Phone home

“Da-an’s in trouble!” A young girl’s voice echoed through the phone on my end; I could only imagine how it echoed through the house on the other end. There was a brief rustle as someone else picked up the receiver, and I overheard a muffled curse.

“Hello?” His mother’s voice was wary.

I launched into my spiel. I was so nervous that I talked without pausing until I finished with “…so that’s why I called.”

Silence. Then she muttered, “Well, thanks.” I hung up.

I was doing my student teaching. In our Classroom Management class – a label, by the way, which I dismissed as euphemistic. “Just call it ‘discipline,’” I groused. – one suggestion was the “positive phone call home.” I can’t remember if the professor suggested calling about the hard kids or if I dreamed that up, but that’s what I decided to do: I decided to find something good about the toughest kids in the class and call home. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Dan was in my French class and he had approximately zero interest in learning French. In fact, given that we were in a poor neighborhood in Portland, OR, I would guess that most of the students were in that class because Spanish didn’t fit in their timetables and the teacher was relatively new. Dan was a big, athletic kid who came to class most days sweating and heaving from his lunchtime basketball games. He could not sit still, talked constantly and was mostly a royal pain in the tuchus. On any given day, Dan could easily send the whole class sideways.

I was ridiculously young and enthusiastic, so I had made a few changes since I took over – thank you, Classroom Management class – and Dan was responding well. We’d redirected his unending comments into French and he was leading the class in actually speaking French. So, I called home.

After his mom hung up, I was stunned. That had not gone as I had planned. Chagrined, I turfed my plans to call a few more kids and reflected that not all good theories work well in practice. Boy, was I wrong.

The next day, Dan came bounding into class and gave me a big sweaty hug. “I GOT ICE CREAM!” As it turned out, no one had EVER called home to say something good about Dan. His mom had called his Dad, a trucker, on the road and had taken him and his siblings out for ice cream. He was one of my best students and a class leader right up until my student teaching ended.

And I was hooked. Since that day the “positive phone call home” has been one of my secret weapons. I use it all the time. Knowing that I want to call home and say something nice about each of my students means that I watch them differently. I actively and regularly look for what they do well. When I see it, I call. I can always find something good. Always.

Parents are regularly stunned by this call. Even parents of the best students rarely get positive feedback outside of report cards. Almost never do they get a call to tell them something kind, proactive or thoughtful that their child has done. I am regularly greeted by stunned silence, though by now I have learned to slow down while I speak. One father cried because his son – who, to be fair, was *really* struggling with all things related to school – had never heard a teacher say something nice about his child. One mother whooped and laughed, “You made my day! Heck, you’ve made my week! This is the best.” Most just say thank you.

And the kids? Well, like Dan, a few mention the call. Monday comes (because I love calling home on Fridays and making the whole weekend start well) and a quiet voice will say, “I can’t believe you called my mom. That was great.” But many – often the least engaged – never say a thing. Still, they keep coming back to class. They keep learning. And someone somewhere in their life knows that I am trying to really see their child.

We all want to be seen.

When should you call home to say something nice? Here are a few suggestions…
Call in the first few weeks.
Call when you’re upset with your class. You will remember what they do well.
Call when you see something good happen. Call that day: at lunch, right before you head out the door to go home, whenever. The calls are rarely long.
Call on a Friday. Or a Monday. Or whenever. It does not matter: just call. It might just change YOUR life.

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Slice of Life: #sol19 1/31

I am in a Starbucks somewhere on Long Island. It was bustling when I walked in, maybe 20 people in this coffee shop in a strip mall  in the middle of the morning, but now it is quieter. Calming, folksy music swirls around me, the kind of music I feel like I should be able to identify but can’t quite place. A copy of the New York Times lays, untouched, on the long table next to me. A man wearing a smart charcoal pinstriped suit just sat down, hitching up his pants and revealing black socks with large pink polka dots. The woman with the four tiny paw prints tattooed behind her left ear has already left.

I woke up at 4:10 this morning with my youngest child’s body snuggled against me. He had nightmares last night and ended up in my bed; I had to get up early, so I didn’t take the time to get up and put him back in his own. I was at the airport by 5 and touched down in Laguardia by 8. A light dusting of snow seemed to have surprised everyone, or so said the shuttle bus driver as he ferried me, alone, to the car rental.

I’ve driven for an hour and am now sitting in Starbucks, sipping tea and waiting in the gray morning to go my friend’s father’s funeral. A year ago, on March 4, I was also writing about attending a funeral of a friend’s father.

As I started to write, I expected to feel morbid or to be reflecting on mortality. I expected to feel more…sad. Instead, I feel lucky. The crowd is picking up again and now I recognize the song they’re playing. The hum and buzz of conversation, the dance of patrons coming and going, sitting with one another and alone, the knowledge that soon I will see my friend – even if only briefly… all of this combines with the slight uptick in spirits that I often feel at the beginning of a new month and the excited butterflies in my stomach knowing that I have committed to writing – and publishing! – every day for a month. I am not sad. Life is so generous, and right at this minute I am committed to soaking up all of that generosity.

