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National Day of Listening

November 24, 2009

Seeing the barrage of ads for the impending shopping blitz that is “Black Friday” does not annoy or stress me, but simply warms my heart.  This is not because I will celebrate the ominously named “holiday” with the rest of my capitalist brethren, but because I have found a new tradition to mark the beginning of the holiday season.  This Friday, I will sit down with the people I love, press record, ask questions, and simply listen.

Last year at this time, I nestled onto my Brooklyn apartment’s couch with a cup of hot cocoa and a Snuggie to record an interview with my then-fiancée after our first Thanksgiving together.  We spent an hour and a half recovering stories from childhood that had slipped through the cracks, recalling our first moments together, and imagining what the future had in store for us as newlyweds, as young parents, and as an old couple rocking in matching chairs.  At times it felt like we were on a first date, at other times like we’d been married for years.

The idea to take advantage of a day when most families are already together to have deep conversations and record them for posterity comes from StoryCorps, a non-profit oral history project founded by David Isay.  Last year, StoryCorps established the first annual “National Day of Listening” on the Friday after Thanksgiving.  This simplest of ideas – that a caring conversation is a perhaps the best gift of all – represents the easiest way for people to celebrate the true spirit of the holidays.  After getting hitched this past summer, my wife and I listened to our interview while on our honeymoon and added another promise to our list of vows: to participate in this beautiful new holiday each year.  We will begin to fulfill that vow this coming Friday when we interview my parents and siblings in Santa Barbara.

The benefits of oral history are clear – asking questions that go beyond the superficial “How was your day?” give people the opportunity to express themselves and therefore to establish deeper relationships (this was certainly true when I first took advantage of StoryCorps in their New York City recording booth with my grandfather in 2004, and again with my father in 2006).  Perhaps more importantly, recording these conversations for posterity creates a family history in a time when such stories are often ignored and quickly forgotten.  As a graduate student in education I discovered, somewhat surprisingly, that participating in oral history – even informally – also has positive effects on academic self-confidence.

Naturally, as a teacher I took the opportunity of last year’s National Day of Listening to introduce the newfound holiday to my third grade class.   My students sat down in pairs and interviewed each other in front of a digital recorder.  Given free reign before a microphone, the kids expressed things that were really important to them (a large percentage of the dialogue was about pets, suggesting the importance for an eight year old to feel a sense of responsibility for a living thing).  These lighthearted and at times profound moments were eventually burned onto CD and distributed to the families during the winter holidays.

Perhaps my favorite moment from these interviews came when a normally reserved student named Evan answered the question, “What is your favorite moment with your family?”  The previous summer, Evan had been away at camp for a month when the day finally came for his family to pick him up: “I came out of my cabin and I saw these little dots that looked like my parents, and I started running towards them and sure enough it was them.  I was so happy to see them.”  Evan’s parents obviously were delighted to hear this from their son, who normally would not have expressed himself in this way.  Participating in the National Day of Listening this coming Friday will give families across the country an opportunity to discover these hidden gems that are resting just below the surface in so many relationships.  All you have to do is ask, and listen.

Welcome, Again

September 28, 2009

We didn’t have anything up here, but then an opportunity for free advertising presented itself and so we threw up some pieces on which we’d been working.

We’re on it now, so if you like what you see check back again in the near future.

First Day

September 28, 2009

Six of us had been placed at the school, and we all arrive in the main office within minutes of each other on our first day of pre-service training.  My eyes travel around the main office—one wall is covered with ancient, dark-brown-stained, wooden cubbies for teachers’ mail, a huge oak bench is occupied by six young children with feet dangling and eyes surveying the school’s newcomers, and two secretaries answer phones that don’t stop ringing.  The antenna of a cockroach appears from underneath a stack of memos, and I turn away as my breakfast threatens.  I want to make conversation with my new colleagues, but I sense that they share my feeling of being out of place, and no one wants to be the one to make any unnecessary noise in the main office as we await our assignments.

