Category: teacher voices

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TEACHER VOICES: Michele Godwin, #12

“Did you get the books yet?”

Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 6.51.05 PMfavicon Friday, 10/9 – 11:35 am
C explodes into the library, as she does every lunch period.

“Did you get the books yet?” she asks, loudly, despite the fact that I’m in the middle of a conversation with another student. I ignore her, and she keeps on walking toward my desk where I’m sitting. Having a conversation. With another student.

“Did you?” she asks again, as she begins to dig through a pile of books that are reserved and that have a big sign over them that says, “RESERVED.”

My other student, a senior, looks at C and rolls her eyes. She doesn’t know C, but she knows she’s a ninth grader and hasn’t yet learned her manners. I worry the senior will go off on C; I’ve seen her go off for much smaller things. Thankfully she tells me goodbye, and thank you, and walks out.

C is sorting through the books, repeating, “Did the books come in yet? Did you get the books? Are the books here?” She won’t stop.

Somedays I am more patient than other days. Today I am patient, because I am able to remind myself that a) C really is super excited about these books, and b) C considers me one of her very few friends. Many of the other kids find her annoying and overbearing, even though she has a big, loving heart. She can be hard to be around, though, for sure.

Because I am more patient today, I’m able to step toward her, touch her arm, and turn her to me.

“Hi,” I say quietly. “Yes, the books are here. Why don’t you have a seat while I get them ready for you?” I gently move her toward a chair, where she sits down and finally stops talking. I get her books for her, and she takes a deep breath before she dives in.

Wednesday, 10/14 – 12:30 pm
A former student comes to visit me. He hasn’t been in this school since 2005, when it was still condemned and looked like an abandoned elementary school: pre-library, pre-cafeteria, pre-cleanliness. He marvels at the changes, and compliments me on the library.

We catch up. He’s a father now, to a one-year-old girl. He shows me pictures, and I confirm what he doesn’t need confirming: she’s the most adorable child in the world. He stays home with her full time, while her mother works nights. I admire his strength; I could never be a full-time caretaker. I’m not nearly strong enough. He likes it, though he finds himself longing for a break at least a few times a day. He’s excited to be visiting me because it means he’s not running after his newly mobile child. I ask him what he’ll do when they move to daycare or preschool.

“I want to write,” he tells me.

This comes as a complete shock to me, his 9th grade English teacher.

He wants to write. He only realized it recently, but he feels in intensely.

He regrets not having read more, not having written more, not having paid attention in class. He wishes he could go back and do it all over again, knowing what he knows now.

I tell him he can start now. He’s home all day—use that time! (as if I don’t remember what it’s like to have a one-year-old). He seems excited, though, and we talk about next steps.

Both of us feel inspired by his visit, and I go online to find books about writing. He’ll come back in a few weeks, and we’ll inspire each other again.

Monday, 10/19 – 12:35 pm
A busy day in the library: C is here, along with two other ninth graders who come with her. New friends! Each of them turn in multiple books and check out multiple others. Then they hang out and look at what’s on the shelves. They’ve been here every lunch the past few weeks. I think it’s their safe space.

K has come in to work on her college application. I sit next to her and guide her through it. It’s confusing, and I don’t want her to feel overwhelmed. Meanwhile, another student is across the room, on a different computer, working on a scholarship application. Two junior girls are sitting at a table, exchanging gossip quietly, oblivious to the books around them.

A sophomore comes in looking for new books in the LGBTQ section. He has come out recently, and he is going through books faster than I can keep up with him. He’s told me about some of the stories he’s read, and he talks about the characters as if they are his friends.

A group of four sophomore boys come in once a week or so to look at the graphic novels/manga section. They don’t check things out, but they take books off the shelves and talk about them enthusiastically. I’ve learned not to approach them, as they scare easily. Maybe one day one of them will want to check out a book. When that happens, I’ll be ready.

Friday, 10/23 – 10:25 am
A few times a week, one of the resource specialists brings a small group of kids into the library. The students have individual learning plans (IEPs) and do well with some extra help. I like it when they visit, because sometimes I get lonely in my little library. I like to listen to the resource specialist, an amazing young woman I had the pleasure of teaching back when she was a high school student at LHS. Her patience and skill are astounding, and I am reminded of how lucky I am to have played a tiny role in this woman’s education.

The group finishes their review with a couple minutes left before class. A couple of them hover near the door, but some of them start looking through the shelves. One asks, “Do you have any books about hair and makeup?” I don’t, I tell her, but I will by Wednesday.

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 booksfavicon

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TEACHER VOICES: Dave Keller, #4

Some Days Leave a Mark

Dave Keller - TEACHER VOICES - Iserotopefavicon Friday started out as a great day. It was my birthday. I was taking advantage of the Starbucks rewards card, which meant getting a no-water, extra-hot, Venti soy chai latte for free. It is the little things (or Venti things) that make me really happy.

