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

Heart Eyes // Guy Bourdain

I recently came across the fashion photography of Guy Bourdain and immediately fell in love with his distinctive style. The images are provocative, funny, shocking, amusing, surreal, and fetishistic.

Bourdain was a protege of Man Ray's in his early years, but it was his collaborations with French shoe designer Charles Jourdan that really got him noticed.

It's evident that the shoe is the subject, but it's also just a tiny part of the larger mise-en-scene at play.
It's impossible to look at these just once.

Zion + Bryce

Update on last year's Glacier trip: I can't believe I was almost stupid enough to pass it up. Since then, I have been itching to get back into the outdoors and needing the sky to be bigger on a daily basis.

I was eager to request a sleeping bag as a birthday present and start planning the next trip.

And check.

We're excitedly planning a quick getaway to Zion and Bryce National Parks this spring -- what are your recommendations? Fire away!

In My Brain // Presidents' Day Weekend

I'm spending the weekend catching up on grading, planning ahead for the ridiculous number of projects I've somehow said yes to, and running in the cold air and sunshine. 
Here are some of my distractions from the Internet:

PEAK READING/SHINE THEORY CIRCLE // Kate Petty's Fish Jokes (read now) --> featured in Ann Friedman's newsletter --> blasted by me on Twitter --> used as a testimonial the following week
(Sidebar: This week's Call Your Girlfriend is terrific.)

THIS OLDIE // Last week my 12th grade film studies students began The Graduate. I always love seeing how this film still resonates with kids today. And even though I've seen it over a dozen times, I'm always catching new things and learning more from fresh eyes. This year I can't get over how tight the writing is. The image above is from here: Here's To You, Mr. Nichols: The Making of The Graduate

THESE FUNKY EARRINGS // On sale and coming soon to my face

REALITY TV FOR LITERARY FOLKS: a good laugh, plus the embarrassing realization that you'd catch me watching these

THE FEMALE PRICE OF MALE PLEASURE // I keep rolling this piece around in my mind

DESIGN MATTERS // turns out that "one of the world's first podcasts" is new to me, and so happy I found it!

Seems like everyone hates this holiday except for me.

Which is why I shamelessly illustrated my likeness and dropped a handmade Valentine into each mailbox in the staff room.

(Not one to shy away from commitment, I am wearing the exact outfit pictured in this card today.)

And if I'd had more time, I would've busted out the sewing machine, like I used to do back in the day (because paper happens to be my favorite thing to sew). And then dropped dozens off at the post office and sent them all over the planet to all the folks I love and miss.

I'm cynical about a lot of things. Valentine's Day isn't one of them.

Which isn't to ignore its problematic consumerism and obnoxious and harmful emotional messaging.

I'm just choosing to celebrate things that matter to me always: friendships and feelings and handmade things and pleasant mailbox surprises.

So -- happy fake holiday to you. Hope it's full of things that matter to you always.

Our Philadelphia, Our America

When I read Claudia Rankine's Citizen last year, I immediately wondered what my students would have to say about it.

In her writing, Rankine captures her experiences and observations of race in America. The lyric poem explores what Rankine calls her "self self" and her "historical self." It's a moving account, from the microagressions to the national outcries, and students had a lot to say about this text.

Earlier in the year, my colleague, Josh Block, and I wondered about how to engage students in the current world around them. The culminating project that we came up with was Our Philadelphia, Our America. In both of our classes, we asked all of the 12th graders these essential questions:
  • How can we respond to this moment in time?
  • What new narratives can we construct in order to re-imagine future possibilities?
  • What does it mean to be a citizen?
  • What does it mean to be a young person in Philadelphia?

Here is the full project description.

Students grappled in a variety of ways with ideas of citizenship and identity. The structure of this project gave space for students' voices while pushing them to create their best work to share with a wider audience.

It was an important reminder:
Sometimes the best thing we can do for student learning is to get out of the way.

There are too many great Field Notes to share, but here is a sampling of some stand-outs:

This is a tiny selection of awesome student work, but you can see many more Field Notes on our evolving website.

At EduCon last weekend, Josh and I led a session called Citizenship and Radical Hope, where we invited several students to share their work on this project with conference attendees.

My favorite part of the entire weekend was hearing students read aloud snippets of their writing. Their voices sounded different. There was a fire behind the words that I didn't hear from other class assignments.

Something to ask myself more often, perhaps: what's my role in tending that fire?

