What We Learn in High School–A Student Perspective

 

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In my senior capstone, I have students bring in precious objects that symbolize their childhood, and we spend the afternoon sharing stories.

Every year, I assign a final senior essay that is an inquiry about what the graduating students learned in high school.  It’s an important reflection on their last four years of their lives, those years that are far too often a precarious bridge from childhood to adulthood.  As I page through the reflections filled with their lessons, joys, and sometimes regrets, it is always evident that the real learning isn’t from the academic content of reading, writing, and arithmetic.  Instead, it’s from lunch table conversations, a whisper from a teacher, an F in math.  It’s from being late to first period, sending silly snapchats in science, finding your best friend two seats in front of you in English, and from making (or missing) the honor roll or basketball team.

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A hilarious page from a student’s graphic short story about how he went from getting in trouble in my class to totally kicking butt in it.

All the essays leave some sort of impression.  I often get funny looks at the coffee shop as I sit in the corner and laugh aloud at funny lines, or sigh at the all too familiar feelings of social isolation and academic pressure.  And every so often, I stumble upon an essay that scuffs its wet shoes on my welcome mat, makes itself a cup of tea, and lingers a while on my couch.  This essay did just that.  In fact, I even had to get a little more metaphorical honey for the tea.  It represented the lessons and emotions of high school in such a genuine and raw way.  I immediately talked to Jada–the beautiful author of this peice–to see if I could publish it on this blog.  So here is what is learned in high school, the ugly and the beautiful, from her perspective (published with her permission).

I hope it makes itself at home for you that way it did for me.

Exposure
by Jada

Telling your mother you want to kill yourself because of her is as earth shattering as the moment you took your first breath from the womb. I will soon find later that I allowed lies to slip through my teeth from anger. Pristine lungs that once filled with fresh air are nothing more than charred up lumps of coal from all the cigarettes I’ve smoked on the way home at 10:30 because I am trying to drown my sorrows in drugs that I don’t even understand.

“That’s just high school,” she says when I tell her I might commit tonight.

“Drama happens.”

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Tour Our Classroom! Room 313 in Pictures

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Welcome to room 313!  

One of the best compliments I’ve ever received is a student telling me that my classroom felt like home.   A colleague was running a workshop with my students, and they had to fill out these little color coded cards: light orange for important people in their lives, dark orange for important goals for themselves, green for important memories, and a peachy shade for important places.   As I walk happily gallery-walking around the space to check out their lists, I halted when I saw this particular line of squares:

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“My room?” I questioned, blinking uncomfortably fast to keep from showing that I was tearing up.  “Yeah,” the student replied.  Another student called, “It’s on my list too!”

The fact that a classroom can make a list of important places is important to me.  Over the last ten years, I’ve become increasingly interested in classroom space and how a classroom’s look and feel contributes to students’ socio-emotional health and academic success.   I grew up with the inspiration of my mum’s amazingly decorated third grade classroom.  I know how I felt special and excited to learn in her room, and I wanted my own students to feel the same way.  But yet, when I Googled or Pinterested (is that a verb yet?) “classroom decor,”  97.8% of the examples came from elementary and middle school spaces.

High schoolers deserve non-sterile and creative spaces to learn just as much as they still deserve scratch and sniff stickers (although the other week I accidentally gave them stickers that smelled like dirt, and I had to beg them to believe that I didn’t think their work was dirt).

And so I improvised and modified.  At first, I decorated with mostly things that I loved.  I put up pictures of my favorite books.  I decorated entire walls with zombie memorabilia (did you know I have an obsession with zombies?).  I hung postcards of my favorite places that I’ve traveled.

It begins in August.  This is what my trunk looked like going into this school year.  I think it took six different shops to get all of the supplies I need.  Don’t worry–I’m a bargain hunting machine!

But you know what I realized?  The classroom isn’t about me.  In fact,  I should switch the pronoun from “my classroom” to “our classroom.”  If I want to support the multiple identities of my students,  I need to make sure that the objects in my classroom reflect that value.  And so, I started putting up things my students liked, as well as their work.  I hung up gifts that they gave me.  I handmade mailboxes so that each student could have a space to hold their journals and important papers.  I now change my classroom each year with each new group of students, and it also changes throughout the year as we evolve throughout the year.

