Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Teacher's High

“What seems to us as bitter trials are often blessing in disguise.”

- Oscar Wilde

Remember my post about the student I got to know during a field trip? After that trip, his work ethic did NOT improve. On the contrary, he did less than ever. Nothing I tried made a difference.

His M.O. would be to sit there and do nothing at best or to look for excuses to walk around and disrupt others at worst. As soon as he’d try to sidetrack my class, I’d send him out of the room for a break. I was frustrated.

A few days before Christmas break I’d finished a discussion with the class. They were supposed to have their notebooks and textbooks open to answer questions. When I reached this student, he was perusing the pages of an atlas.

“That’s not what we’re doing now,” I said, removing the offending material. I stood above him until he pulled out his books and pencil from his backpack. When I checked on him again, he’d done nothing. I directed his eyes to the paragraph where he could find the first answer. A few minutes later, I looked for progress and found none. Aggravated, I called his mother and left a message on her answering machine.

When I turned around, he was picking up items on the teacher’s desk and talking to another student.

“You can decide you don’t want to work, but you’re not disrupting other students.”

He marched out of the classroom.

The most diligent student in the class stood up and pleaded with me. “He has a hard home life. He needs someone to sit with him and help with the work.”

I sighed. “I know he does, but so do a lot of people in this class. He can’t try only when I sit with him.”

Then I asked my recently acquired Special Ed teacher (I have her three classes per week) to keep an eye on the students. I walked over to the student in the hallway standing at a window.

“Is something bothering you.”


“Do you want to talk about it?”


“Do you have someone you can talk to about it?”


“Do you want to have someone to talk to about it?”


I hesitated before speaking again.

“The thing is, if you’re not happy at home then school should be a refuge. When I was young, I had problems at home and school became my refuge. But if you’re not doing work in your classes, then you’re butting heads with your teachers and you have no refuge.”

He didn’t say anything. He didn’t look at me.

“When we went on that field trip, I had a good time talking to you. I liked getting to know you. It was a nice change from reprimanding you when you don’t get your work done.”

He snuck a glance at me.

“I want you to know, I’m here. I’m in my office early everyday. If you ever want to come in to catch up on work or have me explain material you don’t understand, then come in. Or just hang out. That’s fine. I can even stay after school if I make arrangements.”

I patted his shoulder just as the bell rang.

When I returned to the classroom as the students left, I told the Special Ed teacher what I’d told the student. She sort of cheered me up by telling me he didn’t do work in any of his classes.

The next day, I spotted the student coming down the hallway. Usually he meanders with a frown. This particular morning he smiled at me.


I had the group again last period. When I finished our discussion, I told the students to open their textbooks and notebooks to answer the three questions. Because it was the last day before break, I’d given all the students an incentive - as each student finished, s/he’d get a piece of candy.

When I checked on the student who hadn’t been working the previous day, he said, “Can I sit in your office and answer the questions?”

My office is next to this classroom. I’ve sent him in there before, but he’s never actually completed any work in there. But I said, “Sure.”

A few minutes later, he left my office and brought his notebook to me. THE QUESTIONS WERE COMPLETED.

I beamed. “You are the first person to get candy.”

Then I showed his work to another teacher, who in turn complimented him.

I said, “Since you’re done, would you like to look through the atlas?”

He leafed through it for a few minutes and then talked to the teachers in the room about constellations. Animated. Happy.

"I've been trying hard all day. I even did work in Science for the sub," he explained near the end of class.

“Remember this feeling,” I said. “When we come back from break, don’t lose this momentum.”

I don’t run. I’ve heard of runner’s high, but I’ve never experienced it. I hate running so much I doubt the existence of a “runner’s high”. But at that moment and for the rest of the day, even as my head nestled into my pillow, I was on a teacher’s high.

I’m not na├»ve. This isn’t one of those movie moments when the teacher changes a student’s life irrevocably. But that day he changed mine. From the experience, I realized how important teaching is to me. The students’ lives are woven with my life whether I want them to be or not. It’s not just about material content and state standards. It’s relationships.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Dreaming of Writing

“Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.”

