Reflecting on Reflection

A funny thing happened today while I was journaling.

just some notebooks I have on me at this very moment

Before packing up and heading home after this long day,

I set a timer for ten minutes,
opened up to a new page in my notebook,
and grabbed a pen.

I went with the orange one. It felt right.

Journaling is one of the strategies I use
-- inconsistently --
to process all of the things.

A single day in the life of a classroom or school
can involve so many moving parts
and human interactions
and goals with lots of layers

that it doesn't all sink in in real time

and I need a moment.

So for ten minutes, I spill my brain onto the page.

Without any clear objective in mind.
And almost never even going back to re-read what I wrote.

Today's entry started with some healthy rage:
I was/am upset at myself for multiple balls I dropped.

Things I wanted to have done but ended up writing on tomorrow's to-do list,
calendar items I forgot entirely,
people I accidentally inconvenienced,
the lesson that could have been better executed.

You know, your run-of-the-mill beat-yourself-up stuff.

I went into list mode:
I itemized, in orange ink, the Ways I'm Falling Short.

And then, weirdly,
I didn't get past the third item on my list

before my perspective shifted
and I felt totally differently.


I finished off the entry telling myself that this is a Season Of Doing A Lot
and most of it is actually meaningful work
that I genuinely enjoy
and while there's so much room to improve and be better,
that's work I want to do, too.

Then I thought about how reflection is my favorite of SLA's core values
(don't tell the others)

which is how Anna and I came together to lead
a session about it at this year's EduCon,

which I intended to post about prior to this,
and obviously didn't do,
thereby adding to the list of dropped balls for which I here and now forgive myself.

I've written before -- once or twice -- about
the learning that takes place at our school's little conference
and what it's meant to me.

I hope to see you there!

Come and join us as we share our practices for reflection
and how they shape our work as educators.

And so much other stuff.

Conversations I'm especially drawn to this year:

Final plug: early bird registration is on until December 31 :)

In My Brain // Trying To Get It Right

For all the confidence and excitement I feel about the work I do in my classes,
(which I recognize is a tremendously fortunate series of circumstances already)
I probably experience the same amount of dread and fear that I'm doing it all wrong
and ruining a young person's day/week/life without meaning to.

Like, maybe daily.

And realistically: there's a <0% chance that's true.

Sure, I'm doing my best with what I know and what I've got,
neither of which are constants from one day to the next.

And there are a million ways to achieve the objectives --
if I've even identified the right objectives in the first place --

at least as many ways as there are brains in the room.

So many brains that want and need and deserve different pieces,
and only one of me bringing what I've designed for that day.

It can be crushing going down that spiral.
Seems reasonable: the stakes are high.

I remember my own teachers -- the best ones and the worst --
all of them so critical in shaping who I am
and what I believe about myself and the world.

So I'll continue to do my best
and grow what I know and what I've got.

With that, some recent open tabs:

*Photo of a 9th grader's rad notebook

Heart Eyes // Night Stories

I am so struck by Linden Frederick's Night Stories series.

Partially because of my initial disbelief that these are oil paintings, not photographs.

And maybe partially because my 12th grade students just finished Cormac McCarthy's The Road,
and that novel's desolate imagery lives in my brain.

These images are so peaceful yet haunting. The tension between light and dark is so precise.

I did some further reading and really enjoyed this piece, too.

All images via Linden Frederick

Why should you read Kurt Vonnegut?

A 9th grade student who recently finished one of my favorite books, Catch-22,
asked me to recommend something she should read next.

I replied, "Have you ever heard of Kurt Vonnegut?"

I'm always reluctant to recommend my favorites to students.
They're so subjective
(even moreso the curriculum I've designed and make everyone follow).

I feel I have to defend the works.
Or be good enough for them myself.

It's weirdly personal,
in the way that literature, often at its best, can be,
in the ways I try every day to sell to students with other texts.

What a contradiction!

I've never taught a Vonnegut novel, even though he's my favorite.
(I have included "Harrison Bergeron" in a short stories unit.)

I'm kind of too scared to do it.

And then later today, I came across this video from TED Ed:
Why should you read Kurt Vonnegut?

As I watched it I thought about how I had just recommended Vonnegut to a student
and how she'll probably come back and ask me why I like this author
and want to talk about how his works align with who I am as a human being.

And realized I felt pretty good about that.

Maybe good art is easily defensible, really.

"In spite of his insistence that we're all here to fart around, in spite of his deep concerns about the course of human existence, Vonnegut also advanced the possibility, however slim, that we might end up making something good. And if that isn't nice, what is?"

*Beautifully-illustrated images from the video

The Last Class Before Thanksgiving Break

This afternoon, just before leaving for the holiday with families and finalizing college applications, students in Senior English furrowed their brows and thought through some existential conundrums.

We're reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

It's bleak.
We're less than 100 pages in and generating questions like:

  • What's worth living for? What's worth dying for?
  • What makes a life meaningful? 
  • What's left -- out there, in us -- when the world as we know it is gone?

One student point-blank asked me how I can teach a book like this year after year.
Why I would read it again and if I get anything out of it.

I got to answer honestly:
The thing is, see: I truly love the literature.
And there are no simple answers to complex questions.
And I believe they're worth thinking about, always.
I hope you find value in that, too.

An hour later in the library with our staff,
our boss reminded us of his own gratitude for the work we get to do.

And I feel exactly the same way.
I'm so grateful that I get to share this brainspace
and navigate these ideas with young people.

This poem has been on my mind for weeks:

"I am trying to sell them the world."

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!