Thursday, September 21, 2017

"How to Talk to Your Legislator": Guest blog by Brendan Jarvis

I often brag about having smart friends, because it's true. My friend Brendan was posting a series of pieces on FaceBook about how to talk to legislators, and how to answer some of their favorite attacks on public schools. I begged him to combine them all into one post that I could publish for us all to share.
In OK, we are going into a special session next week, supposedly to find new revenue to fund our state, and to fund teacher raises. That may or may not happen. But, if you find yourself visiting with a policy maker, and they fall into any of these conversations, Brendan has supplied your non-confrontational, professional, fact-filled responses. I thank Brendan, and you should, too! BTW -- lobbying photos are with very friendly legislators would NEVER talk to constituents like Brendan's fictional one.

"You are a teacher.  You are embarrassed that your friend from overseas shared an article with you about Oklahoma, your home state, refusing to fund core services such as education and health care.  You have seen teachers in your school quit teaching when they had babies because their salary does not justify paying for day care so they might as well stay home.  You have seen teachers leave for other professions and other states.  You have been encouraged to speak to your legislators about the problem, but are not sure how.  You decide to try, and make an appointment to talk to the elected state representative from your district.

You:  I would like to talk to you about the education funding problem in Oklahoma.

Legislator: Funding to Oklahoma schools had actually increased.

You:  That includes federal dollars for federal programs and cannot be used for teacher salaries and textbooks. It is your job to fund those things.  Funding is lower per pupil than it was in 2008.

Legislator: Your district seems to be doing fine, look at your athletic facilities.

You: Facilities are funded with local bond money; our community decides to invest in our kids in an election every year.

Senator JJ Dossett
Legislator: Look at all the free meals you provide.

You: That money comes from the federal government. Our nation decided that kids should not go hungry at school many years ago.

Legislator: So why don't you just pay teachers more?

You: Most of the money that goes to teacher pay is allocated by the state legislature. That funding has been cut by over $48 million while enrollment has gone up by 8,000 students.

Legislator: So why don't we just make it so local districts can use bond money to pay teachers?

You: Well, that would cause several problems. First, it would cause further inequities between districts who benefit from high property values and those that don't, and make it even more difficult for many districts to retain teachers. Second, it would place a further tax burden on homeowners and renters by raising their housing costs, and would force people to weigh their household budget against the education of their children.

Legislator:  Administration wastes the money we give schools to line their own pockets.

You:  There is already a law concerning administration costs.  It caps the amount that can be used for that purpose.  In fact, at under 3.6%, administrative costs are lower state-wide than what is legally required.  Of course there may be individual examples of waste in districts.  That is a local school  board issue and can be dealt with at that level, in keeping with the conservative principals of local control and limited government.  As a legislator, you should be most concerned with the overall numbers.

Legislator:  We have too many school districts.  If we force rural districts to consolidate, we will have fewer superintendents and we can pay for teacher raises.

You:  Again, administrative costs are only at 3.6%.  Consolidation will not save much if anything and will give people false hope the way the lottery did.  In ten years, people will be saying, “wasn’t consolidation supposed to fix this?”   You do bring up a good argument against charter schools, though.

Legislator:  Schools need to be run more efficiently.   We the legislature will audit and oversee the administration of schools.

You:  You mean the same legislature that has been featured in state, national, and international news for its lack of problem solving skills?  No thanks, I would rather have communities control who runs their local schools.   Again, that’s good argument against vouchers/ESA’s, as they lack accountability measures for the schools receiving funds.

Legislator: Then how are neighboring states managing to pay teachers more than we do?

You: They have a higher Gross Production Tax on oil wells and/or higher state income tax. There are other revenue measures involved as well.

Newly-sworn-in Rep. Karen Gaddis
Legislator: So you are saying it's on me?

You: Yes

Legislator: If we raise the GPT, oil companies will leave the state. You: Oil companies are beholden to their shareholders. As long as there is oil here, they will drill it, and we have the SCOOP and STACK plays that are booming right now.

