Back to the Middle School Cafeteria


 (Photo Credit: Nomadic Lass)

I haven’t yet mastered the art of assembling myself nutritious lunches before I go to bed each night, which means I usually end up with a hastily made sandwich and whichever fruit I was able to locate first. About half the time, the sandwich is peanut butter and jelly, because I can always find those in the fridge.

That’s what I was holding when I walked back into the middle school cafeteria for the first time since my own eighth grade graduation. Eating lunch with my kids at least once a week was a goal I made when I first visited the school—I decided that it was one of the ways I would build relationships and get to know my students. But standing in the doorway of the cafeteria as sixth graders streamed around me to get their pizza and chicken nuggets, I started to have doubts. I had my own cafeteria traumas as a kid (I’m pretty sure I was in sixth grade when my best friends told me to eat at another table because I talked with my mouth full.) Besides, what middle school student wanted to have lunch with their English teacher?

I shouldn’t have worried. I’ve had lunch in the cafeteria four times now, each time with a somewhat different mix of students. Once I accidentally sat at the “tardy table” where students are supposed to sit as punishment for showing up late, and the lunch monitors had to explain to me that as a teacher, I could dismiss kids from the table, but I think I’ve got it figured out now. I’ve chatted about mariachi band, favorite desserts, and squids.

Today the instructor of my certification program visited the classroom while I tried to explain the rationale for studying Greek and Latin word roots in English class. When I asked why we were spending time on this, kids seemed convinced that I wanted them to communicate with native Latin speakers. Afterwards my instructor explained that the kids weren’t grasping my rationale. The reason they worked so hard on the lessons is because they know that I’m on their team, and if I think it’s a good idea, they’ll give it a try.

I know I’ve got to work on my rationale, but for now I’m so grateful for what I’ve got: the grace and patience of my students. I’m far from perfect, a lesson I re-learn every day in the classroom. But as long as they’re willing to try, as long as we’re on this wild adventure together, I believe we’ll all make it through stronger. All it takes is stepping into the middle school cafeteria and taking the time to make those relationships.

By |September 30th, 2014|Corps Stories|0 Comments|

Banned Poems: 10 Students Write About Alcohol, Homosexuality, And Other Banned Topics




our lives begin to end

Note: The content in this post addresses violence, suicide, and rape.

It’s Banned Books Week! Together with the American Library Association, we are supporting the freedom for our students to seek and express truths in the classroom and beyond, even if those ideas are considered controversial.

According to the American Library Association’s stats on banned books, literature is often challenged when it deals with themes like drugs, alcohol, gambling, gangs, violence, suicide, homosexuality, or contains offensive language, political viewpoints, religious viewpoints, or content that is sexually explicit.

challenges by reasons 1990-99 and 2000-09_0


However, in “The Students’ Right to Read,” the National Council of Teacher of English stresses that these topics reflect the reality of our society, and worry that censorship distorts students’ exploration of truths and by its nature counters the essence of education, “Censorship leaves students with an inadequate and distorted picture of the ideals, values, and problems of their culture.”

Today, we’re amplifying our students who have dared to write autobiographically about topics that many have tried to keep out of classrooms. These students have published poems in order to teach others about the truths of their lives through the Poet Warriors Project, and while many of these poems deal with heavy topics, we celebrate the teachers who have not banned our students’ stories from their classrooms.

“I’m just telling you like it is,
And if you mad?
I don’t give a damn.”
Excerpt from “Real” by Jermyron Rice


1)     Profanity
“I had to stop crying,
so he won’t hear me.
His eyes were red as a wild hog.
I could smell the beer off him.
He yelled to his wife,
‘Where the hell is that girl.’”
Excerpt from “The Rumble” by T.M.

