Mission Possible

As we begin another school year we owe ourselves the time for self-reflection.

I always ask my students to write about their dreams, fears, hopes, and goals for the year; so this year I’m going to ask myself some essential and reinvigorating questions. Let’s start big. A mission statement is a statement of purpose, a simple way to describe why we do what we do. It should separate out what is important from what is not and help us focus energy on the big stuff. It should be brief: a sentence or two.

Try to distill the reason you teach into a very brief mission statement:

 

 

 

Essential Questions

·      Why are you a teacher?

 

 

·      What is the best thing about teaching?

 

 

·      What are you nervous about this year?

 

 

·      What are you really good at doing as a teacher?

 

 

·      What is one thing you could do to be a better teacher?

 

 

·      Who was your best student last year, and what quality makes them best?

 

 

·      What is your favorite subject/unit/lesson/topic to teach?

 

 

·      What advice would you give a first year teacher?

 

 

·      What is one specific goal you have this year and how will you achieve it?

 

The Digital Natives are Restless

¿How many times do you think the average American checks their phone every day? Ten times? Twenty? Forty-eight? You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the average American checks their phone over 150 times a day - just about once every 6 minutes. And did you know that the average student spends over 10 hours a day with some sort of electronic device?

Before you go back to checking your phone, get this: by the time they graduate, our students will have spent more time sitting in front of a screen than in front of a teacher. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t seem like great news to me!
 
Every year, when school starts back up, I spend a great deal of time thinking about how to reach my screen-addled student-zombies.  So what do you do about the  technology and the internet dilemma? Take part in our online poll & answer: How do you use the internet in your classroom?
 
A couple of summers ago I was at a school giving a talk on 21st century schools and technology. The Mesozoic school where I was speaking didn’t have internet. I shouldn’t have been surprised. It was in Georgia. Actually, the school had plenty of internet - they just blocked it from teachers and students. I guess they didn’t want any one getting any ideas - or information - in their heads. I was flabbergasted, and I couldn’t exactly lead my workshop on technology without technology. That was when I understood what life must be like for Amish computer science teachers.
 
A school without the internet is like a library without books. Imagine going to a library to check out a book and the librarian says, “Oh no, there’s some dangerous books out there. We don’t want anybody getting their hands on those.”
 
Or you go to the airport. “I’d like a ticket for Miami.” “Miami, oh sorry, there was a crash last summer. Flights are dangerous. We don’t do flights here.”
 
A school’s chief job is educating students, and the internet is the greatest source of information in the history of the world, a tool, so magically amazing that it contains all the questions, answers, and knowledge of humankind at the touch of a button. Imagine having that kind of power at your disposal and deciding not to use it. Shame on them!
 
Of course, there is the other extreme. You may have witnessed this scene before. The classroom is peaceful and quiet. Everyone is online and working furiously at their computer. What could possibly be wrong? You walk to the back of the classroom to see the amazing learning that has been unleashed on the students, and behold a room full of teenagers - all updating their facebook status.
 
So we have a fine line to walk with the tools of technology in our classrooms.  Sometimes I use my students’ ubiquitous devices and reach right through their screens to grab their attention.

 
Starters

Light a spark in your classroom. Challenge, delight, & excite your students with our daily infographic. Project each day's infographic onto your overhead and let the curiosity & exploration begin. You'll see some great new features on our infographics page. There's a tag cloud in the sidebar where you can search for the perfect infographic for whatever topic you're teaching. And now, each new infographic comes with a download button so you can download and print out any of our great infographics and questions to use with your classes whenever and wherever you want.
 

Other times, I like to help my electronically-fatigued students digitally detox by carving out a non-connected safe-space in my classroom.

 
Fishbowl

Fishbowls are lively and intimate classroom debates where students learn to be active listeners. Students love the quiet focus of Fishbowls, and have so much fun debating, they don't ever realize how much they are learning. Teachers love fishbowls because students are forced to learn and think before they speak. In a fishbowl, all the digital noise, clutter, and distraction grinds to a halt as students focus on the lively debate at hand. Despite all the hard work fishbowls require, at the end of the year my students' only complaint is that they didn't get enough of them.