Legislator:   What are you doing in my office anyway?  If you care about your students, shouldn’t you be in class or working on lesson plans?  You shouldn’t be advocating for an increase in your own pay.

You:  I am here because I care about students, and want them to have the best education and teachers possible, and you are one of the people who has control over that.   I’m for a teacher raise because it helps the state retain good teachers, not out of self-interest other than the fact that I want to be able to do the job that I love in the place that I love, and it is currently difficult to do.

Legislator:  You are just listening to that liberal teachers’ union.  They are just dang liberal liberals.

You:  The Oklahoma Education Association includes teachers from all political perspectives, and focuses on education policy, on which there is more and more common ground.   They work with legislators from both sides of the aisle, but certainly wouldn’t support a legislator who bashes teachers and does not support funding.  That would be dumb.  Besides, many groups other than OEA are supporting teacher raises, including a group that represents oil and gas producers.  They all represent both Republicans and Democrats. 

Legislator:  I saw in the paper that a teacher did a really awful thing.  Should we be giving teachers raises when they are doing stuff like that?

You:  So every person in a given occupation should be judged by the actions of a few?   Let’s talk about Ralph Shor…

Legislator: Never mind

Legislator: It is clear that I should vote to return to the rates of GPT and the top bracket of state income tax that existed before we cut them. That would help us retain teachers and not put the burden entirely on families or other groups that can less afford taxes. I'm going to go do that right now.

You wake up elated, and then disappointed that it was only a dream.  You should have known because it went a little too well.  You know it won’t go that well in real life, but you know what to say, and you have every right to say it."

Brendan Jarvis is in his 14th year of teaching at Union Public Schools in Tulsa and his 20th year over all.  He began his first term on the Oklahoma Education Association Board of Directors representing Tulsa Metro Zone D this past summer.  His children attend Union Schools and are members of the Renegade Regiment marching band.  He is a proud Union teacher and a proud union teacher.    


Saturday, September 9, 2017

Outside Money Funds Attacks on #oklaed

We saw it through the last election cycle: American Federation for Children, a foundation devoted to private school 'choice' in the form of vouchers, and its local affiliate, Oklahoma Federation for Children funneled almost $200,000 into legislative races in Oklahoma, specifically targeting our Teacher Caucus, educators and family members who risked everything to contribute to a new conversation about education and funding in our state. I wrote about it last year, and I truly hoped we'd seen the last of Betsy DeVos's meddling in our state.

Alas, I was incorrect. OFC, funded directly by AFC, congratulated Darin Chambers, Republican candidate for HD46 on his primary win, aided in part by their attacks on his opponents.

This is MY House district, and these last days of the campaign (VOTE on Tuesday, September 12), OFC has sent attack ads to our mailboxes, defaming MY candidate, Jacob Rosecrants. It's a tactic they employed in the primary against his Republican opponents, and, frankly, we knew it was coming. Time-worn strategy:smear the opponent with too little time for them to mount a rebuttal, and do it with dark money so the candidate can feign shock and surprise, while reaping the advantage of the attacks.

The flyers are clear that they have not been "approved" by the candidate, giving Mr. Chambers the gloss of deniability. But, there is no denying the fact he's relying on out-of-state from a group that has vouchers as its prime directive. They will want votes from him. Even if he hasn't 'approved' the attack flyers, we know there will be a reckoning...and it will involve his votes. I, for one, do not want MY Representative to pay AFC and OFC back for their support with votes for vouchers when our schools are not fully funded.

Disclaimer: Jacob Rosecrants is my friend. He was my student. I've literally watched him grow up, grow as an educator and as an advocate. These attacks are ones I take personally for my student and friend. But, I'm trying to follow the positive example of Jacob's campaign, and trying to tamp down my outrage and hyperbole.

Rage amplified by the fact that a Norman Public Schools Board Member is featured prominently on Chambers' campaign literature as a supporter. Yes, a Board member of a PUBLIC school district, one of the best in the state, is supporting a candidate funded by a group who pushes private school vouchers over public schools. "Disturbed" is the politically-correct term for my emotions.

