Notes from New Teacher Camp: Part I

This summer, I am fortunate enough to work with my friend Seth and under the auspices of the Rhode Island Writing Project on a new program: New Teacher Camp. It’s a week-long professional development experience for teachers entering years 1-3. Seth and I are their “counselors” at a summer-camp-themed exploration of how to make this profession less stressful, more communal, and more magical. For our first Counselor Talk, Seth and I are presenting our “Knapsacks”: the physical items and intangible strategies that we bring with us to every day of teaching. Mine is below. 

 

Nora’s Knapsack

1. My notebook 

I don’t like pre-made planners – they always seem pushy to me. I do something akin to bullet journaling in smaller notebooks. I go through one every 1-2 months. I have visual monthly calendars for 4 months at a time, pages for notespace and writing out my frustration, checklists for each week, my budget, my shopping list and what’s for dinner, thoughts on ongoing writing projects, trackers for how much water I drink, how many hours I sleep, how many steps I take. Some weeks I track my time and set a limit for how many hours I can work. I usually keep the front page open for cute or funny things my students say. My notebook is my memory for all things. If students need something from me, I tell them they need to watch me write it down in my notebook so I remember.


2. The gradebook 

I keep a paper gradebook, which may make me seem ridiculously old or just obsessive. However:
a. It helps me see at a glance if students are missing a lot of work.
b. It’s the most efficient way I’ve found to check for completion. If I have students doing warm-ups or classwork or discussions or HW, I can so easily walk around desks and put check marks in that column.
c. It saves my work just in case powerschool loses its shit (it does happen!)
d. It’s so much easier to look at than a grid on a screen and keeps me from getting distracted by the internet when grading.
e. When I was a younger teacher, I used it to hold myself accountable for relationships. I would actually check off which students I had conversations with each day so I could make sure I connected with everyone once a week, or at least see which students were falling through the cracks. 

 The ones I use are Elan grade books, but a printed class roster on a clipboard works just as well. 

3. A water bottle 

Despite the fact that teachers aren’t liberated to pee whenever we need to, I try to stay hydrated throughout the day. I keep a reusable water bottle at my desk at school, and have been known to send it with kids to the water fountain during class. Drinking water can be a stalling technique if I need to think of how to answer a student question, or if I’m trying to come up with examples off the top of my head. It’s also one of the ways that I try to take care of myself throughout the day and keep my voice in good shape despite talking for multiple hours a day. 

4. A secret stash of tampons and pads

Feminism in the classroom starts with a bottom drawer of the desk that students can go to without saying anything out loud. Once the first girl comes up to sheepishly ask if you have “supplies,” word travels fast. You’ll be a hero.  This is also a great place to keep band-aids, some snacks (granola bars and pretzels), and cough drops. 

5. Extra pencils 

 I read something that said that a teacher’s entire philosophy can be boiled down to her response to a kid who doesn’t have a pencil. I don’t scold, and I don’t even ask why. I have pencils to hand out, or a designated spot for kids to find one. It’s one of the things I look for right away when we start class. Please, please don’t be the teacher who doesn’t let kids participate if they don’t bring their own pencil to class. (Also, I designed pencils that say “Pace Yourself” so obviously I embrace all things corny)

6. Music for writing and for fun 

I love those cheesy youtube “cafe mix” videos that will play mellow music for a long time. I put them on in the background while I’m writing alongside my students in class. I try to create an environment that feels less academic and more like a communal space in the real world. When the jams are on, the formality level is lowered, and my students can chill. Here’s a good one: Cozy Coffeeshop Music

I also use music as an energizer as kids are walking in to class or leaving for lunch. Sometimes we get attached to a certain song and the kids have to ham it up when they come in. “Africa” by Toto was a big hit. Kids don’t know it, but I like “Grazing in the Grass” by The Friends of Distinction. It’s all part of making the classroom a joyful place.

