Friday, November 30, 2012

If not you, who? If not now, when?

"I am only one; but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. I will not refuse to do the something I can do." -Hellen Keller

"If you can't feed a hundred people, then feed just one." -Mother Teresa 

I don't have all the answers. Or many at all, really. But I realized something: it's okay!

However, just because I may have no idea what I'm doing at times (at all the times), that doesn't mean I don't have to act, and stand up for what I believe in. Eloquent or not.

I am a very non-confrontational person. I care more than I'd like to admit about what others think of me.  Which has maybe held me back in terms of what I'm capable of accomplishing. But I'm also passionate and believe strongly in the power of education, and the ultimate good of humanity. And in class it was encouraging, while discussing LGBT issues and tackling "that's so gay" comments, hearing that saying something, awkward as it may be, is better than nothing. Now that I've written it out, it seems obvious, but I think that too many people refrain from saying anything because they don't want to say something "wrong." If it's coming from your heart, and a conviction that equality is important, then your message will get across--and can promote change.

"Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attached a hot fudge sundae." -Kurt Vonnegut

Last year my principal was super into Stephen Covey and brought his ideas of 7 habits of highly effective people into staff meetings. One idea that he brings up is spheres or circles of influence, and how effective people focus on what they have some degree of influence over. It's no use to stress out about what is in your "circle of concern" because you cannot do anything about it. I like this idea and I don't. I like it because I get overwhelmed by the big picture sometimes--the incredible existence of inequality in our education system, cycles of poverty, unjust laws etc. And it's good to take a step back and focus on something smaller. Something that I can do-teaching and making a difference just for my students. As they ask in my seminar class when we're all stressing out over everything we have to do: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." -Margaret Mead

The reason that I don't like this idea is that I don't think people are good at knowing what their circle of influence is; they don't realize what they are truly capable of. Covey gives people an easy way to perhaps live a little more stress free, but to have a cop-out when the going gets tough. Now, I haven't done extensive reading of Covey, and he probably didn't intend that at all. But it's a concern.

Because that big scale change? Starts with one small act. Large-scale change occurs gradually. For equality to truly take hold in our society's values, it's going to take a generation or two. So the solution starts in education, starts when you can educate and empower all children. It starts when you can plant that seed of critical thinking, questioning the world you were born into, and being open to difference. So many horrors of violence-physical or psychological-done on the part of children stems from ignorance. It might not be better tomorrow--it's like planting a tree. You may not get to enjoy its shade, but does that mean you don't plant it? Of course not!

A little knowledge can go a long way. Kids are curious. And when their curiosity is shut down, they learn that these so-called difficult topics are taboo, and that difference becomes an unknown, something scary. But it doesn't have to be. Conversations about race, or gender identity or disabilities need to be had. So hey, I'm going to have them in my future classrooms. I don't have all the answers, and I probably will stumble through my discussions awkwardly.

The important thing is that I'm going to try. It goes beyond just believing in things. The thoughts in my head mean nothing without action--maybe ultimately this blog is useless because it's just my thoughts put into words on a page. I get encouraged when I see lots of stories in the media that use research, that shows us how education can and should be to be successful. But I also get discouraged, because while awareness is the first step, I haven't seen much change. We have the research, and we have a lot of people with good heads on their shoulders (who unfortunately are not always the ones in power). Why aren't we using it?

I'm hopeful, because when I go to classes, I'm surrounded by like-minded people who will for sure make a difference. And because I just discovered that one of my friends in a different credential program has also spent extensive amounts of time thinking about equality, beyond I'm sure what his coursework required of him. I have every confidence that he is going to make a world of difference. And luckily, he's not the only one.

The Lorax, Dr. Seuss

So I guess it starts with me. And you.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Politics Shmolitics

It's a mistake to think you can solve any major problems just with potatoes. -Douglas Adams

Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so. -also Douglas Adams

I'll be the first to admit that I don't really understand politics, or how the budget works, or why our government functions the way it does. I don't understand how we got to where we are today--how illogical our politicians are and how a lot of America believes them. Most of all, I don't understand how politicians can say they love our country but are clearly working towards easy fixes and short term gains (ie getting elected). If politicians truly loved and wanted what's best for America, well, education wouldn't have all these budget cuts. And teachers would be paid what they deserve.

But it's not just teaching, it's early childhood education, providing resources and materials to schools, hiring reading/math/art/science specialists, having enough staff to give every student the attention they need and deserve, providing professional development to improve teacher effectiveness, keeping class sizes down, and actually use the information research tells us will help raise test scores. (hint: it's not teaching to the test and eliminating art).

 I've now begun reading the news enough to realize that there are a couple of NY Times columnists who I repeatedly read and agree with. Nicholas Kristof is one, and nearly a year ago I bookmarked this column that he wrote, intending to address it in my blog in a more timely manner. Oops.