2)      Alcohol
I heard glass shattering
And saw mother cleaning
As he chuckled and laughed as if he were king”
Excerpt from “A Late Night with Alcohol” by Anonymous

3)      Gangs
On the streets of MLK
You can hear the screams of horror
Along with gunshots
Blood covering the ground
His mama laying down next to his bleeding body
Pouring her eyes out asking ‘Why?’”
Excerpt from “Memphis” by Morgan Williams

4)      Violence

I See Red

I see a mother carrying her 10 year old son.
I see a hole through his head.
I see rain, red rain, coming down his face.
I see darkness. I see red.
Excerpt from “I See Red” by Deion Edison

5)      Gambling
“When my auntie awakes
She runs to the casino
With Jacksons in her pockets
With no worries of tomorrow.”
Excerpt from “The Gambler” by Rishawnda Begay

6)      Homosexuality
“I know that some of you may find is strange or disgusting for
Me to choose to be this way
This was not my choice
Just as you did not choose to be straight
I did not choose to be gay
And even if I could, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Excerpt from “Breaking the Silence” by Emery Vela

7)      Suicide
“Her blood is dark red like red wine.
The blade and razor she just used are on her side.
She can still hear her parents screaming and fighting.
She can still remember the hatred in the words her classmates said to her.”
Excerpt from “BLOOD” by America Ambriz

8)      Rape
“They think it’s easy
But those Ten Seconds
Showed the true fights we black women go through”
Excerpt from “Ten Seconds,” by Taylor Hayes

9)      Religion
“If I can see my family so does god.
If I can touch the rose in my house so
does god.”
Excerpt from “Michoacan,” by Evaristo Granados

10)   “Unsuitable” for kids
“Come take a look
behind the curtain
peer under the surface
to see things that are dark for certain
Beneath the coat of smiles and jokes
Is a dark abyss with the humanity being choked
Yes, I tend to do things sometimes
That seem like I’m not correct in the mind
It’s because I’m so lost and confused
Sanity is so hard to find.”
Excerpt from “Sanity is so Hard to Find,” by Levontaye Ellington

Six Tips To Stay True To You

6897009859_893b4a9204_o(Photo Credit: Dee Bamford)

As I start my third year of teaching, I find myself reflecting on the lessons I’ve learned. The best advice I’ve received is to: “stay true to you despite the challenges.” I know how easy it is to fall prey to fitting a mold set by those who came before. You are met with strict deadlines, the pressure of grad courses, school wide expectations, and, most importantly, a class of students who depend on you. It can be easy to lose the unique flare and creativity that brought you into the profession. Here are some tips to avoid falling into the trap:

  1. Bring the warmth of home to the classroom. Find small places in your room to incorporate pieces of home – pictures, plants, furniture, pillows, etc. The more comfortable you feel, the more you will want to be there.
  2. Be genuine with your students. Don’t hide it! We spend a lot of time trying to connect with students. Share who you are with them. Students love to hear your personal stories, so fit them into the day. These snippets of personality will bring a sense of reciprocal trust and love to your classroom community.
  3. Add flare to the “non-negotiables.”  Many schools have school-wide norms. Find the wiggle room to add your personal touch. This could be something as simple as adding some art to your behavior chart, a fun attention getter with your kids, or a specific incentive unique to your classroom.
  4. Find something you love outside work. Don’t forget to be a human being! This may be challenging at first, but try your best to step outside teaching at least once a week. For me, this was writing and photography. For others it may be a community sports league, cooking, movies, or reading a non-academic book before bed. Make it a non-negotiable.
  5. Find a BFAW (Best Friend at Work)! Don’t spend every lunch break on your computer or prepping for next period – find time to bond! These little moments have kept me sane during the days when no one else understands.
  6. Don’t forget where you came from. We all have families and friends who are the foundation of our support network. Try your best to stay in touch and share your experience with these people. It takes time and effort, but phone calls, Skype dates, and weekend visits will mean the world when the going gets tough!

The more you teach, the more opportunities you’ll find to stay true to your personality. Seek out those moments, rather than dwelling on what you “can and cannot do.” Bringing back the flare will help make you a happier and healthier teacher for your kids!

By |September 23rd, 2014|Corps Stories|1 Comment|

5 Ways To Introduce Technology To Your Classroom Without Enough Technology

(Photo Credit: Blair Mishleau)

As the technology specialist at a school, I’m constantly running into issues (our computers haven’t arrived yet, the tech staff doesn’t have time to install them, my lab is being used for NWEA testing, etc.).

But, never fear. There are a lot of ways to get nerdy with kids without needing a laptop for everyone. Here are my tips – I’d love to hear some more, if you have them, in the comments!

