How I Decided to be a Teacher

Playing School, William Hahn
Playing School, William Hahn

Teaching was the first career I ever considered, and I actually do remember making that decision. I was in first grade. My experience with education was not that expansive at that point. I couldn’t possibly have had any idea exactly what age group or which subjects I would teach when I grew up. I don’t think I had even considered high school. I’m not sure I even knew the subject of English existed. But I was pretty set on teaching. My teacher that year, Mrs. Jones, awakened my curiosity about dinosaurs and books. Aside from an incident when she embarrassed me in the midst of scolding me for talking with a neighbor, I remember her fondly and remember wanting to be like her.

I remember putting my stuffed animals and dolls in circles and lines and giving them assignments to complete. I remember reading to my sister. My best friend in elementary school swears that I used to go over the material we were studying in school with her. I wish I could remember that.

I thought briefly about being a lawyer in seventh grade after doing a project in which I played the role of a lawyer, but I think my understanding of what lawyers did was quite narrow. I assumed, based on what I had seen in TV and movies and read in books that all lawyers were trial lawyers, and being a trial lawyer didn’t appeal to me. It wasn’t long before I was back to my original plan.

In middle school, I fell in love with French class. I thought I might teach French. I took French in high school, where my teachers were admittedly a lot less inspiring than my middle school teachers (with the exception of one teacher in my upper level French classes). I thought I might one day teach French. I can’t remember if I was told I should also study Spanish, or if I assumed I should, because many of the world language teachers I knew taught both languages, and I just didn’t have any interest in teaching Spanish.

I honestly don’t remember exactly when I decided to teach English. My middle school English teachers were good. I loved reading and writing in their classes, and I have fond memories of projects I did. That changed once I was in high school. I started out in Honors English classes, which were fine, but not all that interesting. I found the ideas shared by the other students intriguing, but I felt they were smarter than me. I understand now that they were just faster and more extroverted. I took regular-level English classes the rest of high school. My tenth grade English teacher was probably one of the worst teachers I ever had. I learned so little in her class, and it was incredibly boring. All I really remember was doing exercises out of Warriner’s grammar books at my desk.

I had a decent first semester eleventh grade teacher, but I remember feeling desperate at that stage that I was missing something. I asked her for a reading list, and she brought me a box of books. I don’t think anyone had ever asked for such a thing from her before. At any rate, I wasn’t in her class long before I moved, and my new English teacher in Georgia was my favorite. The class quickly became my favorite class. I absolutely loved her. I still do, as a matter of fact, because we have remained friends. I was lucky enough to be in her class again senior year, too, though not for first semester. I had a miserable experience in that class with a teacher who did not reward my hard and honest work on a research paper and gave my then boyfriend a good grade on a paper on which he had made up sources and which didn’t meet the assignment requirements. It was so unfair. It still rankles. I am not saying my paper was amazing. It probably wasn’t. But it was the honest work of weeks spent in the library reading Robert Frost’s poems and conducting research.

If not for my second semester junior/senior English teacher, it’s tough to say if I would be teaching English. In some ways, I learned what kind of teacher I didn’t want to be from the other teachers. It is a shame when a kid who loved to read and write as much as I did couldn’t enjoy high school English classes, though. I have tried to do better with my own teaching. I believe I have.

In some ways, I think the fact that I decided to teach long before I decided on who and what to teach contributed to the way I teach. I could easily have taken a different path in terms of subject matter or age group. As a matter of fact, I have taught pre-K and every grade from 6-12. In my role as a tech integrator, I’ve also taught adults. As a result, I don’t have ideas that work of literature X simply must be read at a certain age, but I do believe we should scaffold and build skills in reading and writing.

