Monday, May 3, 2010


I Want to Know...

...why I'm craving Pho.

...when I will be the successful one in the family.

...why there is still injustice
I want to know it like a bee sting so it will wake me up.

...if there really is a God & Heaven.

...why is the sky blue when there's soo many other colors.

...if you are beautiful inside and out.

...why they make us tune into your screen
Tell us we're ugly and how to fix it with Maybelline.

...what I'm intending to do with this game with no extra lives.

...what love is.
Not that crazy out-there love,
but that controlled and sometimes
love. big space is and why I can't travel
across it.

I want to know it.

Sitting in Diva Espresso on a Monday afternoon, I'm reading poetry.  Reading, not grading, because every once in a while I give an assignment so broad yet personal, that I can't grade it.  The feeling that I'm grading someone's confessions and desires for grammar or--even more arbitrary--poetic quality, leaves me irritable and cold.  So I'm simply reading them, turning page after page on this rainy afternoon, meeting each one like it's a letter from a friend.

I'd asked them what they want to know.  I had no idea what to expect.  I know what I want to know, but what great heights of knowledge are just out of reach for fifteen-year-olds?  Recent experience with them tells me that they know it all, and lack no information.  Certainly they know more than me, more than their parents, more than any adult anywhere.  When I wrote the question, I half expected them to shrug their shoulders, look up at the ceiling and mutter, "Nothing."

I couldn't have been more wrong.  The classroom was silent all day Friday, as they poured their questions onto paper.   Now I'm reading them, hearing voices I've come to know by heart.  Some are about the present--who likes me? who doesn't? will I ever graduate?--but most are bigger picture than that.  They ask about cruelty, injustice, love and God, and I hear my own unspoken questions echoing back in my students' words.  For a moment I wonder if they got the questions from me in the first place, until I remember that I asked them too in ninth grade.

As I read over the poems, the words of my students who want to know so much, I am struck with the realization that we never stop asking, even when someone tells us the answer.  At the end of 2009, I shared an epiphany in a letter to my students: We never stop learning.  I am grateful for that.  Grateful that I've only begun to know, and that knowing fully is years down the road.  In the eleven years that separates me from my students, I've learned some of their answers by heart.  Answers about suffering and friendships and where we've come from and are going.  I've stumbled into discoveries about God, times when I felt that I knew Him.  And yet knowing...

I still want to know more.

"...then I will know fully, even as I am fully known." I Corinthians 13:11

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Lottery

"It isn't fair, it isn't right," Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.

Shirley Jackson, "The Lottery"

NOTE: If you haven't read "The Lottery," it is brief and bone-chilling, and if you desire its ending to be a surprise I recommend reading it before you continue.  I wish there were a way to tell about this class without revealing the ending, but alas, there is not.

No one speaks for a while after I finish reading.  The last words of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," breathtaking and weighty, hangs in the air like smoke from a snuffed candle.  I wonder for a moment, in the silence, whether my students are also imagining Tessie Hutchinson's toddler son picking up pebbles with which to stone his mother.

"OK," someone finally blurts out, "What just happened?"

"They stoned her," a classmate replies.  "That's what the lottery was for.  They stone one person every year."

A shiver runs through the room.

"Oh, that's messed up."

It is messed up.  This story, an American classic, tells of a village that holds an annual lottery to stone one of its residents.  The townspeople are friendly and casual, with a familiar attachment to the traditions that make life predictable.  They approach this particular tradition with a cheerful resignation, awaiting the results and then participating in the stoning, relieved to have escaped for another year.

I've read it for various reasons each year, and continue to understand it more each time.  This year, I am reading it with my students at the close of our Lord of the Flies unit.  With Golding's novel, it is easy to see how the breakdown of civilization parallels the breakdown of morality.  The initial organization the boys created on their island wasn't perfect, but it was in the descent to savagery that they abandoned both the rules of their initial "government" and the moral boundaries it implied.  "The Lottery," by contrast, shows a society that is both extremely civilized and ritualistically evil.

After responding for a few minutes in writing, we begin to talk in greater depth about the story.

