Tuesday, July 31, 2007


Yesterday we had a group of incoming high school juniors come into our class to talk about the experience they'd had when they took freshman English from my TA. I was absolutely floored to hear their stories and the way they spoke about them. Two said that they had never read a chapter book until that year, but now they're reading some serious literature and loving it. Their writing was better than 90% of what I used to read when I worked at U of M's writing center. They were completely respectful and encouraging of each other and couldn't stop talking about all they'd learned from each other, their writing, the readings, and from themselves. They were so self-aware and self-confident and clearly articulated their love of learning and value of education. It was beautiful.

By the end of their presentation, I looked around the room and more than a few people were, like myself, choking back the tears. These students had all undergone very powerful, very real transformations. These kids were proof that teaching can make a difference, that I have the power to change a students' lives forever. Here were eight students from completely different backgrounds (in many senses of the word "different"), who all happened to end up in the same class and come away as amazing people. They made a point--without prompting--to remind us that all of us future teachers can impact our own students in the same way. The whole thing about teachers changing lives gets a little old and starts to feel cliche, especially when everyday is a bombardment of five million things that make me wonder if I'm doing everything wrong. Hearing it from the students' themselves made it fresh and raw again.

However, I left feeling nervous. First there was the issue that not every student will find THAT teacher, so what happens to them? A friend of mine told me that although she feels the same sentiment, it made her think about how she can be that teacher for her students. True, but I also can't reach every student in every classroom, let alone every student in my own classes. I'm having a really hard time with that. Even if I always shoot for 100% (which you have to, right?), I also have to realize that hitting 100% is ridiculously unlikely. Why did I enter a profession where the kind of success I want is not only impossible to achieve, it's impossible to measure.

What was more disturbing to me was a more logistical/practical concern. A few students mentioned that they'd never even seen the point in school, let alone higher education, until being in this freshman English class, but now they can't wait to get to college. I'm excited for them and their change of heart, but I also worry that just WANTING to go to college is not the toughest barrier they're going to face. The cost alone shuts so many students out. Yes there are scholarships, but getting them is easier said than done. And yes there are loans, but what happens when they're hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt at age 22? True, a college education will help attain a job that can repay that, but a college degree by no means guarantees an income. How many of these students, all of whom have so much promise, will actually make it through college? What happens to them then? And this is the same story for so many kids. How are we letting all this promise just fall to the wayside? Can you imagine what would happen if we actually tapped into it?

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Even Better Together

Two of my favourite things in the whole world are (1) New Zealand and (2) The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. So what happens when something from New Zealand makes it on to the Daily Show? Pure genius.

Maybe the best part is that I heard about this because it was one of the top stories on New Zealand's Prime News, one of three nightly newscasts in NZ. I listen to it as a podcast everyday to help deal with my homesickness (can you call it homesick when it's not really your home?), and this was the perfect example of the kind of Kiwi news reporting I miss so badly.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Should I Laugh or Cry?

Is this what's ahead in my future? Or is it just in my past?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Unlike Riding a Bicycle

I used to be really good at writing papers. By the end of undergrad I was consistently averaging about a half hour per page, including time spent outlining, finding quotes, etc. Even more impressive, this included all the time I spent being distracted and doing things like checking to see if every single friends had changed their AIM away message in the last 15 minutes.

So when I had to write my first grad school paper this past weekend, I knew I wouldn't be quite on top of my game, but assumed that once I got back into the groove, I'd be able to make good time. Such good time, in fact, that I took a trip up to Santa Rosa in the wine country on Saturday evening/night/Sunday morning (/afternoon because of the nap I took to recover). I started the paper, which was to be 3000 words (about 6 pages, depending on your margins), on Saturday around noon. I had a terrible time even getting my thoughts down and into enough organisation that I could even attempt an outline. By the time I left for Santa Rosa, I'd written about two pages. On Sunday I picked it up again around 3pm and finally finished my editing at 12:30pm.

That's pretty munch unacceptable, as far as I'm concerned. The worst part was not so much the amount of time, but my lack of efficiency. I don't know when I lost my ability to concentrate, but it definitely happened sometime in the past three years. I know that when I was working in offices, I spent a good deal of time taking short breaks to find out if I had any new emails or what the New York Times (or thesuperficial.com) had to say for the day. You organize your time much differently when you have eight hours a day set aside specifically for work (and you're getting paid for it).

So it's time to get back into school mode, not just for the sake of the next 11 months, but for my future career. Much of what goes into being a good teacher happens outside the class periods, and if I can't sit down to write a lesson plan without checking Facebook every five minutes, I'm in trouble. Good thing I have another paper due tomorrow, so I already have a chance to improve. I'll let you know how I go.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

New Germs

It started on Friday with a scratchy throat. I thought I just hadn't been getting enough sleep and/or water. Nothing a trip to the beach couldn't cure. (My Guadeloupean host father told me that "the ocean cures all ills" and I have put 100% faith in that ever since). I'll attribute the fact that I woke up on Sunday feeling worse to the fact that I didn't actually go in the water and not to the fact that my host father could have been wrong. By Monday I was forced to locate and make a trip to Whole Foods for some Traditional Medicinals teas, the only thing I trust to actually relieve a sore throat. Yesterday during class I felt like a ping pong ball (a very congested ping pong ball) bouncing in and out of my seat to go get more tissues.