We must fight for OUR schools, OUR students...and Jacob is the only choice for HD46. We must tell DeVos and her foundations that they are not welcome in #oklaed. Jacob has been supported by legions of neighbors, knocking doors, making calls, hand-writing postcards. Volunteers have streamed down from Edmond every weekend. We know what's at stake and we're committed to Jacob's positive message.

In case you think I'm the only one incensed over this dark money trick, my friend Alison McCormick Petrone described the situation well. I am using her words with her permission:

"American Federation for Children is a voucher peddling SuperPac with chapters in every state attacking Public Ed. They have endorsed Darin Chambers because he believes in vouchers and charters, and created a smear campaign of a dedicated and talented local public school teacher in an attempt to seat another voucher-pushing corporate Private Ed state representative. 
"Public Ed is truly under attack in Oklahoma. This cannot be stated any more clearly. The groups want all of our children to go to corporate, for-profit schools. These D.C. SuperPacs they have created to push their agenda may have bottomless cash bags, but we will not be intimidated by their money and lies because our children deserve a quality public education by birthright as Americans.

"Vote for Jacob Rosecrants! Get out and volunteer for Jacob. Make calls from the Hilton meeting room today through Tues. Get people out to the polls.
"This isn't about Democrat vs Republican. This is about our kids."

I've sent the following to our local paper as a letter to the editor. But, knowing the election is Tuesday, and my letter may not make it into print, I'm sharing it here. So, on the great chance I've missed the deadline to have my letter printed, here it is to be shared.

"There have been some ugly flyers dropped in HD46’s mailboxes, full of innuendo and downright attacks against candidate Jacob Rosecrants. I’ve known Jacob since he was my student in English 1 and English 2 at Central Mid High. I watched him as a student, always with a smile on his face. I watched him create friendships with his classmates, reaching out to everyone, being inclusive and positive. You were never a stranger when Jacob was in the room.

 I watched him decide to become a teacher and those same gifts I saw in the fourteen-year-old Jacob helped him forge climates in his classroom of mutual respect and acceptance. He has taught in some tough schools in OKCPS, and he has thrived.

I saw him show an interest in fighting the school reforms that were damaging his classroom. He educated himself on the issues and found his voice.  As a social studies teacher who takes his role seriously, he began to speak out, to advocate for his students and their families.

Some of the volunteers Saturday morning! 4 Central Mid High folks!
I saw him begin to take an interest in politics, attending meetings, joining party groups, speaking up and speaking out. I’ve seen him educate himself on other issues that voters in our district care deeply about. Jacob has built a grass-roots campaign with volunteers who believe in his message of inclusion, public schools, health care, and adequate funding of schools and other core services. He ran a positive campaign against Representative Scott Martin, learned valuable lessons, and was ready to run again. He has prepared himself to lead.

How ironic that an out-of-state group who works against public schools is now financing the attack ads in our mailboxes. US Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos is someone we should trust with our public schools. But she has a long history of favoring privatizing our schools, giving vouchers to private school families, at the expense of public school students and their families. The Oklahoma branch of Ms. DeVos’s foundation, Oklahoma Federation for Children funded attack ads against several of the “Teacher Caucus” candidates in the last election, using their out-of-state funds to blanket districts with what we are now seeing in our district. Vouchers and privatizing schools are their core issues. In the last election cycle, OFC spent $190,000 to attack Teacher Caucus candidates, $180,000 of which came from the National Federation for Children (Oklahoma Watch 1/10/17).

 While we must wonder about the independence of a candidate who would accept assistance from OFC and NFC, we will never doubt Jacob’s support of public schools and adequate funding for our core services.  

Jacob is the independent voice for all of HD46."

Sunday, June 25, 2017

A Teacher Sounds Off

My teacher-friend, Brian Davis, posted this rant on FB this morning, inspired by the chart researched and created by John David French. I want to give him a larger audience for a vital truth OK's policy makers don't seem to want to recognize.

Brian Davis is a nationally-recognized geography teacher who lives and works at Central Middle School, in Bartlesville, OK. His wife is a National Board Certified Teacher. When he is not teaching, he can usually be found in a car driving his daughters batty with DAD jokes.