Ms. T appears from her office, perfect teeth gleaming and layers of lime and evergreen chiffon flowing.  I am immediately intimidated by this beautiful, smiling creature who will later become both my biggest fan and most difficult critic.

She waves us into our office, and tells us to help ourselves to any beverages in her mini-fridge.  No one moves, and she smiles widely.  I will remember this moment later when a veteran teacher dishes about the school over happy hour drinks a few weeks later: “Beware.  She has many faces.”  I would soon come to understand her wide smile to read more like a huge question mark that left me feeling like a tiny teacher bug caught up in the web of public school bureaucracy.

It becomes clear within a matter of minutes that the school is not prepared to absorb six new bodies today.  Instead of spending the day observing a master teacher in action, I find out that I’m going to spend it covering a fifth grade summer school class with Ms. V, one of my new colleagues, instead.

I excuse myself to go to the bathroom, but the ladies’ room is locked.  I try another door nearby that says “WC.”  It, too, is locked.  I walk down the hall in search of an adult who can open the door, but come upon the girls’ bathroom within a few steps.  Two of the stalls have no doors, there is no toilet paper, no hand soap, and no paper towels.  Initials and words are etched into the mirror, and a thick brown and green sludge drips down the side of the wall from the floor above.

I find my way back to the main office, only to find Ms. T’s door is now shut.  A sign on the door reads “My door is always open.  But if it is closed, please check with my secretary to see if I am available.”  Her secretary is not at her desk.

I pace for a few seconds, unsure of myself or what to do.  I know my colleagues are still in the office, and I know I’m supposed to be in there, but I’m suddenly stuck in my own head about the “right” thing to do.  Just as I take a step forward to knock, a tiny woman carrying a huge box runs into me.  She apologizes and rests the box on her knee as she twists the knob and opens the door—without knocking, I note.  My eyes meet Ms. T’s, and I know she can sense my discomfort.  I look away, and take my spot at the huge mahogany surface that serves as both a conference table and Ms. T’s desk.

The meeting is over within minutes, and Ms. H—the woman with the box—waves her hand and announces, “Come with me!”  I learn that everyone pronounces her name differently.  I ask her how she pronounces her name at some point that afternoon.  She looks at me hard for a moment, shakes her head, and says, “whatever.”

Ms. V and I are assigned to cover class 646.  The door to the room arrives more quickly than I feel ready, but before I know it, we have the children turning to page four in their summer test prep booklets and are breaking them up into smaller groups to work.

I don’t know it yet, but this will be the easiest day of my teaching career.

Crashroom Economy

September 28, 2009

The Earth School, in the East Village, is a bit of an anomaly in public education – a progressive elementary school with an active parent group, qualified and motivated teachers, and a truly diverse student body.  On Friday afternoon this past spring, my class of third graders had open work – an unstructured period in which students use classroom materials to produce something, anything, of their choosing – when a student grabbed the classroom bank to use in a board game he had just designed.  He tripped on a chair leg, and about $10,000 in fake cash went flying up and raining down on the classroom.  Immediately, about half the class got down on their hands and knees and scrambled to scoop up their share of the cash, forgetting any learned rules or manners in the process, a literal free for all, just like what would happen in real life.

For me, their teacher, it was a proverbial a-ha moment.  Money – albeit fake money – was a clear and present motivator for these kids.  On the following Monday we set up our very own classroom economy.  Naturally, my students took it very, very seriously.

The basic premise was this: kids make up fake products, name fake factory prices versus fake store prices and calculate fake future profits, writing this all down on a business plan that had to get approved before they could enter production (or, more specifically, make 2-d drawings of these fake products).  Each kid was given $100 but then had to purchase the “materials” to make his or her products, the remaining money of which could be used to enter the consumer marketplace and purchase other businesses’ goods.

The simplicity of this design was challenged by the answer to a seemingly innocent question: “After we’ve sold all our stuff, can we sell the things we bought from other people?”