It’s made all of the difference.  It used to be that after the bell rang at 3:04, my room would whoosh into silence after being filled with so much student chatter.  But now, the voices and laughter can be found until I put on my coat, sometimes at 5:30 at night, while I exclaim, “I love you, but I really do have to go now!”

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Above my door on the inside. Basketball hoop is key!  Whenever my students are featured in news articles, I paste them underneath the ‘313 in the News” sign I made out of poster materials from Walgreens.  The basketball hoop is one of my favorite additions to my classroom.  Students shoot before school, in between classes, and after school.  Some intense debates have been settled through shoot offs!  I have some really squirrely freshmen in study hall, and they run from their previous class to get four and a half minutes of a basketball game in before the bell rings.  And let me tell you, they get quite intense and once drew blood while a sub was there, but it makes study hall go much more quietly and smoothly in the long run.  Trust me!

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I love this idea for exit slips; thanks Pinterest!  It’s awesome to have students (or teachers, as this picture shows reflections from a professional development workshop I gave) stick their musings to the door on the way out!

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The bottom of my door on the inside. I got these felt stick-on letters in the bargain bin at Target!

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I love doing warm fuzzies with my seniors.  Students write warm fuzzies (little notes of appreciation and love that make you feel all “warm and fuzzy” inside after you read them) to each other all semester long, and then the students get to take their stuffed envelope with them as a parting graduation gift.  Sometimes I buy fancy ones like this from the Chicago Teacher Store.

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But if I’m low on cash, I’ll sneak these plain envelopes from the Division office and have students decorate them with pictures and words that best represent them.

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One of my favorite additions this year is a life sized Frederick Douglass.  Not only is he one of my all time heroes, but he is also a quiet and important watchful force in the room.  I mean, seeing as this man sacrificed everything to read and write to gain his freedom, what student would dare not read in from of Freddie D.  Right?  (And he really is huge.  I’m 5’11 to put him to scale).

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The Powerful Pōwhiri : Now on Video!

One of the highlights of my year of many highlights was the pōwhiri, or Māori welcoming ceremony.  And I am now pleased to note that it’s now available for video streaming!  I’ve completed a video guide (ah, the teacher in me) so you can see the elements of what is occurring, and I  bolded the portions that were the most touching to me.

0-1:00 visitor Karanga whakautu (response to our off camera opening call)

1:36- 3:34 Tangata whenua whaikōrero  (host speech),  Ray DeThorne, Chief Marketing Officer of The Field Museum

3:45-4:57 Waiata (song), OPRF Gospel Choir singing “Makanaka”

5:11-11:10 Host speech, Joe Podlasek, LCO-Ojibwe/Polish

11:11-12:48 Jingle Dress dancers with drum song

12:49-18:24   Host speech, Stephen Isoye, OPRF Superintendent and Jahmari, OPRF student

18:36-19:09 Waita, lead by Daejia, OPRF student (Note: this was my favorite song I learned it New Zealand.  It means “Love, Faith, And Peace Be Among Us All”)

19:32- 20:55 Manuhiri (visitor )speech, Niko, Te Kāpehu Whetū student

20:56- 21:50 Manuhiri  waita (visitor song) 

21:51-27:39  Manuhiri speech in te reo Māori, Ralph Ruka, Te Kāpehu Whetū educator

27:40-30:40 Manuhiri speech in English, Ralph Ruka,  Te Kāpehu Whetū educator

30:41- 32:10 Manuhiri  waita (visitor song)

33:30-39:10 Marianne Craven, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Academic Programs, US State Department, perhaps some of the most kind words ever uttered about me

39:11-42:12 Joe Podlasek speech

42:54-51:53  Speech and presentation of koha (gifts), Raewyn Tipene, CEO of Te Kāpehu Whetū

51:54-52:44  Haka

52:50-55:10  Whakaratarata (Reception Line) Most powerful part of the ceremony: the kisses and hongi (pressing of noses).   Every person in the room participated–it went on for quite a bit longer.  My students said this was their favorite part!