"Sorry, long rant ahead.
Chart and research by John David French*

According to the chart, this is what I need as a raise just to give me the purchasing power of a teacher's salary in 2008. My wife is also a teacher with five more years of experience than I have. Therefore that number is over $13K for our family. $6.5k is not really a raise. IT IS A COST OF LIVING ADJUSTMENT!!! 

Sooo, pardon me when I don't get ultra excited when a $ 1K to 4K "raise" is offered.

A true $5k raise would require $11.5K more each year. Coincidentally that's about how much more we would make in NW Arkansas or Texas. That's $20K to $32 K difference per year. If we finish our careers in Oklahoma we are leaving $800K plus on the table.

Ironically. $6500 is about what I made in my side hustles last year driving for Uber and extra-duty contracts. $6500 is about what we raised doing fundraisers last year for softball and mission trips for the kids. (Our barbecue ribs are really good. Hit me up the weeks before the Super Bowl) and we have added more to our side hustle this year.

If Heather and I have this "raise" (adjustment) We could give up some of the following extra jobs that we currently do:
  • Social Studies Department Chair 
  • Language Arts Department Chair
  • Team Leader for our perspective 
  • UBER DRIVER (this is cut back but still doing it occasionally)
  • Summer school teacher (both of us)
  • Geography Trainer
  •  Science Olympics coach (unpaid)

I AM A good teacher. No, I AM A GREAT teacher.

We both are, but how much more feedback could I give my students, how many more speakers could I bring in to enhance my lessons, or more time to tweak my lessons, how much better of a trainer or coach or department chair could I be, if I could afford to give up some of the side hustle? How much more time would I have as a father and a husband?
What if the side hustles were truly extra. I wouldn't have to plan 6 months out for new tires. 

The dryer going out would not be an emergency, I wouldn't have $10k in medical debt. (That's another rant in itself). 

I could replace and fix the laundry list of things wrong with my house, I could take a nice trip with my wife and kids not softball related. 

I could go fishing a little more. 

I could fund my IRA. I could worry less about how we are going to pay for college. 

I could drive cars from this decade. 

I could encourage our brightest students to follow the passion I have for educating. Including my own daughter who would be a phenomenal teacher.
I especially feel let down. When I was 12 yrs old my dream was to coach baseball and teach social studies. I didn't start out as an education major because I knew what my mom made but with the passage of HB1017 I thought, OK. I won't get rich but I can at least make a living teaching now.  And I did well the 1st 10 years. In my 2nd year, I made what my Mom made in year 22. I had a saving account, had an IRA that had a positive inflow, I traveled some and I had time to relax.
Folks. I write this sitting on a bed in our fireworks tent. 

I figured up I will have 4 days this summer with no obligations. 

What's this I hear about teachers having summers off? I'M TIRED!!!

And too many teachers in Oklahoma are sadly choosing to leave the state, or the profession, to adequately support their own families. Thank you, Brian, for staying, and for pointing out this inconvenient truth.

*John David French: "I posted it last week after my uncle suggested I figure out how far behind the inflation curve we've gotten. I used the lower end of estimates with 1.42% average yearly inflation over the past nine years, so the numbers should be slightly on the conservative side. I highlighted 2018 since that would be the earliest we could see a raise if the legislature finally decides to act next year."

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Stepping Back to Reach Out

Teaching often involves watching, observing, asking questions, withholding our judgement. It involves learning everything you can about your students so you can find the words to help. It's avoiding your knee-jerk response to perceived bad behavior and finding out more about the realities of your students.

My OSU student interns have a strong research, academic, and pedagogical foundation, and their semester of internship allows them to teach 'for real,' without much of a net. 

They learn to use their interpersonal skills, to inhibit their first responses and find other professionals who can help them learn more about these fragile students who try to appear so tough.

I have shared other intern stories here and here.