In addition, Fridays start with a collaboration meeting. I was going work to with a colleague that I had not worked with in a really long time, and I was looking forward to the meeting. In Friday’s classes, students were going to do really well analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of political arguments. I arrived on campus before anyone so as to enjoy the soft morning light, dissipating fog, and the quiet. Early morning is my time. Everything was looking up — until I read my email.

The email that changed my morning was delivered late the night before, after I had gone to sleep. It was from a student that I had been pushing to get his work done. I wasn’t giving him any breaks, and I was holding him to high standards. He was struggling.

Suicide was the important word in the email. But it didn’t really stand out. He used it rather casually. I had to read the email twice in order to get the full weight of its meaning. Reading the note a third time, I began to wonder where the student was at that very early morning minute.

After the fourth reading of the email, I urgently felt the need for more information. Off to the counseling office I went, hoping to find someone who knew the student. Nobody there. Heading back to my room, I ran into the other early-morning teacher. (I’ll call him Brent.) He is a man of few words. When Brent saw me he said, “He actually used the “S” word.”

It turned out that my student was in early to meet with Brent. The student gave Brent the same speech I’d received in the email. This was oddly welcome news and led to a series of events, which ended with the boy in a psychologist’s office by 8:30 am. Although not a morning I’d like repeated, there was a sense of accomplishment and reassurance. My student was getting professional help.

Later, I got back to reading email. I found an unread one from my student’s mother buried in emails from the day before. She was replying to something I had sent earlier in the week warning about her son’s incomplete work. There are some choice phrases accusing me of being uncaring. The email hurts.

Sometimes when you get hit, the blow leaves a mark. This day left a mark. 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, #7

“I’ve changed my mind about Kindles.”

ms. spitz 4favicon I’ve changed my mind about Kindles. (I’ve also changed my mind about which Janet Jackson album is my favorite, but that is blog post for another time.)

Back to the Kindles: It’s not that I never liked them, it’s just that I was always on the side of real, tangible, physical books. You know—books. Turning the pages! Judging the covers! (You know you do.) Bookshelves! Oh, the bookshelves! And of course, that incomparable feeling that happens when you close your book on that final page, look up, and relish in its completion. When it came to books (and my taste in pajamas), I was traditional and old-fashioned. But now, I am all aboard the Kindle Train. Toot! Toot! (But I still love me a matching flannel set of PJs.)

What caused this radical transformation, you may ask? It wasn’t my own Kindle-reading experience, but rather it was witnessing the incredible happiness and reading-frenzy that Kindles have sparked in my kiddos.


Here’s what happened: I got 20 Kindles to loan out to my young readers (thank you, Kindle Classroom Project!) and started dealing them out like crazy in my Reading Lab classes. Before you knew it, I was the Stringer Bell of Kindles! I was the Lucious Lyon of a Kindle Empire! And with each day, the Kindle following spread like a Taylor Swift song. Kids who weren’t even in my Reading Lab were requesting Kindles. In fact, kids who weren’t even my students were requesting Kindles. I simply did not have enough to meet the demand.

So I did what any successful Kindle dealer would do—channeled my inner Stringer Bell and widened my turf: I got more! Twenty more! I now have half my Reading Labbers hooked on their Kindles, including a few of those sassy pants who at the beginning of the year unabashedly told me there was nothing I could do to help them like reading. Look at you now, sassy pants! You can’t get enough of your Kindle! (Cue told-you-so smirk and giggle.) Kindles have been nothing less than magic for my young readers in a way I never could have imagined.

One huge Kindle Classroom perk that I have observed from Kindle-dealing is the infinite access to books. While I absolutely love my classroom library (bookshelves!) and love the value on reading it communicates, it can be limiting. At most, I have five copies of a certain book. But with their Kindles, my students have an endless library at their fingertips. They really have the whole world in their hands! No more, “Oh I’m sorry, Honey! Perfect Chemistry is all checked out!” or “I’m sorry, Sweetie! I don’t have the third book in the Maze Runner series!” or the saddest of all: “ I’m sorry, Darling! We don’t have that one.”

When those conversations happened, my students would would have to wait forever to get the book they wanted. And when that happens, when you can’t put a book that a kid requested in their hands, that is just heartbreaking. But Kindles mean they can read any book they want, when they want, how they want. (Like Hulu, but for books! And completely free for my kiddos! Free Hulu for everyone!)


It’s absolutely awesome. When a student like Starr, who has received almost more referrals than any other freshman but loves Reading Lab because she has a Kindle, that is awesome. When a student like Damaria, an 11th grader who loves reading so so much but lives far from the nearest library gets to have a Kindle and read to his heart’s content, that is awesome. When a student like Elaine, who always showed up to First Period late starts coming to First Period on time (and even early) so she can maximize the SSR time on her Kindle, that is awesome.