Before you check your phone, just remember, teaching is like having a faucet in your hand. You can turn off all the water and watch your students die of thirst, or you can flood your room and drown your students. Here's a better option. Teach your students to swim, and fill up the pool!

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Get out your phone's calendar. There's a couple of events coming up this fall you won't want to miss.

On October 7
, I'll be leading a one-day workshop on Engaging and Empowering Students with the 4 Cs in cosmopolitan Clemmons, NC.
If you want to find out what the four Cs are, you'll have to C me there. Join us for this exciting and reinvigorating day!

I'll also be leading a one-day AP GoPo workshop on election day, November 3, at James River High School in majestic Midlothian, VA. If you want a refresher from our AP summer institute, please join us on election day.

For those of you in Tennessee. I got nothin'. Start driving east!
How was your back-to-school professional development? That's what I thought. Next time around, why not bring an exciting day of creative & inspiring Professional Development to your school? Just have your principal contact me at milnerjonathan@gmail.com

And I'd be remiss not to mention the fantabulous units, the uncommon Commonweal labs, and the rambunctious raps about James Madison just a mouse click away. Juicy!

Connect to our Twitter feed for a daily digest of great articles and ideas for your classroom.

Happy Trails!

Jonathan

Born to Teach

Hi, I’m Jonathan. I bring greetings from the great state of North Carolina! Guess what? Did you know that there are more English teachers in China than in America? And did you know that every hour, over 10 billion emails are sent. That’s more than one for every human. And did you know that if all seven plus billion members of the human race stood shoulder to shoulder we could all fit into Los Angeles? And did you know that right now, human knowledge is doubling every 13 months? This is an endlessly surprising world. And the more I’ve learned, the more there is to learn.

So it’s a good thing that I’m a teacher. And I have been a teacher for over twenty years. And my parents are both teachers. I was even born in a school – which is better, I suppose, than going to school in a hospital. I guess you’d say I’m a born educator.

As a kid, I wanted to know everything so I read voraciously. Books, books, books, my childhood home was filled with memoirs, biographies, poems, plays, magazines, newspapers, novels, and more novels. In the family room sat a huge unabridged Webster’s dictionary that was as big as my little brother. I could spend hours lost in that dictionary. When I was ten my parents saved up their money and bought an entire set of the World Book Encyclopedia. I can still remember the weight of those books, the feel of the cool leather in my hands, the white cover glistening with gold leaf lettering over the blue binding around the spine. The M book (#13) was so big, the S (#17) just huge and there was so much C knowledge that the C encyclopedia it had to be divided in two (C-Ch #3 then Ci-Cz #4). I would follow one entry to the next to the next, leapfrogging from Bach to Barcelona to Zanzibar and back to Astrophysics, and when I got the end I realized that it was really only the beginning.

Growing up, learning was ubiquitous. My erudite father would quiz us at dinner: what’s the tallest building in the world? Who invented the radio? What’s the capital of Mozambique? Then my mother, always the teacher, would lob one of her ethical grenades into our conversation. “Boys,” she would drawl in her genteel Georgia accent, “I have a moral dilemma. Our neighbor said that she didn’t want her daughter being taught by a Black teacher. Now what do you think I should have said to her?” Across the dinner table, we devoured the world and discovered the joy of learning. And when my extended family got together we’d argue about politics, religion, and social issues. We learned to listen, to think, and to speak our minds. It was thrilling.

But when I got to school the adventure of learning ended. We squeezed into our small desks and took notes. We memorized the bones in the body, the quadratic equation, the past tense of irregular verbs. The thrill was gone. By the way, the quadratic equation…don’t use it a lot these days. Tibia, fibula? The same. There was a whole lot more memorization than exploration, imagination, or inspiration. About the only thing I can remember from school was watching the second hand slowly circle the clock. As you can imagine, I wasn’t much of a students, but as soon as school let out, there was home where there were always books to read, questions to ask, things to learn.

