Please, apologize to me.

Broken Heart

Originally published a year ago, this story from my classroom has been on my mind of late. It still resonates because I, as an English teacher, will always represent for students Reading–its joys but also its traumas. And there are times that I forget and take personally a student’s resistance to me, to the class. The apology, sometimes, is MY best offer at peace to find a path to reframe reading for some, to listen to the ghosts of reading past.

“What is your favorite restaurant?” I ask as we begin Thursday’s English class.

“Panda Express.”

“What? No, Chipotle.”

“Does Starbucks count?”

“And in which stores do you buy your clothes?” I ask.


“Forever 21.”

“What about your favorite holiday? Which is it?” I persist.


“My birthday. It should be a holiday.”

“Yes, I wish we could have a parade to celebrate every life. I am asking these questions because I want us to think about the culture of our lives here in suburban Chicago — the places we eat and shop, the holidays we celebrate with friends, the games we play, the language we use to have this conversation. This culture is our comfort zone; it’s what we know.

“Now, what would have to happen in your life, in our country, for you and your family to move to another country — to migrate to a very different culture and abandon your comfort zone? Imagine all the people who are pushed or pulled to suburban Chicago from a place with all different restaurants, stores, holidays — and a different language. For some people fleeing from war, they are immersed in our culture with no support or guidance in how to navigate our ways, and this can cause stress — acculturative stress. They need to find ways to assimilate or fit into our language, our restaurants, our stores, our holidays. What does stress feel like? What does stress do to you?” I ask.


“My heart races.”

“I get a twitch in my chin.”

“I get irritated with everyone.”

” I shut down.”

I listen carefully and note all the eighth grade heads nodding and a few heads down tolerating my questions. I continue, “I tend to shut down when I feel too stressed, but eventually, when I realize the stress is not going to disappear, I try to find solutions,” I say. “I’ve been immersed in another culture a few times. Once, I went to Israel and stayed with a family who spoke Arabic. They not only spoke a very different language, but they had different beliefs about how women should behave and dress. I observed carefully and did my best to fit in — doing what I saw the women do. But I was stressed. And over winter break, I am going to Iceland with my husband. I am already feeling some of stress about the language, food, and even bathroom differences, and I am just going to visit,” I say trying to offer examples of acculturative stress and assimilation, two terms we are using in our exploration of immigration literature.

No regreses,” Juan mumbles, eyes down.

Ojala,” Jose mumbles to Juan, eyes glancing at Juan.

“Juan and Jose,” I say in a strained whisper. “Please go into the hallway.”

As Juan and Jose (pseudonyms) quickly stand and depart, I continue but can feel my heart racing and my voice beginning to quiver, “So, I’m looking for some warm boots for my trip as a way of assuaging my stress. Now, today, I have a video I want to show you to illustrate immersion or what it might feel like to be immersed into a new language– it is a short film. Please write down on the sticky note — immersion, assimilation, and acculturative stress. Then, after the film, write down an example of each based on the film’s main character.”

We talk a little bit about the meaning of each word. I write the definitions on the board and begin the short film. All this time, I am thinking about Juan and Jose and what I am going to say in the hallway.

Embed from Getty Images

I turn off the lights, take a deep breath, and go into the hallway to “talk” to Juan and Jose. Only I don’t really talk. I empty my hurt onto the stained carpeting hoping they might see how their words broke me in that moment. I want them to see me.

“Please, apologize to me. Please,” I begin with a quiver in my voice.

“I’m sorry,” Juan says, looking me in the eye now. Jose is turned away from me kicking at the wall softly, avoiding my hurt.

“You said you don’t want me to come back from my trip. I feel so hurt that after all this time together, you can say this. I try so hard to be a good teacher for you. The film, the books, the groups, the extra help.”

I am not looking for an answer. What could he say? He has a teacher standing in front of him who has all the power, and he has never seen me this way. He must be stunned, but I proceed to empty all my hurt onto that stained carpet– perhaps pain that had been repressed- whispers of self-doubt, murmurs of failure. The tears are coming, and I can’t stand in the hallway another second without losing it, so I return to the classroom, which is dark because of the film, so no one can see my flushed cheeks and red eyes. I guess I respond to stress by crying and not really problem solving like I said earlier.

Juan’s words were not really for me; they were for the people sitting around him; they were his way of, yet again, rejecting all that is reading, but I did hear him, and he did hurt me with his words. I over-reacted. I am feeling that guilt rising, and I am trying to keep my tears from Juan and Jose because my reaction is not their burden to carry, so I blot my spilling heart with my cardigan pulling it closed like protective skin and leave a puddle of hurt (and guilt) to soak into the carpet as I return to the classroom. I don’t bring Juan and Jose with me, and I am not sure why. I need a minute to compose myself.

I watch final scenes of Immersion, with the other twenty-five eighth grade students who are half way through their immigration books: A Step from Heaven, Of Beetles and Angels, Inside Out and Back Again, A Journey of the Sparrows, Lupita Manana, Shadow of the Dragon, La Linea, Girl in Translation, Behind the Mountains, and Outcasts United.

I try to pull myself together as I watch the film. Moises, the main character, is about to take a state test in math, only he can’t read any of the word problems because he has just arrived in California from Mexico and doesn’t speak or read English. The school has just moved from a bilingual program to an immersion program for their English Language Learners. Moises uses his dictionary to write a note to his teacher asking for the test in Spanish. His math teacher recognizes Moises’s math skills and asks her principal for the test Spanish, but he refuses.Moises continues to study his math, carries his dictionary everywhere he goes, and tries to join in with his peers in a game of kickball, only to find out the rules change daily. Another student notices Moises’ frustration and suggests Moises skip the test by asking to go to the bathroom and then sneaking out to go get some ice cream. (You can watch the film to see what Moises chooses.)

From the film Immersion
From the film Immersion

As soon as the film is over, I have regained some composure and know what I have to do. I ask the students to make notes about the film as I bring my laptop into the hallway for Juan and Jose. I want them to see the film. I actually chose this film because of Juan, knowing how much he prefers listening to reading. They are sitting on the carpet now, after ten minutes of being in the hallway.

“This is the film I wanted to share with you today. I hope you like it,” I say as I set the laptop on the carpet between them. They are sitting right where I stood moments before, in my puddle. I don’t make eye contact but I muster a smile.

I know in my fractured heart (ojala) that their comment to me was not personal. This is what I say to myself all the time, and this is what I say to teachers who share similar stories with me. I am a symbol of reading and English class, and for them, English class is not a place they belong; it is a foreign country with a language and culture all its own. And they don’t want any part of it. Their resentment toward me is a form of acculturative stress.

The ice cream boy in the short film learned to cope with his acculturative stress by avoiding, sneaking out, finding alternatives like ice cream (who wouldn’t prefer ice cream to a state test). Juan and Jose, well, they resisted with negative comments that day, but generally, their acculturative stress manifests as avoidance, anxious laughter, and class disruption (which impacts others, too).

As English teachers, we embody all that is English, but the connotation of that word, that symbol, depends on each student’s past experiences with reading and English class. For some students, we represent peace, discovery, and joy, but for so many more of our students, we represent a country that has rejected them at some point in life. We represent a place into which they were immersed without support, made to feel dumb or slow. We represent that person who put a number or letter on their ability and then asked them to sit still with a book with muddled symbols. We represent that dreaded logging of reading time, red marks on their papers, big zeros or “F’s” scrawled next to their names. We represent an impossible or unappealing way of being in school and beyond.

As I watched that film, I knew what was happening with Juan and Jose. I knew how I fit into it all, and I cried because of it. I like to think my classroom is a safe space, that I offer support and encouragement to every “visitor” hoping they will eventually feel our classroom to be like a home of sorts. But despite my efforts, there are students who still feel like unwelcome guests in the world of reading I create. That is personal. That hurts. I hurt.

It was wrong to banish Juan and Jose from my classroom for those 30 minutes, but I don’t think it was wrong to show them my hurt. The classroom door was essentially an immigration wall that I built that day, and I have to apologize for, in that moment, embodying all that I criticize about the system.

While I may represent “reading” or embody a system that has failed them, I am not, in fact, that system. I am a human being capable of pain, a person who feels. Their words hurt me. I think they needed to see that the way their stress manifested that day had implications beyond them, but the way I handled it essentially reinforced their beliefs that I am the system. And I was asking questions about restaurants and stores some don’t have the means to patron, and I was talking about traveling to Israel and Iceland, places some don’t know and many can never go as long as they are undocumented.

Clearly, I have work to do in helping them see not only my humanity but that of their classmates with whom they share that space 40 minutes a day for 175 days. Clearly, I have work to do in helping them see their place at the metaphorical table. I will begin with an apology to each of them.

