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On my very first day as a teacher, I met a boy named Dave. Dave was that kid who kept his head down in the back of the room and hid behind his long hair and expressionless face. I soon found out that Dave was in foster care, and heard his backstory of abuse and suffering. As an ambitious new teacher determined to engage every single student who walked into my classroom, I fought hard to win Dave's trust and attention. I'd sit down and talk to him regularly. I would comment on his clothes and ask about his interests. Sometimes I would wait with him at the end of the day at the bus stop.
However, after over a month of this, I wasn't seeing any progress. Something was keeping this kid cold and isolated, and I took it upon myself to warm him up. I remember other, more experienced staff would say stuff to me like, "Good luck with that kid Trevor. He is too far gone, and you just can't save them all." I wanted to defy those people, and believe they just didn't try hard enough. I would not let jaded people prevent me from saving this boy.
And after several months of constantly pouring myself into Dave, he began to talk to me. And then it was like a dam burst, and all of a sudden Dave was alive. He worked hard in class. He began to make friends. Dave came out of isolation.
When he received the first A of his life in my class, I wanted to scream from the mountain tops that there is not a kid a teacher cannot "save" or rescue if we try hard enough.
In fact, I did do that:
I had another student named Gerald. Gerald also came from a broken home and unimaginable pain. He usually only got his meals at school, and those were on the days he showed. Often Gerald's seat would be empty.
But this kid had a look behind his eyes that told me he desperately wanted to "make it." He wanted to defy the odds, finish high school, and make something of his life. I spent so much of my energy on this boy. I met him on the weekends to play basketball. I swallowed my pride many times when Gerald would act out in class, knowing that with enough patience, I could see this kid turn a corner. I even expended a lot of my time and energy outside of school, away from Gerald. I carried his burdens home with me, shared them with my wife, and would lose sleep over him.
I was determined to save this boy.
And then one day, Gerald did not show up to school. His cousin had been murdered, and it shattered his world. When he finally showed after being out a week, he cried in my arms and told me how scared he was. I assured him that I have his back and that we'd get through this together.
A couple days later, he dropped out of high school.
The kindness I showed Gerald; my deep questions about his life and family; the endless amount of grace I showed him when he'd steal a phone in class or even cuss me out; the hours spent at home worrying and praying for this kid- were not enough to save him. It didn't suffice to turn his life around and help him finish his education.
Those other teachers were right, I cannot save them all.
This absolutely devastated me. I began to question the purpose of my job, and the impact teachers really can have on their students.
You might imagine I've got a silver lining coming up soon. Some type of resolution or inspiration I later had about how we can reach every kid.
But this is not that kind of blog post. In the years since Gerald, I've had many other students who entered my classroom distraught and damaged. And while sometimes I do get to see dramatic change unfold before my eyes, other times I end the school year feeling like a failure. Maybe a kid drops out. Or does not pass my class. Or leaves their time with me hating the subject just as much or even more. Sometimes at the end of the year, I find out a kid even despises me. These are the hardest parts about being a teacher for me.
When I break my back with sweat and blood landscaping my yard, I expect the end result to be a beautiful yard.
When I pour everything I have into the students in my classroom, I cannot guarantee the outcome. I can't ensure the result will be beautiful. I think this difficult reality is shared by every teacher and person who works with kids. And it's been enough at times to make me want to get out of education. All of the love, kindness, consistency, discipline, and work will not save, or transform every student
But it can for some of them.
And this fact is why I did not quit when I saw a student I care about fail. I've seen enough students transform before my eyes throughout the years- grow in confidence, adopt a hopeful view of the world- to know that love, kindness, consistency, discipline, and hard work is worth giving.
So while you can't save them all, you can still love them all. And show every student respect. And strive to engage them in your class. And let them know their potential for greatness.
Whether this causes them to overcome their past or not is not for us to decide. But the potential for this work makes it worth it.
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The two weeks leading up to Christmas Break can be some of the most chaotic times of the year. It's like there's a full moon for 14 days in a row while students guzzle 3 two liters of Mountain Dew before walking into your classroom each day. Students can act a little nuts, and in turn can drive their teachers crazy. I'm on my first day of break right now, and I still think I'm hearing voices...
A lot of this unbridled energy before break can be attributed to excitement. Many students are naturally excited to have some time off and enjoy the holidays. I get it, me too.
But the more I've learned to listen to my students, the more I've come to realize that it is not all about excitement. Many of my students are not excited for Christmas Break. Many of my students do not want to be away from their friends, adults who care for them, a regular schedule, regular food, warm rooms, a controlled atmosphere, encouragement, joy, discipline, and all of the other things that come with being in school.