In simple terms, Kindles make reading easy and limitless. There are no hurdles, no hoops to jump through. And for students who have experienced reading in their lives as something filled with countless hurdles and hoops, a hurdle-free experience is just what they deserve and just what they need to find their inner-reader. The Kindle says: “We want you to be able to read any book you want, free of hassle.” 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, #11

“All parents love their children.”

favicon Wednesday, 9/16 – 8:30 pm
Having dinner with a friend and fellow teacher. We are complaining about our jobs, as we are wont to do when we get together. I bemoan how much work it takes to get my students to do anything, how being in a room with them is like herding cats. I can’t tell them, “Everyone needs to work on their EOP (Educational Opportunity Program) essays. Get to work!” because they aren’t at all self-sufficient. I go on and on about how exhausting it is to spend a mere hour and a half with them twice a week. I describe it as a game of whack-a-mole, where I’m helping one student fill out a college application online (“What does ‘D.O.B.’ mean?”), begging another to please PLEASE register for the next SAT (“I’ll do it later,” he tells me for the fifth week in a row, as he thumbs through a copy of Watchmen), and lecturing three others about making up their lost homework/missing quiz/failed test. Random students from other advisories walk in and out of the room for no apparent reason. And all the while, I’m flapping around with my whacker, trying to solve problems and whack moles and help them see their future.

I am frazzled just describing this scene to my friend, and I realize I’m slipping into the “teacher-as-martyr” mode that happens so often when teachers talk to each other. I finish the tirade with my usual gush: “They drive me crazy, but I love them so much!” And I mean it. My love for them is the only thing that keeps me sane.

My friend, who works at a private school, wants to know more about the craziness.

“Why are they like this?” she asks. “Do their parents just not care?”

This is a common refrain in our culture: Where are the parents? When young people behave badly, or fail out of school, or don’t behave, many of us are quick to look to the parents. When my students are not doing as well as they should be, I call the parents. Of course!

I’ve met with many parents in my 15 years of teaching. I’ve met with doting parents, overbearing parents, and seemingly clueless parents. I’ve seen parents get angry at me, at the school, at the principal, at their kid’s friends. I’ve seen plenty of parents get mad at their own kid. I’ve seen parents cheer, yell, cry, and shrug their shoulders. I’ve seen lots of responses from parents.

I’ve never met a parent who didn’t care about his or her child.

M’s parents struggle because her family is still reeling from her mother’s stroke a few years ago. Mental illness runs in their family, and right now, the whole family is trying to keep its head above water. That doesn’t mean they don’t care about her and want what’s best for her. It means that they struggle. A lot.

K’s mom works all day cleaning houses. E’s mom is supporting the entire family, including her sister’s new baby. A’s mom goes to visit her husband in jail when she’s not at City College, working toward a certificate in child development. D’s mom is flying back and forth between San Francisco and her hometown, so she can take care of her own, elderly parents. All parents have a lot on their plates; some parents have more than others.

But all of them love their children. 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, #6

Staying positive and getting a grip: Rocky defeats the Russian

ms. spitz 4favicon We are four weeks in, and it would be a typical Marni move to paint a picture of sunshine, rainbows, and history puns. But I gotta tell you guys: It hasn’t been the smoothest of starts, by any means. Between a broken copy machine, a missing office manager, an assistant principal out on paternity leave, a broken grading system, and 45% new staff (including a new principal), the Universe was trying to be like the Russian in Rocky IV and make us prove ourselves.

On top of this, I’m having a really rough time winning over my ninth grade Reading Labbers this year. Some of these lovely kiddos are giving me major ‘tude. And I’m not talking your typical eye-rolling, silent-treatment teen ‘tude. Rather: the kind of ‘tude that makes you think not-so-nice-thoughts then feel really bad about thinking those not-so-nice thoughts.

But as someone who likes to see herself as a glass-half-full kind of gal, I tried my darnedest to look on the bright side and be a positive, encouraging teacher-leader in the building. I stayed upbeat and corny with my ‘tudetastic students. “Hi guys! So good to see you! Let’s take our books out and read! Yay!” But it was hard.

Teaching, especially these precious first weeks, is hard enough when everything is going smooth. You gotta be a tough cookie to not get bogged down by all the negative minutiae. But there I was, Week Two, not channeling my inner tough-cookie, and feeling eerily similar to the helplessness I felt my first year teaching.

I began to realize that I needed to shut this  journey to Negative Nancy town down. So, I began to give myself pep-talks in the second person:  “Cut it out Marn! You are in your ninth year teaching! You are Ms. Spitz, damn it! You make kids laugh, and learn, and love reading, and you include cheesy Justin Timberlake clip art on your handouts! You need to get a grip and remember what you do!”

