180 Days: Day 148–United Wake Up Message

My colleagues from one of our elementary schools stood up in a most awesome display of unity tonight at the school board meeting. I’ve made no secret of the fact that the school district where I work has refused to bargain with our union this year. They declared that we were at an impasse three months ago. Mediation failed two months ago. And we are currently awaiting going to “fact finding,” a process where a three person panel looks at each our cases and makes a set of nonbinding recommendations. It is the last step before imposition (where the district imposes what it wants) or strike (where the workers withhold services as a job action). In these intervening months since our local teachers union members rejected a settlement with the district (six months ago), these same members have been organizing around our joint issues that the district says doesn’t even exist.

My colleagues worked together as a whole faculty and with parent members of their site PTA for two weeks to craft and hone their message. They practiced presenting it. Then they showed up and stormed the school board meeting. Standing all together in their blue union shirts, they read their message to the school board–a message that elicited oooh’s, aahhhs, laughs, and claps from the packed board room and overflow rooms.

Yes, our teachers have been packing the board meetings since November. They have been showing up en force for so many months that the board of education changed what they read at the beginning of the open communications portion of the agenda. The board president started warning us that if we were deemed to be disrupting the meeting we would be arrested. Then they started bringing the fire marshall in to corral us into a series of two to three overflow rooms.

Despite our group being divided into three separate rooms in different parts of the building, these elementary teachers elicited responses that could be heard all the way down the hall and downstairs from the packed board room. The refrain of “wake up” echoed throughout their three minute speech–“It’s time for you to wake up! We are the T in PTA. Our parents support us, just as we support them. Wake up. They fight with us, not against us. Our parents trust us. They trust us with their most precious gift  to this world. Wake up. These parents buy million dollar homes to send their child to our schools. Not because the school board is so awesome. Or because XXXX is the superintendent. Or because XXXX and XXXX or any one person sitting up here in front us. Parents send their children to our schools because of the reputation of the teachers and the parents that support them. Wake up!”

Preach, sisters!!

And thanks for standing together and showing the rest of us the power of unity.

“Wake Up” by Arcade Fire



180 Days: Day 147–Shawarma in the Sunshine

Today was our school’s annual Teacher/Student Luncheon in our outdoor common area. One of our service clubs on campus hosts the annual event where students raise money for charity by buying tickets or earning tickets through demonstrating our pillars of character on campus, and then placing the tickets into the box of the teacher they wish to share lunch with for one day. The teachers then treat the students to good food, and the students treat the teachers to good company.

I was lucky enough to share shawarma and kabobs with one of my seniors and talk about his college plans, our mutual love of London and Tolkien, and about his past trips to Italy. It was a human moment that we all too often are in too much of a hurry to appreciate. While we teachers DO get to know our students, its always pleasant to not have to feel the hurry between bells and classes. It’s nice to sit in the sunshine on a 75 degree day and talk about whatever the heck we want and eat something besides soup or the cafeteria food. I made a batch of fresh iced mint tea and brought sugar cookies to top off our lunch–it was as close to a “tea time” as I could muster with my version of biscuits and tea. So this Brit Lit teacher enjoyed a taste of Brit along with the Middle Eastern shawarma yumminess. It’s the least I could do for a student who has set the example time and again here at school with his respect, perseverance, trustworthiness, and honor.

“Pocketful of Sunshine” by Natasha Bedingfield


180 Days: Day 146–Revisions, Decisions, Writing Missions

My sophomores spent half the period peer reviewing their “This I Believe” essays. My seniors wrote their final practice essay in the lead up to their AP test next week.

The sophomores filled out what I call a plus/delta chart. This is a T chart that features what students are doing well on one side and what suggestions for improvements or change are entered on the other side. I always encourage my students to focus on what the writer does rather than what the writer doesn’t do.

My seniors’ essay was what is called an “open question” on the AP exam. We spent a few moments before the exam reviewing “best practices” and what strategies to employ on their final timed writing of the year.

Either way, my students got some immediate feedback on their writing today. Did their writing say what they wanted it to say? Did they answer the prompt completely? Did they use the best words to say what they wanted to say? Did they analyze the text? What can they do to better their essays? What strategies, skills, devices should they employ? Were they concise–saying it in 10 well-chosen words instead of 17 clumsy words? These were among the topics discussed in our writing workshops today.