The stories I share today are young teachers using their gifts and talents and knowledge, getting to the bottom of troublesome behavior, seeking to understand their students' lives and finding ways to make school meaningful. I am so proud of these young teachers. Even if they choose not to teach, their semester in the classroom has given them even more empathy for others.

My student story is about a kid named T.  He is a “bad kid” according to almost all the other teachers (my CT is exempt).  He rarely comes to class, recently knocked-up his girlfriend, and is a general troublemaker.  He is disrespectful, has great contempt of authority, and will challenge teachers.  He likes to push back.  

I had him in class one day and was frustrated within the first five minutes.  I tried to laugh off his disrespect, but deep down I really wanted to call him out.  Instead, I kept my cool until I could talk to my cooperating teacher.  I told her about T and asked what she would do with him.  She told me that his dad had recently been sentenced to prison for trying to kill his mother in front of him.  Now, his mother wants nothing to do with him or any of his brothers.  She has all but abandoned them.  

To keep the boys together, community members have been letting them sleep on couches.  She never knows for sure where T is at any given point.  He feels ashamed of handouts so he won’t eat with the family he stays with.  He often doesn’t eat at school.  She said she had to force him to eat because he would be afraid of being called a bum.  

T works so hard to stay afloat that he sometimes doesn’t realize he’s being disrespectful.  He thinks that the teachers don’t understand him (and for the most part, he’s right) and so he won’t try. 

I pulled him out of class later that day and asked him how he was doing.   I told him he wasn’t in trouble, just that I wanted to talk.  He gave me a short list of his goings-on and started to open up a little. 

I then used “I” statements to discuss his behavior.  He instantly became the sweetest kid in his class.  If I could, I would adopt all three of those boys and make sure that they are cared for.  I still feel anger at the other teachers in my building for not caring for T and his family, but I’m glad I can help him in any way.  

And this...

I do not know how to start this written assignment, so I suppose I will just begin rambling. I have a student, EL, that is unmotivated at all times to do her work. She is a brilliant student, but she does not like feeling the pressure of working during class. To put this into perspective: while alone in the classroom, she finished a unit’s worth of assignments in about an hour. She is fully capable of doing the work, and doing it well, but she simply does not want to. She calls herself “stupid” regularly, and it breaks my heart.

After a while of this, my cooperating teacher and I decided to go to her counselor and find out if there is any background to her behavior. She is rarely disrespectful. She is just uninterested. We learned that her parents are currently going through a divorce. This put everything into perspective for us. It is so hard to ask he to work on English assignments when her home life is a complete mess. I fully understand that The Crucible is not relevant to her real life; however, she does need to graduate high school, so we hold her to a new standard.
EL is no longer allowed to take her work home with her. She always loses it, so there is no point in asking her to work on things at home anyways. We ask her to stay after class once a week and get all of her assignments done. She is only allowed, per our policy, to make an 80% on these late assignments, but an 80% is much better than a 0. 

We are now working with her schedule in a way that does not pressure her, or make her feel that we think English is more important than her home life or her mental health.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Relationships Support Students and Families

Last semester, I was able to work with OSU English Language Arts (and Foreign Language) Student Interns, and was deeply moved by their dedication to their profession and their students. I learned to love my students, and supported their various decisions about their futures: some (less than half) will be teaching in #oklaed next year. Some are making the trek south on I-35 to teach in Texas. Some are returning to school, pursuing degrees in higher education.

They all were more than ready for their internship by a strong foundation in the academics and pedagogy. They will all find success in their lives, and this semester they spent in the classroom will always inform their lives.

I asked my students to share a story (no names) about a student...when we tell these stories, we get to the heart of teaching and learning. I published one story earlier, about a student who turned his life around with the help of coaches and teachers

Today's story shows the power of a teacher stopping, reaching out to students and families, and building a relationship that will help that student grow. 

We are training amazing teachers. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer are staying home to teach our students.

Today one of my students apologized to me. 

An apology is a small thing, a simple action, but to a teacher it is one of the rarest and most appreciated things a student can do. 

