Where I’m From: Poetry Writing Exercise

In class, we read and discussed “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon to start our mini unit on poetry. To help all students see that they too can be poets, they wrote their own “Where I’m From” poem (side note: I first saw this exercise suggested in the Springboard curriculum).

Students shared theirs. I shared mine. And a classroom visitor even volunteered, leaving some kiddos speechless with her raw emotion.

To promote the sharing of writing, here is the first draft version I read to the class:

I am from the endless, weathered cornfields of an open land. Gravel roads and dust clouds in the rear view mirror.  The one finger waves and effortless smiles.

I am from the muddy lakes and rivers of a state conservative in its politics and speech. From the “How do you do” to “It’s all in God’s plan”. Hard, wooden pews and bonfires in the dark.

I am from the cold, white-tiled, church basements: punch bowls and pink-dyed wafer cookies with lemonade in styrofoam cups. Sundays half-gone from a morning spent inside.

I am from bare feet, sunsets over hills, and a band of grasshoppers stringing an ode to the summer dusk.

I am from the split branch of Diane Leigh and Mark Eric, the creation of close-knit family cohorts, vying for allegiance.

I am from endless support, endless love. The backdrop for a life of fighting the will to please and for undoing the difficulty to handle change.

I am from lessons learned: love thrives in presence, words live in action, and shoes–most definitely–should be worn when riding a bike.

A story of fighting fear and finding humanity along the way

Paper-clipped piles of papers sit to the left of me, a reminder that grades are due soon. As we near the end of the semester, however, these are not at the forefront of my mind. Today something pretty incredible happened in my room, E121. And this isn’t a story about grades. It’s about a mute student in a speech class and 23 of his peers.

Meet Nate*. Nate does not speak in school. He is selectively mute. At home, he talks so much, his cousin calls him annoying. The first day of speech class this year, I asked the students to all participate in sharing something. We got to Nate and it was silent. I waited allowing the awkward silence to ensue. Finally, a student piped up, “Ms. Peterson, he doesn’t talk.” I was confused, didn’t believe her at first. Nate nodded, and I finally understood. We moved on.

A mute student in a speech class? As the teacher, I struggled with how to proceed. How could I create an environment that would be encouraging, yet rigorous so that he would feel compelled to speak? I had to learn more.

I called Nate’s home and spoke with his mother. She cried on the phone. I learned that Nate has been selectively mute at school since kindergarten. His mom did not have a reason ready for why he chose not to speak. To her, there didn’t seem to be a reason. She shared that it was his choice to take the speech class at this time…he wanted to overcome his fear. He wanted to speak in school.

Nate has an accomodation, which as teachers, we are legally obligated to uphold. His accomodation allows him to video tape speeches and other peformance assessments. And this is what he did for all his major speeches. And on the clips, it was clear: Nate has a natural, speaking voice, something that can’t be taught.

For his final, persuasive speech, I encouraged him (along with his cousin who is also enrolled in the course) to deliver his speech to at least a few of us. I offered to sort of hide in the room, so he would feel he was just delivering the speech to his cousin. He came into my room with his cousin over lunch several times, gearing himself up.

Today, was the last day of speech class. Last chance for Nate to speak.

With 25 minutes left of class, I looked at Nate, smiled and raised my eyebrows. And the class took it from there…

This group of students embraced Nick with their words, some with their arms, and many with their gestures of kindness. One female student, stood up and walked confidently to the front of the room declaring she was dedicating an impromptu speech to Nate.

“I believe there are no coincidences in life, Nate. You are here for a reason. You are in this class and in this room for a reason…” She explained that the whole class was there for him and that we would all support him in overcoming his fear to speak. I was moved to tears.

When the bell rang, no one moved. We sat in the circle around Nate that the students had so organically created. I ordered pizza and we eased into the moment before us. The circle was maintained and the students who chose to stay through lunch began to share some of their deepest fears. They even drew Nate encouraging words such as this on the board:

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Nate never did speak. But, perhaps that wasn’t the end goal, after all: It was clear he came a long way in his inner struggle. In fact, I was fully convinced he was about to open his mouth and utter a word. Before today though, I am not sure I would have believed it. And at least he knows now that when he feels ready to speak in school, there is a safe place for him.