The night I have a date with my husband, Dan. We like to walk down to the local Italian restaurant for some half priced appetizers on Thursdays. Lately, our date nights sound a lot like conversations you might have with a travel agent as we prepare for two weeks in Europe over Christmas and New Years. It is usually fun to imagine all the possibilities, but as the trip gets closer, we are both feeling the stress of the uncertainty of traveling to new places.

“I have an update about Iceland,” Dan, says as we get started on the bread basket.

“I do, too,” I jump in cutting him off a bit. “Apparently, some students don’t want me to come back from Iceland,” I say, starting to cry again. I know I will carry Juan and Jose’s sentiments around with me for some time.

“What?” he asks, and I proceed to tell him the story.

Ripping off a piece of bread, I confess, “About half, maybe more, of my students hate reading. I don’t think they hate me, but I am reading to them.”

“I never knew that. Really? Half? You talk about a few students each year who worry you, but half?” he doesn’t believe me, which is strange because he hated school, especially reading.

“Yes, maybe more. Sometimes, like today, I feel like I am paying for what school, testing has done to them. But the truth is that they are paying for it. Reading stresses them out. It is one more thing to do. It is sitting still when they want to wiggle around. It is being a student, being a thinker, being a grown up when they are not ready to grow up. And for some, it is not wanting to fail, so it is safer not to try,” I explain.

Dan responds with silence and a side of compassion. I put down the bread and try to hold back tears. I know I just have to do what I can to re-story the narrative of rejection into a narrative of belonging.

Of course, I will return from Iceland and plan to bring a souvenir for Juan and Jose. The souvenir will be symbolic of an apology never made by the system that made them hate reading. It will be symbolic of the apology I asked for from two young boys who don’t know the roots of their resistance. It will be my apology to them for banishing them from our class for 30 minutes on that cold December day. There are a number of apologies that have to happen here, but, more importantly, we have to find ways to heal and move forward.

Broken Heart

The next day, students had their immigration book group discussions. I joined Jose’s group and read with them to clarify the ending of La Linea. Jose helped explain a few Spanish phrases to me. He translated the phrase “canas,” and I showed him my gray hair. Unfortunately, Juan was not able to stay with his group for long and was “banished” again. I called him at home this weekend, a story for another blog post.

I know words hurt and have the power to peel back your protective layers to expose your heart and even old wounds of failure and insecurity. I think it is okay to show that to your students. It humanizes us. It humanizes our work. Let some of that pain spill onto the already stained carpeting in your school. It will blend in. And then look for ways to repair your heart and theirs.If you want to hear some of the immigration book group discussions, check out these recordings:

Discussions of Of Beetles and Angels, The Journey of the Sparrows.

Discussions of Shadow of the Dragon, A Step from Heaven.

Discussions of Of Beetles and Angels, Inside Out and Back Again

Discussions of La Linea and Tangled Threads

Discussions of Girl in Translation, Uprising, and Song of a Buffalo Boy

Discussions of Lupita Manana and Behind the Mountains

An Announcement of Change and Changing

Take a good look at this pic. Your eyes do not deceive you. Indeed, that round red tag says “I’m a stroller strap” (and in French, too). But don’t get too excited, I will not be buying a stroller anytime soon. It’s just that, as it turns out, the best bags for teachers who travel are diaper bags. Think of it: lots of pockets, easy-to-clean fabric, a changing pad to protect your laptop, bottle holders for coffee and water, not to mention padded shoulder straps for comfort.

My announcement is related to this bag, and it is about change, but I’m not having a baby: I am just going part-time.

For the past seven years, I have been teaching junior high ELA full time while either working on a doctorate or adjuncting at local universities.  In other words, a full-time job, which we all know is way beyond 40 hours, and a part-time job. It was not for financial reasons but by choice and a desperate need to understanding teaching better that I took on this extra work for so long.

Developing and teaching courses for pre-service teachers is the best professional development out there. Consider the process of developing a ten or fifteen-week syllabus: reviewing professional teaching standards, selecting and sequencing texts (and rereading them), creating assignments, integrating technology, imagining how to prepare and support teachers for this very important work. Consider the weekly discussions of those texts and the synthesizing, questioning, and reflecting that happens in the experiences — not to mention the privilege of bearing witness to the excitement, fears, and whispers of self-doubt pre-service teachers feel.

Reading and writing alongside teens each day is a way to ensure that teacher-training is authentic and anchored in the realities of students, teachers, and schools. I would leave school at 2:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, drive to the university, meet with undergrad and grad students before class (office hours), and facilitate a three-hour class all the while holding tight to who we serve –the kids — and all the whys.  And when I latched the chain on our condo door and heard the news signing off “Jimmy Fallon is next,” I would sit beside my husband on our sofa and say, “I am so fortunate — and overwhelmed.” Many evenings I’d stay up with Jimmy on mute just processing the day until my eyes would grow heavy from the stories.

The relationship between both places was, it seemed to me, mutually beneficial, reciprocal.

After a few years of hoping that either my junior high job might find a way for me to both teach teens and work with teachers or my university job would offer me a position that would include teaching teens in the morning and pre-service teachers in the afternoon, I gave up hoping for my health and sanity and turned down the part-time offers from the universities. My financial security was at my junior high job, and without teens, I was pretty sure I’d lose my purpose in higher ed.

And then, a few weeks ago, I learned of a part-time position (67%, or 4 instead of 6 classes) in my district and started hoping again. What if I could teach part-time at the junior high and not lose my tenure? Sure it would be a pay-cut (33%), but I could make up some of it if I could teach more at the university? After talking it over with my husband, human resources at the junior high, and university department chairs, we agreed we could make it work (at least for a year).

So that’s the big announcement. I am creating my close-to-dream job of teaching part-time junior high and part-time higher ed. I will spend my mornings writing, afternoons at the junior high, and a couple evenings at the universities. With this change, of course, comes others.

Change #1 (that’s number not hashtag): Access to Books

For the past fifteen years, I have curated a classroom library of well over 1,000 books, many passed down to me from mentors. I did not mind packing up my books because I enjoyed actually holding each one knowing that they’d be in the hands of readers, but access to them would be compromised. I knew, in accepting the part-time position, that these books would no longer have their own classroom. My new school was gracious enough to accept my shipment of 18 boxes of books and house them in a storage closet until I figured out what to do.

It turns out that a part-time teacher in junior high is not all that different from a university professor. In college, did your professor have her own classroom? No, she rushed in with her well-worn bag, unpacked papers (maybe coffee-stained but certainly tattered), rolled up her sleeves, grabbed a dried-dry-erase marker, and got to work.  That will be me, only add connecting and projecting a laptop and take away the stack of papers. I will be teaching 4 classes at the junior high in 4 different rooms and 2 classes at 2 universities. I’ll be okay. There are many traveling teachers out, and certainly, higher ed people have been doing this for a long time.

But the books. Access to the books. I am not so minimalist and brilliant as some college professors who just need a marker (or chalk) and a dazzling lecture to edify students. Sure, I will have markers, sticky notes, note cards, a journal, a laptop, and water (planning to actually hydrate this year), but I need something that I cannot fit into the diaper bag: my co-teachers, a.k.a., books.  Here is some good news: many junior high teachers still do, in fact, have their “own” classrooms, and the ones who have to let me borrow theirs have made space for a bookcase.  So, I will divide up my books and periodically rotate them among the rooms.

I know that there will come a time when I am conferring with a student and will not have the book that I want to give her in that moment — that it will be in box 13 — but I will just retrieve it that night and offer it the next day. I will make it work.

Change #2: Sense of Place

The aesthetics of the classroom that I could control were very much part of our learning community, its ecology.

  • The smell. I used an oil diffuser.
  • The lights I turned off the fluorescent, illuminating with lamps and twinkle lights.
  • The seats. I moved them all the time- varied, flexible seating.
  • The book cases. I surrounded us with stories as our only decor.
  • The teacher desk. I hid it in a closet wanting to minimize symbols of power.

Space, I believe, influences the  community and learning — where students read influences how they read, where students write shapes how they write.  The aesthetic of the place does impact the aesthetic response, which is why teachers invest so much money in their classrooms. We want students to have a positive aesthetic response in our classrooms — comfort, safety, joy. Now I am wondering: Does the particular classroom community change if the place is not deliberate for that teacher, those students?

Rosenblatt’s ecological perspective on reading — that students’ reading transactions are affected by the interplay of numerous personal, textual, and contextual factors which account for diversity of reader response — has me thinking about the place in which the experiences happen.  And sociocultural theory of learning is such that learning is a social practice — that students take their resources and knowledge and recontextualize them in the classroom. Now I am also wondering: Is the classroom aesthetic situated within the actual walls or is the aesthetic within the beings who share that space, whatever space it is?