I often tell my students the stories of Ernest Hemingway and Gustave Flaubert in their eternal search for the right words to say what they wanted to say. And I hold them up as the professionals who demonstrate for us how to do it right–to not settle for less than the best in our writing, our craft. I tell them how Hemingway rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms 47 times saying he was focused on “getting the words right.”  Flaubert famously was on the eternal search for “le mot juste (the right word).” He once said, “All talent for writing consists, after all, of nothing more than choosing words. It’s precision that gives writing power.” So today was about them developing their writing beyond the frame into the full picture and doing it with their well-chosen words, their own-chosen way.

“My Way” by Frank Sinatra


180 Days: Day 145–Believe Pt. 3, Draft Day

This I believe…that if students are given a tight enough frame, they can fill the picture with wonderful ideas and colors. Too often in the early days of my career, I gave students too much topical freedom while writing and they floundered. They couldn’t pin down what to write or how to narrow their topic or they would just mimic my lone teacher or student model. Experience has taught me how to tighten the assignment, to build a frame that the students can fill. And so after spending one day going over Murrow’s intent and definition of a “This I Believe” essay, spending one day analyzing and deconstructing three model essays (each slightly different in structure), and writing our own belief statements, we are now spending one day fleshing out those statements into full-fledged essay drafts.

I asked that students write things that they could share with classmates, but I know I will get one or two who resist my ask and write something entirely too personal and be unwilling to share. But then again, they will still have to share or switch up which story they choose to use–as we will “publish” these essays in a typed manuscript format that could possibly be used for future writing models. This year’s group feels confident going into this assignment, which makes me glad. Now I just have to see their products to get an idea of how to mold their revision process.

“Just a Dream” by Nelly


180 Days: Day 144–Believe Day 2, Forgiveness Is the Key

My sophomores and I continued to read model “This I Believe” essays and ended class by writing our own belief statements as a starting point for our own personal essays.

I borrowed examples from the This I Believe project covering a variety of topics: the negative impacts of war on children, being our brothers’ keepers, standing up against injustices perpetrated on others, owning pets enriching our lives, and a host of other topics. Coupled with yesterday’s examples about the music of the Beatles and Rubik’s cubes, the goal was to open the doors to the plethora of possibilities that students can select as topics for their own writing.

Our first model essay today came from Kim Phuc, who was made famous in the most awful of ways as “Napalm Girl” during the Vietnam War. The image of her as a nine year old child running naked from her burning village in Vietnam won the Pulitzer Prize–but it won her years of being a “symbol of the state.” But her story struck a similar chord to that of Louis Zamperini from our 2nd quarter biography–that forgiveness gave them a path forward in life and helped them find redemption and peace.

So Forgiveness was our the word of the day today. And anytime we can make connections to another piece of reading or to an event or people in our lives, that’s a successful day.

“Apologize” by One Republic featuring Timbaland


180 Days: Day 143–This I Believe

I reintroduced my students to Edward R. Murrow today. Our next few days will be revisiting narrative writing by using Murrow’s “This I Believe” essay format in an effort to revisit personal narrative writing.

We listened to Murrow’s short narrative describing the purpose of his original “This I Believe” segments from back in the 1950’s. We then listened to an example from the more modern interpretation from NPR before dissecting a sample written “This I Believe” essay from thisibelieve.org. By the end of the period, students started to find patterns and common structural components to the short personal essays.

They noticed where the belief statements were located, how the writers used one anecdotal story to exemplify how their belief was formed or changed, how the writers spoke in the affirmative–what they did believe versus what they didn’t. At the end of the day, I still believe in having well-chosen models for students to emulate when developing their writing. Good models make my life and my students’ lives a lot easier.

“This I Believe” by Edward R. Murrow

“Believe” by Cher


180 Days: Day 142–Seniors Assemble!

Our school held the annual Senior Assembly today. What is Senior Assembly? Well, it’s an assembly put on by seniors, about seniors, for the entire school to celebrate their achievements as the year comes to a close.

Typically, this assembly is held in the final weeks of school in the sunshine at our football stadium, but our stadium is slated for renovations in a few weeks, so today it was.