Teacher Person(a)

In my first year of teaching several older and wiser educators told me: Don't smile until Christmas. 

They had discerned quite quickly that I would need a tougher exterior.

The subtext of this advice was: being yourself won't cut it.

I recall one teacher in particular whom the students especially feared. She was a veteran in the English department, and her classroom was very different from mine. In some ways I envied the order and discipline of that space, which I believed had led to so much of her success.

On the other hand, I was as terrified as the children in her room. I wondered if I could ever make my class feel like that.

Around the office, she would joke that she spent years developing her teacher persona. Her classroom self and her real-life self were unrecognizable to one another.
The toughness and severity of her teacher-self, she explained, were necessary to get the job done.

I didn't have a strong sense of how this idea fit into my life or career.
It didn't quite fit, for me, but I didn't have an alternative plan here, either.

Questions about a teacher persona lingered in my brain for a while, especially during the early years of my career when I felt like I didn't have classroom management completely under control or when it was a struggle to consistently build dynamic and engaging lessons every day. I wondered if I should have been developing a stronger act,
a bigger presence,
a different me
to play this role.

I never did, and I'm glad.

Now I kind of resent ever having heard that advice, actually.
I push back on that thinking about this work. A lot.

I'm very much myself, inside and outside of the classroom.

For better and for worse,
to the students who realize my corny jokes are my real jokes,
and my friends who have to discuss character development and thematic consistency about books and movies and TV shows.

The confidence to not change didn't come immediately.
But it was essential.

Now I play the role of guiding younger teachers.
Some of them are in my building, and some of them have very different teacher-lives than me.

And my biggest piece of advice is the same:

Be yourself.
In this gig, who you are matters as much as the work you do.

Students see you and know you and appreciate you.
Because it's not about English or History or Algebra II,

it's about people.
And relationships.

I'm reminded of this every day.
In the middle of the lessons with the newest students in my care,
in the meetings with parents and families about good news and concerns,
in the conversations with colleagues near and far,
in the messages and notes from alumni and students long ago.

Truly. I don't recommend waiting to smile.

How can you even help it?
It's the best part.

Take Me To There

I saw Call Me By Your Name this week and immediately began wondering if I should figure out a way to spend my summers in northern Italy.
(Sidebar: go see it so we can discuss.)

The itch to travel has been so present for me ever since our trip to Prague and Budapest last year (for which I still need to edit photos).

I simultaneously love where we live and can't wait to be everywhere else.

I keep a folder of collected images from all over the world at all times.

It makes me feel so small.
It's a world out there. There are so, so many possibilities.

Like: I maybe could just grab my camera and walk out the door.

1 // 2 // 3 // 4 // 5 // 6 // 7 // 8

Progress Report // Reading and Loving It

Not to get too ahead of myself with the self-congratulations, buuuut:

I'm about to finish my fifth book of 2018, y'all.


This is not my normal. I've written before about my unintentional literary hiatuses and how my nightstand book piles are ridiculous and toppling over in the night.

But hey. I'm a work in progress.

I've been using Goodreads to track my reading, set goals, and keep lists for what I want to read. I've even started using it as a classroom tool; my 9th grade students are all over the site for their independent reading, and they'll be posting reviews for their book choices as their final project soon.

(Also, the other day a bunch of kids had their phones out during class, using the Goodreads app to share books and exchange recommendations. My face was just that heart-eyes emoji.)

My updates at the moment:

I'm currently in the middle of three books, as is my wont.

  • 2AM At The Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino
    You might notice that this is a holdover from my 2015 summer reading list, which I am choosing to be totally not embarrassed about.

  • The Power, by Naomi Alderman
    A few people recommended this to me (including President Obama, you might've heard of him) and I decided to bump it up on my reading list when it was the Girls' Night In Book Club pick for January. I've been roaring through it and I want you to read it so we can talk about it.

  • The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson
    This has been in my "currently reading" pile for over a year, I think, even though I put it down months ago and haven't picked it back up. I'm still determined to resume -- errrr, restart.

Soon I'll be participating in a book club for Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace, which I just finished. Students have been recommending the Netflix series to me, and I can't wait to watch it, too.

I'm very into this list of books that I want to read but haven't yet. I know it's stupid to be pleased with my aspirational self (the woman who reads all of the books) rather than my actual self (the woman who dreams of reading all of the books), but I look at it and think: dang, that's a mighty fine list.

Always interested in recommendations. Fire away.