Dear Diary

At the beginning of the summer, asking my students to write 6-8 sentences elicited responses suggesting I’d asked them to torture their mothers. They groaned: “Six sentences? That’s like an essay, man.” They bargained: “What grade will I get if I only write four sentences?” They invented a whole catalog of maladies: “Miss, I can’t write today because my pinky hurts/I fell off my bike yesterday/my ribs feel weird/one of my eyes is watery/my shoulder won’t move right/I burnt my face with a flat iron.”

My actual motto is “If you’re not bleeding from your eyeballs, no nurse pass,” but that wouldn’t fit on the headstone.

“Great writing comes from pain,” I said, reminding them that most of their favorite musicians came from tough places. This was usually the cue for a helpful student to chime in “[Rap artist] was shot [a number of] times!” earning a shower of participation points from me and glares from the rest of the class.

Every day, I read each journal entry, graded it, and stuck a quick reaction on a mini Post-it to the page. At the beginning of the summer, a lot of these reactions consisted of “Great start! Just a few more words until the end of your first sentence!” I gave a lot of very chipper Fs. We kept at it.

One day, in an effort to reassure the kids that the task of writing 6-8 sentences was in fact possible, I started completing the journal entries on the document camera. At first, the kids rolled their eyes. Then they made fun of me for admitting in a journal entry that I couldn’t do a handstand.  Then they laughed at my taste in music. (To prove them wrong, I made them listen to Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing.” They jeered at it before starting to dance because you can’t not dance to that song.)

But then, one by one, I started to win them over. It started with Joey, who was enthralled the day I broke out my fountain pen. “That’s raw,” he said, getting out of his seat for a closer look. “Lemme see that.”

I handed it over, showed him how to angle it, and let him use it to complete his journal entry, with the stipulation that if it ended up in his pocket, his mother and I were going to become good friends.

The next convertee was Jaqui, who, as we were writing about places we’d travel on an infinite budget, shouted “What’s Angkor Wat?” A couple of pictures later, she had added it to her own list.

Allie followed, writing long stories about her dog, her home, her family. Jesus curled up in the corner scribbling anecdotes about his “brother from another mother,” and started indicating where on the page I should place my Post-it. Evan littered his entries with emoji. Aniyah double-spaced her entries to use up the whole page, and decorated the margins with her name, framed in tiny hearts.

I wish I could say that journal time suddenly became sacred, that students came in every day and got started right away and always wrote interesting, thoughtful things. But my students are kids, not movie characters, so that story will have to wait for the Hilary Swank-ified telling of my life. I can say, though, that the grumbling decreased, the invented diseases became rather lazily pro forma, and only one student asked me whether he would fail the class if he didn’t complete his final journal.

Yesterday, I prompted them to write about high school. “What are you looking forward to? What are you nervous about? What do you think will be the most interesting part?”

Each and every student wrote at least half a page; most more. They worried about grades and eating lunch off-campus and making new friends. They vowed to turn over new leaves socially, academically, and behaviorally. They aspired to basketball and football teams, to clubs and bands. They wrote about wanting to model, wanting to go to college, and taking school seriously now that it counted. “Before high school is practice,” wrote one student, “but high school is real.” Another wrote, “What I really want to do in high school is their car mechanics class because I love to work on cars, especially old cars.” In response, I wrote them full-sized Post-its: encouraging, dissuading, dispensing advice. Find one teacher you can trust and who cares about you, I wrote on many who were concerned about becoming lost in the crowd. Stay out of the drama and you’ll have a much better time, I wrote on several of the entries concerned about friend crises. You’ll do great! I wrote on Allie’s, in response to her confession that she’d done much better in summer school than regular school and her worry that she might slip back. You know you can do it.

Two weeks into this summer, I couldn’t imagine why anyone does summer school twice. Now I understand. It’s because the kids need someone who cares, who will call them on their crap, who will make them write write write and not take excuses. And because it’s fantastic watching kids develop and change and become. My little ducklings, growing up, swimming away, out over the wide, deep water.

Results Now In

In a recent survey, I learned students think I am fair, but not super nice. I also learned that I care about them and expect them to do well but could stand to allow a little more cell phone use in class (I laughed out loud at that one.) They thought my lessons weren’t the most exciting, but also weren’t the most boring. One girl wrote that she loved the daily journal entries, which I’ll admit made me a little teary-eyed. (It bears stating that having each kid write a daily journal entry was a long, hard battle that I ultimately think was worth fighting.)

