WATCH: Students Write Holiday Wishlist for Favorite Teacher

Mr. Spencer’s high school class sat down to write a wishlist for their favorite teacher. The results weren’t exactly what they expected, but they all agreed on one thing—Mr. Spencer is a pretty cool teacher. Watch the video.

Want to make a real difference? Teach! Find out how at Teach For America.

4 Reasons the Bus Is Not the Best

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There is nothing less fun than riding on a bus. It is a unifying principle of the universe that riding on a bus, even a nice bus, is unpleasant. Young or old, nerd or jock, student or teacher, riding on a bus is a fate that should be reserved for those who perpetrated a capital crime and no one else.

As I write this post, I am in hour 4.5 of a 6-hour trip from Memphis to Nashville and back, and I can report that the struggle is real. Here four reasons bus rides are my least favorite parts of my job (despite the awesome field trips they bookend):

  • There Is Never Enough Space

It doesn’t matter whether you are stuck on a school bus or a swanky coach, there is never enough room for all the people to sit comfortably on a bus. Teachers are further squeezed when laden with several bags filled with hot chips, whoopee cushions (not making this up), and other assorted contraband confiscated from students.

  • Sound Carries

These buses get loud with 50 people talking at even a reasonable volume, and few (if any) middle schoolers come equipped with reasonable volume at four hours into a bus ride (to be fair very few adults do either). The noise I am currently experiencing  is an eclectic mix of whatever PG movie is playing on the bus televisions, desperate pleas to charge phones (middle school boys are lost without Instagram access), and cackles that would chill the Joker himself to his very core.

  • Photographs of You Sleeping

Now to the reason that all of those phones are dead in the first place: there is nothing (and I mean NOTHING) more exciting to students than when adults fall asleep in front of them. This trip is no exception. I’m pretty sure that Ellen’s Oscar selfie has nothing on the attention the snapshot below got on our Nashville trip to the State Legislature.  I know that I will be dodging this picture on my Google image search for years to come.

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  • Ridiculous Gift Shop Crap

Now I am not so old as not to appreciate the appeal of any opportunity to spend money on nonsensical things that likely originated from an Oriental Trading Catalog.  However, there is nothing worse than being forced to set expectations for the most random, ridiculous, and bizarre collection of crap that my students buy at gift shops. I am truly at a loss as to how any of these things (Chinese Yo-Yos, Harmonicas, Rock Candy, etc.) relate to the Tennessee State Museum of History. Plus, the kids get really ticked off when you inevitably take these new treasures away from them because they are not following directions. On the bright side, it makes me realize that there is a lot of money in the manufacturing of teacher torture devices for gift shops around the country.

Long story short: being on a bus sucks, but it does remind me that I must really believe in these students to endure this cruel form of punishment multiple times a year (shivers in terror thinking about a week-long college trip in May).

What are your favorite or least favorite parts of field trips? Any good stories of your own?

Photo by: Dliban

Why I Choose Kindness in the Classroom

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Like so many other first-year teachers, the range of emotions I go through in a day rivals that of the most passionate sports fan during a close game. I’ll feel joy, elation, and ease one minute, and soon after swing all the way to disappointment, frustration, and sometimes anger. The roller coaster of emotions that I experience is exhausting. Yet, the good and the bad keep me up at night as I go over and over in my mind the events of the day.

I seek inspiration and guidance from any possible source to calm my mind. These sources usually send one of two messages:

Haters gonna hate. Get rid of the things in your life that make you feel bad. You deserve more. This sentiment does not help my situation. I can’t brush off an 11 year old like you would that guy you thought you hit it off with but never texted you back.

You will face adversities. Choose to be gentle and calm. Treat others how you want to be treated. YES, thank you. When there are 30 children yelling, running, dropping papers, and losing pencils, it’s very easy to act on the desire to yell as loudly as possible. But this reaction is ineffective.

The few times I have significantly raised my voice, it stunned the class into silence for about two minutes, and then chaos resumed. Not only do 11 year olds seek acceptance from their peers, but they also seek acceptance from anywhere and anyone. When I yell or ask ineffective rhetorical questions (“Did you really just start a conversation after the directions were to be silent??”), it only serves to feed my negative feelings and strike a blow to the self-worth and self-image of the student. If a teacher had done that to me when I was 11, I would have been mortified!