Calling the mother of the student who gave the impromptu speech was another highlight of my day. She hesitated when she picked up and realized it was a teacher. “I don’t normally get phone calls like these,” she said. After a 15-minute long conversation about what happened in class and how her daughter helped to facilitate it, she thanked me for calling and said “this was exactly what I needed to hear today”…Maybe her daughter is right; everything does happen for a reason.

Class today was about something bigger than getting someone to speak. My students reminded me, Nate, and each other that humanity can still exist in education; in actions and in words.

*Please note: Names have been changed.

Environments of Education

We noticed the green mugs first. The handle was the perfect size for a preschooler’s hand, and adorned on each one was a name. Jack. Grace. Ezra. Colby…

Linnea’s preschool felt instantly inviting and cozy on the tour we took over the summer. Plants were on the window shelves, convenient for young hands to water. Pictures were hung closer to the floor than in most homes. There were nooks and crannies scattered throughout the space encouraging youngs ones to explore.

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I want to go to that school, I told Ben and Linnea in the car as we left. More than myself, I was also thinking of my high school students. The ones who have been in school now for over a decade of their life. Do they feel invited, cozy, welcome in the classrooms and hallways?

The first writing assignment of the school year in my high school English classroom was a literacy autobiography…tell me about your history with reading and writing, I asked. And as I read their memories, I kept thinking of my preschool-aged daughter. I thought of her because most of their memories with school began at her current age. Whoa. I had the epiphany. The epiphany that my little girl will one day in high school.

The high schools I have worked at have white walls, fluorescent lights, and curtainless windows. Not that these are necessarily bad, per se, they just don’t conjure up the same kind of feeling one finds when walking into most preschools. And I believe that students–regardless of their age–want to enjoy  and feel at home in the space in which they are learning.

There have been some positives to the high school learning environments in which I have worked:

-My teaching buddy, Mary, decorates her classroom complete with a Christmas tree, tinsel, and lights for her seniors every year.

-Artwork by students have adorned the walls of both schools’ hallways

-I try to make my classroom bright and inspiring…posters, artwork, student artwork, and pictures and books that matter to me so that student share what matter most to them.  (Although, right now it is in a state of end-of-semester messiness…Christmas break, are you here yet?)

-Following Thanskgiving break this year, students and staff were welcomed with  Christmas, warm, white lights twinkling in all the major hallways, overhead lights turned off.

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-And one of my students likes to surprise her classmates with costumes such as this… (I mean, who doesn’t love unicorns?)

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Ultimately, I hope my daughter will feel at home and happy in every school she attends just as she feels now in her Montessori preschool of only 24 students. Because as a parent and a teacher, I can’t shake the notion that environment matters…perhaps even, most of all.

Students, stereotypes, and not-so-silent reactions

During my first week of teaching this year, a group of male, Caucasian students from 9th Grade English asked to speak to me after class. In hushed tones, they requested to not sit by “them” because, as one articulated, “I want to get good grades this year”. They looked at me as if I should know to whom they were referring, and I did not give them any indicator that was true. My hidden suspicion was correct–they defined “them” as the only five Latino students in our class of twenty.

I have not been confronted by such a blatant example of stereotyping before in the classroom. And the saddest part: I don’t think those students realized the true impact of their words.

My previous school’s student population was primarily low-income (as defined by the number of students who received free and reduced lunch) and Latino, in an urban community. Although, I taught students considered to be that of the minority in the U.S., yet they were the majority group in school. My current school is mostly white, rural, with a mix of African American and Latino students, about 35% low-income. And because of the diversity, I am experiencing new challenges while teaching.

After the encounter with the students in English 9 (and a conference with each student involved to debrief the initial conversation), I have been hyper alert to any communication or actions reflecting prejudices. What I wasn’t prepared for was how some of my students actually played into those stereotypes.

Some of the anecdotes provided may be examples of stereotypes being exerted into the classroom. While others, may simply show how reactions play a role in education. Either way, I am emotionally spent from a day committed to staying as calm, present, and non-reactive as possible…sometimes successfully, and other times, not so much.

Anecdote 1: My tardy policy is to close the door when class begins. Late students must wait outside the door, silently and patiently, until I can come out and conference with them about why they are late. My reasoning behind this is two-fold: 1. I don’t want them to disrupt the class when they walk in whenever they show up, and 2. I want to know why they are late (especially at beginning of the year), so we can problem-solve the issue. As a side effect, I also want them to know that I care about their learning time enough to have that one-on-one conversation about them missing instruction.

