyone who was wearing a mask of having Coronavirus, and then, finally, schools went remote. Then standardized tests were cancelled, then shelter-in-place, then city-wide mask requirements.

At first, I was frankly glad of the rest. January to March are the burnout months, when the weather is cold, everyone is stressed out about upcoming standardized tests, flu season is wrecking everyone, the chlidren begin to smell, teachers stop getting enough sleep, and summer feels years away. Students start getting irritable, which makes teachers irritable, which makes students even MORE irrritiable, which makes parents angry, which makes admin frustrated, and everyone just spews anger, irritation, and frustration at each other until allergy season, when the students start taking allergy medication and sleep in class. It’s a tough time.

So this year, I got to skip all that. But with standardized testing gone, I realized that I’d lost my way. Without the pressure of having to force kids to make arguments, and with the added pressure of looking for ways to engage students’ minds without traumatizing them (this is ALWAYS my aim, but it’s much easier for a kid to feel traumatized in the midst of a pandemic), I had to take a  good, hard look at what my teaching had become: uninspiring. I’d been trained into this.

I was interested in my content but not inspired, my kids were occasionally interested in it but never inspired, and I’m not sure I did a good job of selling the usefulness of the skills I was teaching.

After 16 years of teaching secondary school–11 in high-poverty settings–I realized that I’d lost my way. For years, I’d been wondering where the great ideas I’d had as a new teacher had gone, and I realized that my strict adherence to the Common Core (though, a lot less strict than many other teachers) had more or less destroyed my creativity as a teacher. I’m not against Common Core, not a bit, but in my desire to fully master that sort of teaching, I eliminated the other, creativity-sparking kind.

I had to re-learn what it is one can teach a student when the ultimate goal isn’t necessarily an essay or a multiple-choice test designed to confuse and trick you. Over the next few entries, I’m going to bring anyone who is reading this along on the journey I’ve taken to rediscover my teaching love while in quarantine.

I’m still mid journey, but you’re welcome to come along!

Why I Embrace My Messiness Even Though I’m a Teacher (And Maybe You Should, Too)

I’ve never been neat. When I was a kid, I had a typically messy teenager’s room. But, unlike many folks my age (thirty coughcoughcough), the messiness never really went away. And my messiness has always been  more than just PHYSICAL messiness.

I would forget to eat.

I would lose my keys. Regularly.

I would walk out of the house with TWO DIFFERENT SHOES ON.

I wouldn’t complete homework assignments (unless I was obsessed with them, in which case I would finish them to the nth power).

I probably would have been late to school everyday–if I didn’t live there (thanks, Putney)!

But I didn’t really notice. That’s the funny thing about being incredibly disorganized–as long as no one is depending on you, your disorganization will probably prevent you from noticing your disorganization. Catch-22.

I mean, I got lots of things done. I did well in all of my  high school classes (ok, not in Calculus, but we won’t talk about that). I discovered a love of music. I discovered that I could write really well and that I loved to discuss big ideas.

It wasn’t until college (go Cardinal!) that I started to see that I had organizational issues. I was very good at getting involved in activities (running the entertainment section of the school paper, creating film festivals on the student television station, holding down a job), but I wasn’t always so good with following through or showing up places on time. I did what I could, but the many student organizations of which I was a member found me frustrating, to say the least. The product I created was always good, but I was a living tornado. I thought it was just the stress of college.

That is, until I started working in the financial services industry and was in charge of *gulp* PROJECT MANAGEMENT.

I couldn’t just write inspired words. I had to send the inspired words to be scrubbed by legal and by compliance. They’re the folks who make folks write things like “past performance is no guarantee of future results” and the like. They had their deadlines (no deadlines!) and I had mine, and my job was to nag, nag, nag until I got everything I needed. Even with a spreadsheet I was abysmal at it. That’s not why I left, though. I left because I was bored.

So I became a teacher. Bwa hahahahahaha! Little did I know how much organization THAT would take! I was a mess at first.

Then I switched to teaching special education. And everything changed.

First of all, because it was my job to keep my students organized, I started researching all the different tools available out there to help them do it. And as I researched more and more tools, I started using them.