"So, what do you think, is this civilization inherently good?" I ask, returning to the journal question with which we started today's class.

No, the students reply in chorus.  We talk for a while about the nature of this civilization, comparing it to immoral dictatorships or traditions all over the world and throughout history.  I had also asked them to speculate on why they might have had this tradition in the first place.

"For entertainment."  The answer is chilling, though I suspect its truth.  I press further.

"Do we see any evidence that this happens in the real world?  Violence for entertainment?"


"Professional wrestling!"

"What about fights?" I ask.  "What happens when you hear there's a fight happening?"

I know the answer already, though I listen for several minutes as they chatter about the herds of people gathering like ants around the writhing, red-faced combatants, holding cell phones and video iPods to capture the details to post on Youtube later.  It's a dark reality of our lives here, particularly in the hall outside my classroom, a distant corner of the school near the edge of campus.  It bothers me how my students, who hope for peace and equality and justice in the world, can at the same time be so enthralled by the violence that happens right in front of them.

It's not the same, I know, high schoolers watching a fight and villagers engaging in the meaningless execution of one of their own.  Both Lord of the Flies and "The Lottery" give dire warnings, terrifying worst-case-scenarios of the consequences of abandoning the restraint of morality.  I can only hope that they've begun to consider it, the savagery lurking beneath the surface of society, and that someday they will be ending conflicts instead of photographing them.

Monday, March 29, 2010


"It's 1:30!  It's time!  Turn off the movie."

I never thought I'd hear it.  Not from Period Five.  They love movies more than anything.  In fact, just a few minutes ago, when asked whether they'd rather be abandoned on an island with a chance of rescue or locked inside a mansion for life, the majority picked house arrest.  "Why?" I demanded.  Their answer was simple and unanimous: Electricity.  No, Ms. D, not just TV.  Who do you think we are?  Computers, video games, microwaves.  We need them all.  Movies especially.

So I'm surprised when they actually remember that I had offered them the last five minutes of class for a dance lesson.  We've been watching a film of Lord of the Flies, and though none of us think it's great, we're all happy to be watching it.  The students meet the actors like they are first dates with Internet matchups, putting faces and voices to well-known entities and evaluating the results.  I watch it with them and realize that they know and like this book better than I'd thought.  It's been a good day, and I would have been content to watch until the bell rings, but Period Five has other plans.  And the plans involve teaching me to dance.

This is actually my second dance lesson today, brought on because of a very public performance earlier in the day, after which these students took it upon themselves to teach me "jerkin'," the move of the hour.  

The first lesson took place in the gym a few hours ago.  In response to a vague call for "teacher volunteers" at a pep assembly, I found myself in a corner of the gym with one of my more challenging students, learning from him the apparently common-knowledge routine for "Crank That," by Souljaboy.  The assembly took place between third and fourth periods; he should have been in my second period, but wasn't.  He frequently isn't.  Our interactions consist of me reminding him that he's brilliant but that it won't matter at all if he doesn't show up.  As he teaches me this dance that he somehow knows by heart, in front of the gleeful ninth grade class, I wonder if it's significant for him to be the expert here.  I hope so, though of course there are no guarantees.  I, too, am just showing up right now, hoping to learn and not sure that I can.  

After ten minutes of practicing in front of the freshmen section--waving my finger back at ninth graders squealing with laughter and saying "Hey, no mocking!"--it was our turn to perform.  We did, he with the schlumping nonchalance that looks so easy, my version a laughing and imperfect mimic.  Dancing is never common-knowledge to me, nor does it come as naturally as to my more graceful sister and terribly cool brother.  I'm awkward and twitchy.  I make the odd, concentrating faces when I'm not laughing outright, and never seem to look as legitimate as anyone else.  This was no different.  I simply looked foolish in front of more people than I generally do.

"So who's teaching me?" I ask Period Five now, turning off the video.  We have someone's iPod connected to the sound system, and I'm ready to try again.  Suddenly they're all shrugs and eyes on shoes. Someone doesn't know how.  Someone is "too white."  Someone knows how but can't be seen in front of the class.

"No one?  Come on.  What's the problem?"