In a few minutes I will leave. I know that I will, indeed, feel sorrow. Tonight, after driving an hour back to the airport and flying all the hours home, I will be exhausted. Tomorrow I may be crabby.

But right now, in this slice of my life, I feel momentarily expectant. And… it’s time to go.

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Thanks to twowritingteachers.org for hosting this inspirational month of writing

I know everything, apparently

How do dolphins have sex? How do fireworks work? How come the fireworks echo like that? How do stingray tails sting? How are stingrays related to sharks? How do you know if you’re in love?

My one little word for 2019 is “listen,” but we are nine hours and fifteen minutes into the year – and let’s be clear that I was asleep for most of those hours – and I have already yelled (just a little). We are on vacation. I am sitting on the couch trying to write, listening to the gentle creak of the hammock behind me, the not-so-gentle rise and fall of the children’s voices as they talk their way through some version of tennis on the beach (raquets, a ball, and nothing else), the heavy footfalls on the stairs as the adults try to get ready for the day.

The sounds paint a lovely picture, and I am listening, but I have already been asked approximately 304 questions this morning. Can we go to that abandoned house you found? Can I take home a seashell? Why not? Can I use your phone to take pictures? Can I have more for breakfast? Can starfish swim? Can you read to me when you’re done writing? Can we go swimming? Can we go now?

The metallic thud and clank of the screen door warns me that I am about to be joined again. The boys know that I need some space when I’m writing, but somehow quiet space is hard to find in this tropical paradise. Our senses are alight with novelty, and experiences blossom around every corner. No one is getting quite enough sleep because every minute – even the quiet ones – is full of something.

What’s the name of this bug? What is cassava? What makes bioluminescence? Can we keep it in a jar? Why not? What are you writing? What time is it? What’s for lunch?

So, this one little word thing, this “listen”, this may be a challenge for me. I guess I already knew that. But now – literally as I am writing – the sounds have come together and, astonishingly, I have found the quiet in the centre of the noise. And what I hear behind the tennis negotiations, the breeze, the hammock and all of those questions, is security, admiration, love. There will come a day when these boys will know that I do not, in fact, know everything – or even all that much. There will come a day when they will think I know nothing at all, in fact. These questions show me what a central role I play in their lives right now. Right now, I know everything, apparently.

So here is my blessing for myself today: May I hold onto the revelation that questions are love in wrapped up in words during the 4,537 questions that are yet to be asked today. May I listen and may I hear. May I not lose my temper. (And may I forgive myself when, at question 4,538, I do.)

Why do the birds follow some people and not others? Why do stores close on holidays? Why do we have to go home? Are you done writing? Can you come play yet?

Yes, yes I can. I’ll be there in a minute, my loves.

 

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Celebrate Book Love!

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Today I bought my class pizza. They were delighted – and so was I. This year I have fully committed to daily free reading in my Grade 10 English class. I am teaching the “lower” track English class, and not all of my students see themselves as readers. (To be fair, some do – some read a lot – but others do not read at all.) I am determined to give them enough reading time that they have a chance to experience what reading is like. I am determined to meet them where they are without judgment and to guide them forward with joy.

Now, I’ve tried choice reading before, but I never quite figured out how to make it work. Usually some kids loved it and some kids hated it, and eventually we gave it up. This year, I came to class full of ideas and strategies from Penny Kittle & Kelly Gallagher. Book Love and 180 Days are my inspiration (even though – full disclosure – I haven’t yet finished all of 180 Days yet.) I don’t have a real classroom, so no classroom library, but I gained an ally in our school librarian and we have free reign on a daily basis. And I’m really working to find the right book for each kid.

Last week marked 5 weeks of school, 1/4 of the semester – and it also marked the day we reached our first class goal of 10 books read. TEN. They thought I was crazy when I first suggested that. And today we hit 11 – and two are nearly done with another book apiece! This is practically a miracle. First of all, until last week we only ten students were attending class (an eleventh has joined us now). Second, when I surveyed my students at the beginning of the year, I found out that most of them read either one book (for English, and not entirely on their own) or none last year. Now some of my students are on their second or even third book. Our revised goal is 40 books, and the students are excited.

So today I ordered pizza to arrive during the last 15 minutes of class, and we celebrated. Because reading is joyous and milestones are worth noting. I let you know when we hit 40 – bet we get there faster than they think we will.

Let’s celebrate!

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I don’t want to write

It’s storming outside and quiet inside and I don’t want to write.

I don’t want to write because it means I have to get up and get my computer. I’m comfortable on the couch. Everything is quiet and I don’t want to move.

I don’t want to write because I don’t want to open my computer. I want to be technology-free. Stupid technology.

I don’t want to write because I’m reading and I just want to keep reading. Maybe forever. And fiction. I want to read fiction forever. No more non-fiction for me. Harumph.

I don’t want to write because I haven’t written at all this week and I’m embarrassed about it. Who am I to call myself a writer? Better to just give up now.

