Category: teacher voices

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TEACHER VOICES: Shannon Jin-a Lamborn

Sustained Silent Reading Works

Two of my students with respective volumes of March, a graphic memoir about the civil rights movement, by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell.

Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) works because it provides both a mirror and a window for our young people. Reading is a mirror as it allows young people to learn more about themselves. It is also a window as it provides young people with access to cultures, lifestyles, norms, and communities outside their own.

In addition to building mindfulness and empathy, SSR builds skills. Regular reading increases knowledge of vocabulary and grammar and there’s loads of assessment data to back that up!

While SSR is one of my most valued components of my curriculum now, it wasn’t something that I have always felt strongly about. I initially implemented SSR because my coach, Mark, recommended I do so. I was hesitant to dedicate so much time to what I feared would amount to wasted hours of fake reading.

At the beginning of last year, SSR was one of the most annoying routines to facilitate. Students would pick a book at random off a shelf, open it, and stare blankly at the pages in an attempt to skirt any consequence for being off task or disruptive. They groaned every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and ravished any opportunity to voice their discontent with me and with reading. Commonplace student feedback on SSR included remarks such as: “This book is trash,” “When is this over?” and “Can I go to the bathroom?”

By spring semester, my students and I had transformed SSR into an oasis of comfort, calm, and joy. It would take less than a minute for the classroom to fall silent as students quickly became enveloped in their respective worlds of choice. I would often have to coax students out of their books and back into the world of the classroom.

“This book is actually lit!” – on Buck: A Memoir, by M.K. Asante.

To make SSR successful you need to do five things:

1. Genuinely believe in the power of SSR.

Joy and excitement are contagious and so is a love of reading. Communicate why and how you got into reading. Model how seriously you take SSR by norming that everyone who enters your class during SSR should be reading, adults included.

2. Name your purpose.

What do you want your students to get out of reading? Explicitly identify, name, and share your purpose with your students. Then create structures that allow y’all to work towards that aim.

3. Build a robust library.

Have you ever read something you weren’t into? Yes? Me too and it sucks! I like to tell my young people that there are too many books in the world to be wasting time choosing SSR books you don’t enjoy. Yes it’s important to be able to read things you don’t like but SSR is about choice.

Do research by talking to peers, students, and checking out recommended reading lists from websites such as: Buzzfeed, Goodreads, NPR, and the Young Adult Library Association. Make a social media post asking people to share the most influential books from their teenage years. Then, if you haven’t already done so, make a DonorsChoose account and start raking in those donations! Regularly have a project on DonorsChoose and routinely introduce new books into your classroom. Prioritize having multiple (I like three) copies of fewer, super awesome books over less access with more selection.

Given a Secret Scholar Award, this student would literally lol during the funny bits of books.

4. Nurture student relationships.

When students aren’t reading, make a point to ask students what they’ve read and enjoyed and what they’ve hated. Ask them to consider if there are any patterns there. If they’ve never read a book they’ve enjoyed, ask them about their interests or favorite television shows. Once you know your students as readers, it will become much easier to recommend books or connect students with similar reading interests to recommend books to each other!

5. Have a plan to get your books back.

At the end of the year I got over eighty books back – yes eighty! I did this by creating a public project to “Rescue Ms. L’s Library!” and publicly tracking the number of books returned. Personal incentives included extra credit points and a raffle towards new books. Classes were also in competition with each other to return the most books in exchange for snacks.

“This is a great book! It shows how gamers can be girls and is colorful.” – on In Real Life, a graphic novel by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang.

I really, truly believe in the power of SSR. In the last weeks of school, I witnessed a magical moment. Three of my boys who used to hate reading were talking about the books they were reading and how cool they all were. One was reading Sherman Alexie’s Flight, another Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang’s In Real Life, and the third was reading Vera Brosgol’s Anya’s Ghost. These boys were so excited to share their knowledge of the plot and characters in these books that I actually started crying tears of joy! The seed had been planted, my students are readers.

In community,

Shannon Jin-a Yi-Lamborn
DonorsChoose.org/sjlamborn

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TEACHER VOICES: Marni Spitz, #11

The Crier

ms. spitz 4favicon When my best friends have weddings, and I want to say a few words at their rehearsal dinners, I have been forced to perform raps to express how much I love them and how happy I am for them. The reason I rap has nothing to do with my rapping skills (although if you really want to know, they’re pretty good). The truth is, I have to rap. Because if I get up there and try to articulate my feelings for people I love in a traditional speech, I will just start crying. And not like cute, wipe-the-tears-away, collect-myself crying. But like the snot, gross, can’t-breathe crying.

My first year teaching I think I cried every single day. Ask my sisters, or my parents, or the people on my subway ride home. I seriously cried every. single. day.

Two weekends ago, I yet again did some serious crying. But these tears were very different than first-year Marni-teacher tears. These were 9th-year Marni-teacher tears: reflective, grateful, overwhelmed-by-all-the-love, -support, -luck, and -encouragement Marni tears.

One of my students and I were asked to speak at Facing History’s annual benefit dinner. My first thought was, “Oh s*&t. How am I going to not cry?!” And also: “Wow.”

So, I decided to conquer my crying head on. And in front of 800 people, composed of students, fellow educators, friends, strangers, generous donors, and one of my heroes, I unabashedly confessed my identity as…. a crier.

In fact, my speech opened with: When people ask me who I am, what is at the forefront of my identity, I without hesitation say: I am a teacher. To my family and friends, I am known as the crier. And to my students, I am the teacher most likely to cry in class.”

Just MercyAnd sitting right in front of me, listening to me talk about my crying, was Bryan Stevenson, literally the best person ever and an exemplary human in every way and I can’t even finish this sentence because he’s just too wonderful and I can’t believe this happened to me and I am getting overwhelmed and I have to breathe. BREATHE.