So, when I asked one female student, “Why are you late?” this morning, I was emotionally shocked when she raised her voice and got defensive. I felt my energy rising also as a defense mechanism.

“I was eating breakfast because I was late, I said!” So I had to keep asking, “But why were you late to begin with?” And she kept getting more and more upset without actually answering my question. At one point even saying, “I can just leave and go sit in the office.” I explained I didn’t want her to do that; I just wanted to finish our conversation. Finally, she decided she would just walk in the classroom on her own accord.

I waited by the open door, did not say a word. She could feel me watching, neutral expression on my face (as difficult as that was) to invite her back out to finish the conversation. Finally, she did just that.

“Do you know why I want to know why you are late?” I asked. “Well, no”, she said with a hint of sassy. “Because I care about you, and I want you here in our class.”  Her attitude began to diffuse…After a bit more discussing, she entered the room with a *slightly* pleasant demeanor, sat quietly down at her seat and got to work. She never apologized to me though. And I debated other consequences, but I am going to ride this one out with some hope for a continuation of the positive young lady I briefly met…

Anecdote 2: Me–“Please write down the sample thesis statement on the board for an example.”

Student–“No, I don’t want to.”

He gets up and walks to door with the intention of heading to his special education teacher’s room. I make a small gesture to his seat and, yet, he still walks out the door and down the hallway. I step outside, make eye contact with him as he walks way. He begrudgingly makes his way back to meet me. The patience well is running dry. After our conversation, I still wonder what set him off, so resistant to authority. And I realize, it probably wasn’t me to begin with…

Anecdote 3: Me–“Why are you late?” This student knows the routine. Yet, I was still met with silence as he walks into class on his own. Ignores me. Completely. “Please step outside”, I asked, politely, confidently. No response. Finally he gets up and walks outside, rolling his eyes and sighing along the way.

During our conversation, it is clear he is trying everything to hurt my feelings….He tells me, “You guys are all the same.” He explains he is referring to all teachers. I ask him to not group me with other teachers. “Besides, would you want me to group you with all students?” He ignores my question and says, “I don’t listen to you anyway”. I’m done with the conversation and tell him so with all the calmness I can deliver. One last attempt to get through to him reveals his 30 year-old, cousin was just killed in Ft. Collins. I can’t tell if he is lying or telling me the truth–both could be the case–I chose to believe him, while attempting to practice patience, take a deep breath, and ask him how he is doing. (While still documenting the conference, of course…)

Quotations from students during class: I am disheartened by the tone and choice of words students sometimes choose to use toward teachers. Even though I work hard to set expectations at the beginning of the year, their choice in communication style seems to reveal something more than the learning environment of our class and school. What truly surprises me is that many of them do not think twice about the “you-language” and the demand for attention immediately. Don’t get me wrong–there are many wonderfully rich and respectful conversations throughout the day. Today, however, seemed to be one full of reactions, so these are the ones freshest on my mind. I am hoping it was just an off-day, but I am not so sure.

  • “Excuse me! [Demands my attention with a loud, booming voice while I am addressing the entire class] Why did I lose all my points yesterday? I wasn’t even talking.”
  • “I have a missing grade for my dialectical journal. That doesn’t seem right. My mom doesn’t think that seems right either. Can you check that and change it?”
  • “Hey! Weren’t you supposed to read to us?” (Asked across the room while I am attending to other students’ needs)
  • “Do you even know my name?” [Calling me out in front of the whole class] Note: I did pause before saying his name, but to my defense, I teach 160 kids throughout the day, and he was in the last class before school was dismissed.

I question the connection between stereotypes and their reactions. Are they intentionally choosing to act or speak in a certain way to fulfill an expectation? Or are their reactions completely natural? Writing this post seemed to help me sift through the various situations, and ultimately made me realize, that emotions (and stereotypes) do, unfortunately, play a role in education. And I am also tired from such a full day of them.

Maybe we are hitting the dip in the school year. Maybe we are all tired. Maybe technology is changing students’ communication style. Maybe these example are not at all connected.

Whatever it is, I am hoping for a fresh start tomorrow…positive emotions and neutral reactions from all.

 (Note: This was written at the end of the school day yesterday.)

The numbers on teens and reading

I’m not one to let numbers rule my thoughts, but this week has been an exception. During my drive to school on Monday, I heard the numbers, “45… and 1, maybe 2” on NPR. Those digits seemed to follow me through the day, looming over each interaction and conversation, particularly with students.