I once read that it takes 10 compliments to make up for every one insult. Yikes. But I am Rocky! I can do this! Per the suggestion of my instructional coach, I began a tally of all the positive “wins” I witnessed throughout the day so that I would stop focusing on those insults, and begin galvanizing those compliments.

Here is a snapshot of a 1-10 ratio:

Negative point:  “Do we have to read, Ms. Spitz?  It’s so boring. I don’t want to read. It’s so boring.” A pause. “Seriously though: Do we have to?”

Plus Points:
+ In the hallway, a ninth grader going out of her way to tell me she was loving her book.

+ At lunch, a ninth grader who reported she “strongly disliked” reading being found reading her book at the cafeteria table. (Did I mention it was during lunch?)

One of my 11th graders reminding another student to “Please put your feet down! We are Scholars! Professional Posture!”

+ A former student asking me if I had a copy of Kaffir Boy because she loved reading it in my class freshman year and wants her younger brother to read it.

+ A current reading labber asking me everyday for the past week when she can get her Kindle because she keeps finishing books so fast.



+ A student who had been giving me ‘tude saying “Hi Ms. Spitz” at the door on her way into class, with a smile. (OK, maybe it was a half smile, but it still totally counts.)

Another student who had been giving me ‘tude asking if she could keep her volleyball bag in my room after school because she felt my room was “safe.”

+ A student telling me he had already finished his book. And when I said: “Really? I’m so proud of you!” he replied: “Well I’m almost done but I knew it’d make you happy.”

+ Our first monthly staff potluck of the year going off without a hitch and filled with so much laughter, and…there was an ample supply of watermelon-feta-mint salad. (I love watermelon-feta-mint salad.)

+ My former reading labbers returning to my classroom to check out books from my library because apparently, my library is “hella good.”

Rocky for the win!

Add to those 10 plus points a newly working copy machine, a vice principal returning, a functioning gradebook, and a resilient and dedicated staff — our cup runneth over!

And so I have returned to my unyielding belief in the power of optimism — especially now that I am making myself a watermelon-feta-mint salad for every ten tallies I get. favicon

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TEACHER VOICES: Michele Godwin, #10

“They need lots of extra love this year.”

Michele Godwinfavicon Friday, 8/14 – 4:15 pm
Second day of student retreats. It’s so good to see these lovelies! It’s only been a couple of months, but they all look just a little bit older and wiser, somehow.

Yesterday, we focused on fun and reconnecting, with the warning, “There’s lots and lots of hard work ahead. Let’s relax a little bit before we dig in.” We played pub trivia and had a 12th grade Olympics at the park. Today, we split off into three different community service events. I took a wonderful group to the SF Food Bank. We had to take one train and one bus to get there, and many of them insisted on going into McDonald’s instead of taking the first bus. We arrived late and harried, but they let us box up melons and weigh out bags of pasta. We laughed together and wore hair nets. It was a fantastic way to start off the new school year.

Monday, 8/17 – 4 pm
First day of classes and we jumped right in. I assigned the first part of their UC statement, and I got a lot of pushback. T. loudly proclaims, “I’m not going to college!” N. says, “I’ve already done this. I’m not doing it again.” M. and S. tell me they’re not applying to UCs because their grades aren’t high enough.

I tell them in my calm voice, “All of you are writing a personal statement. All of you are shooting high, and all of you are applying to college because all of you have what it takes to get a college degree.”

Lots of grumbling.

I explain to T. that he can decide not to go to college at the end of the year, but I want him to be in a position to decide. I suspect he is scared of going, and that he can’t quite wrap his head around it; he’d be the first person in his family to go beyond high school. I’ll have to work hard to show him the possibilities.

I can see the fear in their faces: fear of rejection, fear of responsibility and hard work, fear of adulthood. It’s very real now, and they don’t know how to handle it.

They need lots of extra love this year.

Wednesday, 8/26 – 2:30
I see a former advisee, O., in the office. We ended on a bad note last year, when she moved out of my class because she was tired of me asking her to put her phone away. We’ve been avoiding each other ever since, which is why I’m surprised when she addresses me in the office.

“My mom’s cancer spread,” O. tells me. “She’s having surgery next week, but the doctors don’t think she has much longer.”

She says this with an expression I used to think of as a smirk. I’ve since learned that her half-smile is a defense mechanism, as is her belligerence and sharp remarks.

I sit down next to her and ask some follow-up questions. Her dad is sick with diabetes and terrible habits, her toddler nephew has moved in while his dad is in jail, and her little sister is having a hard time. O. acknowledges that she will likely become the primary caregiver for her nephew when her mother dies. Her expression never changes.

A couple of things come to my mind. One: how much tragedy this 17-year-old girl has experienced already in her life, with more on the way. At the same moment she loses her own mother, she will become one to her nephew, as well as her little sister and, in a way, to her ailing father. And all she can do is sit back and wait for the other shoe to drop.