I only have four more days with this crop of kiddos. And while we’ve had some ups and downs, and one time that I cringe to think about I actually yelled at them so they would be quiet, we’re just starting to feel like a family. A big, crazy family that goes through pencils at the rate of about 6 a day. (Seriously, I’m convinced they eat them.)

This is what the beginning of the semester felt like. To be clear, I’m the one in the chainmail and the fabulous miniskirt.

In a fit of emotion earlier today, I told them I’d miss them, which earned me three eye rolls, one “Awwwww,” and one kid looking up because the other kids were silent and inquiring “What’d she say?”

This is what my students were like by the end of the summer.

All of this goopiness is the product of a long struggle. I went into this summer thinking “Oh, it’s okay, we’ll have fun and learn stuff and the students won’t hate me!”

Boy was I wrong. From the first day, when the brand-new classes wouldn’t stay quiet long enough for me to introduce myself, to the end of the first week, when I had a Positive Behavior coach come in and do a legitimate intervention with my second period, it was an uphill battle. I went home several times castigating myself for my pedagogical incompetence: I wasn’t doing any cooperative learning, and they were barely reading during their reading time, and I had given them a worksheet because for some reason my class loves worksheets and it made them work quietly for fifteen minutes.

But then week three came around and all of a sudden my clench-jawed modeling and lavish praise for the slightest following of procedure seemed to have an effect. My students actually began coming into the room and getting out their journals without prompting. Their writing grew from a few miserly sentences to several paragraphs. They started not only reading, but talking to me about what they had read, sharing it with their friends, asking me for recommendations.

***

One of my students, “Karisa,” has been utterly withdrawn all summer. I’ve tried tough love, gentle love, the kind of love that writes office referrals for “Taking a seat outside the circle and refusing to move, put phone away, or come with classmates to LMC for entire period.” She’s in the after-school program that uses my room when the day is over, so I frequently see her in there as I’m grading journals or collecting papers for the next day.

Today, she had a particularly rough day. In after school, she had found a desk in the corner and was curled into herself, her head down and her body twisted away from the group. They were picking activities, and she wasn’t even contributing to that, so I grabbed an index card and wrote her a note:

Karisa,

You did a great job on the post-test! You improved a full standard in all three areas. That’s awesome for only four weeks of work. You should be very proud of yourself.

Then I stuck a glittery frog sticker on it and, as an afterthought, a glittery lily pad. I meandered past her desk on the pretense of grabbing a stack of folders, and dropped off the note. I carefully did not watch her pick it up or read it. I did smile a little to myself, though, when she stood up, walked to the after school coordinator, and put her name in the ring for crafts.

After class, I expected to see the index card in the recycling, where most of my little love notes end up. But it wasn’t there. She’d taken it with her.

She won’t probably talk to me tomorrow, or ever for that matter. She’ll probably join the chorus of “Come on, man!” that invariably wells up when I ask the students to do any of the things we’ve done every day since June. (I do like reminding them that (a) I’m not a man, and (b) I live to torture children.) But on some level, I hope the note made her day a little brighter. Her reaction certainly brightened mine.

Twofer

In most instances, order + order = more order. For example, when I clean my living room and then also clean my dining room (ha! as if), then my whole house is clean!However, there are some instances in which order + order =/= more order. Like when an army meets the enemy army on a battlefield. Or like when one’s class is randomly combined with another class because it’s summer school and there aren’t substitutes. In these cases, order + order = undiluted chaos.
This is basically what my classroom looked like at the end of the day today.

This is basically what my classroom looked like at the end of the day today.

It started promisingly enough. The classes had been combined yesterday because the other literacy teacher was sick, but yesterday was a Monday, only about half the kids were there, and we muddled through on the promise that Tuesday would be better because we would once again be separated into our little happy camps.Tuesday was not better. The other teacher was sick again, and I was asked if I’d be okay taking her class “With extra support.””Sure,” I said, because what else could I say? No, send them home?

Of course, I only found this out a few minutes before the day started, so it’s not like I had time to plan for a double-stuffed second period. Well, I thought, I’m sure I can keep them from each other’s throats for two hours.

Fifteen minutes into the class, I wasn’t so sure.

***
We started off all right. I went around the room as the students completed their daily journal entry, shaking hands and introducing myself. The kids seemed okay, if noisy, and they were getting a little work done. But then I made a mistake. A big one. Like, I dunno, gashing open your leg and then jumping into shark-infested waters.I tried to play a game.Easy, I thought. We’ll play the game where we say someone’s name and then toss them the squishy ball, going across the circle until everyone’s caught it. It can’t be that hard. They love that game!

I budgeted 10 minutes for that and for a round of Silent Ball.

It took 45.

