28 August 2011

When the dust clears...

Turns out, I have to change the name of this blog.

Because, you see, I signed a contract on Friday.

It's true! I'm a full-time, contracted teacher. Suddenly, my blog title seems like a misnomer. Many of my supporters have told me that it was not the best fit all along, but I stood firm, reasoning with myself that until I had my own classroom and students with my name on their class schedule, it wasn't true. To those people, I think I have to say, "Thank you for believing so much in me." And I think they might be entitled to a hearty "I told you so! Don't you feel silly now?!" My sister has already used hers, and maybe a few of the rest of yours, so if you feel the need, better get it while the getting is good.

I wrote a post a little less than a year ago, when I got my long-term sub job, about what "The Almost Teacher" meant to me. In that post, I defined the label as this:

The Almost Teacher n. A teacher who is almost the teacher she wants to be and who, through reflection, revision, and hard work, will never stop striving to be the teacher her students need.

I still like that definition, to describe how I view myself as a teacher and how I think I will view myself for a while to come. I don't, however, think it defines "The Almost Teacher" anymore. I'm allowed to decide that, because language evolves constantly. It's science. I mean, it's language. Or maybe I mean it's the science of language? Linguistics? Yep. That's it.
So what do I call this blog now?
I know I'm keeping the quote from Jim Burke in the blog header, because I love him. And because the quote hits hugely on what I think all good teachers believe about themselves. All good teachers are constantly seeking progress for themselves, as much as they are for their students. We have to evolve as our students change, and that's a constant process. I want the title of this blog to reflect that.
Does this mean I should call it "Journeys of a Good Teacher"?
Ha! I'm all about self-confidence, but that's just a tad pretentious and presumptuous.
It may be a while until I figure out what I'm going to call it, but I'll be working on it.

15 August 2011

Meet Them Where They Are

I could use this rare blog post to talk about the nerve-wracking job search situation this summer, but instead, I'm choosing to focus on what's truly kept me feeling useful these past few months. No, not copious amounts of Mountain Dew and catching up with Weeds On Demand (although Weeds is not useful, necessarily, but it did give me a purpose for a little while. It's okay to be a little "Judgey McJudgerson" right now.). It's the other thing that I do every day, something I don't think I've ever blogged about before--my work teaching conversational English to South Korean adults.

So, here's a little background for those who don't know me. Late last summer, I began tutoring Korean adults over the phone. When I got my long-term sub position, I took a leave, only tutoring during school breaks. When the long-term position ended in January, I went back to my position as a tutor. I primarily work with my students to develop their conversational English skills. Most of my students work in large, and usually global, companies, as engineers, CEOs, researchers, and office personnel. They must be able to easily and frequently communicate their work to their foreign partners, and this is what motivates them to improve their conversational English skills. From my understanding, English is a core subject in Korean schools from very early on, so most of my students have the basic English skills to communicate clearly enough. That said, there is still a huge variance in skill level among my students. I have some students who can communicate clearly and fluently, to the point where one might wonder why they feel they need to take lessons. In this case, these students are usually motivated by a "use it or lose it" mindset, but also by the desire to delve deeper into the English language, express themselves in more complex ways, and learn how to be culturally responsive in the communication. Other students can communicate in only the most basic sense, and with these students, understandably, motivation comes from a more basic place. They simply (although, I don't think "simply" is the best word to use, because I don't believe that it's simple at all) want to find ways to clearly communicate their ideas and beliefs, interests, backgrounds, and needs. 

When I first started this job, I was concerned that it would be so vastly different from any classroom teaching experience I'd had that I wouldn't be able to reconcile the differences. For one thing, I work with adults, most of them far older and far more established in their adult lives than I am. For another thing, I work with my students over the phone, only speaking for 10-20 minutes at a time, and during some of those times, our conversation largely involves me explicitly referencing and correcting mistakes. Truly, this teaching experience seemed like it would be comprehensively counter to everything I've learned how to do. 

It's been anything but. 

