the entrance to MacDonald Middle School in East Lansing, MI

Just about every time I walk into “work” (also called MacDonald Middle School, see photo on left), I remind myself how lucky I am.  Seriously.  Whether it’s 7:15 am and mostly dark or it’s the weekend or evening and mostly deserted, I scan the front of the building and, essentially, give thanks.

Sometimes I focus on the construction of the building:  a group of people decided this building should be built and found the funds to make it happen; someone designed the building; and other people laid the foundation, framed each space, laid each brick and tile, and made this place exist.  More recently, still others renovated our school to reconfigure the lay out, added a state-of-the-art auditorium and air-conditioning, and landscaped it to be very inviting.  I’m quite thankful to all of those people, many of whom are long gone.

I’m grateful, also, to have a job that I enjoy and that provides a decent income.  As I walk into the building, I often remember  how long it took for me to find a profession, get a job in the field, earn another degree (Special Education) that brought me some security and satisfaction as a teacher, re-locate to get another teaching job, and, over time, find a home in a middle school that’s within walking/biking distance to my actual home.

If I’m moving especially slowly into the building, I may also think about all the family, friends, mentors, colleagues, and professors that helped me get to this place in my teaching career.   Once in awhile, I even think back to my Armenian ancestors who traveled half way across the world to save themselves, and their descendants, from religious and political persecution — it was an immense undertaking, a monumental ordeal, and an important, though quite mysterious, journey.

All of this is knocking around in my head as I walk into work (and that doesn’t even count what I’m planning to teach that day).

In addition, in these hard economic times, I work in a district that was able to help me afford to attend a conference in order to learn how to improve my teaching ability.  I recently attended the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Annual Conference in Chicago, Illinois.  I paid for my transportation, housing, food, and expenses; my district paid for my conference registration and for my substitute teacher (over $300 total for the registration and sub) with the stipulation that I share with my staff what I learned. I would not have gone  to the conference if they were unable to help with the costs and I fully realize that not every teacher that wants to attend a conference gets permission.  I deeply appreciate the opportunity to have been at the conference and soak it all in.

Before I try to convey some of my conference experiences, here’s a poem I wrote about my relationship with the location of the conference, Chicago —


Chicago is the older sister

I never had.


At arms length,

both close and distant;

she’s familiar and mysterious,

wise and curious.


I rush to see her

and savor each moment

of our subway exchanges —

relish my wanderings among

her bustling streets of experience.


Hearing her stories,

jealousy clouds

the love I want to feel.

And only after I am home


Do I regret

our time apart.


This year, I’ve been grappling with both how to engage my students more in their learning and with the role of social justice issues in that pursuit.  So, not coincidentally, I chose sessions at the conference that dealt with those topics.

Engaging students through Social Justice

It is one of my deepest desires is to engage my students in their learning.  I can’t say that I always reach that goal, but it’s right there in the front of my mind at all times.  I employ a variety of techniques to achieve that goal:  humor, juggling, singing, hands-on learning (projects, computers, etc.), asking challenging questions, asking them to employ reading strategies, presenting thought-provoking texts and videos, using a class wiki to increase the audience of students’ final products, and others.  And yet, I still have to confiscate cell phones from students who are texting and ask a few students to not lay on the floor during a lesson, which I see as less than the level of engagement I’m shooting for.

I was struck by the ways that several presenters engaged their students.

I found Namir Yedid’s presentation to be dynamic and exciting.  He led us through his thinking process for the formulation, execution, and reflection of a 10 week project called “What’s for Dinner?”  Yedid is a middle school teacher from California; though his teaching situation is different from mine (his school is tuition-based, involves an application process, and has an average class size of 15), I found many gems that I could borrow for my classes.  The project gets students thinking about the issue of hunger locally and globally.  Students do research, write letters to the editors of newspapers, and in many ways reverse the notion of school “happening to” them into one where they feel power and voice; Yedid paralleled his talk with how teachers can feel empowered and engaged, also, as they help their students share their vision and voice with the world.  He incorporated persuasive writing with critique with annotated citations, all the while providing a high level of autonomy (as Daniel Pink emphasizes) and excellence.

The I-Search Research project we do in the 8th grade is a mini-version of this, but we fall a bit short.  While we do employ some student choice (which increases engagement), Yedid takes it to the next level with his requirement that students pursue social issues relevant to their lives and then take some action on the issue.  It’s not just about increasing audience; it’s more about helping students begin being active participants in a vibrant democracy.  Nurturing an informed, involved public should be higher on our list of goals in education, instead of worrying so much about MEAP scores and AYP (Annual Yearly Progress).  An Utne article I read on the train, from Maggie Johnson’s book, Distracted:  The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, spoke to this issue; she challenges us to “create a renaissance of attention, recover the ability to pause, focus, connect, judge, and enter deeply into relationships and ideas…(lest we) slip into numb days of diffusion and detachment.” We need to get our students minds actively involved in their daily lives now — make school relevant to them in personal ways — so that they may continue that behavior as adult citizens.