7. Positive notes from my students 

Some days, teaching feels exhausting, faculty meetings seems like a carousel of nonsense, and the grading pile is 5 feet tall. On those days, I like to pull out the box of notes from my students and read through them. It helps me remember why I do this. Seeing the names of former students and their sincere appreciation for my work is a nice boost. I especially value hearing good things from students who gave me trouble or never showed signs that they enjoyed my class (like the one below)


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8. A safe space sticker 

You can find all kinds of LGBT-affirming classroom decorations at GLSEN’s site. I like to have a small visual sign in my classroom that it’s a safe place for kids to be queer and that I’m someone they can talk to. I’ve been in schools where it’s really not safe for me to be out, but I still try to show the kids that I’m an ally. My current school is very queer-friendly (it’s an arts school….) and I love sharing that identity with my students. Boosting my own bisexual visibility can be tricky, because I have to navigate the political arena and consider how much I’ll disclose to students and maintain boundaries and be a role model. But I’ve found that when I come out, I immediately have at least one kid in the room who feels safer. 

9. A book on anti-racist pedagogy 

 I read We Want to Do More than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom, by Bettina Love, for a RIWP book club, and I know that I’ll keep coming back to this work for a long time. It helped me consider how to move towards change instead of demanding that students of color deal with the status quo (that I, as part of the system of white supremacy, am unintentionally enforcing). One of the hardest parts for me about being an anti-racist educator is holding two things simultaneously: I know that the whole system needs to change in dramatic and radical ways to get freedom and power for our students, and I have to teach the kids in front of me every day to navigate a system that dehumanizes them. It’s hard to do both, but this book has become my guide going forward.  

10. An understanding of my privilege and power

I grew up in an all-white, upper middle class suburb of Chicago. Race wasn’t something we talked about, because we never had to confront it in our sheltered world. In school, we were explicitly taught that racism was something that happened in other places, in the past. We had a profound ignorance of inequality, even while we lived in a suburb explicitly created with restrictive covenants and redlining to keep Black people out. I would not have the life I have lived without the G.I. Bill for my grandfather, a resource-rich school district, and generational wealth to afford college. I didn’t start realizing the full weight of all this until graduate school, after a brief but whirlwind tour through White Saviorism. A source I go back to repeatedly to remind myself of where I am and what I have is Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, by Peggy McIntosh. My privilege and whiteness influence my power every day, and I try to use it for good. 

 

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Looking out the kitchen window

Have you been forgetting to look at the leaves changing? I have. We’re supposed to eagerly await the shift, to watch it happen, but I feel like I never do. Instead, I look up and see flashes of red, orange, and gold. I am taken aback. 

I think I’d rather not berate myself for being too preoccupied with life. I think I’ll let myself live. Anyway, if autumn isn’t a surprise at every turn, doesn’t it become just another item on the checklist? 

Poetry surprises me pretty often. Even my own. Words just tend to connect in strange ways when we practice association. I love gasping out loud when I’m reading poems. Like a color is waiting for me around the corner. 

I currently teach adult students in an ABE (Adult Basic Education) English class. Many of my students are English language learners and immigrants. We’re working on building their vocabulary, putting clear sentences together, learning grammatical distinctions between singular and plural, present and past, commas and dashes and parentheses. They are not experienced or confident writers, but they are eager to write. Each class when I set them up with a writing prompt, they grow progressively more intent on writing something they will be happy sharing. There is an interesting difference from my high school students, who are in the habit of writing almost every day, but have trouble thinking big, independent thoughts. My adult students have such a wealth of experience, such a diversity of age and background and beliefs, but they are not accustomed to putting their thoughts into writing.

Which is why it is so remarkable and exciting when they do find exactly the right words to capture their thinking. Their last assignment was to write about a special place, a place they knew well, and to try to describe it so it came alive. My student Ann, from Hong Kong, wrote about her kitchen window, looking out at the sunlight. I complimented her on the lightness and delicacy of her prose. It sounded gentle to me. She surprised me by saying it wasn’t a real place. She said, said: “I am writing my dream environment. And then — I hope — I can match it in life.” 

I want her to be a poet, and to find writing as a blessing throughout her life. I consider myself lucky to have writing as my companion, as a space where I can meet myself as I am in this moment, flawed, limited, with fears and doubts. 

But I love the idea of manifesting the world we want in our writing. Make the words and images on the page beautiful, and maybe life will be beautiful, too. At least for a minute, for the time you’re reading what you wrote. We can write ourselves better, too — set intentions, write out goals, put our dreams on paper and fold it into origami cranes to keep it safe and mostly hidden. 

The poet Maggie Smith’s book comes out soon, and on Twitter she said the title was from a note she wrote herself: “Keep Moving.” 