My adult Korean students are more like my adolescent American students than I could have imagined. And I've come to find that my Korean students have taught me equally as much about teaching American students as actually teaching American students has. (I reread that sentence, and I hate the way it looks, but I can't think of a better way to say it.) The similarities are rooted in motivation. In every American classroom I've ever taught, my students' motivations mirror the continuum I described among my Korean students. I think any teacher, of any discipline, can agree. I've taught students who have read every piece of literature taught in a course multiple times before school even starts. Or who write so clearly and with such voice that you don't even want to go through the process of putting a grade on their paper, simply because you enjoyed it so much and don't want to taint it by constraining its "goodness" to a scale that they went so far beyond. These are the students who need a teacher to challenge them, to allow and help them to explore the content in more complex ways. More often, I've taught the students who feel out of place in an English classroom, for any number of reasons. Maybe they are deeply conscious of their skill gaps as compared to their classmates' skills and their teacher's expectations. Maybe they've never felt success in an English classroom. Maybe they have a hard time seeing how they can apply English language skills to the things they are really interested in. Or maybe they've never been made to see that what they already know and are adept at is valuable and important to furthering their learning, as well as their classmates' learning. What do these students need? Is it different from what students at the other end of the spectrum need? Hardly. They need a teacher to challenge them, to allow and help them to explore the content in more complex ways. What is different is the place where their teacher needs to meet them in order to do that effectively. 

It is differentiation, and that does not mean making the end goal different or easier for different students. It's not even creating a drastically different or easier path for different students. It is holding the same high expectations for every student and making the path they're all on a little less treacherous (or more interesting) for those who need it. You never remove an obstacle, but you do give them the tools they need to overcome it (and preferably, you make sure those are tools that they can use later, too). You never make them just wait for everyone else to catch up, but you do guide them to someplace interesting to visit while you bring up the back. 

Granted, this is more difficult to manage in a classroom with 25+ students than it is in a one-on-one setting, like that with my Korean students. Not to mention, if I could spend 10 full, one-on-one minutes every day with each of my high school students… 

Regardless of how difficult it might be in any classroom, I've come to find that students appreciate your effort, and they don't hesitate to tell you. Maybe you get a note at the end of the year from a high school student saying, "Thanks for discussing Greek theories of reasoning with me during The Odyssey. I have read it a bunch of times, but you still made it interesting for me." Maybe a English language learner who struggles to complete a sentence without intense frustration makes it a point to say to you, out of the blue, "I thank my teacher for teaching me every day. Thank you for your kindness. I like English lessons." Know your students, and meet them where they are. Push them to succeed. Give them tools to do so. You won't regret it.

01 June 2011

A lesson from the Alanis Morissette School of Irony*

*Or, situations that aren't really ironic at all, but simply bad luck.

The teaching job hunt has begun. For those of you who don't know, I'm living in Michigan and with our current political climate, this is what appears to be the start of a brow-furrowing and potentially dismal summer. And I do say "brow-furrowing" and "dismal" with every ounce of optimism I have left. Amid the sea of pink slips, budget cuts, and stalled contract negotiations, I'm still grasping at every straw of hope there is, no matter how short or slippery. Yesterday, there was what seemed to be a promising bright spot.

As I checked my usual places for job postings, which usually results in little at this time of the year anyway, I came across a sudden landslide of teaching postings. A veritable landslide. There must have been twenty postings, all from one district, and it was glorious. I scrambled to click through them all. Grade 2 teacher. Grade 4 teacher. Mathematics teacher. On and on, until there it was. English teacher. 2 positions. The Holy Grail, if you will. The ultimate boon.

I was flooded with excitement first and then with a little bit of doubt. It appeared that these positions were legitimate, but the sheer numbers in which they came forth made me raise an eyebrow. I investigated further. Were these postings actually for some obscure endorsement combination, like English and Agriscience? Nope, just English/Language Arts. Did it appear that the school district actually intended on paying a person for the job? Yes. And even if they didn't, would that make or break a job offer for me? Well, yes, but check my answer again in a year if I still haven't gotten a job. Where was this district? Not in Menominee, like the one other job posting yesterday. (Nothing against Menominee, but that would put me smack dab in the middle of Michigan and Wisconsin, which sounds quite like some sick version of public service employee purgatory.)