***
To be honest, I’m not sure where it went wrong. Maybe it was me asking students to come to the circle with their chairs that made the game a pain in the rear. Maybe it was the constant starting and stopping, combined with the insane amount of talking (seriously, I have never heard a group of children in a classroom talk that much.) Maybe it was my tooth-gritting insistence that we finish the game, regardless of how long it took.In retrospect, the whole thing was pretty stupid, but at the time I felt very much like I was in a tunnel with a fire at one end and safety at the other, and the only way to get out was to keep going forward. In reality, I was in an open field with big patches of fire everywhere, and I could have gotten out any number of ways, but chose to keep going straight. I don’t know if that even makes sense, but it does to me so it’s staying.So we played our game, I decided to skip the activity I had planned for afterwards because it would have taken another 45 minutes, and then we entered silent reading.

Kids in the eighth grade summer school program can read silently for about 25 minutes at a stretch. Once I pushed my luck and tried to have them read for 35 minutes, and nearly lost control of the classroom. I learned from that and have never again tried to pull one over on them, regardless of how quietly and picturesquely they’re reading at minute 26.

Together, these kids could read for about 15 minutes.

In desperation, I tried the next activity on the docket–an engaging worksheet–with the idea that we’d talk about the potential answers.

They ploughed through it in 10 minutes and showed no inclination to talk.

I stared wildly up at the clock, then started pulling together a lesson on sequencing pretty much out of thin air. I had planned to do an exquisite corpse with the students, but settled instead for having them write the directions to do something–anything–using the sequencing words we’ve been working on.

Finally, miraculously, it was 12:00 and the kids flooded out into the hall. They left the floor strewn with some dozen pencils, random sheets of paper, notebooks, and a rubber toy. The lid for the file box had somehow ended up across the room. My stapler had migrated from my desk to the front of the room, and was haloed by individual staples, no doubt ejected by some industrious student while I put out a fire elsewhere.

I closed my eyes. I took a deep breath: in, and out. Another.

We survived, I thought.

On days like today, that might have to be enough.

Growing Balloons

Balloon FarmI have a student in one of my classes. You also have this student in one of your classes. He’s a student we all know. Let’s call him Joey.

Joey cannot sit still for more than ten minutes at a stretch. He is constantly blurting things out, apologizing for blurting, then blurting again two seconds later. He is a bit of a kleptomaniac, and is always the one responsible for the pen that’s flying across the room. Sometimes, he goes to the bathroom for half an hour at a time, or until I leave my classroom briefly unattended so I can stand in the door of the boys restroom and shout things like “I’m counting to five and then coming in” or “I’m dialing your mother right now and putting her on speaker so you can explain what you’ve been doing in the bathroom since 11 am.” Once, I looked up from helping a kid (which cannot have taken me more than ten seconds) to see Joey standing on a table, attempting to poke the ceiling tile out.

In short, while he is a fantastic kid and I love having him in my class, I also sort of wish it was legal to put him inside a small indestructible box with holes poked in it so he could breathe.

Yesterday, Joey and I got into a bit of a tussle. He was sitting somewhere he knows he’s not allowed to sit, and I did the good old drive-by “I’ll be back in fifteen seconds; let me know where you’d like to sit when I get back.” He decided to dig in his heels for some reason, then decided to escalate, then decided to start throwing things. So I called in some support staff to take him on a little walking break, and carried on with the lesson.

When he returned, calmer, we were in the middle of silent reading. Part of Joey’s frustration with school is that he’s much smarter than most of the books written at his reading level. I’ve been trying to ease him into picture books without success, but yesterday, when I welcomed him back to class, he accepted my peace offering: a copy of Harvey Potter’s Balloon Farm. He curled up in the corner, alone, and for a while I thought he was asleep. Then I heard the telltale mumbling of a child so deeply engrossed in a book he can’t help but read it aloud. Joey read. He giggled. (For his sake, I will never reveal to him that I heard him giggle.) He read his first book all the way through. Twenty minutes later, when we moved on to a new project, he asked me for help composing a sentence. I studiously did not say anything, but inside I was pure glee.

***
Today, my classes partnered up with first graders and kindergarteners to read. There is basically nothing more adorable than a huge, awkward eighth grader hunched onto a carpet with a kindergartener, ploughing through Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed. The little humans love it, the eighth graders love being loved by little humans, and there is such a fantastic combination of smiling and reading that I never want it to end.

Anyway, Joey’s partner is a chunky, toothless little five-year-old who pretty much thinks Joey causes the sun to rise. Joey treats this confidence with an incredible delicacy, recognizing it for the precious gift it is and honoring it with the seriousness only children can muster. When we read, he sits beside his partner, propping the book up so his buddy can see, reading slowly and pointing out fun parts of the illustrations.