So as I was saying: Bryan Stevenson is—in addition to being the best human, the best TED talkerand the best writer—a really, really, big deal. In my universe: the biggest of big deals. I seriously felt like I was essentially telling President Obama: “Oh hey Barack. Just so you know, I cry a lot.”

And while I couldn’t see Bryan’s face, he was there. At the front table, in the sixth chair. And since when I had first met him in person approximately 42 minutes before my speech, I was a bumbling buffoon, I knew I had to keep it together. Not just for the 800 people out there, but for Bryan. And for first-year teacher Marni who would’ve never been able to do this. So for most of my five minutes, I held it together. I spoke of the amazing impact Facing History has had on my students and my classroom, and how I cried a lot.  And I spoke of moments when my students connected with historical moments that seemingly are generationally and culturally distant, but are in actuality so very close.

Marni - Arvaughn - Facing History

I shared the story of bringing in Hiroshi Kashiwagi, a 93-year-old survivor of the Tule Lake Japanese Internment Camp, who had spoken to my students:

“And then, the lunch bell rings. Hiroshi think it’s his hearing aid. So he takes it out and continues to talk. AND NOT A SINGLE STUDENT GETS UP FROM THEIR SEAT. Not one of them looks at each other with a “can we go now?” Face. They are HANGING ON his EVERY WORD. He continues to speak for TWO MINUTES AFTER THE BELL.  And while those two minutes were by all teacher definitions pure magic, it wasn’t until I read their thank-you letters that I realized this experience helped my students see themselves as the next generation of upstanders.

One of my students, Brittney, wrote:
‘Thank you for coming and sharing your experience. I learned how far people would go just to marginalize a group of people due to their fear, but in reality, their fear is just ignorance…. and how we use stereotypes as a way to judge people. I’ll bear witness and remember so nothing like that could happen again.”

I didn’t actually cry until it came time for me to introduce my student, Arvaughn. He had won a national scholarship through Facing History the previous year for his mind-blowing spoken word, which he performed that night. For 800 people. For Bryan Stevenson. I began to cry, but am proud to say that at least while up there, it was the cute, wipe-the-tears away, collect-myself crying. (I think.)

Arvaughn - Marni - Bryan Stevenson - Facing History

I wish I could think of a way to put into words just how deeply lucky I felt for that evening—for the chance to meet Bryan Stevenson, and tell him how inspiring he is, and how much his dedication and passion move me and inform my classroom, for the chance to introduce one of my beloved, insanely talented and inspiring students and to be reminded that our work as teachers is also such a big, big deal.

And for the chance to speak, even for just five minutes, on behalf of so many teachers who work so hard, who do such incredible things, and who often, never get opportunities like this. And so when I got home that night, I couldn’t help it.

I got in my bed, watched Bryan Stevenson’s TED Talk for the ten-thousandth time, and cried the snot, gross, can’t-breathe crying. And I think it’s safe to say, I was honestly the happiest I have ever been. Because I, 9th-year-teacher Marni, realize that on so many levels, I got to be part of something so rare, and so special. And I understood that this night, and all the crying moments leading up to it, were more than anything, a testament to the cocoon of boundless support, mentoring, and encouragement my family, friends, coworkers and students have wrapped me in for 9 years.  I don’t have a  rap to synthesize it all just yet, but trust me, I’m working on it. favicon

Ed. note: Marni Spitz teaches U.S. History and Reading Lab at City Arts and Technology High School in San Francisco. Donate to Marni’s classroom!

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TEACHER VOICES: Michele Godwin, #16

One month before graduation. “Now what?”

michele godwinfavicon Monday, 4/18 2:10 pm
Family meeting week, the last of my advisees’ high school careers. I meet with K’s mom for five minutes, just to let her know that K is on track to graduate May 28. K has all her credits, she’s passing her classes, and she’s in good shape for the senior exhibition. Go ahead and order the invitations for the graduation party! K’s already paid her deposit to CSU Stanislaus; she’s ready to go. It’s the easiest meeting I’ll have all week.

2:45 pm
D’s mom comes in to talk about D’s progress toward graduation. He’s currently failing two classes, and he owes over 30 academic hours. D swats it away like it’s nothing: “Yeah yeah. I’m taking care of it,” he says.

“What about your exhibition slides? I haven’t seen any of them, and all 15 are due Friday,” I tell him. “You have to pass the exhibition to graduate.”

“Yeah yeah,” he says again, yawning and looking at his phone.

D’s mother takes copious notes in the binder she keeps for tracking D’s school endeavors. She knows that D has absolutely zero wiggle room, that he cannot fail one more class or miss one more credit if he wants to graduate on time. She has experienced his Fs as well as his last-minute recoveries. She’s been on this roller coaster for a while.

I tell them both: D can either walk across the stage on May 28th or not. It’s all in his hands. He nods again, checking his phone and pushing back his chair to leave.

3:30 pm
I’m surprised to see N on campus still, school having let out over an hour ago. N has stopped staying at school until the end of the day, cutting out the last 30 minutes or so every day because he can’t handle being here, or so he says. He’s angry all the time he’s not stoned, and he’s hard to be around. It’s almost a relief when he cuts out early, even though it’s absolutely not OK for him to be skipping school.

I ask him what he’s doing.

“Working on AP Bio with Ms. P,” he tells me and keeps walking toward the science room.

I’m surprised. It’s typical of N to buckle down the last few weeks of school and scrape by in his classes. But we still have another couple weeks! It’s not quite last-minute yet!

I resolve to call his mother and tell her the same thing I told D’s mom: N may or may not walk the stage in a few weeks. But I’m betting he will.

