Catching Up

Today’s post is in honor of my mental health.

Getting ready for and starting to teach strictly online has everyone I work with in a state of chaotic confusion, momentary joy, hope, minor breakdowns, and all the emotions of when we were new teachers (I can only hope this means all other challenges will be a little easier for the newer teachers). It has also brought our building staff together in a way nothing else really has in the 20+ years I’ve been here. We check on each other more; we remind each other to be a little easier on ourselves and our students; we offer help whether or not someone appears to need it just in case.

I spent part of every week over the last six months (has it really only been six months since the Oregon got thrown so high into the air?) preparing for what I thought the fall would hold. Once we got back into the building, once we got our directives from the state government and our local districts, once we got our training in using this hodge-podge of technologies—well, it became obvious that my expectations (and probably everyone else’s) had been wrong. Just wrong enough to require a complete overhaul of the overhaul which left me far behind where I normally am and where I thought I was and, definitely, where I wanted to be.

The most amazing part of this whole teaching online hasn’t been the amount of work (let’s face it, last spring was pure chaos and stop-gap and “the state said what?”). The most amazing part of this is accepting that I will not be able to get through the amount of material I want to or that I think my students need to progress. Instead I’ve been forced to really re-embrace a philosophy that slipped away over the years—skills over content. That might sound strange, but I’ve always focused on critical thinking skills and communication skills; how I’ve taught those skills—the books or short stories or articles or documentaries or poems can be canon and can change with the times. However, like many teachers who hit their second decade, some of my content hasn’t really changed. Now, I have to accept that two novels, some poetry, and some current articles are probably the extent of the literature I’ll get to if I want to teach research skills and dig into some basic writing skills.

I have to forgive myself ahead of time.

This won’t be like other years.

I have to forgive my students for the things they won’t be able to manage. That’s been both easier and more difficult. It’s easy to forgive the technology issues—kids pop in and out of class every day thank to wonky tech or internet issues (especially with our current stellar air quality). It’s easy to have office hours, but it’s not always easy (yet) to chase down kids who might need extra help, but don’t have the time or energy to ask for it.

It’s harder to get to know the “new” kids.

Some kids have their own kids or siblings. Some kids have parents who are right there, working from home. Some kids don’t. Some kids thrive on the freedom online learning gives them—many don’t. Some kids miss their friends. I miss being able to walk around a room to look at their body language and offer help or exchange a few comments. I’m not complaining about having a job even though it looks different. I just miss some things about how it used to work and I’m still figuring out how it will work, but my students have (overall) been awesome.

I’ve been really impressed by their dedication to showing up, to participating in class, to making an effort. Some of that might be the fact that I’m teaching mostly juniors (and a section of seniors) this year. I imagine it’s harder with the middle grades. I hope my students continue to make the effort, but I worry about them.

Whether they have the support they need or not. Whether they have outside jobs and/or others to care for. Whether they have time for all their obligations.

I worry about their ability to make human connections. I worry about their ability to learn. I worry about their ability to manage their time. I worry about their willingness to read—I know, my English teacher is showing. I worry about their willingness to write just for themselves. I worry about the pressures we don’t know about. I worry about their worries and how that affects their ability and willingness to learn.

These last two weeks have given me more hope.

The world is on fire. This year is a mess. My choices have led to things I’ll be dealing with for awhile, but I have hope for my students. I have hope for my colleagues.

Hope is a lot right now.

Midnight Musings

Routines are important for me. I don’t do well with too much unstructured time. My friends have been a lifeline, but (like everyone) human connection has been less common than I knew I needed. This week we’ve returned to our schools & I’m grateful to be back in my classroom. However, I’m having a lot of thoughts about how my students must be feeling facing months of online learning instead of the more traditional in-class approach.

So many teachers, students, & families are in the same boat—safety versus tradition. Some families are choosing the homeschool route and I hope they are able to build routines that benefit their kids while giving them the skills they need, while helping them be as well-rounded as possible. I hope that families sticking with their public or private schools are also able to embrace routines that benefit their kids & that they get the skills they need from online learning while gaining a well-rounded education. None of it will be easy. We are—teachers, students, & parents—in this together.

