SLAmbassadors in Torun

In the spring I posted about our Sister Cities Exchange program with Nicolaus Copernicus High School #1 in Torun, Poland.

And this fall -- we went!

I cannot express how meaningful and transformative this trip was for our students.

They left home for the longest and farthest they've ever been away,
stayed in the homes of Polish students and their families,
played with their pets,
ate meals at their tables,
inflated their air mattresses,
and made their commutes to school.

They attended high school classes,
most of them in a foreign language,
and engaged in the learning before them.

I made an effort to document the awesomeness of it all,
earning the nickname Instagram Mom from the kids.

I decided to lean into it :)

PART I // Gdańsk

We landed in this beautiful Baltic port city
and spent the first part of our trip exploring together
before heading to the destination of our exchange.

These first days were formative;
our students bonded as a group
and began adjusting to a new culture's norms.

We did a lot of walking, talking, eating, laughing,
and staring down at our money trying to add simple sums.

At the recommendation of our hosts in Toruń,
we visited the European Solidarity Center, which we absolutely loved.
We constantly revisited the museum's thoughtful content and incredible design concept
in our conversations throughout the week.

Most of our students had never been to Europe, so walking around and observing every detail was fun in itself. All of us were constantly pointing and stating the obvious with a sense of wonder.

PART II // Toruń

Unlike Gdańsk, which has been largely rebuilt since WWII,
Toruń is a nearly-untouched medieval city.

Nicolaus Copernicus' hometown is absolutely gorgeous.

A lot of our time was spent in school at Nicolaus Copernicus High School #1 
with our exchange students and teachers. 

Their model of learning is so different from ours, 
and it was such a privilege to participate in their classes 
and get to know their students and teachers.

My colleague even got to step in to teach during a Calculus class. 
Apparently math really is the universal language!

A quick review of the notes before class ...

*Side note: I took Calculus in high school and again in college and was completely lost in this lesson. That is so upsetting.

... and then debriefing about the super-stressful national exams.

It took no time to see the ways we all value teaching and learning
and the levels of care that matter most in defining school communities.

Every student and adult exemplified this,
so even though these classes looked different from ours,
we all shared this understanding of school as home.

We loved getting to know the educators in the English department, talking to the principal,
and even meeting some of the officials in Toruń's City Hall.

One of our students even made it onto the local nightly news.

And in a town known for its gingerbread, we learned to make our own (and eat our fair share).


Our school doesn't have an existing Model UN program,
so our students' first exposure was in this international forum.

We were joined by schools from all over Europe, including Slovakia, Hungary, Finland, Spain, Germany, Luxembourg, Ukraine, and Denmark.

I think we were all a little intimidated as first-timers,
but we were made to feel so welcome and our students figured things out pretty quickly.

They loved their experience in the conference;
it was especially interesting to hear their feedback about it
in the context of our school's project-based learning model.

They had no trouble diving right in to the research and tackling the problems that needed solving. They did a ton of work before our trip, and confidently presenting their ideas to their peers.

I'm endlessly impressed by them and humbled to be in their orbit.

We constantly spoke about how lucky we all felt to be part of an experience like this,
knowing it had changed us somehow.

The tears on departure day -- our kids', their kids' their parents' -- said it all.

I am so grateful for this opportunity to travel internationally with my students
and to see them shine in new contexts.

This SLAmbassadors exchange was a massive success, and we couldn't have done it without the support of our incredible school leadership and the SLA community, the generous donations of our families and friends, and the welcoming partnership with Daniel and the amazing faculty at Copernicus High School #1. We're certainly going to try to make it happen again in 2019!

Learning Names

I don't call out attendance on the first day of school.
As a student, I always dreaded that moment.

I knew the teacher would see my name on the list and
- horribly mispronounce it, or (maybe even worse)
- not even bother to try

Here's what I do instead:

I greet students at the door: "Come on in! Feel free to sit anywhere for now, but don't get too comfortable because I'm going to move you."

At the start of the semester I assign seats to everyone -- even 12th graders -- in alphabetical order by last name.

This is deeply unexciting; kids don't care for it, I don't even care for it as an actual seating arrangement, and I know progressive educators everywhere are eye-rolling so hard.

It's just that: it's the best way I've found to learn everyone's names.

And that's a critical step one.
My job is to forge relationships with students. To guide them. Challenge them. Support them. Assess them. Know them.

Their personal identities shape these interactions and their learning.

And there's no way I'm doing any of that without giving them the opportunity to tell me who they are.

And I say this to them, sort of.
That names are how we introduce ourselves, the first identifier we put out into the world.

I go first.
Before I ask anything of them, I introduce myself.

I tell them all about my name. 
What it means and what it means to me.
Why my parents gave it to me, and how their story shapes mine.
How it's pronounced and how it's often mispronounced.
My conflicted choice to change my name when I got married.

And how I dreaded the first day of school when teachers would mess up my name.

Then, I ask the entire class to line themselves up in alphabetical order by last name.
They get it mostly right in a couple of minutes. 
I can take it from there.

The person at the front of the line then says, "Hi, I'm ______."
And I say, "Hi, ______. Please sit here."

And so on.
Until I've listened to everyone's names.
Said everyone's names.
And we're all seated.

I don't hesitate to ask students to repeat their names.
I tell them in advance that I might do this, to make sure I hear them properly.
I make notes about pronunciations or nicknames or what anyone would prefer to be called.