Wednesday, 4/20 4 pm
K is worried I’m going to tell her mother bad news. She has a good reason to worry: K never showed her mother her report card from January. K’s failing three classes, and her mother is concerned that K is always out with her friends and never at home studying. K’s older brother dropped out of high school and sits around the house getting stoned all the time, so mother naturally worries that K is destined for the same fate. The mother works long hours, cleaning people’s houses to make enough money to barely get by. She brought her children to this country to give them a better life, to give them opportunities she didn’t have.

K has to translate the bad news to her mother, and then translate her mother’s reaction. It’s too much for her, and she refuses to translate when it comes time to tell her mother she may or may not graduate, depending on whether or not she can bring up her Spanish grade. She cries instead of telling her mother she won’t be able to go to college if she doesn’t bring up her grades. Her mother can tell I’ve given some bad news—she sees her daughter crying—but she doesn’t know what I’ve said, and K refuses to say what she needs to say. I finally have to use Google translate. Her mother listens carefully to the robotic voice tell her that her daughter’s future is in limbo, that she may have to rescind her college acceptance and the scholarship and the work study and all the assistance she’s been offered if she doesn’t buckle down and get her work done. I’m embarrassed, listening to that horrible voice read this woman’s future to her. I wish I had found another teacher to translate, a human being to convey the scary news.

Again, I didn’t think it through. I didn’t put myself in this mother’s place and imagine a robot telling me my child’s future. What have I done?

4:45 pm
I talk to M’s mother on the phone. Her son has all As and Bs, has completed all his community service and academic hours, and is in excellent shape for graduation. She knows all this, of course, because she keeps a very close eye on her boy. She calls regularly, to ask about deadlines and upcoming events and homework assignments. She checks his emails and recently told me she’d found her son a date to prom but she needed to find one for his brother. Did I have any suggestions? I didn’t.

Friday, 4/22 3:30 pm
C’s dad calls for our family meeting. He’s a contractor and has had to take a lot of time off to deal with his younger son, C’s brother, who skips school all the time and is failing all his classes. C is the oldest, the exceptional child and very much a typical child of alcoholic parents: straight As, self-centered, over-achieving. He’s applied to schools all over the country, top-tier schools with excellent engineering programs, as well as UC Berkeley and UCLA. His number one choice is MIT.

His father and I spend a few minutes talking about what C needs to do to graduate in May: keep doing what he’s doing, and work on his senior exhibition. We spend more time lamenting that C hasn’t been accepted into any of the schools he applied to. How can that be? He’s a straight-A student, played soccer all four years of high school, first generation to go to college, qualifies for free and reduced lunch, Mexican American. What’s the problem? I don’t understand it, and I tell his father as much. I wish C had applied to some CSUs, but he brushed those aside. He was so confident. Now what? favicon

Ed. note: Michele Godwin is in her 15th year of teaching high school. She’s back at Leadership High School, where she taught from 2001 to 2008. An English teacher by training and experience, Michele has changed her focus to build a library for Leadership. In addition to her fundraising and library organizing, she is an 12th grade adviser. These are her musings from the past few weeks. Please donate so Michele can buy more books!

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TEACHER VOICES: Marni Spitz, #10

Concert-Going Tiger Nikes

favicon Last week I did something few teachers do on a school night: I went to a concert. Gassssspp!!!!  I know, right?!? I’m so BRAVE. After a day of school, I entered the extremely dangerous territory of Summer Marn. This means:

  1. Indie and NikesI was around people after 7 pm.
  2. I was making decisions after 7:30 pm. Things like: Where should we stand to get the best seat? Which shoes should I wear so I could look like someone cool enough to go to a concert on a weeknight. (I went with my Tiger Nikes, pictured here with Indie. These are her favorite too).
  3. And lastly, I didn’t get home until 11 pm. Excuse me, Ms. Spitz. What do you think this is?? July??!?!

Turns out the concert was amazing and so well worth it, but I definitely paid for it the next day. In fact, by 8:31 am, I remembered so palpably why Summer Marn can only make school year appearances every so often. It was at this moment when one of my Reading Labbers raised his hand with an extremely concerned look on his face during SSR:

“Ms. Spitz–are you okay??”
“Yeah Kenny! I’m fine! Why? What’s wrong??”
“Are you sure? Because you look sick.”

I think by “sick” he meant someone cool enough to go to a concert on a school night.

Up to that moment, the last 9 hours in my mind had looked something like this:

11:04 pm: I’m in bed. You did it! Way to go, early Summer Marn! But you have to go to sleep. Oh my gosh, you’re going to be so tired if you don’t go to sleep. It’s going to be so hard to be on for 6th period, and you’re supposed to meet with Unique for homework help at lunch. OK, I, Marni Spitz, am going to show the world that I can go to things on a school night! Like the teachers do in New Girl! And How I Met Your Mother!

11:34 pm: Oh my gosh Marni. Why aren’t you asleep? Did you leave the copies for Period 1 on your desk or in the copy room? Okay. Sleeping. I think it was the copy room….

12:01 pm: I am asleep.

4:02 am: Shoot! Did I remember to plug in the Chromebooks yesterday? When is Karina’s scholarship letter due again?

4:12 am: I am asleep.

6:02 am: My alarm rings. I press snooze.  

6:06 am: But the Chromebooks! I turn off snooze and reluctantly but assertively WAKE UP.

Rise and Shine, girl. Rise. and. shine.

6:51 am: Later start today. I feel good. I did this. I got my lunch. Where’s my water bottle? Don’t forget to grab some extra granola bars (Trevor and Gaby will like these), and my vitamins. Because you can’t just go to concerts on school nights and not take vitamins.

7:02 am: Pick up a coffee (because it’s a treat-yourself post-concert morning, right?). (I didn’t start drinking coffee until I was a teacher. I went 23 years without it. Just saying.)

7:22 am: Arrive at  school. Drop off my lunch in the fridge. Say hi to our AP in his office and to the few students who have beat me there.

