Monthly Archives: September 2012

Reading Junot Diaz (with Marvin in the Margins)

Drown always comes up as a book people often use in their classrooms. Kids love it, they say. That refrain, of kids loving it, is usually enough to garner at least one copy of said title in my classroom free reading collection, but I let Drown allude me. Two years ago, while combing through my department head’s binder, I found some stories from Drown with her meticulous notes and queries to push kids into and through the text, and thought that I’d use those stories in my Modern American Short Story unit.

So late to the party, I was.

The kids loved Junot. Rather, they loved the humor, the honesty, the heartbreak of the characters. When we read the New Yorker short story “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” we had an intense discussion about Oscar: fool or hero? Wasn’t dying for love admirable? (Many thought not. Oscar, they reasoned, was just a pitiful loser).

When I knew Diaz was releasing a new collection of short stories, I was more receptive (finally). I often half-listen to adults, but when young people talk, they generally have my full attention.

After being completely floored that my young Dominican students (particularly the boys) had NO IDEA who Junot Diaz was, and after I made several grandish claims (see earlier blog posts), I photocopied his short story “Ms. Lora” from another New Yorker where it ran that summer.

I was so anxious to finally read This is How You Lose Her that I ordered it on Amazon, was promptly struck with book buyer’s amnesia (it’s happened before), and purchased another copy in a local bookstore. (And maybe I was attempting to correct my book buying karma by keeping it local–sort of).

Then, I intentionally took the subway from one end to another, purposely scheduled a meeting and arrived an hour early so I could read and not be interrupted, so I could have the experience that kids have been having all along.

This experience of reading TIHYLH has been infuriating, comforting, endearing…makes me want to reread every page real slow because I don’t have something to read next that’s going to be as good.

I vacillate between wanting to punch Yunior in the face for being so callous with women to hoping to offer him a soft place to land for losing his brother to cancer. I want to shake the women who bide their time with men who see them when their “main women” are otherwise occupied. I want to take others by the hand and tell them to just hold on. It gets better.

I read so many pieces of text in my life that I think I lose my edge of actually feeling…thus, when I read something and it sucker punches me, I’m disoriented, gotta tell everyone about it, intentionally schedule reading time into classes so kids can read (but really so I can read, too).

What am I going to do with that extra copy? Well, I emailed that student who I had in class this summer and told him I’ve ended up with an extra copy of the book. Does he want it? Wait. First, I emailed him to ask if he knew the book was out and he said “Ha, way ahead of you Kim. This Is How You Lose Her, planning on getting it this week. Also, the short story Ms. Lora, was phenomenal. The Dominican culture in it is very similar to my own. I never knew I would ever find such things as the plastic covers on sofas being written about in a book! Hope all is well.”

I’ll make sure that extra copy gets delivered this weekend and follow up in a few weeks. I will listen more than I speak, simply content that a book and an author can create a text that we care about and will talk about for months to come.


This is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz

Then, he’ll return the favor. “I’ll have a book for you by the summer comes,” he writes.

And he will.

Leave a comment

Filed under Student Interactions, Teaching Writing in the Summer

New School Chronicles: The Discourse of Teaching

At some point in Ph.D. school, I was in a class about discourse. My professor explained about one type of discourse in particular (and the exact title eludes me now, ugh) that one could be in a situation and learn the discourse, but, eventually, the truth would out. One might attempt to internalize the patterns of speech, of nonverbal communication that accompanied that speech, etc., but one day, that same person would find him/herself in a situation that required them to know the nuances of that discourse. Not knowing those finite details–which people who had grown up with because they had created the discourse–the “imposter” would be detected. Thus, one could swim in those waters but the possibility existed that they would one day be found out. I think that’s accurate–I’ve somehow lost all my notes, but these theories bubble up at the weirdest moments.

I bring that up because that’s what teaching in the suburbs felt like. I was out of step when I first began, but through careful observation, reflection and patience, I learned the discourse of teaching in a suburban school: how to talk about practice, how to lead discussions, how to do things differently than what I knew from an urban environment, essentially.

However, I never quite felt comfortable with that discourse. It never felt quite right, quite…me. I missed my more familiar discourse.

