Twenty Years Ago

Twenty years ago, I was only a couple of months into my big adventure of teaching English in Poland. I came home from school and wrote this:

I had a bit of a run-in with Agnieszka today. While arranging the new seating today she got rather rebellious. She refused to sit with Greg because “I don’t like him.” She plopped down beside Iwona and didn’t acknowledge me at all. At first I was polite: “Please, move over there.” When she did nothing, I became a bit mad, for she was forcing me into a power struggle. “I’m not asking now, I’m telling: move to that seat.” She did nothing. I knew the critical moment had arrived: if I said nothing and let her sit there, I would have lost a major portion of my classroom control. If I continued in that fruitless way, I would have made a fool of myself. So I did the only think I could think of: “Could I speak to you in the hall?” I asked/demanded.

“Why are you making this a difficult situation?” I asked. We talked about it and reached a compromise. I explained to her the situation her stubborn belligerence (redundant) had put me in. And I told her that at the same time I didn’t want anyone to be uncomfortable unnecessarily. So we reached a compromise, but in the end I still lost a great deal of credibility.

I should have handled it differently.

I wish I could say that, twenty years on, I don’t have these moments. Twenty years later, I’ve learned something. Twenty years on, I’m not repeating myself.

I wish I could say that, but I can’t.

Preconceptions

Every year, my students begin Romeo and Juliet with certain preconceptions, both about the play and about the character of Romeo. It’s a Shakespeare play, they reason. Shakespeare’s hard to read, noble and magnanimous and all that. He writes about noble ideas, noble dilemmas, high-minded philosophy. They don’t expect it when the play starts out and within a few lines, characters are saying things like this:

GREGORY

The quarrel is between our masters and us their men.

SAMPSON

‘Tis all one, I will show myself a tyrant: when I
have fought with the men, I will be cruel with the
maids, and cut off their heads.

GREGORY

The heads of the maids?

SAMPSON

Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads;
take it in what sense thou wilt.

GREGORY

They must take it in sense that feel it.

SAMPSON

Me they shall feel while I am able to stand: and
’tis known I am a pretty piece of flesh.

I take them through the text enough to get them to realize that these two characters, like Donald Trump, are fond of locker room talk that involves suggestions of sexual assault. (No, I don’t bring in the politics, but the thought crossed my mind to make the connection at least today.) I don’t point out to them what Sampson really means when he says, “Me they shall feel while I am able to stand,” but I suspect some of them get it.

Then there’s Romeo: He’s going to be a good guy, they reason, because the play is the most famous love story of all time, and the most famous love story of all time can’t possibly have anything other than the ideal man in it. So we begin reading and find this passage in response to Benvolio’s queries about what exactly is making Romeo’s days so long:

Well, in that hit you miss: she’ll not be hit
With Cupid’s arrow; she hath Dian’s wit;
And, in strong proof of chastity well arm’d,
From love’s weak childish bow she lives unharm’d.
She will not stay the siege of loving terms,
Nor bide the encounter of assailing eyes,
Nor ope her lap to saint-seducing gold:
O, she is rich in beauty, only poor,
That when she dies with beauty dies her store.

“How has Romeo tried to win her?” I ask. We mark the text and make a list.

“She will not stay the siege of loving terms?” I ask, and the students figure it out.

“He’s used smooth words.”

“Nor bide the encounter of assailing eyes?” I ask, and the students get it.

“He’s been making eyes at her.”

“Good. Finally, ‘Nor ope her lap to saint-seducing gold’?” Here they stumble.

“Money?”

“No — how do guys use gold to win girls?”

Finally, someone gets it: “Oh, jewelry!”

“Right!” Then the question — should I pursue the issue further? Should I lead them to see just exactly what Romeo’s saying here? Some years, I don’t. This year, I did.

“And what about the rest of the line?”

They look at each other quizzically.

“What do you think he means by ‘ope’?” I ask.

“Open?” a student suggests.

