Why Laughter Is Healthy in the Classroom

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Years from now, if my students forget how to make a green screen on Final Cut Pro and the definitions in our Typography unit, or how to use specific software to edit their videos, that’s okay. Every day when I walk into the classroom, I make it my personal mission to make every student smile. Through my behavior and leadership in class, I try to promote positivity and embody an energy that brings happiness into the classroom.

I always tell my students that if I can be silly and make a fool out of myself in the front of everyone, they can feel comfortable being their silly selves, too. In my classroom I believe that the more smiles and laughter there are, the more enjoyable, accessible, and encouraging the learning process can be. By me just being my quirky self, whether it be when I dance, sing parts of my lesson, or crack jokes, I strive to create and model a learning environment where my students feel comfortable, less stressed, and just happy.

When I think about the teachers who left a positive impact on my life, from my 12th grade Government & Politics teacher to my 8th grade U.S History teacher, I don’t remember much of the content they taught me, the grades I received, or the assignments we completed. Instead, I remember the positive leadership they demonstrated, the motivation they provided, the inspiring and comforting words they shared, the advice they gave me, and the laughs and smiles I had while learning in their class. This is the impact I want to have on my students. Because like Maya Angelou famously remarked, “People will never forget how you made them feel.”

In my five months of teaching, the smiles and laughter I have helped spark in my students—even if just for a little bit—have made my teaching experience more positive, impactful, and memorable than I ever thought possible. I’ve learned that the more unafraid I am to be myself in front of my students, the more open, accepting, and fearless our classroom environment becomes. Years from now, I hope my students can look back and remember not just the content I taught, but also the smile I may have put on their faces.

Connecticut Poet-Warriors Let Their Words Do the Work

holly snow

Teach For America’s Poet Warriors Project strives to introduce reading and writing poetry to middle school students across the country as a way for kids to express themselves in positive ways. One class, in Connecticut, recently tackled some weighty subjects. Teacher Sam Teets introduced Poet-Warriors to his class as a part of their American Experience unit, and prompted his students to put pen to paper.

“Right now, our focus is on African Americans,” Sam wrote to us. “We’ve been talking about the philosophies of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and how their beliefs relate to events that are happening in the United States today.”

“On the day of the actual project,” Sam said, “I used a quote from Maya Angelou: ‘Nothing will work unless you do’.” Sam encouraged his students to keep in mind that they are “the only ones who could ever truly know about their own identities, their own communities, and their own dreams.”

Sam added, “The only way that any of those things could be changed or “work” would be if we work to change it with our poems and actions.”

Here is an excerpt from a poem called “Cayla” by C.S., one of Sam’s students:

Cayla is generosity

She is sensitivity, love. Unexplanatory, and human

She is do and don’t

She is lessons learned and lessons taught

She is life and heaven

I am Cayla

Read all the poems from Sam Teets’ Connecticut class at the Poet Warriors Project.

Reflecting on My First Semester of Teaching

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As I wind up my first semester of teaching in rural Arkansas, I finally have the chance to step back and examine my life for the past five months. Since relocating from the northeast (where I was born, raised, and attended college), settling in down south has been a challenge, but one for which I am very grateful. This semester has been full of firsts for me, and I have learned from each one.

  • This is the first time I have ever lived somewhere other than my comfort zone.
  • …the first time I have ever been a teacher.
  • …the first time I’ve ever been homesick.
  • …the first time I have ever uprooted my life for a job I care so much about.

With each personal conversation I’ve had with a student, I have created a lasting connection. Those moments have not only deepened my perspective on this profession and the impact it can have, but also have made me realize that teaching is one of those jobs that is just bigger than myself. I am humbled by that realization every day I step into my classroom.

It is through the individual and memorable connections with my students that the stressors of classroom management, grading, standardized testing, and homesickness seem insignificant. The relationships I have built with my students have made all those “firsts” unforgettable, and I have learned enormous life lessons from every single one.

Teaching is hard. Keeping up with grading 100 students assignments can be tedious and overwhelming. Missing your family during the holiday season when you’re so far from home can weigh on you. But, it’s moments like when a student goes out of her way to come into my room to just chat or when one invites me to a basketball game and reminds me of it every period, that I remember why I’m here and why I decided to be a part of Teach for America. I’m here because together my students have had a positive and empowering impact on my life and I’ve had one on theirs.

Since the end of the semester is coming to an end, I’ve been asking students to truthfully reflect on my teaching so I can continue to grow and get better. A few of my students wrote:

“Ms. M, you should keep connecting with the kids and be happy like you always do. Keep being yourself and tell us stories like you told us.”