Today my cooperating teacher (the guy whose class I'm student teaching in) relayed this little gem: "Most teachers are sick for the majority of their student teaching and first year of teaching." Makes perfect sense--new germs spread by the 100+ students you teach everyday; all that touching of desks, papers, pencils; not to mention the completely debilitated immune system because all your energy is going into making sure you don't ruin anyone's life.

On the upside, in two years I will have developed some immunities of super human proportions (oh, so that's why teachers seem invincible). Even better, the teaching never stops--just like I'll challenge my students to grow and develop, I'll challenge the viruses and bacteria to mutate into more powerful versions of themselves. Hmmm... is that an analogy I should be trying out with my students?

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Teaching is HARD

I almost titled this post "Being a Teacher is HARD," but that's not quite accurate. I definitely agree that anyone can be a classroom teacher. Anyone can go in and talk at the kids about something for 50 minutes; anyone can assign homework and grade tests. Being a teacher is not that hard. Teaching something, on the other hand, is feeling like it's nearly impossible.

I've been in this teacher preparation program for not even a two weeks yet and I am already overwhelmed. I guess I always knew how involved teaching is, but every day I just feel like I learn five hundred new things that I absolutely have to pay attention to in the classroom or everything will be ruined. It's all an unbelievable balancing act--the individual student vs. the group; discovery and inquiry vs. what the need to know for state exams; encouraging students while still being tough; having fun in a directed manner; setting standards and expectations that are high, but not unachievable; challenging kids of all different levels with different skills, intelligences, interests... the list goes on.

In my Curriculum & Instruction class the other day we did an exercise where we thought of something that we really struggled to learn, but finally achieved. First we looked at the barriers that prevented us from learning it. Things that came up included fear, lack of direction, lack of practice or opportunity to practice, no motivation, etc. Then we made a list of things that finally helped us overcome our difficulties. It turned out that anything from one list could just as easily be on the other. Fear can be a huge motivator; freedom is just what some people need; a lack of practice can force you to make the most of each opportunity, etc. Great. So basically anything I do as a teacher has to come at just the right time and in the right amount.

We've also been talking a lot about teachers who changed our lives. True, I got into teaching in part so people will remember me forever without me having to smash ice cream cones in their face (Dane Cook reference), but I want to be remembered as the teacher who made someone love math or or offered a new way of thinking or showed the student that s/he is highly capable. I don't want to be the teacher who turned a student off from learning forever. Everyone has that memory of one phrase or incident that pointed them in a certain direction, for better or worse, and I suspect that it usually came from a well meaning place. Sometimes you get lucky, but good intentions are just not good enough.

There is no A for effort in teaching.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Yum Yum Tasty Donuts

These are donut peaches.

They are delicious.

They are juicy and sweet and flavourful. Quite possibly the best American fruit I have ever tasted. And that includes Michigan cherries.

I bought them at the Menlo Park Farmer's Market, which is next to the biggest and best Trader Joe's I have ever been to. The Menlo Park Farmers' Market is one of many farmers' markets on Sundays, and one of even more on the weekends.

I love California.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Ms. L.

I cannot remember a single time in my life when I was addressed by my full last name. People have written it or started to attempt it out loud, but I really don't remember anyone ever getting through it. Also, it's not even that I think of it as my mom's name because I can't really think of times when she was called her full last name for any longer than it took her to ask that people use her first name.

Today was my first day of student teaching. It was weird to introduce myself as Ms. something. It's not necessarily that this would be my first choice for what the kids should call me (although I don't actually know what I'd choose), but it's the culture of the school where I'm working.

I did tell the kids to call me "Ms. L." which honestly I'm not sure my feelings on. On the one hand, it will save the time and hassle of forcing them to learn my name, not to mention that it will save a lot of time simply because they'll use one syllable instead of six. However, every time someone sees my name and responds with "I'm not even gonna try to say that," I feel disrespected because they're not even willing to take the time to attempt my name. I know it doesn't look easy, and I know it's a really long name, but it's still my name and it deserves just as much respect as Smith or Jones. How would people with the easy names respond if I said I wasn't it wasn't worth my time to pronounce them? At the same time, most of the people who "won't even bother" are cashiers and telemarketers who only know me by credit card. So even when people do respectfully ask how to pronounce my name and then try practising it, I kind of don't want to bother with the teaching and would rather just get on with my errands. A perfect no-win situation. Fortunately I care about my students much more than I care about the cashiers at Trader Joe's (not that I don't love the TJ cashiers!), so I'm more than happy to take the time to talk to my students about my name, where it come from, how to pronounce it, etc.

I should probably get used to this issue now, because I'll be meeting new kids and other school community members on a regular basis starting last week. Or I should just solve this problem by getting married ASAP. Which would totally not raise any other problems in my life.