“Correct. Now, she will not ‘ope her lap to saint-seducing gold’?” I see in some of their eyes that they’ve got it, so I suggest what I suggest every year. “We’ll have to behave as adults in this unit and not giggle and be immature about some of the topics. So what’s he saying?”

They get it. They’re mildly shocked. The girls are a little angry and disappointed that this supposed hero of the greatest love story of all time is a fairly typical male and simply trying to get Rosaline in bed — to spread her legs, literally.

“Nothing ever changes,” one student observes.

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The Girl tonight hit on her own preconceptions and battled them mightily. Beans are nasty. She’s decided that already. Of course, at her age, I’d decided the same thing about a lot of things, most beans as well. But we have a rule in our house as Nana and Papa had when I was growing up: you have to try everything. In L’s case, it was about three bites of beans.

We jokingly took a picture with a time-stamp (that’s in fact illegible) to see how long it took her to eat them. Although she didn’t have to sit at the table the whole time, she had her final bite around ten minutes before bedtime.

I remember doing the same thing.

Nothing ever changes.

Curve

Recently, our school district changed its grading scale for all high schools and middle schools, switching from a seven-point scale to a ten-point scale. In the past, the lowest A one could get would be a 93; now it’s a 90. Not a big change at the top end of the scale. But by the time you get to the bottom, it’s ten points. To pass with the old scale, you had to get a 70; now, it’s a 60. There was a grading floor of 61 with the old scale — the lowest grade a teacher could give was 61. That’s now a D. The new grade floor is a 50, which is the lowest F as well. In other words, a student can do absolutely nothing for an assignment and be 10 points from passing.

How does that affect the overall curve? When I put my quarter’s grades into the handy-dandy spreadsheet I use to calculate the letter grade spread of the class, I realized that I hadn’t updated the look up table that determines whether grade X is an A or a B, and so before I updated that table, I saved the old version for comparison.

A B C D F
16 33 39 46 33 26 17 21 34 13

It more than doubles the number of A’s and cuts by almost 67% the number of F’s. On the bright side, look how much better kids these days are doing!

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Mixed feelings on this. On the one hand, a lot of the people getting D’s now instead of F’s might need a bit of a confidence boost that finally not failing might give some of them.

On the other hand, most all of the students who have F’s have them because they don’t complete a significant number of assignments. It’s not that they’re trying, struggling, and failing — they’re not even make it past the “r” in “trying,” let alone the rest of the sentence. So what does this teach them?

I can’t help but feel that this is just another example of trying to rig the system so that the results look better. How do we decrease the number of high school drop-outs? Lowering the standards for passing might be one way. But in the end, what does that do?

Locker

It’s really not always been a pleasant task, morning duty. I stand by my doorway, keeping an eye on the kids in the morning as they head out to their lockers in shifts (girls, boys, then late-comers) and keep an eye on my room as well. In some years, it’s been horrific: because of the fact that the lockers for my class are, logically, more or less by my door, I’m surrounded by my homeroom class, and when it’s a class that’s challenging, it’s exhausting. There’s misbehavior in the hallway; there’s misbehavior in the classroom — watching one means neglecting the other.

This year, though, I have a class of high achievers for my homeroom, which always means few if any behavior issues. And just outside my door, one of the sweetest students I’ve ever had the pleasure of teaching has her locker. She always, always is in a good mood, and it’s evident in everything she does.

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Today I mentioned to her that I’d noticed that and really appreciated it.

“Are you always in a good mood?” I asked.

“Pretty much.”

“Why?”

“I see other people happy, and it makes me happy.”

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Other people’s joy makes her joyful. Such a radical notion, it seems, when you’re jaded with the behavior of some of they challenging students, students who have such warped worldviews that it’s difficult to believe it took only thirteen years to reach that level fatalism.

“Other people’s happiness makes you happy,” I said as I headed back into my classroom to get a paper for an student. “That’s beautiful.”