“Ms. M, I like that you’re super pumped up about teaching and if I’m confused I know I can ask you for help.”

“Ms. M, something you should keep doing as a teacher is relating to your students. You’re really good at that.”

After reading each response, I took a step back from all my worries of being a new teacher, the mistakes I’ve made along the way, and the areas I need to improve, and recognized the small things I do on a daily basis that have brought positivity and happiness to my students’ lives—even if just for a brief moment.

Thank you, first semester of teaching, for teaching me more than I could have ever imagined and making me a better person because of it.

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

Coming Home

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It is a cool afternoon in September. My stomach aches, my hands are sweaty, and I’m standing at the whiteboard of a local school, apparently to help prep them for PSATs. I shouldn’t be so nervous—I did something like this for two years under more emotionally taxing circumstances. Still, I haven’t been in front of a classroom for nearly the same amount of time, and every fear I had about myself as a teacher starts racing through my head:

What if I can’t do this?

What if I’m horrible again?

What if the kids are so bored they walk out?

I write “Ms. Torres” on the board.

***

When I last wrote about my time as a teacher, I shared my reflections on why I had chosen to leave the classroom, as well as revealed a perhaps eternal truth: there are some choices in life that will consistently leave you asking, “What if?” What if I had stayed? What if I had continued teaching, following my once-dream job?

I still believe I made the right choice. That said, remembering the fire in my belly about becoming a teacher, recalling how passionate I was to go to work most days, it ached a little to revisit.  Any time I thought about the classroom, I thought about a line I had written when applying to Teach For America:

There are few things in my life that are certain. I don’t know how much I’ll pay for a gallon of gas next week…There is one thing that I am certain I want to do: I want to teach.

My most recent role at Teach For America was community listening. I heard a lot of the stories people share about their classroom. Each time, I left feeling inspired, but also a twinge of… what was it? Jealousy? Regret? Remorse?

I thought I had left the dream of teaching behind to pursue a “larger impact.” Wasn’t that what I was doing?

***

Students began to file in, a little meekly at first. Were they nervous? Scared of this random twentysomething in an awkwardly fitting dress at the front of the room?

Don’t worry, guys. You can’t be half as terrified as I am right now.

“Hi there! Find a seat anywhere. I’m Ms. Torres. I’m your teacher today.”

***

I hadn’t been looking for a new job—that’s what I told everyone, including myself. I had only gotten my California credential transferred to Hawaii so I could get better part-time gigs as a tutor or maybe an afterschool specialist to be around students again. I was fine at my new job on staff with TFA. I mean, I liked it, I loved the people I worked with, and I appreciated an opportunity to be on social media as part of my job. That was great.

Sometimes, though, as the afternoon would wind down, and some of our MTLDs would go visit classrooms, or I would see what corps members were posting about their students, I would be left looking at the blue glow of the computer screen, wondering, “Is this what my career is?”

Let me clarify: I absolutely do not mean to say that the dedicated people who work in front of computer screens every day—at TFA or otherwise—aren’t amazing, devoted, or doing worthwhile work. They often are. But, I was left with a few glaring facts about myself:

  1. I missed working with students.
  2. I liked teaching, and didn’t know if two years had given me an adequate perspective on if I was any good at it.
  3. The more I worked, the more I realized that meaningful change did not mean leveraging my voice or the organization’s voice, but those of communities we were serving.
  4. Teach For America (and its donors) and I (and my student loans) had put time and effort into making me into a good teacher, and I didn’t know if I had adequately used that gift.
  5. I missed working with students.

***

The lesson goes better than I expected. I am nervous, especially about teaching math to kids who probably were more advanced in algebraic ability than I am at this point. Still, the kids talk to each other, engage in some discussion about the “why” of certain techniques, and even laugh a little. They file out of the room, a few saying, “Thanks! See you on Thursday!” as they do.

I breathe a sigh of relief when they leave. The knot in my stomach unwinds, and I start to think about what I would do differently in the next lesson.

***

My hands were shaking. It was late afternoon on a Friday, and I was sitting on a bench at the beach. I was watching the waves beat against the stones, never more unsure of what I was doing with my whole life.

A little over a week before, in my search for tutoring jobs, I had stumbled across a school a few of my friends taught at that was seeking an English teacher. I liked the school a lot—a focus on tech and near where I lived. On a whim, I decided to apply. I figured that half the state would be applying, so I thought nothing of it.

Three days later, they invited me in for an interview. I thought it went well.

Three days after that, I was sitting there, waiting for the call that would tell me what came next.