And throughout the first few weeks, students look up while they're working to see me mouthing the names to myself and looking at the faces in the seats.

When someone raises a hand to participate, I might say, 
"Yes! But first tell me your name again, please?"

I overdo it on the playback in the first weeks.
"Ooooh, Raymond makes a great point here."
"Interesting idea; does anyone want to add to what Giniah said?"

I want to learn their names. They want to learn each other's names, too.

For homework on the first day of school, I ask students to complete an assignment where they tell me more about themselves. The first question is this:

Responses always vary here, in length and depth and emotion. I'm always glad I asked.

Maybe next year!

In My Brain // Back To School Edition

<-- how I've felt about school basically forever

The children are here and whiteboard real estate is already extremely limited. Here's some of what's in my brain as Year 13 kicks off:

ZACK MORRIS IS TRASH // Shoutout to Mason for this treasure

STICKS // This is the first text I read with 12th graders. It's two paragraphs long and, in my opinion,  captures so much to discuss about what literature can be (George Saunders' brilliance).

ON DISTRACTION // A resonating read (and I won't tell you how many times I started it before finally finishing it): "In its strictest sense, to be distracted means to be perplexed, confused, bewildered; a distracted person is out of touch with the person they used to be; a person “beside themselves,” who has to be reminded; a person drawn asunder, pushed away, pulled apart, turned aside; a person “depersonalized,” who’s lost their grip, their footing, their mind."

NYPL KILLING IT ON INSTA STORIES // I love this and obviously my first thought was: Ohmygoshthiswouldbesuchacoolprojectformykids

READING WITH A PENCIL // This is pretty close to what I teach and preach all day long.

Lifework // Worklife

Three things I've been working on lately:
  • reading more [stuff that students didn't write]
  • understanding my habits and aligning them to my values
  • practicing note-making strategies that I can use and teach

After hearing it referenced for the 800th time, I finally picked up Tim Ferriss' The 4-Hour Workweek. I don't agree with it entirely, but it is bringing up questions and ideas that I'm finding worthwhile in applying to my own life. 

I doodled some notes. 

I'm eager to have some time this summer to unpack some of these ideas and determine how they'll impact my choices. Turns out, it's a lot of work being a person in the world. Whaddaya know.

SLAmbassadors // Sister Cities Exchange

Last year, ten SLA students participated in a weeklong exchange to with a group in one of our sister cities, Frankfurt, Germany.

As their fearless leader put it:
Was it a paradigm-shifting, mind-blowing experience for the kids we took? Yes and yes. Since returning, those students are busy learning German, plotting their return exchanges for college, and stalking tickets back to Frankfurt for the week after graduation.

This year, the SLAmbassadors group is doubling in size to include a second program with Torun, Poland! We will be hosting their group this March and will travel to Torun in October.

I am beyond thrilled to be one of the adults on this journey.
I know how powerful international travel can be.
The experiences and the relationships that come out of this will be transformational.

To ensure that all ten students can participate in our exchange with Poland, we are conducting all of the fundraising ourselves. And we'd love your help!


You are cordially invited to our Happy Hour Fundraiser on Thursday, March 8th at Brauhaus Schmitz. Your $20 donation gets you a drink ticket, access to some pretty killer raffle items, and three hours with me and my esteemed colleagues. If you'd like to purchase a ticket in advance, you can donate the $20 amount here.


Check out our general fundraising page - we welcome donations of any amount! Feel free to purchase a $20 ticket in absentia, and we will toast you at the happy hour -- and send you a thank-you note while we're on the trip!

Thank you for your support. Our friends in Torun will be here in a short while and we're thrilled to meet them IRL and show them our little city. I can't wait to share more about this experience.

I'm just, like, still figuring it out.

I videotaped myself teaching.
I watched it.

Oh my.

Within about 30 seconds of the footage, I couldn't stand how many times I had interjected the word LIKE.

I'm having feelings about this in two layers:

  1. At the thing: I notice and get annoyed when other people say like every other word but didn't notice that apparently I totally do that.

    I hate being a hypocrite more than I hate being an English teacher with a words problem.
  2. At myself: My annoyance with Like Overuse in the first place means I've fallen into the trap of being on the wrong side of policing women's voices.

And I was immediately reminded of Ann Friedman's piece from The Cut a couple of years ago: Can We Just Like Get Over The Way Women Talk? 

Read it.

It's freaky to realize how conditioned I've become to these norms:

The number of LIKEs peppered in my speech.
The number of JUSTs that appear in every email I've ever sent.
The exclamation point in almost every text message.

I'm just out here, seeing the problem and simultaneously perpetuating it.


For that teaching video, I needed to write up some context about the lesson.

It took multiple viewings to get past my vocal tics and see the substance of my work.

Beyond my stereotypically obnoxious linguistic patterns, the video also shows:

  • students engaged in conversations so rich that it takes a while to refocus their attention,
  • dozens of hands in the air eager to share ideas,
  • a board with hardly any space left to write tidbits of students' insights about what they've been learning, and
  • my inability to keep the lesson's timing on track because too many folks had commentary they wanted to share.

I have a lot to learn. 
About myself and my role and the space I take up in the world.

The ways I see all of that and what I do about it.

Illustrations by the amazingly talented Abernathy Bland