I was always going to be a teacher, even if I didn’t know the particulars in first grade when decided on that path. There was a period of time about four years into my career when I thought perhaps I shouldn’t be teaching. It lasted a few months before I was back in a classroom again. Being a teacher is such a part of my identity that I can’t imagine doing something else.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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What I Make

Autumn Fig Harvest SoapSomething many visitors to this blog might not know about me is that I make soap. I have been making soap for almost four years now. One of the reasons I started is that I fell in love with the homemade soap sold at my local farmer’s market back when I lived in Georgia. I did some research, thinking that once we moved to Massachusetts, I might take it up as a hobby. I looked at websites, saved money for supplies, and read books. I made my first batch of soap within a few weeks of moving. I didn’t want to start a new hobby as we were attempting to move, especially as it would mean packing those supplies I had purchased. It seemed better to do research and wait until we moved.

Over time, I learned to develop my own recipes for soaps, and I’ve learned my own techniques for design. It has become a creative outlet—a form of art. It’s conveniently a useful art, as well, but not any less creative for all of that.

In the years since I started making soap, I have had some spectacular failures. The first time I made soap using coffee, I forgot one of my oils, so my soap had too much lye in it, and it was not usable. There are ways you can salvage batches like that, but I didn’t want to because my design had been ruined. The first time I used honey and goat milk together in soap, my soap overheated and had very interesting-looking caves running through it.

Honey and Goat MilkFragrances can sometimes be difficult to work with. Sometimes they contain ingredients that cause soap to darken (which is cosmetic, but some people don’t like the way it looks). This is usually because of a high content of vanillin, but other ingredients can discolor soap.

Cedar & SaffronSome fragrances speed up the exothermic chemical reaction between oils and lye that results in soap, making it difficult to work with the soap batter. This problem is known as speeding up trace (when it’s mild) or seizing (when it’s severe). Soap batter is a mixture of oils and/or fats and lye. “Trace” is a term given to soap batter when it’s thick enough to leave little traces or trails on the soap batter.  You can just see it if you look at this image of soap batter.

Soap at TraceOnce a soap reaches “trace,” it’s ready to pour into the mold. If a fragrance causes a soap to reach trace faster, it might be more difficult to pour into a mold because it’s thicker. This can sometimes leave gaps or holes in the bars, but is usually not a problem aside from cosmetic issues. I do work with some fragrances that cause my soap batter to thicken more quickly, so I have learned to compensate for this issue by mixing the oils and lye at a lower temperature and/or not mixing them as long as I typically might.

Lilac SoapYou can see the holes caused by soap made with a fragrance that thickened up really quickly. I had to glop it into the mold, and it left holes like the ones near the bottom of the bar. After I learned how to work with difficult fragrances, I learned produce soaps like this one, even with fragrances that thickened the soap batter.

Hobbit's GardenNo holes or gaps!

I have only had soap batches “seize” on me a few times, and it’s always been because the fragrance caused it. Seized soap starts to solidify before you can even get it into a mold, and it often heats up at the same time. If a fragrance causes my soap to seize, I just don’t use it ever again because you can’t really work around that issue. The best you can do is glop the soap in a mold and hope it doesn’t look too terrible, but it nearly always does.

Soap in the MoldI have learned to enjoy the process of making soap. It’s calming. I usually listen to audio books while I work. I love experimenting with different colors, designs, and scents. I like trying things like infusing my soaping oils with herbs, like chamomile and calendula.

I have developed a favorite recipe that makes a really nice lather. It’s a go-to recipe for me, but I still try different combinations of oils sometimes. The fun, for me, is discovering something new—a design technique I have never tried, or a color combination that looks gorgeous. I have learned a great deal about art through making soap.

I’ve also learned resilience in the face of failure. It took me several tries to make a good goat milk soap. Working with milk in soap is hard for beginners. It also took me several tries to learn how to make swirls in my soap. This was my first successful swirl.

Coconut Lime VerbenaI’ve also learned the value of experimentation. I have ruined some batches of soap, resulting in loss of materials, but each time I had problems, I learned from them, and learning what NOT to do next time is probably more valuable than doing everything right the first time every time. It’s disappointing to have a ruined batch of soap, but I always learn from it when it happens. And it still occasionally happens.