After some self-reflection, I realized that I was not always consciously choosing to conduct myself in the way I want to and the way I want my students to behave. If I don’t set an example, how can I expect them to treat each other with patience, understanding and gentleness?

Since I have been intentionally striving to choose kindness, I have noticed my students feel more comfortable, positive, and supported. They seem more relaxed, they smile more, and they have started to self-regulate their behavior. Clear, concise directions delivered gently and with patience reset the culture in my classroom back to one of love, support, and growth. I also sleep better at night.

 Paige Sanduski is a Teach For America corps member in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Stories From Native Students

It’s Native Heritage Month! Celebrate by turning an ear to the voices of our native students across the country.

We’ve compiled thirteen autobiographical poems by some of TFA’s Native Hawaiian, Navajo, and Lakota students involved in our student voices initiative, the Poet Warriors Project. Enjoy the teaser excerpts, click to read the full poems on the Poet Warriors site, print and share these stories with your students, and if you’re interested in publishing your classes with the Poet Warriors Project, find out more here!

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1. “I don’t act like a Navajo
But on the inside of me, there is a true blood of Dine girl” -Odessa Begay

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2. “He is struggling to get loose
The starry black night being splashed
With the color orange yellow

Painted like a painted canvas.” -Te-Mya Running Hawk


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3. “A little girl waking
up with her family on a ranch.
A pink house full with a stove
and wood. Cooking blue corn mush
with my light in their eyes” 
-Talia Garmendez


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4. “Seen evolution
Through an old man’s eyes
Sometimes I feel that it’s disguise
No one notices

The tide rolling in” -Cloe Parks

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5. “I remember my brother well” -Sheridan James

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6. “The mesas are golden,
And the landscape is orange.
The sun sees our Navajo Nation reservation.” 
-Lain Johnson

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7. “As I look at the bright beautiful sunset in the reservation,
I see the bright sun go down
I hear the chirping and the laughter of
Moms, dads, aunts, uncles, and cousins.” 
-Michael Toldeo

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8. “When she walks
And a Gary Stewart song is on,
It matches here.
When she was young,
She use to go to the Rez dances,
And used to dance with all
The cowboys” -Selvina Pletero


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9. “When they came
They took our land.
They took aloha.
They took the queen.” -Shayla


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10. “I remember
When I used to watch her weave
small rectangular Navajo rugs
I remember
When she laughed so hard that she cried” -Nathania Tom


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11. “My dad believes I could do anything in my life
And get out of the reservation.” -Dallason Davis


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12. “I don’t know any other place that I would like to be
I am not ashamed about where I come from” -Alec Lewis

1313. “The Navajo Reservation, it has brown flat land
And in the distance, red mesas.
While I sit in the old tower I see a stampede of brown, white, and black
Horses.” 
-Taneika Ashley

 

Photos by Poet Warriors creator, Emily Southerton.  Photography taken while collecting poems from Teach For America students in Kailua Kona, HI, the Navajo Nation in Crownpoint, NM, and on the Pine Ridge Reservation in Kyle, SD.
 
 
 
 

Embracing “Nuance” and “Spectrum”

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(Photo Credit: Eric Fisher)

As a high school government and economics teacher in Memphis, TN, I ask a lot of questions that do not have clear answers. Through my years of teaching, however, I have seen consistent student discomfort with concepts that demand them to consider not black or white responses, but gray.

Teaching students to embrace two words has finally begun to end the side-taking, and forge a bridge.

“Nuance,” simply defined as, “the details that make something complex,” has become a focus of my class, and as such, has been combatting polarizing and simplistic dialogue among my students. Through understanding nuance, students can now leave space for uncertainty and appropriate complications.

Likewise, the concept of thinking on a “spectrum” has enabled a new comfort with the gray space in the content I teach. Formerly, my students felt trapped into routinely taking a side, limiting their understanding of content to established stereotypes. Now, students are empowered by the possibility that matters are not merely “this or that,” which has enlivened independent and personalized engagement with the content.