Today there’s lots of things I love to do and I’m always running out of time every day to try to fit it all in. I love, love, love to travel and I always have, but when I was a kid we didn’t travel much. My dad was a lover of the great indoors so we stayed home most of the time and I learned to travel through books.

I also love listening to music. I’ve got a very broad palate when it comes to music but these days at the very top of my playlist is Brazilian music (oh, Caetano Veloso), Jazz (John Coltrane and Nina Simone are both from North Carolina!), Chopin’s preludes (majestic!), rock and roll (I love you: Arcade Fire), and, of course, the Beatles (they are their own category). I spent my best college days skipping class, listening to rock and roll records, and playing in a rock and roll band. I still like to go hear a good concert and I spend most of my disposable income buying music (my students don’t know what “buying” music even means). I walk to work every morning, miniscule speakers jangling in my ears, a spring in my step, rocking off to school.

And of course, I still love to read. Poems, plays, the newspaper, magazines, short stories, non-fiction, and most of all novels. And as much as I like to read, I love to write even more. So books remain a huge part of my life.

Now let me introduce you to a couple of the most important people in my life. I am but a planet in their orbit. My wife, Cary, and I moved back to our hometown a decade and a half ago. When we couldn’t find a bakery we liked, Cary, who turns wishes into action, started one. The bakery began with Cary baking pumpkin bread and cookies out of our kitchen, and has grown into a thriving bedrock of the local food scene. And here’s something important Cary has taught me: small things, done well turn into big things. There’s almost nothing Cary can’t do and our bakery is full of her magical creations. She’s a wonderful baker, an accomplished photographer (her gorgeous prints adorn the bakery walls), and a fabulous woodworker (the beautiful tables are built by her hand). Being a teacher is a creative act. Your classroom is your own little universe that you populate with your passions. Your lessons are your own little stage plays. Make your classroom into a place you love. Fill it with the things that animate you. People gravitate towards purposeful people. And even if your students aren’t passionate about what you are, you’ll inspire them to work hard at the things they like.

My son Owen is really good at tennis, because he loves tennis, which makes really great at tennis, which makes him like it even more. He’s obsessed and plays hours and hours on end. He’s only been playing two years, and he’s become a very accomplished player. I’ve already had to take tennis lessons myself to delay his inevitable tennis superiority. It didn’t work. One day, Owen’s tennis coach said a really smart thing, “Kids love being good at something.” And Owen has taught me a really important lesson: when someone finds the thing they truly love, there’s very little that will stop them from doing that. Help your students find what they love. Connect it to your class. Ride it like a unicorn. 

Oh, and here’s what I’ve learned form watching Owen play tennis. There’s a very simple little trick that Owen’s used to get really good at tennis. Shhhh, it’s a secret. Don’t tell anybody: he practices all the time. File that one away.

So I’ve been a public school teacher now for over 20 years. That’s 140 in dog years. That’s a lot of teaching. By my reckoning I’ve taught about 1500 students. I’ve also taught hundreds of teachers. So I teach. And I teach teachers to teach. But I never teach teachers to teach teachers. That would just be a bit too complicated.


I love teaching and I’ve learned a few lessons from my 20 plus years in the classroom.

1.     Explore. Our classrooms should be as exciting as the world! Show your students how much there is to explorer.

2.     Engage. Hook them with life’s splendor. Find that startling, wondrous, ironic, thrilling, majestic thing to catch their attention.

3.     Empower. Show them the power they have within themselves. Remind them often. Repeat. Then let them show you their power.

4.     Expect. Our expectations have the power to shape the world around us. Look for the best. Expect the best. Demand the best. You’ll probably get what you ask for, why not ask for their best?

5.     Passion. When someone finds the thing they truly love, there’s very little that will stop them from doing that. Help your students find what they love. Connect it to your class. Ride it like a unicorn. 

