Summer Reading

One thing I never expected before becoming an English teacher was how much it would make me miss reading literature.

I mean. I read all the time. Many times a day.
The work of my students. The stuff I love in our curriculum.
An online article or two around bedtime or at a lunch break.

I haven't picked up a novel, besides the ones I teach, since last August.

Summer reading used to mean devouring as many books as I could, logging a zillion hours of reading, and then scoring free tickets to Six Flags. Remember that program? Elementary school was the best.

In high school, it was forced assignments for books I was meh about.

Now, summer reading is my opportunity to read whatever I want, free of responsibilities and consequences. I've been saving this list up all year, at least:

I got to meet Marie-Helene Bertino a couple years ago when she graciously joined Aggressive Book Club for our discussion of her collection of short stories, Safe As Houses. It was wonderful, she was lovely, and I'm equally excited about 2am At The Cat's Pajamas. It's set in Philly, too, so that's an obvious plus.

Steph long ago recommended Chang Rae-Lee's On Such a Full Sea, and it's been on my list since. Plus, I totally do judge books by their covers, and that one kills it.

The Girl on the Train has been popping up everywhere I look. (Of course when I looked back at my list I realized Steph had already suggested it to me months ago.)

If anyone asks, Amy Poehler? I tend to say, Yes, Please

I somehow scooted by with an English degree without ever reading major classics. Wuthering Heights is one people seem to have enjoyed, and it is on the free Kindle list, so I might keep it on my phone app.

I'm excited to really sit down with Larissa's Authentic Learning in the Digital Age, since I've only explored parts of it throughout the school year. It features all of my colleagues and the amazing work they do at SLA. It'll be perfect for some inspiration for the coming year.

I have to wait until September, but I'm advance-drooling over Jessica Hische's In Progress.

What's on your list? What's missing from mine? Should we still go to Six Flags to celebrate?

Completers of Assignments. People.

The thing I hate most about being an English teacher is the thing most English teachers hate about being English teachers: the grading. The sheer volume of it, regardless of the task or the quality of work, ensures that any assignment will take foreeeeeeeeever.

It's also the best part about being an English teacher.

It's how I get to know my students. 
As readers and writers and completers of assignments, yes, but mostly: as people.

English class affords so many opportunities like this.

This is not a small thing. After all. We spend more time together, my students and I, than we do with many of our families and friends.

My 9th graders have been working on revising their memoirs. The stories they have chosen to tell.

I asked them to think about who they are and what makes them so. I asked them to think about moments or events or experiences that have changed them.

I said: 
You can tell any one story. 
It must be true. It must be yours.
And I challenge you to express it.
As wholly and deeply as you can.
And I will help you. I have tools.

Because I've asked them to take their most meaningful experiences and memories.
The ones they really believe in, the ones they still roll around in their minds, the ones that haunt them.

The ones that could have started with any number of sentences or hooks, because there is no defined beginning.
The ones that they're not sure how to end. They're still living these stories.

In our classes together I talk about strategies and techniques. I provide them with menus of writing options. We read examples and I show models. I teach them about compelling dialogue. And strong verb choices. And using imagery. Playing with plot techniques. Why metaphors are awesome. 

The English teacher's toolbox.

And right in the middle of the process, of writing and refining and bringing life to our words, I feel quite disconnected.

I confessed to them in class that I felt tremendous guilt for my role in this assignment. For being the evaluator of these pieces. For manipulating their experiences and turning them into stories. 

For seeing a paragraph like: 

Days went on and we got much sadder. We didn't leave his side and we stayed there until he finally started getting better. The sickness went away but the improvements did not show. 

And responding with a red-inked margin comment like:

This is such an emotional part of the story. How can you use imagery or style techniques here? How can you SHOW instead of TELL how he progressed, and how you experienced it?

What kind of monster reads a deeply personal and heartfelt reflection of a young person's life and treats it like a piece of writing?

What expertise can I pretend to bring to these stories? Who am I to hold a red pen over these?

I'm quite aware of the dynamic here. I tell them about it, too.
I thank them for trusting me with their stories.
I honor the hard work they put into articulating their experiences.
Reliving and replaying them.
Using them as tools for creative expression.

I hope this has been more than a writing exercise. It certainly has been for me.

Paintings by Geoffrey Johnson

So, where are you from?

I return to the East Coast with giant lemons and clippings of succulents stuffed among the belongings in my suitcase. My aunt's yard is an exotic treasure to me now.