- E.L. Doctorow

My job has me utterly exhausted. I’m sure I head to bed before any of my students. Some nights, it’s as early as 9:15 pm for an alarm waking me up at 6:00 am.

Why am I so tired?

It’s the newness of it all. Each class has its own set of concerns. I’m teaching periods I’m not as familiar with that I have no lesson plans for. Each class is basically being set up from scratch. And the paperwork! So much grading to do. And so many parents to contact when students don’t.

Then I come home and the next part of my day begins. At least one of my children has an activity. Every. Single. Day. Then there’s laundry, cooking, cleaning, help with homework, and so on. If my husband didn’t help with cooking, I don’t know what we’d eat. Some days even instant macaroni and cheese is too much effort, so I’d probably serve the cardboard box sprinkled with cheese powder.

It makes me look back fondly on the days when most women weren’t allowed to work because it’s really hard to do it all and do it well.

So I’m tired.

When my head hugs the pillow, it’s really hard to shut out the classroom. I think about:

The students who don’t care

The students who have a bad attitude

How a lesson could’ve gone better

What to teach in the next lesson

How to teach the next lesson

Everything I have to catch up on.

And I can’t sleep.

The solution?

I stop those thoughts that make my heart race and focus on my WIP. The one I’m about 26k words into and don’t have time for right now. Other people write with full-time jobs, but I just don’t have the mental stamina.

I’m not physically writing it, but I’m thinking about it. The next scenes are clear to me. The twists and turns are sticking to my brain. Character growth, conflict – it’s just waiting to be written. The only thing I’m not completely sure about it the ending and whether or not the antagonist will die.

These unfolding scenes steady my heart.

They make sure I won’t forget.

They keep my WIP close to my heart, even if I don’t have time to give it the love it deserves.

I hope to take advantage of vacations to return to it. When I have time, I believe the rest will unfurl like a red carpet.

“When I look up from my pillow

I dream you are there with me

Though you are far away

You’ll always be near to me

I go to sleep

And imagine you’re there with me

- Davis, Ray. “I Go To Sleep” Sia

Those of you who work full-time, especially teachers:

How do find/make the time to write?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


It's vital to be growing through your life rather than going through your life. The object is not to change other people or situations; it's to do the inner work they stimulate.”

- Wally Amos

I’ve noticed the new school takes a lot of field trips. In my first five weeks at the school, I’d been on two and there had been four more in the middle school. I like field trips as much as the students because not only do I get a day away from teaching but I also get to know the kids on a different level. Bonding.

I have one tough group. It’s smaller than the other classes, but there are many students on educational plans and a few of them have emotional issues. After a few weeks, I got some sort of handle on discipline, so now I’m able to focus on students who aren’t getting their work done. At all.

One student in particular just doesn’t want to work. His mother was the first parent I called. For three days he didn’t come with his textbook or his notebook and I was fed up. He said his mother’s phone had been disconnected. It wasn’t. Other teachers told me the parent said the right things but didn’t always follow up with her child, but it was worth trying anyway. It’s my job.

After the call, there was some improvement. He brought in his books even if he didn’t always write much down. One day after much cajoling, he actually got a worksheet nearly done. Triumph-ish.

The problem is this class is like the whack-a-mole game. Most need support, but when I don’t focus on the group, the ones I’m not helping at any given moment are likely to go astray. Parent calls have helped, but this class could use more than one teacher in the room to help with the academics.

The day we took a test, this boy refused to take it.

I asked what was wrong. (“Nothing.”)

I offered to read the questions. (“No.”)

After three tries, I sent him to the assistant principal’s office. It was my first sending as an extended term sub. He told the assistant principal another student had taken something of his in an earlier class and he was upset about it. I wish he’d told me.

He promised to take the test the next day. The next day, he didn’t show up.