They glance around at each other, shifty and evaluating.  Can they be trusted?  Everyone asks silently.

"Of all classes," I remind them, "I'd think you could dance in this class."  It's a class of eighteen, eighteen students who know each other's names and histories and habits more than any other class.

N finally shrugs, stands at the front of the room, and shows me the backwards skipping in slow enough motion for me to follow.  They laugh at my copy, and several others stand up to show me how.

"Weren't you embarrassed?" Period Five asks.  About the assembly, presumably, though I'm sure it could apply to this new dance, too, or to any number of other moments in class and out.

Embarrassed?  I scroll through past pep assemblies with them.  Shaving cream on my face, Ms. B is throwing Cheetos at me and trying to get the maximum to stick.  J hits me on the side of the head with a volleyball.  I trip over my own clogs while running in a parade around the floor.  No, I shrug.  It doesn't matter.

"For you it doesn't matter.  You don't care what we think of you," someone says.  "It's different for us."

"Come on, that's not fair.  I do care what you think."

"Sure," a boy concedes.  "You care, but you know we already love you."

It's an excellent point he's made, one he probably stumbled on without meaning to.  High school students don't frequently admit to loving anyone--parents, siblings, boyfriends, girlfriends, regular friends or teachers.  Not love, and certainly not out loud.  And yet it's the love that's important here.  Mere admiration or fearful respect might be compromised by a silly moment in an assembly, or a five-minute dance lesson at the end of class.  Love, contrary and enigmatic, grows stronger in shared experience, however trivial.

I'm still learning as the bell rings, ushering in Spring Break in a room of dancing kids.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Hands-Free Honors

hon·or   /ˈɒnər/ 


1. honesty, fairness, or integrity in one's beliefs and actions: a man of honor.

2. a source of credit or distinction: to be an honor to one's family.

3. high respect, as for worth, merit, or rank: to be held in honor.

These are just a few definitions of honor.  How could these apply to high-level classes in high school?

-Journal question for LA9BH
Friday morning, and twenty-seven students are taking notes on the eight questions I've put up on the overhead.  The questions, all loosely related to the latter half of Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel Persepolis, offer a range of responses.  Some refer directly to the novel, asking for reflection on changes in the main character or prediction for the fate of her family.  Most are on a far larger scale.
"The veil, once a religious symbol, became a symbol of submitting to rules and avoiding conflict.  What is the 'veil' for you?"
"If your country was at war, would you leave to avoid the conflict, or stay to try to make it better?"
"Is it morally right to rebel against the government, as Marjane's family does when they have parties, or as Marjane does by buying banned music?  Explain."
The students, now jotting down answers, also wrote the questions. 
Yesterday, I handed each group an index card and asked them to contribute one discussion question.  I offered assistance in rewording and clarifying, but the questions are all theirs.
*   *   *
Small and thoughtful, holders of the Best Debate Ever in October, Period Two caught my attention early on.  Their class, ten minutes longer than others, usually had twice that time to spare when they had diligently worked through their lessons.  Their collective discipline, along with slightly higher reading scores than an average section of Language Arts 9, gave me the evidence I needed to make my claim: Period Two should be an honors class.
Getting permission from my department and administration proved easy.  Asking the students their thoughts on the matter was touching.  I read them an excerpt from the blog entry I'd written about their debate, told them that they were one of the most motivated and thoughtful classes I'd ever taught.  We talked about status and getting the most out of their education.  Up for the challenge, they wrote that they would be proud to be in an honors class, even if it meant more work.  A changed course title, a few more students, and Period Two and their teacher were transformed, overnight, from Regular to Honors.
*   *   *
I was an honors student. 
What started as honors Math and Language Arts in ninth grade grew by the end of high school to the four-AP-class schedule of a neurotic honors addict.  I'd like to say I'd entered each class with the same commitment to challenge and learning that I've asked of my current students, but the truth is that I didn't take AP Calculus because I wanted the best math experience available to me.  Honors classes were automatic, not an honor at all but a necessity, an entitlement.