“Morning guys! Happy Tuesday!” Smile. Sip Coffee. Repeat.

I walk up the stairs to my classroom, which is uncharted territory as Summer Marn.

7:26 am: En route, I say hi to Charlie, a 9th grader who is always my morning greeter. “Did you watch the Oscars Ms. Spitz??”

“I most certainly did!!! Leo FOREVA!” I want to be so excited about this. But I’m tired.

Leonardo

7:37 am: Copy Machine Party Time. Weekly strong start charts, check. Homework packet, check. Stapled, double-sided, three-hole punched, CHECK.

WAIT.

COPY MACHINE DOWN. I REPEAT, COPY MACHINE DOWN. Darn it. I knew I should’ve never gone to that concert. This is what you get, Marni.

Five minutes later…

I locate the paper culprit and the jam is gone. Crisis Averted. Copy Mania continues.

Clif Bar7:47 am: Run back to my room to grab a Clif Bar. Do I go with peanut butter crunch? Blueberry crisp? Did I change the date on the homework packet? I wonder if I need to change Alicia’s seat. I have to remember to call Chris’s grandma after school. Did Ravyn ever tell me the due date of her letter of rec?  

Bite into the peanut butter crunch: Oh yeah. Breakfast of Champions. This is what people who go to concerts do. They eat their breakfasts, and they grab their whiteboard eraser and get that board ready for another great day. Of all the morning rituals I have, my whiteboard prep is seriously one of my favorites. Except on this particular post-concert morning, my handwriting was not its finest. I was not minding my P’s and Q’s.

7:55 am: Open the door for my morning buddies to enter.

Today it is MaryAnn and Pricila. “Hi gals! How was your night?”

“Ugh Ms. Spitz-We’re tired.”

“Me too,” I say. Me too! (Sipping coffee aggressively). Deciding whether or not I tell them I went to the concert. Would that make me look irresponsible? Turns out they don’t ask, so I leave it be.

But I’m also trying to write on whiteboard. Should I write the date in blue or green? Or wait, bright pink?

Kiere excitedly enters room. “Ms Spitz!!! Did you catch that Warriors game last night?!?!!? Did you see that overtime??!!? Man oh man!”

Although I’m not quite ready to match his energy level, I do my best: “I heard it was quite the game!!! What do you think about their record??”

We continue to talk about the offense and Curry and all things Warrior basketball.

My Clif Bar remains half-eaten. Breakfast of half-eaten, concert-going champions.

8:10 am: I’m writing the objective.  Evaluate or Explain? Determine? Identify? Ugh, evaluate. Yep, stick with evaluate. Pricila and Maryann want to continue to tell me how tired they are. As they are venting, I struggle with some additional early am decisions:

What was my Do Now again? Should we do the film clip before or after we do the reading? Should I write the date in red or bright pink? Bright pink wins.

8:12: Jason comes in asking for some help on his homework. “Sure, honey.”

We read. He writes. He finishes. Have a great day, J! And off he goes.

8:21 am: I sprint to the restroom.

8:24 am: The first warning bell is going to  ring. Crap! My copies!!! I’ve got my concert-going Tiger Nikes. I got this. I sprint to the copy machine.

8:25 am and 31 seconds: Made it to my front door just in time for the first bell.

“Hi guys! Good morning Gustavo. Hi Alejandro! How’s it going Nyrisha! Hi Kasandra!! Did you finish your book?”

8:30 am: Final bell rings. The day is underway. Phew. “Okay guys! Here we go….Let’s get our books open….”

8:31 am: “Ms. Spitz–are you okay??”

“Yeah Kenny! I’m fine! Why? What’s wrong??”

“Are you sure? Because you look sick.”

I think by sick he meant someone cool enough to go to a concert on a school night.  And someone who had learned a couple of important lessons:

  1. It’s important to wear comfortable shoes both as a teacher and a concert-goer.
  2. Summer Marn is super fun—but won’t be making another appearance for a while. Say perhaps, June. When it’s summer. And she can return to her cannon-balling in front of Dwyane Wade ways. favicon

Diving

Ed. note: Marni Spitz teaches U.S. History and Reading Lab at City Arts and Technology High School in San Francisco. Donate to Marni’s classroom!

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TEACHER VOICES: Michele Godwin, #15

“I’m grateful for the education”

michele godwinfavicon Monday, 2/1 – 2:45 pm
They are falling off. Four of 15 advisees are out today. J is putting her mother into hospice care, but the others are just taking the day off, I guess. They likely feel they accomplished something huge by getting through their portfolio presentations, so they’ve given themselves a three-day weekend. They don’t realize that it only picks up from here. English, AP Bio, Advanced Leadership, senior exhibitions, student aid applications, scholarships: There’s still so much to do. It’s not time to celebrate just yet.

Monday, 2/8 – 8:45 am
J’s mother died Friday morning. Friday evening, J attended the orientation sleepover at the university she was accepted to and wants to attend. I know why she went: she wants to show the school how committed she is. She wants to make a good impression so they will give her the full ride she needs to attend the college of her dreams. She wants to think about her future and forget about her loss. She’s coping the only way she knows how.

Friday, 2/12 – 9:30 am
C isn’t here today. He hasn’t been here all week, and that’s not good. I talked to him Tuesday afternoon, when it became clear that he will receive an F for Psychology last semester, since he hasn’t finished his contract for the incomplete grade he received. Nonplussed is the word I would use to describe his response. Perhaps cavalier would work as well. He texts later, though, finally considering what an F might do to his 3.9 GPA and the college acceptances he’s counting on receiving. He’s in the penitent phase of the semester. We’ll see how long he stays there.