But he makes a good point about the long term returns of investing in schools/early education. It just makes sense:
"Maybe it seems absurd to propose expansion of early childhood education at a time when budgets are being slashed. Yet James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago, has shown that investments in early childhood education pay for themselves. Indeed, he argues that they pay a return of 7 percent or more — better than many investments on Wall Street."
More recently, Kristof addressed the Chicago Teacher's Strike, bringing it back to early childhood education.
America’s education system has become less a ladder of opportunity than a structure to transmit inequity from one generation to the next. [...] The single most important step we could take has nothing to do with unions and everything to do with providing early-childhood education to at-risk kids. 
What I like about Kristof though, is he recognizes what our top priority should be: students. Unfortunately, politics often gets in the way. Yes, unions are important, but they get in the way sometimes too. You might remember the images from Waiting for Superman of the teachers who should be fired for ineffectiveness being sent to rubber rooms, where they are still paid because they are protected. That's not the way it should be. Judging teacher effectiveness is a whole other issue I'm not going to go into just now, but maybe if teachers were well paid and not expected to perform miracles in overcrowded, under-resourced schools--rather given plenty of professional development, we wouldn't have this issue. Teachers should definitely be held accountable for what they can be reasonably expected to do, and it should be easier to fire bad teachers, and hire good ones.

You can't just start giving students a test and claim some teacher is more or less effective based on the results. That's not fair. That's like giving an exam on the first day of a course, and basing your grade on that test before learning any of the information. The fact is, there are a lot of inequalities amongst schools, and it is unfair to judge two very different schools on the same test without first making sure both schools have the resources to reasonably have students at the same standard. So there's one reason why NCLB hasn't fixed our education system.

There is no easy solution, so politicians, journalists and the general population: stop pretending there is one. Stop pretending it's just teacher's unions, or the teacher's themselves who are solely at fault. They may play a small part, but so does access to resources, health, early elementary education, poverty, societal attitudes and a million other issues.

I don't have the answers, and I'm not sure anyone does right now. But we really need to start using the research that is out there, versus playing some stupid blame game. It's no one's fault, and it's all of our faults. Let's move on. I'm hopeful--every week I see more and more articles about what education can and should look like. But now we need to move from words on a paper to action. Yes we can!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Today I learned that Bill Clinton's middle name is Jefferson. So presidential.

"'We're all in this together' works better than 'You're on your own'" -Bill Clinton

"Education is more than a luxury; it is a responsibility that society owes to itself." -Robin Cook

It's not just about elementary education, though that is what is in my blog and on my mind on a daily basis. Today I thought a little more about higher education. At UCD today, 2 of our current Democratic congressmen--Garamendi and McNerney, 2 Democratic candidates--Bera and Hernandez, and our 42nd president Bill Clinton, came and spoke on the quad. It was pretty awesome, and I wish Hernandez was in my district because I want to vote for him! And not just because he was an astronaut. (Though how cool is that!? As the son of migrant farm workers, he saw on TV Americans walking on the moon and said, that's what I want to do---and then he did it!) 
I stole this picture from my sister, who brought a real camera this morning.
Anyway, while I still think that the key to turning our nation around is investing in elementary education, we can't forget about those for whom it's too late. And we need to continue offering quality education at all levels, and not just quality, but affordable. Clinton talked a bit about student loan reform this morning, and made a good point: if you set up student loan programs in a way where students are actually able to pay loans back, you're going to have a lot more students actually pay their loans back instead of defaulting them. 

I really believe that education is the solution, in so many ways. America has bizarre priorities sometimes. Why wouldn't you want to invest in counteracting poverty when it can lead to fewer people dependent on welfare, and fewer people in our jails? We spend more on prisons than we do on schools, when what we should really be spending money on is investing in children so that fewer of them drop out and end up in prison. 

One thing that really stuck with my from my Minnesota Reading Corps training over a year ago was a video we watched called "How Do You Spell Murder?" The takeaway I got from the short movie was that, when you heard these criminals' stories, their failures in school seemed intertwined with ending up in prison. In the movie, we see the power of literacy, how, even adult men in jail for murder, find hope and empowerment in learning to read. 

Imagine if that hope and empowerment were instilled in elementary school. Imagine if they were provided with proper resources and effective, dedicated teachers. Imagine if college were a realistic, feasible goal for ALL students. Imagine how that could have changed the direction of these prisoners' lives. Every single child in America has enormous potential, and it's time we recognize that, and give every last one of them the opportunity to quality education, and a positive future.

I'll leave you with this video of Malcolm X. London's poem "High School Training Ground", which won top individual performance at the "Louder Than A Bomb" poetry slam competition in Chicago. He's someone for whom the school system has failed. Or perhaps, as he puts it, the school systems are succeeding, with the goal prepare their students to carry on the status quo, to step into the roles society provides for them, good or bad. London eloquently tells it like he sees it. 
And remember, make sure to vote in November! 

Friday, August 24, 2012

If You Can Read This, Thank A Teacher

Reading is hard! But you don't have to take my word for it.

"Teaching reading IS rocket science." -Louisa Moats

"I was gonna get a candy bar; the button I was supposed to push was "HH", so I went to the side, I found the "H" button, I pushed it twice. F-in'...potato chips came out, man, because they had an "HH" button for Christ's sake! You need to let me know. I'm not familiar with the concept of "HH". I did not learn my AA-BB-CC's. God god, dammit dammit.

