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The Highlighter Podcast #4:

Humanities Teacher Marni Spitz

favicon Last week’s episode of The Highlighter podcast was very popular — there were more than 120 listeners. What a great way to start!

I just published the fourth episode, and I’m pretty excited about my conversation with Humanities teacher Marni Spitz. If you’re a fan of Iserotope, you’ll know that Marni is a contributor to TEACHER VOICES. Now she’s a podcast star, too.

In this episode, Marni and I chatted about “Youth From Every Corner,” an excellent article from last week’s digest. As a teacher, Marni knows firsthand how marginalized students of color face the unfair challenge of being labeled as failures even when offered opportunities to gain power in our society.

Please take a listen and enjoy! favicon

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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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A teacher’s book recommendation, plus a trip to the library, leads Gonzalo to a book he loves

my bloody life

favicon Many of us don’t entirely understand the power that teachers have to encourage young people to become engaged readers.

Gonzalo is a ninth grader at City Arts & Technology High School in San Francisco. Gonzalo’s ninth grade English teacher, Brittany Pratt, and his Reading Lab teacher, Marni Spitz, have built a strong culture in their classes to promote independent reading.

Yesterday, Gonzalo and his peers visited The Mix at the San Francisco Public Library and had time to check out books for the summer. To prepare for the field trip, Ms. Pratt arranged with SFPL to ensure that all students had library cards. In addition, earlier in the week, Ms. Spitz recommended several books to Gonzalo.

It looks like the library visit went well. This morning (yes, a Saturday morning), Ms. Spitz received this enthusiastic email from Gonzalo:

Hey Ms.Spitz thanks for the recommendation of the book “My bloody life” I absolutely love this book it’s so amazing and intresting I already read 50 pages in the span of an hour and that’s the most I’ve read in a day my whole life so excited to read more and possibly finish the book before I we go back to school Monday and share all about the book with you thank you again love this book so much!!!!

My experience says that it takes just three or four books (ideally in a short period of time) to change forever a student’s interest in reading.

This seems fairly easy — but it’s not, at all. For this transformation to occur, three crucial ingredients need to be in place: (1) Access to a ton of good books; (2) Teachers who have read widely and know how to recommend the right books to the right students; (3) Students who trust those teachers, who let them in, and who take a risk to follow through on their teacher’s recommendation that reading is for them.

Great work, Gonzalo, Ms. Pratt, and Ms. Spitz! favicon

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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.


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


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


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: 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: 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

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Enthusiasm from students in Oakland

favicon Kindles are arriving in Oakland — 370 when all is said and done — and students are responding with enthusiasm, appreciation, and gratitude.

Empire of ShadowsStudent Chi (Oakland, CA), who received her Kindle today at lunch, already requested Empire of Shadows, by Miriam Forster. She included this note: “I really appreciate you doing this for us. Thank you so much.”

(I’ve found that many students like fantasy, a genre I don’t know too much about, and this book, told from two perspectives, is part of a popular series.)

Other students are also taking advantage of the KCP’s promise: “Read whatever you want, wherever you want, whenever you want.”

Student Chris (Oakland, CA) requested Will Grayson, Will Grayson, which somehow was not yet part of the Kindle Library. (The library now stands at 538 titles.) He made the book request way after school, at around 7:00 pm, just in time for a good evening of reading. This energized me: If we want large gains in reading, and if we want our students to identify as readers, we must extend access to well beyond regular school hours.

It has also been heartwarming to witness the development of communities of readers. Student Katie (Oakland, CA) requested an additional copy of Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell’s extremely popular novel. When more than six students are reading the same title at the same time, a student’s Kindle reads “license limit reached.” To follow Amazon’s terms and conditions, the student requests another copy, and I purchase it immediately.

With Kindles, students can read books with their friends. They don’t have to wait for limited copies of books to become available. (Teacher Marni Spitz in San Francisco wrote thoughtfully about this point in her latest TEACHER VOICES post.)

As you can tell, all of this enthusiasm coming from students is encouraging me to work even harder. It’s a wonderful feeling to get thanks from students who recognize that their obstacles to reading have been removed.

Again, it is important to thank the hundreds of KCP supporters from across the country who understand the importance of providing young people with unmitigated access to books. Thank you! favicon

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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: 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: Marni Spitz, #5

The power of teaching The Bluest Eye

ms. spitz 4favicon There are many things one can call a teacher, but selfish usually doesn’t make the list. However, I have to admit: I have done something with my Reading Labbers for my own personal happiness, and the best/worst part is, I feel really good about it. Allow me to explain:

The time had arrived for me to choose a book that my Reading Lab would read together as a class. By my own admission, I tend to make a big deal out of things that are so not a big deal (like choosing what to eat for breakfast or which episode of Friends I’d like to watch again). Choosing a book to read for my Reading Lab readers seemed like the biggest deal ever. I found myself hyper-analyzing every book to make sure that this would be a positive experience for my students. After all, the whole point of the class was to bring joy into reading, and the last thing I wanted to do was bring another book into my students’ lives that felt boring, or hard, or painful. But when it came down to it, I really, really, really wanted us to read a book that would make them  feel empowered and proud of themselves and special. Finding a book that would be both joyful and empowering seemed really hard. (Like when I have to choose between Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Honey Nut Cheerios).