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She started in this small way, and now offers almost daily messages on Twitter that inspire hope and perseverance. I know, I know, Twitter is a time suck, an empty hole of call-out culture and snarky subtweets and constant self-promotion. But the poets I follow offer little snippets of golden light on dreary days. They encourage me to believe in myself and be confident: in my body image, in my efforts to better my mental health, in my relationships. 

I am not optimistic enough to believe that the universe will manifest whatever we intend and attract. I’m a little skeptical of affirmations and positive psychology, because I think you can be the best person in the world and horrible trouble can still fall upon you. It is too much to ask, in the face of injustice and depression and trauma, to just “cheer up.”  

But in the things I do have some control over — my approach to problems, my energy, the way I talk to myself — I could be so sweet, hopeful, and kind. I could use my words as a dream. 

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org 

You can pre-order Maggie Smith’s book on Indiebound

If We Were Having Coffee…

If we were having coffee, I’d say “Sorry I’ve been away so long!” My last Sunday poetry post was on March 31st. You ask, “Why, what’s up? What’s been going on?” I’d look down and study the handle of my coffee mug and say “Nah, don’t worry about it. I’m here now. I’m okay.”

If we were having coffee, we would have to clink mugs and toast to TWO YEARS of writing poetry. Okay, so I wrote some poetry intermittently before then, but the style in which I write in now, my intensity of purpose, and my willingness to actually show my work to people– all of that was born two years ago when my heart was broken and I decided to write a poem every day for a month. I’m so glad I did.

If we were having coffee, we could take it to-go and walk through my neighborhood. Today I saw daffodils, abundant purple crocuses, a few snow drops, and some mystery stalks poking their heads out of the ground. I’m on a quest to find tulips; do you want to come with me?

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If we were having coffee, I’d speak to you of the benefits of self-care. All hail the bralette! All hail the scrunchie! It’s so important to hit the reset button sometimes, whether that means a massage (I got one of those this week and I feel more moisturized than ever before!), yoga, meditation, crappy romantic movies or a soapy TV show (I highly recommend Hart of Dixie), eating whatever you want, or extra sleep. Don’t forget, though, self-care can also be strengthening your will or getting stuff done (adulting! taxes!) and preparing for whatever challenges are going to come next.

If we were having coffee, the subject of the impending AP Test would come up — my kids have been working towards this all year, but now is the exciting time when they actually realize what they’ve learned, and go through the final push to make this big accomplishment! I’m nervous for them, but I’m also so excited. There’s definitely something to be said for a big culminating performance to celebrate the work that’s gone into mastering difficult material. Here we go, May 15th!

If we were having coffee, I’d do a little bit of self-promotion. You can read two of my poems in the Spring issue of borrowed solace (which, by the way, is currently open for submissions). And next week I’ll have another post up at The Aspiring Author Blog. You can read my last one here: Practicing Poetry in case you missed it. There’s a lot of great writing coming from the other contributors on the blog, too.

Have a wonderful rest of your April, Chag Pesach Semeyach to those who celebrate, and Happy Easter too! If you’re writing and living in this world, leave me your updates in the comments!

~ ☕️ ~

Poetry Class

Poetry Class

Oh what joy! 🐦

My poetry class (for 11th and 12th graders at my amazing little public high school) has started for this semester, and I am loving it. I designed the course last year with a small group of incredible students who gamely jumped into writing their own poetry and followed me down the path of reading poetry. This took guts — most of them weren’t already poets, and many had those stubborn, thorny views of poetry as a whole: it’s old, boring, and hard. 

Many people think that to get high schoolers to engage with poetry is impossible, but I believe that it is just a matter of getting them to try it. Like when you’re a kid, and your Dad makes a deliciously refined dish — or broccoli– and you are required to take three bites. Three bites, and if you still don’t like it you can go make yourself a PB&J. If I can get kids in the classroom to write three poems and read three poems without realizing that they’re really doing ~POETRY~ then usually they’ll kind of keep going. I know not every kid I teach is going to wholeheartedly embrace poetry, but I think that I can at least open the door.

I said it this way to a junior student who is thinking about taking the course next year: “It is definitely a class that requires creativity and a willingness to just try stuff, even if it doesn’t work. But by the end of it, the goal is that you could read poetry on your own for enjoyment, you have a way of writing poetry that you can always return to,  and you could succeed in a poetry course in college.”

black ball point pen with brown spiral notebook
Photo by Tirachard Kumtanom on Pexels.com

As I’ve mentioned previously in this blog, writing beside my students has been simultaneously the best thing to spur my writing practice forward and the best thing to help my students’ writing growth. So, in concordance with this mission, I’ve started producing more poetry again.