Previously, the question “Is the United States (Canada… Hong Kong… or fill in the blank) a democracy or socialist government?” seemed limited to two answers. Now, however, students understand the presence of nuance and the sense that things occur on a spectrum, and the question invites them to instead consider, “To what extent is the United States a democracy and to what extent socialist? What details make it so complex?”

Conversations with students in class and personally have taken a new dimension since the introduction of this vocabulary. Discussions around core content, sexuality, ethnicity, race, gender, social issues, and various school and identity matters are increasingly robust and nuanced because the students are given the space to exist and think on a spectrum of issues and content.

Roll out the new vocab and please let me know the results.

Zombie Army Burns Bridges & 6 Spooky Writing Starters

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We’re trick or treat-ing you to some wicked ideas! Happy Halloween!

Without a doubt, it’s an exciting time of year to be a kid. But Halloween is a great opportunity for teachers to connect with students and have some fun as well with a few spook-inspired lessons!

In running the Poet Warriors Project, TFA’s initiative to publish our students’ voices across the country, I’ve come across thousands of powerful student poems aimed at creating change. However, one of my all-time favorite submissions is actually one that just playfully indulges in ghoulish imagining and is perfect to revisit this time of year.

“Train Crash” was penned and published by Kydell Begaye, a 7th grader in Ms. Katrina Turner’s (New Mexico ’13) ELA classes. It is an abbreviated Civil War epic that follows a silver train’s untimely fall into hell at the hands of a bridge-burning zombie Confederate army. Amazing. I know. “Train Crash” is republished below, and is a good reminder that creativity thrives this time of year with the help of some inspiration and a cool teacher.

This Halloween, I want to urge all teachers to try a creative lesson with their students. The holiday lands nicely on a Friday, and I’ve written six spooky starters to get your kids’ brains brewing that morning. Please feel free to share more ideas in the comments section!

  1. My heart races as my feet pound on the dirt road. I look back, and see a hand reach out of the open grave…
  2. I wake up on the pavement, and feel the two deep bite marks on my neck…
  3. It’s just past midnight, when I hear her howl…
  4. I tighten the last bolt on the monster’s neck, take my lab gloves off, and step back…
  5. I take a deep breath, and begin interviewing the ghost of my great great great grandmother…
  6. From behind the bushes, I see him stir the boiling cauldron, and throw in the last few ingredients…

Don’t hesitate to get in contact with me if you’re interested in getting some of your kids’ creative responses published on our site, or if you’re interested in running our usual Poet Warriors curriculum.

Train Crash
by Kydell Begaye

On a cold night,
a steam train loaded with silver
going to Gettysburg.
80 miles away,
the wheels roll,
the loaded silver train runs to Gettysburg.

Union Soldiers fight with the Confederate.
But don’t know
they’re fighting with the undead.

The engine steam puffing to
40 miles per hour.
Heading over a dam,
the undead soldiers burn
down the bridge to flames.

One-by-one cars uncouple
from falling rails. The engine
moves faster, 10 feet away
from the cliff. The rails
snap causing the engine
to slip. The heavy tender
of coal pulls back the Engine.
The engine falls into the fire of
hell.

The silver makes it to Gettysburg.
The train
loaded with silver was loaded
with sandstone.

Stand, Stand, Stand and Deliver, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Kindergarten Cop

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(Photo Courtesy of Studio One)

From the music-fueled hijinks of Jack Black’s Dewey Finn (School of Rock) to the inner-city idealism of Sidney Poitier’s Mark Thackeray (To Sir, with Love), Hollywood’s perennial fascination with teacher stories has produced an impressive lineup of iconic pedagogues over the years. One of my earliest teacher-on-film memories is watching a hell-bent Anne Sullivan reach her cathartic water pump breakthrough in the iconic climax of 1962’s The Miracle Worker, adapted from the autobiography of Helen Keller. The film’s title says a lot about why the educator archetype continues to be a popular source of dramatic inspiration: the idea of the impassioned teacher as an indomitable “miracle worker” for whom no troubled young mind is beyond reach seems to hold much sway for filmmakers and audiences alike.

