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The Okay-ness of Hard

“This is hard,” she sighs at me, her body slumped over on the table, head leaning against her arm, pencil lying limp in her other hand. “It’s toooooo hard.”

“Hard is okay,” I say to her.

She raises one eyebrow at me in disbelief. “No, really,” I encourage her. “You learn when you do hard things. If we always did what was easy, we’d still have our moms feeding us, right? I mean, dang. That was soooo easy.”

She lowers that supercilious, 9th grade eyebrow and mutters, “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

I pat her on the shoulder before getting up to leave.  “I promise,” I tell her, “I’ve never had a student die from writing a thesis statement.” She cracks a hint of a smile and sits up.

We are writing thesis statements for mini-TED-like talks in Health class. And I’m hearing them all sigh and say, “This is hard.”

And this is hard. Not just the thesis statement, but the whole project.

Frustrated by poor quality presentations that felt more like fact-finding than research, the health teacher and I decided to take on the usual independent health projects in a new, more meaningful way. Over the course of this quarter-long offering, working with a class of freshmen and sophomores a few half periods here and there at a time, we asked students to shift from the default Power Point regurgitated tedium that they too-often present to mini TED-like talks where they encourage the audience to look at a health topic in a new way.

Throughout the process, we watched students struggle. We had conversations that often began with “This is tooooo hard.” And we kept telling them, You’re right. This is hard. And that’s okay.

After choosing a topic, they had to decide what they were trying to prove–what they wanted their audience to understand. Writing this kind of a thesis statement is difficult and requires an abundance of conversation, processing, and many drafts. From there, they had to use that thesis statement to drive their writing, weeding through their facts and deciding which were relevant. Part of good research is knowing what is important and what is not necessary, and our students often have a difficult time weeding through all of the material they come across. We reminded them frequently: There are books out there on these topics. You are only speaking for about 5 minutes. Focus. Focus. Focus.  They watched multiple TED talks, observing the craft over the content, and recognized that good presentations have attention-grabbing openings, integrate narrative elements with factual information, and have stimulating visual backdrops. Checking facts, writing drafts, receiving feedback, plowing through revisions, and practicing consumed their time. They worked hard.

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Fast forward to the end of the semester.

It is last period on a Friday and the entire health class is sitting, silently, in the library, their eyes on a usually quiet girl who is presenting on what it is like to live with asthma. She stands, tall, with no note cards in her hands, looking her classmates in the eyes, speaking audibly, recalling statistics and experiences, with word-free images on the screen behind her. She is following another student who presented on how to understand peers who have social anxiety, who used personal and honest anecdotes, intermingled with haunting music, stunning artwork, and stark research. Before her, a boy who struggles with and often does not complete most assignments, stood tall and proud, pleading with his classmates to communicate with teachers the importance of standing and movement during the school day and the health implications of too much sitting. Another student, typically reserved, encouraged everyone to take precautions against skin cancer, using her own father’s experience as a backdrop to the research. Each student who stood up there in front of the class amazed us in a thousand different ways.

The health teacher and I sit, filled with pride, because what is happening this week in health class is spectacular. Our students walked away from the assignment, aware that what speaks to our hearts drives authentic research and that true research isn’t about spitting back facts, but about what we make of the facts we’ve come across. They learned that they can use research to make change, and that their voices are important. They recognized that when giving presentations, audio and visual channels will always compete, and how to balance the two. And that to communicate important research and conclusions, they always need to pull together an effective presentation.

But most importantly, this class of kids–honors students and IEP students, boys and girls, intrinsically and extrinsically motivated students–they took on something hard.

And they learned that hard is okay.

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For the Love of Pod: Research Isn’t Always an Essay

Here’s why I love history class: it’s made up of stories–rich, complex, beautifully tragic and magnificently inspiring stories that in hindsight, capture the tangled webs of imperfect humanity, reminding us that even as we evolve as a culture, there are truths that will always remain the same.

So this month, a history teacher (who is equally passionate about storytelling) and I embarked on a new endeavor with our US I sophomore students as they covered the Civil War: podcasts. We wanted them not only to understand that the Civil War is more than dates and battles and numbers, but to help them see that it was a complicated, multifaceted time in our nation’s history filled with stories that continue to impact our identity today. And while we certainly could have asked students to write papers or do presentations that present facts, we instead wanted them to focus on how research is reflected through the stories that weave together the entire picture of the war and through a mode that appropriately suits the topic and engages an audience.