Xylophone is spelled with an X, that's wrong, xylophone's zzzz, X? I don't f-in' see it. It should be a Z up front, next time you have to spell xylophone, use a Z. When someone says, "Hey that's wrong," say, "No it ain't. If you think that's wrong, you need to get your head Z-rayed." It's like X wasn't given enough to do, so they had to promise it more. Okay, you don't start a lot of words, but we'll give you a co-starring role in tic-tac-toe. And you will be associated with hugs and kisses. And you will mark the spot. And you will make writing Christmas easier. And incidentally, you will start xylophone. Are you happy, you f-in' X?!" -Mitch Hedberg

English really is a crazy language, its no wonder kids have trouble learning to read. What makes it even harder is not having extra support and encouragement at home to read, or even simply not enough money to have books at home. Reading is probably the single most important thing for a child to learn at school, because so much learning, in any subject-- math, science, arts--requires some reading. Reading Corps focused on grades K-3 because from age 3 to grade 3 kids are learning to read, but after grade three kids are reading to learn. And compared to Spanish, which is relatively phonetic, and French, where you might not pronounce half of the letters, but at least there seem to be fewer exceptions to the rules, English has a crazy amount of rules that can change all the time.

I think that, while Mitch Hedberg addresses some of our issues with his discussion of "x", Brian Regan hilariously illustrates the craziness of our rules:

"Brian, what's the i before e rule?"
"I before e....always."
"What are you, an idiot, Brian?"
"I before E, except after C and when sounding like "ay" as in neighbor and weigh, and on weekends, and holidays, and all throughout May, and you're going to be wrong no matter what you say!"


So she asked this kid who knew everything, Irwin. "Irwin, what's the plural for ox?"
"Oxen. The farmer used his oxen."
"Brian, what's the plural for box?"
"Boxen. I bought 2 boxen of doughnuts."
"No Brian, no. Let's try another one. Irwin, what's the plural for goose?"
"Geese, I saw a flock of geese."
"Brian, what's the plural for moose?"
"MOOSEN! I saw a flock of moosen! There were many of 'em. Many much moosen. Out in the woods--in the woodsen."

Funny, yes, but also the reality for a lot of students. It's confusing, and if you missed one important lesson, it's going to get a lot harder. As I worked one-on-one with kids last year, I read with so many kids who had some gaps in their phonics knowledge. And this year, I'm working with some 2nd graders who can barely blend words together, much less able to read any word that requires any rule past simply knowing letter sounds. Most kids can learn to read words like "cat" or "run" relatively easily, but a word like "cake" or "rain"? Totally throws a wrench in things. But at least those words follow a pattern--the silent "e" makes the "a" say its name, and the 2nd vowel (i) makes the first (a) have a long sound. But then there are words like "wild" or "was" or "character" and you've just got to know what's going on.

And this is before you factor in things like dyslexia or ADHD. And with budget cuts, bigger class sizes, fewer support positions in the classroom, some kids just don't stand a chance. Last year there were so many kids who I never got a chance to work with who could have really used the help. And this year, I don't have the time to work one-on-one a ton, because I'm focused on the class as a whole. Good grief. It makes me sad to see students struggling, especially coupled with behavior problems and just not having enough hours in the school day, much less enough of me to go around to give each student the attention they deserve.

So many kids fall through the cracks for various reasons. They might be hovering around grade-level, so they don't get as much attention as the lower kids in terms of extra help. They may have quiet personalities. It is the squeaky wheel that often gets the grease-cliché but true. They may desperately need an IEP/extra interventions, but have so many hoops of paperwork to jump through that by the time they get it it's almost too late, or there's a long line of other needy kids in front of them. They may need to be held back, or meds, or other help but the parents aren't supportive. It shouldn't be so hard to get a child an education!

What's a teacher to do? Besides the need for smaller class sizes, one of the other biggest needs for schools is more adults in the classroom. So if you have a consistent hour one day a week during the school day, find a local elementary school and volunteer! Besides the fact that it's so rewarding working with children, you could change a child's life. Even if all you're doing is reading with them, it could be more attention than they get at home, which can help for confidence/self esteem. Plus it could help fill a gap that a teacher, though (s)he's trying, simply hasn't been able to fill due to the twenty-some odd other bodies in the room. (Plus, volunteering will actually benefit your happiness! I'm not just saying that--I've read a bunch of psych studies that backs me up).

I'm just going to leave you with this:

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Power of the Arts

Man will begin to recover the moment he takes art as seriously as physics, chemistry or money.  -Ernst Levy

Go into the arts. I'm not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven's sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possible can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something. -Kurt Vonnegut

The arts are so important to have in education, yet they're the first thing to go in this testing-heavy environment. By phasing the arts out of schools, we are doing a huge disservice to our students. Arts are not a luxury, but a necessity, and as it turns out, correlated strongly with success. Working at an arts-integrated elementary school has only helped fuel my belief in the necessity of the arts.

While I'm sure I could find some other articles to back me up, I'm going to use my personal experience. While numbers go a long way, I think that they are also, to some extent, impersonal. But if you make an issue personal, and put a face to it, I think it goes a lot longer sometimes. It's easy in the abstract to understand there are all sorts of injustices going on in the world, and go about your daily life. It's a lot harder when you can relate to it yourself. So that's what I'm going to do. I think that the arts are not just necessary to keep for low-income students or minority students or what have you, I think the arts are important for EVERYONE.

Take me, for example--I can't imagine my life without art. Growing up, my mom made me create any birthday or thank you card by hand, so for every occasion, I had a little art project to complete. In elementary school, I participated in a couple of theater camps, and had a blast. I love musicals. Most of the more memorable school projects-from elementary school through high school--were the creative projects. From videos about recycling, to creating my own "Brown Bear" book, those are also the projects I hang on to all these years later. Looking back at old notebooks, I doodled like crazy during class--to keep me focussed, or awake, or simply just to keep the boredom from setting in. But I feel like it says something that a lot of kids doodle on their schoolwork.