Two: While she’s practicing being the adult of the house, she’s reaching out to me, despite our difficult break last year. She’s doing what I should have done long ago to mend our relationship.

I’m embarrassed and grateful.

I hug her and tell her how sorry I am about what’s happening to her and her family, and I apologize for how we ended things last year. She hugs me back and tells me we’re cool. And then she walks away.

Friday, 8/28 – 12:30 pm
D. comes into the room and asks for the assignment sheet from Wednesday. He’s lost his and he wants to work on it this weekend. He’s leaving early with his dad.

D.’s dad is one of the only parents I’ve not yet met, so I follow him into the hallway to introduce myself. His father could pass for his brother, he’s so young looking. I tell him who I am and how honored I am to work with D.

His dad thanks me and proceeds to gush.

“I couldn’t be more proud of him. He impresses me every single day,” he says, D. standing patiently waiting, expressionless. “He’ll always be my baby,” the dad continues, and then he leans his face toward D., who immediately kisses him on the cheek. “See!” the dad says. It’s such a sweet and wonderful gesture to witness, I can’t help but well up.

I’m often overwhelmed by my love for my students. Now their parents too?

Friday, 9/4 – 10:45 am
Fridays are my real work days. I don’t have advisory, so I spend the whole day in the library, catching up on all the paperwork, unboxing books, organizing. Every once in awhile I step out for some air, but I try to stay focused and productive.

Today, though, when I take a break, I see a former student. T. (barely) graduated in 2006. He was funny and charismatic, short and skinny, with an enormous presence. He caused me a lot of frustration and grief, but plenty of joy and laughter as well. I think about him often, and wonder how he’s doing. When I see him walking down the hall, I shriek with happiness. It’s such a pleasure to see him, taller and wiser, but just as wonderful.

We catch up. He’s adjusting to being a new father. He says he’s the best dad in the world, which is wonderful to hear. He’s working on his music still, about to have a release party on a yacht.

“Wow!” I say.

“You gotta spend money to make money,” he tells me, and I agree. That’s what the tech companies do, right? He’s also working construction, to pay the bills. He tells me he had a rough couple years, but he’s got his head on straight and he’s doing well for himself and his daughter. He talks about the school wide outcomes and how he still refers to them (“Every job interview I’ve been to, I talk about social responsibility, personal responsibility, critical thinking, and communication. It works every time!”).

Again, I feel my eyes welling up. There’s nothing like seeing former students come back and visit. It’s one of the most gratifying experiences of my life.

I tell him goodbye and get back to unloading boxes and writing emails, reminded, once again, of how much I love my job. favicon

Ed. note: Michele Godwin is in her 14th 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 11th 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: Dave Keller, #3

Despite the disappointments, I love the start of school

Dave Keller - TEACHER VOICES - Iserotopefavicon Today is the first day of the new school year. I love beginnings. The start of the year is so much fun. I’ve got dreams for my students and my classroom.

This year, new technology is coming to students. New content obtained over the summer from three weeks of professional development and two online classes is also on the way. Then there is the energy from students excited about the start of a new year. Even the new superintendent gives an inspirational speech, which gets a curtain call.

Trying to get to sleep last night was tough. It was hot, and I was nervous about the first day of staff meetings. But when the alarm went off at 6:00am, I still bounced out of bed. As I drove up to the school, there’s an earthquake. Moving earth is always exciting and seemed to be a good sign. But it is almost as if the earth sets events on an irreversibly negative trajectory. My new electronic key not only opens the school door, it sets off the building alarm, which was just repaired.

Thirty minutes later, I get to my classroom and find a peculiarly strong odor greeting me at the doorstep. I ask random people for the use of their noses. What is that smell? Ignoring the putrid odor, I turn to the blank wall in my room where new art will hang. It is so dirty; tape and heavy duty 3M products won’t stick. I’ve brought a mop to clean it, and soon there is a bucket of dirty water and a wet, muddy wall. I leave the wall cleaning for the first department meeting of the year, which is dominated by complaints. The details are pedantic. The positive comments can be counted on one hand.

The complaints follow me out into the rest of the campus. Complaining is everywhere. Teacher complaints are dominated by two topics: 1) our 1.5% raise is looking more and more anemic given the ballooning administrative staff and the arrival of new state money, and 2) many class sizes are bigger than they have been in years. The phone rings. It is the auto shop telling me I won’t have my car fixed for three days. Attacking the phone, I dial the auto insurance company only to discover they won’t return my calls. The phone rings again with a call from my real estate agent who informs me that yet another bid on another house is a loser. I finally go home depressed and dejected.

Some days as a teacher are disappointing. In this profession, it helps to have extraordinary optimism and cheerfulness so that the disappointing times don’t define the work. While I’m neither optimistic nor cheerful, I’ve found that the difficult days are usually the ones dominated by adults, and true to form, the start of this year is no different.