At the end of the project, Yedid gathered a large body of feedback/data from his students regarding their thoughts and feelings about the project.  The wordle on this page (below) is one example of this feedback and is the type of thing I need to do more often.

Students answering "What was the most valuable skill you learned in this project?"








Another teacher/presenter that spoke to engagement was Diana Novak, a 10th grade World Literature teacher from California.  She, and Yedid, used Adria Steinberg’s Six A’s of Project Based Learning as a guide for making students’ learning relevant to their lives.  The goal is to make projects authentic, contain academic rigor and applied learning, and include active exploration while providing connections with adult mentors and including an assessment component.  She also reminded me to “start with the end in mind,” which I know is best practice, but don’t do often enough.

Engaging students through interactions with published authors

Many of my students have a favorite author.  I must have met two dozen authors at the conference.  One thing I did was use my flip camera to take a quick video of those authors and compile them as part of my digital story of my experience (it will be posted or linked on my blog when I finish it).  One of those authors, Cris Crutcher, has used Skype to communicate with classes; how cool would it be to read an author’s story and then Skype with him or her.  We could ask questions, get insights into the author’s writing process, and connect with the author in a way that would have been Science Fiction when I was in middle school.  I’m incredibly grateful that those authors at the conference took the time away from writing to be with teachers (I’m aware of the fact that they were also there to sell their books).

I met author and speaker, Mawi Asgedom (below), at an NCTE conference years ago.  I spoke with him for awhile and bought his book, Of Beetles and Angels (which I highly recommend).

 Since then, he has been on Oprah, written a couple other books, spoken to thousands of students, and he keeps up an interesting blog.  He also spoke at this NCTE conference (at the Conference on English Leadership luncheon) and I knew it would be memorable…so I taped the 30 minute talk, which I hope to show to my teaching colleagues.  He told his story, but also challenged us as educators to be the leader in situations that call for it in our buildings (not to wait for someone else to come along).  Mawi was born in Ethiopia and, as a young person, lived in a refugee camp in Sudan.  His story (chronicled in the book, above) is riveting:  coming to the US, getting a scholarship to Harvard, and giving the commencement address at Harvard.  I know of several English as a Second Language students who look up to him as a role model.  I would very much like to find some money to buy his book for every student in our building and have him come to speak next year.  He has a presence that is the essence of genuine engagement.

Engaging students and our communities with our stories

It’s interesting that our NCTE President, Yvonne Siu-Runyan, is from Hawaii like our US President, Barack Obama.  While both are inspirational, the similarities really stop there.  Yvonne (I can call her this since I’ve met her) is practical in a way I haven’t seen enough of from Obama; she gets things done, does what she says she’s going to do, and she doesn’t seem to care at all if she’s re-elected (so refreshing). (Note disappointment in President I voted for…realizing, of course, that it’s not all his fault)

Yvonne spoke at the General Session on Sunday morning.  There were hundreds of teachers in the audience.  Her talk was about how we, as teachers, need to share our stories if we want to affect change in our students and community.  It was a powerful, heartfelt poem/song/outpouring of her soul and spirit.  She is truly an amazing person.  I wish you could have been there.

She weaved together many teacher stories with her own stories (personal and professional) into an argument that helped fuel this blog post and reminded me why I do what I do (including why I decidedly recently to be more involved in my union).  If you are a teacher and are wondering what stories you have to tell, here are the ones Yvonne thinks we should be sharing:

“1. How we teachers must orchestrate an ever-changing classroom environment and at the same time meet the needs of our students, each with their unique personalities, interests, and abilities.

2.  How high stakes testing affects how students view themselves and whether or not they like going to school and learning.

3.  How we work with parents and family members counseling them about how they can support their children’s learning.

4.  How books change the way our students see the world and what they learn from reading.

5. Why stories are important and how stories make isolated facts understandable and real.”

She shared a shorter version of her talk on part of the NCTE website (with a video clip) if you are interested.

I try to tell some of my stories here on this blog, but my audience is pretty limited.  I need to find more ways to share what’s on my mind as it relates to teaching.  My colleague, Jack Johnson, recently had his second letter printed in our local newspaper.  I admire the way he speaks his mind on issues that touch each Michigan teacher:  collective bargaining rights, respect, salaries, benefits, evaluation processes, tenure, autonomy, and what’s best for students.  Recently, my union representative helped me work through a tough time with my district.  His presence and know-how were invaluable.  Part of my story, these days, is that teachers need a strong union.  We need to stand together and speak up for the value of representation.  Each of Yvonne’s points rings true for me, but the notion of speaking out, even when it’s not popular or even prudent, makes sense to me.  Yes, I am grateful to my district; no, I’m not the slave of my district.  I’m a professional teacher.  An employee…and also a citizen of the local and world community.

Resources from the conference (and other things I’m thankful for):

My prayer…

May I feel, think, and behave as your disciple, Lord.

Help me to feel, think, and behave as your disciple.

Thank you for this new day.

Help me live this day with peace, faith, love, and hope,

Spreading your joy.

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