First Impressions

Dear Teresa,

You caught my eye from the very first moment I walked into the room. You were sitting at the end of one of the two-seat tables your teacher uses instead of desks, talking to your friend. It was obvious you weren’t supposed to be there: the lab tables are designed for two people, not three. When I moved to the front of the classroom, clipboard in my head, obviously ready to take role, you didn’t move back to your seat. I hadn’t said anything earlier because I didn’t want to assume you were being anything other than a friendly student who knew when to move back to her seat. So your behavior from the beginning was something that called attention to you.

When I asked you to move to your seat, you insisted that that was your seat. I’m a patient man, and I thought that perhaps you were just being a typical playful seventh grader, so I calmly and politely repeated that you needed to move to your seat. When you again insisted that you were in your seat, I saw the whole interaction unfold before me. I knew you were going to be defiant. I knew you were going to show an attitude. I knew that you were going to be disrespectful. I knew all these things because I’ve seen people behave like you behaved many times, and I know the behaviors that lead up to it. As I stated, I had my eye on you from the moment I walked into class because of your behavior: you called attention to yourself immediately.

Now, what was most troubling about our interaction was when I asked you what your name was. I asked you, and you said nothing. I asked you again, and you were silent. Your rigid body language said plenty, though. It said, “I will not respond to you. I will not reply.” However, someone in the classroom said your name. The problem with that is simple: I wasn’t asking the question “What’s her name?” to the class. I was asking you, “What’s your name.” So when you didn’t answer, you were being defiant yet again. And when I kept insisting and you finally said, “You hear my name. You hear them telling you,” I knew we were close to the end.

It was our discussion in the hallway that sealed it. You refused to look at me. You answered in a very disrespectful tone. You huffed and puffed, smacking your teeth. You all but flipped me off with your behavior. Your behavior screamed profanity, screamed disrespect. I’m very sorry that you didn’t see that. I’m very sorry you didn’t realize the horrible things your body language was saying. However, it was at that moment that I knew there was no way to salvage the situation. I knew that, if you stayed in the room, you would not have a positive impact on the class. so I asked the administrator to take you out.

Look at the situation from my perspective: I come into your classroom during my planning period to cover for a lacking substitute teacher. I simply asked you to move to your seat. And from that, you have created a very strong and very negative first impression. Should I see your name on my role next year, it will be hard for me to start with a clean slate with you. However, that’s just what I’ll do, for two reasons: first, because I’m an adult. Simple as that. Second, I don’t know what happened to you this morning leading up to our encounter that might have soured your whole day. I don’t think I deserved for you to take it out on me, but still, you’re a kid, and kids often don’t have the cognitive and emotional mental tools yet to deal with such situations. (Truth be told, many adults don’t either.)

So I just wanted to let you know that, should you still be a student here next year, I’ll do my best to let that first impression side. But here’s the thing: if that’s how you always behave, you’ll quickly create that same first impression with every teacher in the eighth-grade hallway, and you’ll find yourself in situation after situation like the one you experienced today. You might say to that, “I don’t care,” and perhaps you don’t. That would be a tragedy. But I think you do care.

If you’d like some help learning how to make better first (and second and third) impressions, I’d be happy to help you out. Just let Ms. Smith know, and we’ll figure out something we can do.

Regards,
Your One-Period Sub

Planning Help

My students are about to embark on a paired-down version of the short story project I’ve been using for years. Paired down is hardly accurate: it’s radically changed. Instead of reading The Tell-Tale Heart and writing three analytic paragraphs about it, they’re adding on to something they did earlier this year. More choice. Less grading. Seems like a win-win situation.

Less is sometimes more for everyone.

How Many?

They always seem a little surprised that I can do it. I strike up a conversation with a student before school, someone unknown, someone who’s caught my attention. We chat a bit, and then I ask the question: “If it’s not too forward, can I ask you how many referrals you got last year?” Today’s student, E, raised his eyes to the ceiling as he began count, but I didn’t let him continue. “It’s okay,” I explained. “The number is not the point. The question is the point.” He looked at me with a bit of confusion. “Did you notice I didn’t ask you, ‘Did you get any referrals last year?’ but rather, ‘How many referrals did you get?’, which is a different question entirely.” I paused. “Do you want to know how I knew you’d gotten referrals even though I’ve never seen you before in my life?”