 In college I was almost an art major. Ended up in psychology, but got so much from the art classes I took. Not only that, but art balanced out my schedule. I felt like my art classes were, in some ways a way to use my brain in a different capacity. It wasn't by any means a break--they were challenging, time consuming courses, but it there was definitely a different feeling when I finished a 2 hour stint in the dark room, versus finishing a big problem set. Throughout college I had fun "borrowing" mugs from the dining hall and drawing on them in sharpie, and then giving them to people because they asked me to. I was also the go-to for various costume tattoos, as well as actual mock-ups of potential tattoos. Apparently I'm good at time consuming activities with lots of details.

My first college art course was observational drawing, the prerequisite for basically any other art class. So many people complained that oh, they would take this or that class if only they didn't have to take observational drawing. And to that I say, there was a damn good reason to take observational drawing before a class like photo. On the first day the professor gave a little lecture about how this course would change the way I look at the world. And I was like, pffffft. Yeah right. But you know what? He was right. I totally see the world differently now--I notice a lot more, and am a lot more aware of various details.

So then I started working in an elementary school where arts is its THING. And all my thoughts and feelings about how great the arts are magnified. Arts are a way to look at the world differently. And never underestimate the power of the arts to help teach math, science, english, and really any subject.

I am amazed at students' ability to memorize lyrics. This is why I now know the counting by 10s song, for example. It is nothing more than counting to 100 by 10s, set to a tune, but without that song, those kindergardeners would struggle much more. I remember being with some 4th graders learning the Fifty Nifty United States song and I was thinking, man this isn't that catchy, how does anyone expect kids to remember them all? But, while I can't (I blame the fact that I never learned this song in grade school), they certainly could.

What's more, is at the end of the year we put on an all-school musical. And the students are just SO into it. Each class has their own song and dance number, but somehow, most students know not only every single song in the entire musical, but most of the dances as well. It's pretty amazing. I think it's also a great way to introduce new vocabulary to these students. The teachers who wrote the songs (they're all original), are very clever. They aren't simplistic lyrics for kids, they're entertaining and full of puns and interesting references. The students may not always know what the words mean, but it's a step in the right direction. Having a larger vocabulary can help advance a student in reading and comprehension. Maybe they've never seen a word written down, but when applying their rules for sounding out new words, they will be able to make the jump to figuring out the word if it's one they've heard.

Beyond academics, the arts give a good balance to students who may have some behavior issues. Maybe it stems from some classroom insecurities, and excelling in dance gives them some extra self esteem, but also gives a teacher a way to see the child in a new light. So the arts don't just make life less boring, but can have very tangible, positive results for successful academic endeavors and relationships.

Moral of the story, ART is education disguised as FUN. What more could you want?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

And as we go on/we remember/all the times we/had together

"Why can't we get all the people together in the world that we really like and then just stay together?  I guess that wouldn't work.  Someone would leave.  Someone always leaves.  Then we would have to say good-bye.  I hate good-byes.  I know what I need.  I need more hellos." –Charles M. Schulz

"Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Some stay for a while, leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never, ever the same." – Flavia Weedn 

June 30th marked the end of my AmeriCorps service, but lucky for you Dear Reader, not the end of my blog! Not only do I still have plenty of thoughts I have yet to get down on paper for your reading pleasure from my service in St. Paul, but I'll be starting a new chapter in my life! I just moved back to my hometown of Davis, California where I'm starting grad school, and will be student teaching in the neighboring town of Dixon. Super excited. 

I know it's been over a month since my last post, but I was a guest writer for the Minnesota Reading Corps blog this month, so that was exciting. You can read my post, about what I learned from Reading Corps Training that will help me in my life after AmeriCorps. (This post was a little more professional than my thoughts last August, right after training). Ultimately, just like even though I graduated from Carleton in 2010, I'm still very much a Carl, and even though my service years are over, it's not a chapter that is closed in my life. I still intend to visit my old school, and my amerifriends, and of course all of my other friends back in Minnesota as often as possible. 

I'd like to think that I made an impact in those two short years with my students, but who knows? (The Onion has an idea). I know my students became better readers, so there's that. And now I'll embark on a journey to help even more children. And now I'm in Davis. The other day I was in Minnesota--it hasn't hit me that I'm not going to go home to my good old duplex and awesome roommates in a week.

So here's to hellos and goodbyes--meeting new people at UCD, and new students and teachers, learning a lot and being close to family. And to visiting Minnesota soon!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Beyond The Numbers

Grown-ups love figures.  When you tell them that you have made a new friend, they never ask you any questions about essential matters.  They never say to you, "What does his voice sound like?  What games does he love best?  Does he collect butterflies?" Instead, they demand:  "How old is he?  How many brothers has he?  How much does he weigh?  How much money does his father make?"  Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him.  -Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Children ask better questions than adults.  "May I have a cookie?" "Why is the sky blue?" and "What does a cow say?" are far more likely to elicit a cheerful response than "Where's your manuscript?" Why haven't you called?" and "Who's your lawyer?"  -Fran Lebowitz

The 3rd-6th graders at my school took the MCAs recently, the required standardized test Minnesota uses to measure the success and progress of its schools. It's really not a measure of my school's success though, because half of our students are new this year. How can you say, oh, you're a good/bad school when some students have been with us for not even a year? Our scores are not a measure of what we're doing, but of our students, whether or not they've had the opportunity to learn much here yet.

