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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, #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!