After the first book they read together today, Joey pulled out a book I hadn’t seen him grab from our classroom: Harvey Potter’s Balloon Farm. “You ever read this?” he asked his buddy.

The buddy shook his head.

“It’s a great book,” said Joey. He started to read.

I took great pains to stay out of Joey’s sight as he labored his way through the sometimes-complex language of the book, talking about the fantastic illustrations and the whimsical ideas, bringing his buddy totally into his world.

***
Later, as I herded my students back to our classroom, Joey hung back to talk to me. “You have fun?” I asked him. “Isn’t it always surprising how little those kids are?”

He grinned. His smile lit the hallway. I could see why his buddy thinks he lights the world. “I like my buddy,” Joey said. “He reminds me of my cousin. He’s three. No, four.” He paused for a moment, counting. “No wait,five.”

“They grow up fast,” I said.

“Yeah.”

We walked in silence for a bit. Finally, I couldn’t hold it back. “I saw you brought the book with you,” I said.

His eyes slid along the hallway along with his feet. “Yeah,” he said. “It’s pretty good.”

“Well, you have good taste. I’d expect no less from you.”

A smaller smile this time, a truer one.

***
Ten minutes after our conversation, after a well-chewed pen sailed past me in a graceful arc towards the wall behind me, I took a moment to reflect on how much Joey meant to me, how much I cared about him, how much I wanted him to succeed. Then I took a deep breath, pointed at him, yanked my thumb towards the pen’s resting place, and glared.
***
The students trooped out of my room at the end of the day, leaving me to my customary collapse and granola bar. I meandered around the room, straightening the bookshelf, throwing away bits of paper, collecting fallen pencils. On a whim, I looked for Harvey Potter’s Balloon Farm. I couldn’t find it. It wasn’t with the picture books or the novels, wasn’t tucked into the journals or folders. For a mean moment, I thought Joey had stolen it.

Then I saw a corner peeking out from beneath a carefully stacked pile of atlases and dictionaries. No, not stolen. Hidden. Secreted away. Made safe.

***
The book isn’t really mine anymore. It’s his. Sometime in the last week of school, I’ll make sure to pull him aside and give it to him, and he’ll pretend he doesn’t want it and will probably throw it away between now and the end of high school.

But hey, I was an English major. I believe in symbols. They grow, and blossom, like little balloon seeds, into something big and colorful and weird and amazing.

Expectations vs. Reality

Teaching eighth grade summer school and practicing yoga have a lot in common. For one thing, the most important part is remembering to breathe even when your whole body is chanting nope nope nope nope nope. For another, there’s this gap between what you think you’re doing at any given time and what’s actually going on. To illustrate, let’s say we’re doing the standing splits. Allow me to depict for you expectations versus reality:
Expectations  Reality

Expectations <———————-> Reality

In my head, my leg soars upwards gracefully, so high that the other people in class (whose opinions I absolutely under no circumstances care about, but who I also hope worship me) all start thinking, Wow, look at her! She’s awesome! I feel inspired just being in the same 95 degree room with her!But then I’m always an idiot, and I look back to see where my foot actually is. Invariably, it’s somewhere between six inches and three feet off the ground. Once, on a day when for some reason I attended yoga before noon, it rose juuuuust above my hips.Teaching is a lot like this.

There are expectations. They go like this, every single morning:

  • I have planned a fabulous lesson. My students will recognize this.
  • Because I have planned a fabulous lesson and my students will recognize this, they will suddenly decide that my class is absolutely worth every moment of their time.
  • Everyone keeps telling me my classroom is among the best-managed in the middle school. I have worked on every procedure, modeled, had the students model, written anchor charts laying out each step to take for every single routine. Students even do what they’re supposed to do about 70% of the time.
  • I have timed out every activity, done every worksheet myself and then tripled the time it took me to account for the fact that my students are 14 years old, come up with a fantastic journal topic that will keep every student engaged for the full 20 minutes of journal time, and found some engaging puzzles for the fast finishers to work on when they’re done so they don’t start challenging each other to throw gum across the room into my recycling bin.

