my first day of class manifesto

It’s fall. Again.

By fall I mean we’re back to school even though it’s still August and there’s plenty of summer left. The new school year seems to start earlier and earlier. That’s probably because it’s still August.

When I was a kid, by the middle of summer I secretly wished school would hurry up and start.

That hasn’t changed much. Now that I’m on the other side of that desk, I still look forward to the beginning of the term.

There’s something about the fall term, more than spring or summer, that speaks to new beginnings. It’s an opportunity for a reboot, and truth be told, I can always use a reboot.

It’s an opportunity for discovery, too.

I love teaching because it puts me in the position of always learning. I’m not talking about the traditional sense of life-long learning, which we all should embrace, but in the practical honing of my skills. I learn how to be a better teacher by teaching.

I didn’t grasp this early in my career, probably because I was too green and insecure in my abilities to reveal those insecurities to my students. (To be honest, my greatest fear in the classroom, still, is to be discovered as a fraud).

So, I put on a persona of expertise and stood in front of the group and professed. I professed a lot. Lots and lots of lectures where I stood there and spoke my pearls of wisdom and my students took notes and then spat them back at me in various assessments. I was good, and they were good. But somehow, we weren’t good together.

So what changed?

Over time I became more comfortable with what I was doing. I discovered, a little bit at a time, that perhaps I was meant to be doing this. I lost the fear of being wrong or not having an answer, and shared that with my students. It occurred to me that they might know answers to things I didn’t know.

I gave myself permission to not know, and invited my students to fill in the blanks.

I took that risk to help them think for themselves. Too many years of spitting back facts clouded their ability to think critically. And then I thought, what if the problem is that they are afraid to think critically?

What if the problem lies in, not the cognitive domain, but in something else — their ability to recognize their worth. That they have something to say.  I’ve tried, with varying levels of success, to help my students find their voices.

“Teaching, therefore, asks first of all the creation of a space where students and teachers can enter into a fearless communication with each other and allow their respective life experiences to be their primary and most valuable source of growth and maturation. It asks for a mutual trust in which those who teach and those who want to learn can become present to each other, not as opponents, but as those who share in the same struggle and search for the same truth.”

Henri J.M. Nouwen

I hope that’s the environment I create in my classrooms this term. A safe place to share and learn from each other. To do this, I have to share a little bit of myself, enter into a certain level of vulnerability — it won’t make me weak; it will make me strong.

There are fancy names for this…those of you who are teachers will recognize that what I’m talking about here is an engaged pedagogy — but the root of that is much deeper than an educational philosophy.

It comes from a Truth that I know — that I’ve always known and lived by, though God surely knows I haven’t always been able to articulate this, and it’s only by His grace that I haven’t messed it up too badly.

To reach my students I need to begin by acknowledging their fundamental dignity as human beings.

Too much of my job relegates students to data points. Measurable outcomes keep me employed, I suppose, but it’s the other thing, my vocation, that keeps me coming back every year.

It’s the knowledge that something great happens in the classroom, even if it’s not measurable. Even if it’s only a seed that I’ll never see germinate.

I’ll try to remember this as I begin a new term, and remind myself again and again … and again if I have to, when things get slow or difficult, that I am a teacher. That I have answered God’s call to this vocation and that it is my duty, the commitment I’ve made, to serve God by serving my students. That I am called to love them.

tools of the trade


So classes begin tomorrow. I’m gathering my things and putting them in my briefcase. You know, so I’m ready to go first thing in the morning.

No one takes a picture of me on the first day of school anymore, but I might get into the spirit of it and take a selfie.

On second thought, NO.

But here’s what’s going into the ol’ briefcase:

1. A couple of Expo markers, black. I might throw in red and green in case I get inspired to draw a flower or something.

2. A couple of #2 pencils, and my favorite blue black Uni-Ball Vision Elite medium point pen. Yes, I am that precise when it comes to what kind of pen I like. It’s not OCD; it’s arthritic hands. Ok, and a little bit of OCD.

3. A small notebook. Because I never know when the next idea for a novel might inspire me.

4. My laptop, ipad, iphone, and all the accompanying chargers. Yes. I actually teach with those items. Really.

5. A rosary. Boy do I need to take a break with Mama Mary. The day hasn’t started and I already know this.

6. The coin you see pictured above, though not in the briefcase — more than likely in my pocket. It’s St. Gabriel. Why not St. Francis de Sales patron of teachers and writers, or perhaps St. John Baptist de La Salle not just patron of teachers, but Father of Modern Education (and trade schools!)? Nope. I have St. Gabriel because I have a big fat mouth and I am totally aware of how I am in the position to escalate or de-escalate just about anything that can happen in a classroom. Don’t believe that? Let me introduce you to Antionette Tuff.

Here’s what it says:

Oh dear Gabriel, Help us to be diplomatic and watch over us, as you did with Christ; give us the strength to reason and the humility to listen.

I often forget that listening is more than taking in words — it’s also being present to the person saying them, and hearing the words that weren’t spoken.

Have a great school year all you teachers and students! God bless us all!

back at last!

smeaog precious

I’ve missed my laptop.