Monday, 2/22 1:45 pm
I drop off a care package of nine books to a sophomore girl who’s never been in the library. I subbed for one of her classes, where she walked in 25 minutes late with a full bag of McDonald’s, which she proceeded to eat as if she was in the cafeteria and English class was long over. I didn’t argue with her because SUBBING! I was nice and welcoming and made a joke that she appreciated. She asked me, “Aren’t you the library lady? Will you help me find a book?” I responded with a watered-down version of the back-handspring I usually do, and she agreed to meet me in the library at lunch, since she wasn’t hungry anyway. Perfect!

We didn’t have much time to meet, so she told me the kinds of books she is interested in: mysteries, high-school drama stuff, and stories of social injustice.

“Perfect! Those are the Three Pillars of The Leadership High School Library!” I told her.

I pick out some books and deliver them to her during the last 5 minutes of history, just as she is finishing dessert. She gushes her appreciation and pleasure at having an entire bag of books to look through.

Reading! It’s what’s for dinner!

Friday, 2/26 8:30 pm
I spent much of my day refining a letter of recommendation for one of my advisees. I had written one for him before, but his mother asked that I make some changes: “Please emphasize that my son is a Black boy and that he’s lived in poverty for most of his life.”

I am embarrassed. I’ve always prided myself on my letters of recommendation. I take my writing seriously, and I  think I am pretty good with turns of phrase and metaphors. I don’t lay it on too thick, but I challenge myself to come up with innovative ways of describing students’ gifts and personalities. Overall, I’m a pretty good writer.

This mother, though, has helped me see that this letter is not about my writing skills. It’s about getting her son the scholarship he needs. I can’t be futzing around with a thesaurus and patting myself on the back because I use a word like “plucky” for someone who really gets on my nerves. And I can’t shy away from describing students’ real-life situations. “T is intellectually curious and motivated” is fine for plenty of students—but not for T. He’s brilliant and autistic and easily unnerved and extremely literal and laser-focused and big and Black and poor and he’s grown up in a society that has normalized the homicide of young Black men—and he’s survived. And now he’s going to college and he needs help.

I didn’t want to call T poor or Black, and I didn’t want to name the violence that surrounds him. I wanted to write my little letter and hope he gets a scholarship and feel good about how I helped. T’s mom called me out, as she’s had to do with many people, I’m sure, and explain, yet again, what it is people of privilege can do to help. I’m sorry she had to be the one to explain it to me, but I’m grateful for the education. favicon

Ed. note: Michele Godwin is in her 15th year of teaching high school. She’s back at Leadership High School, where she taught from 2001 to 2008. An English teacher by training and experience, Michele has changed her focus to build a library for Leadership. In addition to her fundraising and library organizing, she is an 12th grade adviser. These are her musings from the past few weeks. Please donate so Michele can buy more books!

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TEACHER VOICES: Marni Spitz, #9

My Teacher Box

ms. spitz 4favicon Right before the bell, a student coyly slipped me a card. J’s attendance in my class had been off and on for a while, but recently, he had been present more often. “My mom wanted me to give this you, Ms. Spitz. I have NO idea what she wrote so…yeah.”

He smiled, went straight to his seat, and before I could say thanks or open the letter, sixth period on a Tuesday with all its beautiful chaos and glory was underway.

That same Tuesday, I gave a writing assignment. I thought it was well-planned, well-taught, and so when none of my students were chomping at the bit to get it done, I got frustrated. How could they not want to read FDR’s speech? This is a piece of freaking art, people! I tried to motivate them, to energize them, and at one point, I think I even tried singing. But still, I felt like I was talking to a wall. Or to a bunch of teenagers on a weary Tuesday afternoon. A name by any other name would smell just as sweet. 🙂

Earlier that Tuesday, I got called into a parent meeting during my prep. A bright, wonderful young man had been suspended for bringing a pot cookie to school. Not the end of the world. But what came to light in the meeting was that this amazing kid was dealing with a ton of trauma at home. Things that no one, let alone a 16-year-old, should have to be dealing with. It made my heart hurt.

Indie MarniThat Tuesday was in many ways,  just a typical day at work: A lesson plan that didn’t go great, a failed attempt to sing Mariah Carey to energize my classroom, and a student who needs some extra support, love, and guidance. But when I came home, I was feeling sad and unsuccessful—two of my least favorite feelings. On most days like this (because they happen—no matter how long you’ve been at this teaching thing), a jam sesh to the Hamilton musical on the elliptical or a snuggle-sesh with my dog (look at her! isn’t she the best?) will do the trick. But on that Tuesday, I needed something more.  And that’s when I remembered the letter.

It was still tucked away in my computer case, and in all the craziness of that Tuesday, I had forgotten to read it. It was 7:22 pm. I was in my pajamas and felt like I could go to bed. I opened the envelope to find a handwritten letter from J’s mom.  The front of the  card was a simple drawing of flowers, and the inside contained one of the most beautiful passages ever:  

“Dear Ms. Spitz,”  she wrote, “I  cannot even begin to tell you how grateful I am for your reaching out to J.” The letter continued with her expressing her deepest gratitude that I had emailed J last week to check in on him and let him know he was missed.

The letter ended with “I am a teacher. I know how hard you work. I sometimes want to reach out to a student and don’t (forget or decide against). You remind me never to do that. Thank you.”

It had taken me approximately one minute to write that email to J. One minute.

Weird how that  letter from J’s mom made thoughts of going to sleep seem ridiculous.  It made thoughts of the challenges and frustrations of that Tuesday disappear. It made me want to hold on to it forever because it made me want to teach for the next 50 billion years.

The next day when I saw J, I told him to please tell his mom that her letter was going straight into my teacher box. “What’s that mean?” he asked. I told him his mom would know exactly what I meant. That a teacher box is that thing that teachers keep forever, and so on days that are hard, we pull it out, and look at the gems in there and it reminds us that we have the best job ever and that little things are BIG.