Last week I told my students to write about their favorite holiday gift ever. One student responded that his mom doesn't buy gifts for him and his sister, and that she usually just sleeps all day on Christmas since she has work off. For many students in poverty, the holiday break is not a break at all, but instead a time of pain, sadness, and hunger.
Many of these students start to feel the anxiety of this time as Christmas Break approaches, and they tend to act out because of it.
So if you are a teacher, administrator, or just know a kid who feels this way right now as they embark on vacation: what could you do to make this time special for them?
Could you send them an email on Christmas and let them know what they mean to you?
Could you call them?
If you have a little extra money, what if you spent 10 bucks on a little gift and dropped it off at their door?
Whatever you do to make a kid who is dreading this time feel special, know that you being in their lives in the first place is a gift more precious than anything that could be purchased. Thank you for loving the kids who need love.
Joseph Campbell was an American mythologist who mastered the study of great stories. He identified a pattern we see in most great stories called the Hero’s Journey. The Hero’s Journey starts with a hero, the protagonist or main character of a plot in which the story revolves. To sum the pattern up into the most simple of terms, Campbell says this hero starts in what is called the ordinary world. This could be considered the calm before the storm, where we get to know the hero and their setting before he or she hears the call to adventure. This is the point in a hero’s journey where their world is shaken up, and they have to decide whether they are going to do something about it or not. Often, the hero refuses the initial call, choosing to avoid danger and trials that can cause pain and fear. But in a great story, she eventually embarks into the unknown, seeking adventure.
Adventure is full of danger and surprise; tests and challenges that introduce the hero to parts of the world she has not seen before. In a great story, a hero rarely ends an adventure unscathed, but also returns to the ordinary world with new strengths to use in later adventures. Campbell calls this the Return With the Elixir. This is what makes the journey worth it. Almost every Disney or Pixar movie is about a hero taking this journey. Think about the Lion King, and what Simba learned after losing his father, running away from home, and eventually defeating his evil uncle to retake his throne and rightful place in the world. Would Simba be as great of a leader without first battling hyenas? Would the peace of Hakuna Matata entered his heart without first crossing a desert? The hero’s journey is about leaving what is comfortable for experiences that build and strengthen a character.
So often, school does everything it can to maintain the ordinary world, keeping the heroes from entering unknown spaces and potential failure. Students sit in rows to control order. Teachers call it a classroom management technique, when really it is mundane-management, a strategy to prevent the unexpected. The answers are in the backs of textbooks to prevent any surprises. We teach the same content every single year because then we know what’s coming.
There is a very wealthy school district in the county that I live that will not provide laptops or tablets to students because they are worried that new technology will distract from the learning that needs to take place. Not because of financial issues, but because the internet causes more variables than a textbook.
A hero cannot embark on their journey if they are locked in a room without a key. And a hero cannot obtain the Elixir, their new strength, knowledge, character, wisdom, skill, etc- if they do not leave the ordinary world.
So what can you do to set your students up for the hero’s journey?
Maybe try teaching with a project and give students authentic goals to strive for?
Invite in people from the community to partner with your students and create a solution for a specific problem.
What if you let them plan the next unit, and you just facilitate their learning rather than teach it?
Whatever it is, realize that your students are characters who can become heroes, and you are helping write the story that lets them do that.
I think we sometimes take for granted the skill it takes to take part in good discussion. In a world inundated with technology, distractions, Pokemon Go, odd presidential campaigns, and all of the things that modern society has created to take our attention and divert it to bright screens in the palm of our hands, good discussion can be rare. And while these technologies are not necessarily a negative aspect of our world (except maybe the campaign), they do not always facilitate rich conversation; spirited debates; intellectually stimulating discussion- some of the best defining features of what it means to be human.
Many of the high school students who enter my class obviously know how to talk and communicate, but are not always equipped to exchange ideas, or allow a differing opinion to shape their current beliefs. Every school year, the first times that I try to facilitate good discussion about contentious topics, the discussion usually turns into a debate, and those involved in the class discussion develop a single motive to “win” or convince the other side to share their same belief (It’s like internet-comment boards in real life). The loudest student in the room is heard the most, feelings can sometimes be hurt, and the timid students usually shrink into the corners of the room and add nothing to the conversation. Emotion dominates the time together, and actual discussion does not occur.
