Mosaic of Broken Pieces

Pathways to Social Justice: it sounds inspiring, right? A six day journey into identity, into connecting my broken piece of soul with those who were once strangers. Since I often find writing to be a way to gather my thoughts and hold them close, to make the intangible visible, this blog post is dedicated to some of the wisdom I learned.

Rather than a long post, where I might trivialize the power of what I learned, here are my takeaways:

  1. We must make connections to show the complexity of the story that everyone has, and without a deeper understanding of self, no connections can be accomplished.
  2. A mosaic is made up of broken pieces that must be carefully fit together, much like a learning environment.
  3. The edges of each mosaic piece holds its own jagged pain, which cannot be compared the pain of others. Pain is pain; you cannot compare it to say which is worse.
  4. Empathy is taking steps to alleviate the pain of others, to imagine yourself in their skin, and be moved to action. Sympathy is merely pity for others.
  5. A story is transformed when begun at different points. Better to acknowledge that Jews are more than victims, Africans more than slaves, and Native Americans more than casinos.
  6. Vast numbers are incomprehensible; we must put a face on tragedy to make it tangible, and wherever possible, meet face to face to learn the stories of others.
  7. Focus on life, on story, on connecting to others, rather than tragedy and sorrow. When we feel connected, we are moved to make a difference.
  8. We are not merely good or evil; we are a cloudy mixture of both.
  9.   Humanity is flawed, and we must deal with it the best way we can.

I found this week exhausting, invigorating, inspiring, and life affirming. My thanks to Sue Fletcher and Rose Sansalone, who led this amazing week, and to the Memorial Library for making it possible. If you’d like to spend a week that will echo in your life for a long time afterwards, see this site: The Memorial Library.


And they finally worked as a team

Yesterday was a beautiful thing. The class that had been at each other’s throats somehow transformed before my eyes into a functioning learning community. And I owe it all to zombies.

If you’ve read earlier posts, you’ll know that I spent several weeks trying to build a sense of community in my classes this year, using a Zombie unit. We focused on being prepared, working together, and staying focused. Really, regardless of the disaster, these three community builders will help. And last year’s classes had felt a lot like a disaster. And it worked–for the most part, people settled down to work together and stay focused, with occasional lapses of being prepared.

Except for 7th period. Gentle reader, if you want to read only good news, skip to the subheading below. Otherwise, read on. Just as a for instance, it is one of my policies that if we are in the library, students can excuse themselves to go to restroom, which is right around the corner. On Monday, we renewed our silent reading books in the library. While we waited for everyone to renew their books, I watched one girl (let’s call her T) stand around and talk to her friend. Not a problem, I thought, she must have renewed her book earlier. After about ten minutes, we headed back to my room. As I am settling them back down in their seats and trying to begin that day’s lesson, T suddenly shouts, “I have to pee!”

“Where is your planner?” I wearily ask her, knowing the answer already, as we have talked about her planner for several days in a row.

“It’s right here, but you know I don’t have any hall passes.”

“I’m sorry, T, but we’ve talked about this before. I can’t let you leave my room without a pass.” Note that my room is half way across the school from the bathroom.

And so it went, for at least another five minutes of class time. She knows, because I and others have told her, that she could get another planner from the office. She knows the school’s policy of passes in the hallway. She knows she’s not supposed to use anyone else’s passes in anyone else’s planner.

So I ask her, “Why didn’t you go while we were in the library?”

“I didn’t have to go then,” she claims. As this inane conversation goes on and on, students are opining how mean I am, how other teachers would let T go, or how they would lend her their planner. One or two kids remind her that she could always get a planner, but really, the main problem here is we wasted instructional time on one student’s lack of preparation. Also, that student spent the rest of the period disrupting instruction (with the occasional comments about how much she had to pee)and not getting anything done herself.

Granted, it was nothing like last year’ students, although it might sound as bad.

The Miracle

And then on Wednesday something miraculous happened. We were working on looking up articles in a database, so students could have a Socratic Seminar about their topic and follow up with a research paper. In addition, we worked on the technology skills of using keyboard shortcuts for copying and pasting, permalinking, and adding links into a shared Google document. All part of my 21st Century classroom, but all skills they really haven’t mastered yet. One student had spent time in study hall getting the last of his articles before class. So I said, “Well, McF, you can start reading articles and deciding which ones from your group’s list will best support your argument, or you can help the other students.”

And McF got up and started walking around the room, helping. Although earlier in the day, my other classes had easily followed my directions and went to town, this class was full of folks who had “misplaced” their directions. They couldn’t figure out why nothing copied, or why their links didn’t look like my example. Quietly, without a fuss, McF helped them all. As other students finished, they took a page from his book and helped the others.