Today, in a few of our meetings & later chatting after (an outdoor, socially distanced) dinner with some friends I was reminded if the importance relationships play in our successes. Getting to know my students will be different this year—I’ll need to get to know the students I’m familiar with just as much as the students who are brand new to me. Building a mutual level of politeness, professionalism, sincerity, and trust is going to be important in convincing students who may be frustrated or burned out or struggling with other issues to try or to ask for clarification/help when they need it. Hopefully, it’ll also help build a sense of community so they care about helping each other—sometimes teacher-speak needs to be translated.

The idea of community comes and goes in American society. Keeping the people beyond our friend group or family safe is important. Treating people with basic politeness matters. Standing up for what is right also matters.

Our classes are communities.

Our schools are communities.

Our neighborhoods are communities.

Our towns are communities.

Maybe it’s long past time to let go of “my rights” and embrace “our community”.

Edgy Conversations

As an English teacher, I often find myself trying to connect old stories with modern times. English teachers read a lot of personal stuff over the course of a school year–kids will be honest in their journals, in their poems, and sometimes in their essays and that honesty can be heartbreaking. I’d like to think I’ve improved at not pushing students who will never like me, pushing just the right amount at students who aren’t “into” English, modeling personal responsibility which includes acknowledging wrongdoing or errors, and building good relationships with many of my students. I sincerely want them all to graduate from high school, to find work that pays for their bills and a little fun, to strive to be their better selves. I sincerely want my students to be true to themselves without becoming rigid and afraid of change.

One of the difficulties of being a teacher who is open and believes in having healthy connections with students is figuring out where the boundaries are. I never try to be wholly inappropriate, but I’m sure I sometimes am; I never try to challenge their belief systems, but I have to explain certain concepts connected to religion, philosophy, science, or intimacy that directly relate to what we read or watch or discuss. I sometimes end up having conversations that leave students asking “don’t you get in trouble for talking about this?” I don’t honestly think I say anything that is too over-the-top; I do try to keep their attention and give them honesty. I encourage them (in classroom discussion and in private conversation) to talk to their parents or to trusted adults about their struggles, realities, hopes, dreams, fears, and big questions.

My students come from such a variety of backgrounds, that I have to give them information on various religions, historical situations, philosophical movements, and societal changes–otherwise they will be handicapped when it comes to reading fiction and nonfiction. They will be handicapped when it comes to critical thinking and effective communication.

I suppose I shouldn’t periodically challenge their willingness to believe “authority” by telling them outrageous half-truth or giving them “fake” vocabulary words. If we are good citizens, if we are to be our better selves, then we need to understand the what and the why of our core beliefs–we need to understand how the past, the present, and the future connect. Maybe I shouldn’t teach “alternate” interpretations of texts instead of the traditional interpretations, but I want them to find support for what they understand to be happening to the characters, in the plot, and what the authors are really trying to say. We have to look at not only the information we are given, but the source of the information we are given–everything is biased these days. To make informed decisions, my students need to understand what others are trying to say without being obvious or what others are trying to hide from them with a big show.

I’ve learned so much about people and about myself in the last 22 years and I try to put it into action every day. I want my students to keep learning, to keep trying, to take risks, to do the thing that secretly scare them (but not the things that will destroy or damage them). I have learned from every kid who passionately hated me and from every kid who shared something overwhelmingly real with me. I look at my former students and I have hope for my current and future students.

We keep getting told to build relationships, but an awful lot can go sideways and I’m not sure new teachers are always well-prepared for that eventuality–I’m not even talking about the obvious idiocy that some adults bring to the table. We have to remember that our students are in the process of becoming their realest selves. We have to remember that we have been given the opportunity to guide and support, nothing else.

Teaching writing is a minefield

In simpler terms, I’m restructuring how I teach writing which starts with thinking about why and how we write, with synthesizing all the things I’ve read about writing or learned about writing.


It seems redundant and a little silly to lay this out, but until you know what you want to say and who you want to say it to, you don’t really know how to say it. The audience and purpose should shape your actual form of communication. Many of these forms have rules specific to them. For example, when you are writing something academic, you should be able to pull information from a variety of reliable sources in order to support your message—it’s also important to have something to say about or with those quotes and paraphrases so the piece isn’t just a collection of someone else’s thoughts. In fact, academic writing also requires an academic voice which is basically writing as a third-person expert on a topic avoiding contractions, use of you, and limiting I-statements to specific, relatable anecdotes.

People who want to get better at writing need to read a lot—read books, short stories, essays, articles, poems, fanfic, blogs, and everything else. As you read look for what makes a story or piece good (or enjoyable) and what makes a piece not work well.