I am at the beginning of this change, so I am just starting to pull on this thought thread. I will have a group of students for 41 minutes, and then we will leave one room and move to another for another 41 minutes — same people, new space. How will the change of space impact us — will the changing change us?

We’ll make it work, and while we will be sharing the space, visiting other people’s classrooms, we will still be a we, and our transitions and adjustment will become part of our community identity.

Perhaps not having a “my” classroom is even more symbolic of sharing power than not having my teacher’s desk. Maybe, since it will not be “my” classroom, our learning space will, in fact, be more ontologically ours.

Now I am off to spend some time with dear friends who will become my co-night-teachers this term.

10 Months.10 Lessons.

Thank you for your readership of Ethical ELA this school year. Thank you for being my teacher-friend.

In a typical school day, the only time teachers may be alone is when we use the restroom (until someone knocks on the door).  Still, teaching can feel quite lonely. Who can understand the joy of a lesson gone well? Who can appreciate when clouds of doubt blow in to rain upon said good lesson? To whom can we confess our tears of joy when a student finishes her first book or tears of regret when we lose our temper? Ethical ELA has been a place for me to work through the most humbling moments of teaching, and I appreciate you being virtually alongside me as I grapple with how to be good enough for the students with whom I am entrusted. So thank you. Thank you.

This is my final post of the school year; it is a year in review essentially, and then I will take some time this summer to just be Sarah (whatever that may be or mean). See you in August.

1.August 2016: Tech is just a tool.

Weekend Reading ExperienceI tend to write about questions and discoveries from our classroom. This year was no different. I started with discussions of technology because our class piloting 1:1 Chromebooks (among other classes across the district) as we transition to a district-wide 1:1 tech initiative.  I spent August trying to blend hand-held books and pens with sharing out docs, slides, and forms on screens I had to bend down to see. I taught tech skills alongside reading skills and tried out new apps and extensions. I know some of the tech lessons were necessary, but others sucked up important reading time.  After August, the Chromebooks became nothing more than a tool for organizing thinking, gathering resources, and preventing the delays and aggravation of  forgot-it-in-my locker, lost-it, dog-ate-it of learning artifacts, and we didn’t need these tools every day. Fridays were tech-free days when we’d look into each other’s eyes and paper pages — not screens.

2.September 2016: Be mindful of how you and your students communicate needs.

5 love languagesI was teaching at DePaul that fall – a course about socio-cultural influences on perceptions and development of middle school students. The Cubs were going to the World Series, and Donald Trump was becoming president. It was an emotionally charged semester within and beyond the classroom. This month was all about getting to know one another, which is the only way I knew we had a chance at a safe space to take risks and grow in junior high or in college classrooms. The “Love Language” post helped me work through many challenging situations with students the first weeks of school; they were testing me, teaching me how to know and relate to them. The love language framework helped me be mindful of the ways we communicate our needs and learn — deliberately– how to treat students and how to teach them to treat me.

3.October 2016: Taking care of yourself is an ethical responsibility.

be the teacherIn a matter of weeks, I was both invigorated by choice reading and fatigued (already) by the hustle and bustle of the schedule. The “honeymoon” phase of the year ended quickly, and I was not only unsure about whether or not to capitalize my blog titles but whether or not I had any business being a teacher. Thirteen years in, and I still had not figured out how to eat and stay hydrated in a school day. My first talk at the Illinois Reading Council made me feel like other people in Illinois actually cared about what I was doing; I had people in my session who came because of Ethical ELA’s work. Still, I had to take personal days to speak at a state and national conference, and I wasn’t so sure I would make it through another seven months with my sanity in tact. Because of this site, I felt like I had to recover from my melancholy, so the “fatigue in teaching” post reminded me to search for (and even fake it till you make it) balance. I bought vitamins and a pretty water bottle, pledging to drink more water in the name of health and sanity. When I fill my water bottle around 8th period, I feel like I am doing something good for me and my students: a hydrated teacher is a happy, rationale, ethical, kind teacher who is more open to choice and conversation.

4. November 2016: Love has to be at the heart of what we do and how we do it.

Imagine Together with BooksThis was the month for the election and for NCTE. It felt so great to be leading a session with Lesley Roessing about how books are mirrors, windows, and maps for our students in a time when I (and my students) were feeling panicked about the future of our country. I met Lesley on Facebook, and we proposed a session about YA lit that enticed a number of teachers looking for new titles and inspiration.  I returned to the classroom inspired by the teachers I met at NCTE — determined to read into new places and experiences. My course at DePaul had read Sherman Alexie’s The True Diary of a Part-Time Indian  and so did our eighth graders. Still compelled to walk the talk and be the teacher I was asking these thirty pre-service teacher to become, I wrote more about how to transition from choice to whole-class novels. In my #bookaday quest, I read several books that included sex scenes; I recalled my own experiences reading romance lit and considered how and if these book have a place in a middle school classroom library. So many of our junior high students experience love (and, yes, sex), and literature could do what the adults in their lives could not — talk about it. And then, there was the issue of assessment. I struggled with how best to assess learning, so I wrote about the “loving test” and how I try my best to test and grade in ways that help support students in their learning.

5.December 2016: Discomfort can hurt, and apologies can heal.

Broken HeartBy December, we had experienced 9-weeks of choice reading and a core text; we were transitioning to book groups. Students were making a lot of choices: books, groups, reading pace, annotating methods, and, of course, snacks for their groups. Some students soared and others acted out, resisting the responsibility overtly or subversively, uncomfortable with choice and autonomy. I was uncomfortable, too. It is so much easier reading one book as a class and using a packet of pre-determined questions to guide everyone to the similar “answers.” Now that we knew one another better, we had to be open to the implications of diverse lives intersecting in a shared reading experience. I made mistakes amidst the discomfort, which I wrote about, and I learned the power of an apology, which I used a lot this year. Discomfort is part of learning, but our reaction to discomfort may hurt others, and when it does, an apology goes a long way.

6. January 2017: It’s essential that you ask yourself this: “What are you doing here?”

After two weeks in Europe including a tour of Auschwitz, I began January with a new student teacher and existential questions. It is natural for teachers, especially student teachers to ponder our purpose, and I was discerning my place in teaching broadly and my position at my school more specifically. The posts this month seem all over the place, but as I look for a common thread, I notice that I wrote about why I am a teacher now. I wrote about my place in the classroom library, my place in the hallways of our school, my place in evaluating students — and the implications of how I use my place. My student teacher(s) helped me grapple with and through this in January because of the many, many conversations we had before, during, and after school. We have to ask questions, do inquiry, and find answers regarding our purpose as teachers.

7. February 2017: Materials, deadlines, and declarations are provisional.

Career Speech, WrittenOne of the greatest frustrations of teaching is time, especially when students are working in the realm of the provisional while the teacher (and school) is working with hard and fast deadlines. Learning, however, is so personal and even ethereal at times that one cannot count or plan or grasp just how and when learning will happen. The elusive nature of teaching and learning hit me hard in February that I could only surrender to its provisionality. Ownership (of books) is relative. Deadlines undermine learning. Lies reveal truth. Inasmuch as schools force neat, measurable ways of quantifying learning and categorizing students, students, as human beings, will remind us that learning is beautifully messy and will (almost never) fit into a school’s schedule.

8. March 2017: Remember and honor your roots.

I have had the privilege of working with several special education teachers over the years in a “push-in” almost “co-teaching” model. These women were gifts to me — having a partner — and to the students — having another adult to attend to (and even love) them. So when I had the opportunity to have a student teacher (another adult to teach and love students) both terms this school year, I said “yes” as long as we could use a co-teaching model. By March, their presence had me thinking deeply about how I became a teacher and who had most influenced who I became (and was still becoming) as a teacher, so I drew my teaching tree and invited teachers to share theirs. I noticed the other posts I wrote this month had nuances of comparison. By reflecting on my roots, I recognized and celebrated the traditions that shaped my becoming, which actually made it difficult for me to take ownership or celebrate a perceived accomplishment. “The Pride and Shame of Sharing” post was about me second guessing this webiste and any sharing I do about my teaching. I am who I am because of my roots and branches, so I feel self-indulgent in sharing any accomplishment or pride in my work. So, I guess I have to make clear that anything I say or do in my work is never wholly mine nor new. Ethical ELA exists because of my beautiful teaching tree.

9. April 2017: Students should create, should be the curriculum.

This was my third year hosting a site for students to write thirty poems in thirty days in honor of National Poetry Month. For this month, we moved away from daily reading of books toward daily reading of poetry — poetry written by students. As I noticed the quality of the poetry, I knew that their work had to “be” our curriculum: reading response to student poetry, text evidence from student poetry, figurative language analysis from student poetry. In thirty days, Ethical ELA hosted close to five thousand poems and comments written by students: a plethora of powerful content. Students wrote blog posts and created comparison projects (Comparison Blog) for their portfolios using student-written poetry. This was the highlight of my year because I finally got out of the way.