6.     Size up. Small things, done well turn into big things.

7.     Matter. Make it matter. Connect, connect, connect. If it doesn’t matter, its’s not worth doing.

8.     Do. Don’t say it when you can show it. Don’t show it when you can do it. Do.

9.     Mastery. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it sure doesn’t hurt and it can get you close. Practice, practice, practice.

10.  Autonomy. Disappear. Teach them to learn and then step away. Make yourself invisible. Erase yourself. According to the Zen saying, when the student is ready the master appears. But I think it’s as important to know that, when the student is ready, the master disappears. They’ve got an average of 62 more years without you.

I’m sharing the wonderful experiences and powerful lessons I’ve learned while teaching. Won’t you join me?

Hope

Flavio M.'s parents were killed by the Angolan army in their country's civil war. When the army came to conscript Flavio, he walked 1000 miles to freedom in The Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he stowed away on a ship and sailed to the United States. There he hoped for political freedom and a chance to go to college. On his voyage towards his dreams Flavio ended up in an ESL class in a teeming inner city high school in Houston, Texas. That classroom, where my life and Flavio’s intersected back in 1994, was where I learned to teach.

Robert E. Lee High school was an oasis for many -- an overcrowded school of over 3000 immigrant students brought their hopes and little else from Somalia, Bosnia, Colombia, Vietnam, El Salvador, Afghanistan, and just about every other part of the world. They were the poor, the disenfranchised, the refugees of war, famine, and economic dislocation, the huddled masses dislocated from home by the jarring forces of globalization. Over 100 languages were represented in our school: strolling down the hall was like walking through the United Nations or taking a cab in an American city. The students of Lee High School had tremendously difficult lives that would seem hopeless to many. After all, many of my students worked forty hours a week, others were parents, others were their own parents. I went to funerals with these kids as we buried classmates (Jean was killed on the way to school), and parents (Edilson's mom was killed in a hit and run accident as she walked to work). I walked students to the bus who feared being shot by rival gangs. I took students to the Museum of Fine Arts on days the museum was free. One would expect a sense of resignation from these students, but their lives were so hard, so confoundedly complicated, that they were full of hope (what e e cummings calls the thing with feathers) that their lives could only get better. I have rarely known people so full of happiness, joy and optimism as these resilient students. At school we laughed together (at my funny Spanish accent), played together on the soccer field and basketball court, and learned together as we studied ESL and history, compelled and animated by hope. They taught me much more about life than I ever taught them.

Experience is so often our best instructor, and I learned many lessons in Houston about how to teach. I learned that creative lessons where my students were active and energetically engaged invited success and learning. I also learned that my most successful lessons were student centered: dominated by student discussion, interaction and questions (from me to students, from students to me, and best of all, from students to each other). I found that the best way to learn something is to teach it, and I employed this knowledge in group work and projects where my students taught other students (and themselves) social studies, the English language, communication skills, and how to connect across boundaries.

I still think of Flavio and all the other Lee students and I am grateful for all of the things they have taught me. They have taught me that their innate curiosity and questioning leads to the best learning, that their inherent goodness will blossom when given an outlet, and that when they are engaged and motivated they can move mountains. I think about the joy and liberation that hope brings, be it in a gleaming high school in North Carolina, or a bombed out village in Angola, or a crowded noisy classroom in inner city Houston. Hope is not quantifiable, it can not be measured on a test, but it is the most valuable thing we can learn in a classroom.

 

Remember Me

Every couple of weeks, throughout my first year teaching, I would ask my students to write me a letter. One day they would write me about their holiday plans, for instance, or they’d write about what they wanted to be when they grew up, or what they liked best about school. These letters always take me straight back into those gritty days in the fall of 1993 at Jackson Middle in the heart of Houston, Texas.

What are your hopes for Christmas break?

Jose S. in my 3rd period class was tiny, with an open and trusting face that was quick to break into smile. I imagined that even as his hair thinned and grayed, his face would remain young and cherubic. His broad smile could carry me through a trying morning. Jose had just arrived from El Salvador and wore the very conservative loafers with white socks that his countrymen favored. He wrote:

To all my teacher and all my friend and my family. (Jose had just arrived from el otro lado – the other side. Most of his family and friends were probably not very near.)