Find a comfortable place that encourages your writing and a time you can frequently set aside to write or read or think. Every day be in that place at that time and just write. In the beginning whatever you write will be awful, because you will be “cleaning out” your mental “closet.” As you continue to write, you will improve—your ideas will flow more naturally, your words will come. Some days you will hit a serious writer’s block and the options are a) keep writing even if it’s terrible or b) go take a walk, come back, and try again.

Essentially, anything you write has a purpose and is meant for someone to read. (Ok, once in awhile what you write is meant for no one to read, so rip those out and throw them away where no one else can ever read them).


In most academic classes the writing revolves around teacher-specified topics or reading-related questions. For these pieces, the student-writer needs to be aware of the teacher’s expectations and basic American usage and grammar. Most quotes or paraphrases will be taken directly from information related to the class or topic under discussion.

When students are given the freedom to choose a research topic, they should really consider coming up with a research question. What do you really want to know about the topic? I’ve seen too many students choose their sources and resources in order to fit what the student already want to say—this can be problematic as it leads to patchwork plagiarism or an unethical use of sources (when a quote or piece of information is taken so far out of context that it is used to support the side opposing what the original text was about).

People who write for fun in blogs or fanfic or original short fiction can choose their own topics. This can be as crippling as it is freeing. Some people make their blogs very specific in nature which nicely limits the topics they will write about—The Simply Luxurious Life focuses on fashion and blending French sensibilities with a modern American life; there are whole sections on food and on local places of interest along with book suggestions, a podcast, and a video series for cooking. Another blog I follow is Bloggin’ Con La Reina which a student of mine started to explore life as a minority teen who is on the cusp of stepping out of her safety nets and into the big, bad world; her topics are varied as she tries to find her footing and I can relate to that on all levels (my blog is pretty eclectic, because I can’t quite settle on a theme).

For a brief moment (1998-2000) I participated in writing Sliders fanfic. I didn’t edit anything before I posted it and my stories were more character studies than plotted stories. Still, it was a good experience for me. I read a lot of fan fiction nowadays—some of it makes me envious and some of it makes me appreciate my student’s writing. Whatever other people think, I still feel like blogs and fan fiction are great ways for people who want to write, to practice writing. I can look back on my own blog and see how much improvement I’ve made as a writer. It’s important for writers to be able to see that they have improved, to get positive feedback when they do something well, and to remember that there is always room for improvement.

Basically, you can make any topic your own depending on what you want to say about it. Find out how it needs to be formatted, understand the expectations of teachers/professors/employers, and make your voice heard.

Reflections

As the year ends, I’m looking toward next fall.

How do I do a better job balancing how to meet my students where they are and challenging them to do better?

I feel like I know most of my failings: I’m not as funny as I think I am; I’m too slow at getting things graded, because procrastination has always been my thing; I give too many chances; sometimes my attempts to help misfire; sometimes I forget to think before I speak; sometimes I just get cranky.

I think my strengths all relate to building good relationships with many of my students. Kids need to know someone believes in them; they need someone to believe in them. They also need someone to push them to try harder, get better, get ready for life. I’d like to think I do that, but I’m not really sure. I know I’m not the person students remember as “getting them ready for college”. I want to meet them where they are and help them get better. I want to encourage them to make smart choices. I want them to go on and become successful by their own measure.

Many of my former students have gone on to become great adults. My measure for success is whether or not they are taking care of their children, their bills, themselves. I love running into some of them around town. I get to see kids who were genuine jackasses in class as real adults who are taking care of themselves and their lives. I get to see kids who barely graduated working in job and careers that fit them incredibly well. I get to see kids who had bump after bump after poor decision bump figure themselves out and redefine success for themselves.

I’ve never really wanted to be anything other than a teacher. I have racked up many failures and I still have some kids who cannot stand me (which, fair) and I have moments that taught me a lot about people, myself, and I have learned from those moments. I just always end the year feeling like I have so much to fix, to do better…so many ways I need to be better.