After the ceremony, was the Hākari, or food, that lifts the weight of the sacred ceremony. All of the students from New Zealand and OPRF took off their shoes and entered the marae, and prayed and sang together.  To say it was special and sacred, is to state an understatement.

E hoa ma, ina te ora o te tangata

My friends, this is the essence of life

 

 

 

A Powerful Pōwhiri in Pictures

I need pictures to say the thousand words I wish I could use  to describe the incredible week I’ve just experienced.  

During my time in New Zealand, (click here for a recent article on my Fulbright research and the subsequent exchange) working with indigenous Māori people allowed me the opportunity to witness first hand the profoundly positive impact that placing culture and heritage first in education has on eliminating the racial predictability of student academic achievement. I came back from my Fulbright experience a changed human.  The trip  inspired me to find my roots and ancestry through embracing the land, sea, and where I come from.  Although my students couldn’t go to New Zealand this year, this exchange to Oak Park allowed my students to witness a new culture and ignite curiosities that will inspire them explore to US and the world in the future.

Through a serendipitous encounter in Rotorua, New Zealand (blog post to come),  I had the great privilege to collaborate with Raewyn Tipene, the amazing CEO of the Te Kāpehu Whetū school in Whangarei, New Zealand, and together we worked on a cultural exchange between our two schools.   It was meant to be, as the world renowned Field Museum has one of three marae, or Māori meeting houses, outside of New Zealand.  The marae comes from the iwi (tribe) in Tokomaru Bay, and some of the students from the New Zealand school have ancestors from there.

In order to welcome them appropriately, we completed a pōwhiri , or a traditional welcome ceremony.   And I can’t explain how much it touched me to bring 80 students and have them feel how I felt a year ago this week when I went through my own first pōwhiri .   Because I can’t even attempt to adequately explain it,  I’m using these pictures (best ones are towards the end!), taken by the amazing Fredy Peralta through APJ Photography.  I hope they can speak the words I cannot write.  Enjoy!

Picture of the marae

Photo credit:  APJ Photography
The marae (or the meeting house) is ready for the ceremony.

Picture of the marae

Photo credit: APJ Photography
The beautiful marae

Photo credit: APJ Photography The Marae

Photo credit: APJ Photography
The Marae

Photo credit: APJ Photography The marae

Photo credit: APJ Photography
The marae

Photo credit: APJ Photography The Field Museum's Mary Ann Bloom does the welcome call for our guests to enter.

Photo credit: APJ Photography
The Field Museum’s Mary Ann Bloom does the karanga, or call for our manuhiri tūārangi, guests from afar to enter.

Photo credit: APJ Photography Te Kāpehu Whetū enters the space while we all stand.

Photo credit: APJ Photography
Te Kāpehu Whetū enters the space while we all stand.

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Photo credit: APJ Photography

 

Photo credit: APJ Photography A whaikōrero, or speech from Ray DeThorne, Chief Marketing Officer of The Field Museum

Photo credit: APJ Photography
A whaikōrero, or speech from Ray DeThorne, Chief Marketing Officer of The Field Museum

Photo credit: APJ Photography The OPRF choir responds with a waiata, or song

Photo credit: APJ Photography
The OPRF choir responds with a waiata, or song

Photo credit: APJ Photography Joe Podlasek, LCO-Ojibwe/Polish, speaks his welcome words on behalf of the First People of the United States, and explains the importance of the Eagle staff he presented

Photo credit: APJ Photography
Joe Podlasek, LCO-Ojibwe/Polish, speaks his welcome words on behalf of the First People of the United States, and explains the importance of the Eagle staff he presents.

Photo credit: APJ Photography The First People respond with drums and a beautiful jingle dancer.

Photo credit: APJ Photography
The First People respond with drums and a beautiful jingle dancer.

Photo credit: APJ Photography The drums and song

Photo credit: APJ Photography
The drums and song

Photo credit: APJ Photography Jingle dancing

Photo credit: APJ Photography
Jingle dancing

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What it’s Like to be a Teacher at the End of Summer Break

Picture of palm trees along the beach at sunset.