I hope you have a meery Christmas and a happy New Year.
I want to Christmas one pistol and one car of control remote.

I imagined a gun taped to the back of a car racing down the long hallways of Jackson firing wildly at the gangster kids who must have scared little Jose half to death.

This kid, Jose, was one of my very best students, not because he could write or read, but because he tried to read and write. Also, he never cursed at me. Thanks to his innate goodness, and the old-fashioned respect that he brought across the river with him, Jose was one of the few kids at Jackson Middle who behaved. When my hooligans would start running around the room, throwing paper airplanes, or raising hell, Jose would just put his head down and get to work. The angriest I got all year was not actually at the thugs and gangsters who cursed and bellowed and ran the school, but at sweet Jose, who later in the year, when he saw how much the other kids were getting away with, started ever so slightly to edge towards the exciting world of anarchy and chaos. I gave him hell. Sorry, Jose. I was trying to protect you. “Okay, Mister.” I’m sure you said, and smiled, and got back to work.

Orbelinda, a Honduran girl with an exquisitely styled quaff, sculpted atop her head into a splendid and sculptural fountain of hair that we called, in awe; “el fuente de pelo” answered my question about her Christmas hopes.

To a very special teacher I met on Jackson Middle School “93, 94”

For Christmas I want what ever

Your student

Orbelinda

It might sound like Orbelinda didn’t care, but she was really just hedging her bets, knowing that she probably wouldn’t get any Christmas presents from her very poor and constantly working parents, grateful for whatever she might get.

After winter break I asked the kids to write me another letter.

What did you miss about school over the break?

Many of the kids met my question with bafflement or amusement, and even a few whispered oaths under their breath. But Orbelinda, the girl who wanted whatever for Christmas (and got it), wrote back in her painstakingly crafted cursive. Well the best thing about this year was that I got to see all my friends that I hang around with. I get to see them every day having fun together. And I had thought that these kids were in school to learn! Less than ten years out of high school, I had already forgotten what school is about for most kids. Orbelinda reminded me of the distance between their worlds: orbiting around each other, and the one I hoped for them: joyful exploration of this endlessly interesting world with its constant stream of puzzlement, and wonder. It would take a lot of work to share my love of learning when most of my kids could barely speak English, scared out of their wits, and were swimming hard just to tread water.

Then sweet Orbelinda reminded me to remember her too, signing off with this little ditty:

Remember M Remember E put them together and remember ME

These kids would tell me a lot more than I would have told my teachers, and I’m grateful to them for their openness and generosity. And these weren’t even kids I was particularly close to, or had even spoken with very far beyond hello, how was your weekend, where are you from, how many siblings do you have, what are you doing with those white socks and loafers on, and what magic do you use to get your hair to stay up like an ever-cresting wave? These were just kids who happened to find their way into my classroom and who shared a few hours of time in my proximity every week. No matter what question I asked them, like Orbelinda, they very often displayed an aching desire to be remembered.


Throughout the year, as they’d get kicked out of schools that had rules and discipline, more and more rough students kept getting added into my class. These feral kids were taking up more of the class bandwidth to the point that I felt like I wasn’t able to teach my well-behaved kids at all. As my classroom became louder and more boisterous, the letters became my last channel to my sweet students.

What will you remember about Jackson Middle?

Mireya wrote: All the teachers really made my year very fun and interesting and I really learned a lot and I’m really gong to miss them but I hope their still here so I can come visit there. I hope one day they all remember me once their old and they can’t walk any more.

I can still walk and I still remember you Mireya: you had beautiful skin, the color of mahogany, and sharp eyes with the longest lashes, and even your handwriting was elegant, measured and controlled.

Flor was from El Salvador. I called Flor, Piso, which is Spanish for floor. In her choppy and newly learned English, Flor wrote:

My name is Flor. I’m from El Salvador.