My Teacher Hates Me

Over the twenty-one years I’ve been teaching, there are very few students I’ve genuinely disliked. There are certain qualities or questions or tones of voice that hit my “snark right back” button, but I actually like most of my students. I enjoy the kids who are smartasses as long as they aren’t malicious with it; I love the kids who seem to be in la-la-land, but pay attention to the discussion and listen to the reading so they can answer the question in rock star fashion. I adore the kids who know they have low skill levels, but, dammit, they are going to work their brains off to get better. From the beginning, way back when I taught the dreaded Publications classes, I quickly learned that bitchy girls get things done–that doesn’t mean they are snotty to everyone all the time, but they don’t suffer fools (even teacher fools) lightly.

I’m lucky that I’ve lived and taught in the same community for almost twenty years. This means I get to run into former students at any time and in any place. Usually, I remember that they were a student and what kind of a student they were (but, I don’t always remember names). I get to see kids that cheated on ten point quizzes, or kids who failed to turn in any completed work, or kids who hated English vocally every day as grown-ups. They are working, taking care of children, dating or married, and making sure that they take care of their business. I have such respect for those kids. They often had multiple strikes heading into the work force (functional versus full literacy, a wobbly work ethic, a pathological urge to make the wrong choice) as fully functional human beings. It reminds me that every student I teach has the potential to be “okay.”

I don’t want to touch just one student’s life–I want to make a positive difference for the majority of my students. I probably won’t ever see the results of my work, not like a plumber or seamstress or woodworker will. Still, I seed the wind with life lessons from literature, analysis of what’s between the written or spoken words, improved communication skills, and I’m hopefully creating a whirlwind of critical thinkers and creative problem solvers. I just want my students to leave my classes a little better off than how they started them.

That said, I’m not the easiest teacher to deal with. I get snappy and short-tempered more often as spring blows in. I may engage in very few power struggles, but certain questions or tones of voice get disproportionate lectures. I’m not as funny as I think I am. My ADD and dyslexia come out to play far too often (although I connect it back to the official track 99% of the time). I actually answer every questions (often to the chagrin of my students). I am sarcastic. I sometimes straight-up lie about really obvious things to see if they are paying attention (Geiko cavemen, cats from Mexico, Australian wild cat hunts, the Russian moon base, flying bears, teachers who practice performance art on the weekends…).

But I care.

I care about how much I don’t know about any kid and his or her home life. I care about how many activities they are or aren’t involved in and why. I care about whether or not they have a part-time job and just how part-time it actually is. I care about whether or not they graduate from high school (and once a year at least I might be the only one who has said that to them). I care about them becoming better readers, writers, speakers, and thinkers and I try to tell them when they’ve improved. I care about the kids who hate me, the kids who like me, and the kids who are too quiet just the same. I want them all to live lives with more joy than pain and to seek out success based on their own definitions of it.

So, no, I don’t hate you.

I might not always love the way you behave and you may just straight up hate me.

But I really, really don’t hate you.

¢ Same Change ¢

School is about a person’s ability to complete and turn in work. Our grading systems should be about improving and applying skill sets which is what assignments used to be a little more geared toward.

It’s hard to know whether a student has learned knowledge and learned how to apply it appropriately when they take pictures of someone else’s test or have someone else write their paper or the ten thousand other ways they act out “it’s not cheating if I don’t get caught.”

So often, I want to throw my hands up and scream, “are you learning anything?”

I’m afraid that the answer too often revolves around pride in “I haven’t read/finished/opened a book for this class” or the excuse “writing is just too hard.”

Do they really think ignorance is this awesome badge? Quite a few of them have apathy tattooed on every fiber of their soul when it comes to school (especially the required classes). A solid few love to see how far they can push, how much they can get away with—they speak a different language even though we use essentially the same words. And there are some who learn, who enjoy school, who enjoy my teaching style which keeps me going some days.

Just to be clear, I’m not the teacher to end all teachers. I’d like to think I’ve done more good than harm in twenty years, but I cringingly remember all the rookie mistakes. I gratefully remember each student who taught me not to judge and to watch how I say things and gave me faith that every student can grow up to be a decent person who learns from their mistakes and takes care of their responsibilities. When I look into the mirror these days I know that I can be painfully annoying for some kids, that my life lessons or active reading modeling comes across as so much babbling. I know I need to get things graded and back sooner.

On a personal level I need to stop trying to be funny, to get out more, to hoard my money against the next difficulty.

I didn’t learn the value of outlines until college. I hated dissecting poetry until college. I rarely put myself “out there” before college. Most of my kids won’t go straight to a four-year university. Some are already working full time; some have figured out the trade they want to pursue; some are uncertain and feel like they have to take random college classes until they figure it out which leads to massive debt. And some kids are graduating high school with a two-year transfer degree or they have picked schools for specific programs that have reliable job opportunities.