We were the students who cleverly wrote our way out of corners, then were surprised when the unresearched essays came back with D grades.  The ones who spent a quarter lighting methane bubbles on fire and mixing glowing solutions in the AP Chemistry lab, then were jolted to reality by a threatening B on our quarter report cards.  

Motives aside, we did learn.  A great deal, really, from committed teachers and students who brought unique and often bizarre gifts to each subject.  I could fill an essay about Dante with allusions to Hamlet that Matt found annoying, even as he compared the Inferno to a Nine Inch Nails album.  I may have left the Calculus test trembling with confusion, but I could be sure that Rachel would explain that last wretched inverted cone problem in a way that didn't make me feel like an idiot.  In our auto-pilot, all-honors scheduling, after a while the whole of our cohort became greater than the thirty or so parts that made it up.

*   *   *

In many ways, Period Two isn't the Honors that I knew as a student.  Neither, for that matter, is it the Honors of the other three ninth grade sections, taught down the hall by another teacher.  There is no entitlement here; of these thirty students, only a few are reading at the college level, and virtually none of them have done nine laps on the advanced-class track.  Half of the students speak another language at home, and possibly a third were born outside of the United States.  Western mythology hasn't been built into their childhoods the way it was in mine.  In a very real way, we are all aware that this honor means effort, that it will require time and energy to achieve.  Writing thesis statements and outlines, reading this Azar Nafizi article about the future of Islamic law in Iran--it's unfamiliar territory.

And yet the deep value of community holds here, as it did in my own education; as a whole, Period Two is a unmatched collective of past experience and future aspirations.  While at Ballard we brought our idiosyncrasies and tastes to create diversity, here the students contribute entire continents of self and well-articulated hopes to change the world.

"As a Muslim, I think this whole issue of enforcing the veil is hypocritical," says a young woman, herself wearing a hijab.  "The Quran says you can't kill anybody, so how are they doing that in the book?  Threatening to kill people for not wearing the veil, that's messed up."

A few hands go up and then down again, as the students remember that we're experimenting today with "hands-free" discourse.  There have been long pauses, but so far no one is complaining.

"So why can they do that?" another student asks her.

"I don't know," she shrugs.  "It's wrong.  It's not Islam."

"It's... it's fundamentalism," another girl adds, gesturing in triumph to the list of vocabulary words on the wall.

"Right," I say.  "Remember, it's why Satrapi wrote the book in the first place.  To show that not all Islam is like the Ayatollah."

"So, what is the veil for you?" a boy across the room asks, redirecting his peers to the question at hand.  "If they are trying to stay out of trouble--'avoid conflict'--what do we do?"

It's out of my hands, this conversation, and I'm thinking about the privileges inherent to these advanced classes.  A tenth grade teacher at my school, who's also "promoted" one of her regular sections to honors this semester, has talked to her students about the "status" of honors classes, how without necessarily meaning "smarter" these classes imply seriousness and motivation that will open future doors.  Today, honors means hands-free and student-led discussion, as we connect literature to politics, history and the future.

It won't be easy, we know.  But the honor of the challenge, the freedom it's given us to explore and reach, may just be worth the risk.

Monday, February 22, 2010

God in Diversions

I just gave one of my students a Bible.

A controversial move for a public school teacher in Seattle, I’m aware.  It wasn’t my intention, when I woke up this morning, to go handing out scripture to my pupils, but honestly these days seldom unfold to line up with my every intention.  More often someone—me or them, a fire drill or assembly or, as with today, a Gideon representative—knocks the plans askew, and we learn more or less, but always different things than I expected.  The best-planned lessons prove to be abstract dead ends; the diversions lead us to vistas of meaning that no one saw coming.

It wasn’t a Bible, entirely, in the sense that it was only a New Testament.  A tiny New Testament, bound in orange faux-leather, stamped with the two-handled jar of Gideons International.  A student handed it to me a moment ago, tossing it with the same gesture that kids sometimes give each other empty candy wrappers as “presents.”

“Here, Ms. D, I’ve got something for you.”  Students are packing up in these last two minutes of class, and I cross the room to collect the proffered item.