Some kids hadn’t even entered the production phase yet, so to keep everyone interested, I said “sure.”  Within twenty minutes, Garrett, an unassuming Mets fan in team gear and glasses who started with the same $100 as everyone else, had $400, buying products from one side of the class, marking them up 1000% and reselling them on the other side of the room.  Other kids, feeling squeezed out of the market, started to make deals with their classmates, and thus began the mergers-and-acquisitions phase of the marketplace, with kids combining their money and production expertise to create such odd marriages as “The Pet and Cosmetics Store” and “The Video Game/Tourist Company.”

Of course, much like with historical examples, these moves were not nearly as successful as their instigators had hoped.  In this closed economy, the creation of these super-conglomerates made everyone much more concerned with selling things than with buying things.  With so many big companies and no small fish to patronize them, the economy literally went dry.  Fifty-percent sales started to announce themselves, only to turn into liquidation sales guaranteeing that all items must go – name your price!  Nothing worked.  No one wanted to buy.

Our classroom economy had crashed.

Finally, a voice of reason: “We should have an economic summit!” yelled Evan, fresh off reading about the G20 in London.  “Yay!” they exclaimed as they eagerly scampered to the rug, ready to discuss their potential economic interventions.

“The economy went bad,” I said, “and no one wants to buy.  What happened?”

Lochlainn raised his hand.  “Well, see, people aren’t buying anything because they feel like they don’t have any money, so couldn’t we just borrow some money from the bank?”

As the manager of the classroom bank, I said, “I’d love to, but here’s the thing: last fall when I lent money to people to buy their homes, nobody could pay me back.  So I don’t feel like lending any money to you right now.”  A few dozen puzzled faces looked up at me, so what followed was an impromptu 15-minute lesson on how banks work – complete with a deposit, a loan, a business purchase, a sale, a profit, a repayment of the loan, and a withdrawal of the initial deposit, with half the class making money along the way.  This was followed by an example of what happens when the repayment of the loan, for one reason or another, never materializes and all those potential profits disappear.

“Couldn’t we bail out the banks?” asked Alex.  Ah, progressive education.  “Yes, we could,” I said, “and maybe then they would lend money again.”

“Yay!” rejoiced the budding capitalists.

“But, what else could we do to help the economy… Think about what’s going on right now…”  Twenty-five light bulbs simultaneously went off, and in exuberant unison they yelled “Stimulus plan!”  Good little Obamans, they are.  Michael explained that this meant creating jobs.  “Does this mean everyone gets a job?” I asked.  “No, just a few people,” he said.  “Ok, well then who?”

Ella, who had somehow lost all her money about ten minutes into the activity, suggested we give jobs to the people who needed their jobs the most.

Garrett, who now had $500, insisted that that was not fair.  “Why don’t we just give the same amount to everyone?” he said.  “You mean like a tax break?” I answered.  “Like Bush.” I added.  A quiet hush went over the class.  Someone whispered under their breath, “He said the B-word.”

“No!” Garrett shouted, “I like Obama,” an embarrassed smile coming to his face as he clearly felt a bit more conservative now that he had some money to protect.

We had a class-wide discussion and vote, and like good little Democrats they all decided to for the stimulus plan, except for Garrett, who voted for the tax break (no one voted to bail out the banks).  The shape of the stimulus plan was five $100 jobs organizing the classroom library given to the five kids in the worst economic shape.  But stimulus takes time, and the kids were not given their pay until they were done with their job (a good ten minutes, or, in classroom economy terms, a year or two).

What happened next shouldn’t have been surprising, seeing as so many other economic principles had already acted themselves out on cue, but it was… Even before the stimulus money was awarded, as the stimulus jobs were still being performed, the economy loosened up on its own.  Apparently, consumer confidence had improved with the simple knowledge that more money was on its way.

Like most of the sparkling moments that happen in education, I couldn’t have planned it any better.