Everything seemed to point in the right direction, so I updated my resume. I researched the district, read their annual reports to see what they had been investing their time in recently and how I could contribute to that, and did all of the other usual prep. As I finished up my cover letter, I clicked back to the job posting to see where I needed to send everything.

And just like that, it was gone.

The job posting, and every other job posting from that district, was gone. It was as if they had never been there at all.

At first, I thought, Well, someone must have given Rick Snyder their Human Resources login, and he thought he'd try his hand at irony. But it's really not ironic at all, not by definition. It's just sad.

07 April 2011

“A poem should be motionless in time” –from “Ars Poetica” by Archibald Macleish

When I was teaching poetry to my American Literature students this past fall, I wanted them so much to like the poetry we were reading in class, but I knew that this probably wasn't going to just happen. I love poetry, but I haven't always, and I knew I would need to consider this as I approached it with them. Many of them were probably at the same place I was when I "hated" poetry, and we'd already had some painful experiences with poetry as a class (me included, and I will never look at Phillis Wheatley's "To His Excellency, General Washington" the same). I was pumped about the poetry we were about to begin working with, though, because it was Romantic and Transcendentalist poetry, which is not only part of one of my favorite literary movements but also includes many of the poets I truly enjoy reading (namely, Walt Whitman). We also got to watch Dead Poets Society, which is always a plus in my book. I threw myself and my students into the poetry unit I had put together, running at it full force with all the excitement I could muster. We were going to read old poetry! We were going to paraphrase (and they were going to LIKE it this time)! We were going to write about themes and symbols and imagery and all kinds of other figurative language devices! We were going to love poetry!

Fast forward to the groans when I handed them the poetry packets for the unit, which I had so lovingly and painstakingly typed up for them, so that they wouldn't have to lug their textbooks home. Skip even just a few more frames ahead when we cracked open those packets and started to paraphrase Whitman's "A Noiseless Patient Spider," and I was faced with the same "But why do we have to paraphrase? It's so much work!" argument that I had heard before. My excitement and enthusiasm would not be enough here. I realized that if I did not approach this differently, I was not only going to forever taint poetry for those kids who already weren't big fans, but I was running the risk of tainting it for the kids who did like it. I immediately talked with other teachers about how they combat this aversion to poetry, and one of my colleagues suggested that we take some time as a class to look at Billy Collins' "Introduction to Poetry."

It had been some time since I last looked at Collins' poem, but I decided to see if we could work with it. Upon re-reading it, I realized that I would love to be able to teach poetry by just letting my students "waterski across the surface of a poem waving at the author's name on the shore," as Collins put it. I would love to be able to just teach an appreciation of poetry. Unfortunately, there were skills that needed to be taught alongside appreciating poetry, and I had to find a way to do that. As much as I didn't want this, I kind of felt like I had to do exactly what Collins advises against and teach them to "tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it."

I didn't want to be in the business of bringing up a bunch of poetry sadists, though. I didn't want to stand there in front of my class, with my best Don Corleone impression on, saying, "A man who doesn't spend time with his poem can never be a real man." Understanding poetry can take time, though. A lot of time. And poetry is personal.

Poetry has always been personal for me, and poetry and I have had a love-hate relationship. It all started very fine, when I discovered Shel Silverstein and some of his classics like "Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me Too." I loved everything about Silverstein's poetry—the stories they told, the fun rhyme scheme, the way that most of his poems rolled off my tongue easily and lyrically. (Even though I'm pretty sure my dad told me that Silverstein did a lot of drugs when I expressed my love for the poet. I don't know if this is true or not, and I've never really cared if it is.) Poetry was always fun for me, probably until high school. I remember being excited about starting poetry in my ninth grade English class. This is when the relationship sort of soured.

I know that right now you are saying, "Um, Almost Teacher? Shouldn't you have remembered this when you were trying to shove poetry down your American Lit students' throats?"