The following class day was the field trip. He came. In homeroom, I walked over to him and told him I was glad he was here for the field trip and that we’d make up the test during next school day. He agreed.

On the subway he began talking to me. He told me about his weekend (“Crappy.”) and about his interests and people in his family and all sorts of stuff. And as he spoke, I wondered if I’d judged him too harshly. I’d only gotten to know him as a slacker rather than a human being. I vowed to build more relationships with my students.

The day after the field trip, the students were doing a handout. He refused to do it. And he hadn’t brought his textbook and notebook.

So much for bonding…

I realize it’s going take more than a field trip to turn things around for this boy. His problems extend well beyond the scope of my classroom. It will take more than just me to reach this student. In the beginning, I didn’t know he also suffered from anxiety. Now I approach him in a different way.

Each day, that difficult class has gotten better for me. I no longer break out in cold sweats in the middle of the night, wondering how to deal with them. I’ve made a list of rules and consequences. After I handed out the list, the students tested me.

That night I called five parents.

The students now know I mean business. I don’t want to be a yeller. Besides, on a petite female I’d incite as much fear as a yapping dog. I want the students to know I want them to do well. I care about them. But if they don’t work, if the talk and misbehave, I’m calling home. I’ll even keep them in for recess.

Will this continue to work? I have no idea.

One thing I’ve learned is that what works one day, doesn’t necessarily work the next day or with the next class. I knew this from student teaching, but had been spoiled my years in a fifth-grade classroom with the same students all day.

The field trip was an eye-opener not just with this one student, but several. After the play, we ate at Faneuil Hall. A few students gave to the Salvation Army. One student bought a “Spare Change” newspaper from a homeless person. A new student was sent to school without lunch or money for the field trip. A teacher gave him the money for both. I paid for a student who didn’t have a drink. Near the end of the field trip, one student admitted she had no money so she hadn’t eaten lunch. I bought her a meal.

Each student has a story. While I may not know all 90+ of their stories, I’m paying more attention. Field trips are a great way to step out of the academic relationship and get to know them in a different way. I hope it makes a difference.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


We began our ascent.

"Opportunities are usually disguised as hard work, so most people don't recognize them." ~Ann Landers

I climbed a mountain.

Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire.

It was just a few weeks after I started my extended term Social Studies position. I was happy to get out of the classroom for the day, but I was also looking forward to getting to know the 7th and 8th-graders more.

I should explain that I grew up in Queens, New York and then Long Island, New York. It’s pretty flat there.

I’d been on hikes before.

But I didn’t really understand what climbing a REAL MOUNTAIN entails.

Apparently, there are two sides to this mountain. There’s an easy side and a hard side.

We climbed on the hard side. (Of course.)

The mountain is 3,165 feet, which may not seem bad until you consider the rocks one must grab onto, the slippery spots, and the leaps one must make in order to reach the top.

We all began at the bottom in a bunch. Most of the teachers had climbed it before; some many, many times. I was told it would be best if I hung back a little so I could stay with the students who were slower and might not make it to the summit.

It began with a steady incline that seemed to last FOREVER. Soon I was sweating under my layers and my breath became labored. (Am I really this out of shape? Was I supposed to train for this?) My small backpack couldn’t hold my extra jackets, so I tied them around my waist.

I wasn’t the only one unprepared for the exertion. Soon students were taking water and breathing breaks on the side. I was afraid to drink water since I knew it would be hours before we made it back down and I’d be able to pee.

At some point, the climb became steeper and trickier to navigate. One student was afraid of heights and began to panic. It was great to see a few other students encouraging him and helping him find footholds. More experienced climbers spoke of a tree line, which meant we’d be nearing the summit. After 1 ½ hours, I began to call it “The fabled tree line”.

But after a couple of hours, we reached it. Then it was nearly all rock. Lots and lots of smooth, steep, scary rocks. Teamwork got us through it. Just when I thought I’d actually make it to the top, some students below said a student was throwing up somewhere below.