And the more tools I used, the less disorganized I became. And the better I became at helping my students. Especially the ones with ADD.

Then kerpow! Light bulb. I realized that I had it. I had ADD. I was 32 years old, and suddenly my life made sense in a way it never had before. A psychiatrist confirmed it.

– I understood why folks always thought I was so random in my observations (they couldn’t follow my train of thought).

– I understood why I always had such an easy time tying together incredibly unlike pieces of information and LOVED interdisciplinary studies (I take in a lot of info and see lots of connections–I’m more of a big picture thinker than a detail-oriented thinker).

– I understood why sometimes I couldn’t accomplish even the simplest tasks and sometimes I was so focused that I could work on something for 10 hours straight, voluntarily (this is called “hyper focus” and folks with ADD have a hard time controlling it, though it tends to come when we are really interested in something).

– I understood why relationships were sometimes SO HARD to maintain (I’m at the mercy of my emotions in a different way than many others, though I’m getting better at dealing with this; and sometimes my all-over-the-place way of thinking makes others feel unheard and misunderstood).
– I understood why I was soooo messy and preferred it that way (I need to SEE everything I want, or I’ll forget where it is, so I spread out).

– I understood why consistent classroom management was (and is!) so difficult for me to maintain (I’m easily distracted by every. little. thing. so I struggle with ignoring the tiny distractions meant to take me off course and stop the lesson).

If you look closely at that list, you’ll see that there are useful and not-so-useful skills/handicaps in there. For every negative impact, there is a positive one.

I’ve been lucky enough to have the educational pedigree that allows me to see myself as 2E — Double Exceptional. This means that I have ADD but I’m also very, very smart. I know that Special Ed doesn’t mean dumb. Because I know I’m not dumb.

And that’s why I love my messy apartment, my messy hair, and my cat-fur covered jeans (okay, maybe I’m not so into the cat fur part). These are tangible pieces of proof to the world and to my students that it’s possible to be messy, to be a little out of control, and to still be scary smart, financially stable, and incredibly happy.

I’m just teaching by example, my friends. Just teaching by example.

I know myself. I know my habits. So I can work with them and use them to make myself better.

What are your big realizations about yourself? ow have they helped make YOU stronger?

What Teachers Can Learn From Business Leaders

First of all, I’d like to apologize for disappearing for almost a year. I have loads of excuses, but really it all comes down to “I’ve been really, really busy.” I’ve been working on my M. Ed. in School Counseling, running a facebook group about personal finance, and, well… teaching.

So, now that Spring Break has come to an end here in odd-weathered NYC, I’m here to bring you teaching manna as we round the final stretch of the desert that is the school year (yes, I am mistress of metaphor), according to the good people at INC:

A list of words to AVOID when speaking to students (though the article refers to not using them with employees):

  • Need
  • Must
  • Can’t
  • Easy
  • Just
  • Only
  • Fast

As a high school teacher, I can only explain why these won’t work with teenagers. “Need,” “must,” and “can’t” will engage a teenager’s internal rebellion system, and may make them decide to prove you wrong. Few things are more infuriating for to be told that something you think is unnecessary is something you NEED or MUST do, or that something you want to do is something you CAN’T.

A promotional picture for the movie "Rebel Without a Cause" featuring James Dean.
A teenager will rebel whenever you give her a reason to. Give her fewer reasons to rebel, so she can rebel in someone else’s class!

Come to think of it, this is also true of the words “easy” and “just.” Whenever a teacher tells a students that they “just” need to do one little thing, particularly if the students struggle with work completion, I can almost see students digging in their heels. “That’s too much work,” they say. “If it’s easy, why can’t I do it later?” And what could be more patronizing than telling someone that a hard thing is “easy”?

Even as a grown-up, I hate it. But I can always walk out if I don’t like the way someone’s talking to me. I can always leave. Kids can’t.

Luckily the INC folks also gave us some words that folks get to rally with you (and for themselves):

Thank you/Thanks. Yes (both explicitly and implicitly. More on this later). Could (instead of should). Choose to. And (to state a contrary opinion). “Your name.”

