Category Archives: Teaching

Classroom reveal, Part 2

I forgot to do this earlier, but here’s the updated classroom reveal, featuring my tissue-paper truffula forest and IKEA leaf canopy, along with a few flourishes I’m pretty sure weren’t there when I did the first reveal.

A few details:

The inflatable chair lasted about two weeks before it developed a leak. Disappointing, but I didn’t expect much for $5.

I can HIGHLY recommend the mermaid pillows, which have a soothing effect on kids and adults alike.

When we read <em>Beowulf</em>, my seniors thought it would be hilarious to have a plushie of Grendel’s arm hanging above our door like the entrance to Heorot, so of course I made them one.

The truffula trees were time-consuming but very easy; I’ll post a tutorial later if anybody wants one.

The bulletin board on the desk is made from old ceiling tiles.

The big leaf is a baby-bed canopy I picked up for $15 at IKEA. The balloon lamp is another IKEA find — $6, IIRC.

The lights on the “Pride and Joy” board are battery-powered fairy lights that came with little clothespins attached. I use them to display student work, school pictures, etc.

The shoe organizer is a cellphone parking lot. I stuck a power strip to the underside of the chalk tray next to it and plugged in chargers with extra-long cords to give kids an incentive to surrender their devices without a fuss.

The file pockets hold copies of the week’s Common Core objectives. I’ll share how I use them in a future post.

Not pictured: my beloved wax warmer, which makes my room smell like a cinnamon roll, thanks to dollar-store wax melts.

I wanted my room to feel like the children’s section at Barnes and Noble. It ended up being better. Elementary kids come in and hang out after school just because they like it. Colleagues wander in occasionally when they’re tense and need to unwind. Meetings are less stressful when I host them. I suspect part of the magic is that it allows people a safe space to be childLIKE, so they don’t feel the need to be childISH.

Emily

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Anniversary celebration

Today was the anniversary of my first day at my current teaching gig.

My kids didn’t know it. I forgot to tell them. But they helped me celebrate anyway.

I had an observation today. Because we’re a tiny district with only one administrator, our superintendent does one of our two mandatory observations every year, but in the interest of fairness, she brings in an outside evaluator to do the other.

Knowing our outside evaluator would be observing English IV today, I decided to let the kids teach. The class developed a rubric for grading the discussion leaders and another rubric for grading themselves on their class participation. We’re reading John Gardner’s Grendel, and the kids are REALLY getting into the part of the book in which Grendel encounters a dragon with some decidedly nihilistic views. The kids LOVE dragon symbolism and spent the hour connecting the dragon’s words to other books they’ve read, movies they’ve watched, mythology they’ve studied, and discussions we’ve had earlier in the semester. I participated, but only a little, and only when the conversation had gotten so interesting that my English-major soul simply couldn’t resist joining the fun.

I won’t know how I did on my evaluation until I meet with our guest on Thursday, but I think it bodes very well that she asked the kids a few questions, which they answered beautifully — including a couple of questions about their objectives for the lesson and how they’d know when they’d achieved them, which is the kind of question evaluators generally ask teachers during a post-observation debriefing. (They were a little baffled, as she hadn’t asked any questions like that in their other classes. I assured them that was a good sign: They taught like grownups, so she treated them like grownups.)

I don’t know how many points I scored. I don’t really care. My kids were awesome, they knew they were awesome, and somebody besides me got to see them being awesome.

That’s a pretty great way to celebrate an anniversary.

Emily

View from the Sidelines

If someone had told me, two years ago, that I could be happy sitting on the sidelines, watching other journalists work, I would have organized an intervention, because I would have been absolutely convinced that person was smoking crack.

As it turns out, the view from the sidelines is rather striking.

About a month and a half ago, Ron got an unexpected job offer from our local weekly newspaper. A week later, I took over the journalism program at the tiny, rural high school where I teach.

I’ve spent most of the past 30 years chasing stories, designing pages, and mentoring the occasional promising rookie. I’ve known the frustration of fruitless investigations, the excitement of breaking stories on deadline, the tedium of crunching crime stats, and the frenetic energy of a newsroom on Election Night. I’ve pored over court records, coached young reporters through their first breaking stories, redesigned entire pages in less than 10 minutes after technical glitches suddenly ate two hours’ worth of work, and done shots of peppermint schnapps to remove the stench of dead bodies from my sinuses.

Living like that, a girl can get jaded.