“Oh hey, thanks,” I laugh, taking it and walking away.  The atmosphere in the room is a cheery buzz.  No one is listening to me, nor should they be as they write in planners and zip up backpacks.  I open the miniature book, which reminds me of being in high school and the mixture of defensiveness and safety that I used to feel on the days that these “witnesses” came to give God’s word to the students of our school.  I wasn’t embarrassed then, nor am I now.  These aren’t salacious or exploitive tracts, the ones whose worldview have earned Christians—in Seattle at least—a reputation at best of narrow-mindedness, at worst of deep hatred for anyone “outside the camp.”  They are orange New Testaments, tiny but transformative.

“This has the Psalms and the Proverbs,” I exclaim aloud, mostly to myself, as I flip through the pages and marvel aloud at the size of the text.  “This is good stuff.”  I don’t imagine anyone is listening.

This moment—never mind the Bible-giving it precedes—reminds me later of how far I have come as a Christian teacher in a public school.  I spent the first few years of teaching in a state of silent anonymity regarding my own beliefs, feeling that honesty here would be an intrusion or compromise any “relevance” I’d come to have.

I don’t know what changed.  Perhaps a growing desire to be transparent with the students from whom I asked transparency, or the sense that since other staff members spoke freely about their faiths I could do the same.  In any case, though I don’t spend time preaching from my desk, at this point all my students are aware in some sense that their English teacher is “religious.”

A student is watching me read Proverbs to myself at the end of class.  It’s not the eye-rolling watching that I generally receive for doing something decidedly uncool, but a serious and thoughtful stare.  He’s a quiet student I still don’t know as well as I’d like.

“Do you want this?” I ask lightheartedly.

He nods, and in a moment the orange covers are lost in his large hand.

When it comes to legality, to First Amendment issues, I have only a hazy concept of my parameters here.  I know that I don’t teach a Bible class, that I’m required to balance and not to editorialize.  I also know that “religion” as we know it crops up everywhere in English class, like it or not.  I can’t talk about the Islamic Revolution without examining its religious roots, nor can we get terribly far in The Merchant of Venice without explaining the biblical references planted among themes of mercy and justice. 

In a discussion of political rebellion last week, we came to a standstill in one class because students couldn’t explain where human rights originate.

“So, if your government doesn’t give you the freedom of speech, do you still have it?” I asked.

“No,” a few kids shrugged.

No? Governments are the ones deciding what’s right and wrong?  Governments are always right?  Consider that for a second.”

They consider.

“Well… no,” they sigh.  “That’s not true, but… It’s just right, that’s all.”

Only the students who believe in God, whether Jesus or Allah or Yaweh, can give more specific replies.

“Those things are from God,” one of them states, after a few more rounds of confusion.  “That’s what I believe, anyway.  That it’s God that gives people freedom.”

I never expected the conversation, designed to be innocuously revolutionary, to turn to matters of God or moral law, which ultimately keep us occupied for several minutes.  While I feel compelled towards greater honesty and approachability about faith, at the same I time I respect our differences, remembering the intense discrimination I felt in high school from some of my more “devout” atheist teachers.  Yet here we are.  Truth out in the open, for us to examine together. 

And an orange New Testament from teacher to student.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"When Your Homework's Done"

Room 120 is silent.  

It seems like it's never silent anymore, like I've somehow made peace with certain amounts of noise as they contribute to learning or the flow of ideas.  Either I'm talking or they are, and that's mostly perfect.  Silence now inhabits the realm of top-shelf punishments, saved for the class so unruly that they "lost the privilege of talking" for two days.  The first day, it was a clever novelty, and they dutifully read the short story and answered eleven questions.  By Day 2 they were sufficiently horrified.  "When can we TALK again?" they whispered.  We like talking, all of us.

Today, though, the silence is neither a grudging disciplinary measure nor the sullen blankness of early morning.  It's 10:55 AM, and my students are awake, not hungry, and writing.

To be fair, some of them are writing.  A few are drawing spirals on sheets of scratch paper or staring at lone sentences as if they splash words on the page with their minds.  My class isn't perfect; it's just quiet for a while.