1.) Live it. Love it. Code it.
This site is getting really well-known, but there’s a nice little niche that not everyone might know about. There are loads of “paper” activities that can teach little kiddos how to make a “program” and much more. It’s especially great as a primer before letting students use computers.

(Pro-tip: If you have even intermittent access to 3-10 computers, do stations. Have students who have mastered the paper activities move onto computers!)

2.)   Paper Keyboards.
This concept blew my mind. I thought kids would be like “Bro. Paper keyboards?” But they were more like, “Bro!! My own paper keyboard!!” The secret? Sell it like a used car salesman. My pitch: “Guys. Today you are getting your very own keyboard! You get to use it every week for the next few months. You need to make it your own. Spend the next 10 minutes decorating it!”

This is particularly awesome as you can have them draw on it and color specific keys. For example: we circle “home row” so they know where it is. We can practice it to death so they are ready when they get real computers (see #1!)

3.)   Get friendly with your co-workers.
I mean, this is generally good advice. But you most-likely have some computers in your building. They may be somewhat sad and decrepit, but I betchya you have some. Can you ask the teacher across the hall to borrow her two classroom computers for a week if, in exchange, she can borrow yours the next? Heck, bake some cookies. Do breakfast duty. You can work wonders with team work.

4.)   Videos.
If you have a projector, you can educate kids a whole lot on technology with simple videos. Start with the very term technology. Do you even know what it means, really? There are loads and loads of videos that can build kids’ wonder and excitement about tech, and built up their technical vocabulary. All of this matters, and is so often overlooked by “Oooooh, Shiny iPad!”

5.)  Donors. Choose.
See back to tip #1. You really only need 3-10 comptuers to get started with station work. Get 5 super-cheap ChromeBooks (or netbooks, if you must) through DonorsChoose. Yes, they have limited functionality. But they can word process, run lots of apps, and easily run typing programs and other such awesome stuff.

Over My Head


(Photo credit: Bermi Ferrer)

Here I am, safely nestled in a three-day-weekend after the whirlwind of the first two days of school. After chronicling my journey since induction, it’s amazing to think that first day of school has already come and gone.

Everyone I’ve talked to since then wants to know the same thing: “How did your first day go?” I find myself stumbling over my words in an attempt to answer in a way that’s positive, honest, and actually encapsulates everything that the first two days were.

I adore the ocean. I grew up in Eastern Washington, and I took every chance I had to get to the coast and put my feet into the Pacific. If you’ve ever stood in the ocean, you understand the feeling of waves coming in and lifting you up. Sometimes when the waves recede, your feet are still under you, braced against the sand for another wave. But more often than not the sand has shifted, or you are no longer exactly where you were standing, and you aren’t standing anymore.

That’s what the first days felt like to me. I came to the ocean prepared to get wet, ready and excited for the power of the waves, but that didn’t stop me from occasionally feeling fear. I already adore my students, and I think I came to the classroom prepared for the hard work it would take to harness their energy, but there were moments I lost my footing.

Whether I acknowledge it or not, my students are so powerful. The main difference I’ve felt between the classes I have now and the groups of students I’ve worked with in the past is that these classes are bigger. All these students together have a lot of force. As a teacher, I think part of my job is to ride the waves and laugh when I get sprayed with a faceful of water. But I have a greater responsibility to these students than that: I owe them a productive direction for their combined energy and a lens through which they can see how powerful they truly are.

It’s not going to be easy. On Thursday I could barely keep my feet under me, and I know I missed opportunities to connect with every child on the first day of class. That frustrates me because I don’t have time to waste with my students. They deserve to have an exceptional teacher all year long.

On Tuesday I want to do a better job than I did this week, but I don’t think that grounding my feet more firmly is the way to do it. After all, trying to stand up against the waves is futile; the best way to navigate the power of the ocean is to accept that you’re bound to be in over your head and swim.