10. May 2017: Transition from your teacher-self to just being your self.

As much as I tried to not be oppressive in my practices this year — more choice, more student-created curriculum, less grading, less teacher-talk — I found myself pulling tight the reigns of instruction in our final month together.  In writing “The Countdown,” I realized that I while I help students find closure in our time together with portfolios and letters to their future selves, I do not do enough to help my teacher-self find closure each year. The aesthetic experience of teaching gives me such joy and purpose, that I don’t want it to end and feel lost without it, so this May has been about me trying new hobbies (e.g., swimming, hiking) and seriously pondering how I will spend my two-months off to take care of my heart, mind, and body. As my husband said, “I can’t wait to see who you become this summer.”


Thank you for reading Ethical ELA this year. What are some lessons you’ve learned this school year? What from Ethical ELA has been most helpful to you this school year? What will you do this summer to rejuvenate your heart, mind, and body?

The Countdown: What If I Don’t Want It to End?

Trying out a new audio app, so I recorded this post, sans the final paragraph.


“Dr. Donovan,” Isabel whispers leaning over her desk in between student presentations, “can you tell me which poem I should share at Espresso Self Cafe? I just don’t know which one to present, and we don’t have much time.”

I kneel beside her desk as our student MC calls up the next storyteller and whisper to Isabel, “You should choose, but I am happy to look at your portfolio and give you some suggestions. You wrote so many beautiful poems. Think about which one speaks to the audience. It’s a night to express yourself.”

Isabel smiles. My heart warms.

On May 17th, our school has an event that we call Espresso Self Cafe where student-artists put on display their work, musicians perform, and poets share their poems to celebrate self-expression with coffee and sweets in a cafe atmosphere. I am looking forward to this event, which comes on the heels of our 30Poems challenge, a month long celebration of poetry in honor of National Poetry Month, but I find myself in a state of melancholia at the same time.

30 Days

For thirty days, I wrote a poem and read between twenty to two hundred, written by teens from Illinois to South Carolina. On Sundays in April, instead of writing one post for Ethical ELA about becoming a teacher (after thirteen years, I am still becoming), I wrote seven (one for each day of the upcoming week) hoping to inspire young poets to not only poem but uncover all that poems do for our hearts and minds. And then each day of the week, I would rise early in the morn’ to compose a poem. Throughout the day and evening, instead of checking email and social media, instead of reading my #bookaday, I would read poetry — poetry about our best parts, lists of loves, haiku, lessons learned, super powers, secrets, music, food, family, new perspectives, flaws and strengths, sympathetic joy, how we’d like to be remembered, and any other topic that moved these poets. I would read thoughtful — and I mean thoughtful — comments by poets relating to one another with empathy, sympathy, and respect. For thirty days.

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When I first started teaching over a decade ago, I didn’t like poetry in part because I had only ever read poetry from anthologies and had never written poetry. I didn’t know that when you write poetry it changes you and how you perceive words, people, the world.  I didn’t know that when you share your poetry, you can impact others, and their responses to your words are responses to you, which is proof that you exists, that people see you, want to understand you. And who doesn’t need that? I do. Certainly, our students do. So, this 30poem challenge on Ethical ELA (as many other people and organizations do elsewhere) was for all of us.

We dedicated 20 of our 41 minutes of reading class every day to 30poems; essentially I made 175 junior high students dive into the possibilities of poetry. Some counted down the minutes and others were enthralled reading, responding, writing.

I knew from the beginning that this project was temporal given the “month” of National Poetry Month. The countdown helped me (and students) pace ourselves for the duration, but I lost sight of the finish line. I became so attached to the aesthetic experience that I didn’t want it to end.

About half way into the thirty days, I started noticing a shift in the way some students were using language to express and connect. I started seeing students on the site all hours of day and night. Like me, some students seemed to be drawn to verse.  The aesthetic experience incited by poetry (poets) was so attractive, magnetic, maybe addictive. There is actually research to explain a similar phenomenon: “A recent study shows that recited poetry can spark brain activation patterns that produce emotional responses and engage the body’s reward circuitry”(article). I was feeling this just by reading poetry. Who knows what will happen on May 17th!


Now, just a week into May, I am experiencing withdrawal. My “reward circuitry” feels neglected (and I wonder if the student-poets are feeling the same). I hesitate to use “withdrawal” to describe my syndrome because we often think of withdrawal in relation to the physical and psychological symptoms that follow a discontinuance of an addicting drug. I don’t mean to understate the seriousness of such (especially given recent events in my school).  However, after a day or two post-30Poems, I noticed my mind floundering and my heart seeping into a sort of depression. I miss writing poetry as part of a community; I miss the daily virtual-real connections with students whom I had not known until this thirty-day experience; I miss the comments acknowledging my existence; I miss the comments among other poets showing the potential of humanity to lift up one another.

The daily engagement with words and lives in that virtual space nurtured me psychologically, but it also nourished me kinesthetically — the mental impacted my physical well being with energy. And furthermore, when I saw these poets in the hallways and classroom, I felt alive and connected in being.

As I tried to get back into my #bookdaday the other night, I recognized my symptoms as withdrawal from 30poems. I found myself checking the site for new poems and comments. I sat with my book in one hand and my cell in the other rather lost and unsure what I was supposed to be doing, and in my belly stirred a familiar feeling. I’ve been here before.

The feeling I had at the ending of 30poems is the same feeling I get during summer break.

I have just nine days of class time with our eighth graders, a few more with our seventh graders — and then I will have no reason to get up in the morning. The aesthetic experience of teaching that makes me feel alive, worthy of being alive ends.

Okay, I am overstating this slightly. Like many teachers, I am counting the days. I see posts on social media and emails going around school with the countdown. Everyone knows and accepts and celebrates all that another year of education ending means.

The counting, for me, creates some anxiety about the even more profound withdrawal that I know is coming.

I worry about what happens when I have no one to create for, no one to share the books with (sorry about ending in prepositions). I live in this world where 175 kids are forced to visit h103 every day and spend 41 minutes with each other (and me), but the day comes when they are no longer forced to attend, and therefore don’t. Suddenly, my perceived need expires and that reward circuitry disconnects.

I know this is the nature of our work. There is a beginning and an end every year. Every year I have to figure out how to manage the withdrawal of purpose, the withdrawal of the aesthetic experience. Last year, I took up the #bookaday challenge and read PD books to fill the emptiness. Other years, I worked on a PhD (four years), wrote a book, launched this blog.

Essentially, I fill the emptiness with something — hopefully something healthy. Still, everything I’ve tried has fallen short of satisfying my “reward circuitry.” I am dependent. I am attached. However, my identity is bound up in something that is impermanent, and that is a problem for me.

Accepting Impermanence

I am not Buddhist though I often consider converting because so many doctrines help me as a human. The poem prompt of Sympathetic Joy  was inspired by Buddhism, and I turn to Buddhism’s Impermanence now to help reframe my withdrawal and melancholia. Essentially, the doctrine of Impermanence  asserts that a condition of our existence is “transient, evanescent, inconstant.”

All physical and mental events, states Buddhism, come into being and dissolve…The Buddha taught that because no physical or mental object is permanent, desires for or attachments to either causes suffering.

In considering Impermanence, I acknowledge that my attachment to the classroom causes me a degree of suffering, e.g., withdrawal, sadness.  I am not sure why I hold so tightly to the physical, shared space with students, why the mental work is so enveloping, all-consuming (though the article above helps).  I hold on beyond the ending so tightly that I have to think about what else in my life might be missing or, perhaps more productively, accept and celebrate the transient nature of our work and detach with grace.


I am deliberate about planning closure opportunities for my students: portfolios, class pictures, letters to self that I mail when they are seniors, Espresso Self Cafe; we have a graduation ceremony to reflect on junior high and welcome high school. I sort of thought that these worked as closure for me, too, but I’ve noticed I facilitate rather than engage in these experiences (given I don’t have closure when they leave).

So I need a closure routine just for me. How about this:  First, I will share a gratitude poem on May 17th at Espresso Self Cafe. Then, I will write one more blog post reflecting on my year, sign off, and bask in the gift of another year reading alongside other people’s children. Then, I will stop being a teacher (except for two conferences — CEE and nErD camp) and try just being as I swim, bike, run, play, eat, sleep, and love. One of those had to spark the reward circuitry. And when August comes around, I will celebrate my time away and welcome another school year.

How does that sound? Healthy, right? Yeah, because I should want the year to end. It’s a good thing, right? Yeah, I should want to be Sarah, not Dr. Donovan, for at least two months out of the year, right? Yeah, she might be sort of interesting, maybe even fun, right? Yeah. Right.