The story restated research on how much teenagers are reading. Only 45 percent of 17 year-olds read one or two books per year. PER YEAR. With Divergent, The Hunger Games, Wither, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower (or any other high-interest Young Adult novel), I cannot seem to fathom that kids either don’t want to read or don’t have the time for it (or perhaps, a combination of the two).

I thought back to my own adolescence and felt nostalgic about what most teenagers today are missing out on: The Land of the Really Great Whangdoodles that celebrated my imagination in fourth grade, The Nicholas Sparks novels that got me through high school break-ups, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which aided my own exploration of purpose in life after high school. Surely, there were other versions of these classic tales of adventure, romance, and journey that could also entertain and help.

I do not blame technology. In fact, iPads, cell phones, and laptops theoretically make reading more accessible; I blame the overconsumption of technology that leaves little time or desire for anything else.

To exemplify this, take an average day in my period 7 and 8 World Literature class filled with 17 high school juniors. Every electrical outlet in the room is occupied with phone chargers. After only six hours, the cell phones of most of my students are nearly dead. When I ask them how this could possibly be the case since they are in school, after all, they laugh and look to their peers for support. Clearly most teenagers–in my class, at least–are on their phones. All. The. Time.

I often find myself in a debate over whether reading a book is better than seeing the movie. Most students who read the book first and then watch the film, agree with me. Those who have not been turned onto reading yet, though, vehemently disagree. Why waste your time, they argue.

Research is cited and passages of my favorites are read, all in an attempt to change their minds. A novel unit in class is met with displeasure, and for some, loud groans when announced. My favorite article to prove the benefit to reading for pleasure was given to me by a colleague her husband found in The Atlantic. This article from The New York Times also seems to highlight what I am trying to get at with kiddos: Get off the screen and read something worthwhile. You might be pleasantly surprised. (Besides too many online games can’t be good for your eyesight. Just saying.)

I appreciated how the story on NPR highlighted the importance of parents’ influences over teenagers reading habits. Trips to the library. Books in the home. Newspapers and academic magazines available. Television off. I applaud the effort to give the parents more credit–and I suppose more blame–about their teenager’s reading habits. I find this both reassuring and daunting as I think about my own toddler daughter…hoping those numbers–45, 1, and 2–do not apply to her one day.

 

Finding authenticity with students: Writers Workshops

I walked into the school building at 6:33 a.m, the earliest I have arrived all year. I stepped into C212 armed with my tea, mat, and flip flops. Yoga with my teaching friend & soul sister, Mary, and her students is the only reason I would kiss my daughter while still asleep and slip out of the house so early to head to work. During chivasana, a student read this by Marianne Williamson: I delivered a presentation to my colleagues yesterday after school, a requirement of all teachers that ends with a bonus if approved by administration. In years past, I spoke about differentiation, assessment, being culturally responsive. Not this year. This year, I wanted to share about authenticity: Authenticity in the writing of my students and, hopefully, the authenticity in my own teaching. My last year here–at a school I have taught at for the last six years–would end with me speaking about what spoke to my heart.

I began describing my senior students and my motivation for creating more opportunities for them to write creatively. They came to me at the beginning of the year reading, on average, at an eighth grade level. A week ago, they took the Scholastic Reading Inventory (SRI) that tested their lexile again. This time, they averaged, a 10th grade reading level. I linked the growth, at least partially, to the creative writing workshops from Lighthouse added into the curriculum this semester. For many, this was the first time throughout the school year, despite my best efforts, that they lifted their heads off the tables and paid attention, remained engaged, and actively participated throughout the entire class.Image I felt like the uncool parent of 33 teenagers who was replaced by two hip babysitters. Listen to Ms. Peterson talk about haikus? Lame. Two local rap artists who work on the side as writing teachers? Absolutely. ImageStudents, like Giovanni shown here, shared their writing, which many had never done before. They were not asked by the writers. They volunteered and I sat back in amazement; it was inside of them all along. I was in awe of what some of them produced; And when I read one such poem during my presentation, yesterday, I teared up and turned red. Proud of my students and embarassed to be getting emotional in front of my guarded colleagues. We are a school that is “data-driven”, a token term used too frequently. My “data” was partially based on tests and observations, yes. The data that mattered, however, was the feeling of being in the class. And the way my students and I felt during these workshops was proof enough for me.

I am heading to Office Max this weekend to create portfolios of their best pieces. I want them to have something tangible to take with them into the future. Proof of authenticity in their writing, education, and lives.