See the tree line?

I only knew of one other teacher behind me who was older, so I didn’t know how far she’d be able to go. I headed back down. As I passed other students, they told me how the vomiting student was doing. Then I reached a group that said the other teacher was with him, so I turned around and headed back up.

When I made it past where I’d been before, another student smacked her head. I turned around and made sure she was okay.

This was more dangerous than I’d imagined. The ranger had told us if someone got injured, it would take seven hours to get back down the mountain. First, they’d have to get 17 rangers to group. Then they’d have to climb to reach the hurt person. And then they’d have to make the long and careful descent, carrying the victim on a stretcher.

This happens a few times a month.

What would we do if that happened to one of us?

At some point, the rocks became flatter and I could see our middle school at the very top. I looked at the time. It was nearly noon. If I were going to make it, they’d probably be ready to head back down. I stopped with some students and had a sandwich before climbing again.

(Around this time, “See Me, Feel Me” by The Who played in my head. Remember when Tommy climbs the mountain at the end of the movie?)

View from near the top.

When I was about 30-minutes away, I saw the middle school descend from the summit. The rest of us did too. It was harder going down than climbing up. Gravity was pulling us this way, the spots of frost had defrosted so the leaves were slippery, and we were tired. My legs became jelly.

Finally, four hours from when we began, we made it to the bottom. One girl sprained her ankle, but was able to continue. Another shredded the back of her pants sliding down rocks. But we survived.

I thought, If I’m at this school next year, I’ll have to run up and down bleachers to get in shape before the big climb. It surprised me to be thinking about next year, when I fought to get through each day.

It’s funny to reflect on that trip now. I barely knew the students and they barely knew me. But after our experiences on that mountain, we knew one another better.

You’d think if I could climb a mountain, teaching 7th and 8th-graders would be a cinch. But there are still many days when I wonder what I have gotten myself into and doubt the path I’ve chosen. I still have so much to learn.

I still feel like I’m climbing a mountain. I haven’t reached the tree line, let alone the summit. But I’m striving to get there.

“Ain’t no mountain high enough

Ain’t no valley low enough

Ain’t no river wild enough

To keep me from you”

- Ashford, Nikolas; Simpson, Valerie. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” Diana Ross

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Student Quotes, So Far

Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.

~Will Durant

Middle school students are in that in between stage – no longer children, but not yet savvy about the world around them. As a result, they wind up making astute observations, yet sometimes they don’t have a clue.


When asked to describe the shape of Australia, one student wrote, "It's shaped like a round rectangle."

Instead of answering an essay question, a student wrote, “Epic Fail” across the space. At least she knew.

On a test, one student explained a positive aspect of becoming a knight: “This is dangerous, but I get the ladies in the end.”

Field Tripping

At Mt. Monadnock , the insides of the toilets in the restrooms are stained yellow, which I’m sure is caused by minerals rather than something more sinister. When entering a stall, a female student screeched, “That’s mad ghetto water.”

On the way down the mountain, several boys were behind me, talking about basketball. Topics like, Shaq joining the Celtics and LeBron on Miami. Miami lost to the Celtics and they were wondering whose fault it was.

“Maybe the coach is terrible,” one student said.

“He’s Filipino,” replied another.

I don’t know if that meant the coach was good or bad or the kid was just changing the subject.

The eighth-graders went to see a play about the Little Rock Nine at the Boston Courthouse. While we waited on line to get inside, a tour guide dressed up as a colonial woman brought her group behind us.

“Is she in the play?” one female student asked me.

“Um, no. She’s dressed a little differently than people did in the 1950s.”

“Oh yeah.”


As I set up the TV and DVD player for a seventh-grade class, one student said the high pitch was annoying him.

I told him, “I can’t hear it. I think you have to be under 30 to hear it.”

Another student exclaimed, “You’re over 30?!”

I didn’t know whether to be elated he was shocked I was over 30 or demoralized because he was horrified that someone could be over 30. It’s not a disease, y’all.