Let’s see how that goes in five, four, three, two

Mirror, Mirror, is it time to move on?

“Do you regret being a teacher?”

It was 3:30 pm on a Thursday in January. The hallways of the school were quiet. Snowflakes were falling outside, and I was standing on a desk hanging twinkle lights from the ceiling for presentations the next day when my student teacher asked me this question. I lowered my hands and looked at her as she wrote tomorrow’s plans on the board, sighed and answered, “Gosh, no. Never.”

I was surprised at how quickly and easily I exhaled that response. There is nothing easy about teaching. I’ve written about this for over a year here on Ethical ELA: oversharing, apologies, grading, testing. Still, I don’t regret for a second that I became, am still becoming a teacher.

“Really? It’s so hard, so emotional. There’s so much to think about,” she replied.

“Really. I can’t imagine my life if I did not having teaching.”  I went on to say more about what teaching means to me as I climbed down from the desk, and then I said, “I don’t see my time with the kids as hard. Maybe I’d say it’s more elusive. It is a privilege to know students in this way even if some days are challenging. The hardest part, for me, is not being good enough, not doing enough, not knowing how to engage this student. It just this sense of never being satisfied with what I’ve done.”

I like working with a student teacher because of conversations like this. Student teachers come with fresh eyes and questions, wondering how to do and be all that our profession asks of teachers. I confess that while I have no regrets, I do often wonder if I can do and be all that the students need. I do often wonder if there might be another way to serve.

For the past thirteen years, I have been trying to make sense of this elusiveness, this feeling of never being good enough. The best way I know how to assuage the anxiety and discontent that comes with perceived failure and self-doubt is by making a change. Sometimes, new initiatives in the school give me the push (or distraction) to make that change, but most of the time, I have to make a deliberate choice to do something different. One year that meant a leave of absence to start a PhD. One year that meant submitting a proposal to NCTE. One year that meant applying for a grant to develop a classroom library. One year that meant applying to be part of a Chromebook pilot. One year that meant publishing a book. One year that meant teaching a class at a local university. One year that meant starting this blog, and one year that meant accepting a student teacher. The change gives me a sense of agency and temporary confidence, but whispers of self-doubt and agitation with failures inevitably resurface.

Working with student teachers this year has helped me to see my role as a teacher anew — in ways new initiatives have not. I am seeing in my student teachers, the children I serve, and the colleagues I serve alongside myself— like they are holding up a mirror for me.  They show me what I am doing well, but they also make visible those minor cracks in the mirror that have potential to grow. What is, perhaps, becoming most clear  in those mirrors (other than my age) is how I fit and don’t fit in with my school, the team, and the department. My student teachers bear witness to how I teach but also how I interact with students and colleagues, and they are so observant of the dynamics that I am confronted by them as well.

It is incredibly humbling to look, really look at oneself from the angles other show you, but I see it as protection from shattering, from falling apart. When I am willing to look carefully at all the angles, I can make adjustments to heal, to improve, and to make a change if needed.

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Essentially, I think my metaphorical mirrors are asking me this: What are you doing here? How do you fit in? How are you being useful? How are you contributing? Might you be becoming complacent? Are you being a little self-righteous? Are you isolating yourself? What more can you do for us, for the students? Is this the right place for you?

Messages about who I am as a teacher are coming at me all the time. Sometimes I find myself avoiding or disengaging from meetings because I don’t want to see or hear these messages, but with student teachers, I must look, listen, and reflect on my place among colleagues, my place in the school, my place in the profession. I imagine true satisfaction will remain elusive as it, perhaps, should. In some ways, I think my willingness/need to try new approaches has helped me stay in the profession. Still, I want to try to answer the questions my mirrors ask of me.

I’ve already found a few cracks in need of attention, but when I looked in the mirror today, I glimpsed a smile below my tired eyes in gratitude for another year with students. No regrets.

Say My Name (But Not Too Loud)

“Good morning, Jennifer.”

“Good morning, Dr. Donovan,” Jennifer replies as she walks on by to her first period class.

“Good morning, Pedro.”

“Good morning, Dr. Donovan,” Pedro replies as he walks into our classroom.

“Is Jennifer our student? I don’t remember her. Gosh, I don’t know how I am going to remember all these names,” says my student teacher.

“Oh, you’ll know them soon enough, but I know so many names because I taught seventh grade last year, and these are eighth grade hallways.”

I stand at my corner hallway post in the mornings and during passing periods with a view of one hallway leading to the cafe and another leading to a separate wing of the building. I have post where I see many of our school’s 800 students. As students pass by my supervision post, I lean in trying to make eye contact as if to say, “I see you” or “I’m glad you’re here.” For those further away, I shout out name after name with a “good morning.”

This is the first year that I am experiencing a glimpse of what it is like to teach multiple grades.  For over a decade, I just taught eighth grade. Last year,however, I was assigned to teach six seventh grade classes, and this year, I teach four eighth grade and two seventh grade reading classes. At the time, I had not known what a gift I was given by my principal  — to be in a place of name-knowing — but I do now. And now is a good time to look for and express gratitude for all that teaching can give to our hearts.

As a little girl, my father would joke about forgetting my name — at least I hope he was joking. I have ten siblings, and my father would often simply count us to be sure we were all accounted for at the hardware story or even the dinner table. My mother would usually run through a few names before getting to mine if I got into some trouble. And in high school, teachers would recognize my last name on the roster but often confuse me with at least a couple of my eight sisters. “Which one are you?” they’d ask. I guess that, when I became a teacher, I didn’t want to be “that” teacher.

Once you know a sentence, paragraph, or chapter in the life of a student’s story, you won’t confuse her with her sister or any other student. Some may say that little things like names matter, but I would say that names are not a little thing.  When we say someone’s name, we are saying that they are known, not anonymous. When I say a student’s name, I think that student knows that I know who he is,that I care who he is and that he came to school. I hope the students feel just a little bit less alienated from school, from learning, from teachers, from being. Even if it may be embarrassing to some students, I think saying their names aloud (with a tone that says “it’s good to see you”) values them. But, it’s not really about knowing the names.

For the students I know well, every name I utter calls to mind a story, and I feel like every time I greet a student by name that I am reminding her about all the beautiful things she read and said in our class.  As the school year goes on, I bear witness to these students growing up. Many students once in awe of my 5’11” height now tower over me. Some proudly show me the novel balanced on top of their book stack. A few who rather hated my class at least acknowledge me not with an utterance but with a heads-up gesture or second of eye contact.

I say their names because I can. I feel a sense of power knowing the names. I am proud that I have the mental capacity to do so as I age, but as I stand at my corner post day after day, I stand with gratitude for the stories I carry with the names. I give thanks for my place of name-knowing, of just knowing.

As for my student teacher, after just a week of being in the classroom, she is already in a place of name-knowing: Pedro wants to be the first in his family to go to college. Jonathan misses his mother. Sandra keeps her frustrations inside but will talk about them if you ask.

Knowing is a privilege, and in this cold January with five more months of teaching ahead, I am thankful.


Fatigue in teaching: A few tips for getting back to the teacher you want to be

be the teacher

A laptop held in the crook of an arm that used to carry a plan book. An empty stainless steel canister in hand, curled close to the chest. The free hand now pulls out an empty chair at a table where several teachers offer a polite, knowing smile with the last few drops of compassion they can muster. The Friday faculty meeting at the end of the eighth week, just before a three-day weekend begins.

“I don’t know if I could have made it another week without this break,” I hear one teacher whisper. And I think, Is that true for me? Am I spent? How many of us are empty like the stainless steel canister?

As the meeting went on, I glanced around the cafetorium at the eyes of our faculty and thought of the pre-service teachers I work with and why they want to become teachers. I thought about the hope in our Wednesday night discussion and imagined how they’d be feeling in the eighth week of their first year teaching, and then their tenth — if they’d make it.

I thought about how (if)  teacher education programs are preparing teachers to stay healthy physically but also mentally so that they can 1) stay in the profession and 2) be their best selves for the students who need healthy adults in their lives.

A short digression.

As much as I love to read, my hands and eyes can use a break at the end of a full day, and network TV still has a few shows that both my husband and I can enjoy. We’ve been watching Blindspot for a couple seasons and just started watching a revival of Lethal Weapon. What I most look forward to is Madam Secretary.

And here’s why I bring this up: in these shows that feature “public servants,” there is a therapist on staff to support agents, police officers, and even the Secretary of State as they recover from trauma. Unfortunately, the characters in these shows tend to resist therapy, associating this source of support with weakness. I think this is, in part, because therapy tends to be seen as an intervention at a time of crisis instead of one aspect of being and staying healthy for ourselves and the people we serve.

