Sunday, August 23, 2015

1st Day Experiment

On the first day, I generally go over my syllabus and my expectations (except for the years when I looped, then we got right to work). This year, since I am starting at a new district, and the students know nothing about me, I decided to try something new.

In February 2015, my friend Blue Cereal Education’s blog ( included a story called “Examination Day.” Here’s a link to the blog and story: I immediately knew I wanted to use the story. It is a simple little story with an obvious message, but I knew it would be a fun jumpstart to a discussion about the standardization of public education.

At the end of May, I was hired to teach 10th traditional ELA and 11th AP Language and Composition. I got hold of the summer reading assignment. The book choice was solid, but the questions left much to be desired. As I began working on my calendar this past summer (yes, many educators work during the summer), I found myself wanting to try something new, and I kept coming back to “Examination Day.” I knew I wanted to use it to begin a dialogue about trying harder, doing more, questioning everything, analyzing everything—my personal mantra. I decided to start the first day (with AP) by stating my name, welcoming them to AP, and reading the story. I wanted little interaction the first day to see what they could do.

My plans further coalesced when my curriculum director showed a funny video about tests not preparing students for life (, and I remembered a poem called “Pretty Good” by Charles Osgood ( It’s not a difficult poem, but went with my theme.

Things did not go exactly the way I planned (when do they ever?), but I was quite pleased with the reality. I ended up talking to/with the class more than I intended, but they seemed to need some direction, explanation, and encouragement. As I’ve learned over the years, plans are necessary, but flexibility is integral in education. I did introduce myself, welcome them, and asked if they minded if I read the story to them. They seemed surprised and excited. I don’t care how old students are, they enjoy being read to. I finished the story and stated, “I know you don’t know me; I am a stranger. Turn to a partner and speculate why I would use this story on the first day of school.” While they talked, I eavesdropped and prepared the video. Some of my favorite funny comments were, “Does she want to kill us?” said in a stage whisper; and, “Are you a wizard?” To which I replied, “I prefer goddess, but I’m okay with wizard.”

I told them I wanted to throw something else into the mix and showed the video, at which they laughed in all the right spots; I finished with the poem, then we talked. I explained a little of my philosophy: I would prepare them for the AP test because I knew many of them would take it. Plus, the preparation would make them better, more effective writers. However, my goal would always be to take them past any test. They are more than one score/grade on one day. They need to think for themselves and question everything, including me. I wanted them ready for a college and/or a career, but it would be criminal of me if we didn’t explore the hows and whys of literature, if I didn’t push them to trust themselves and to find and use their voices, if I didn’t teach them the rules of English (and how/when to break them).

The majority of students in each hour had open, excited faces. Their eyes were bright and eager. I saw smiles and nods. I made eye contact and almost tangibly felt connections being made. It was a lovely first day.

I continued with a few more pieces the second day. We began discussing what they’d read in the past to give them pieces in their “holsters” for essays and to create a common culture between us. We bonded over what we loved and hated (I’m looking at you Romeo and Juliet and A Separate Piece). We finished the week by discussing research papers. I gave them time to start thinking about them with a partner, which gave me one-on-one time to offer advice, encourage ideas, and cheerlead them (this is their first research paper—ever).

I even had a student stay after school on Friday to talk to me…for almost an hour. I think this is the beginning of a beautiful year of learning, growing, and sharing—for both my students and for me. 

Friday, August 7, 2015

The Great Desk Debate

Desk Shaming...

Okay, no one I know is doing any shaming, but that got your attention, didn’t it?

Lately, I keep seeing teachers enthusiastically posting about ridding their rooms of a teacher desk. I have also seen other educators dig deeper into the issue, including this tweet from @JessLif, who I recently starting following and who I’ve quickly come to respect. (I tend to over-analyze and look for root causes, so I appreciated this nugget.)

Strangely, several educators I follow and also respect have made the leap into no-desk land (how often do you like and respect people on BOTH sides of an issue?!). I know they are not in the “bad teacher” camp, so naturally, I began pondering the issue and wondering if I, too, should jump on board.