I’ve learned a great deal about chemistry, too. I never took organic chemistry, and I had a great deal of trouble with chemistry in high school. I understand a lot more at least about the kind of chemistry involved in making soap, and it is fascinating to learn about. One of the reasons I took up this hobby in the first place is that I love to learn. I have tried my hand at many crafts over the years—making candles, cross stitching, crocheting, knitting (still learning that one), scrapbooking—and none of them has captured my imagination or given me the same kind of artistic gratification that making soap has done. I’ve also made friends that only know me through my love of this hobby—most of them fellow soapmakers.

We should all find some artistic outlet that fulfills us, teaches us, and allows us opportunities for expressing ourselves.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Sunday Grading

red pen photo
Photo by faungg’s photos

I spent most of the early afternoon grading today. I am a bit mad at myself for forgetting my notes about my AP students’ poetry presentations at school. I would have liked to have graded those presentations as well. Perhaps it’s for the best, as one group still needs to present tomorrow, and it’s probably better to put in all those grades at the same time, though I’m not usually picky about that. I am really glad to be caught up otherwise because our mid-semester comments are due on Tuesday. I can usually write these comments fairly quickly because I leave comments on just about every assignment in the grade book as I go, so checking progress is not hard for me. We have an open grade book, and students and their parents and advisors can see the comments I leave on assignments as well as updates like mid-semester comments, so I think the communication is pretty clear. At any rate, I have never heard otherwise, and I was actually told by at least one parent that my comments were clear.

Over time, evaluation has become one of those things I can do fairly quickly and still point right to the heart of how and what the student is doing with an assignment. It is like anything else, I suppose. It takes practice. Would you believe, though, that I grow more and more frustrated by the fact that grades even exist? I was actually reading this article this morning (and tweeted it out). If grades are not really considered by graduate schools and employers (unless they are so low as to provoke alarm), then what are we doing here?

I allow my students to revise their work. I think it’s more important that they learn instead of that I am a hard-ass about a grade. I evolved into this belief. For one thing, my previous principal didn’t give me the kind of license to hold it, but for another, I had been conditioned to think grades were the only way to show what we’ve learned. Going back to school and getting my master’s really opened my eyes. I found that I, too, started to care more that I earned A’s than that I learned. In the end, I found the whole process of earning that degree frustrating, and I can’t say I feel like I learned a whole lot in that program. In some instances, I did, but overall, it was a waste of money that makes me angry all over again each month when I pay my student loan bill and wonder if I’ll ever pay it off. Did it open some doors? I guess you could say that it did, but I really wish I could also say that it was a valuable experience in the same way that my undergrad experience was. There was no emphasis on grades in my English education program. We did earn them, but the emphasis was on the learning, and that’s how I felt. B’s didn’t bother me. A’s were not all I was after trying to do in those classes. My motivation to learn was so much more intrinsic because I valued what I was learning. I was invested. I saw how it would fit with my chosen career. I can’t say that about most of my master’s classes.

So as I sat here grading my students’ work, I thought all these thoughts and felt all these feelings. I do want my students to see value in the work they do for my class. I want them to view it as more than a grade and be intrinsically motivated to learn. Grades stand in the way. I wonder if I am brave enough just not to assign grades. My school still gives grades, so it would be problematic. My students seem to appreciate the fact that they can revise writing, however. I am hoping they at least know that they don’t need to be satisfied with a grade. The learning is their own, and it decisions about what to do about their learning, when, and how should be in their own hands, too.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Harry Potter and Me

harry potter photo
Photo by halle stoutzenberger

The Freeform Channel, formerly known as ABC Family, is running a Harry Potter movie marathon today. I had already been thinking a little bit about Harry Potter for some reason when I woke up. When I logged into Facebook, the newish feature that allows you to look back on posts made on the same day in previous years informed me that two years ago today,  I posted a link to an article written by a writer who suggested that if J. K. Rowling really cared about writing, she should stop doing it and make way for others who couldn’t compete with her. The author of the article also suggested that adults shouldn’t read Harry Potter because it doesn’t “stimulate their minds.” It still makes me roll my eyes. First of all, I disagree entirely that it doesn’t stimulate my mind to read Harry Potter. Setting that argument aside, however, stimulating your mind isn’t the only reason to read. Sometimes you just love a book.