Movies like this had so romanticized my perception of the profession that, as I readied myself for my first semester as a fifth grade teacher in the summer of 2008, it seemed only natural to wonder: should I fashion my teaching persona in the style of Robin Williams’ John Keating or emulate the streetwise profundity of trainer Mickey from the Rocky movies? Despite my best efforts, I ended that first year feeling more like Cameron Diaz’s Bad Teacher than anything else. I had not inspired a sensational love of poetry in my students. I had not convinced them to carpe the diem. The only standing on desks had occurred in rebellious defiance of (not in solidarity with) my teaching.

The melodramatic glorification of teachers perpetuated by films like Dead Poets Society and Freedom Writers had made for excellent inspiration, no doubt. It had also been terrible preparation for the real deal. The more I thought about these teacher-worship movies, the more they bothered me. It’s not that I believe teachers unworthy of the exaltation – it’s that these movies totally miss the mark when it comes to what makes educators admirable and effective. The mythic Hollywood teacher conditions us to interpret passion as an acceptable substitute for patience, diligence, and partnership. We’re asked to value inordinately only the most obvious of a much larger set of characteristics actual master teachers exhibit, even when these characters are based on real individuals.

Take for instance Stand and Deliver, the true-ish story of Jaime Escalante’s expectation-defying advanced calculus program and a staple of miracle-working teacher tales. This was the movie I was told repeatedly that I “must see” in the run-up to my first days in the classroom. As depicted in the film, Escalante leads his ragtag band of inner-city pupils from a shaky grasp of basic arithmetic to calculus fluency in the span of a single year at East LA’s Garfield High – an impressive feat to be sure. That Escalante felt passionately about opening doors of opportunity for his students is obvious. What isn’t clear is that it took real-Jaime seven years to build his seemingly miraculous program; the movie seems content to give us the equivalent of a “greatest hits” compendium of Escalante’s achievement.

The warping of Escalante’s story, however well intentioned, seems an all-too-common phenomenon in the profit-driven entertainment industry. I suspect it’s a matter of marketing: it’s much easier to sell a sensationalized tale of miraculous accomplishment than it is a record of the slow, incremental progress by which great teachers often impact and are impacted by their students (though there are always counter examples – Mr. Holland’s Opus comes to mind). My time in the classroom has shown me that excellent teachers temper their bold visions with patience and planning. They recognize that quiet consistency and persistence can be powerful forces for change. They master their craft through years of practice and patient study, making plenty of mistakes along the way. In short, they understand that the really important work takes time, constant effort, and an accumulation of small, boring victories. That’s what real passion looks like: less a singular dramatic shout from the proverbial mountaintop and more a solicitous, ever-present whisper of encouragement, a diligent striving to bridge the gap between what is and what should be.

That’s why I’ll risk massive ridicule by proclaiming Kindergarten Cop one of my favorite teacher movies to date, if only for this reason: it’s the relatively simple story of a man (a very large Austrian bodybuilder, as it happens) who learns the hard way how demanding the life of an educator can be… and then embraces it anyway. By the film’s end, Schwarzenegger’s John Kimble hasn’t miraculously rescued his kids from destitution*. He hasn’t even really mastered the basic foundational skills of a novice teacher. But he has, in spite of his repeated failures in the classroom (which seem surprisingly realistic in light of the more ridiculous action/crime elements of the plot), made the monumentally courageous decision to trade his position as a celebrated public hero for a demanding career with a long, hard road to excellence. And it takes an entire movie for him to reach this point!

As the film fades to black, Kimble resembles so many real teachers I know that embody this more understated brand of heroism; having survived the chaos of those first few weeks, he is humbled by and in love with his students. There’s a sense that, though he may be incapable of academic feats as glamorous as his crime-fighting exploits, he’s at least ready to fight for those small, boring, important victories that imbue a teacher’s life with such meaning. You might call that miracle working, though by degrees.

*He has however saved them from the machinations of a nefarious drug dealer.

Glory. Glory. Hallelujah.

Before I tell this story, before I unwind it to reveal the raw truth, I want to admit my cowardness. Because I wouldn’t have written the poem, I wouldn’t have spoken the words, I wouldn’t have done any of it in this way if I was brave enough to ask:

How do you feel about Michael Brown?