Later, when E is in class with me, I recalled for the class, with his permission, the conversation. They were intrigued and asked if I could do it again.

“Really? You want me to put you on the spot like this?”

“Yes, we don’t mind!”

I pointed to a boy who had already been quite chatty. “You’ve gotten a few.” I pointed to a girl who, despite her best effort to hold it in, had displayed a bit of attitude. “You got a few.” I mentioned two or three other students, and I was not wrong with a single one of them.

“Do you want to know how I do it? Do you want to know why I can confidently say that I could walk down the all on other team and tell you who’d gotten referrals, that I could go up to the sixth grade hall and make bets on who would get referrals within a few weeks?” They all wanted to know, so I explained the simple fact: “You are constantly, constantly communicating. With everything you do.” I glanced around the classroom and created a list on the fly: “The way you’re sitting in your desk communicates,” I said to a young man who was slouched in his desk. “The way you carried on at the beginning of class, before we really got started, communicated,” I said to the girl who was arguing loudly at the start of the period. “The way you wear your clothes,” I said to a girl who obviously takes a great deal of pride in her physical appearance.

“Every little thing about every one of you communicates, some of it positive, some of it negative. Some of it you’re aware of; most of it, I would guess, you’re not aware of.” And so many of them are not. They don’t see that they’re communicating disrespect with their body language and get upset when a teacher calls them on out on it. They don’t see when they’re communicating apathy by the simple way that they hold themselves. They think they’re riddles wrapped in mysteries, but so much of it is just so obvious.

“Are you saying you know everything about us?” one girl asked.

“Certainly not. I’m only making inferences based on what I see, inferences based on past experiences. I don’t know why you all do the things you do.” That was a bit of a lie: I don’t know about the specifics for this or that student, but I know many of the contributing factors.

Every year, I have this same conversation. Every year, I have the same hope that I can help them change.

New Start

Dear Terrence,

Tomorrow is the first day of the new school year, and I’m assuming I’ll meet you tomorrow, but sometimes you don’t really show up until the second or third week. That is to say, your behaviors don’t show up until then.

I’ll be honest: I’ve talked to your administrator from last year, and I have a pretty good idea who you might be, but that of course is never certain. The move from seventh to eighth grade works wonders sometimes, and you disappear into the crowd and become just another student. Still, you sometimes like to come out swinging, letting me know that very first period who you are with your disruptive and sometimes disrespectful behavior.

I would just remind you of a simple fact: you don’t have to go that direction this year. You can choose to make a different path for yourself. You don’t have to play the same part with the same actors as last year, possibly the year before. It can be different. It can be better. All you have to do is meet my smile with one of your own, and when in doubt, don’t speak. Don’t get me wrong — I want to hear what you say, but what you say can sometimes be disruptive, so just keep the burner on low for the first week and let’s see how things go.

With hope,
Your New Teacher

Another End

“I am not going to cry,” said the girl with mascara running. She looked at me as if I’d suggested she might take to a life of crime for the fun of it upon finishing middle school.

“You never know,” I smiled.

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It’s the ones who are most convinced they aren’t going to cry that end up crying the most. They end up putting to shame the few brave souls who admit days in advance, “When it’s time to leave that last day, I’m going to start bawling.”

I still find it sweet, this youthful reluctance to let go of the past. “You’re going to be laughing about it over social media in a few minutes,” all the teachers insisted, but that doesn’t provide solace. A young heart in a sense loves to ache. Or maybe I’m just speaking for my own youth.