The past few weeks have been nothing short of magic. I’m watching Ron rediscover the unique rhythm of weekly deadlines, the exhilarating madness of covering four events in a single day, and the fun of getting to know a community intimately by talking to its residents.

This afternoon, I watched my students distribute their first issue of our monthly school newspaper. It looks incredible. Their writing sounds professional. Their photos are well-composed and technically sound. And their superintendent is delighted (even if we did unnerve her a bit by using her as our guinea pig to practice filing Freedom of Information requests).

Their enthusiasm is palpable — and contagious. Watching them discover the joy of journalism at the very moment Ron is rediscovering it, I remember how the business felt when I was a 17-year-old high-school senior freelancing for my hometown weekly, young and hungry and hopeful, and I am content.

There’s something to be said for vicarious joy.

Emily

Classroom Reveal, Part I

Sorry I’ve been so quiet all spring and summer. I’ve been busy — state testing, prom, honor society induction, professional development, graduation, finals, ducks (shoutout to our ag teacher for taking the noisy, destructive little SOBs off my hands), travel, side hustles, curriculum writing, and last but certainly not least, painting an elaborate mural on all four walls of my classroom.

I finally wrapped up the mural on Monday. It was a long process that began last spring, when I wandered into my superintendent’s office and asked how much trouble I’d be in if I painted literary characters all over the walls of my classroom. She basically gave me carte blanche and waited to see what would happen next. About 103 hours of actual work later, this was what I came up with:

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I still have a truffula forest made out of pool noodles and tissue paper to mount on a particle-board stand, a couple of giant IKEA leaves to install near my desk, and a few more strings of fairy lights to hang on not-quite-finished bulletin boards, but I’ll post all that when I do an official classroom reveal in August.

My goal with this project is to remind my kids of how they felt about reading when they were little — back when they were exploring the Hundred Acre Wood and having wild rumpuses and sneaking through Hogwarts under an Invisibility Cloak instead of being assigned a million pages of stuff they didn’t really care about. I want to recapture some of that joy and maybe get them excited about reading again. We’ll see how it goes.

Emily

P.S.: In case you’re interested, here’s an update showing the finished room.

No “Stairway”? Denied!

Things that happened today:

1. I started my morning feeling a little groggy after a recurring dream in which I kept trying to listen to a Led Zeppelin album but kept waking up a split-second before the needle actually touched the vinyl. (This was considerably more stressful than it sounds. In retrospect, I think it might have been an omen.)

2. Got to school and literally had to put out a fire. Not a big fire, mind you — just a little grease fire that flared up when a kid spilled bacon drippings on a burner while preparing the FFA’s annual faculty breakfast — but exciting enough to shake off the grogginess, anyhow.

3. Met with the outside evaluator who visited my class Monday. Got a good score but was told I needed to set up a “mindful classroom” with a “social contract” involving some kind of hand signal the kids could use whenever someone failed to use “the language of peace,” because I was at a tipping point, and “the energy in [my] classroom could go either way at this point.” Was also advised that I might want to consider “cleansing the room” of the last teacher’s “negative energy,” because she could still feel it in there. (When I ran this suggestion by the kids, they told me to call in an exorcist, because a little sage wasn’t gonna do the job. X______X )

Got that? During my professional evaluation, the evaluator’s ONLY criticism was basically that I’M NOT A BIG ENOUGH HIPPIE.

(Yep. That weird Zeppelin dream was definitely a sign.)

I can’t shake the nagging suspicion that somewhere, Bob Waldmire is disappointed in me tonight. Or laughing his arse off. Or both.

In case you’re wondering, my plan for improving my score next time involves burning patchouli incense, schlepping around the room in Birkenstocks, and playing the Dead’s “Europe ’72” album on vinyl while the kids munch on homemade brownies and discuss that Kerouac quote about how “the only people for me are the mad ones.”

Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been.

(And I’m buying a stairway to heaven.)

Emily

I’m not your Mary Sue.

I recently ended a 23-year “friendship.” I don’t regret it, but I think the details might be instructive for others who are tolerating manipulators out of kindness or habit, so I’m sharing.

The conflict began when I decided to boycott a Peter Yarrow concert after learning about Yarrow’s 1970 conviction for molesting a 14-year-old backstage. My then-friend (I’ll call him “Andy”) inexplicably took exception to this, and when I noted that Yarrow’s victim was about the same age as my students — of whom I am extremely protective — Andy announced he didn’t give a damn about my students.