The first year you’re a teacher is the hardest year ever for countless reasons, but the thing that I think makes it the hardest is that you don’t have your teacher box just yet. You don’t necessarily know that when you send an email that took you a minute to write, it could mean the world to a student and their family. You don’t have a collection of letters, pictures, party favors, Post-Its, and videos that remind you that hey, all this work, and all this love, and all this exhaustion and frustration is so worth it.

The teacher box, I believe, is the most essential resource for teachers to stay in the game. It is the holy grail, the sword in the stone, the whole enchilada, the Bey-to-the-once. I tell all the first-year teachers I come across to just hold on, just hold on until you get your first teacher box item. Because once you get it, the thought of not being a teacher just makes no sense.

So on that Tuesday,  instead of going to bed at 7:22 pm,  I decided I’d dive into my teacher box.  Some things I came across that I hadn’t revisited in a while:

  1. A Post-It from a student that said, “I LOVE YOU MS. SPITZ!!” with the  Target logo because she knew that is my favorite store.  Always was, always will be.
  2. A party favor from a student’s Quinceanera that included a plastic replica of her in her dress. It. is. amazing.
  3. A drawing my advisees created of my make-believe boyfriend. According to them, his name is Frank, he wears a tank top, and he is 45.
  4. A Facebook message from a student from my first year teaching apologizing if she was ever rude to me, explaining to me that she is now in nursing school, and remembers that  I was nothing but patient and kind and that I always had her best interests at heart. (For the record, by “rude” she meant cursing me out almost every day and making me cry at least once a week. But I never cried in front of her. Okay, maybe once.)

So on that Tuesday, as I tucked my teacher box away with its newest addition,  all I could think about was how excited I was for work tomorrow. (And how Hamilton is coming to San Francisco in March 2017.) favicon

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TEACHER VOICES: Michele Godwin, #14

“You got some nerve! Hold on to that!”

michele godwinfavicon Monday, 1/4/16 – 3:15 pm
Back from the holidays. Everyone is excited that it is finally 2016, the year of their graduation. The end is getting nearer and nearer! We spend several minutes calculating how many more school days there are until graduation. Ninety two!

Wednesday, 1/13 – 12:05 pm
It’s portfolio season, and seniors are freaking out. If they had finished their four school-wide outcome (SWO) essays last semester, as they were supposed to, everything would be smooth and easy. But few of them finished all four, and many of them turned in drafts that need revision. Portfolio is a graduation requirement, and they have two more weeks to get their essays cleaned up, their slideshows prepared, their talking points memorized, and their acts together. Judging by the number of crying jags and temper flares, this is going to be a long couple of weeks.

Wednesday, 1/20 – 10 am
C. has left the school. She’s been talking about it for awhile. Actually, she’s been talking about not leaving the school, but wanting something to change. We looked at inpatient treatment centers and independent study, but neither of those are real options. We finally talked her into transferring to a continuation school, where she can come and go as she pleases, and ask for help when she needs it. It was a sad, sad day when we counseled her out of the school. She needs the LHS community; we know her as well as anyone knows her, and she knows that we love her completely. That’s why she comes to school every day! But she never stays in class long, her temper quick to flame and destroy any ounce of productivity in a classroom. Her boyfriend has gone back to jail, so she doesn’t have that distraction anymore, but it’s clear that she’s full of pain and rage, and there’s little more we can do to help her. When she came back from Winter Break, she was covered in fresh tattoos and cut marks.

We all miss her terribly.

Wednesday, 1/20 – 12:30 pm
A ninth grader, M., comes into the library, as he does every few weeks or so. He paces around the room, stopping every once in awhile to look at the manga section. I’ve ordered a few things for him before, and he’s been appreciative. Often, though, he comes in and asks strange questions about buying things.

“How much will you take for that picture?” he inquired once, pointing to a frame on the wall. Another time, he asked, “Was that printer expensive? Can I buy it off you?” I’ve told him several times that I’m not in the retail business, and that he should focus on checking out books. Or ordering books. That’s what I’m here for.

Today, I’ve ordered pizza for my advisory. M. comes in and asks if he can buy the large pepperoni. I roll my eyes, irritated with his repeated strangeness. Just as I start to launch into a lecture, T. laughs and claps M. on the back.

“You got some nerve!” T. tells him. “I like that. Hold on to that!”

M. smiles, shy but pleased by the attention from one of the coolest 12th grade boys in the school. He walks out of the room grinning, pizza forgotten.

Thursday, 1/28 – 3:30
Another Portfolio Day completed. Phew! The day went off without too many hitches, and everyone is glad it’s over. The seniors are proud and relieved, ready to change out of their job interview outfits and back into their everyday wear. Some of them didn’t get to present today, but they know they’ll get another chance and they’ll graduate with their friends. It’s a good reminder for them that they have to take care of their business or they’ll get left behind. They want to be able to celebrate too! favicon

Ed. note: Michele Godwin is in her 15th year of teaching high school. She’s back at Leadership High School, where she taught from 2001 to 2008. An English teacher by training and experience, Michele has changed her focus to build a library for Leadership. In addition to her fundraising and library organizing, she is an 12th grade adviser. These are her musings from the past few weeks. Please donate so Michele can buy more books!

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TEACHER VOICES: Benjamin Dow, #3

Notes from the Test-ocracy

Teacher Voices Artwork
Art by Elijah Fenter

favicon In Washington State the following will designate you as a “highly-qualified” history teacher:

a. A Master’s Degree in Education from Stanford
b. A Washington State Social Studies Credential
c. AP and IB training in history courses
d. Fifteen years of experience teaching history & stints as department chair
e. None of the above

It turns out the correct answer is “e.” Despite the above credentials, I recently received an email letting me know that Washington State had decided that I was no longer a “highly-qualified” teacher and couldn’t teach history classes next year.