My Percentage

Dear Terrence,

classdojo-iconToday you asked me a question that I’ve never heard you ask before: “Mr. S, what’s my Dojo percentage.” You’ve always insisted that Class Dojo is a waste of time and a generally stupid idea, and although I’ve never given up trying to convince you of its value, I never really thought you’d come around and see it for what it is: a powerful tool for monitoring and controlling your behavior. After all, everyone is keeping points on us in their heads for all the good and bad things we do. It’s called a reputation. But at least with Dojo, you get an idea of where your strengths and weaknesses are. Anyway, your question caught me off guard, because I really didn’t know. I had to check. And that was a good thing, because in the past, I could have likely guessed it without looking: “No more than 30%, I’d say.”

You and I have had our issues this year, and at least once you’ve stormed out of class insisting that you have to get your schedule changed because you’re sure I’m out to get you. I assure you, I’m not: your behavior, though, sometimes seems like it is, which is why I think Class Dojo could be such a powerful tool for you. It could help you see your weaknesses (talking out of turn) and help you build on your strengths (helping others).

But you’ve made a turn around — at least your behavior of the last few days indicates that. So I was particularly pleased when I looked down at my phone and saw you were at 83% for the week.

Keep up the good work,
Your Teacher

Learning

My job is about learning. It’s about teaching, too, but the more I stand on this side of the desk, the more I realize that teaching is learning. It’s not just the simple process — as if it were so simple in truth — of learning how to teach. There’s that, certainly. I’m better this year than I was last year, I hope. I’m better this year than I was five years ago, I’m sure. I’m better this year than I was fifteen years ago, I know.

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It’s not pedagogy and method that I have in mind, though. I’ve learned that learning is so much more than simply figuring out how to write a good paragraph, understanding how to do geometric proofs, seeing the logic of the scientific method. These things are all well and good — and important. But they all serve as simple means to ends. We learn to write a good paragraph to be able to communicate better. We work on proofs to be able to construct a scaffold of surety around our knowledge — to prove to ourselves what is is. (And to move on to higher and more challenging math.) We study the scientific method because it’s the best way to find out things about the physical world.

All this knowledge helps us in our day to day functioning, but it does very little to help with our living. I’m not more at peace with myself because I can write a paragraph. I can’t show compassion better because I can manage geometric proofs. I’m not more mature because I know the scientific process. My life can bump along just fine without this knowledge, and having this understanding is in now way insulation or protection against anything. I’m not a better person for this.

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I’m a better person when I connect with other people. I’m a better person when I understand that the most precious and instructive moments in life are those flashes when a couple of people connect in a real and meaningful way.

I teach my students how to make sense of Shakespeare (and, by proxy, many other challenging texts), and I show them how to organize a paragraph coherently, then how to string several paragraphs together in a logical order. Useful skills, but not life changing. Yet sometimes I get so wrapped up in the importance of those minutia (relatively speaking) that I miss the real teaching and learning opportunities. I forget that just because they’re not learning just what I want in just the way I planned it than my students aren’t learning. I forget that just because what they’re doing for a particular session has nothing to do with English than they’re not become better people. I forget that, at it’s base, that’s what all good teaching is about. There’s the subject matter, true, but all the teachers we really remember taught us more than just their subject matter. In some rare cases, we can sometimes barely even remember what exactly they taught us about English or math or Spanish, but we remember what they taught us about life.

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Today, I had the privilege of taking about twenty of my students down the street to a community center than has a trice-weekly seniors program. The plan was simple. The plan didn’t work as planned due to technical issues. And so from a certain point of view, it was a complete waste of time. It didn’t do what I wanted it to do. The plan didn’t behave properly. And in that mini-disaster, I learned once again — my students taught me once again — that there’s more to teaching and learning than nouns and rays and Erlenmeyer flasks.

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Sometimes lessons just come along than can’t be planned because the lessons themselves come simply from the messiness and unpredictability of life. Sometimes a room full of teens and seniors offers such individualized lessons that could never be planned, never be executed because life can often never really be planned. And that in itself is part of the lesson.