The answer is yes, by the way. I should have remembered that, and it was not long until I did.

I remember sitting in ninth grade English, ready to tackle that first poem we were assigned. I don't remember what poem was assigned or what the assignment that went along with it was. For some reason, I feel like it was a piece of Native American poetry, but I could be warping time a bit, because I had the same teacher for American Lit later. All I know is that I went home, read the poem, developed my own interpretation of it, and came to class ready to share and discuss and be all… English-y…about it. Until my classmates started sharing their interpretations. Mine was different. Some of the things I thought about the poem matched what my classmates were saying, but a lot of what they said was stuff that I hadn't even thought of. And it all sounded much more…English-y…than what I had to say. So I didn't say anything. I didn't share any of my interpretations. I didn't share any of my connections. I got all self-conscious and awkward about it, but looking back, I bet a lot of what I could have added to the discussion would have been valuable and interesting. (Maybe I'm giving myself too much credit here, but we're going with it.) No one had told me that POETRY IS PERSONAL. I think eventually this came up in one of our discussions about poetry, because I remember becoming more comfortable with poetry.

When my dad died at the end of ninth grade, I had a lot of feelings, kind of like that girl in Mean Girls. My best friend (then and now) wrote a lot of poetry, and it seemed like a good outlet, so I started pouring out a lot of what I was thinking into verse. I didn't express a lot of what was going on, except to my closet friends, and poetry became one of those friends. Most of those poems are on a floppy disk somewhere—I had the foresight to save them, but apparently not enough to save them on a technology that I could easily access later—and I'd be interested to look back on them now. I know they helped me to get through that time in my life, and I think I would still be quite proud of them. I didn't write those poems for anyone's benefit except my own, but I liked them. Because POETRY IS PERSONAL.

So, poetry and I were back to being a pretty tight group of friends. There was the occasional brat that entered our clique, one who I couldn't figure out and would sooner dismiss than deal with. One in particular sticks out in my mind; her name was "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot, and to this day, if I ever see that poem in a dark alley, one of us will not get out alive. That's all that needs to be said about that, though. Generally, though, I could really love poetry academically and personally, once I realized that POETRY IS PERSONAL. (Again, "Prufrock," this is personal.)

When I reflected on my relationship to poetry, I realized my classroom mantra had to become "Poetry is Personal." Even though there were certain things we did have to endure, like the much-hated paraphrasing and the dreaded (and ultimately failed) TP-CASTT, I wanted my students to understand that when we read poetry, we need to experience it. We may never find out the feelings a poet truly meant to convey in a poem, but we can understand the feelings that the poem evokes in us.

Poetry by Nikki Giovanni

poetry is motion graceful
as a fawn
gentle as a teardrop
strong like the eye
finding peace in a crowded room
we poets tend to think
our words are golden
though emotion speaks too
loudly to be defined
by silence

sometimes after midnight or just before
the dawn
we sit typewriter in hand
pulling loneliness around us
forgetting our lovers or children
who are sleeping
ignoring the weary wariness
of our own logic
to compose a poem

no one understands it
it never says "love me" for poets are
beyond love
it never says "accept me" for poems seek not
acceptance but controversy
it only says "i am" and therefore
i concede that you are too
a poem is pure energy
horizontally contained
between the mind
of the poet and the ear of the reader
if it does not sing discard the ear
for poetry is song
if it does not delight discard
the heart for poetry is joy
if it does not inform then close
off the brain for it is dead
it it cannot heed the insistent message
that life is precious

which is all we poets
wrapped in our loneliness
are trying to say

That said, April is National Poetry Month. You can visit Poets.org to learn more about National Poetry Month. There are lots of ways you can celebrate National Poetry month, either in your classrooms, communities, or even better, personally. You can sign up here to receive a Poem-a-Day email from the Academy of American Poets, or you can visit here to get more information on how to get the Poem Flow App for your iPhone. I'll be celebrating by participating in "Poem in Your Pocket Day" on Thursday, April 14th. If you want to join me, pick a poem you love and carry it around in your pocket on April 14th. You're supposed to share it with friends, co-workers, family, classmates, students, or anyone else. But you don't have to. Maybe you just want to keep it to yourself. That's okay. Poetry is Personal.