Fortunately, there was an answer to the question in Washington State: being highly-qualified can be measured by my ability to pass a multiple-choice exam.

That’s it.  One-hundred multiple-choice history questions and $155 would get me the “highly-qualified” stamp on my credential.

ben dowEverybody wants highly-qualified teachers, but when your state is unwilling to spend the money needed for a truly high-quality educational system, what’s the best free alternative to ensure “high-quality?” Make teachers take a test that they pay for themselves.

It’s brilliant, really. It costs the state virtually nothing, but shows up on paper as ensuring every teacher in the state is highly-qualified.

This testing solution to real, endemic problems in our schools is at work at all levels of our educational system, and (not) surprisingly seems to benefit the same company again and again in our state: Pearson, who in their own words is “the largest commercial processor of student assessments.”

Here’s how ingrained in our educational toolbox Pearson’s tests have become:

  • The Pearson PARCC test is taken by students across the country in grades 3-11,
  • The Pearson EdTPA assessment by legislative order is now required to become a teacher in Washington State,
  • The Pearson Washington Educator Skills Tests is required to ensure that teachers like me who completed our training in a pre-testing era are equally “highly-qualified.”

Welcome to the Test-ocracy. Pearson and testing companies like them have stepped into the void left by meaningful reform at every level of our state’s educational system—first with students, now with teachers.

Do these teacher tests do anything to improve the quality of instruction in Washington State? The answer to this question could probably be fodder for several dissertations, but we do have some anecdotal evidence about the overall pool of folks we are drawing our teachers from.

Since I first covered the growing rural teacher shortage in an earlier TEACHER VOICES piece, the phenomenon has morphed into a state-wide problem. In short, the answer is probably that your student’s teacher is not any better than they were in the pre-Test-ocracy days.

“Highly-qualified” mandates, though, have had a very negative and quantifiable effect on small, rural schools like ours. We recently had to cut our involvement in the Virtual High School (VHS) program that allowed our students to take literally hundreds of interesting electives we can’t afford to offer. Because it is a national cooperative, very few VHS teachers had jumped through Washington State’s specific “highly-qualified” hoops, and our funding was threatened if we didn’t stop offering VHS classes to students immediately.

Things become even more fun-house mirrored when you look at who grades the Pearson assessment for new teachers, the EdTPA, which each new teacher is required to pay $300 to take.

While I have to prove my own “highly-qualified” status, it turns out that Pearson is hiring experienced classroom teachers like me to grade the EdTPA at $75 a pop.

The circular logic is mind-numbingly silly, and raises the question, if we accept teachers’ judgment about the quality of instructional practice, maybe they don’t need further testing in the first place?

When you start to look at the Test-ocracy too closely it feeds a want for conspiratorial thinking—that big business has plotted to leech money out of our public educational system.  

The reality, though, is both more mundane and more depressing. Ironically, the EdTPA was developed by the same Stanford Department of Education where I earned the Master’s degree that is no longer sufficient to mark me as “highly-qualified.”  They and Pearson are offering legislators around the country an easy solution to the problem of how to fill our emptying classrooms with “highly-qualified” teachers.

I’m not an educational Luddite.  I believe in changing and improving the way we teach and learn. I believe in having high standards for our students and our teachers, but the Test-ocracy has become the default reform mechanism for state legislatures looking to appear like they are taking action to improve our schools, while failing to fundamentally fix the system.

It’s not an unfixable system.  Our state is home to Boeing, Amazon, and Microsoft and has created some of the deepest pools of wealth in the history of the world. We have a GDP roughly equivalent to Austria, a country that manages not only to fully fund their educational system, but offers no-cost college and university to its citizens as well.

President Obama has spoken out against the rise of excessive testing, and recently Congress finally abandoned the No Child Left Behind Act that had required each state to design their own “highly-qualified” designations.

It’s time for state legislators to follow the federal government’s lead and forge a path beyond the Test-ocracy. Because if you examine which parts of the Test-ocracy are actually improving teaching and learning, the answer might very well be none of the above.

(Benjamin Dow is happy to report that he passed his test and is, once again, a “highly-qualified” teacher.)

Ed. note: My claim to fame is that I got to co-teach American Studies with Benjamin Dow in the last century. Since then, Mr. Dow has taught English and social studies in China, Ghana, and Port Townsend, Washington, where he currently teaches Contemporary World Problems. He is published in Teaching Tolerance and recites an annual poem for graduating seniors.

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TEACHER VOICES: Dave Keller, #5

Chromebooks in Classrooms: What does the usage data show?

favicon This just came across my virtual desk and it seemed worth sharing.

Screen Shot 2015-12-21 at 12.01.07 PM

The graph shows usage during a week (24 hrs a day) for the entire K-12 Piedmont Unified School District, which has about 2,600 students. First, some context: 2015-16 is the first year my high school and middle school have gone 100% 1:1. This means every 6-12 grade student has a Chromebook that they can take home.

Here is a little more data:

Snapshot in time – At 10:00 am Thursday December 3:

  • 390 student Chromebooks were in active use.  
  • 186 high school students, or roughly 22% of school population
  • 118 middle school students, or 18% of school population

The week of 12/8, students spent:

  • 3,806 hours on Google Docs,
  • 377 hours in Membean, a personalized/adaptive vocabulary service for 6th-12th grade students
  • 360 hours checking grades on Infinite Campus,
  • 305 hours on the Math textbooks piloted for 6th-12th graders
  • 109 hours on Newsela, with differentiated nonfiction current event articles for  3rd-6th graders
  • 96 hours using Desmos, an online graphing calculator
  • 87 hours listening to Pandora music
  • 45 hours using Kahoot, a fun classroom quiz game
  • 36 hours in Scratch coding

The week before Thanksgiving also showed the 187 high schoolers using their Chromebooks to apply for college: 173.7 hours were spent at admissions.universityofcalifornia.edu.