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In the afternoon, another lesson about learning: not all learning has any adults at all involved. The kids headed out for their quarterly (or is it more often? I can never remember) reward day, which consists basically of forty-five minutes of freedom outside. Some kids play basketball; some kids play soccer. Some kids walk around and gossip orally; some kids walk around and gossip electronically.

And some kids just do a little bit of everything. The lessons there? Countless, and completely unplanned.

Back at home, L asked K to help her with a traditional Polish dance that she’d like to use to try out for the school talent show later this year. Tryouts are coming soon, and the Girl is not quite sure what she’s going to do. This is the first year she’s eligible, so she’s feeling a bit stressed about making a good impression. She’d noticed that all the Indian students in the past who’d done traditional dances made it to the show itself, so she reasoned that a Polish Highlander dance might stand a good chance.

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So K began working on it with her. I’m not quite sure how this is supposed to work because Polish Highlander dances are really not solos — unless you’re dancing a male part. This bit of information prompted a bit of begging from the Girl, so K showed a few male moves. And E decided he wanted to learn them all, male moves and female moves.

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Another unplanned lesson.

They’re really all around us. The opportunities are endless. And the miracle of it all is that we really don’t even have to be aware of it.

Reading

I give the students the same information every year, but this year, I decided to break it down in a letter. Dear student, you recently took the MAP test, which measures your reading progress. And so on and so on. It’s a mail merge, so “student” is replaced with the kid’s name, and all the details are individualized. Like the winter score. Like its grade-level equivalent. It’s bound to be a disheartening moment for some: I’m not sure they’ve ever been told point blank, “Your reading scores indicate that you’re reading at a second-grade level.” How do you take the news that your skills are six years behind where they should be?

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There are a number of reasons one could posit for this, and for each, a exception: For some, it’s a question of limited English exposure at home. But I have Latino students in my honors high school courses as well. For others its a question of limited access to books. But I have such students in my honors high school courses as well, and they solve the problem by basically camping out in the school library. No role model in the immediate family to provide the support necessary. But I’ve had students in my honors high school courses who’d never even met their biological father.

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At times they seem like excuses, at times they seem like legitimate — and tragic — explanations. Whatever the case, they’re my charge, and I’m tasked with reversing the trend. Some days, though, it just feels like I’m making the situation worse still.

First Day Returning

The first day back can always be stressful: you walk back into the school wondering what kind of day the kinds have packed in their book bags and hauled to school from Christmas break. Some years, they unpack a chattiness and an unwillingness to work that in a lot of ways is understandable. Other years, they haul out their books and their attention and make the day slide by almost effortlessly.

It occurred to me that I could help them pack their bag by having them leave on a good note, hence my opłatek efforts at the end of the year. Through most of the day, I thought that perhaps it had worked, that perhaps ending the year on a deliberately positive note helped bring them back with a positive outlook. They worked brilliantly, and not a complaint as I introduced and modeled a new weekly assignment, the article of the week, based on Kelly Gallagher’s ideas.

The final period of the day rolled to a close, and one young lady who was absent the final day asked me if I’d saved a cookie for her.

“Excuse me?”

“The cookies you gave everyone before the break.”

Here it was — definitive proof that what we’d done together had made an impact, for someone had clearly told her about the experience. Obviously it had struck something in their souls, made them resonate as one for a moment, showing them the oneness of humanity and all the hopes and dreams of everyone who has ever set out to create a utopia.

“Oh, yes,” I replied. “How did you hear about them?”

“Oh, everyone was just saying they were really tasty.”

A utopia for the taste buds, I guess, is better than no utopia at all.

Showing, Not Telling

What do you do when you come into work to find that a tool you’ve used for almost ten years, a tool you’ve created yourself and spent probably thousands of hours over the course of almost a decade, a tool you use now daily as a result of the initiative of your principal and his vision of turning your school into a true tech academy — what do you do when that tool is suddenly, inexplicably, and without any notification made completely unavailable to your students? It was the situation I found myself in this morning, as my first group of students filed in, logged on, and one by one said, “Mr. Scott, the site is blocked.”