We take care of our bodies for the most part. There is no shame in having a gym membership or a FitBit. Why, then, is how we care for of our minds and hearts a secret (or at least it seems to be) in the teaching profession?  It is assumed that teachers are superhuman never able to run out of compassion for those we serve. Why isn’t there a therapist on staff in schools to support teachers when they are feeling exhausted or on edge, when they notice their emotional state is impacting their teaching?

A Google search of “teachers and therapy” revealed a Reddit forum where a few teachers chatted openly about exhaustion, anxiety attacks, and seeking therapy:

I’m losing it. I’m a first year middle school teacher in a title I school with bad teacher retention, teaching a subject I didn’t want. I had my second ever anxiety attack last night/today. I’m exhausted all the time. I get angry over nothing. I’m fighting with my SO over the dumbest things. On the way to school a part of me hopes something kinda bad will happen so I don’t have to go. I mentioned my attack to another teacher, and she told me about the counseling services our district offers through insurance. She said she did it last year and the person she saw had several other teachers coming in. Has anyone else had to go this far? Am I just not cut out for this? Edit: I don’t mean to come off as so whiny, I just want to make it clear that I don’t feel like it’s just normal “first year sucks” kinds of things. Some days are good, but a few too many days feel like this.

More teachers should go to therapy. It’s a very stressful job and I think everyone’s mental health will improve. But you, with your hopes of something bad happening so you don’t have to work, I would say definitely go talk to someone. It does not mean you’re weak or not cut out for it. It just means you need to talk to someone. You’re bottling a lot up right now and you need a release.

There are several other comments in this thread that reveal teachers recognizing the need and benefit of therapy for teachers. I think we need to create more spaces, virtual or actual, to support teachers who notice they are not being the teachers they want to see in this world.

In “The Brief Wonderous Life of Teachers’ Mental Health,” Isaiah Pickens writes:

Few antagonists to teachers’ mental wellness contribute to burnout as much as feeling incapable of successfully fulfilling teaching responsibilities—also known as low teacher self-efficacy. Having difficulty connecting with students, classroom behavior problems, perceptions of limited support from administration, and little time to recharge outside of work can undermine the most resilient teachers’ mental health. Equally important, teacher’s struggling to manage stress can unintentionally create tense classroom environments that model unhealthy stress-reduction strategies for student’s learning how to become socially and emotionally healthy people.

I am invested in supporting  pre-service teachers, my colleagues, and myself so that we can have healthy teachers who will nurture and mentor emotionally health students. Our world needs all generations of human beings to be healthy if we are to imagine a more healthy world.

When I was a social worker, part of my preparation included a class with specific strategies to protect my emotional health. My first employer gave us three “mental health days” that we “had” to use each year in part because, in the social work field, there is a code. When a social worker becomes aware of psychological distress that impacts judgment and performance, it is that person’s ethical responsibility to seek help because it may (and likely is) impacting clients. Being worn out or emotionally drained as a social worker can lead to misdiagnosis and treatment of a client.

As a teacher, the impact of being worn out or overly stressed may not be as severe as misdiagnosing a disorder, but you may begin to make mistakes in the lesson or assessment and lose sight of the instructional goals — your job. And beyond that, consider the impact on your students’ academic and emotional well being if your brain is foggy or your stress level is making you more irritable. Might your actions or reactions be harmful in some cases?

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As for the culture of schools, I’d like to see a change in what schools “ask” from teachers beyond their work in the classroom. New teachers want to get involved to show they’re dedicated to the school, and they are willing to put in the time beyond their teaching responsibilities to show that. Veteran teachers still join committees and start clubs and sign up for the “duties”  like lunch room and detention supervision (consider the toll that takes on teachers’ well being over time). And many teachers find time to squeeze in meetings for clubs, student conferences, and collaboration at lunch time — time when they can be drinking water, doing some relaxing, and taking a walk — while also coming to school early for committee meeting, which means giving up extra sleep or a workout. We do this because we care about our school and students and believe in the community that is our school, but we also do this because the school culture makes it hard for teachers to say “no.” I’d like to see a culture in schools that creates space for self-care and does not ask just one more thing of the teachers who want to be at their best for themselves, their students, one another. Indeed, we are public servants. I think it is in our nature to handle one more thing, but we are, in fact, not superhuman.

If we can agree that teachers are ethically bound to self-monitor their emotional well being, then we have to ask how we can be more conscious and even systematic about addressing emotional needs of teachers. We can start doing this in our teacher education program by adding self-care to our syllabi, but we can also start right now.

  1. Do a self-exam regularly (perhaps every 3-day weekend). How many of these descriptors apply to you? Exhaustion, reduced feelings of sympathy, dreading going to work, irritable, angry, hypersensitive, headaches, trouble sleeping/sleeping too much, weight loss/gain, more arguments. Do you need to make time for self care? Yes, definitely yes.
  2. Practice self-care. Of course, if you knew how to do this consistently, you would likely not be exhausted right now, so I’ll just say that when you do a self-exam, make some changes and do your best to keep them up. If you can eat more fruit, drink more water, go to a yoga class, take a walk, add a weekend nap, start a new hobby, say “no” to a committee for a few days or weeks before falling off the practice of self-care until the next attempt, that is a good enough. You are trying, and in those weeks you will be better for yourself and your students.
  3. Make a friend. As an adult and an introvert, I have a hard time making friends, because talking is actually exhausting to me. However, having a positive relationship with a few colleagues has really sustained me in recent years. Knowing there are few people in my school who like me (and least I think they do because they smile at me or share experiences with me) and just knowing they’re there if I need to chat, feels good. If you don’t have those people, try to make a friend by smiling at your colleagues and stopping in their room to ask what they’re teaching this week. Show an interest in others, and they’ll show an interest in you — and this can help minimize feelings of isolation and loneliness.
  4. Revise, reinvigorate your lesson plans. Would you want to be a student in your class? Do you love what you’re teaching? Even if you have a set curriculum and are feeling like you are behind in your plan and can’t possibly take a day off to explore something new, do it! Why did you want to become a teacher? What story, concept, idea made you say I want to become an English teacher? Read it, write it, watch it, act it out, make a game with. Do something you love, and I bet your students will love it, too and maybe your students will see an opening to give you some love for sharing your passion with them.
  5. Seek therapy. If you’re a full-time teacher, your insurance plan most likely has some coverage for personal therapy. Set it up. Psychology Today makes it easy to search therapist in your area.Find a therapist near your home or school so that it is easy to make the appointments. Read the bios of several therapists and consider their style and education. Many have a cognitive approach, but more and more therapists have a holistic approach and can help with childhood issues, mind-body connections (like if you carry your stress in your shoulders or back), meditation/mindful practice, and do overall life coaching. See the therapist once a week, once a month, once every few months. There are no rules to this.

I hope you find time to rest and take care of yourself this 3-day weekend, and I hope you take some time to consider how you will take care of yourself in the weeks to come. We need your best you. Fill up that water bottle.

I’d love to hear any stories of personal resilience or tips for self-care if you’re willing to share.

be the teacher

“Democracy” in ELA: What do 8th graders have to say?


10989499_10206178764841400_5114818668485493084_oI took this picture on the beach of Gulf Shores, Alabama as I waded in and out of the waves trying to get nice pic.  We had just driven south from Chicago through towns displaying the Confederate flag, and, in light of recent Supreme Court rulings, the waves made me think about how democracy is a lot like those waves: ever-changing — sometimes powerful, sometimes calm, beautiful and yet capable of great trauma.

Ethical teaching practices in ELA is, in my view, anchored in democratic principles.  I think , however, that schools tend to see democracy as one dimensional and static, as something we’ve already achieved. If we can illuminate the hidden dimensions of democracy and see it as dynamic and capable of change, we might get closer to what  “ought” to be happening in classrooms: preparing students to make our world more sustainable, more peaceful, and more just. I know that ELA teachers are just the right people for this job.

One way of thinking about democracy is to say that it is already in place. We have voting, a market economy, property rights, free education, and we value meritocracy (e.g., that if you work hard, you can succeed). However, there is a darker dimension to this, one that has made it financially impossible for an average citizen to run for office, one that has halted class mobility, increased poverty, and perpetuated racial segregation in our towns and schools. What I want to call attention to is this dimension of democracy, this darker side lurking and even undermining the potential of schools to trouble the status quo and promote a more just, equal, and peaceful society.

Discourse of Measurement

I became a teacher in 2004, one year after No Child Left Behind was implemented. (See my post on my first year teaching.) Its social force was in full effect to promote equality in education. Here is a list of phrases and ideas that drove education and sort of high-jacked (harsh?) the way we talked about our love of reading and writing with students (perhaps you can add others):

  • Standards based education reform
  • Measurable goals
  • Assessments in basic skills
  • Standardized test
  • Adequate yearly progress
  • Data-driven instruction
  • Scientifically based research practices
  • Test prep

This language shifted the discourse in the ELA classroom from talk about books, stories, and writing to talk about goals, objectives, and scores, i.e., a discourse of measurement. The rhetoric of education reform was such that “good” teaching meant that we had measurable objectives for improved achievement, and if schools “failed,” then schools (and teachers)  would be labeled and targeted for increased accountability. The rhetoric was such that no child would be left behind and that this reform was in line with our democratic values of equity and justice, but that was just rhetoric.