By |September 10th, 2014|Corps Stories|0 Comments|

Grit vs. Resilience: A Buzz Word for 2014


(Photo credit:  The U.S. Army)

After my first year of teaching I have revisited many of the words I wrote down in my leather bound Teach For America journal during my time at Houston Institute. At Institute we used buzz words. Lots of them. As much as I resisted using common language, I found myself evoking our buzz-word-language out of a desire to operate from a shared archetype. And as I sat down to revisit the words, I back-filled my journal with the meaning of my own experiences and the experiences of my students. In doing so, I’ve created new words that fit the reality of what I think my students need, now that my consciousness has been awakened. There is, however, still one word that lingers with me, and that I think it is important to examine. And that word is the Houston Institute Buzz Word of 2013: grit.

In its purest connotation, grit is an embodiment of tenacity, fight, and determination. The word conjures images of a crass, spunky John Wayne in True Grit or of a clenched-jaw athlete during a drive at the ten yard line during a tied game. Grit is certainly something I like to think that I have; and judging from the number of fellow corps members who included the word in almost every spoken and written reflection, most everyone saw it as essential.

Certainly, grit is positive. It’s about digging deep and giving it your all; but, the word also misses the boat with its images of gutsy cowboys and grass-stained offensive linemen. The connotations of grit missed what our students really need, which is to consider circumstance, lean into their feelings, and adapt after failure or in the midst of difficulty. I think our students would be better off if they learned to embody consciousness, feeling, and adaptation. In short, when they think about grit, I think our students would be better served to embody the idea of resilience rather than the idea of fighting back.

In her book “The Gifts of Imperfection” Brene Brown, a researcher and social worker focusing on resilience as tool for overcoming shame and living a whole-hearted life, writes about the importance and inherent connection between resilience and hope.[1] Brown discusses the increasing cultural belief that “everything should be fun, fast, and easy.” This cultural ideology has produced disastrous self-talk during difficult encounters, experiences, and tasks. Self-talk like, “This is supposed to be easy, it’s not worth the effort” or “This should be easier: it’s only hard and slow because I’m not good at it.”

Although I can’t be in the minds of my students, I know them well enough to know this negative self-talk is likely how they talk to themselves when I hand them a text a few levels above their diagnostic level or when I give them an assignment that takes longer than usual. They lack resilience. They lack hope.

Brown describes a lack of resilience and hope as a sense of entitlement and hopelessness, a sense of “I deserve this just because I want it,” not “I know I can do this.” As a result, that hopelessness leads to a feeling of powerlessness, which is something far greater than educational efficacy; it is political and social efficacy that limits communities’ voices in the most important public discourse. In other words, our students who don’t have resilience are sitting in a pressure cooker that creates another vicious cycle of self-doubt, powerlessness, and ultimately silence.

Resilience and hope, on the other hand, give tolerance to disappointment, adaptation as a response to frustration, and a firm belief in what the self is capable of–not what one can’t accomplish. When my students are faced with this parasitic self-talk, I want their response to be “It’s okay if this is hard. It’s okay if I find this challenging. I am capable and I am enough.” I want them to understand how they feel, understand that it’s okay if they fail, and believe that their success in one endeavor is not indicative of their success in many others.

So how is resilience different than grit? Why should we be weary of solely focusing on images of digging deep and fighting for success? Because these images don’t account for how our students may feel during a challenge. There are certainly moments for grit—when they want to give up mid-stream, or when they don’t think they can do one more annotation—but these are moments, not a mental framework. Grit asks that they dig in and fight back, not lean in, re-frame, and positively evaluate their self-worth. Our students need to understand that things aren’t always going to be easy and that if they aren’t successful in an endeavor, they shouldn’t always hunker down and fight through it. Rather, they need to feel, adapt, and remain hopeful in their abilities.

And, so, as I revisit my journals and think about the buzz words we all use, I have decided that I want my students to have a buzz word that accounts for their feelings just as much as it accounts for their agency. I want a buzz word that takes them as a whole person. Here, I suppose, begins my campaign, “Buzz Word of 2014: Resilience”


[1] Brown, Brene. “Cultivating a Resilient Spirit.” In The gifts of imperfection: let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. Center City, Minn.: Hazelden, 2010.