My first reaction, of course, was fury. For the briefest of instants, I took it personally, as if my web site was specifically targeted for blocking. That took only a few moments to clear up in my mind: surely it was just a new filtering rule that had been applied, and like dolphins caught up in a net trawling for tuna, my poor site just got dragged into the mix. In the end, I’m really not sure what was going on, and I’ll likely never know the cause. What’s most important is not the cause but the effect: one of the most useful tools in my classroom is unavailable because of the actions of unknown people who work for the same organization as I.

At this point, the astute reader is probably thinking, “Surely that is a mechanism in the school district through which teachers can request that a site be unblocked.” Indeed, there is. I’d made such a request a couple of years ago and another one at the beginning of the school year. According to the district records, those requests are still pending. There are many different ways to explain this, but none of them are particularly complementary of the school system’s mechanism for unblocking web sites. Still, I filled out the online form, and even sent an email, CC’ing my principal, explaining the situation and the fact that “all of my requests [for unblocking] are still pending” and my worry ” that it might be several months before any action is taken on this issue,” requesting that the powers that be “process this request immediately,” and expressing how much I “appreciate [their] prompt help in this matter.”

As a third fail-safe, I called the help line and explained my situation. The lady with whom I spoke explained that she had no power to unblock web sites, which was what I expected. She mentioned that she saw my email, which was what I expected. She explained that she’d forwarded it on to tier three, which I didn’t quite understand as I don’t know how many tiers there are in this particular case, but it was still a little unexpected. It sounded like progress. I asked if I might have some kind of contact information for someone in this tier three, and the help desk attendant explained that she didn’t even really know who they went to, simply that they went to tier three, which I somehow expected.

But how to turn it into a teaching experience? My second class filed in, and by then, I was in a white-hot righteous fury of epic proportions. The more I thought about it, the angrier I got, which sounds about right for me. Yet the students could not discern how angry I was, for I did my absolute best not to manifest it at all. In that particular class, I’m blessed to have a co-teacher, and when she entered, I explained to her what happened, then explained to the class what had happened. I went so far as to say that I was extremely angry about it. But I excused myself, went to the restroom, ranted for a little bit, washed my face to freshen up, and went back to the classroom and carried on as if nothing had happened. Students were finishing up summaries of a reading we’d just finished, and I and my co-teacher went from student to student, advising, helping, praising, encouraging — all the things we try to do on a daily basis to build the self-confidence of the students in this class, all of whom read below grade level. A corollary to this low reading ability for many of them is a low level of self-control. Several of them say what comes to mind when it comes to mind. Many of them, when they come into the classroom angry about some excessively emotional interaction that occurred in the hallway — “drama” they call it — enter the classroom already doomed: they will sit and stew about it the entire class, refusing to work, refusing to calm down, often disrupting the class further.

On Monday, I’ll be able to debrief them about how I dealt with my anger. “Please notice,” I’ll begin, “that I didn’t take it out on you and that I didn’t refuse to work. I dealt with it and moved on. Was I still angry at the end of class? Very much so. But I kept it from controlling me.” Will it help? Perhaps. Teaching by example is always better than teaching by words. Show, don’t tell. Who knows — that might turn out to be the most valuable session we had all year for some students.

Is it love?

Does Romeo really love Juliet? Can Juliet trust her emotions about Romeo?

The first group just dives in. They’ve got proof from the text — they’re ready to go. Never mind that during the preparation period with their partners, they didn’t know whether they would be arguing that it is love or that it isn’t. No matter: they’re prepared for both.

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The second group takes a bit more to get going. They’re quieter, both as a simple group of kids and as a class. But once they get going, they’re backing everything — I mean everything — with direct quotes from the play. “In act one, scene five, lines x through y, we read…”

This is why my job is so fun — getting kids to the point that they can have discussions like this.

(Originally published on my school web site.)