I don’t want to write because my brain is nicely blank and my thoughts are comfortably amorphous. Writing will give those thoughts shape, then pin them down and examine them. See? Look at that! A judgment here, a grump over there. I knew it. Not nearly as nice as I was hoping when they were just swirling in my head. Wait! a random delight! Well, I’m glad for that at least.

Maybe if I keep writing I can find more of those… Grr… but I really don’t want to write.

But I’m going to. I’m going to find three sentences about three things and then I’m going to post this slice JUST LIKE THIS.

  1. I have just realized that I am worried about a lot of things. Well, no wonder I don’t want to write. I’ll just ignore the truth that writing often soothes the worry.
  2. I love watching my children play on the sandbar in the lake. I love the way they get completely absorbed in whatever game they make up and how they traipse about half-in half-out of the murky water, finding rocks, playing with the red mud, diving, swimming, hiding in the bits of bushes sticking out of the water. I wish for them as many sandbar hours as they can get for as long as they can get them.

  3. I feel inadequate because I cannot bring myself to read the professional books I brought with me this summer. I love fiction. I really really love it. But I *should* be reading some of these other books, right? I may need to hide the horrible pd stack so that it stops glaring at me from the corner because I have a couple of really good novels hidden behind a pillow on the couch.

Harumph. I still don’t really want to write. So I’m stopping. For now. Because now that I’ve started I have a feeling that I might need to keep going. Later. Once the storm is over. Or maybe at the end of the next chapter.

Writing. Hmph.

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Read more slices like this one (though probably less grumpy) at twowritingteachers.org

Late to class

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I was late to class today. I was so late that the Vice Principal unlocked my classroom door then called up to the English office and asked if I was coming. Yikes!

I rushed downstairs, embarrassed and flustered, and my class greeted me with giddy laughter.

“Miss!” they hooted, “you are LATE!”
“You gonna have to stay after!”
“We gonna write your parents!”
“We’re gonna write an email to you and bcc your parents!”

That last one made me burst out laughing. We just learned about cc and bcc on Friday. My students’ eyes had widened when they realized what bcc meant, how it worked. One boy declared, “Well, that’s just evil,” and I had laughed out loud, but I struggled to find even one example of bcc that my students thought was acceptable use (aka “not evil”).

“I have a perfectly good excuse,” I batted my eyes and looked chastened. “You don’t need to tell my parents,” I paused, “or the principal.”

“I’m gonna email your parents and BCC the principal!” called one perpetually late student. Everyone fell into gales of laughter.

Once we settled into our lesson, my students busily writing about today’s picture prompt, I had a moment to reflect. How do I treat late students? I try to be aware, to remember that sometimes life gets busy for these kids, that English class isn’t always their top priority. Today I got confused. It happens. Lots of things happen.

I know that I am respectful of the almost-never-late student. That’s easy. And I can handle the occasionally late student, but how do I treat my perpetually late students? They mostly come in BIG, swaggering and waving their way into the classroom, disrupting class and (though I hate to admit it) making me angry. I have tried to teach them how to come in small, we’ve even practiced, but change is a struggle. They arrive loud and swaggering anyway, prepared for whatever I throw at them: reminders that they will have to stay after class, public scolding, comments about emailing their parents again. I try to be mindful, I do. In general we do more laughing than shouting in our classroom, but still…

Today I’m wondering what it feels like to be a student rushing to English class, late again, knowing that I will be waiting. Maybe tomorrow I will ask them. Maybe I will remember that my students always have reasons for their behaviour, even when I don’t understand or condone the reasons. Maybe tomorrow I will be just a little more patient.

I think it’s a good thing I was late today. Even if the VP did have to call. And for the record, I do have a good excuse.

 

 

The Slice of Life Challenge (Day 3; my day 1)

So. Welcome to me.

I have decided to participate in the Slice of Life Story Challenge, and I honestly have no idea what I’m doing. I have to send a permalink to someone, somewhere and… I’m not sure. But I’m doing this anyway because I have wanted to start a teaching blog, and I have wanted to write daily, and I have wanted to participate in a virtual community of educators, and so far I have done none of these things.

I am like my students in this way: I have so many excuses about why I can’t write.
And I am also like my students in this way: I can be impulsively enthusiastic about something that I may or may not be able to finish.

When one of my students is ready to leap into the unknown, I often ask them to think about the possible consequences of their choice: what good might come of this? what are the downsides? what might happen if you fail? what will happen if you don’t try? what will you learn?

Well, there’s not much downside here. I figure out how to create a permalink and where to send this permalink and then… I try. I try something new. I try something I have wanted to do. And I might fail – but I might not. And either way I’ll learn something.

So. Welcome to me.

Slice of life today:
Drive. Drop. Pick up. Shop.
Stir. Mix. Spread. Whisk.
Roast. Steep. Bake. Simmer.
Read. Dress. Kiss. Love.
Talk. Think. Create. Write.
Then sleep. Sweet sleep.