Next year, we're getting a science teacher, as are a lot of St. Paul schools. I'm pretty sure the only reason we're getting science, is because we'll be tested on it. How sad is that? Yeah, there are some science standards, but no one cares if our kids are learning science, because we have to make sure they can pass the MCAs, which don't (but might in the future) include science. 

So much of a focus on the tests, that you lose what's important: instilling a love of learning and critical thinking skills necessary to problem solve on your own. There is something to be said for cultural literacy. Also, making school interesting. Some of the passages I sort through to read with my kids make me cringe. How can I get my students excited about reading when even I can't muster up the enthusiasm to read a boring "story." If you can call it that. My dad sent me this article that I think really speaks to this problem.

"Better yet, we should abandon altogether the multiple-choice tests, which are in vogue not because they are an effective tool for judging teachers or students but because they are an efficient means of producing data."

It's becoming very clear to me that the standardized tests we have in place might be doing more harm than good. I understand the importances of quantifying/assessing teaching, but it needs to be more comprehensive, and depend on more than simply one day in a year. Yes, that's more work, more complicated, maybe a little less objective than a multiple choice test, but it's more accurate, and more fair to teachers like these who put their hearts and souls into their work, see amazing growth in their students only to be told by some outside party who probably hasn't set foot in their school that they're failures.

Thinking about the MCAs versus the weekly progress monitors I've done made me realize that testing should be more ongoing, than based on one day. Even if my student doesn't do well one week, I have a lot more data and context to look at, and I can still feel like I'm a success as a tutor. So on this one arbitrary test day, a student doesn't do well. Is that a reflection of his school? Possibly, but maybe he was sick for a week and missed school. Maybe his grandfather died. Maybe he's not getting enough to eat. Maybe he had a rough morning. Who knows? Well, the teacher does. And if there were ongoing assessments, we would know that the trend of his learning may still be at or above grade level, even if this ONE specific day out of the year was below.

Plus I can feel happy knowing the difference that I made was significant, even if my students are still reading below grade level, because I know where they started. The gains they made are sometimes equivalent or greater than what an "average" student makes in a year, they just started way further back. If I just looked at the 3 scores from fall, winter, and spring, I think I'd feel like a bit of a failure. But when I take the time to look a little deeper, at my weekly assessments and at each individual kid's story, well, I feel good about what I've accomplished this year. I'm a success, and I've made a difference.

Probably one of my happiest-this-is-why-I-do-this moments in the past month was when the first thing one of my third graders said to me at the beginning of our session was "I like reading with you Ms. Amy." It was nothing extraordinary, and doesn't make for a great story. But it was the best thing I could possibly have heard, and made my day. I love my job.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Hey Girl, I Appreciate You

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.” -Albert Einstein

Apparently it's National Teacher Appreciation Week. With that in mind, I'd like to take a moment and step back from being critical of our education system, and think about what's right in our schools. Namely, our teachers.

For great teachers, the job is less a career than a calling. You don’t become a teacher to make a world of money. You become a teacher to make a world of difference.

I'd like to take a moment to thank some great teachers (and educators) I've had. I had an epiphany during an education class I took. It wasn't anything special, it was just realizing what I knew all along. I could never quite place why my all time favorite teacher was my all time favorite. Why he was such a good teacher. It wasn't the subject--I entered his class expecting to have a boring year. Boy, was I wrong. And I think the subject could have been literally anything, and I would have had a good year. It was because he was so passionate about both his subject and teaching. Enthusiasm is contagious.

So here's to Mr. Williams, my US History teacher, who not only got me interested in US History, but also gave me a model of the kind of teacher that I would like to become. Who let each student be more than just a face in the crowd. Who I will continue to visit, years out of college, even though most students stop visiting their high school teachers after sophomore year of college.

To Mrs. Bruch, who decided to show our sci fi class American History X, not because it was sci fi, but because it's a powerful, thought provoking movie. Whose class I aced, but that fact is wholly unrelated to how successful I felt it was.

To Mrs. Russell, my Jr. High English teacher who taught me how to write, to whom I thank for my success in any writing endeavor since then.

To Mme. Harvey, who gave me a strong foundation in French in Jr. High, that carried me through High School and enabled me to actually place out out 3 levels of college french.

To Coach Day, who may have talked a lot, but taught me so much about horizontal jumping technique, and helped fuel my passion for track.

To Mr. Reevesman, who made 4th grade in a new school the best it could be. Who let us mimic trench warfare with crumpled paper and lines of desks, and made each of us the faces of our class currency.

To Cathy, who reminded me that I do love French.

To Deborah, who inspired my passion for education, whose class gave a directionless senior a path to follow, and continues to be a supportive guiding force in my journey to becoming a teacher.

To Donna, my first introduction to Carleton, who encouraged and helped me through one of track's hardest events, and who was consistently there to support me all four years.

To Mrs. Pappas, my Minnesota mom, who not only is one of the most amazing elementary teachers I know, who I can only hope to be half the teacher she is, but also a friend that will be so hard to say goodbye to when I go back to California this summer.

To my parents, who may not have officially been teachers, but whose support pushed me to be successful in school, and who I still rely on for guidance in just about any aspect of my life.