As I contemplate the role of authenticity, though, I am drawn back to that poem I heard while lying on a yoga mat this morning. My students revealed their light through their writing, which has given me the encouragement and permission to do the same. Being present is also about being authentic, a worthy goal to pursue in every moment–spoken or written.

Thank you!

                                Above: My class with our two guest writers, Adrian Molina and Bianca Mikahn, on the last workshop day. I’m very grateful to them and Lighthouse for making those workshops possible.

Stories of Students

I watch as a student of mine piles out of a worn-out, rumbling pick-up truck. As he is about to shut the door, his father, presumably, barks a command to him in Spanish. He opens the door ever so slightly and dutifully begins to roll the window up with the old-school crank. Without another word or look, he shuts the door and walks toward the entrance of the school with his head down. 

“Hey there, you ok?” I ask as he gets closer. With sleepy eyes and an upward glance, he gives a response that nearly breaks my heart, “My father just doesn’t like me very much.” Without an articulate reply ready, I ask if he wants to talk. He politefuly declines as he makes his way inside the school.

I remember being emotionally bulldozed by stories such as this one my first year of teaching. Sadly, after six years of teaching, I have seemingly grown accustomed to stories of hardship; my experience does not make the hurt easier to handle, it just makes it more common.

I greet students in the hallway as they enter class. One soft-spoken senior girl pulls me aside, “Can I ask you something, miss?” I nod and pat her shoulder, encouraging her to ask whatever is on her mind. “Do you have to be a resident in order to visit someone in jail?” I lower my teacher voice to reflect the trust she has given me by asking me such an open-hearted, yet simple question. She explains her family is worried about being deported, and I wonder and rack my brain for any way in which I can possibly make her fears subside. I stumble on the words to do just that and eventually refer her to someone who would be able to answer her question better than me.

It is 9:16, the bell rings, and class is beginning. I need another cup of earl grey.

While students independently read, I skim the room with my eyes. I wonder what makes them so tired on this Monday morning that some cannot even keep their heads up. Too much partying? Working? Taking care of family? I am sure it is a mix of all three, but I really just want to lecture to those snoring about the importance of a good night’s sleep and eating healthy meals (instead of, say, the hot cheetos they brought in for breakfast). I know the conversation alone, which I have had many times over the years, will not convince them to fully commit to either one of those lifestyle choices. 

My mind goes to the image of my students as young children, and the startling statistic about the 32-million word gap that exists by the age of 4 between kids whose families are on welfare and those kids who families are considered to be professional, by societal standards. The school I have taught at for the last six years has a student population that is considered to be, at least 95 percent, in poverty (as defined by having free or reduced lunch). 

At the beginning of each year, I assign an essay called the “Literacy Autobiography”, which requires students to reflect on their history with reading and writing. Some have positive experiences–in school or at home–and many have negative and, often times, sad memories to share. The one that is seared in my memory is of a current senior who is at the top of her class. She wrote that although her mom so desperately wanted to be with her more and read to her every night, she simply could not; she had to work three jobs to make ends meet as a single mom. The family member who did watch her did not know how to read very well. 

I think about the writing practice notebooks that I have for each of my classes. The rules are there are no rules for writing practice, so long as they do not stop writing during the time we have allotted. If students would like me to read what they wrote, they can hand me their notebook at the door. If they do not, I pinky-promise them I will never open up those composition notebooks that wait for them in my classroom cabinet until the next day. 

Two students hand me their notebooks at the door. I am honored and touched to be granted a pass to view their personal thoughts. One is about a father who returns from years long of an absence. Through her charged language, she expresses hate toward a father she never knew. The other notebook reveals a humble story of being grateful. Grateful for the life he leads even though his mom is still sick with cancer in Mexico while he and his father are working as much as possible here to pay the medical bills. 

I close the notebook and wonder how many more sad stories I can take.  

I realize there is a certain level of energy that teaching requires. I yearn to be the teacher who is completely present with all of my students all the time. This goal, however, sounds much easier than it is. Even before marriage and motherhood, I struggled to find that balance. 

For now, I choose to be completely present with my students when we are together. When I have left the classroom, however, and I am again with my family, I choose to leave my students and all of their stories behind. Because in the end, as much as I love and care for my students, I have too many stories of love and laughter that I hope to create with my own child.

And those are stories that cannot be put on hold.

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