She’s a poet, but she doesn’t know it. Like the other kids from Central America, Flor wrote with the grand looping old-fashioned cursive handwriting. We Americans could afford to be sloppy, but these Central Americans could handwrite like nobody’s business.

Remember me, Piso writes; because I always did that my teacher speak Spanish cause I’m an ESL student.

Now Im going to tell you that things I like and maybe the thing that I don’t like of Jackson. Jackson is a good school.

That’s totally not true Flor, but thanks.

Right hear I learn a lot of things that I need to know for the future.

Did you need to know how to be a thug, or how to roll a joint, or maybe how to tag gang signs up and down the bathroom wall? Because that, you could learn at Jackson.

Then Flor (which actually means flower in Spanish) goes on to hit me with that inevitable hope all these sweet young kids have:

I like all my teachers. I’ll remember them and I hope that they’ll remember me too.

I don’t know why these beautiful little kids were so caught up with being remembered. I don’t know if I felt that way when I was in eight-grade – I can’t remember. Maybe being desperate to be remembered is an eight-grade thing. Maybe it’s an immigrant thing – far from home, forgetting all the people they came from, trying to delay the erasure of migration. Maybe it’s a stab at permanency. Maybe it’s just a way of saying thank you. I don’t know. But it worked. I do remember Flor. She was teeny-tiny (even for a kid from Salvador) with lively hands and quick eyes.

Maybe after the whole year unraveled and I felt like I wasn’t giving anything of value to these kids who needed the most, maybe the best thing I gave them was just remembering them.


As illuminating as these kids’ letters are, they aren’t a truly representative sample of all my students. Most of these letters weren’t authored by my illiterate students (who instead of writing, happily colored pictures), or the super-gangster kids who took these assignments and threw them onto the floor (walking over to the trashcan would have been just too much work), or the kids who couldn’t write me letters because they were in jail or home pregnant or living on the streets. Most of the really tough students knew they’d get promoted to the next grade anyway, so they generally never turned in any work at all, but occasionally, my wild students would accidentally write me letters, too.

Please write me a letter about your plans for life after Jackson Middle:

Elizabeth, a hot-tempered girl with a wild black mane of hair assessed the year:

So wuz up. Nothing much on this side just bored. My name is Elizabeth M. and this year sucked. I hated it Im glad I’m going to Austin next year.

Mr. Milner you could be cool sometimes but you could get on my nerves But you be cool. I had a pleasure meeting your brother who came during the eclipse. Was cool but tall.

Wait; is it uncool to be tall? Does that make hobbits really cool?

Elizabeth’s letter reminds me of the long-ago day of the 1993 solar eclipse. The day I got yelled at. A solar eclipse doesn’t happen very often. It’s definitely something worth learning about, even in a social studies class. Before the big event, we made special eclipse-viewing boxes that could throw the image of the eclipsed sun onto a piece of paper on the back of the box, enabling us to view the eclipse without blinding ourselves. My two little brothers (both over six foot six), their wives, and my mother and father (also a strapping six foot six), and my best friend from college and my wife (five foot seven and a half and feisty) all joined my students for eclipse day. I remember taking the students who hadn’t skipped class out into the schoolyard, just inside the perimeter fence, near the moat. (Okay, their really wasn’t a moat, but there were metal detectors and razor wire fences at our school and I’m not sure if they were more to keep people out or in.) We each had our little view-the-eclipse without getting blinded box and there was one adult for every four or five kids. A skipper or two, who had gotten bored roaming the halls, even slinked out into the yard to rejoin class. We were setting up to view the eclipse when the assistant principal, Mr. M., a small man with piggy little fingers, a tragic comb-over, and one rumpled tan suit that he wore every day, threw open his office window on the third floor. I had never ever seen him out of his office and looking up, his head floated extended out from the school, silhouetted by the beginning of the solar eclipse.

“Hi,” I said, waving up into the darkness.

“Get inside right now, Mr. Miller.”

“Hello,” I said, not quite hearing (or wanting to hear). Waving again. “We’re doing an experiment.”