To all my teachers I haven't mentioned. Some of you, like in any profession, weren't the best. (But hey, now I know what not to do!) But most of you did a pretty good job. Most of you made a significant positive difference in my life. And I thank you for that, because I couldn't have made it to where I am now without you.

I'll end with something great to come out of the "Hey Girl" Ryan Gosling internet explosion: this site. Because hey, we all need a little reassurance that teaching IS hard, and you are, indeed, doing a good job.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Tale As Old As Time

 Through the mist, through the woods,
through the darkness and the shadows.It's a nightmare but it's one exciting ride.
New and a bit alarmingWho'd have ever thought that this could be?True that he's no Prince CharmingBut there's something in him that I simply didn't see
(Beauty and the Beast)

            In the fall of 2010, I was about to begin my first job after graduation. I was a little nervous to be working at a primarily non-white, non-middle class school, which was different from my own school and life experience. Nervous not about the students, but about me. How was I going to react? How would I feel? I was out of my comfort zone: living in a big city for the first time, relying on public transportation, and working with children whose histories were in many ways completely different from my own. It is like in the Disney movie Beauty and the Beast, when the villagers are storming the castle where the Beast lives. They sing "We don't like what we don't understand and in fact it scares us and this monster is mysterious at least." It's the difference that creates these rifts between groups, because no one took the time to get to know the other, and discover that different does not make one characteristic better or worse than another. Belle knew better because she took the time to get to know the Beast. Because I was not entirely sure what to expect, I entered my job with an open mind, ready to learn, ready not to make the mistake of the villagers but to give difference a chance, à la Belle.

It turned out to be a very smooth transition. The differences between my students and me were important not because they were differences, but because each one meant a different story that affected how a child learned.   In the end, it was not too difficult to find common ground with every one of them. I may not have the same skin color as my students, but that did not stop one African American student from proclaiming that he wished I was his mother. I made an effort to get to know my students as individuals to learn how to best help them. I had more things to worry about than the color of each student’s skin when I was focused on bringing them up to grade level in reading or math.

My school requires students to wear uniforms, which helps diminish some socioeconomic status symbols, but my students’ histories began to emerge, and with that I began to learn the most important lesson about successfully interacting in this diverse environment: Don’t assume anything. My previous picture of what comprises general knowledge or common childhood experiences had to change. I could not assume anything about my students’ situations and thus had to be wary of making one of them feel uncomfortable with a seemingly harmless comment. It affected everything from the smallest detail, such as my freckles, to life altering details such as talking about parents. You quickly seek alternative ways to phrase these questions when a kindergartener shuts down because asking about their father leads to learning he is in jail. While at first it was a very conscious effort, it now just rolls off the tongue to ask for a parent, grandparent, auntie or uncle’s signature on an assignment versus asking for a mother or father’s. Education, in many ways, must be personalized for each student in order to optimize his or her learning.

Humans are adaptable and I am no exception. After a couple of months into the year, I felt very comfortable at work, even though it was quite different from every other place I had worked or lived. My job has enabled me to think about opportunity and privilege in a way I had not before. When I look at the beautiful rainbow of my students I realize that putting yourself into new situations, as long as you shed your assumptions and get to know your surroundings personally, can be incredibly rewarding. A good relationship can transcend the superficial differences that separate us and you may find out that what you did not understand is not so different after all.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Memory and A Predicament

"We recognize our own mortality, and we are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this Earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame -– but rather, how well we have loved -- and what small part we have played in making the lives of other people better." -President Barack Obama

"There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America." -Bill Clinton

Something wasn’t quite right. I could not simply enjoy this performance, a boys choir visiting our school. It wasn’t their voices—they were lovely. As my eyes panned to the audience, checking to make sure my students were being the respectful audience they had been taught to be, I realized what unsettled me. And when the director invited my students to think about joining the choir, I knew full well that the likelihood of any of my students joining was slim. It wasn’t for the reason the director brought up—that a year-round school schedule wouldn’t fit with the choir’s schedule. It was socioeconomic status, and in an interconnected way, race.

What had made me stop and think was that seeing an all-white group of boys perform to my much more diverse school brought to mind the inequalities prevalent in our society today. Even if one of my students had the means to pay for the expenses of this elite boys choir, would they feel welcome? Watching this homogeneous group, would they think joining was even an option? This may be a small example, but people tend to internalize what they see, and so on some levels, children may not realize the wealth of opportunities available to them if there’s no one like them currently occupying those roles. We can trace this issue back to the disparities in education where children get their first ideas about what is expected of them and what they have the potential to accomplish.

On a related note, there is one thing I feel conflicted about in becoming a teacher. As a white female, I am just like just about every other elementary teacher out there. And I see that there is a need for strong male role models in the lives of my students. I'm not helping the ratio. What makes me qualified for really any sort of advocacy, when I don't fall into most of the disadvantaged groups? Except for being female, so of course I go into the profession where we're most well represented. I want to make a difference, but I know that some criticism of hollywood's portrayal of successful teacher stories is that it's always some "white savior" who swoops in and rescues these kids from gangs, death, jail or what have you. How can I advocate for my students without coming across as condescending, or racist? How can I make a difference in the places that most need good teachers, but who also need role models who represent the students, both in gender and race?