Now, in a different environment, I think the discourse is more appropriate to what I want, but now, there is nuance. So, while the discourse of this new place is familiar, I have opportunities to inflect that new knowledge from the suburbs.

I’m creating a hybrid discourse. This creation is both exhilarating and scary–but what I’ve realized about this process is that I’m not afraid to try it anymore. I used to be, so scared that I was going to mess up, not do something right…fraught with stress and tension.

Now, though, I’m much less hesitant to at least “dip my oar” into the waters and paddle. How interesting, too, it is to brush by familiar touchstones and carve out new ones within my practice, and to invite others to do the same.

There’s room for all, here, and because this is a hybrid discourse, I’m hoping to alleviate the fear that there’s a “right” way and a “wrong” way to do it.

We just gotta do it.

Leave a comment

Filed under New School Chronicles

Developing Professionally

Years ago, I received an award as a young teacher from my regional professional English teaching organization. After attending the conference to receive the award, I started attending yearly, got up the courage to present a few times, and eventually became part of the board as the chair for Urban Outreach.

Last weekend, we had a board retreat in Maine (which is beautiful this time of year). We’re in the process of ironing out workshops that are directly responsive to what teachers need, particularly in relation to understanding close reading in the age of the Common Core Standards (i.e., what it is and what it isn’t, and the various ways to do it).

In preparation for that decision, various board members have been demo-ing potential workshops. Two in particular were so informative, useful and…good, just good, that I had that moment of being in a time and place with master teachers who are generous with what they know. I felt so lucky. The thing is about master teachers is that I think they rarely will acknowledge they’re masters (because teaching is so darn humbling at every moment of the day), but when you’re watching them go about their business–and even when you’re listening to the sort of meta commentary they’re giving when they’re chatting before or after they present their workshop–you learn so much.

They are also honest: they speak about their frustrations, their challenges, some occasional victories, and they humanize teaching enough to make me feel confident enough to at least try what they’ve presented in my classroom of kids, and try it with enough confidence that I think what I do might have a shot of working. And if it doesn’t, that’s okay, too. They are there to listen, to suggest, to tweak, to encourage to try again.

Thus, this service to the profession has done a tremendous amount for my own professional growth. Since I’ve joined the board, I’ve benefitted from some true mentoring: about practice, about professionalism, about life.

Leave a comment

Filed under Professional Development

New School Chronicles: Capacity

John Updike wrote a poem called “Capacity,” a fantastic summary of 26 passengers on a bus. Among the descriptions include affable, bibulous, corpulent, garrulous, jejune, knockabout, querulous, rakish, xanthic, zebuesque. How incredible are those words? How much fun would it be to use those words to teach vocabulary and to have students come up with their own (positive) descriptions for the people on our own (classroom) bus? Aren’t we all passengers?

I got that idea about teaching that poem from a former colleague. I have been turning it around in my head how I might use it. I want to do a more intentional vocabulary study. I think we could take ownership of those words, study synonyms, modern usage, do some composing.

This poem also makes me think of who these passengers are on this bus that I attempt to steer this semester. I have adolescent and adult learners and on the very best days, I put the two in conversation with each other, as what is going on in my high school classroom directly informs what I do later that day by working with preservice teachers.

Of late, I’ve been trying to help the adolescents think of their capacity to learn, particularly as related to effective effort and grit. Essentially, smart is what you get by using specific strategies to improve. Intelligence is not fixed. The bell curve is wrong.

That’s a hard pill to swallow for some honors kids. And incredibly freeing for others. Seriously. As we were discussing growth vs. fixed mindsets, more kids would speak up, confirming being called smart by well-meaning adults and peers, feeling pressure to live up to their siblings’ accomplishments, thinking that one is “just born smart” and that it’s an indicator of unsmartness (my word) if you have to work hard. I can see how learning how to foster a growth mindset can mess kids up if they’ve always been told they were exceptional, that this rarefied air is reserved for only a few–what, the keys to the kingdom are that accesible?!

By the time I rolled around to the third period of teaching that lesson again, I was well prepared for their resistance, astonishment and some simmering anger. And then, they began to ask the questions that leads me to believe that these just might be the change-agents in this world we need them to be.