Throughout the entire process, I was leapfrogging over my own internal sense of conflict. Was this what I wanted? I had only been at Teach For America as a staff member for a little over two years (what is it with us and two years?!). I hadn’t thought about going back into the classroom for at least another year, maybe not until I had kids of my own.

Throughout the entire process, I had pushed forward, thinking, Well, if they offer me the job, I don’t have to take it. I could say no. I could stay away from the classroom for all the reasons I remembered—the long hours, the occasionally demoralizing look at test scores, the sometimes rowdy students. I could keep doing what I do now.

Another thought came: But is what you’re doing really the most you can be doing? Is this the job that makes you the most happy? Are you making the “larger impact” that you wanted? Or is there another group of kids whose voice you want to help find?A wave came up, lapped the shore, churned the water, pulled it back.

The phone rang.

***

A few days after that first prep class, my manager emails me. “I thought you might want to see an evals from one student on your first lesson. :)”

“She is very good at teaching.“

I laugh. Six words make my day.

***

Yes, it’s perhaps an eternal truth that some choices will leave you wondering, “What If?” There’s no way to know the future and to look down the path you ultimately didn’t take.

I think it’s possible, though, to be granted another shot, the optimism to realize that you not only could have been great, but still have the opportunity to do something great. Then, it’s not a question of can, but a question of choice: will you choose to do more? Or will you stay on the path you know pretty well already?

It was important for me to take a step back at the end of my TFA commitment and reassess who I was and what I needed. Now, it is essential to realize that where I needed to be and who I need to be standing with was there all along, waiting to welcome me back.

Students need teachers who not only want to teach, but want to provide them the platform. What kind of future would I choose to build? One for myself, or one for them, too?

So, for all the whiteboards I come into contact with in the future, for all the classrooms I hope to learn in and help lead: I hope you’re ready.

Ms. Torres is back.

 

The Power of Real Apologies in a Fake-Apology World

You might not need to go to these lengths to apologize. (Photo credit: butupa)

You might not need to go to these lengths to apologize. (Photo credit: butupa)

Apologies require the highest level of human capacity: mindful self-reflection and the ability to acknowledge another person’s experience. If that isn’t hard enough, it often requires putting ourselves in a position of vulnerability—often to the person to whom we are apologizing.

That’s why no one has ever woken up in the morning excited because they have to apologize to someone. Of course, it feels better in the long run, and yes, it’s the “right” thing to do, but usually we dread these moments. It’s why we so often come up with reasons not to apologize, like refusing to believe we’re wrong, excusing our behavior, blaming the other person, or thinking nothing we say will make a difference.

Adults often have the best of intentions; however, the way we teach children to apologize is often counterproductive. We often force them to apologize when they don’t mean it or we don’t understand what’s really going on. We demand they apologize, get angry with them when they refuse, and then don’t think to revisit what happened later when they’ve been given a chance to self-reflect. Or, we make them apologize but don’t realize or know what to do when they only apologize to get themselves out of trouble.

But there is a lot on the line: how you as a teacher model and teach giving and accepting apologies matters. If you handle these moments well, you are giving young people a foundation for their ethical development. If you don’t, you miss a critical opportunity to demonstrate your values in action and it decreases your credibility as an ethical authority figure.

Students Speak: 7 Poems About the Stars

Whether we’re looking up from a front porch on a warm June evening or watching from the beach as people dance around, there’s no better time for stargazing than in the summer. This week, we’ve compiled seven Poet Warriors poems about the stars; take a moment to read through them, look up, and step into the summertime dreamings of our students.

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Read the full poems:

Family and Orgullo: A TFA Alum Attends a Former Student’s Graduation

This week, New York City welcomes its 2014 corps to my beloved city, a place where I call home and am raising my two daughters. Ten years ago, I was in the incoming corps members’ shoes, and didn’t yet know that my life would be forever changed by my students and fellow teachers in the South Bronx—and by one student in particular, Oscar.

On Saturday, I attended Oscar’s high school graduation alongside his family. I was reminded that my commitment to my students and my community was in no way a two-year gig. I am a teacher for life, and celebrating Oscar’s tremendous accomplishment reminded me that the impact I can have on my students—and their impact on me—goes beyond a single school year.

Dear Oscar,

Do you remember that first day of school in September 2004? I do. I remember meeting my 28 new second- and third-graders from the Hunts Point area of the South Bronx. You met me, a brand-new Teach For America teacher, Miss Castellano. You probably saw right through me: excited and scared to death, but bent on providing a bilingual education for my students, one that never happened for my parents and grandparents who immigrated from Italy and Colombia.