How I Got Clean

September 28, 2009

My Dad always told me to keep a clean house, and I never did.  I scoffed at his insistence that it was a clear and gigantic metaphor, that my inability to keep my room clean was a direct representation of my clouded psyche, of the frenetic confusion of my existence.  Like all high-functioning addicts, I insisted that I could quit if I wanted to and chocked the whole thing up to creative choice.  Ask me where something is… just ask me!  I’ll have it for you in ten seconds flat, retrieved from its spot on the floor that has been firmly captured and stored by my photographic memory.

In third grade, I developed a theory about why it is illogical to make the bed every morning (I mean, think about it in the long term). I kept my clean laundry in a pile on the floor next to the dirty laundry, thus forever blurring the line between the two.  By adolescence, I realized that in order to keep the family peace I had to at least pull my weight in the rest of the house, and so I actually became an effective and somewhat anal dishwasher.  See? I told my dad.  It’s a matter of choice.

This trend – keeping my room a mess while the rest of the house is, well, at least respectable – has followed me throughout my adult life, both professional and personal.  My union with Becky, whose cleanliness is consistently sporadic, has put our apartment’s cleanliness on the pattern of two overlapping sine waves with varying wavelengths, sometimes reinforcing each other to create the cleanest clean we’ve ever experienced, sometimes promoting such chaos that even my photographic memory has trouble locating the lint brush when we need it most.  Mind you, chaotic does not mean filthy, and it never has.  My room has always been clean, I’ve insisted, it’s just that it’s messy.

And, for the first four and a half years of teaching, so was my classroom.  At times even I would be frustrated by its disorder, or by the constant stream of lost items that disappeared from the possession of my students.  Where did you see it, I would ask incredulously, subconsciously determined to teach my students my own system of mental, not physical, organization.  I complained often to the class, but more often would just let it slide, figuring that if anything were truly important it wouldn’t actually get lost.  For the most part, my prophecy fulfilled itself.  I may have lost a kid once, and I think our once-class-pet snake Charlie still lives between the walls hunting mice, but beyond that nothing big.

Then, a few weeks ago, Laryza walked into my room and expressed to me that she’d had it.  This place is a mess, you’re a mess, she said with her usual sweetness. (Since Laryza helps me in my classroom more that anyone has probably ever helped me with anything, we have a dynamic where she can pretty much say whatever she wants to me, which is good because she probably would do so anyway.)  By that afternoon, the Queen of Clean, the Empress of Immaculateness, the Pharoah of Fung-shui, that mythical 3-day-a-week goddess named Dyanthe was in my room seemingly moving bookcases around with the power of her mind.   I think all the books should go together, in one place, she said with an air of calm.  She consulted her Spellbook of Sanitation and read off of what I swear was a stone tablet: If you label things, your students will know where to put them.  She turned to her right and stuck to a cabinet were two magnetic letter C’s; she parted them (get it?  Like Moses).  With heavenly grace she announced: If you give the room to them, they will keep it clean.

And thus my leaf was turned (well, truth be told, Laryza first pulled the leaf our from under me, slapped me with it a few times, and then held my hand as I reluctantly turned it over).  The children returned to the classroom, asking not what had happened to the space, but what had happened to their teacher.  Your eyebrows are all flat-like, one of them said, not all pointy towards your nose like usual.  Another one asked, You got a cold?  Why’s your voice so soft and relax-ted?  Little did they know, their entire world was about to change…


I have cried just five times in five years of teaching.  The first four times were on the same page of the same book over four consecutive years (the book: Bud, Not Buddy, when Bud finally realizes who Herman E. Calloway really is).  The fifth time was today.

For the past three weeks, my students and I have truly taken ownership over our space.  It started with the conversation we had after the Graceful Goddess Dyanthe graced our room with her flawless four-inch heals of hygiene.  As a group, we identified each and every part of the room that could be kept clean, and then we divvied them up.  Now, in addition to cleaning up their own workspace at the end of a given period, they would also be in charge of maintaining a specific area of the classroom.