As soon as the students show up, I’m back to loving the beginning of school. There is the big smile and authentic “How are you?” from Sydney. The joyful reconnections with Megan and Tyler and Sutter and Kevin. How Nikitha and Clair stop by before going off to college just to say goodbye. Three students begging to be my T.A. Four students asking for letters of recommendation. A new World History curriculum focused on climate change that inspires. “I’m really looking forward to your class” from more students than I can count. New first-day activities where students are actually getting to know each other. “Thank you” from countless young people as their first class with me ends and they pile out of the newly decorated room. Oh, how I love the start of school, despite the disappointments. 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 Highfavicon

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TEACHER VOICES: Michele Godwin, #9

“It’s been a good year. And we’re ready for what’s next.”

Michele Godwinfavicon Friday, 4/1 3:35 pm
It’s been awhile since I’ve been able to work on library stuff. I’ve run out of fundraising steam, for the time being. My friends are tired of me asking them for money!

So we sit at the $20,000 mark. Students still request titles. I just bought some science-related books, thanks to a recommendation from one of our regular substitute teachers: Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle, and The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age, by Nathan Wolfe. There’s money in the bank, and the requests are slowing down. I should be happy with what we’ve got, right?


The library is just over half full. And many of the books are left over from the crusty donated books that have been with us for so many years. We have at least three copies of all of Shakespeare’s popular plays, and seemingly thousands of copies of Winter’s Tale. Great! But our kids aren’t reading those books.

I have to decide: Leave the shelves half-filled, but with high-interest books? Or put the old, crusty books in there so the shelves don’t look quite so empty and forlorn?

I leave them empty. Because too many bad books is way worse than barely-enough good books.

Bad books are a turn-off. In my experience, it is only book lovers who get excited to comb through shelves and shelves of titles, excited to find the next good story. Reticent readers look at those shelves and see more books about boring people they can’t relate to. They see lots of big words and meaningless characters, and they confirm what they’ve always known: books have nothing to offer them.

I’ve got to get off my butt and get back to work. Those shelves aren’t going to fill themselves!

Friday, 5/1 2:30 pm
C. tells me, “That thing happened yesterday!”

I don’t know what she means.

She looks at me meaningfully and says, “That thing. Remember? I told you about it? I told you I was nervous. Remember?” She waits for me.

I think and think. When did we talk last? She’s not one to share much with me, so I struggle.

And then it comes to me.

“Yes! How did it go? Everything ok?” I ask.

She looks relieved.

“I had to stand up and talk to the judge. I was so nervous!”

“How brave! That must have been so scary,” I tell her.

“I cried,” she says. “I wasn’t strong. But I’m glad I did it.”

“I am too. And so is your dad, I’m sure. What was the verdict?” I ask, afraid of the answer.

“Five years. But I thought it would be 15, so I’m happy!”

I smile at her. How could I forget her dad’s hearing? She mentioned it when I met with her and her mother, in passing, like she wanted me to know, but not really.

“Five years, and then he’s deported back to Mexico,” she says, and puts her earbuds in. The bell has rung, and she’s done sharing.

Monday, 5/4 3:35 pm
A. has stopped coming to school. When I met with him and his mother a few weeks ago, it was clear that he wouldn’t be able to graduate with his classmates next spring. He’s failed too many classes, and he’s currently failing Algebra.

He translated the news to his mother. The counselor then told A. about a college to career program at City, where students can finish up their high school classes and get college credit. He got excited and translated for his mother, who asked some questions and looked doubtful.

Ever since, he has been to school only a couple times.

I miss him.

Wednesday, 5/13 – 10:15 am
Independent reading time. Every student in the room is silent, reading something he or she is interested in. Time and National Geographic cover stories about weed are a big draw. One student is reading Beloved, and I must resist the urge to try to make her love that book as much as I do. Someone’s reading The Oral History of Hip Hop, someone else The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I only had to ask them to be quiet a few times before they settled in and started reading. I don’t know what’s going on with them, but it sure does make me happy. And it reminds me: must get more books.

Thursday, 5/28 – 2:20 pm
They’re gone. We’ve had our last Advisory of the year, and now they’re gone. They’ve left their cookie crumbs and empty soda cups, as well as an entire, unopened bag of carrots (the Funyons and Doritos got eaten, though), and now they’re gone for the summer.

We said goodbye to A., who will go to City next year. I had to beg him to come today, and had to contain my excitement when he walked in the room. He promised to keep me posted about his life. I hope he does.

The others I’ll see in just a few short months, and we’ll do it all over again. But it’ll be different next year, as graduation becomes more and more real, and they have to make hard decisions about their life. All of us are looking forward to the summer break, but I think we all agree: It’s been a good year. And we’re ready for what’s next. favicon

Ed. note: Michele Godwin is in her 14th 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 11th 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: Michele Godwin, #8

“I’ve got too much pride. I don’t want help.”

