The End-Of-Year Reflection

In the last week, after grades are in, I send a Google Form to all of my classes.

I thank them for a great semester/year, and I feel some feelings in front of them.

I mention my zillion-page Google Doc, and explain why I keep it.

I tell them that I value their ideas and advice, and that growing and being better matters a lot to me.

I explain that positive and negative feedback are both welcome. I ask them to keep it constructive, even if they think I smell bad and look funny.

Then I go away while they fill it out.

It is usually anonymous, name optional.

I don't grade it, or enforce it getting done.

I want their thoughts about specific projects and units. I tell them the things I'm feeling meh about and ask them about their experiences in the class. I want to know what they thought about the routines and procedures and if the desks are arranged effectively. All of it.

Students do a lot of reflecting, as it is, on each project and process throughout the year. But the course reflection is a bit different. Instead of looking inward, I'm inviting them to think about what they would change not about their own performance, but about the things they might not typically feel that they can change: the environment, the grown-ups, the content.

I want them to know.
That they have a voice in shaping their education.
That their experiences are valid, and valuable.
That like them, I am also still learning. And very, very human.

It's a vulnerable space. And it has to be.
I have to welcome the full spectrum of responses.

Even though I ask, "What do you think?" all the time, there needs to be a space for the thoughts about the class or about me that might never be spoken aloud, face-to-face.

I'm floored by the results. Some students write the bare minimum, yes, but others really open up. This year's seniors told me that they appreciated my positive energy. That they would have liked to see more nonfiction among the course texts. They let me know that I'm "too soft" and they got away with a lot of things they weren't supposed to do. That the projects were really interesting, but one of them could have been better timed.

I get some love notes. I get some disappointed missives. I get a lot of fearless honesty.

At the risk of going all meta with it, I'd love to know: What questions do you ask on your course reflections?

Know Better, Learn Faster

One of the pinned tabs in my browser, perpetually open so I can access it and add to it eleven times a day, is a Google Doc titled, "Notes for Next Year."

It's a bulleted list of necessary changes and new ideas. It's full of hyperlinks. It includes notes on just about every unit, project, process, and routine.

It revisits everything that happened this year. I have notes for improving and redoing what worked. And even more notes for overhauling what didn't.

It's a lot of pages long. Looking at it is simultaneously dispiriting and motivating.

It's a highlight reel matched with an equally long blooper reel.

Because seeing both parts is critical.

It's how I come back and do it all again.

Getting to do this is a professional gift in the teaching world. My career is a series of do-overs.

I remember listening to an interview that Thao gave about her album titled, "Know Better, Learn Faster," and when asked why she titled it that, she replied, "Because you can't."

That has stuck with me.

She goes on to say, 'By the time you realize you should, it's too late. And I enjoy the predicament and the totally devastating, unfunny humor of that.''

This first year in a new place I've learned that I can be pretty hard on myself. And I know that it's important to honor the process. To create and attempt, then reflect, and try it all again.

Current status: Loving life in Philly

It hasn't even been a year, I know. And I'm probably still in a quixotic honeymoon phase with our life in Philadelphia. But still, knowing that it won't always be like this, and that even now there are days -- and oh, but there are -- where I don't feel any of this, I want to make this list. Whatever the day-to-day of life looks like, no matter how messy, I want to keep the big picture in mind. And I document it here, for the days when I might lose perspective.


The big picture summary is this: we love it here.

I snapped these photos on a walk through Fairmount, our neighborhood, which is downright adorable, wouldn't you say?


I can pinpoint the pieces that make up the whole.

Our neighbors have introduced themselves. They say hi and invite us to stuff. I get compliments on my junky little bike. It feels like everyone is looking out for everyone else, at least a little bit.

On holidays our street gets unofficially closed, and neighbors gather and share food and drinks and the kids ride their scooters up and down the road. A strong sense of family is one of the things I loved most about Harlem when I lived there, and what I will always seek in new places. Neighborhoods, comprised of neighbors, feeling all neighborly.


I have potted plants on our sidewalk. I kill them all, but the street is forgiving.

With the exception of a few icy days this year, I've been everywhere on my bicycle. The city has given us a zillion lanes for just us, and has spaced most of the places I want to go a perfectly bikable distance apart from one another.

I still love not owning a car, and not needing to.


Our friends live nearby. Blocks away. They've seamlessly and graciously invited us into their lives. We get to see them all the time, for kickball games and Game of Thrones and just because.

We live in a tiny house, just right for us, and comfortable enough to have had friends and family in town almost every weekend.

Here I've determined the perfect size for a back yard: big enough for a grill and too small for maintenance or yard work.


Art is everywhere. On the walls and in the architecture. Museums and exhibits and galleries galore. Murals and pop-ups and creative businesses around every corner. Details and stimulation and eye candy.

And theater! I've seen four plays this year.

It's just the right amount of friendly. Strangers smile and say hi and hold doors and have conversations of just the right length.



Not for nothing. My job is the best. Like, I might never leave.
I'm kind of still floored that it exists and that I somehow landed it.
I don't want to go on and on because what if I jinx it.


Also. This husband of mine is even better than I imagined he would be. Which was, in the first place, unrealistically good.


I love that we're not feeling the itch. Or thinking about the expiration date. Or wondering where we'll move next.

Here and now is a good place to be.

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.

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

Remember when summer reading used to mean devouring pages and pages, logging a zillion hours of reading, and then scoring free tickets to Six Flags? 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 obviously 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.)

Amy Poehler? Yes, Please

I somehow scooted by with an English degree without ever reading some 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.