I know, such a pathetic thing to say, but there you have it.

I suppose there’s some redeeming thing to say about not being materialistic — you know, the importance of detachment and all that.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s true: the world got on just fine without my laptop distracting me. I wish I could have said that I went totally offline, but I had my phone and an iPad. And this antique HP pc that weighs about 20 pounds and works just fine. I was just spoiled by my light little macbook.

I missed changing the color of fonts. I missed the ease of posting here with access to my pictures. I missed the keypad for my biggish hands (no, I don’t have man -hands, thankyouverymuch).

This electronic object is more than a little toy for posting on Twitter and Facebook, though it does get a lot of action that way. It’s also a tool for communication and for work. If nothing else, this month long absence showed me how much I rely on it to do a multitude of things. I learned the limits of the other, smaller devices, but also discovered that they are, in some respects, more useful and practical than the big daddy for some things.

I think that I’ve picked up some new, hopefully better, habits by not having a laptop open all the time.

In the meantime, I’m going to love him, and squeeze him, and kiss him, and call him George.


well, a busy week is upon me

I’m going to resolve to do three very important things today:

1. Pray – really pray, not some half-assed recitation of words while I’m distracted by traffic, or ticking off a list between appointments. It’s going to require that I intentionally set aside some time, ideally in about 5 minutes, and concentrate. Quietly. Reverently. With feeling, as they say.

2. Write – I’ve long abandoned any discipline in this area. Perhaps it’s time I stop making excuses and get on with it

3. Work – I have thee little assignments that aren’t terribly important, so I keep putting them aside. Time to get it done.

Of course, then I have to finish everything else in the universe, but it’s good to have a plan.

one, one, one adds up


There are days at work that test my patience to the limit, like these past couple of days. Coming off a couple of weeks of Christmas vacation should have left me rested and pleasant, no?

Not exactly. I always return in the new year frazzled. Not because I didn’t decompress enough over the holiday, or celebrate well with my family and friends, but because the new year at school always means other kinds of stress coming off the students. God bless them, every one. They return a little nervous and requiring some guidance and good advisement. I don’t blame them, but they come by the hundreds. It’s a little daunting for a dozen advisors, believe me.

I’m torn between providing some really good customer service or seeing as many students as possible to get them through the day efficiently. Sometimes I look at the numbers and forget what it’s really about, the student.

That silly Mother Teresa bobblehead stared at me from her little perch high on my bookshelf, and I remembered this quote:

“I never look at the masses as my responsibility; I look at the individual. I can only love one person at a time – just one, one, one. So you begin. I began – I picked up one person. Maybe if I didn’t pick up that one person, I wouldn’t have picked up forty-two thousand….The same thing goes for you, the same thing in your family, the same thing in your church, your community. Just begin – one, one, one.”

It changed my approach significantly. I listened. I chatted. We laughed a little. And somehow, I think I served dozens of students in this way. One person at a time.

I admit it, I used to read under the covers

Here we go again! It’s Banned Books Week!

I like this more than Halloween, even though there isn’t any Candy Corn, and if there’s chocolate, good chocolate, it’s because I bought it.

Still, as an English teacher, it’s one of those things that makes me absolutely giddy. You know I print out the list of top most challenged books and make my way through it.

I’m not a naughty girl, really. Well, maybe a little bit. Sister Dawn did catch me reading M*A*S*H when I was in the sixth grade.

Anyway, last time I checked, the Constitution is still around (I’ll reserve further comments) and we do, in fact, celebrate the freedom to pursue the kind of reading that makes us explore, challenge ourselves, grow, learn, and, well…think.

It’s not about being naughty but about being knowledgable. Banned books tend to cover themes that promote discourse, and discourse is really at the center of a free society. Freedom, though, doesn’t mean we are exempt from responsibility or discretion. Instead, it inspires guidance.

Most people rush to see the list of banned books (I’m one of them) but I also found some compelling data.

For example, look at who is responsible for challenging the most books. Yes! Parents! That is as it should be. I can’t begin to tell you about the uninspiring stacks of books I’ve read because my children were reading them, and conversely, the amazing discoveries that I missed when I was their age and was able to enjoy with them because I was paying attention to what was on their night tables. The good news is that the institutions, for the most part, are staying out of it.

But if you’re a parent, this might be a useful table. The majority of the content questioned is, in fact, naughty.

As an English teacher, I’ll almost always encourage you to read something that challenges you, but I will always encourage you to read something that will edify you. Reading scandalous texts because they are scandalous will ultimately do you more harm than good.

It turns out that 46 out of the top 100 novels of the 21st century have been challenged. I’ve read 45. I’ll leave it up to you to figure out which ones.





“the Bible got it right”

Hmmm. So I’m doing a little bit of research (okay, a whole lotta research) on the affective domain in education…it’s a long story, and if you’re really curious about why I care, you can read about it here. Little ole me even has something to say there :)

Anyway, I ran across this provocative video. It’s a little long, but if you’re intellectually curious and willing to sit through 10 minutes of nerdiness, I promise it’s interesting. And thought-provoking.

Enjoy. I did…and I’m going to be thinking about it for a while. I welcome your comments.