This student is not a bad student (there are no bad students, only challenging ones). He’s not the top of his class. He’s not sought out by many of his peers. He’s kind and intelligent; he’s funny and polite. And he doesn’t understand many of the everyday social interactions you and I find commonplace. 

This student deals with autism and epilepsy, and the medical ups and downs that come with that, on a daily basis.

Sometimes he asks me after class why other students laughed when he wasn’t meaning to be funny. While the laughter wasn’t mean-spirited, the confusion and sometimes hurt that it causes breaks my heart. Still, on most days this student greets my lessons with an enthusiasm for learning and willingness to participate. 

Last week, this student came to class without his usual enthusiasm for the material. He was late, obviously lethargic and irritable, and he was rude to me when I asked him to pay attention.

I didn’t call attention to his attitude in class, but after on Friday I called his mother to gain insight into his behavior. She told me his medication had been changed yet again in an effort to prevent more seizures, and because of this change, my student was experiencing mood swings and irritability. She thanked me profusely for calling, because her son is seventeen and naturally doesn’t like to share details of his school life with his mother. She said that without my call, she could not give her son’s doctor an accurate report of the effect the new medication had.

Today, one day after that phone call, my student walked into class, strode directly to me, looked me in the eyes, and said with sincerity “Miss B, I’m sorry for being rude to you.” I felt like crying. Because I was grateful for at least one caring parent. Because I could tell that he didn’t understand that his behavior had come off as disrespect. Because he had a bad few days and he couldn’t see past how poorly he felt, and he didn’t feel he could express that feeling to me then.

I thanked him, emphasized that I wasn’t offended, and we moved on. Today I saw the return of his usual disposition, and I hope that the next time he has a bad day, he feels able to confide in me.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Teachers and Coaches Change Lives. Never Doubt

Last semester I was lucky enough to work with English Language Arts and Foreign Language student interns at OSU. I was the teacher of record for the extra class they had to take during their internship (student teaching). They reflected on their experiences, and during one class I asked them to tell me a story of one student...I'm a firm believer in the power of story to connect people and to bring change. My hidden agenda was to give student interns their voice in advocating for their students. The stories moved me, and I have permission to share some with you. So, over the next few weeks, I'll do just that.

Just under 20 student interns, and about half of them are already gone...gone to Texas for higher salaries, and a living wage. As I grew close to these young people, it made me unutterably sad to see them go. But I also felt proud of their insistence that they were worth more than Oklahoma schools can offer. They are the future of my family business. 

So, please enjoy the story of AO. And see how one teacher, one coach, can stop, notice, and change everything. 

AO comes to class every day with a smile on his face and tie around his neck. Though his shoes are tattered and his shirt is littered with stains, he dresses for success and remains the bright light for a darkened time. 
If you knew AO three years ago you would look down or possibly hide your purse from his sight. He was a repeat juvenile offender, an exiled disturbance to the regular classroom, and a frequent flyer on the alternative school roster. 
He did not have parents to come home to so he instead went to work at McDonalds and used that money to pay his rent. 
AO’s trajectory changed one day as the cross-country team hurdled by and the coach said he needed more runners. His life has metamorphosed ever since and is now an active a contributing citizen in society and in his high school. 
Though his path has not been easy, AO finds a way to smile and succeed. 

Monday, May 22, 2017

Every Student is a Story...

It's the end of the school year, and teachers have become reflective....asking questions: did I do enough? Did I contribute? Did I make mistakes? Was I who my students needed this year? What do I need to learn to be a better teacher next year?

This is a piece I wrote several years ago when I was still in the classroom...every student who let me learn his or her story gave me a gift. These young people are now adults, making their way in the world...and they still are part of the teacher I was and the teacher I am.

If you are a teacher, think about your students who have shared their stories with you. If you're one of my students, thank you. Thank you for being mine, for reading with me, for sharing who you are...

“Every student is a story. Some will share their stories; some won’t.” 

I always tell young teachers and interns this when they begin teaching. I challenge them to create a climate where students feel comfortable sharing their stories. It makes our relationships more authentic and it makes our classroom a safe place to learn.