Students began by doing presearch and choosing broad categories–medicine, artillery, spies, disease–and then began to explore that topic a little deeper. Their explorations brought them to primary documents and stories behind the broader categories. And suddenly, the student who was studying artillery, discovered the importance of horses in the movement of artillery, and then discovered a story about Stonewall Jackson’s horse. And the student who was studying spies discovered the importance of female spies and then uncovered Belle Boyd, a notorious and enchanting Confederate spy. A student who was interested in the Underground Railroad fell in love with Harriet Tubman’s saga. A student who researched photography uncovered the hard truths of day-to-day living for photographers like Mathew Brady.

They used photographs as part of their research, realizing that it was near to impossible to write about people and places without having ever really looked at them. We cannot write evocative, inspiring work if we cannot immerse our reader into the scene. What was the battle plan for Pickett’s Charge? What did the Napoleon canon look like? How did the dresses of the Southern Belle grace the figures of women during this time? How was the devastation of a town burned to the ground photographed? What exactly do illness and sanitary measures look like in small-tent infirmary? It is important, when we ask students to write about history, that we show them that pictures and photographs are important research resources for accurate descriptions.

Before students began writing, they listened to several episodes of Nate DiMeo’s amazing podcast The Memory Palace, where in each 3-10 minute segment he focuses on a sliver of a historical topic. They listened to his content, they recognized when he used narrative elements and how he pulled in research to substantiate the story, and they analyzed the craft of the podcast–the music, the voice, the timing. Using these episodes as models helped them frame their own writing. They determined if they needed more research or if they were ready to write. And then, they put pen to paper and drafted their first podcast script.

Writing podcasts is hard. And that’s okay. Our conferences with students involved discussions about slow beginnings, choppy transitions, and abrupt endings. They read their work aloud to themselves, pencil in hand, catching things that didn’t sound right. They dug back into their research to support their work. They rewrote their beginnings after they had finished their first draft. They told us what they loved and what they didn’t love about the writing, and then finally, after much feedback, they, at last, began recording. Most students recorded on an iPhone or iPod borrowed from the library and then used Audacity to edit and overlay with open source music they accessed through Audionautix, while others used other online programs that they discovered themselves. The results? Beautifully crafted pieces of radio work that bring history to life and the stories within to light.

Podcasts are a great medium for high quality research–the very nature of them calls for seamless, excellent writing, and as students hear themselves read their own work, they fall comfortably and naturally into a self-editing process. They stitch together facts with stories that make the experience of history more real, more relevant, and more engaging, both for the student and the audience.

You can hear some of the work here:

An Interview with Harriet Tubman by Kyle

La Belle Rebel by Katie

Disease & Death in the Civil War by Maddy

Pickett’s Charge by Josh

Gratitude and the Secret Curriculum of the Heart

thank youMonday mornings are “family breakfast time” in my advisory. We sit around a table–me and ten junior boys–and we talk about grades, the weekend, cars, pro-wrestling, video games, football, and girl problems. None of them are friends. All of them struggle with some sort of behavioral, emotional, or academic issue. (The first day they walked in, they looked at me and said, “Did somebody seriously put us all in one room together?) But every Monday, they stride in, drop their bags, pull up a seat, and talk and laugh over something delish. It is one of my favorite times of the week. During the rest of the week, they get caught up on work, chunk projects, avoid eye contact, skip out to use the bathroom and end up in the gym or the cafeteria, and generally get nagged to death by me, which often results in exhaustive verbal combat and ensuing detentions. Collectively, they are the most tumultuously terrible and significantly beautiful part of every day.

Today was our Thanksgiving breakfast. I made them a vat of apple crisp and as I scooped it out for them, I told them that last week I lost a dear man in my life who had been a father figure to me. They quietly listened and offered their sorries. Considering in this group, we have had to lay down rules like no tabletop yoga or public conversations about masturbation, I was proud to see they knew the conventions of mourning. But today I wanted them to know more: I never got to thank him for being what my own father never was. And what I want you to know–is that we’ve all got crap handed to us here at this table. But there is somebody who has been there for you. And there is a time limit on gratitude. Time does run out. I then handed them some blank thank you notes. Today, I want you to say thank you to somebody in your life. Who has gone that extra mile? Who do you know has your back? It’s Thanksgiving. So give thanks.