All week, I had a cart of Chromebooks to supplement the 14 that stay in my room permanently. At the end of the day, I have had to sort the computers into two groups: the ones that get plugged into my cabinet and the ones that go back downstairs. Well, that day I had student helpers. After asking me how I could tell the difference between the two, students quietly put back all the computers.

I truly think that if I had not spent time in the beginning of the year working on how they needed to be a team, we wouldn’t have had a successful period. No one deliberately deleted anyone else’s work from the computer. No one mocked the computer skills of anyone else. No one threw a fit about their planner. It was a beautiful thing.

Respectful Relationships with the 99%

Like many of my colleagues, I am struggling this year with building respectful relationships with my students. I have very few rules posted in my room, but I believe deeply in each one, and it drives crazy to have to do battle every time a rule gets broken. Is “Respect each other” so hard to do? And when I try to be patient and respectful to them, why do they snap back with attitude?

Case in point: I created a new seating chart, trying to separate my chattier boys from each other. On my chart, one boy in particular was placed without many neighbors. He threw a fit. Instead of just sitting down so we could start class, he turned to the rest of the class, threw up his arms, and declared there was no reason for him to have to sit down. He told me I couldn’t sit him in the front, and invited the class to join him in anger about my unfairness. Not only did he lack respect for me, but also to the rest of the class, who just wanted to get started with our day. He would not stop yelling until I told him to report to the office.

The entire team of sophomore teachers got together with the administration to discuss how we would handle the future. They plan to meet with the entire class and try to “set them straight.” We are advised to provide them with more teacher led instruction, which I hate, and to first warn students when they break a rule and then issue them a consequence. And when they grand stand, we are to send them out, which will subsequently double whatever consequence we give them.

And so, on this Thanksgiving day, I will try to focus on the 99% of my students who show respect and let the 1% go, till I see them on Monday. Hard to do, but worth it.

Honest Leadership

I was all prepared to give the test. One week is enough to read 11 chapters, right? This is college prep English, after all. But then I realized Friday was HOBY presentation day, where we have guest speakers coming to get the students excited about a summer leadership conference. Still, I thought, this isn’t a problem. The other sophomore English teacher was in the same boat.

And then it happened. One of my students got red in the face and told me I was being unfair. She explained that she’d been trying all week, reading as fast as she could, and that she was nowhere near ready. I was annoyed. Really? I retorted that in an actual college class, they’d have to read much more.

Our guest speakers arrived, and rather than the 15 minutes I thought they’d spend, they stayed longer. Two girls, talking about the power of leadership. I started dwelling on what my student had shared with me. As someone who professes to be student-centered, how did insisting on a Friday test fit with my new philosophy?

It didn’t.  So as I shut the door behind our guests, I said, “We have someone in this room who took on a leadership roll this morning. She wasn’t afraid to tell me when she thought I was being unfair.” And when I asked how many other students were in the same situation, more than half the class raises their hands. I put off the test, after getting assurances from students that they would read over the Thanksgiving break.

So, fellow reader, did I do the right thing?

Students are Awesome


Today, a former student popped into my room, book in hand. I smiled.
“Is this the book you were talking about?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I’ll finish reading the second one, soon, too.”
And did he stop later in the day to see if I’d started reading it yet? Yes, he did.
Seems my former students know me for the book junky I am.

Now to hope for a snow day tomorrow.

Staying Positive on a Grey Day

My family has a terrible tendecy to be negative. When I get my kids in the car to go  home,  it’s never, “I had the best day” or even “I had an okay day.” It’s always, “I had the worst day, mama.”  I try to refocus them, asking “What was the best part of your day?”  But sometimes, there is no best part to your day.

In my family, you have to work at seeing the sunlight through the clouds. You have to stop and take a minute to be grateful for all the wonderfulness that exists out in the world.  If I focus on all the things that didn’t work today, I could dwell on the fact that my CP English class got competitive, not collaborative, during our Mock Trial.  I might focus on the fact that I made my eight year old daughter cry when she came to my classroom and saw I had to dismantle her display she had set up on my only classroom table. I might obsess about the fact my four year son, who had stayed dry two nights in a row, had an accident at school and came home wearing snow pants.

Instead, I’m going to add some light. The hush of the students, keys clacking, as they demanded to know “What’s behind the corner!!!” The smile on my daughter’s face when she realized I really had made her macaroni and cheese, along with the chicken soup the rest of us ate. My son’s grin as he got to be the one to pick the PBS Kids show after school today. The anticipation of my favorite twitter chat, #flipclass, that is just about to start. The accomplishment of writing four for four posts in the November blogging challenge. And the satisfaction of losing that pound and a half I’d gained back.

Let’s call it a grey, not black day.