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.




Our Students Need More Time to Reflect and Prepare

It’s been a spell, and for that I apologize. I’ve been busy trying to get back into the grind of being IN BED at 10 p.m., up at 5:30 a.m. (because I am slow in the morning and need time to get my wits about me).

This year I have the best schedule EVER. I have a first period class three days a week teaching the Exploring Computer Science curriculum, which is fun. Five days per week, I have second period OFF to PLAN. Then five days per week, I co-teach two classes. Then lunch. Then advisory two days per week. Then co-teaching two more classes, then done! Or, well, done TEACHING. Still have to grade, eat, meditate, etc.


graphic showing all the different things to consider in managing time

There are so many aspects to time management. Perhaps we just need to allow ourselves more time.

Having breaks throughout the day does wonders for my state of mind. Frequent breaks give me time to get my materials together and to get my head right for the next task I have to do.

I have to wonder if many breaks during the day would help our students, as well. How many of them go from room to room having forgotten their books, their pens or pencils, some paper to write on, or a trip to the bathroom? So many.

A picture of a bomb

When a student comes to class without the right materials or frame of mind, they are a ticking frustration bomb.

Unlike a lot of teachers, I’m not organized by nature. It’s something I have to work on a lot. I have learned all my organizational systems from books. Except one: I give myself lots of time to complete tasks. Remember what I said about getting up at 5:30 a.m.? I don’t actually leave my house until around 7 a.m. I only need 20 minutes to get ready, but I always think of something else to do in the morning. Maybe I want to spend extra time with my cat.

Cat sitting on open laptop

Okay, so maybe he DEMANDS that I play with him in the morning.

Maybe the weather report didn’t quite match the weather outside, and I need to come back in and get a warmer coat or lighter sweater. Maybe my mom (yes, this happens) decides to call at an inopportune hour. Maybe NPR plays a song that I MUST SHAZAM IMMEDIATELY.

How can we provide students with more time to think in class? How can we change the school day to allow for real reflection and not just academic channel-flipping every few minutes? Yes, I’m a special education teacher, but this isn’t just a special education accommodation. I think a lot of students need more time to think.

Teach About Mike Brown. But Don’t Stop There.

Thanks for reminding me that the conversation doesn’t end with Michael Brown. I’ll keep this in mind.

Rethinking Schools

By Renée Watson

by flickr user: no scream @ the end by flickr user: no scream @ the end

This time last summer, I researched articles and collected poems about police brutality, racial profiling, and the murders of black men in the United States. The George Zimmerman verdict was fresh on my mind and I wanted to talk about it with my students once school was back in session. I revised a lesson I had taught six years prior on the murder of Sean Bell that asked young people to turn their pain into poetry (http://www.rethinkingschools.org/archive/23_01/sean231.shtml). And now, here I am again, swapping out the articles I used last year on Trayvon Martin with articles about Mike Brown. I have accepted that I may have to teach this lesson every school year.

I am moved by the Twitter handle, #FergusonSyllabus. It gives me hope to know that educators are willing to have difficult conversations with their…

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Why (Good) History Matters: The Republican National Committee and the AP Exams

Political drivel like what is mentioned in this blog post proves why the study of history is so important.

That Devil History

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus scowls as thinks about actually educating Americans about history. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus scowls as he thinks about actually educating Americans about history.

Have you ever heard someone say that pursuing the liberal arts is a waste of time? Sure you have. The refrain goes something like this: Studying the liberal arts is a waste of time because you’ll never get a job with a “useless” degree in English, Art, or (gasp!) History. A few years back, for example, the estimable Forbes ran an article titled “The Ten Worst College Majors,” and, of course, almost all of them were liberal arts majors. In a similar vein, Thought Catalog troll Matt Saccaro has claimed that the liberal arts, including history and literature, should be outright removed from college in order to focus on “what matters;” namely, making lots of money.

This granite-headed attitude — that the study of the HUMAN EXPERIENCE is now pointless because it won’t make you any…

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Complex Trauma and Mental Health in Students

Teacher Talk

The students I work with have significant emotional and behavioral challenges.  At our school, the staff has been getting training in being a trauma-informed learning environment.  Our local mental health service providers have worked with us and been a good resource for us in this endeavor.  We also were given a good web resource with tons of information about how mental illness affects kids, and how it looks in the classroom.  Further, there is an entire resource on complex trauma; those are the kinds of kids that I work with daily.  Now that I can see behavior through a trauma “lens,” it helps me remember that behavior is a message, and I need to figure out what the behavior is telling me.  

Complex trauma is when children are exposed to a traumatic event multiple times; this is different than a one time traumatic event which may cause Post-traumatic Stress Disorder…

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