Summer!

My first day of school is just a week away, so I’m experiencing my last fleeting hours of the Sunday that is August.  That is to say, that in teacher world, we consider June to feel like a Friday, July like a Saturday, and August very much like a Sunday where you can’t quite relax and enjoy yourself because that “case of the Mondays” feeling is scratching at your front door.  I get a lot of comments from non-teachers about how blissful it must be to have the summers off–and believe me it is blissful–but the week before school starts is filled with bizarre feelings and behaviors.  So, for those of you always wanting to know what it’s like to be a teacher at the end of summer break, you now have to wonder no more.

  1. The “back-to-school”nightmares is a real thing.

The time in which the first nightmare will shoot you straight up in bed varies.  For me, it’s usually early August, but I have gotten a random one at the end of June (separation anxiety maybe?).  The usual dream is some variation of showing up to school to do some routine “get the classroom back in order action”–in my case usually unshowered and especially unkempt–and I realize as I walk up to my classroom that there is a classroom of eager (and confused) freshmen waiting for their teacher to show up to class.  The first sensation when I realize that I mixed up the first day of school date is “PUKE!”   And then that feeling settles into that panicked feeling of, “do I run and pretend that I’m sick?” or “do I walk in late with absolutely nothing prepared looking like I’ve come from a week camping in the Outback?”

The strangest back-to-school nightmare I’ve had involved the way I greeted students on the first day.  There I was, wrapped from neck to toe in several layers of bubble wrap, chest bumping each student as he or she entered the classroom–all to the tune of the Space Jam theme song.

This is the copy room two weeks before school started.  Everyone is already getting their copies made! (PS: that Jessica is not me.  I'm not quite that on top of my game).

This is the copy room two weeks before school started. Everyone is already getting their copies made! (PS: that Jessica is not me. I’m not quite that on top of my game).

Thus, most back-to-school nightmares highlight a) our anxiety of not being prepared enough for a new school year b) our worry that in the two months that we got to unkink the tension knots in our backs and be real people that we forgot how to teach, and c) that we will not make the critical good first impression on our students that we need to in order to have a successful school year.  Because the research states that most students make judgments on whether or not they will like a teacher and whether or not they feel they will be academically successful and socio-emotionally healthy in the class within the first few minutes of class.  And they are usually right in that first impression.  No pressure, huh?

So we care a lot about being prepared for that first day and that first impression.  I know I’m not alone in spending hours getting my classroom in working order, making copies well in advance, and starting to practice speaking grammatically correct and clean English again.

           2.  We go a bit nutty over school supplies.

This is a bit of an understatement.  There is a knowing look that teachers exchange between each other when we see other teachers at Office Max holding the same coupon clippings in their hands.

Teachers, as you probably already know, spend a lot of their own money on classroom decor, organizational supports, classroom sets of art supplies, and school supplies for low income students.  And we only get to write $250 of it off on our taxes.  So, we look for deals and free stuff wherever we can, because teachers never feel more broke at the start of the school year after they’ve bought all things needed get the classroom to its effective academic learning environment glory.

My strategy, because I’m especially broke right now, is to obsessively check freecycle.org, the free section of Craiglist, and my community swap and sell page on Facebook.  And there are occasional jackpots.  Just the other day, I answered a freecycle.org ad for 1,000 FREE PENS.  Yes, they have advertising on them, but hey, they work! Every teacher I’ve told about this find has gasped and cheered with me about my good fortune.

Picture of Jessica with pens

I’ve got pens for days!!

Writing utensils, when you teach high school at least, are a hot commodity.  I get asked probably 11.7 times a day for a pen.  And because I don’t want 2% of my paycheck to go to buying pens due to the low return rate of said pens, I get creative. In the past I’ve:

  • Had students give me a shoe in exchange for a pen.  But one time I had a student with feet so smelly I had to quickly give him his shoe back and change the policy to “some sort of valuable item” (i.e. their cell phone).
  • Spent hours attaching obnoxious fake flowers to the ends of pens and pencils, and “planted” them nicely in a pot, thinking it would cause students to garden each day when they returned the utensils to me on the way out.  But what I thought was obnoxious was “cool” to the high schoolers, and those puppies were stolen before I could even get through Of Mice and Men.
  • Attached stickers of Barbie and 90s boy bands to my pens and pencils thinking that again, the students would be dismayed at their utensil and want to swiftly return them.  But as in above, they started trading them like baseball cards.