After months (seriously, months) of thinking about this selection, I finally opted for a book that I wasn’t confident would bring joy to the kiddos, but one that I knew for sure would bring joy to me. I chose The Bluest Eye because I love it so much, I think it such an important story and piece, and to be honest, I wanted to read it again. I felt good about my decision but I was really, really, really nervous about it. The book is banned in many states (most recently, Ohio, the very state where the book takes place), it talks about issues that are extremely painful and intense, and on top of this, it’s  a really hard book to read. It takes a special kind of reader to read Toni Morrison (the best kind, if you ask me). I am admittedly obsessed with her, but the woman is anything but “easy” in her writing. Would my kids get it? Would they like it? Or would this be just another book that went into the “I hate when I read books at school” box?  And if they didn’t like it, I anticipated that I would take it far more personally than I should have. I needed to be careful of that. Clearly, I had gone with only half of the criteria, leaving the first part (the one about bringing joy) all to myself.

The Bluest Eye

So there we were, Day One of reading Toni Morrison’s first book (and one of my favorite pieces of literature, ever, ever, ever) with a  group of ninth grade struggling readers. What was I thinking?

Even before starting the book with my students, I made sure to capitalize on the timeless teenage propensity to love things that aren’t allowed. So of course, we launched our experience by first reading about how The Bluest Eye is banned in several school districts around the country. This got them intrigued. Did you say, BANNED, Ms Spitz? Does this mean we are breaking the rules?!?!! I explained that while it wasn’t banned at our school, I was still pretty cool for letting them read it. 😉 I also decided to be up front about its difficulty, knowing this could potentially backfire. This made them feel proud. Did you say this book is on an 11th grade reading list, Ms. Spitz? But we’re only in 9th grade!  I figured intrigued and proud were two feelings I could run with. So after talking a bit about the history, a bit about Toni (and how much I idolized her),  on we went.

As we dived into the Prologue, I was surprised at how not nervous I was. Guided by my own selfishness, I loved reading the lyrical genius of Toni Morrison with my kids.

If you haven’t read The Bluest Eye, and haven’t listened to Toni read her own book, might I recommend that you do so immediately. Preferably, do this with a classroom of adorably earnest ninth graders.  Seriously, stop reading this blog and go do that now. 🙂

The whole process felt so natural that I almost forgot to worry whether or not my kids were liking the book or not. I was too wrapped up in my own cocoon of joy to even think about that. And then, somewhere between page 87 and 89,  I realized I wasn’t worrying about their joy because it was kind of just happening.

We were reading The Bluest Eye together and having the best time. Everyone seemed on board. We stopped every now and then, summarized what happened, shared some of our favorite quotes, talked about our opinions of the characters, and whoever I called on (even with no hand raised) seemed to be right with me. What was going on?

And then: We watched this clip with Toni on The Colbert Report:

Sure, 14-year-olds and Colbert might not be BFFs just yet, but seeing Toni in her element, talking about race and specifically about the very book we we reading made my students feel important, empowered and…full of joy. Ms Spitz look! Our book! We’re like…famous!

Once again hoping to feed my own selfishness, I held individual conferences about our reading, and here’s what they had to say. (I have intentionally excluded my reactions to these comments for fear that there are not enough exclamation marks to express my boundless joy.)

Elizabeth: I love Pecola because I feel I have a  human connection to her, and this book makes me want to read more Toni Morrison books.

Jimmy: I really like this book because it’s not like other books I’ve read because it’s not a fairy tale, it’s real life.

Maribel:  The writing is confusing, but when you think about it, you get to understand it better, and then it makes me feel  I can read more books that might seem confusing. There’s something about the author I like.  It’s hard to put into words.

Justin: The fact that it’s banned makes it interesting.  At first I didn’t think I was going to like it, but then it starts to tell you more about the characters and their pasts. I really like Claudia’s innocence.

Sergio: It has really descriptive writing, powerful wording, and lots of explanations of why things are happening. It’s cool: I’m really getting this. The author’s cool because I like how she explains stuff and how she likes her own books. I really like her confidence.

Rayanie: She (Toni)  makes you think a lot, and I like that.

Aryanna: I think its important  for us to read because as a teenager, your life gets more into racial issues and self-image and what others think about you. So it feels like issues in the book are happening today, and I can relate to it. Pecola makes me feel like I just want to care of her.

Khyree: I think it’s a good book because it talks about how people were treated for their color of their skin and not their heart. It just shows how being in poverty and skin color can really affect you, and it can hurt you.

There is so much that we could further dive into with these responses, but to hear my Reading Labbers, my ninth graders, my “struggling” readers speak like this, about The Bluest Eye, about Toni Morrison and about a book that I love, I mean — how beautiful is that!?!? Does it get any better?!?!

Had my selfishness created a magical reading experience? Note to self: Why yes, it most certainly did. favicon

Ed. note: Marni Spitz teaches U.S. History and Reading Lab at City Arts and Technology High School in San Francisco. This is her fifth post for TEACHER VOICES. Donate to Marni’s classroom!