So here’s how these good words would work in a classroom:

“Thanks, Toby!” (after a student answers a question). <— Name and thanks

“If you could go back in time and change your answer to the question, how would you change your answer?” <-Could

[When a student suggests that she do a poster for an assignment instead of an essay] “What a great idea! What could you include in your poster to show me you understand the assignment?”<–an implied Yes and Could and an implied Choose to

“You are such a great classroom participant, Trina, and the only thing that would strengthen your work would be encouraging your classmates to show each other respect when other besides you are speaking.” <— implied Yes, Name, And, implied Could

Of course, not all approaches work for all students, all the time. Clearly, using all of these approaches may work for some teachers, but not for all. If you prefer authoritarian rule of your classroom–and many folks do; there’s no shame in that–try to incorporate a little bit of kindness, as well. Authoritarian doesn’t work for all students, just as loosey-goosey doesn’t work for everyone. Try to be who your students need you to be, not just who you’ve always been.




3 Ways to Help Students Love Themselves

A picture of a baseball field and a baseball in the air with "if you build it, they will join" on the picture
Create the activities and clubs and adventures that will allow the students to struggle and shine. Then publicize it. And others will join you.

And nowhere is this more true than in high school. Recently, I’ve been exploring the idea that many students in Title I schools are missing the one key skill they need to succeed in college: obnoxiousness.

“What?” you are probably saying. “I went to college, and I wasn’t obnoxious!”

And perhaps you weren’t. But I bet you were obnoxious in the glorious way that EVERYONE IS who decides to take a step into a world of people who are “smarter” than, wealthier than, and different from you.

You have to believe that you can run with the big dogs, even if you look and act like a small one. You need to BELIEVE you are a big dog, even if you are clearly a tiny tadpole. And you have really believe it, or actively be tryign to convince yourself to believe it. Every. Single. Day.

Or here’s another way to look at it: when I was 22 years old, there was no way you could tell me that I wouldn’t have written my first novel by age 30. I had the talent and the interest.

But the longer I was in the world, the less OBNOXIOUS I got. The more interesting people I met, the more I understood about the world, the more money I noticed that I DIDN’T have, the more I started thinking to myself… but who am I to write a novel? What have I experienced? What have I done? Why do I deserve this? And I stopped trying. Because I was no longer surrounded by the veritable army of teachers and mentors who had been telling me for 22 years that I was a good, even great writer. I was in NYC, the land of “but everyone wants to be a writer.”

Those folks who have the gumption to push past the self doubt or, even better, who don’t have enough knowledge to even doubt in the first place, are the ones who get that novel written. It might be terrible, but it’s done.

It’s that BRASHNESS that gets things created in this world, that gets college finished. And it’s that lack of brashness that makes those very things not happen.

Recently, I was lucky enough to have a friend suggest I listen to a recent episode of This American Life called 3 Miles. It is the story of how several students from a high poverty public high school in the Bronx reacted, over the course of years, after walking onto the campus of Ethical Culture Fieldston School. The effect was devastating. Most kids simply could not handle the overwhelming  feeling of I CANNOT DO THIS that took over. They’d simply experienced too much failure.

So here’s how you help them overcome it:

1. Let them win something. Let them compete to the best of their ability and provide lots of different ways for them to win. A great example of this at work is the Annual Poetry Out Loud Competition. While not all students end up winning the national competition, each school’s competition allows for winners at every level, should you choose to run the competition that way. If you have a lot of students in several grades compete, you can have a classroom competition, a grade-wide competition, an audience favorite, and a school wide champion. Simply saying that you were the grade level champ in something feels good. Heck, I still tell people about coming in 4th place in  the Brooklyn-wide spelling bee in 5th grade, and I’m 38 years old. These things stick with you. I was also my school’s storytelling contest champion with the story The Silent Couple.

2. Let them present their work to outsiders. A few weeks back, I brought several students to present at the NBA Cares All-Star Coding Event. My students got to meet Dikembe Motumbo and show off the Scratch Games they’d created to Motumbo and to professional coders at SAP.

Lots of students, Hadi Partovi, and Dikembe Motumbo at NBA Cares
Myself and my students looking awesome with Dikembe Motumbo. My students and are the ones with the carefully drawn yellow arrows above our heads.