I grew up in Los Angeles. I used to say that I'm from LA.

When people ask me now, So, where are you from? I try to determine what they mean before answering. Sometimes they want to know which restaurants are near my house, and other times they want to know which part of the planet my ancestors occupied.

The timeline has warped my answer and my identity. I was from LA when that was more recently true. But now, officially half my life has been away from it.
Where I'm from is only part of where I've been.
Or how I identify.

But still. This place.

It will always be a piece of home. A fraction, whatever size, of the full answer.
Of how I became me, now.

I hope I always see it through this lens. And that this feeling of home never grows too distant.

In My Brain / 07

Here are some things that have passed through my brain this week. Happy Sunday!

ART // The public art in this city is truly fantastic, and I can't wait to see Open Source, the Mural Arts Program's spring exhibition, featuring Shepard Fairey and others.

VOCABULARY // Teaching high school has made me familiar with 100% of these terms. How about you?

TIME SUCK // I wish one of my students had invented Google Feud. (I still really love Google Poetics, too.)

TEACHABLE // I'm filing away these 25 Maps That Explain the English Language to jumpstart a future lesson plan.

image // Heeseop Yoon

Fish Bowl

Half a dozen grown-ups accumulate in my classroom, fighting for standing room near the walls, taking pictures of the posters with their cell phones, peeking over students' shoulders, and asking them questions about what they're working on. 

I've never seen any of these people before. And I had no idea they would be here.

This week, or any other.

This isn't totally unusual. We get a lot of visitors at our school. I very vaguely recall someone mentioning to me when I was hired that this would happen, but it certainly didn't register.  That was only a few months ago, so it's strange to see now that this semi-regular occurrence does not freak me out at all. 

I'm mostly unfazed. I even seem to usually have an extra photocopy or two handy, as if anticipating that a visitor will request one.

This week, in a lesson I had planned a bit more hurriedly than I would have liked, and about which I was already feeling somewhat meh, I found myself inside this fish bowl with my students. 

More specifically, my most energetic group of ninth graders. 

Not long ago existing in a moment like this would have induced profuse sweating and very real anxiety. I would have stuttered and created some questionable word groups in my mouth. My focus would have faltered, and I would half-listen as a student asked a question or made a point while my eyes darted around the room: Is the objective on the board? Is my lesson plan in plain sight? Is every human engaged-looking?

Would I be able to prove that teaching and learning are happening, when asked by someone who isn't so sure by looking?

I wish I could say that I'm being dramatic, or that many years of that clammy-handed fear is overblown.

The visitors stuck around for half an hour. They saw the lesson's objectives and transitions as they happened. They saw me, they saw the students, and they saw the work we do. Unpolished, honest, what would’ve happened without them.

In the minutes after the students were dismissed, our visitors wanted to ask me a few questions. How did I come up with this idea? How do I collaborate with my colleagues? Why did I decide to do it this way? How are the students responding to that?

Questions. A dialogue. Curiosity and conversation. 

In the last 6 months I’ve been observed more times and by more people than I ever had in many years of teaching before this, combined. The visits vary in length, purpose, and feedback: sometimes my performance is being observed, sometimes my colleagues and I are collaborating on strategies or students, sometimes it’s the superintendent, or a nonprofit organization, or a tech company. Sometimes my principal just wants to pop his head in and say hi. Sometimes it’s complete strangers, on their own quest, and it has nothing to do with me.

And never this year do I feel attacked. Or belittled. Or gotcha-ed.

But instead. The benefit of the doubt of good intentions. The caring inquiry about the work.
What if this were a given? If it had always been?
What if more voices had been part of the conversation about my classes for all those years?
What if I never felt scared and small when I was new at this? When I needed the most support?

I'm grateful for this turn. 

Where I was once tense and apprehensive, I am now comfortable with the traffic. With the vulnerability of my open door. With however class goes down, and whoever sees it. Over and over again the visits lead to new ideas, troubleshooting challenges, a tiny pinch of commiserating, and above all, a stronger sense of community. Reminders that we’re all in it, we’re all trying, and we all have something to teach and learn.

So, yeah. Door's open. Drop by anytime.

Rule to Live By / 02

I've always loved this quote by Ira Glass, so when I came across it today, so beautifully written, I had to share it.

It especially resonates with me this year.

... you will close the gap and your work will be as good as your ambitions ...


Also. Handwriting envy.

Thanks for posting, Bri.