I don't really want to work in some upper middle class (mostly white) neighborhood where the teaching is "easy". Okay, teaching is never easy, but those kids don't need my help, they're going to be fine and successful, and I feel like I have a lot to offer, and that can be best placed in a high need area. I can't really say why this is where I want to teach; it certainly isn't the easy way out. Maybe it's the incredibly positive experience I've had the past two years. Maybe it's that, while I have not encountered huge injustices that impact me personally, I have now seen the results of the inequalities in America in the touching stories of my students. That on some basic level, I believe in America's ability to follow through on its ideals of equality. And I believe in the power of education to right some of America's current predicaments. I suppose it comes down to my moral compass. I'm basing this on my principles versus experience. Otherwise I'm just perpetuating the status quo, and that's not going to be good for anyone in any class.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Count Your Blessings

Always jump in the puddles!  Always skip alongside the flowers.  The only fights worth fighting are the pillow and food varieties.  -Terri Guillemets

Maybe we should develop a Crayola bomb as our next secret weapon.  A happiness weapon.  A beauty bomb.  And every time a crisis developed, we would launch one.  It would explode high in the air - explode softly - and send thousands, millions, of little parachutes into the air.  Floating down to earth - boxes of Crayolas.  And we wouldn't go cheap, either - not little boxes of eight.  Boxes of sixty-four, with the sharpener built right in.  With silver and gold and copper, magenta and peach and lime, amber and umber and all the rest.  And people would smile and get a little funny look on their faces and cover the world with imagination.  -Robert Fulghum

More often than not, this blog is where I can rant, and ranting is usually critical or negative. Now, I consider myself to be a very optimistic person, but think that perhaps my outlook seems dire on the state of education in America, or even my students. I love my job, yet does that come across in my writing? I hope so, but if it doesn't, I'm going to make a more conscious effort to share the positive side of my job.

I'm on the Communications Committee with Reading Corps, and we're doing a lot of recruitment efforts. Part of that is writing articles for college newspapers to spread the word. Naturally, I wrote one for my alma mater. I added the link to the article to our Committee's Google doc., and the next thing I knew, all of my bosses/program coordinators I didn't even know had read it, and loved it. My supervisor must have sent it to my principal, because the next thing I know, I had teachers telling me they really liked the article. I was glad--I initially felt insincere, putting together this op-ed, because I wanted it to be my voice, that even though I was promoting Reading Corps, it was also my experience that I was sharing with Carleton. I wanted it to be worthy both of my amazing Carleton experience, and my experience with my current school.

From this experience, I learned that I don't know how to take praise, or at least am a little uncomfortable with it. I don't know what to say. It was a good ego boost to know that something I wrote could impact so many people who weren't necessarily the intended audience. I suppose it was good that it went out to the staff at my school--I'm not always the most talkative and outgoing at work, so while the article doesn't express anything that would be a surprise to you, dear reader, it's something that a lot of my co-workers don't know. I also never consider writing to be one of my strengths, but a lot of the commenters on my article mentioned my good writing. So much of what I do--as is characteristic of many jobs in which you're serving others--goes uncommented on. It's good to know that something you're doing does actually make a difference in the here and now.

The brightly colored "no sweets" signs at school last year

In related news, today was Valentine's Day, which is just a happy day in an elementary school. Plus, you always have a Valentine (or 20) when you work with kids. It's a good reason to say screw the "no sweets in SPPS public school" rule, and give out cards and candy and love. Really though, had we tried to enforce the "no sweets" rule, it would have been like trying to put out a fire using paper. At any rate, I gave my students Valentines, and got some in return. All my students were in good moods, no one was absent (so rare!), and no one had a bad day. It was one of those days that made me remember why I do what I do. (Lucky for me, I have moments like that everyday...but rarely can I say that about the entire day.)

My third grader, the one who made me cry, was in a very good mood. Today she asked me why there had never been a woman president. She also stated that she wanted to be president one day. Naturally, I turned the conversation to "what do you need to do to become president?" And like the clever student she is, she starts with "confidence," and then added "needs to be a good reader." Bingo!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Hidden Costs of Teaching

I am still learning. -Michelangelo

The real menace in dealing with a five-year-old is that in no time at all you begin to sound like a five-year-old.  -Joan Kerr

Here's the story about the student who made me cry:

One of the first grade teachers routinely goes through the day without lunch, and every time that comes up, I think, man, I could not do that. I am SO hungry by 11:20 when I get to eat. (Let's be real, I'm supposed to have a 30 minute lunch each day, and I really only get 20, because I'm always running a little long with my students). This day, back in November, however, I found out what it's like to go without lunch. And I was surprisingly fine, on the stomach front. When normally my stomach is declaring mutiny by 11, that day it was shockingly silent. And while I don't mind missing a little of my lunch to finish an activity with a student, lunchtime is necessary to recharge for the afternoon. My schedule is exhausting--every 20 minutes I work with another student, with no transition time built in. I need lunch not just to satisfy my stomach, but to take a breather.

While physically I was shockingly okay, I was emotionally drained, not getting a chance to take a break, because I spent it with a third grade student who I've been having some trouble keeping her motivated and focused on the task at hand. We had our 20 minute session per usual...which extended through my lunch. When she makes a mistake/gets to a word she doesn't know/has trouble with an assignment, she shuts down. Instead of working it out, learning what it is and moving past it, she gets agitated and frustrated, where her performance declines greatly. Every other day though, she does fine, so I don't really know what sets it off. The day before she started crying during our session. She gets discouraged because she's in 3rd grade, reading closer to a 1st grade level. This session she started crying again. She went off about how I wasn't really a teacher, she didn't like reading, she didn't like reading with me, we did boring things, she reads at home why does she have to come with me blah blah blah.