Yes, I know, Teacher 101 says give them jobs to do and they will own them.  But for some reason over the first four and a half years of my career they didn’t, and we eventually abandoned them one year after another.  It wasn’t until I myself owned the cleanliness that I could actually transfer ownership to them.  Instead of watching them clean up and redirecting children who avoided work, I got down on my hands and knees and helped them clean, and it wasn’t in that that Fine-I’ll-Just-Do-It-For-You kind of way, but rather in a way that said: I’m a member of the community, too.

And the ownership didn’t stop there.  Upon the Queen of Clean’s suggestion, I started designating a student leader of our class meetings.  Instead of becoming frustrated with students who were not listening to me as I deftly directed the conversation toward a logical resolution to the topic at hand (ie, call on Garrett or Evan last), I sat back and watched as topics arose and fell without conscious direction but instead with the true and valid opinions of my students, flawed yet perfect.  I watched as the student leader only called on students who were being respectful. I watched as children watched me raise my hand to speak and otherwise sit quietly and listen to other students, their careful gazes impressed that I was finally acting the same way I always expected them to.  I watched as, slowly, I actually became an equal member of the community rather than its frustrated leader.

Of course, it’s not always like this.  I know they talk about a two-week turnaround in teaching, but I’m no miracle worker (Dyanthe, maybe, but not me).  There are still days when I have to direct traffic, when insecurities arise from them or from me or (more likely) from both, and even the cleanup process is never quite perfect… That is, until today.

Today we tore the room apart as they created models of the arctic tundra, working for 90 minutes straight without knowing we’d gone past 45.  There’s a buzz in here, Laryza said as she walked in 30 minutes into it, noticing that the talk in the room was all totally on task and totally productive.   Clay in one corner, dioramas across the middle of the room, a play about arctic animals being practiced on the rug: everyone was engaged.

Ten minutes before lunch I put on the “extended” cleanup song, the six-minute LCD Soundsystem dance track that I usually have to stop halfway through because there’s too much dancing and not enough cleaning.  Djoume started doing that high-pitched “ooo-a, ooo-a” sound that people used to do at dance clubs in the 90’s, and the other kids followed suit.  Soon after a conga line formed, at which point I almost snapped back into my former, frustrated self… until I noticed that it was no ordinary conga line.  They were actually bending over at the end of each measure, in unison, and picking up trash off the floor. That’s right, a Conga of Cleanliness.  The ooo-a’s kept going the entire time, never stopping just as no one ever stopped cleaning.  I didn’t say a single word to anyone, and at the end of the six-minute song there was a final scramble by the kids to get into their seats and quiet before the song ended.  As it did, you could literally hear the CD player stop and its laser return to the rest position.  That’s right, you could hear the mechanics of a CD player in a classroom of 25 eight year-olds.  It was such a beautiful thing, so independent and swift, such a drastic and marked turnaround from just three weeks earlier, it literally brought a tear to my eye.

Now, I don’t know if it was the cleanliness that did it, or the ownership, or what.  I just know that in the last two weeks I’ve grown more as a teacher than I have in the previous five.  Something clicked for me, and it wasn’t just the clean thing.  All of a sudden, differentiation is making sense to me, too, and I like my kids more.  More importantly, something clicked in them, and we’re all cooler with each other now, and much, much cleaner.

So thanks, Dyanthe.  Thanks, Laryza.  I love you, Becky – the house is next.  But most of all, thanks Dad.  It took a while for this lesson to sink in, but I think my head is finally clear.

Coming Soon… Part Three: The Differentiation Piece

Learning is Fun

March 28, 2009

This blog is to collect for all times on the world wide interwebs the ridiculous and beautiful insanity of the teaching profession.  We have various contributors across the country and world.

We hope you enjoy these slices of reality.