The world is ever-changing and some complaints are never going to change—school isn’t going to be great for everyone; we don’t always know what we learned until time has passed; kids these days are no worse than kids thirty years ago, they just live in a different time. I don’t know what challenges really eat at each kid or what they face outside of my classroom. I try to remember those things.


My goals for my students haven’t really changed: think critically, communicate effectively, learn from success and failure, be true to yourself.


Grading Thoughts 

There are a lot of similarities in blogging, writing fan fiction, or writing for a high school English class. Sometimes people will blow us away and we get to see writers improve in leaps and bounds through active work. Other times we can see how little effort people put into what they put out in the world and that hurts something deep inside me. I get that my classes will never be most people’s first choice and I get that bloggers and fan fiction writers don’t have to share their words with the world.

I chose to be an English teacher, but I’d like to see more people take pride in what they write. I choose to read fan fiction and I choose not to read some things or comment on the pieces that have too many issues (one of the interesting things about the culture that’s grown up around fan fiction is the militant attitude some writers have towards criticism even when it’s meant to help).

Stories always have something to teach us if we are willing to look for the lessons. Everyone has a voice worth cultivating, but sometimes I really despise what people choose to say. I also am getting mighty tired of the way many current stories seem to thrive on a lack of communication, secrets, and not making sure the dead are really dead.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer and the supernatural (Supernatural pun intended) shows she spawned offered up an important lesson for the literal and metaphorical moments—always, always behead the dead unless they turn into dust and always scatter the remains so that the creepy monsters can’t come back.

Always… (2016)
Behead the dead,
Burn the bodies,
Salt and scatter the ashes.

Research Pre-season

Research season is coming for my students and I’m thinking about how to best help my students understand that not every source is reliable no matter who recommends it and not all information is factual even if the source is usually reliable. Last year, two classes of seniors read about fifteen articles from various sources and had to determine the value of the source, the value of information, and identify its bias.

I keep hammering the idea that not every source is created equal and many consumers fail to notice. The Atlantic Monthly leans liberal and Fox News leans conservative. Anyone can go online to see the different covers Newsweek has for its international clients versus its American clients. The point is, again, that all of these sources are biased or a consumer has to search and search for relatively unbiased sources.

The Economist,Al Jazeera, and BBC America have been regularly voted the most fair source of news in the US by various polls. Two of those sources aren’t based in the United States, so they aren’t beholden to corporations that back certain American political parties. Their news comes across as a little drier, because they aren’t trying to entertain the masses; they are trying to inform the masses. The first question every consumer needs to ask is: Who is the target audience?

To be a rational thinker and an informed citizen, We have to make sure to acknowledge and actually give time to other viewpoints, to sources of information that we might not normally rely on. It’s our job to double check information. It’s our job to make sure the source is somewhat reliable and to understand the source’s bias. It is our job to assess the information and incorporate information that has actual value.

Teaching Things

I hung out with a good friend tonight which sideswiped my intentions to grade assignments. With 197 students (not including 25 advisees), I am more than a little overwhelmed with grading which means I happily avoid the whelmed feeling with my friends, reading, writing, and planning. Usually, I’m able to split my extra work time pretty evenly between grading and planning. This year, I’m not going to get through this without time off dedicated just to grading.

In my “old age” I realize I need to set time aside for myself to recalibrate and refresh in order to be a better teacher. Practically, I set aside a certain amount of time for work outside my contract day during the week and on weekends. I don’t usually like to return assignments until the whole batch for a class is graded—as with many things, I’m rethinking my usual ways of doing things and my “great” ideas.
I can’t assign less. My students need the practice. I read (or atleast scan for the daily work) all the assignments which means things take longer.

I’m not alone in having too many students.

I’m not alone in wanting to do my due diligence.

I’m not alone in my frustrations with a broken system.

And, I’m probably not alone in what I end up letting slide, because it’s just a battle not worth fighting.

So, here’s a shout-out to every other teacher out there who feels like they are drowining. Make sure to do as much as you can to help your students become critical thinkers, analytical users of information, hard workers, and decent people—don’t lose yourself in it. Write or exercise or read or be with people you love or do things you love.

Keep the faith.