It was haunting me that first week of school. As I worked in my classroom, as I met my new students, as I paced the halls. Alerts on my phone kept reminding me of Ferguson, and I wondered … I just … wondered.

The question burned on my tongue as noise rose while the students laughed, ran, and jumped at recess, while Ms. B, Mrs. Henderson, and I jabbered on and graded papers. It haunted me as I waved goodbye at the end of the each day and hello at the beginning. Just ask, I told myself. But an appropriate time never seemed to come.

I went home over Labor Day weekend, filled with hope and despair, joy and sorrow; it seemed that an adrenaline rush crept into every moment, every memory, and my hands shook with the weight of it.

That’s when I wrote the poem. It came to me the way Ruth Stone would get a poem, (according to Elizabeth Gilbert’s TEDtalk.) I was working on lesson plans when I felt and heard it, barreling down on me like a thunderous train of air.

I’m not sure it’s appropriate or sensitive, all the things I say or feel about life in my classroom. I don’t understand what it’s like to grow up like many of my students. But sometimes I’m not sure that matters.

I host a Bible Study at my house on Monday nights. We eat dinner and toss our ideas about verses around the room. Last night we talked about 2 Corinthians 6, which has this uncomfortable section of scripture about how unbelievers and believers shouldn’t be yoked, and it led to a raw and honest discussion.

“Maybe it’s saying we have to be careful about who we’re yoked to,” I suggested. “Because when you’re yoked you are bound to someone in a common direction and burden.”

“I don’t know, Lydia,” Anya told me. “I’m from a different world than my students, and so we don’t come from the same place and our burden is different. Our burdens are different, but we’re bound together and our direction is the same.”

The poem is my struggle, my burden, my own frailty, and I know that my students would bare their souls in another way. But I’m convinced that because I have been yoked with them, we will move in the direction of a shared dream. It won’t be easy. It won’t be perfect. But that’s okay. This work that I do in the classroom is not solely about educational equity and test scores – it’s about understanding, empathy, and peace.

Below are the words to: Glory. Glory. Hallelujah.

This story is colored by the rhythm of a copier, pushing and pulling paper in time with the rhythm of my beating heart.

The first week of school is a kaleidoscope of colors and images, fleeting moments and overstimulation, sleepless nights and names blurring with faces.

I called Michael Edward, Michael Brown six times in class on Friday. Each time he looked at me, eyes wide with confusion. It took me till Saturday for me to realize that I was calling him the name of a boy shot by the police.

Ms. Pitts had left early that Friday, and I had Marion Ramsey in my room. Marion, whose father was killed in a drive by this July. How can I teach him that violence does not solve violence? Is there a way I can jam the gears that pull pain up and around again?

I’m always listening for the copier to choke on the paper. When it does, I take apart the machine, reach my arms into the crevices, spin the rollers under my hands, just like Ms. B taught me. Later, I will find ink coloring my fingers. You can’t heal brokenness without touch, and you can’t touch something and leave unmarked.

I went to Mrs. Henderson’s church this Sunday, the Sunday before school started. The message was about God’s guidance through fire, through brokenness, through pain. Afterwards, she took my hands in hers. “You’ll never know how much this means to me,” she said.

Jamison can’t read. When he takes his medicine, he’s a zombie. When he doesn’t, he’s running his hands over the ground as if he can read the soul of the earth. Once, after recess, he dropped grass in the hallway. I tried to have him pick it up, but it took too long. He was too slow. We didn’t have a broom.

I’m praying as I fall asleep that I will become a warrior for my students while demons try to steal them away. Just Thursday I saw the “1”s littering the page of their test scores, and if it is true that prison cells are built by literacy rates in minority children, I am on the front lines of a war.

Ricky cries easily, talks slowly, and exudes differentness. But when he answered in class, cool Tyron flipped around in his chair, grinned, and gave him a high five.

Don’t mistake my children for felons. Don’t mistake the ink-smudges on my hands for filth. Don’t mistake this pain for hopelessness.

Glory. Glory. Hallelujah.

Glory. Glory. Hallelujah.