“Get inside immediately, Mr. Miller.”

“It’s okay,” I said, “they know not to look at the sun.”

“The sun? I don’t care about the son. Get back inside right this instant.”

This broken lesson contains multitudes: no learning, lots of yelling, a shadow hanging over the day, and a yard-full of dashed hopes.


Here’s my student, Karina’s thoughts on the last day of school: May 31, 1994:

“Jackson”

Well what I think of Jackson is that is kind of fun sometimes but sometimes it can be boring.

Now I’ll just translate a little bit here. Boring doesn’t mean to a poor 13 year-old what it means to me or to you. First of all, growing up I was taught that only boring people find things boring. And the boring people I grew up with, basically used the word boring as an antonym for exciting. But Jackson students lived in a perpetual state of boredom and in the Jacksonian vernacular, boring meant something closer to bad or loathsome. And it wasn’t just an event or a thing that could be boring, it could be our whole school, or a time of day, the past progressive tense, the field of sociology, grapefruit, the Khyber-Pass, Freudian analysis, fingernails, or even an entire time-zone.

Then Karina lets up on the boring and lowers the boom on the school administration.

I hate the principal Mrs. C. that big fatass bitch She really gets on my nerves and bosses too too much.

I couldn’t have said it better, Karina! I totally agree. And Mr. M, the man with the fat fingers, he was awful too. Please don’t forget him!

The teachers are cool. But, the only one that is too old and boring is Mr. H. but he can be nice and cool sometimes too.

Well, which is it, young lady?

But, I wouldn’t want my little brother to come to Jackson because theres too much violence and the securitys cover up. The food in the cafeteria really sucks it tastes nasty.

The thing I’m left with after reading Karina’s letter isn’t the bad grammar or punctuation, or the image of my horrible principal’s titanic posterior, it’s that this thirteen or fourteen year old girl is very aware that she goes to a dangerous school, and the thing she’s most worried about is her little brother. Despite the fact that she helped make my first year teaching a living hell, my heart really does go out to Karina, and twenty years after she wrote her letter, I wonder if Karina’s made it. And by made it, I don’t mean whether she is a college graduate, or has a good job, or has mellowed into not thinking everything is boring, but whether she’s still alive. It was a tough neighborhood. People died all the time. A number of my kids killed or were killed during my years in Houston. And she was totally right about Mrs. C’s fat ass.

All these kids had hard lives. They sat in my class everyday with their little notebooks, and pencils, and worn-out shoes. They could hide their poverty behind their starched white shirts (the same one every day) and creased slacks, but you could see how poor they were when you looked at their shoes and coats, and always in their worried faces. I looked out across that circuslike classroom and saw them slouched in their seats, deserving so much, expecting so little.

I didn’t always know what my students were thinking or where they were coming from. These letters helped unlock just a bit of their stories. Like Jilnell, student # 33 in 6th period, she just showed up one day in the middle of February. It was only much later that I found out why she was there, when she wrote, in May:

Well I have been from school to school. The first school I was at was called Attucks, the second school was Reynolds. But on January 24, 1994 at 6:00 o’clock ever thing in my life changed. My mom passed and I had to change school’s so I had to come here.

Now I’m at Jackson Middle School with cool great caring and loving friends. But best of all is some of the best teachers and staff.

Thank You

I should be thanking you, Jilnell after all you’ve been through: A little girl losing her mom during the part of her life when she needs her the most, and she’s thanking me and all I’ve done is give her a desk to sit at while the clock ticked slowly onward away from January 24.


I am so grateful to my students for sharing these luminous apertures into their lives. No one wants to be invisible. I want to be remembered. Remembering someone is to carry their hopes and dreams across space and time so that their life is not eclipsed.

21 years ago, a young teenager, just arrived from Mexico wrote me this note:

Hi my name is Sandra, I’m 15 years old. I was your favorite student in this class. I always did my work because I always copy from Silvia my friend. Well I just hope you remember me! Bye. Sincerely Sandra.