It was almost as if the universe was giving me a little nudge for today’s Slice of Life. You see, I’m pretty much a ginormous Harry Potter fan, if you didn’t know that about me. It was a thing at my previous teaching job in Georgia, and the kids seemed to enjoy it. I haven’t publicized it as much in my current teaching position. There are a few reasons why, I guess, but none of them are that I’m embarrassed. I find those books to be a deep well that I can return to time again, like old friends.

I first encountered the books at a time in my life when I wasn’t very happy. I was having trouble finding a job, for one thing. I had recently had a baby and was struggling financially for the first time in my adult life. I picked up the first book in either August or September of 2001. I rapidly read through the other three books that were published at that time: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The first movie had not yet been released (but would be later that fall). After I tore through those books, it would be almost two years before I could read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but the movies served to fill the void a bit. I do like the movies, though not nearly as much as the books.

Some time after the release of The Order of the Phoenix, I started reading the books to my oldest daughter, Sarah. Sarah is now 22 and in college, but at this time, she was still in elementary school. We only had one car, and we had an awful commute–over 40 minutes one way. I felt like we spent barely any time at home, and as a result, the place we slept never really felt like home to me. After school let out, it was our routine to pick up Sarah’s younger brother and sister from daycare and get something to eat. We then drove to wait for my husband’s shift at cable broadcast facility to end. It was too impractical to drive home and have to drive back out to pick him up. The time and gas we would eat up wouldn’t make it worth it. Sometimes when I think back on the crazy couple of years we spent living this life, I can’t believe we did it. I have never had such a long commute since, and it’s my goal in life never to have another one like it again.

While we sat in the car in the parking lot underneath a streetlamp, Sarah and I would read. We read all five of the books in this way. I remember before the scene when the Death Eaters come at the newly regenerated Lord Voldemort’s call that I warned Sarah it was scary and made sure she felt ready for it. She was.

Even though this was a hard time, I almost felt like those books got Sarah and I through. It was something we shared. It was something we did together. I miss those times. Those books gave us something to hang on to when times were a bit hard for us. I might as well come out and share that I had some issues with depression, and these books somehow made it better, just for a little while. How can I not be grateful for that?

Sarah’s sister Maggie and I have also read the books together. My favorite thing about Harry Potter has been sharing it with my family. My father and mother eventually became fans, and we went together to the midnight releases for the last three books. It was something we shared. It brought us together. And how can I not be grateful for that?

Over time, I did think a lot about what the books had to say about education, and I pondered the merits (or lack) of Severus Snape (who actually is my favorite character). I named my cat Bellatrix. I joined Pottermore and was relieved when I was sorted into Ravenclaw. I was even interviewed about Professor Lupin on an Irish radio show. I wish they’d called me again to discuss Professor Umbridge when the fifth movie was released. I have a lot to say about her.

I tend to re-read the books at least every other year. At some point, every time I read the series, I am right back under that streetlight in the dark, sitting in the front seat of the car with Sarah, reading until her stepfather’s shift ends and we can slog home late in the evening to the place where we slept at night.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Time for Spring Break, Time to Write

Bellatrix
My sleeping cat, Bellatrix, looking like I feel

I’m tired.

I think I’m ready for a break. Our spring break starts in a week. My students have been wonderful. Today, for instance, my AP Literature students presented poems through a variety of analytical lenses. They did a nice job, and in our debrief, they said that looking at the poems in this way was helpful in understanding them and also that it helped them think about others’ viewpoints and interpretations. Only one of my American Literature classes met today, but we read and discussed The Crucible. The students were particularly engaged today.

I am feeling tired, though. In some ways frustrated, too. I have a strong perfectionist streak, and as much as I wish I didn’t, I tend to internalize too many things that are out of my control. It would be nice if I were the type of person who could let that sort of thing go. Some people seem so supremely confident that they are absolutely right all the time, and I guess a lot of people would call that “arrogance.” I don’t really disagree. I think it is arrogant to feel like you are always right and others are always wrong and to refuse to see another person’s side. At the same time, sometimes I wish I had a little bit of arrogance.