7 Things I Wasn’t Prepared For


(Photo credit: Niklas Morberg)

I’m officially counting down the days to my first day of class and waiting with bated breath. I have a (mostly) completed classroom library, my “writer’s corner” is starting to come together, and I’ve managed to staple a lot of things over my head. I figured out the set-up of my room and planned my first couple of lessons. But during the past week, I’ve also encountered a lot of surprises, and a lot of things I wasn’t prepared to field.

  1. Health insurance. This is a part of being employed and a fully-grown adult, but I wasn’t prepared to decide which of eight different plans I should commit to.
  2. Retirement plan. Same idea—somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that I would have to think about a retirement plan as part of the employment process, but it wasn’t until I got the choices in front of me that I started to panic. Not about making the choice this time. No, I started to panic about the brevity of human life. Classic job orientation stuff.
  3. Classroom Financials. In all the conversations we had about finding resources for our students, I didn’t realize how many steps there are to any fundraiser, grant, or donation solicitation. Summer school didn’t include a tutorial on filling out purchasing forms.
  4. The time it takes to organize a classroom. I am pretty sure I spent 90% of my time on Thursday finding the die cut at my school and punching out letters. On the bright side, the other 10% of my time went to meeting a couple of parents of 6th grade students.
  5. Stapling things higher than my shoulders. I end up stapling a lot of things crooked when I’m reaching up to staple them. This is a skill I hope to grow in during the coming year.
  6. The surges of doubt. Throughout summer school, I didn’t experience a moment of uncertainty that I was doing the right thing. In the past week, though, I’ve experienced a couple of surges of doubt. Am I ready for the year to start? Did I pick the right career path? Ultimately I know this is exactly where I’m meant to be, but as I get closer to the first day, moments of questioning work their way in.
  7. The support of my fellow teachers. On Friday we had our first literacy PD. By the end of the afternoon, my brain was melting out through my ears, but I was blown away by the support from the other teachers. People offered me phone numbers where I could call them to ask questions, promised to email me templates and schedules, and reassured me. It’s overwhelming, they agreed, but you can do it.

With the support of my fellow teachers and help from some older and wiser sources like my family members, I’ll figure out the details and ride out the pre-teaching jitters. I’m sure there are more surprises to come, but I’m so grateful that there will be happy surprises mixed in with the tough ones.

By |September 3rd, 2014|Corps Stories|0 Comments|

Fear Is A Lie



“For this year, I fear nothing, fear is a lie.”

I get this from one of my eighth graders on the first day of school while they are doing an activity that requires them to write down their hopes and fears.

I wasn’t exactly scared about coming back home and starting this new school year—I wasn’t even as nervous as I thought I should be as I set up my classroom and finally greeted my students for the first time—but fear still stops me in my tracks. In all its forms—anxiety, terror, worry, panic—fear stayed with me through most of my three years teaching, and ultimately, drove me to take my hiatus from the classroom.

This past year, despite having rappelled down waterfalls, taken questionable motorcycle taxi rides, and shown up in multiple foreign countries alone, I’ve come to the conclusion that nothing is scarier than standing up in front of a vaguely organized mob of hormone-driven teenagers and trying to shove knowledge into their brains.

Because retrospect tends to do a great job of packaging up personal bad experiences into neat, unassuming anecdotes—the unexpected charity from strangers on the night my purse got stolen in Laos, the deep well of strength I found when I crashed my motorcycle in Vietnam, the contagiously optimistic attitude during the crummy packaged tour I overpaid for—but retrospect is never that generous to teachers. Kids will always remember their favorite teacher, but they will also always remember the teachers who failed them. The ones who tried too hard to be chummy with the varsity jocks and neglected the rest of the class, the ones who spent day after day sitting behind their desks while a textbook or a movie delivered the lesson, the ones who are labeled as “jokes” because they never seem to fully understand their own content area.

Even abroad, my biggest fear was that I am one of those teachers: a failure because no matter how hard I try, I can never push my students far enough. (One night in Thailand last winter, I had a nightmare about classroom management.)

I don’t think that fear will ever completely go away, but my student’s response reminded me that now, on this first day of the new school year, fear is not what drives me anymore—hope does.

I don’t know what my student wrote as her hope for the year, but I think she already figured out the hard part anyway. If fear is a lie, I think we can find truth in hope.

So for this year—for my students—I hope to be better.

And I have 179 days left to prove it.