Michele Godwinfavicon Monday, March 2 – 2:45 pm
M asks the visiting law school student, “Is law school hard? Because I want to be a lawyer and a doctor, and I think it will be hard to go to school for both.”

The law school student kind of laughs, thinking M might be joking. Law school AND med school? The visitor sees that M is 100 percent serious and responds.

“Yes. Law school is hard. It’s really hard, and I don’t think I could handle anything more than I’m already doing.”

M responds: “I want to be a lawyer to help put bad people away, but I want to be a doctor, too, because a doctor saved my mom when she had an aneurysm a few years ago.”

Wednesday, March 4 – 10:50 am
Someone from a college readiness program pulled T out of class today and asked him all kinds of questions: How are your grades? What is your plan? When are you taking the SAT? the ACT? What do you want to major in?

When I ask T about the meeting, he says, “That guy knew all kinds of stuff about me! And then he was asking me all kinds of questions. I don’t even know him!”

I explain that the man and the program specifically picked T out of the crowd to support him to get to college, that this was a great opportunity, that they clearly see something special in him and want to help him be successful.

T shakes his head.

“Why are you shaking your head? What do you have against people helping you? This is a gift! This is a wonderful opportunity!” I screech in my old white lady voice.

“My pride,” he says. “I’ve got too much pride. I don’t want help from him. He don’t even know me!”

Screeching: “He wants to help you!”

“That’s what you’re for,” he says to me. “You’re going to help me get into college. I don’t need another stranger in my life, getting all up in my business.”

I let him go, shaking my own head this time. I suspect he doesn’t want more people in his life because he doesn’t want more people knowing about his hardships. It’s true: It’s my job to help him get into college. But I can’t do it on my own.

Thursday March 12, 2:45 pm
It’s study hall today. I write passes for students to go see teachers and get homework help, and I offer my assistance to the students who stay in the room. It starts out as chaos, but it always settles down to some good productive work time. I get out from behind my desk and sit at a table with students. Without trying to talk over them, I get a chance to observe and appreciate them:

D  goes out of his way to say hello to me and hug me goodbye. He is an only child and lives with his mother in a one bedroom in the Mission. He has been playing the drums his entire life; he lives to make music.

B is everyone’s favorite. Despite the attention, he always comes to class and puts his head down and churns out his work. He tells his dad, “I love you” every time he talks to him on the phone, ever since one of his best friends was killed.

J is going to enroll in an art class this summer so she can take the maximum number of AP classes next year. She volunteers just about every weekend, and she’s constantly working on homework. Somehow, she manages to accompany her mother to her oncology appointments.

T is the funny guy, constantly cracking inappropriate jokes and then apologizing. He and D are music-making buddies, always talking beats and rhymes in class. He’s a natural performer, and I can never stay mad at him for more than two seconds.

N is too smart for his own good. He gets Fs in all his classes, then at the very last minute, pulls them up to Cs. He read The Divine Comedy earlier this year, and just recently finished A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing. He works at the Academy of Sciences and plans to be a research scientist. But his GPA is terrible.

S came to us from Mali in September. He barely speaks English, but he speaks way more than he did seven months ago. He is unfailingly polite, always greeting me with a “Bonjour! Ça va?” in the morning. All the kids love him so much. I worry a little bit about the words he learns from them. He’s six-foot-eight with blue-black skin, thin as a rail, so he stands out even before he opens his mouth.

A won’t let me get close to him. He won’t let anyone get close to him. He’s all toughness and surly on the outside, but every once in a while, he’ll show some vulnerability, like when he talks about his new puppy, or when his mom comes for a meeting and he kisses her on the cheek. He’ll be a great lawyer, once he decides to do what it takes.

C is a straight-A student. He gets his work done without fail. But he’s bored by schoolwork. He’s got big dreams to go away to college—maybe out of state or even out of the country!—but I worry that his SAT score will keep him from getting into the schools he wants. High school has been easy. College is going to kick his ass.

Monday March 16 – 2:30 pm
The counselor, Ms. S., tells the other junior advisers and me that the registration deadline for the April ACT is fast approaching, and the SAT registration is coming up in a few weeks. Do we want her to come to our class and help sign kids up?

I tell her, “But they’re not ready! They haven’t studied! They’re just babies!” I don’t really call them babies, but I’m thinking it. Obviously they are not babies, with their cell phones and their surly mouths and their near-adult behaviors. But it seems crazy to me that it’s time for them to take the SAT and start thinking about college applications! How can that be? They are barely juniors!

They are not barely juniors. They are in their last quarter of their junior year of high school, and it is time for them to think about college applications and SATs and moving on with their lives.

I can only imagine how their mothers must feel. favicon

Ed. note: Michele Godwin is in her 14th 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 11th 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, #2

School lunch revolution in Port Townsend

ben dowfavicon Yesterday, I bought school lunch for the first time in years.