I tried to give her a pep talk. I asked if there was anything I could do to make it better for her. I told her that it's okay to make mistakes, no one reads perfectly the first time, that reading is hard, that I get it--I've struggled with things too. (Perhaps I exaggerated my school struggles--I was a good student, and learning and school came much more naturally to me. But she doesn't need to know that.) Still, I got to a point, about halfway through my lunch, where I couldn't think of anything else to say. And she sat there with her head down, crying a little. And I could tell I was tearing up, so I went silent.

I tried so hard to keep it together--but the tears just started coming, and, well, it's hard to hide it when I had to wipe tears from my cheeks. Which of course makes her feel even worse. She freaks out a bit and gives me a hug and just starts sobbing into my shoulder. I told her it's okay and we just kinda hugged and cried for a bit. Finally, I tell her that I need to go--I have maybe 5 minutes of lunch left, and I say, I'm not mad, I'm just trying to do what's best for you, and I know we don't do the most exciting things, but I like reading with you, and want to help. She returns to her class in tears, and I go wash my face in the bathroom. I pull myself together and go read with my next student.

I spent the rest of the afternoon on the verge of tears. I ran into the 3rd grade teacher later and she asks me what happened--this student was crying through recess, and all she would say is that she made someone else cry. Well, that was me, and here come the tears again. The teacher gives me a hug, and reassures me, and says well, there's definitely a teacher in you, already crying about your students. I go to my next class to pick up a kindergartner and the teacher asks if everything is okay, tells me not to take it personally and that I'm doing a good job. One of her students asks "Why is Miss Amy crying?"

At the end of the day, I got a (very poorly spelled) apology note from my student, so that was sweet. And the next day my student had a spectacular day. Since then, it's been ups and downs, but I think my tears got across a message that my words couldn't. It's still not perfect, but no more tears, on my part at least. Teachers have to keep so much bottled up for their students, and not let them realized how frustrated or on the verge of tears they might be. Maybe I shouldn't have cried in front of a kid, but sometimes what can you do? It's not a weakness, I'm actually usually pretty good at holding back tears. It's just that I'm only human.

It helped to have those teachers reassure me that it's not just me, that I can't take things personally and that I do a good job. Knowing I have their support means the world, because while I'm pretty disconnected with the other teachers--I just work one-on-one with students, they've got my back. I don't know what I'm going to do with this student. I don't know what to say to help turn her attitude around, to keep her going during our session, or if I even said the right things. But man, it is exhausting. Just from one of my 17 students. It's not like I have easy students, but I'm lucky--I love the kids I work with, melt downs and all. But you get so invested in each and every one, it drains you. There's only so much you can do. That day was rough, possibly the roughest I've had, but by no means the worst. It just made me realize how invested I am in my job, and how much my kids mean to me.

Monday, January 9, 2012


I like an escalator because an escalator can never break, it can only become stairs. There would never be an escalator temporarily out of order sign, only an escalator temporarily stairs. Sorry for the convenience.
My friend said to me, "I think the weather's trippy." I said, "No, man, it's not the weather that's trippy, perhaps it is the way that we perceive it that is indeed trippy." Then I thought, "Man, I should have just said, "Yeah."
If you find yourself lost in the woods, fuck it, build a house. "Well, I was lost but now I live here! I have severely improved my predicament!" -Mitch Hedberg

My friend was griping hardcore about his broken flat screen TV. It was such a hassle to talk to customer service multiple times, get a 2nd broken TV, and send that one back, but ultimately they're sending him a new model.

One of my students' house burned down. She was surprisingly cavalier about the whole thing. She missed a couple of days of school, because (according to her at least), she didn't have any school uniform to wear. But she seemed (at least on the surface) more concerned about the fact that she now doesn't have a TV. The kids I work with are so adaptable. Many of them go through a lot of turmoil, transition and change in their lives. From having parents in jail, no parents, being homeless, not having enough to eat, not having support at home to alcoholic parents, the list is endless.

It's all about perspective.

I can be a good complainer. I'm not looking forward to when Minnesota decides to buck up and become Minnesota, i.e. incredibly cold, and dealing with taking the bus in the cold. I'm making steady process towards needing a cup of coffee in the morning (something which I've been trying to avoid), and am still so so tired at work. I'm not getting to the gym as much as I'd like, because I naturally create a very busy schedule for myself. Yet I am constantly reminded that really, I have it pretty good. I made it through winter last year, I'll do it again. I have awesome friends who live close, and a fantastic family I get to see every couple of months in one way or another. I get enough to eat, have a good winter coat, and even though I make a modest living stipend (that enables me to get food stamps), I'm still able to invest in leisure activities--movies, plays, drinks, runs, events etc.

I'll leave you with the above video. Take a moment, and realize how lucky you have it. As cheesy as it sounds, take the time to count your blessings every now and then. Make it specific, and try to think of new things as often as possible. As it turns out, that's actually scientifically shown to boost your happiness (hellooooo comps research). So is volunteering--so take the time to give back to your community, to those who don't have it quite as good as you.

And thanks for reading, whoever you are, I'm glad you're in my life, to whatever extent that you are.