One student asked a question about IQ, which led to some uncertainty about even knowing what the test measured (it was originally used to identify people thought to be the best military leaders), that a few had taken it, that it asked “random facts.” Then, we somehow got onto talking about standardized tests, and another chimed in that the correlation between how well you di on the SAT was really about how much money you had. That response caused another to ask about the relationship between race, class and SAT scores (I couldn’t have made this up if I tried), which was answered by a student who had done that very research over the summer. That led us back around to an entirely innocent question posed by another student, about why we needed these tests in the first place?


Whoa. I was happy to have that moment to pause, wrap it up, tell them we’d continue the next day in the context of reading Carol Dweck’s Mindset and the article about grit by Jonah Lehrer, finishing with effective effort narratives. I want them to have some tangible reminder of times when working hard and working smart helped them achieve success. Well, that’s in my head about where I want to go. Wanting and doing are two very different things, but I think it’s an important use of our class time, these few days we’re spending on fostering a growth mindset. It sets the stage for the on-going conversations we’ll have about their growth over the term. When they can chart the point from where they started and the tangible growth (through a variety of measures, only one of which includes a grade, which I know is important, but I also stress that the grade is merely an indicator of where they are at that moment in time and, again, with effective effort, if they want to change that grade, we can work together to do just that), that means something.

That develops their capacity to be better students, and also develops my capacity to be a better teacher.

1 Comment

Filed under New School Chronicles

New School Chronicles: What Poverty Smells Like

After growing up poor, you have a particular type of respect for your parents’ ability to keep that vital bit of information from you. I grew up dirt poor; seriously, I think at one point our household income might have been less than $18,000. Raised by my grandparents, I remember that they often didn’t have to file taxes because they didn’t make enough. But there was always money for essentials and some extras. True, I envied what my more affluent peers had, but my grandmother always told me that I could do whatever I set my mind to.

Years later, I guess that one of the things I set my mind to was getting the hell out of poverty. I had an unbelievable network of folks (Black and White, mostly White, actually), that had an unwavering support in my potential. More, they helped me reach that potential in myriad ways: small gifts, jobs, connections.

When I taught in the city, I always made a conscious decision to live in the neighborhood where I taught. That’s meant living within a mile of one of the poorest areas of Boston. Recently, I moved to another part of the city. Before, though I lived in that poor area, I lived on particular street that was middle class (some parts even upper middle class). So, I could straddle two worlds: walk to my school and then turn the corner on the way home and think I was in the suburbs. Now, though, I live in an area where I don’t have that escape. I live in a food desert (well, there is a Save-A-Lot), where liquor stores outnumber any other stores, high immigrant population, significant areas of crime (because I obsess about crime stats)…and my street is quiet and tree-lined, but this time, it’s not enough.

Where I live reminds me, too uncomfortably, about being poor. I don’t like such reminders.

And now I have this interesting moment wherein I’m always quick to acknowledge someone else’s privilege, but I best acknowledge my own. See, I’m moving out. After one month, I’m moving BACK to my old, middle class neighborhood because I want to live around people with similar “middle class values.” I do not like the way my apartment smells–a blend of despair, mold, diminishing dreams–the litter that’s everywhere, the sadness that lingers as I walk to the bus stop.

I am privileged. I have savings. I can move. I have friends who are willing to put me up while I’m in between places. I have a choice. I am Black and middle class and I have privilege.

I’ve run into a number of former students (ALWAYS) in my new location. They are all surprised that I live over here, some even ask me if I am “okay” for making such a choice. But THEY live here. This neighborhood is their daily reality, this neighborhood is the place where they grew up, where their families still reside.

They do not necessarily see it as hopeless, and I shouldn’t, either. Some do, but some don’t. Every kid’s experience is different.

But with privilege comes responsibility. I have a choice, after all: I could move back to the old neighborhood, think of this one-month stint as an “adventure” and keep living my relatively comfortable life. Or, I could act on this new information and use it to have a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be Black and Brown and poor as a young person today. I could start being much more responsible for advocating for initiatives that directly benefit these kids. I could understand–I mean, REALLY understand— that just because you’re Black and Brown and poor does not mean you are stupid or have no potential.

