Category Archives: Teaching

Taylor Mali, Slam Poet, Is My New Favorite Hero

Known for his tirade defending the teaching profession, Taylor Mali is my new favorite hero. I love the Youtube video that has gone viral. I love him more when I read his comment about how his What Teacher’s Make poem has been copied and sent and referred to over and over that it is now known, in some circles, to be written by anonymous.

Mali said, “National Public Radio did a story about the adventures of the poem in 2004. Am I disappointed not to have received credit for writing this poem that has inspired so many? Used to be. But the truth will always come out in the end. And if I had to choose between inspiring teachers anonymously or not inspiring them at all, I would choose anonymous inspiration every time.”

Yep. My hero.

When asked at a dinner party what did he make as a teacher he replied…

“What do I make? Teachers make a difference. Now, what about you?”

But do you need a laugh? I mean, a really good belly laugh? Enjoy this. (Mommy alert! Adult language is used. Turn down the volume, please.)

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Filed under Teaching

Dear Mrs. Wood

Dear Mrs. Wood,

One of my mentors, a man I never met, died last month. I wrote about him on my blog.  It got me thinking about all of the wonderful teachers I’ve had in my lifetime. My thoughts immediately turned to you.

You were my fourth grade teacher. I had just moved to the area. I was shy. I was awkward. You made me feel like I belonged. As if I had been going to that school since kindergarten. You made me want to be a teacher. Just like you.

I remember afternoons, sitting cross-legged on the floor,  listening to “A Wrinkle In Time” and “From The Mixed Up Files Of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.” I remember math games and warm hugs.

Oh, the hugs. I wanted to escape into your arms every single day. I imagined your home smelled of ginger snaps and fresh laundry. I pictured books stacked high on tabletops and a garden in the back with ripe tomatoes. A cat lazily sunning on the porch. Two lemonade glasses, one for you and one for me.

I imagined going home with you – instead of my empty home. Someone to be there for me when I was scared. Someone to cook me dinner, instead of having to fend for ourselves. A place where kindness was typical and harsh words were few.

When I talked, you would listen with interest. You encouraged me to dream, to hope, to reach. In y0ur classroom, the possibilities were endless. I never felt criticized or helpless.

Remembering now, as an adult, I picture your classroom and it was bright, sunny, full of light. I picture my childhood house and see darkness, stillness and fear. No wonder I raced to school each day, earlier than anyone else – always the first one in line at the door.

My teeth were a mess and I desperately needed braces. You made me feel beautiful.

My home provided shelter. You provided warmth.

My parents were always too busy to listen to me. You dropped everything each time I opened my mouth.

Discipline at home was unpredictable and harsh. You counseled us with care and concern.

I miss you, Mrs. Wood. I miss that very important year in my life. A pivotal moment in my lifetime. A time I remember, oh so well.

It was the year I decided to become a teacher.

Just like you.

Much love,

Jane

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Filed under Growing Up, Teaching

Jaime Escalante – Passionate. Brilliant. Hero.

A few weeks ago, a hero died.

Jaime Escalante.

Jaime Escalante - December 31, 1930 - March 30, 2010

He was my hero. I first learned about him in college. I was finishing up my teaching degree and I had an amazing math professor. Her teaching style was energetic, positive and fun. She taught us about Jaime Escalante and the work he was doing at Garfield High School in California. When the movie about his work with students in L.A. “Stand and Deliver” was released, a bunch of us went to see it.

I was mesmerized.  His energy. His stamina. His drive. His passion.

He was an amazing teacher. He was the teacher I wanted to be.

I was never a strong math student. I struggled to understand and keep up. But in high school, with an amazing Algebra I teacher, something clicked. I was catching on. It wasn’t as hard as I’d thought. But I was a girl. And girls don’t do math. And boys don’t like smart girls. So I played dumb. I fostered the belief in myself that I still wasn’t very good with numbers. My path was English, not math.

During my senior year of high school, I had already received early acceptance to a major university. So, like any other senior in the same position, I slacked off. I coasted. I even dropped out of Trig because, hey – I was going to teach English. Who needs higher math?