Dave Keller - TEACHER VOICES - IserotopeAs a result, our teachers, students, and families are trying to understand the benefits and problems associated with so much technology.

The reaction from faculty has been mixed so far, but one thing is for sure: These numbers are causing quite a stir. What strikes me is that 3,800 hours were spent using Google Docs. Almost a third of computer time is spent writing text or reading text curated by teachers. Of course, it is hard to tell how Docs is used. Some of my Docs activities are digital worksheets. If that is the predominant use, then Chromebooks are a modern version of the mimeograph (or “ditto machine” for those who remember the pungent, blue paper).

However, some of my digital activities teach students to evaluate each other’s writing (using Google Forms). I also use technology to quiz or review (using Socrative and Kahoot), to increase collaborative work (with Docs and Teacher Dashboard), and to promote research while evaluating sources. These uses of technology are showing good results.

Students report liking the computers that are now part of their academic toolbox. They say their organization is improving and collaboration is easier in many ways. For example, online flashcard decks are routinely shared, as are student-generated review sheets and research. When it comes to reading, students seem divided on which they like best: paper or digital. I use a digital textbook and many digital sources but can’t tell whether digital has improved students reading or learning.

Some faculty are alarmed by the amount of time spent on activities that are not directly related to classwork, claiming this data shows that over 50% of computer use is not related to academic work. For example, 11% of Chromebook time was spent on YouTube and 360 hours were spent checking grades.

Like much of the data gathered by Google, these stats are interesting, colorful and fun—but might not tell us much about student learning. However, I am excited to see what future conversations about this information will reveal about our students’ lives at school.

If you have an observation or question about the data, please leave your thoughts in the comments section. Thank you! favicon

Dave Keller (@dkeller101) has been teaching Social Studies for 17 years, consistently looking for new curriculum and methods of instruction. While experimenting with technology in education, Dave focuses on teaching the reading and writing skills required for studying our social universe. He has taught classes throughout the Social Studies discipline in a variety of high schools, including a large comprehensive inner-city school, a charter school, and a competitive independent school. He currently lives in Oakland and teaches at Piedmont High.

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TEACHER VOICES: Marni Spitz, #8

Please. No need to feel sorry for me.

ms. spitz 4favicon The other day, I went to the doctor. I didn’t mean to, but I showed up a few minutes late. In my sincere but rambling apology, I mentioned to the clerk how grateful I was that they had a 4:30 appointment because being a teacher, it’s impossible for me to make it to anything before then. She then looked up and cheerfully asked, “You’re a teacher? That’s so wonderful! What grade do you teach?”

I responded with a glowing smile. “High school. The big kids.” And then, as so often happens, she replied, “Oh, really? I’m sorry.” I giggled half-heartedly and told her not to be sorry, that I love teenagers and that they make me laugh.

If I could get a penny for every time someone told me they were sorry for what I do and who I teach, I’d have a lot of money. Like, a lot.  

I’ve tested out different responses, and while I’m fairly used to it by now, I still don’t get it. Why would anyone feel sorry for what I do? Aside from the fact that it’s plain rude, it also just makes no sense. No one is making me do this, guys. I’m neither an idiot nor a saint. Bias aside, if my nine years in the classroom have taught me anything, it is that the kind of people who go into teaching are the kind of people who could’ve done anything they wanted. And they chose to do this. So please, cool it with your apologies.

Now I realize there’s a lot out there around how hard teachers work, how little we get paid, how under-appreciated we are, and how short our lunches are. And that is all true. But the other truth is: I love it and it’s a great job.

The whole teacher-as-martyr narrative is annoying. We don’t need you to feel sorry for us, or tell us how terrible it sounds or assume that we do this because we’re “saints” or “taking one for the team.” A simple “So cool!” or “I loved my high school teacher!” would do.

In fact, if we’re going to play that game, there are so many reasons being a high school teacher is better than your job.  

+ At my job, I get to wear pajamas on Pajama Day. Do you get to wear pajamas to work?? I didn’t think so.

+ I got to dance to Thriller at work the other day. That was fun.

+ At my job, I get to rap about history. (Check baby, check baby, checks and balances!) Do you get to rap about history at work? Yeah. That’s what  I thought.

+ At my job, I get to read amazing books alongside brilliant minds. The last time I checked, most people have to wait till they get home to open up their books.

+ I get to write letters of recommendation for students who will be the  first in their families to attend college. And then they’re off, and I get to see that.

+ I get to receive emails from graduates when Nelson Mandela died because even years later, they remember that “unit we did on South Africa.”

+ I get to laugh at work. I laugh so much. Teenagers are hilarious. I laugh at least 10 times a day. Good, hardy, in-your-gut laughs. Do you laugh at work?

+ I get to be around young people. Their dreams, their ambitions, their energy. If you ever want to feel energized, might I suggest the same.

+ I get greeted with smiles in the hallway. “Hi Ms. Spitz! Happy Hanukkah Ms. Spitz! What’s good Ms. Spitz!”

+ I am up to date on all the teenage slang and lingo. I’m like, so cool. I knew that hotline was blinging before Drake did.

+ I receive letters thanking me for my love and support—often from students I didn’t even realize cared or noticed.

+ I meet with parents and guardians who tell me how grateful they are that their student is safe, loved, and encouraged.

My job is predictably unpredictable. I am NEVER bored. And I get to learn every. single. day. Are there days I wake up and think, “I am so tired. I don’t want to go.”? Sure. But regardless of how tired I am, I never doubt my purpose for showing up to work. It matters if I’m not there. When I’m not there, 120 plus young people notice.

Now if that is not the recipe for an amazing, fulfilling, rewarding, and incredible job, then I don’t know what is. So please, no need to feel sorry for me. favicon