Usually, buying school lunch on a regular basis seems something akin to a form of slow-moving assisted suicide for teachers. Only in dire straits would I resort to the combination of tater tots and Taco Bell-branded burritos that were available under the heat lamps.

But all that has changed in Port Townsend schools. This February, in what felt like an overnight makeover, everything was suddenly different about our school lunch program.

Students’ trays started showing up to lunch-time meetings piled high with kale chips, couscous salads, and sandwiches on local, organic bread.

Lunches started to look like this:

For the record (from top left), that’s fish tacos made with fresh fish delivered from our city docks by Key City Fish Company, a vegetable bake, shepherd’s pie with kale salad, followed by mac & cheese with lentil salad.

Then came pizza day with fresh sauce and cheese donated by our local Mt. Townsend Creamery:

And just like that, this year in Port Townsend schools has become the year of the school lunch.

Crazy things started to happen. Our English teacher who teaches Fast Food Nation to sophomores every year and eats what can only be described as a radically healthy diet bought a school lunch for the first time in 20 years. Then he bought another. And another.

I was walking through the middle school commons with a group of community members who knew nothing about the changes in school lunch when they started exclaiming to each other, “That’s the best smelling school lunch ever!”

How did it happen? Of course this type of fundamental change required significant community, administrative, and kitchen staff support and coordination.

We were lucky to start off with a community that had already been supportive: an active Farm to School group, an elementary school garden, and a middle-school orchard of fruit trees donated and planted by a local gleaners group to grow healthy snacks for our students.

We also had a superintendent and wellness committee committed to the change.  “We just can’t keep feeding our kids the same processed food and sugar,” Dr. David Engle said. “We want to see a transition from a feeding program to a meals program.”

This winter, he helped bring in Hope Borsato, a local chef and caterer with a background in large-scale food services and local organic cooking to help advise on the change.

All this sounds great… and expensive, but according to Engle and Borsato, costs have been roughly the same.

Borsato explained that they’d made several fundamental changes to lunch delivery to increase efficiency and offset the cost of higher-quality, hand-made cooking.

Historically, our district had created three separate menus for our elementary, middle and high schools. Now we all eat the same thing on a given day, freeing up kitchen staff to cook rather than prep three different types of reheated meals.

Instead of serving large pieces of low-quality meat, we switched to small amounts of high-quality meat in meals supplemented with protein from lots of bean and lentil salads.

The district has been creative about procuring affordable, high-quality ingredients locally. We’ve worked with the Port Townsend Food Co-op to purchase organic carrots at wholesale prices.

We replaced industrial bread with local, organic bread from Pane D’Amore bakery by taking their end of the day loaves for a dollar a piece. The next day we get a sandwich bar with bread like this:

The community has also played a huge role. Local chefs volunteered their time to work with our kitchen staff and help plan meals during the transition. A community member came forward with a thousand dollar donation to support the purchase of the small-scale cooking hardware our food services staff needed to start making meals from scratch. Our local award-winning cheese makers Mt. Townsend Creamery have donated 30 pounds of cheese each month.

Looking forward, the district is working with Jefferson Healthcare, our local hospital, on pre-orders of fresh fruits and vegetables from area farmers–a sort of CSA for schools. This will help us source more local, and often organic, food for school lunches while supporting our area farmers as well. Students for Sustainability, a high school club, is working with the district to lead implementation of reusable plates and silverware this spring.

For the past month, all these changes in school food have been the lunchtime conversation for teachers and students alike. These conversations around food have blossomed into larger connections between our lunches, our curriculum, and our community.

Here’s what an integrated approach to food and education can look like:

At our elementary school, students learned about planting potatoes from Farmer Zach from our local Dharma Ridge Farm. That day for lunch across the district, we had a baked potato bar featuring organic potatoes from the same farmer’s fields. Later at the high school, local professor Wes Cecil and chef Arran Stark co-led an interactive lecture for our students on the history of the potato and its importance to the world.

Those are the kinds of interdisciplinary, real-world connections educational theorists dream about. In Port Townsend, they’ve become our students’ reality.

It’s easy to get bogged down in all the things that aren’t working well in public schools. Change like this gives you hope for what public schools can do and be. It feels authentic and it feels real. And it reminds you that given the right community and school support it can happen quickly.

Perhaps most hopefully of all, Port Townsend did it on our own.  In a small, rural district with an almost 50 percent free- and reduced lunch rate, we didn’t wait for the State of Washington to fund it. We didn’t wait for a Department of Education mandate. The community, schools and food services staff saw what was right and made it real. It was hard work and often a struggle for those tasked with implementing the change, but the results have been nothing short of revolutionary. favicon

(Photo credits: Benjamin Dow, Tom Gambill, and Jan Boutilier.)

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 poemfor graduating seniors.