Just yesterday, I brought another group of students to Pre-moticon! An intro workshop to help students start thinking about what projects they want to present at Emoticon later this year. My students were already getting psyched about what they will create by the end of the meeting.

Screenshot of a video game where the object is to catch food and water and snacks and tools falling off of shelves.
Here’s a zombie game that one of my students remixed from another game, changing the theme and the points.

3. Encourage oddness. I think this is the most important one. If we want our kids to develop the fortitude to “do their thang” against all odds, even when everyone else says they can’t do it, we need to encourage them to go against the grain. It’s okay to be good at school, to wear odd clothing, to enjoy things other kids don’t enjoy. Teach them to enjoy the things that make them stick out. It is this ability to embrace their oddness that will ultimately allow them to feel that they can’t look any baseless critic in the face–especially their own self-doubt–and tell them to hit the road.

So build it. The kids will come. Slowly. But they will join you as long as you give them ample opportunities to shine and publicize their successes like crazy.

7 Ways to Build Stronger Relationships with Students

It’s one thing to philosophize about students in the summer; the fall is when the pedagogical rubber hits the road.

I’ve mentioned that I want to strengthen my relationships with students this year. Why? Because as the late Dr. Rita Pierson said, “students don’t learn from teachers they don’t like.” And I want my students to learn. A LOT.

So, this year, I’m aiming to be a teacher students like. And no, not in a buddy-buddy way, but in a way that students know I have their best interests at heart.

The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention.
Start small. Lots of small gestures add up to big feelings for kids.

I’ve attempted to foster relationships, so far, in several ways:

1. I’m teaching a low-stakes computer science class through Exploring Computer Science. There is no regents exam connected to the course, there is no homework in the course, and students drive most of the classwork. It’s fun and curiosity driven. It engages the kids. They learn in spite of themselves. The course isn’t even called “computer science.” It’s called “Solving Problems with Creativity, Art, and Technology.” We call it CAT Class, for short.

2. I’m trying to bring more fun into classes I co-teach. I wear silly hats, wigs, cat ears (ahem, CAT class), and try to incorporate games and interesting current events. This is an approach I’ve stolen from Dave Burgess’s Teach Like a Pirate methodology.


A picture of the author wearing a pirate hat and wig.
I look just like Christopher Columbus. This is a very serious picture.

3. I’m always on the lookout for free or PAID opportunities and contests for students at my school. Even the more ornery ones know that I’m the teacher who will help them out. Opportunities I’ve helped students get since June: paid summer experience with the Sadie Nash Leadership Project, writing opportunities with Teen Reviewers and Critics Program, Internship with Metropolitan Museum of the Arts. I’m pretty sure that at least two more students will get into BAM’s Dancing into the Future program, as well.

4. I’m interviewing SpEd students about their goals and future plans so I have a lot I can write meaningful IEPs. Not only does it make the IEP easier to write, but the kids like answering questions about themselves. I’ve been using this survey because it has questions about their horse riding and car racing experiences that make my inner city students giggle. Curiously, I’ve learned that quite a few of my kids go bowling on a regular basis.

5. In one-on-one conversations, I’m giving advice less and listening and asking questions more. This is something I’m doing in my life, in general, inspired by The Lost Art of Listening by Michael P. Nichols.

6. I’m being nice to myself. This is an important one. I used to beat up on myself a lot for not being better at lots of things. And when I felt frustrated at myself, the emotion spilled over onto my kids. Teens are living, emotion-sensing machines, and they know when you are feeling bad. Of course, they assume it’s about them and get defensive. So it’s important to try to feel good.


The author's hand with a cat sleeping on it.
Having a cat who will lay on my arm whenever he wants helps me feel good. Sorta. Not so much when I want to type, but otherwise…

7. I’m learning every thing I can about being emotionally supportive. I’m researching schools and youth organizations with Restorative Justice practices. In fact, I’m leading an affinity/research group on restorative justice that you are welcome to join if you are in NYC. Sign up here (public school teachers in NYC will be paid per session!): Sign up for The Restorative Justice Affinity Group.