And then. The reality:

  • The photocopier, for some reason, has decided to print everything with a giant smudge across the middle of the page, so I have to spend twenty minutes troubleshooting (read: yelling at) it to get it to work.
  • Three of my kids were up all night, I think with each other, and immediately come in, try to pick a fight with whoever’s closest to them, and then fall asleep.
  • The thing that’s supposed to take 6 minutes takes 25, the thing that’s supposed to take 25 minutes takes 5, and three-quarters of the way through the two-hour class, half the students decide they’re done working on anything, so we never actually get to the culmination of the lesson.
  • Halfway through class, I turn around and a child has a stool–a full-sized wooden stool–above his head. When I tell him to put it down, he mimes throwing it and I’m already composing the office referral in my head: “Student refused to put down stool and instead threw it at classmate, resulting in grievous injury and loss of right eye.” (I have been perfecting my relax the jaw, tilt the chin down, stare straight at the student without blinking until your eyes burn into his soul look, though, and some combination of the look and the stool made the students around him so nervous that he ended up putting it down.)

Two minutes after I send my students off with exhortations to come back to me in one piece the next morning, I collapse into my chair, answer the several frantic emails I’ve received during the day, scarf down a granola bar, drink at least 32 ounces of water, and tell myself “Well, we all lived.”

I go home, go to yoga, grade classwork, eat dinner, and go to bed by 9 pm. As I fall asleep, I start picturing my day. The students will come in quietly. They will get out their journals right away. They will not steal all my pens or go to the bathroom and stay there until I send out a search party. They will write with passion and love reading and secretly think I’m kind of mean but still their favorite. They will learn, learn, learn, learn until their brains are brimming.

Expectations.

Every morning, new.

Beginnings

I am kneeling in the front entryway of my house, straddling a novelty Darth Vader pillow. My ankles are at a strange angle, and even though I’ve only been kneeling a few minutes, they’ve begun to hurt. My cat, confused about why I’m sitting motionless when I should be petting her instead, head-butts my elbow.You’re messing with my mudra, I tell her in my head. But cats aren’t psychic, so she circles around in front of me and nestles into my arms. I push her away, gently, telling her to go cuddle with my sleeping partner instead. Then I turn back to the wall.

Breathe in. Breathe out. One. Breathe in. Breathe out. Two.

Really, who chooses a purple like this for a wall? And what’s with the rag-rolling on top of it? Has there always been this much dust on the baseboard? I mean, I haven’t cleaned it since–

Breathe in. Breathe out. One.

I think of the lead student at the Zen center, telling us to count our breaths. When you notice your mind is distracted, he said, let the thought go. Return to the breath. Start from one.

He told us to count to ten before starting over. Unless, of course, we noticed our minds were distracted. Then, it’s back to the count.

I am getting really good at one.

***
In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki-roshi says about Zen practice: Even though you try very hard, the progress you make is always little by little.Recently, in pursuit of something that I don’t have a word for but am tempted to call centeredness, I began practicing zazen. I started, as all good 21st-century citizens start, by googling meditation. I read a little. I watched a dozen YouTube clips of bald, foreign-accented men who seemed to have hips constructed more like Gumby’s than like, say, mine. I tried sitting on every combination of pillows I own, in every corner of my apartment. Finally, having exhausted the learning possibilities of experimentation, I went to a beginner’s orientation at my local Zen center.

***
When I arrived, fifteen minutes before the orientation was scheduled to begin, the door to the center, which resides in a beautiful old house, was slightly ajar. I knocked. There was no answer, so I knocked again, then stepped through the door. I found myself in a small vestibule. To the left, a shoe rack suggested that I should remove my shoes, which I placed neatly together on one of the shelves. Then I knocked again, pushed open the inner door, and was in.I worried, vaguely. I had just eaten. Was I supposed to have just eaten? What if, like yoga, zazen required an empty stomach? Also, I was wearing yoga pants and a dark, loose shirt. Was that formal enough? What if I wasn’t supposed to be wearing pants this tight? Were they immodest? My whole outfit was grey. What if grey was some sort of special color reserved for some special person, and wearing it was like talking to the Pope while wearing a tall pointy white hat?

Other people gathered. We made awkward small talk. Your first time? My first time! We were told to bow at the threshold of the zendo, then take our seats on zafus and zabutons, but given no further direction. A dizzying variety of bells, gongs, and woodblocks rang, reverberated, and clonked. We sat facing the wall and started (I’m projecting here–I started) to panic a little. And then the teacher, his calm voice, reminding us: sit with yourself. Breathe into yourself. Count.

***
I am a new teacher. I love my job and count through it every day, every child a new one. I have chosen to write about it because I think it is personal and hope it is universal. I have chosen to write about it because I think the world could use a little more zen. I have chosen to write because I experience the most ridiculous things on a daily basis and wish I could share them with the world. I write from a place of daily joy and grief and longing.Welcome. Take a seat. Breathe in. Breathe out.