We start with memory poems, inspired by Geraldine Connolly’s The Summer I Was Sixteen, then we move on to lists. I write what I assign the students to write, and ended up with a flawed poem about the sky that reminded me of afternoons waiting for my mom to come home from work, and a few different lists of things I see and notice.

An easy way to write a list poem is to write “I Saw” three times, creating three stanzas, and then fill in the blanks. Here’s what I wrote in class, on the whiteboard.

I saw the fog over Providence this morning on the bridge.

I saw a bird looking suspiciously down at me as I walked out my door.

I saw the steam from coffee brewing.

 

It’s simpler than what I usually write, but there are things I like about it. I like that it includes both fog and steam, which are relatively hard to see. I like the story it suggests about birds — in every house I inhabit I seem to make bird enemies, who yell at me or haunt my windows when I’m waking up, or guard their chicks from me up in the eves. I think it’s funny how birds like to yell at us, expecting us to understand what they mean.

My students are always invited to comment on these in-class rough drafts, and I often ask them to help me revise. In this case, one girl was adamant that I should switch the order. It made no sense, she insisted, that I started with driving to work and then went backwards back into my house. She’s right, in a way — it would be clearer to the reader if I swapped the first and last lines. But I like how the morning chases me back inside, into a quieter space. It’s often how I feel in the mornings, boldly venturing out in the cold to drive to a job I love, yet somewhat inclined to go back, bundle into bed once more, return to the warmth of reflective, quiet morning.

Does the poem mean that to a reader, or just to me? If I expanded it or added more entries to my list of things I saw, would it add to the sense of the poem, or just make it seem cluttered? When I write frequently and within a community, I get to have this thought process. Poetry happens spontaneously most of the time (at least in my life), but the handling of the poems once they have come into existence is where great skill is needed. I’m still learning that, and I LOVE having my students around me to help.

Stay tuned for further adventures in poetry!

January Sun(day)

January Sun(day)

Hello from my adorable kitchen!

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  • The most exciting news — I have finally gotten an acceptance for my poetry!! Ya girl is going to be published this spring! It feels great to have someone pick me. More information coming soon on where you can read my work when it’s released!

 

  • I do love those cold, sunny winter days, when I can actually take a walk around the neighborhood and breathe in some fresh air. Maybe I’ll set an intention to take a walk every day this week, but I’m also proud that I exercised at home 2x last week and attended a great yoga class. With my health always a little blah and my anxiety always a little “AAH!” it’s important for me to exercise often in very small, non-threatening ways.

 

  • 2019 is the year in which I am 27, and I’m feeling pretty good about it. No fear about getting older, just feeling a bit more settled and solid in my life. Then my students say, “You’re THAT old??” and remind me that no one knows what my face looks like or how old I am. Am I even real?

 

  • My new semester of classes starts tomorrow and BOY am I unprepared but excited! That also means I’m buried in grading as the quarter closes, but I’m not minding it too much. Lots of productive thinking about my students’ writing, what progress they made, how they can show me what they learned. I think I’m ready to set some goals for teaching this semester, as I am very interested in my own professional development right now instead of just letting it fly.

 

  • My novel is inching forward oh so very slowly. (about 1450 words) I’m reminded, since I’m writing by hand, that my best thinking never goes linearly. You should see some of the pages, with their arrows and * and ** and ^ to show where each thought ends up when I run out of space and jump around in my thoughts. It will be so fun to eventually type it up — not.

 

  • One of my best friends is getting married in October, and we’re going through some wedding dress exploration. I get to wear a really pretty bridesmaid dress! Eek! My femininity is jumping for joy like I just fed it a cheeseburger.

 

  • In this spring semester, I get to teach a course of JUST poetry — ah, how lucky am I to have this job! That means I’ll be reading a lot more poetry (stay tuned for more regular weekly reading lists on Fridays), and writing a lot more, too. When I teach this course, I commit to the discomfort/ vanity of letting my kids read some of my poetry, because I believe in writing beside them and it only seems fair to bare my soul when I require them to bare theirs and also get grades. Looking forward to it.