I wasn’t sure how they would handle this outright cheesiness. I had even texted my best friend in the morning and said, “This is what I’m doing. I hope they don’t riot.”

But ten boys. Ten 16 and 17 year old boys who have sworn at me. Skipped classes. Served in-school suspensions. Failed entire courses twice. Ten boys in low-riding pants. Carhartts. Shiny new sneakers. Work boots. Ten boys who regularly tell me I annoy the hell out of them. Shrug me off. Tell me they’re fine. Pout. They all sat and put pen to paper and poured gratitude into their letters. Some wrote two. One asked me to deliver it to his coach.  One sketched a beautiful picture. One moved to a separate table and intently poured over it. They did not riot or boycott or laugh it off. They put their heads down low to the table, and silently put. pen. to. paper.

After class, I discovered that three of them had quietly slipped notes onto my desk, thanking me.

And here is what I remembered in that moment: as teachers, we must carry a secret curriculum of the heart. It cannot always be about standards and assessments and competencies. Sometimes it has to be about finding the good in our most challenging kids and showing them the value they have in this world. It is about letting them know that what they  say and dream and think and love is important and respected. That when they stop and create goodness, they are cherished. And that when they show gratitude for the small glimpses of joy others have brought to them, they are choosing to live a life of happiness. And this–knowing that they are in control of their own happiness? This is the most important thing a group of teenage boys could possibly learn.

So as we head into the Thanksgiving weekend and behaviors escalate at the delicious lure of a four or five day weekend, hold tight to those kids and remember that the essay or the math test or the presentation may not be the most important thing for them right now. But their hearts? Those are always important–and should always be at the forefront of our daily practice.

School-Wide Book Love

book club

“Hey, Mrs. Miller. You know that book you came and talked to us about this morning? You think I could maybe grab a copy? It sounds kinda cool.” The boy is slouched in one of our armchairs, looking at his phone. He has never signed out a book that I can remember. I maintain my composure and smile at him–not too eagerly and without revealing my utter jaw-dropping surprise, lest I scare him away. I play it cool. So cool. “Sure thing,” I tell him. “Let me get one for you.” I say this as though he asks me for books all the time, but inside I scream in delight. These moments never cease to amaze me. And yet this happens once a month with at least one unexpected student when a new book is coming up for book club.

With an 8-12 population of approximately 400 students, nearly 80 of them participate in our book clubs. These are numbers I couldn’t have even imagined my first year, when 5 students approached me about starting a book club, and then never showed up to our after school meetings. And yet, here we are with almost 20% of our kids taking part.

This is important to me, because the amount of reading a student does–especially for pleasure–has a direct correlation to his or her academic achievement in all areas, not just English. Study after study has shown that a love for reading impacts everything from vocabulary acquisition and fluency to overall general content knowledge.  We all have a vested interest in encouraging school-wide book love. This should be important to everyone.

Since that first year, when I sat, discouraged by the empty table, changes have been made to the structure of book club. These are four of the major ways our book clubs have become successful:

  1. Everybody gets the book “sold” to them. 
    Once a month, I grab a copy of the book and make my way through every first period class, talking up the book. I work with an incredible faculty who allow me to interrupt their class at any point during that period for 5 minutes to do a book talk.  A bulletin board advertises the book; signs are put up around the school; and all-student emails go out as reminders to sign up.
  2. Book clubs are held during lunches.
    Instead of competing with after school sports and other obligations, we meet once a week during lunch. This also helps disperse the numbers, since meeting with 40 kids at a time is too much. With our organization, we have 10-15 kids at the table.
  3. Faculty investment.
    Our faculty believes in independent reading and supports the program. They talk up the books, sign out the books, grab and follow up with kids they think would be interested, and sometimes even join us for lunches. It’s an everybody-thing, not just a librarian-thing.
  4. Real World Connections
    Whenever possible, we try to Skype with an author, watch speeches by the author, connect the book to current events, or meet with specialists in an area. My current 8th grade book club is reading Prisoner B-3087, a Holocaust story based on a real man’s survival. After finishing next week, we are Skyping with the author one afternoon and then having a Hungarian WWII survivor come and meet with us.