In some ways, I feel very confident. In others, I second-guess myself in some pretty self-destructive ways. I’m not sure I’d be me if I didn’t have a generous helping of self-doubt, but I also admit I wish it were easier for me to set aside self-doubt when I know it’s not helping me. Sometimes, it actually does help me because I can catch myself before I make mistakes. It’s also part of being fairly reflective. I know I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. Most of the time, I think I do a pretty good job, and my intentions are certainly good. Today, though, was one of those days I allowed myself to be frustrated over a negative situation over which I don’t have a lot of control at the expense of celebrating the learning my students were displaying and some other pretty awesome things that are happening.

I’m about to say something that is probably obvious, but I actually feel a bit better getting this out. I have always thought through things on paper much better than through talking. Talking about this situation today really didn’t help and actually made me feel worse. Writing about it here helped me get some perspective. I can actually feel it leaving my shoulders.

I’ve been trying to keep a journal on mornings when I have time and space to write so that I can reflect on what I need to do and prepare for the day. I don’t write every day, and I decided I can’t give myself one more thing to be frustrated over, so I write when I feel like I can. This practice is actually helpful when I can do it, however, and perhaps what I really need to do is prioritize more time for writing so I can think. Perhaps it will help me with perspective.

Of course, yoga wouldn’t hurt either.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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My (Non)Reader

reading photo
Photo by ZapTheDingbat

One of my students is a big reader. Since we started our independent reading project in December, she has read seven books. The last book she read was All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. She said the book was so good she can’t even explain it. She comes in and chats about her books, and she loves the independent reading.

One of the things I enjoy most about independent reading is putting the right books in the hands of eager readers. Students are starting to swap their own recommendations, which is really amazing. I have tried to share a book with them each time class meets, and I received a very nice thank you from one of my students for sharing so many books with them.

The truth is, as much as the independent reading seems to be working well with my students, I can’t seem to figure out how to get my daughter to read. I have tried buying books I think she would like and recommending favorites. I stay up on what teenagers are reading and what they like to read. If anyone is poised to raise a reader, I should think it would be me. I did all the right things. I read to all my children. I model a love of reading for them. I made sure they grew up surrounded by books. I’m just flummoxed.

Several years ago, I recommended Twilight to a girl I was teaching. She wasn’t a reader, but I thought she’d enjoy it. She loved it, and she talked her mother into a late evening trip to Barnes & Noble to buy the next one. Her mother was in tears of gratitude at the next parent/teacher conference because her daughter was now a reader. By senior year, she showed me she was reading a fat Alison Weir biography of Henry VIII. It was her own choice. She wasn’t reading it for class.

The year before, a student in my class discovered a love of reading after we studied The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. In his senior year, he was reading Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, which inspired the 2007 movie There Will Be Blood. It was his own choice. He wasn’t reading it for class.

I’ve been successful convincing my students to give reading a chance. One of my most reluctant readers just finished his second book. He read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and just finished a Derek Jeter biography. He admitted at the beginning of the year that he really dislikes reading unless it’s a sports article or is on Twitter.  But now he’s read two full books of his own choosing.

I suppose partly it could be that teenagers will often listen to anyone except their parents. Perhaps my students’ parents tried to get them to read more and weren’t successful. I’m just not sure how to help my own daughter discover a love of reading, even after I’ve helped so many of my students discover the magic of books. What am I doing wrong?

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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I Voted

Steve and Dana Voted
My husband and I leaving the polls

On this date in 1692, Tituba, a slave owned by Reverend Samuel Parris in Salem, Massachusetts, broke down and confessed to bewitching several children who were suffering from mysterious ailments. She was one of the first three women accused of witchcraft in Salem, and by the end of 1692, the other two women would be dead and Tituba would be languishing in a jail cell until some unrecorded person paid her jail fees and took her away from Salem, after which she disappears from the historical record.

My students are currently reading Arthur Miller’s fictionalized account of the Salem witch trials, The Crucible. Though this drama is frequently taught in schools, it’s not exactly my favorite play. It’s a little heavy-handed, and Miller’s frequent interruptions early in the text don’t allow readers to form their own opinions of the characters (those passages could all be in a historical note at the end, I think). However, students do tend to respond to the play for a lot of reasons, one of which is that witch hunts are very much a part of our society even today.