When I took my university placement exams I had tested out of freshman mathematics. I shook my head in disbelief and asked them to check again, because I wasn’t very good at math. My advisor assured me that the scores were correct. Had I considered a career in mathematics?

I laughed. Of course not. But unable to stay away, I took a few math courses. And a few more. Pretty soon I was able to have a double major in both math and English. Might come in handy someday, I thought.

I always felt I was a better Math Teacher than English Teacher. English came too easily for me. How in the world do you teach someone how to write? How to analyze? How to interpret?

But with numbers? Easy. Step by step. There was a pattern to discover. A direct path leading to the correct answer.

And, I used to be a struggling math student. I knew, first hand, what it was like to sit in a classroom with numbers whizzing by and you have no idea how everyone else seems to know the answer. I knew how to struggle with a calculus problem that took pages to complete and three tries to get the right answer while your study partner got it right the first time and in 10 less steps.

Math didn’t come easily to me but boy, was it fun! Every day a new puzzle. A new riddle to solve.

Jaime Escalante showed a bunch of kids, a random sampling of American high school students, that they were capable of being great math students. Each year that he taught AP Calculus at Garfield High, more and more students were inspired and passed the exam.

Each and every year.

They weren’t geniuses. It wasn’t luck. It was all because of a man with tenacity, knowledge and a pure love of teaching and his students. The students were inspired by his energy and drive. They were pumped up by his confidence in their abilities. They began to believe in themselves. And then they just went out and did it!

In the years that followed Jaime Escalante’s departure from the Garfield High math program, passing AP Calculus scores plummeted by 80 percent. There was no longer a champion for the students, encouraging a love for math. Garfield High School students were again, just like any other math student across the country. Struggling to see the wonder in numbers. Becoming bored with applications that they’ll “never use.”

An amazing teacher died last month.

A passionate advocate. A brilliant role model.

A hero.

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Filed under People, Teaching

Overcome

I know there are going to be a lot of posts like this today. Forgive me for adding to the surplus. But I’ve never written this down before and I think of this event and how it applies to my teaching career often, especially today.

In my parent’s generation everyone knows where they were when JFK was assasinated. My generation knows exactly what they were doing when 9/11 happened.

I was driving to class. The radio set to my favorite alternative rock station. They cut into the song they were playing and began discussing what was happening in New York. They didn’t always have the best taste with their jokes and that’s exactly what I thought this was. A joke. A really BAD joke. I actually stopped to think: wait, is this April Fool’s Day? No. It’s September. This is in such poor taste. I’m writing the station. And then the female disc jockey started to cry. I knew it was real and I was stunned.

I raced to my classroom and plugged in my laptop. Yes. It was true. My students started filing into class. The news had already spread. We were a “laptop” school. Every student had their own. They were racing in to plug in their laptops. Every one worked together. One student starting organizing which news sites each student would scan, looking for the most up to date information. I didn’t stop it. I let it unfold. They worked together trying to understand what was going on.

 Then it started to sink in. One student’s dad was a pilot. Another’s uncle was a congressman. Another had an aunt that worked at the Pentagon. Many had family that worked or lived in NYC. It hit me. My sister traveled for a living.  Students began asking permission to use their cell phones to call home. I snuck a call to my sister. Her plane had been grounded. She was stuck in Milwaukee. But she was safe.

The administration stepped in and asked that everyone shut down their computers. The information coming in was too disturbing. It was a very organized chaos but  parents began picking up their kids from school early. Our school was PreK – 12. My daughter was just two buildings away and all I wanted to do was hold her. But I had to stay with my students that were left.

Later that night, after we put our daughter to bed my husband and I stood on our deck outside, talking. Or not talking. We were still in shock. But the thing I remember most about that night was how eerie and quiet and still our city was. We couldn’t hear the usual planes or trains. It was still relatively early and no cars were going down our usually busy street.