If you don’t care about my kids’ safety, we cannot be friends. Period. So I replied, “You are dead to me” and blocked him.

That was the end of the conversation, but it wasn’t the beginning. It wasn’t even the weirdest part.

Andy had a crush on me when I was 19. I wasn’t interested in dating him, largely because his perception of me bore no resemblance to reality. It felt as if he’d seen my face, written some fanfiction about it, and then confused me with the Mary Sue he’d created in his mind. Every time I tried to explain that his perceptions didn’t match reality, he refused to listen and insisted I was [insert litany of flattering adjectives that don’t apply to me].

It was awkward, and I was never quite sure how to respond –especially when he paired his compliments with remarks about how unattractive he was. At the time, I read this as insecurity. In retrospect, it looks more like manipulation: The more self-deprecating you are, the more people will coddle you.

Despite the awkwardness, we became friends — or, at least, I was friendly toward him, and he fawned over the Mary Sue he imagined me to be. I’m not sure that constitutes friendship, but it seemed to make him happy, and it wasn’t costing me anything.

Two decades later, Andy started this weird habit of stanning for celebrities accused of sexual misconduct — whereupon he was confronted by the cold reality that I wasn’t a fictional character he could control; I was a living, breathing, thinking woman whose opinions did not necessarily match the headcanon he’d dreamed up to go with my face.

When I said I wasn’t going to buy Peter Yarrow tickets, Andy immediately accused me of hypocrisy, asserting that if Hillary Clinton or Dianne Feinstein pulled something like that, I would fall all over myself to defend her. (Yeah, I don’t know what a couple of female politicians have to do with a folksinger molesting a kid 48 years ago, either. The logic probably works better if you’re drunk.)

When I asked him whether he honestly believed I would give somebody a pass just because I agreed with her politics, he said something that really clarified the nature of our long “friendship”:

“…i (sic) do believe that about you … . I think your politics ranks (sic) above all, because I DO know you.”

Andy does not, in point of fact, know me. AT ALL. He never has. He just knows a character he’s invented with my name and face, onto whom he has projected wishes and whatifs for 23 years. And when he finally had to confront the fact that I am not that character — when he finally had to choose between the real Emily and his imaginary friend — he reacted by saying something that was certain to end our friendship immediately.

I don’t appreciate being manipulated into being the bad guy, especially publicly. But I also don’t need someone in my life who prefers a fictional version of me to reality, and if he insists on dreaming up fanfic about me — well, let’s just say that I am MUCH more comfortable as a villain than as a Mary Sue.

Emily

Ahead of my time

The day I was offered my first teaching job in 1997, I was introduced to “the best teacher in the building” — a lovely woman in her late 50s whose students sat in neat rows and quietly filled out worksheets all hour.

I’d just spent four years listening to my professors tell me students should never sit in neat rows and quietly fill out worksheets, because they need to talk, teach, create, collaborate, move around, and engage in lessons that appeal to as many of their senses as possible, so after politely observing The Best Teacher in the Building and her woefully outdated methods, I proceeded to spend the next year rearranging my classroom about three times a week to accommodate poetry readings, mock trials for Shakespearean characters, mock episodes of Jerry Springer featuring dysfunctional families from Greek mythology, Lord of the Flies-themed scavenger hunts, and similarly noisy, active lessons that made it abundantly clear I was never going to be The Best Teacher in the Building.

At the end of the year, my contract was not renewed, mostly because my principal saw my kids out of their seats every time she walked past my room and concluded that I must be The Worst Teacher in the Building.

My current superintendent’s office is next door to my classroom. The walls are thin enough that I can hear her every time she laughs or speaks in an animated tone, so I know she can hear us every time we laugh, speak in animated tones, have a spirited debate, act out a scene from a play, listen to music, play a game, celebrate a success, or watch a movie.

Today, I wandered over to her office during my plan time to sign some paperwork she had for me. While I was there, I apologized for today’s noise level and explained that the kids were taking their test over Hamlet, which involves watching the movie Strange Brew and identifying all the similarities they can find between it and the play.

She told me I never need to apologize for that or worry that we’re bothering her with our noise, because she likes to hear the kids having fun in class.

I wish my 22-year-old self could have heard that. She wasn’t The Worst Teacher in the Building. She was just ahead of her time.

Emily