**Disclaimer: I hope this doesn’t offend the free-wheeling teachers who’ve abandoned their desks. I know several of them—my reasons do not apply to them. They rock! These reasons are totally my own.

Now, my decision: No, I will not be “desk-free.” If you care, let me tell you why…

1. Storage: I use my desk to neatly and discreetly store items such as band-aids, pads/tampons, cough drops, snacks for me (or students who need food), private files, notes from former students (I really need to scrapbook), and the various accouterments I seem to still need even though I’m mostly paperless. I like having a place for my favorite scissors and stapler (yes, I’m a dork), my stash of awesome big paper clips and binder clips, rubber bands, my different colored pens for grading…well, you get the idea. I could get a table to store all my delicious clutter, but isn’t that the same as a teacher’s desk? Plus, I’d rather have the dishabille tucked away. I have enough other items littering my space (the private hell of an ELA teacher).

2. Freedom: this seems to be the number one issue of The Great Desk Debate, whether or not a teacher is chained to a desk if one happens to be in the room. This argument seems indicative of how the general public (mostly politicians) does not view us as professionals. If I am an effective teacher, you could put a massage chair and a footbath in my room—I’m still going to walk around and interact with my students. Conversely, if I am ineffective/lazy/”bad,” you could take away all my comforts (like the slightly broken desk chair or the desk with the wonky drawers that get stuck and only Hercules can pry open), have an administrator follow me with a cattle prod or a whip so I walk around my room…and I would still find a way to not fully educate my students. If you are an effective teacher, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse won’t stop you from educating all of your students. If you aren’t, well those Horsemen can’t force you give a damn.

3.  Health: I was diagnosed with Crohn’s in August 2004. After spending time in the hospital, I began teaching full-time in November 2004. It’s pretty much in remission, but I was diagnosed with lupus in February 2014. Yet, despite the health issues, I know I was born to teach. I fight with everything in me, but there are days I feel like complete crap. I try to only miss school if I’m throwing up; not much else keeps me from my students. That doesn’t make me a hero or a martyr. My students deserve my best. I could call in for a sub more often, but, even on my bad days, I know I can have more influence than a sub showing a movie (Be honest, that’s what most of them do. That’s okay—they aren’t paid to teach) because I’ve built up a rapport. Even though I hate admitting my limitations, there are days when being able to sit at a desk and lay my head down for the brief lunch period, or the few minutes between classes, gives me enough of a boost to keep giving my all for my students. There are also days I’m emotionally drained from discussion or from dramatically reading a piece of literature or from listening to the issues my students face, and I need a moment behind my desk to center myself. Yes, I sometimes take moments for myself. I’m an introvert, so sue me. J

4. Prop: Yes, sometimes I’m guilty of performing for my students. I had years of drama and have been in several plays and musicals. Nothing too crazy (no costumes or lighting…sometimes music…definitely voices and inflection), but I have that luxury in ELA. Literature is beautiful on the page, but that beauty comes to life and can become mesmerizing, engrossing, life changing when read aloud and with feeling. I read out loud to my students—all the time. I let them take parts for plays because I’m good, but I’m not ready to do an entire Shakespeare play on my own; however, I read everything else to them if they agree to it. I’ve memorized parts of “The Raven” and start reciting it as I lean back in my desk chair with my feet propped on my desk. I put my head in my hand and start reciting it. Freaks out my students. I also like to sit on my desk and “casually” discuss important issues. That’s especially fun when I play devil’s advocate. I also use my desk and podium as I give a rousing read of Patrick Henry’s “Second Speech to the Virginia Convention.” I like to emphatically pound on my podium or desk as I deliver Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” For now, I like my prop.

Once again, let me reassure you I am not shaming anyone who disposes of his/her desk or anyone who keeps the desk. These are my reasons for keeping my desk. Now, go ponder this issue for yourself. Reflection is healthy for the soul.