My school district is K-8. As an eighth grade teacher, I am the last English teacher our students have before going on to high school, and I have seen the result of eight years of learning English with a measurement discourse. Eight years of measurement, accountability, and AYP. The eighth grade students in my English class last year spent all their schooling years in this discourse of measurement. With a population of about 76 students, 68 percent are low income, and this is in a suburb of Chicago. My school did not make AYP in 2005, 2008, 2012, nor 2013. In fact, last year 50% of the students did not meet or exceed on the state test.

These numbers weigh on our administrators; numbers cause waves of panic in the halls of our schools and create a tide that pulls down all the good work our teachers do. But after a decade of this measurement talk, we also have increasing numbers of students hospitalized for various manifestations of depression. Now, failing test scores are one thing, but the increasing disengagement with life is even more concerning. What are we teaching about education to our students?

What has NCLB taught students to believe about ELA and education? 

During the first month of the school year, I invite my students to take an informal survey on Google forms  to get a sense of their beliefs about reading, writing, school, and just being a student.  In addition, I ask them about what it means to be a citizen (a word we throw around a lot but is tough to define), what they think the world needs, and what they want to learn in school.  The response boxes were left open to invite narrative responses. Here are results from last year’s survey.

student survey

Survey Results

On the question of why we read, some common responses included the following: to learn vocabulary, to read faster, to learn spelling, to apply for a job, to work on grammar, for comprehension, to speak and read fluently, and to explore different genres.  One student wrote: “…to learn how to read certain materials that will later turn into techniques that we will need later in life. For example, to apply for a job or to help our future kids with their homework.”

On the question of writing, the responses were mostly skill-based, and the words “proper” and “correctly” came up most frequently. Here is one representative excerpt: “Writing class is important because for every job you apply to you will need to write. Any paperwork you fill out you will need to know how  to spell and how to put words into sentences correctly.”

As for what makes a good student, the words that came up in their responses were homework, good grades, on time, pay attention, best work, doesn’t get in trouble.  One student wrote: “If one student wants to apply to a certain college, they will look at his or her grades and compare those grades to another student and see which one was more involved and wasn’t lazy and actually put in the effort to get good grades.”

On the question of education,  “success,”“future,” and “knowledge” came up a few times, but mostly, students talked about education helping them prepare for jobs. One student said, “With all the advanced jobs in engineering, doctors, business people and etc., children need to slowly learn the education skills and more advanced skills learned in college to be able to qualify for the specific job.”

After looking at these three categories, it seemed to me that students were seeing the work they had done in K-7 (this survey was given at the start of eighth grade) as preparing them to get good grades, go to college, and get jobs (for the most part). Are these responses what you expected? Is this what we want students to think and believe about ELA and education? Before I respond, let’s look at some other responses.

So when they got to questions about citizenship, the language was a little different. The words that came up most frequently were these: volunteering, helping, community, contributing, being a member. And then some students used language of belonging:  living in a place, having papers, and legally belonging. This language of belonging is not surprising because so many of the students in our school were not born in the U.S. and are not “citizens” in the legal sense.

Looking at the survey results, the way these students talked about reading, writing, and grades in school seems to be related to democracy in the sense of the market and meritocracy whereas with citizenship they talked about something more qualitative, more communal.

I added a question about what sort of hopes students had for their world in order to see if I could get a sense of what ideas or actions they thought we “ought” to be working toward. Here there was dramatic shift in discourse, and they had a lot more to say:

I don’t know what the world needs, but I do know the problems are racism, power, and money.

We need love. Lots and lots of love, understanding , giving, care, and all that sappy crap. We need to bring the peace everyone makes fun of because they think it’s not real and too hipster.

I don’t honestly see the world joining together to become one big continent anytime soon so the best we can do is to not interfere with each other’s problems at all unless of course it effects us and otherwise keep our trade/industry business going as it was.

Finally, here is what students wrote when I asked them what they wanted to learn this year: “Everything”;” …the world around us and how little by little we can help make it a better place.”; “We should learn about psychology.”; “We should not be reviewing how to throw a ball in gym.”; “…how to be great in life.”; “about the world and what has happened in the past and what is really happening in the world.”

It seems to me that when talking about education and ELA students were using the discourse of measurement from NCLB – skills and achievement. Maybe they were writing what they thought I wanted to hear. I can’t be sure, but their responses about education (about getting a job) seem disconnected from their concerns about the world.

This survey does not attempt to indicate any sort of causality necessarily, and it does not account for the vastness of teachers and even students’ home environments. I simply wanted to know how students talked about my subject and what they thought they would be doing in my class 80 minutes a day for 170 days together. When I think about the rhetoric students are espousing here, I can’t help but be troubled by it.

What do we want students to say about their ELA education? 

First, it is disheartening for me, as an ELA teacher (and teacher of other teachers) to read what these twelve and thirteen year olds think about our discipline. I worry about how they’ve come to understand the purpose of reading, of writing, and what it means to be a “good” student. Very few (though there are some) pre-service and in-service teachers say they want to teach English so that their students can write a resume or learn vocabulary, right? I want students to discover the power of literature, to develop empathy, to use writing to make sense of the world, to create, to connect, to understand? What do you want your students to say and believe about ELA?

Second, looking at the context in which students are learning and living,  I have to consider the discrepancy between what the students say they are learning and preparing for and what is actually awaiting them.  Remember, 70% are low income, and for most, this is generational poverty rather than the result of the economic downturn.  So, what sort of world are these students entering? What will be their place in that world? If we look at the numbers coming out of this rhetoric of schooling — this message that skills-based instruction, testing, and accountability leads to achievement—we see nothing short of failure. The test scores, the joblessness, the poverty, the hospitalizations tell a different story. The democracy schools espouse is not the democracy they live, and kids are being left behind.

This narrative that education reform is spinning is full of gaps and flawed logic.  I think students know this, which might be why test scores are down and there is a lack of engagement with the possibility of reading and writing (at least in my school). Some students, I think, are being quite subversive (i.e., not taking high stake tests seriously, defying school rules), which can be infuriating, but it is also sort of beautiful.  Those students who click through the MAP test or day dream during the Common Core — they know. They know numbers don’t define them. They won’t write for the state. In spite of all the good work teachers do to know their students, develop engaging lessons, and show they care,  I think many students in are skeptical of schooling, which is hopeful but not necessarily healthy unless they are invited to use that skepticism for critical awareness or intelligent social action.

What am I working up to here? This year schools rolled out a new reform era:the Common Core Standards with PARCC and Smart Balance tests, too. This is not to say that NCLB is gone. In fact, many schools are still required to offer school choice for not making AYP. Nevertheless, the students who enter kindergarten this year will be at the beginning of another (re)form of schools (albeit one with the same market-driven meritocracy). What will be the outcome eight years from now? What will we hear the voices of future eighth graders say after their Common Core-driven schooling (if CCSS makes it that long). And as schools are thinking about curricula, lesson plans, and the sort of habits of mind they will purport, I am wondering what teachers can do to change these survey results (and if they even want to).

In my view, what is missing from the national reform movement, from these standards,  and from any discussions across the U.S.  in this first year of implementing these new standards is any discussion of democracy.

deweyRedefining Democracy and Thus the Role of the ELA Teacher

According to John Dewey, the sort of democracy our world needs is not in place. It is a thought system that has yet to arrive because it is ever-changing. Dewey wrote that “the greatest mistake we can make about democracy is to conceive of it as something fixed…democracy, in order to live must change and move.”

How can ELA teachers mediate the policies that are narrowing the potential of our citizenry and  put “democracy,” a more dynamic democracy, back into the curriculum? I think we have to illuminate the shades of democracy within our classrooms and teach students to make waves, to move democracy. John Dewey writes:

Only as schools provide an understanding of the movement and direction of the social forces and an understanding of the social needs and the resources that may be used to satisfy them will they meet the challenge of democracy.

Education, in my view,  is about being skeptical of democracy, for we have seen the darker side. We have seen the consequences of inequality and social exclusion in hate crimes and genocide.

Our greatest hope for a just society is our students, our youngest citizens, but they are not going to get to understanding of social needs if they think education is about knowledge and skill accumulation.