I’m glad I missed much of the video coverage that later was edited. Falling bodies. Thuds on top of cars and pavement. I watched it later, years later in a documentary. I was able to handle it better then.

To handle this great tragedy my students came up with a brilliant idea. We had just had a discussion how certain songs trigger memories. They decided to create a cd to memorialize 9/11. Each student chose a song that reminded them of 9/11. Songs like: In a New York Minute, I Believe, Everybody Hurts, I Will Remember You, Only in America, Imagine. They worked after school creating cd covers, burning the cds for each student to take home. It was an amazing, healing project. I still have those cds. And I play them every year at about this time. To remember the fallen. To remember those who survived. To remember my sensitive, thoughtful, students. To remember the amazing heroes that were born that day.

So many people criticize our teenagers as self absorbed. Selfish. But in my kids I saw vulnerable, sensitive, caring young people. And in 2001 they channeled that energy and created something truly worth cherishing. I dedicate this post to them.

A song that has stood out for me is posted below. I never imagined I would witness such tragedy in my lifetime. I had always felt so safe in my country. I was so thankful that I didn’t live anywhere else. But on 9/11, I was overcome with so much fear, sadness. Simply overcome.

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Filed under How We Roll, Music, Soapbox, Teaching

They’re just words!

To educate

“Well, I don’t get what the big deal is. They’re just words!” I was floored. I was a teacher at a small private school. Teaching World Literature. We were studying Dante’s Inferno out of Norton’s Anthology of World Literature. Three students turned in papers quoting, verbatim, sections of the editor’s comments that introduced the work. Word for word. 10thGraders. Been writing papers for about 6 years now. Introduced to the concept of plagiarism many times. We discussed it ad nauseum in a lecture I gave. We even worked on exercises together, explaining how to footnote, how to use the MLA method, how to quote within your paper. And clearly, in bold, at the bottom of the assignment sheet, handed out when the paper was first assigned, was typed: “Plagiarism = O”

I couldn’t have been more clear.

But still it happened. The repercussions are simple, right? A zero to each offender. Nope. Two of the three students were board member’s children. A zero could not be “given” to a board member’s child. Whether she earned it or not. Unacceptable. The head of our Upper School questioned me. “Maybe you weren’t clear about just what plagiarism really is.” The Headmaster called a meeting with the parents and me to “sort all of this out.” I was stunned. The infraction was as clear as day. The proof irrefutable.

I received threatening phone calls from a board member’s wife. She’d have my job before her daughter “earned” a zero. One of my colleague’s called me stubborn. And then a parent of a child that wasn’t even involved called me for a conference. Prepared to talk to her about her son’s progress (he was doing beautifully) we sat down. All she wanted to talk about was this “silly business” about plagiarism and she wanted to know why in the world these girls were in so much trouble. I told her this was between me and the girls. She wouldn’t back down. I told her, “Well, for one thing it’s stealing.” “Stealing what?” she asked. I said, “Another person’s thoughts, opinions, words.”

“Well, I don’t get what the big deal is. They’re just words!”

I don’t have much of a poker face. My jaw must have dropped to my knees. There was no reasoning with her. And I sat there thinking, I get it. These entitled, privileged people, used to getting their way, used to sneaking ideas by bosses to get ahead. They just won’t get it. Words don’t have a monetary value to them. And that’s how it has to be explained to them. With a dollar sign. So just like Martin Luther King in his “I Have A Dream” speech laden with monetary references I explained copyright infringements, how being published is like a patent. She nodded slightly and said, “ohhhhh.” But I don’t think she really got it.

Bottom line? Precious Suzy doesn’t cheat. Precious Sally doesn’t fail. But I fought to keep the zero grade and thanks to an incredibly supportive department head it stuck to their precious grade reports. Needless to say, the rest of the school year was a living hell. I received no respect from the parents and as a result that attitude trickled into the classroom and spread like an insidious virus to the other students.

Words are a precious commodity. Especially when combined to create new and intelligent, thought provoking opinion. Protect your words. Protect the words of others. Respect their value.

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Filed under Plagiarism, Teaching