11 March 2011

Beware the barrenness of a busy life. --Socrates

One would think that I'd have had plenty of time to muster at least one blog post in the past two months. One would think.

I'm happy to say that I've been busy since my long-term sub job ended. I have gone back to teaching my Korean English language learners, and I have returned to substituting day-by-day. On any given day, I could be doing both jobs, oftentimes leading to 12+ hour days. I'm grateful that I'm able to keep busy and get paid for it, but at the same time, I don't feel particularly fulfilled.

Take daily subbing, for instance. I'm in a classroom, which is where I want to be, but I'm not really teaching. And most of the time, I'm not teaching English. I've been kind of a jack-of-all-content-areas lately. I've learned some things about myself as a teacher through this. The most important of these things, I learned yesterday.

I am meant to teach secondary students. I am not an elementary school teacher.

I agreed to sub yesterday for a teacher who teaches middle school Choir and elementary school Music. I spent the first part of my day with middle school students, at a school I've been subbing at frequently. I can't complain about that at all. The kids are starting to recognize me, and I'm learning their names, so it's a little more like teaching in my own classroom. Only a very little more like it, but I'll take what I can get. Sometimes, I see an eighth grader or two, so they're similar in size to the children I am used to working with. I know, that sounds strange, but honestly, when did sixth graders become so miniature and easily-swept-under-foot? I was a little nervous about teaching Choir, but apparently the kids had just had a concert the day before, so we watched Finding Nemo as a treat. I didn't have to do much teaching, and while it can be exhausting to watch the same 45 minutes of one movie three times in a row, at least it was Finding Nemo. Pretty soon, it was time for me to head to the elementary school, where I would spend the rest of the school day teaching Music.

Or so I thought.

I wasn't all that nervous about teaching at an elementary school. It wouldn't be my first choice, and I never would have accepted this elementary job without it being attached to the middle school job. I had decided, though, that I was going to make the best of it. How bad could it be?

Seven viewings of the first 30 minutes of High School Musical later, any thoughts I had ever had about teaching elementary school are gone. Truthfully, after that much High School Musical, most thoughts were gone temporarily, but the ones about teaching elementary school remain absent today.

Things I learned in elementary school, yesterday:
  • High school kids are tempted to touch each other a lot. Elementary school kids are tempted to touch each other even more, in the most annoying ways possible. I didn't think children actually put their fingers a mere hair's length away from each others' faces while saying "I'm not touching you!" But. They. Do.
  • Elementary students sit in very small chairs, because they are very small people. Many of them are so small that their feet dangle inches off the floor, even in their very small chairs. I cannot sit in their very small chairs, for fear of being unable to stand up. 
  • You are a "very mean lady" if you happen to have the unfortunate task of informing them that they will not be playing their recorders today.
  • You are the "best person in the whole world" and are deserving of a hug with a running start if you happen to have the task of following up the news about the recorders with the news that High School Musical is instead on the agenda. 
  • You are again a "very mean lady" if you artfully dodge the hug. 
  • Elementary students prefer to move about the room on all fours. They are wiggly and do not sit still. They have to pee a lot. They are not unlike puppies, although most of them appear to be previously housebroken. (I don't really mean that. Promise.)
  • Elementary school students are really grossed out by armpit hair and think that men should shave their armpits. 
  • It's very difficult, if not impossible, for elementary school students to keep all four legs of their chairs on the floor.
  • Light-up shoes (a la LA Gear) are cool again. The lighting mechanism is more strobe-like and distracting than before.
  • I am gigantic compared to elementary students. This is new to me.

I am meant to teach secondary students. I am not an elementary school teacher. Not even almost.

12 January 2011


With less than a week and a half left together, I present my farewell letter to my American Lit students.

Dear American Literature Students,

For your entertainment, I call the following “An Infrequent Occurrence, or Your English Teacher Does Math.”