I know that it’s good for executive functioning to help students remember to bring a utensil.  But I also don’t want to spend any of my precious class time arguing with the one student who forgets a utensil every single day. Because yes, there is always that one student.  Instead, I will provide that student with one of 1,000 pens I have in my classroom right now.  And yes, teacher friends, I am sharing if you need a hook up.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was climbing into tombs.  Now I'm excavating all of my classroom materials out of boxes.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was climbing into tombs. Now I’m excavating all of my classroom materials out of dusty boxes.

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Teachers as Changemakers: The Sunshine of my Fulbright Research Project

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The flyer for our presentation today.

Disclaimer: this is a personal website. All views and information presented herein are my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.

Today, I get ready for my first presentation about my Fulbright project.  I’ll present with Amy and Tricia at Victoria University of Wellington at 3:30.  As I prepare my notes and my smiles, I can’t help but have my thoughts tugged by the news of Michael Brown’s non-indictment yesterday.  As my mentor Rob posted on his Facebook wall, “It ain’t right Atticus, it just ain’t right,” from Harper Lee’s famous novel.  It isn’t right that Michael Brown was not even given the dignity of a trial, that we keep hearing language and belief systems that are symptoms of the sick cycle of oppression in the U.S.

But today, I am glad more than ever to be an educator.  I have the great privilege and responsibility to give hope, to make change, and to interrupt racist systems.  I am proud to be an educator, and I am proud to work with the young people who will be the change of the future.  And it just so happens that my project addresses implicit racism in education, as the focus is on eradicating the achievement gap/educational debt between students of color and white students.  This blog, therefore, will break down the components of my project, as well as what my daily life looks like.

The title of my project: Teachers as Changemakers: The Power of Reflection in Diminishing the Racial Predictability of Student Academic Achievement

The purpose of my project: to find ways to eliminate the racial predictability of student academic achievement.

My passion is to teach for justice. Students of color have been disenfranchised at my high school in the US, resulting in an achievement gap in which 61% of white students meet college readiness standards, while only 14% of Black students do. My goal is to find ways to diminish the racial predictability that currently exists in test scores, discipline data, G.P.As, and college graduation rates.

Students with donuts

Some of my amazing students on a surprise donut day.

I can no longer tolerate a culture that perpetuates the status quo, that teaches Black students that being academic is a “white” thing.  I have some amazing colleagues who are doing amazing things in their classrooms.  I have a division head who gets it.  I have been totally blessed to have Chala, the assistant principal, visit, teach, and mentor in my classroom 2-3 times a week for the last three years, giving me feedback, ideas, and inspirations.  Teachers are ready to make change.  And teachers can make change.  I know this because they already do in so many ways that often go unnoticed.

So, I’m no longer interested in deficit thinking.  In the media, we teachers constantly get blamed for the lack of student academic progress.  We are seen as lazy and greedy.  We know there are profound gaps in student academic achievement and socioemotional needs.  But I believe that’s the easy way to think.  It’s easy to blame, it’s easy to hang the ugly picture out on your washing line for all to see.  It’s easy to reaffirm pre-existing beliefs and expectations about our students of color.

But you know what’s not easy to do?  Turn around and face the problem.

It’s not easy to work together to find solutions.  To look at all of the positive things that are happening and share those ideas like we do Thanksgiving recipes.  Sure, there is no recipe that will fit all palates and some ingredients will need to be modified to fit the individual, but there are certain key ingredients–love, hope, high expectations, strong student-teacher relationships–that all recipes need to work.  But how do we knead, nurture, and allow these concepts to grow in such a current harsh climate for teachers?

Well, that’s my project.

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