I expect this at the beginning of the year, because I know that many of the students in my room do not know how to discuss. They’ve been trained by a digital culture that is all about anonymity and one-way online conversations. Many have also been cultivated by a school culture that values compliance and silence, allowing rare speaking opportunities that only serve to demonstrate correct answers. We are not born with an innate ability to listen to other’s ideas, and consider them as valid if they differ from our own. This is a skill that must be taught.
From the earliest of the years in school sitting in a circle in kindergarten, to lectures halls at a university, I don’t think it is ever too late for students to undergo conversation-training. It starts with practice in listening.
One of my favorite discussion methods in my classroom is called a Samoan Circle. It is a great method for students to learn the skills needed to listen and discuss. This is how it works:
Place 4 chairs in the middle of your classroom, and have the entire class form a circle around them. The class will have a discussion (about whatever topic you’d like), but students can only speak if they are sitting in one of the 4 chairs in the middle. Everyone outside of the chairs must listen. If a student wants to join the discussion, they can tap a student’s shoulder sitting in a chair, and as soon as that student is finished speaking, they must vacate the chair and let in the newcomer. Therefore, the discussion is really not about those sitting in the chairs, but for the entire group involved. The room is silent except for four students in the middle of the circle, and the discussion can move with the rhythm of students revolving in and out.
Every time I do a Samoan Circle, I see students wriggle in their silent impatience to get into one of the chairs and share their thoughts, engaging in the content of the discussion by listening more than talking. Samoan Circles are a great, controlled way for students to start developing excellent discussion skills.
There are many other great practices to facilitate rich discussion, and I would recommend experimenting with as many as you can. Even the quietest and most reserved student can learn the art of conversation, and your intentionality can help them attain these skills that they will use the rest of their lives.
Twenty percent of Americans will not graduate high school this year.
They are quitting.
And I think the primary reason is because to far more than twenty percent of Americans, the system that consumes over eight hours of a student’s day, is the primary source of stress and effort, the place that consumes the bulk of one’s childhood- does not include tangible purpose.
Stephen Pressfield writes in his book, The War of Art:
“In order for a book (or any project or enterprise) to hold our attention for the length of time it takes to unfold itself, it has to plug into some internal perplexity or passion that is of paramount importance to us.”
This importance can be found by introducing real and authentic conflict into our classrooms. Not the kind of conflict where fighting ensues or feelings get hurt. The conflict where the regular patterns of life are disrupted. The regular girl becomes a hero. The student within a bubble, who thinks the world revolves around their habits, their music, their friends, their life- finds out not all is well in the world, and there is something she can do about it.
The work students are doing in the classroom needs real conflict. In order for the material we present in our classroom to grasp a student’s attention long enough for them engage with it, it needs problems for them to solve. We live in a big world with big problems, and sometimes the issues students tackle are big. Chances are, there are people in your community who deal with hunger on a daily basis. Racism probably exists within your city or town. Homeless people probably live underneath an overpass near you. Believe it or not, slavery still exists, and the slaves are young women who are trafficked in every major city in the United States.
These are big problems that your students can tackle in math class, and in English, and science, and any other subject in school.
There are also conflicts of lesser global importance for your students to engage in, and those belong just as much in your epic classroom, because they are engaging students in learning so they can be prepared to tackle big stuff later on. Conflicts like debating about the meaning of justice, interpreting how something a poet said 200 years ago relates to the present, or creating a piece of art that lasts- conflicts do not have to leave the walls of the school to impact and engage students.
Conflict can be huge, and conflict can be intimate. But regardless of its size and scope, it must be in the stories in your classroom.
I find no greater joy than feeling like I am trusted.
It’s why marriage can be so glorious. There is another human being who trusts you enough to spend every day of their life with you.
It’s why it feels really good when a friend offers to loan you their car. They are saying I trust that you will take care of something I paid a lot of money for and need in my day-to-day life.
It’s why I love being a dad. There is a tiny human being who relies on me for his survival, and so he digs his head into my shoulder when he is shy or scared.
He trusts that I can take care of him.
We want to be trusted.
There was a boy in my class who had been bullied for years. He is small and quiet, and in middle and high school, this draws a bullseye on your back. So the boy grew used to this at the beginning of each school year.
It took about 3 days for someone to take aim at him. This boy had spent the last couple weeks feeling miserable every moment of the day. A bully following him around, whispering mean things in his ear, cowering this boy into silence, and making him hate his time in school more and more.
Finally this boy had enough, and said that he wanted to leave our school because of this bully.
I was pissed.
I wanted the bully to leave our school instead. I wanted to scare him into repentance.