Sixteen weeks. That’s eighty school days, give or take. We spend about sixty minutes in class with each other every day, so that’s roughly 4800 minutes. Here’s where the mental math ended, and I had to get a calculator. Don’t shake your head like that—remember, I AM an English teacher.

At first, 4,800 minutes seems like a great deal of time that we’ve spent together. It probably seemed even longer when we were doing things like reading Puritan literature or learning about run-on sentences and comma splices with the ever-so-popular Grammar and Gramper. I’m going to take the math a bit further, though.

Brace yourselves; I know I had to.

In each day, there are 24 hours, which equates to 1,440 minutes. Multiply that by those same eighty school days we’ve spent together. That’s 115,200 minutes. This means that I’ve spent with you only a little more than four percent of the time we’ve each spent alive in those eighty days.

It’s not such a big chunk of time anymore, those 4,800 minutes. In that short time, though, I have grown to know and admire 30 American Lit students whom I will always remember.

I cannot tell you how many times I wrote and rewrote this letter, trying to find the perfect way to tell you everything that I felt I needed to say before having to say good-bye. The truth is, there is simply too much to say. Too much to say about how lucky I feel that I had the opportunity to teach you.  Too much to say about how proud I am of you. Too much to say about how much I will miss you. Although I wish I could tell each and every one of you how meaningful it was to me to teach you, I’d have to recount 144,000 moments that made me happy. So, instead, I will leave you with a few wishes that I have for all of you.

First, I hope that you will follow the words of our old friend Walt Whitman, always remembering “that you are here—that life exists, and identity; / That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.” Whatever your “verse” may be, I hope you each know that your individual voice, your unique abilities, and the brilliance you possess are valuable and important. You will contribute a verse.

That being said, I hope that you will next follow the words of the honorable Mr. Keating from Dead Poets Society. Mr. Keating encouraged his students with the words, “Carpe diem. Seize the day…make your lives extraordinary.” I leave you with the same maxim. You are all at an important moment in each of your lives—a moment where endless opportunities await you, if you are willing to strive for them.  It might be a lot of work to reach your goals It will take a lot of work to reach your goals, but that’s okay. Carpe diem. You all can, and I am confident that you all will.

Finally, I hope that the rest of your school year proves to be everything you want it to be. I hope that for every trial you face, you are able to find an even greater triumph, and that you find each day better than the last.  In true English teacher fashion, I’ll leave you with another quote from another American Lit household name. Ben Franklin advised, in Poor Richard’s Almanack, “One today is worth two tomorrows.”  Remember that as you seize each day, because it will remind you that there is even more greatness to have in your future.

03 January 2011


Obviously, my long-term subbing assignment has been keeping me insanely busy, or I would have blogged a bit more in the past few months. Unfortunately, as much as I do love blogging, I am nearing the end of my assignment. As I get ready to exit my classroom, update my resume, and line up employment again for the however-long-meantime between this job and a full-time teaching position, I find myself intensely sad. I don't know why; I knew this was going to end eventually.

Day in and day out, there are 128 adolescents asking me why I have to leave, wondering if maybe there is a job for me somewhere around the school building, telling me that they have bonded to me and that they don't want me to leave. At the same time as it feels wonderfully rewarding to hear that I've impacted them so much and built such strong relationships, they also have no idea how hard it's going to be for me to leave that classroom. Granted, after this holiday break that we're coming off of, I imagine it will feel awesome to sleep in past 5:00 am for a few days, finish up the last bit of grading I'll have to do, and have some time to myself to read a new book or spend time with the people I've been sort of neglecting. But just like the end of my internship, the novelty of free time will wear off quickly. Last year, I was relieved for about a week, and then I started missing it. Wondering what they were up to each day. Feeling like I hadn't accomplished anything even slightly meaningful for anyone besides myself. Missing hearing what was going on in their everyday lives.

You get attached to those little (well, maybe not so little in the case of a high school teacher) buggers. Really quickly and really deeply attached.

I always wondered how it was that my teachers could teach loads of kids year in and year out and still remember me when I came back to visit.

It's not such a mystery now; I'll remember these kids for the rest of my life.