It is a fascinating time in our nation’s history. Certainly we would like to think that we have evolved beyond accusing our neighbors of being witches. How preposterous! As we study the play, I ask my students to engage in an online scavenger hunt to learn more about the historical trials and about similar events in history. I asked my students what they found interesting, and invariably one of them mentions the fact that the witch trials were so similar to other events in history in which entire groups of people were cast under suspicion, sometimes tried and convicted, and sometimes even murdered—the Red Scare, the Holocaust, the Japanese Internment Camps.

I voted today because our country is in danger of engaging in another witch hunt. We have a presidential candidate who suggests that we prevent Muslims from entering the country until “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” And I think of my students sitting in my classroom. Some of them are Muslim. I think of Ahmed, who sat in my classroom last year. One of the gentlest, humblest, most unassuming people I have ever known, Ahmed was briefly jailed in Djibouti when he traveled there to get his visa to attend school in America because of a case of mistaken identity—he is Somali, and when police officers heard his accent as he spoke with his friend, they arrested him because another Somalian was suspected of engineering a car bombing in the city that day. Ahmed is one of the hardest-working, most earnest, kindest students I’ve ever taught. But because he is Muslim, there are people in our country who would prefer at best that he not enter the country and at worst that he didn’t exist. And they don’t even know him.

People have always probably feared “the other” and what they don’t understand in life. The danger in holding fast to that mindset, however, is that we not only miss out on some amazing people but also that we do great harm. I voted because I do not want a man who doesn’t even know my students, who can’t understand how wonderful and amazing they are, and who scares me to death to become president. If I had Donald Trump in front of me, I might just make him read The Crucible. Sadly, I think he’d miss the point.

I don’t typically write about politics, but I vote. I teach students about the ways in which our literature is both a window and a mirror, and I encourage them to vote, too. One of the reasons I teach is that I think my students can change the world, and I want them to be armed with the understanding, knowledge, and insight they need to do it. I don’t want them to go into the polls ignorant about who and what they are voting for.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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What Harper Lee Means to Me

to kill a mockingbird photo
Photo by Bruna Ferrara;

I wonder if I would be an English teacher if not for To Kill a Mockingbird. I first encountered the film when I was in 6th grade, and my teachers showed it to us as part of a reward—I forget exactly for what. Two years later, I found a paperback copy of the book in my English teacher’s classroom. She used to have one of those spinning book racks like you see sometimes in the library or in some bookstores. I took the book off the rack and probably read the blurbs on the cover. I don’t remember. I do remember opening it up to the first page and reading

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.

The passage grabbed me. I turned to see Mrs. Hoy standing next to me, excited look on her face, rocking back and forth on her heels as usual. “Do you want to borrow that book?” She asked me this question a bit too eagerly, and it made me suspicious, so I put the book back and said, “No.”

Actually, I am not totally sure that I put the book on Mrs. Hoy’s rack together with the film I had seen two years before.

Three years later, I was in Mrs. Keener’s American literature class. I was a junior. In all of high school, I can’t recall having liked anything I read for English class up to that point. I don’t actually remember reading anything in English class in tenth grade at all. I remember sitting at my desk doing grammar exercises out of Warriner’s while my teacher sat at hers. It was a miserable class. Until I landed in Mrs. Keener’s class, I hated English class for the most part. I hadn’t really had a good English teacher since middle school. I loved to read, and I loved to write. Something is wrong when a student who loves to read and write can’t enjoy English.

Mrs. Keener assigned To Kill a Mockingbird. I think it might have been the first novel I read in her class. I had moved to Georgia in February, and the class was in the middle of a research paper. I needed to come up with a topic quickly, and I think we read To Kill a Mockingbird after finishing the research paper, but I admit I don’t recall for certain. We were assigned a number of pages to read each night. I remember reading ahead. I remember being well ahead of where I was required to be. Mrs. Keener opened all our classes with journaling and allowed us to read silently in class. For me, these were the best times of the day. I loved her class, and I loved her. In some ways, I think that it started, really, with that book. I fell in love with To Kill a Mockingbird.