Sometimes, when I am standing in front of a class, I look at the kids sitting there and try to fight becoming deflated–I realize that nobody in that group will ever sign up for book club, and I’m just wasting my time. I start to feel foolish and am tempted to sell it short and bail. But every single month, some new kid, like the one slouched in the chair, surprises me and shows up for a copy of the book. Every. Single. Month.

And sometimes it’s not until later–sometimes months go by and somebody strolls in and says, “Hey. Remember that book you talked to us about? You got an extra copy?” And it’s moments like this that my heart sings. Because as educators, we are often unsure of the seeds we are planting–sometimes we get thank yous years later, but more often than not, we never know the impact we made. So when a student shows up and remembers a book talk and wants to pick it up the following year, you know that it doesn’t matter if 80 kids signed up or just 8, because you suddenly have a quiet glimpse of a seed that was planted.

So, get out there. Get kids reading. Plant seeds. Make it important to everybody.

 

Need book suggestions to start with? These are some of our students’ favorite book club picks!

High School–
Everyday by David Leviathin
The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore
Maus by Artie Spiegelman
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

Middle School–
Legend by Marie Lu
Prisoner B-3087 by Alan Gratz
 See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles
Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick

Teaching in a Hurting World: Between Despair and Apathy

later that night / i held an atlas in my lap / ran my fingers across the whole world / and whispered / where does it hurt? // it answered / everywhere / everywhere / everywhere. ~Warsan Shire

I was sixteen years old, sitting in my eleventh grade English class, when my teacher handed us a stack of newspapers plastered with bold headlines perched above photographs of Bosnian atrocities. We sat in silence and skimmed the articles, a heaviness stretching over us. We were the generation who never knew war—we were born at the end of Viet Nam, and we had yet to get entangled with Iraq. And here he was, thrusting our first exposure to the monstrosities of war in our naive faces.

“So what can you do?” he asked, and we sat there in silence. Nobody said a word. “Can you stop this?”  More silence. “Can you donate enough money to help every person in need? Can you go and take care of those injured? Can you meet with leaders and ask them to rethink their decisions? Really, is there anything you can do to save Bosnia?”

A wave of helplessness washed over me. I set the paper down and decided not to look at it any longer. There was nothing I could do, and so there was no need to know any more. Glancing around the classroom, I witnessed the same resignation wash over my classmates’ faces.

But then he stopped pacing and his voice softened. “You cannot save the world. You cannot stop terrible forces in action single-handedly. But you can stay aware of what is going on—that is your responsibility.  And to speak up for what you believe? That is your responsibility, too. And then, in your own corner of the world, you can promise to never commit any act so heinous. You can be kind. You can give. You can help the person next to you. You will never be able to change the world for everyone, but you can change the world for someone. And even if you only make a difference for one person, you have done a necessary job, because someday, perhaps, that person will do the same.”

I am reminded of his words during long, heavy-hearted weeks like this where too much war, too many guns, and too much hateful and derisive rhetoric compound personal loss, student hardship, and the never-ending dreary gray of early December. If we try to contend with the emotions that arise during every update, the weight of the world encases itself in the amber of our existence and laughter feels frivolous. And yet, to ignore it and bury our heads is reprehensibly irresponsible.

As educators, we are often unsure of how to navigate the intangible space between despair and apathy during difficult times.

Whenever I grapple with owning the woes of the world, I am transported back to Room 210 with Mr. Coverdale and I remember his kind words and I remember that he changed my world. He took this poor, aimless girl and catapulted her into a career to mirror his own through his kindness, laughter, and caring. And I remember his words: If you only make a difference for one person, you have done a necessary job, because someday, perhaps, that person will do the same.

And so dear colleagues, yes. We are teaching, immersed in a world that aches. We cannot shut our eyes to the terribleness that gets turned over and over in the news each night like a pile of composting leaves. We must always speak out against the heartache and injustice that plague our children’s futures, and we must listen to their fears and assuage their concerns. But we also have to teach from a place of joy and gratitude, showing our students that even in horrendous moments, there are glimpses of beauty in this world, and we need to remind them that they are often that beauty. We cannot fall into despair; nor can we be lured into apathy. Instead, we must hope that the intentional work we undertake each day makes a difference for one student. We must know that as the world grieves under its blanket of pain, our work is most important now.