We also hosted the Special Olympics today. And we also had students on a field trip. I averaged at least a 1/3 of each class out for activities today.

And so how do I teach on a day with so many disruptions? Well, I take my students to the library. And so, we spent the day perusing the stacks and listening to books talks from our school librarian and checking out books to read. Every single student in attendance found something of interest and checked out a book to read. In my world, that’s a day well-spent. Most of these kids do not go to the library with any regularity, so I’ve attempted to spend at least one day per quarter doing just that–going to the library with no other purpose than to look at books. And in the process, they learn little things like how to use the electronic card catalog, how to find fiction versus nonfiction books, and where new books are kept in our library. Disruptions or no, I will always find a way for students to engage in some kind of learning activity.

“Bell Jar” by The Bangles


180 Days: Day 141–Final Eye Blink

Today is our last day with Gladwell’s book. We have finished the conclusion. We have finished the Afterward. We have finished the Gladwell video I brought in this week. And today we finished all review and discussion and connection to our essential question about how we make choices and how it connects to our human nature.

My sophomores did say that they were glad that we read the book. They felt that the book challenged them in the level of writing (vocabulary and such) but also challenged them in how they thought about the world and about reading in general. Since the book is different than any they had read before, they were curious about Gladwell’s other books and about other books in the same vein. Anytime I have students ask about books to read, I am happy because most students are nonreaders by nature in this age of constant handheld sensory assault. I can only hope that at least one of them does indeed pick up another Gladwell book.

Malcolm Gladwell speaking about Blink:

“Shapeshifter” by Warbly Jets (my 1.5 seconds of fame–blink and you miss me in the front row of the audience)

180 Days: Day 140–The Longest 15 Hours of My Life…

I’m so tired. After multiple 15 hour days in the past week, I’m the bleary-eyed type of tired. The few hours I’m spending with my students each of these past long days have been the fun part. The writing of the fact-finding report for our stalled contract negotiations and the hotly contested Board of Directors election in my local is zapping my energy. But tonight’s work will hopefully provide a small bit of reprieve for a few days. I have officially finished my portion of the writing for fact-finding, and I have officially handed over the running of the local election as I’ve recused myself for ethical reasons. I’d rather maintain my integrity in a tight, ugly, personal election. It’s amazing to me just how much the toxicity of our national politics has permeated even the most local of elections. But Tip O’Neill taught us that “all politics is local.”

All politics aside, I’ll be glad for the mercy of focusing more on my students than on district level politics for a while. I’ll be glad to have more of my evenings back in my possession instead of in service to others who seem to appreciate little and criticize much. I’ll let my mind rest and rejuvenate so that I can tackle the plethora tasks connected to unifying our local on the other side of the election and the fact-finding panel hearing coming up next week. Tomorrow I can smile because of my students, and they are, thankfully, all the healing I need.

“She Works Hard for the Money” by Donna Summer


180 Days: Day 139–Drawing a Conclusion

In class today, my students read Malcolm Gladwell’s “conclusion” chapter to his book Blink, where he drew conclusions to the three basic premises of the book. We had a lot of conversation about whether we agreed with him or not…but my students kept returning to the chapter with the Harvard Implicit Association Test and calling themselves racists. They couldn’t get over just how much we all have ingrained, implicit bias.

And with the headlines about two black men getting arrested in a Pennsylvania Starbucks, they had the opportunity to apply the knowledge they had gained from Gladwell’s book to critically address the Starbucks situation.

Much of the conversation focused on how we must be aware of our adaptive unconscious and how it can lead us astray if we are not careful. But the consensus was that they were glad that the book had provided them an instant ability to critically think about the situation and ask pertinent questions that were not instantly available in the initial posting of the viral video. They asked if the men had been asked to leave. They asked if the men had purchased anything. They commented about how often they saw “campers” at Starbucks who were never asked to leave,  prompting them to question what made this situation different.

Needless to say, I expect to hear more from my sophomores as this story unfolds in the coming days. Seeing how Gladwell’s book can help them better understand social justice in our society in real time has provided the best kind of test–a real discussion with real implications about the world around us.

Cell phone footage of the arrest of two men at Starbucks:

“Black Tie White Noise” by David Bowie