Call him out in front of the class.
Make him feel a sliver of the pain he made this other boy feel.
I wanted to call his parents and make the bully confess his sins in front of them.
I wanted to make him write a 5 page paper about why bullying is bad, along with a plan of how he was going to stop.
I wanted to make him watch a 60 Minutes episode about teen suicide in America.
I wanted to get him suspended for 10 days, and make him spend the rest of the semester trying to get caught up.
I wanted to make an example out of him, so every potential bully at our school would know what happens when you intentionally hurt someone who does not deserve it.
I kind of wanted to make him cry, and show him that he’s not as tough as he thinks he is.
I wanted to get revenge for my 12 year-old self.
I wanted to call him a bully.
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Instead I asked him if he had a second to talk outside of the classroom.
I said, “_______, I need your help.
“Okay Mr. Muir?”
“We have a kid in our class, _______, who is not liking it here. He’s not making friends, and not everyone has been that nice to him.”
“I’ve already noticed that you’re a leader, and people follow you and look up to you. I was hoping you could take this boy under your wing for me. Be his friend. Protect him. I know everyone else will do the same if they see you do it. Can I trust you with this?”
I watched him walk back into the room and sit in his seat in a sort of wonder. He looked off into space for a minute, then I saw his gaze move to the small boy on the other side of the room.
The next day I came into my classroom to see both boys sitting together, talking and smiling.
I didn't get my revenge. But this was better.
Image credit: wokandapix CC
In 1970, a man named Edward Packard was telling his daughters a bedtime story about a character he made up named Pete. Every night, Pete would encounter different adventures on an isolated island, and Packard would make up an adventure for Pete on the spot. But one night, Edward Packard ran out of things for Pete to do. If you are a parent, you know exactly what this guy was going through.
So with no ideas for what Pete was going to do next, Packard asked his daughters what the character did. Each daughter came up with a different idea for Pete's adventure, and so Packard came up with a different ending for each them.
Choose Your Own Adventure books were born.
And it went on to become one of the bestselling children’s books during the 1980’s and ‘90’s, selling over 250 million copies. The magic of Choose Your Own Adventure is that the reader gets to become a participant in the story. Rather than just absorbing the information, one gets to have a say in what information is presented to them.
Having your students interact with your story, your lecture, is vital. Direct instruction does not mean that the teacher is the only one who gets to talk. Teachers have to create opportunities for students to join the story and determine how it gets told. There are a number of ways to create pauses in your speaking and allow students to interact. You, as a teacher, have to create space for students to join the learning in the classroom. Hour-long lectures are boring and ineffective, but a concise lecture with breaks that allow your students to join in an interact are not.
Have you ever stood at the front of your class and felt a vibration, an energy pulsing through the room that made you stop thinking about assessments, or parents, or lesson planning, or Language Arts, or anything else that comes with being a teacher, but instead just watched what was happening with wonder?
Every now and then, when my students are working on a project that moves them beyond the walls of my classroom and school, and into a place they haven't been before; a place that has a problem needing to be solved, I get to feel this vibration. I'm talking about when students don't need their teacher to work, or grades to make them sweat. They don't need the fear of punishment to stay on task, because staying on task means getting closer to solving this problem.
I love watching a group of students' eyes light up when a group member has a great idea. I also love watching a group of students get into a heated argument, and they figure out themselves how to cool it down. I love when I go to tell a kid to quit texting in class, and he shows me his cell phone, and on it is the phone number of a manufacturer he is trying to contact for the project.
I love hearing kids tell me they could not fall asleep the night before because they couldn't stop thinking about how they want to edit their documentary about WW2 veterans. Or when my principal comes into my room because she hears a lot of noise, and finds kids huddled around laptops and poster board deep in discussion.
I love that a group of my students impressed a local company so much during a project they worked on with them, that this group of students were offered paid internships at this company.
I love that I don't have to lecture all day everyday, and print out hundreds of worksheets to bore my students with. And I love how my students aren't confined to my classroom during class, and that they can be trusted to work hard in the hallway or outside.
I love that I teach at a school that is a choice for students to go to, and my school starts at 6:55 in the morning, and yet I hardly hear a word of complaint from students who wake up at 5am to catch the bus.
I love having chairs that roll in my room, and I love seeing a kid who was scared to death to speak in front of 5 of his peers in September, but has no problem giving a speech in front of 400 in May.
I love that teaching is way different than I thought it was going to be. And I love that I love my job, and this is due in large part because I teach in an environment that embraces project based learning.