Re-making the ELA Classroom

Who better than English teachers to make visible this complex narrative of democracy and to teach about social forces? This is what we do. This is what literature is. This is what writing does. We read into the gaps of a narrative and call attention to flaws in logic. We select and share stories and poetry that illuminate the human condition. We analyze how a text works on its readers and advances an idea. And we write for all the same reasons. We can lead this new era of reform.

Our students want school to be about something more that achievement. They want to know about the world and be able to “little by little help make it better.” Such is the remaking of education so that we can see our students as citizens of the world rather than merely job seekers. 

I will not present to you a list of steps or guidelines to re-imagine the English classroom because I am not sure how I want students’ answer the question: What is the purpose of English?  But I do know that I want it to be something more than vocabulary and resume writing.

Next week, I will post some ideas I’ve tried, but I would like to hear from you. How do you work to encourage students to talk about ELA in more qualitative terms and to think about how reading and writing might enlighten the darker dimensions of democracy? What do you think about teaching students to be skeptical of “democracy” or, as one student wrote, to teach how to love? Is the ELA classroom a place to teach students to make waves in their education?

Ethical ELA’s Birthday: Top Posts

celebrateoneyearof0aethicalela0aandconversationsonthe0aethics0aofteachingenglish0athankyou21-defaultOne year ago, I began Ethical ELA, a blog about the ethics of teaching English language arts in middle and secondary schools in a time of standards and accountability.

When conversations at faculty meetings focus on teacher evaluation, testing schedules (PARCC, MAP, ACCESS), and data, we silence conversations about the well-being of our students and what education can be.  When English department meetings are focused on standardizing the curriculum and common summative assessments, we push to the margins conversations on how to engage students, nurture life-long readers, and inspire critical thinking and activism through and with reading and writing.

Teacher blogs and websites can be a place to commiserate on the downfall of education, but they can also be sites to grapple with problems and inspire solutions. My vision was to publish posts written by teachers to initiate conversations about how we “ought” to teach English and what we “ought” to be talking about when it comes to teaching English language arts.

Brainstorm of Topics
Brainstorm of Topics

One year and over one hundred posts later, we’ve started conversations on reading logs, classroom libraries, grades, diverse literature, English language learners, collaboration, celebrating teacher-friends, writing workshop, reading workshop, and more inclusive teaching practices and curriculum. And all these posts have given voice to and brought to the center conversations about how and what we “ought” to teach students of English.

Below you will find a list of our top posts from the year and a special thanks to our teacher-bloggers. I will also be re-posting some of our earlier posts this week so that our new followers can read some of the conversations that began this site.

All Time Top Ten Posts

  1. Throwing Out Reading Logs (and Homework)
  2. Top Ten Books to Start a Classroom Library (Plus Ten More)
  3. Assessment in the Reading Workshop without Grades: What did you read? What did you do with your reading? What did you learn?
  4. A Letter Home about Grades
  5. Oversharing in Writing Workshop
  6. I’m a no grades cheater
  7. Letting Literature do the Work: How I Started an Inclusive Literature Workshop
  8. Summer Book Club 2016: Let’s discover books together for the first time
  9. No Grading: I Think I Did it Wrong
  10. Imagining a No-Grades Classroom

Ethical ELA’s Teacher-Bloggers

A special thanks to our guest bloggers for their contributions. Your work has furthered our mission to start conversations on the ethics of teaching English language arts and to highlight the very rich and expansive work that is teaching English. From reading comic books to celebrating teacher friends, from reading logs to reading Shakespeare, from portfolio assessments to throwing out grades, we are uncovering what English teachers do for our students, schools, and humanity.

photo (11)
Cameron Gale
Cameron Gale
Ethical ELA
Lesley Roessing
Paul Brzegowy
Christina Gil
Kate & MArissa
Stefanie Rittner
Julie Lucash
Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
Two Teachers Talk
Ethical ELA

Coming Up

This summer, I am hosting four book clubs on Teaching Teens, a group on Facebook.

Making the Match

I also started a You Tube channel where I will post short book talks.

For the 2016-17 school year, we will have more posts on how to sustain the traditions of teaching English as more schools move to 1:1 technology programs.

We are always looking for guest bloggers. Please consider making a contribution. Here is  a link to the easy process: Guest Blogger Guide.

Tell us what you think about Ethical ELA.

Reading as a Witness to Lives Lived by Sarah J Donovan

Originally published on Nerdy Book Club’s Reading Lives page.

Sometimes I feel like at outsider in ELA department meetings and the education courses I teach because ELA teachers like to talk about their favorite childhood books, how they read under covers with a flashlight, or snuck in a chapter during science class. Growing up, I did not have a relationship with books, but I did know about stories.

My family circa 1975 (missing the two youngest)
My family circa 1975 (missing the two youngest)

I was never a reader, and I had never imagined I would one day be an English teacher. I grew up in a Catholic home among my ten siblings with a small library of books. The only book I remember reading is The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein (so I guess I do have a book memory).  I would find the green cover of The Giving Tree when I felt most melancholy, turning the pages to see the glorious tree turn into a stump as it gave itself to the boy. While beautiful in many ways, I’d cry at what I perceived as an injustice. I sensed at an early age that my ability to feel a story  is what made me feel human, and, for my lifetime, I have absorbed pain and sorrow of others as if it were my own.

The injustices of the world always hit me hard. The pain of others moved me to study psychology, sociology, and criminal justice in high school and college, and my first career was as a social worker in the county jail. My job was to go to the jail and ask people for their stories, to listen to the stories of their lives, and to uncover how they arrived at this moment. I’d then write a report for their sentencing hearing.

At first, the jail stories felt like a burden.   I absorbed stories of neglect, abuse, resilience, and hope into my mind and body unsure of how to carry these lives alongside my own. Sure I was trained to set boundaries with clients, but , still, the stories seeped into my dreams and became a part of my memory.

I was their listener. I enabled their testimony so that the men and women who sat on the other side of the glass could witness their lives.  We were in it together – the storyteller and the listener. For me, because I witnessed their lives in this way, their stories endure.  I came to see my work as reading lives, which has been my privilege.

In 2002, after a few years of working in the jail, I was burning out and decided on a career change. (Like so many teachers, social workers burn out, too.) School experiences came up a lot in the jail interviews: from special teachers who tried to help to stories of ADD to the consequences of zero tolerance policies.  By pursuing a career in teaching, I guess I hoped to do that which so many teachers do every day and that which the media tends to overlook: to listen to the lives of young people.

I began a Masters in Education. I felt at home in the education classes about human development, but without a degree in English, I was an outsider in the literature classes until I took a young adult literature course. For most of us in the course, these novels were new; there was no “right” reading or authority on the text. In novel form, YA authors represented teenage wounds in remarkable ways, childhood wounds that I heard talk in jail cells. The humanity of these novels captivated me.

I read, and I witnessed stories of abuse, neglect, resilience and hope: Em  in When She Was Good  by Norma Fox Mazer; Callie in Cut by Patricia McCormick; Melinda inSpeak by Laura Halse Anderson; LaVaughn  in Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff; and Young in An Na’s  A Step from Heaven.  I still carry the images and emotions in my mind and body from this literature. Now a teacher, I have many literary memories.

For over a decade now, I begin each school year with my story about how I came to be (and am still becoming) an English teacher: I was first a reader of lives. I carry the stories of many lives in my days and dreams.  Whether those stories are personal testimonies or representations of lived lives in fiction, my heart does not seem to recognize the difference. I cry with Gabi in Tree Girl by Ben Mikaelsen and laugh (and cry) with Junior in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.  I am part of stories, and my students are, too.

I try to teach my students that when they are telling their stories, listening to the stories of their fellow human beings, or reading one of the hundreds of books that surround them in H103, they are essential to the story. They make the story possible. They are not outsiders to literature.

This year, students read and witnessed many lives: Uprising by Margaret Peterson Haddix, Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys, Journey of the Sparrow by Fran Leeper Bus, Shadow of the Dragon by Sherry Garland, and, among many others,Nothing But the Truth (and a few white lies) by Justina Chen. (Take a look at their blogs here:

You, my Nerdy Book Club friends, and my fellow ELA teachers read many beautiful stories of humanity alongside students every school year. As teachers, we bear witness to the lives of students every day, and in journals, blogs, seminars, and over lunch, we read the lives of students as well. Because of teachers, students’ stories endure. We are a witness to their lives.

For the past five years, I have been working on a doctorate in English while teaching eighth grade ELA. All the stories I’ve heard in my career as a social worker and teacher compelled me to study how we read stories and how a story positions readers to bear witness.  How do we carry these stories once we close the books? How do we live with the images imprinted in our memory? How do these stories shape who we become? Do they?

My dear readers: How do you bear witness to lives through story?  Which books have moved you to feel the privilege of bearing witness to distant lives? Which books seem to move your students into the realm of reading as witnessing?  How do stories endure through you and your students?