I could…

In the last week, I’ve been able to articulate why I have been so uncomfortable in my present situation. I do not want to be reminded of being poor. That is my privilege. Yes, I’m a Black woman, but I’m highly educated and I have the options to choose my life. As someone with that privilege, it’s my responsibility to use that privilege to make the lives of the kids I teach who don’t have that privilege better.

It just is.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

New School Chronicles: Rolling Tape


Who knew that rolling tape would be the perfect moment to reflect on the day?

For the first time in about five or six years, I have my own classroom again. I don’t have to share with anyone. I don’t have to travel, don’t have to squeeze my posters onto a bulletin board the size of a postage stamp. Don’t have to lament putting something in one location only to return to find it placed elsewhere (sometimes with a nice-nasty note about “forgetting” where to leave my stuff). I didn’t realize how much sharing space can be a cause of stress if one must share with someone who is territorial, or more senior, or more…yeah.

But this year, I have my own space. I’ve been tempted this week to leave small things around at the end of the day, just so, when I return the following morning, it’ll be in the exact same place.

I have begun a new practice this year (in addition to leaving my stuff around the room–neatly, of course), and I think it’s akin to this metaphor of rolling tape. The process of hanging up posters, student work, etc. in your room can be a meditative time. I give myself time limits to do things, lest I stay at school forever. My task at day’s end yesterday was to hang up students’ Who I Am homework: a nice get-to-know who’s in our community. On average, that means there are about 25ish sheets to hang, equalling a good amount of tape. Sometimes, all one can manage is to do housekeeping to end a day, and that’s what I did.

So, as I rolled tape, for the last hour of my day, I reflected on the three great things–big or little–that happened and my role in making those great things happen. I read something that said teachers should do this every day, and write these three things down, creating a tangible record of the good rather than the bad. This is a monumental mindshift for me, as I’m a dweller on past screw-ups, almost to the point of not being able to let it go, but with this new strategy, my attitude has done a 180.

As I rolled tape, I recounted three good things. It was quiet, meditative space, and it was the perfect way to end the day. I am a better teacher because I reflect on my practice. I have to remember and honor that, and keep rolling the tape…

Leave a comment

Filed under New School Chronicles

The Wrap-Up: Reflecting on Learning–Theirs & Mine

The deadline to submit my grades and the supplementary narratives that students receive for my summer program is Monday. For the first year of this program, I’m up against it. I might be writing my way through the weekend. What happens is that I’m a bit of a sentimentalist, so rather than just writing, I find myself going back and rereading past reflections so I can get myself into the groove of writing the current ones.

This one that follows gets me every time. I wrote it for a kid that I hoped would make it through the program, but he ended up leaving us. I miss him. I hope he knew this reflection was serious and honest and true. Absolutely true.

An excerpt from my narrative to him:

You were so brave to share your truths with me. I know this was difficult and brought up some memories you had hoped to suppress, but in the process, you wrote a piece that was deeply moving and personal. Thank you for trusting me. I admire your honesty and humor, too, which always made the class a space of joyful learning (even when you tried hard not to make it seem that that was your intention).

In your self-reflection, you said that this course confirmed that you are not good at writing narratives. I disagree. While writing narratives are difficult–probably because they are so personal–your voice is quite strong, clear, and convincing. As is your habit, you second guess yourself too much and seem to forget that everything takes practice; if you want to be the writers you admire, then you have to write. A lot. And yes, some of that writing will be absolutely awful, while much more of it will probably be something worth saving, but you’ll never know what to save unless you try, R. Stop being so self-deprecating (look it up). Your greatest disadvantage is that you refuse to acknowledge how great of a scholar you could be. I knew you were capable of excellence from the moment I met you. I realize seeing greatness in oneself is harder because we tend to downplay our own intelligence—sometimes, though, the first step at embracing what it takes to be a scholar is having someone tell you that, based on the work you’ve done, that you can be great. Thus, after reading your essays and interacting with you throughout the summer, you can do great work, and you can write well. Okay, off you go now to do it. I wish you the best for the school year. It has been a pleasure writing with you.

These kids never leave us…

Leave a comment

Filed under Teaching Writing in the Summer