One Friday during snack time, a male student asked a female student for some cereal.

She replied, “Aren’t you rich?”

He looked taken aback. “Not really. Nobody is rich in Cambridge. We have some money.”

“Then why can’t you afford to bring snack to school?”

He didn’t get any cereal.


I decided to show the students a DVD of “The Dark Ages” to supplement the unit. I made a handout so they’d actually pay attention to the DVD. During the film, a student came over to ask, “Who’s Clover?” I looked down and realized that Microsoft Word was kind enough to change Clovis to clover. (Thanks, Microsoft Word.)

Note to self: always edit your work.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Hating Game REVIEW

Help Talli Roland's debut novel THE HATING GAME hit the Kindle bestseller list at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk by spreading the word today. Even a few sales in a short period of time on Amazon helps push the book up the rankings, making it more visible to other readers.

Amazon.co.uk: http://amzn.to/hNBkJk

Amazon.com: http://amzn.to/hX2ieD

No Kindle? Download a free app at Amazon for Mac, iPhone, PC, Android and more.

Coming soon in paperback. Keep up with the latest at www.talliroland.com.

Talli invited me to read an ARC of The Hating Game. While Chick Lit is not the genre I read most often (since I seem to spend the majority of my time reading YA Paranormal), I love Talli’s blog writing style and I also enjoyed the way 24 Hours Paris (under her real name, Marsha Moore) was written. She’s got a keen sense of humor, which I was sure would shine through in her book.

Here’s Amazon’s DESCRIPTION:

When man-eater Mattie Johns agrees to star on a dating game show to save her ailing recruitment business, she's confident she'll sail through to the end without letting down the perma-guard she's perfected from years of her love 'em and leave 'em dating strategy.

After all, what can go wrong with dating a few losers and hanging out long enough to pick up a juicy £200,000 prize? Plenty, Mattie discovers, when it's revealed that the contestants are four of her very unhappy exes.

Can Mattie confront her past to get the prize money she so desperately needs, or will her exes finally wreak their long-awaited revenge? And what about the ambitious TV producer whose career depends on stopping her from making it to the end?

My review:

The first line hooked me:

“‘IF I GET PNEUMONIA, HE’S GOING to pay,’ Mattie Johns muttered as she gripped the chains of the dunk- tank swing and looked down into the murky water.”

I laughed from the first scene. The story unfolds seamlessly. When I began the book, it was a busy time for me but I made time to read. I finished it in four days.

At first I found Mattie unlikeable. But even in the beginning, I could detect her vulnerability within her uncompromising exterior. This is a woman who wants to be in control, so it’s interesting to see how she grows as her life becomes more and more out of her control.

Every character has depth in this story, which is a feat because there are quite a few important characters. Too many books have a friend who is little more than a sidekick, only existing to provide humor. I liked the best friend and learned much about the main character through her. The ex/love interest isn’t too domineering or too wimpy. I found myself rooting for him early on, even when Mattie seemed to have good reasons to stay away.

Clever premise. Reality TV with all the behind the scenes backstabbing exists in spades. I had a hard time putting the book down, wondering what would happen next. No predictability here.

This book is appealing to read and would make a great film. I could see the movie version clearly - probably because much of the time the reality television show is filming. And if this becomes a movie, I will definitely see it.

Here’s Amazon’s About the Author:

Talli Roland has three loves in her life: rom coms, coffee and chocolate. Born and raised in Canada, Talli now lives in London, where she savours the great cultural life (coffee and chocolate). Despite training as a journalist, Talli soon found she preferred making up her own stories -- complete with happy endings.

P.S. I thought “rom coms” were some sort of British dessert, but then I thought about it. Duh – romantic comedies! That’s probably why I enjoyed her book so much – it read like a romantic comedy. With a reality TV twist!

P.P.S. Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah. If you celebrate, Happy Hanukkah! This is the best Hanukkah book, ever:

The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story by Lemony Snicket.