And so, when I entered college, after having entertained the idea of being a French teacher (I always knew I wanted to teach, but what I wanted to teach took me longer to figure out), I wanted to be like Mrs. Keener. I wanted to teach English. The first novel I taught my students in my first year of teaching was To Kill a Mockingbird. The school had no novel sets at all, and when I asked my department chair, she said I could order them. I taught the book many times since.

Nowadays, it has sort of moved down into the middle school, and I think it is probably fine for middle schoolers. Many of my current students read it in middle school and remember it fondly. When we were talking today about Harper Lee’s death, I shared with them how much I disliked English class until Mrs. Keener and this book. In so many ways, I have Mrs. Keener to thank for the fact that I am an English teacher. We have remained friends since I graduated, and she was my own department chair for a while. I owe her a real debt of gratitude because she has always advocated for me and supported me. I know I owe many of my teaching jobs to her recommendation. She was the one who finally put that book in my hand and made me love English class, and I always think of her whenever I read or teach anything she taught me in high school. I wonder sometimes if I don’t also owe Harper Lee a debt of gratitude  because as much as I wanted to be Mrs. Keener, I also wanted to put books like that in the hands of my students, and maybe they could feel the way I felt when I read it. Watching kids fall in love with a book is one of the best things about my job. Maybe if I hadn’t fallen in love with To Kill a Mockingbird, I wouldn’t be who I am right now.

Rest in peace, Harper Lee, and thank you.

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Slice of Life #23: He Said

reading photo
Photo by katerha

This week’s Slice of Life is in the form of a poem.

At the beginning of the year, he said,
I never read for fun
unless it is a sports article
or something on Twitter.
A lot of times the books we have to read
are very boring and it’s like
torture to read it for me,
but if the school or a teacher assigns
an interesting book
(they never do)
then I don’t mind reading.

The first book he chose
Wasn’t grabbing him, and I told him
to pick a new one.
He said, I can do that?
He picked Into the Wild
and it was good.

Today he was reading a
Derek Jeter biography before
class even started.
He didn’t put it down, even
while I was giving a book talk.
He said,
maybe not out loud
(but loud enough),
I like reading
now that I have figured out what
I like to read.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Slice of Life #22: Hello to my Students

hello photo
Photo by Franck Mahon

During a discussion with students today over Robin Bates’s wonderful blog Better Living Through Beowulf, and its potential for ideas for their papers, a student asked me, “Don’t you have a blog?” I said, “Yes, I do,” and the students were curious. I told them where they could find it.

In the early days of the edublogosphere, educators often blogged under pseudonyms or were discouraged from blogging at all. Many feared retribution over what they might post, and at that stage, blogging was considered a bit edgy. I have been blogging here for ten years now (eleven in June), and I can’t think of anything I would write here that I would be nervous about administrators, work colleagues, students, or parents reading. In fact, I invite it. I want the people I work with, the students I teach, and their parents to know I think a great deal about teaching, and blogging is a big part of that reflective practice. Blogging about my teaching has made such an immeasurable difference in my teaching career that it’s hard to say what kind of teacher I would be if I hadn’t started blogging. It was through encouragement on this blog that I tried just about every initiative in teaching, and each of the initiatives that has worked has made my practice that much better. In fact, I am not completely sure that I would still be teaching if not for the support and reflection this blog has offered me. When I began teaching at a school where that support and reflection was built into the expectations and culture (in comparison with other places I’ve worked), I admit I slacked off on posting, but I have yet to find any ongoing PD that has been as beneficial to me as blogging about what I am doing in the classroom.

Even though I have improved my teaching practice over time, and this blog reflects that improvement (I find in reading older posts that my positions have shifted quite a lot in some areas), I am proud that my colleagues read my blog (and sometimes leave comments) and if my students were to find it interesting that I reflect on ways I can be a better teacher out here, then they are welcome to visit. (And hello!)

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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