Most of them, though, are writing, pencils and pens crawling across paper, slowly and quickly, tracing large and small letters back and forth like switchbacks descending down the desktops.     I should be planning or grading or doing something, but I'm watching them write, because I love watching students write.  Not just write--create.

We've been writing stories this week, the last of the semester, participating in what I've cleverly named The Great Story Contest.  It's a convoluted tournament of fiction, combining team creativity and individual literary skill, that I made up during Period One yesterday, when "Just write a story together this week" seemed like too sparse a lesson plan, even for me.  Yesterday, they arranged the skeleton details of the story, the real words with instructional merit like protagonist, antagonist, setting, and theme.  Today, everyone is writing their own versions of the stories.

I love assigning stories entirely because I loved writing them in school.  I remember the refreshing freedom of writing creatively to a prompt, having a structure within which to control a tiny world.  I especially loved them after I'd been laboring away at the clinical primness of research or history papers.  It's pure nostalgia that leads me to fill this last week of the semester--the week after students finish a month-long research project that's drained most of my energy for a long time--with stories about babies who fall in love, villainous Lasercats, or a race of blueberry people.  It's relaxing to me, after so long dwelling on finding answers to pressing questions, to leave the answers alone for a while and enjoy the freedom of arranging tiny worlds the way we want them.  You want your kangaroo protagonist to fight a fox named Roxy over the privilege of eating the "little leaping lemur" they found?  YES.  Let me know how it turns out.

With two minutes to go, I have to break the silence.

"OK, students.  You can pack up your things.  Nicely done today, by the way.  I'm excited to hear these stories."

"Do we finish them tonight?" someone asks.  

"You can if you want to.  We'll have about 15 minutes tomorrow to work on them."

"I'm finishing tonight," the boy replies.  "This is getting good." 

I hadn't intended this game to be homework, hoping to give them time to finish projects in other classes this week after working so hard last week.

"OK, but don't prioritize this, you know, over your other classes.  I'll give you time tomorrow.  So if you have a project or a final to study for, do that first."

It's one of those surreal moments, retro TV commercial territory, where the kid is begging for broccoli while his mom pushes calcium-infused chocolate pudding on him.

"Sure," he finally says.  "But if I finish everything else--all my work--then can I work on the story?"

I start to laugh.  "Of course," I say.  I don't tell him that I ask myself the same question nearly every day.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Overheard this Year

Waiting after school for an art show, going through old notebooks.  These are some excerpts from "Things My Students Say," a collaborative effort from students and the teacher who writes down what they're saying.

On Homework

K: I was reading in the book last night... and I realized that I don't like it.  It's not cool.

J: I  called you like five times this weekend!
J: Yeah.  My dad got a Playstation 3, so we were kinda busy.

On Vocabulary

O: "Spontaneous."  So, unplanned, right?
S: Oh.  Like a pregnancy?

A: "Clowns are irrelevant, when compared to presidents."
J: "A myriad of Legos can make almost anything."

S: I thought "scour" was a really bad look.
O: That's a scowl.
K: I thought it was a bad burn.
Me: A bad bird?  An owl?
K: No, a bad burn.
O: Scald!  No, scour is...

On Animals

O: I wouldn't give my ring away for something silly, like a monkey.
H: Neither would I.  She could get a horse.
Me: They don't need horses.  There aren't any roads [in Venice].
H: Oh yeah.  Aren't they on the water?
S: Do the monkeys swim?

O: Put the camel away.  Or keep it to yourself.

L: Oh, that would be badass to have four legs!

On the Moon

M: You know, the moon never looks happy.  It's always up there in the sky and... you know... sad.

On Diving

M: No, you don't understand.  G's don't dive!

On Burning Man

M: What I'm scared of is this massive dude on acid is going to beat me up.
J: What massive dude?
M: There's always a massive dude.

On Getting a Dark Hershey's Kiss instead of a Hershey's Hug Out of a Cardboard Box Called "The Box of Destiny"

T: Aw!  Destiny screwed me!

On Music
L: Who is this? (on the stereo)

Me: Joni Mitchell.

L: Oh, I know her! My grandma listens to her.

What joy.  Time for the show!