I knew this; but I never thought of the fact we, as teachers, are stories as well. We bring all our training and professional experiences into our classroom. We make decisions based on these stories as we add new episodes every day.

So—my story first. My training includes English Language Arts, Reading Education, Library Media, Special Education. Thirty-nine years in the classroom. Three states; seven schools; ten principals. Sixth grade teacher, high school English teacher, special education teacher, elementary librarian, reading specialist. I have taught students from every grade in public education, K-12. In high school, I’ve taught English 1, 2, and 4. I’ve taught remedial classes and advanced classes. Sounds like I can’t make up my mind, huh? But, throughout all this, there is a theme, a thread: literacy.

Every day I’ve spent in the classroom as a student or as a teacher has led me to this moment in my career. My English elective, Reading for Pleasure, is literally the culmination of all my training and all my experience. I use everything I’ve been taught, and everything I’ve ever learned, in this class. Every day of my professional life has led me, inexorably, to this class, to these students, to their stories.

Ben. Last year his special education teacher enrolled him in my class. Ben, a junior, had spent two-and-a-half years in a remedial English class; but that class was being dropped from our schedule and he needed more support in reading. A football player and a wrestler, he had a legitimate chance at a college scholarship if we could improve his 6th grade reading level. Oh, he fought me. Slept, “forgot” his book, sighed, did the minimum whenever possible. Then, he began to listen to Sean and Michael talk about their books and their favorite authors: Hunter Thompson, Chuck Palanuik, Neil Ellis. He saw, in my room, these cool guys (Sean’s a musician in a local band, and Michael was a respected football teammate) were passionate about their books. Ben began to pay attention to these conversations; he began to pick up books with curiosity. He read instead of napped. He talked to the other guys about their books and his own. The next semester, he’d pop into my room to ask about books, to trade out the book he’d borrowed for a new one. He’d tell me the team was going on a trip and he needed something to read. This year when he took a reading test, he scored post high school! He’s back this semester in my class, now being the leader—talking about his books, contributing to the conversations we have about authors. After Hunter Thompson's suicide, Rolling Stone did a retrospective...Ben brought a copy into class, read, and gave us his opinions on the piece and Thompson's ultimate meaning.  Books have made a lasting difference in his life. And he got that scholarship to play football in college!

Steven is a National Merit Scholar. His analysis skills are amazing already. What could I add to his story? Well, not just me, but the author, Chris Crutcher. Steven began to read Crutcher’s books because the author was coming to our school. Although he prided himself on his reading of challenging classics, he had never read books that reflected the life he was living. He read dead white men. In Crutcher's books, the characters struggled with the same battles he does: being accepted, being teased, standing up for justice, finding our values as we mature. Steven was able to read books with characters he recognized. He found a teacher willing to listen as he mulled over important issues not present in his rigorous AP curriculum. As he read Staying Fat for Sarah Burns, he talked about his anger and his need to protect his vulnerable girlfriend from the thoughtless taunts of others. His story was enriched by these books.

Jerry, a freshman, spent the first weeks in class starting book after book, never getting past the first 10 pages. One day, on the floor before my packed bookshelves, I asked him about the books he’d enjoyed. He couldn’t remember ever reading and enjoying a book. I asked what books or magazines his family read at home. His surprised snort was all the answer I needed: none. He had no model at home of reading. We struggled until we found Born Blue by Han Nolan. He read it; his logs were full of wonder. He brought me the book and demanded I read it so we could talk. I did. We did. He invited me to his IEP; because we talked about books, he believed I was the only teacher who liked him. This semester he’s back! He has successfully gotten several classmates to read his favorite book. In less than one school year, Jerry changed from a non-reader to a passionate advocate of his favorites. He now talks to others and loves to find new books to share with me and his friends.

Angie told me she hated the book Cut by Patricia McCormick. She hated the main character, a self-mutilator. She thought the book and the girl was “stupid” and she told me at every opportunity. She kept reading. Kept complaining. Only later did she tell me how close this story is to her own experience. She stopped denying her problem and she found the courage to ask our counselor for help. Angie’s told me she could never read that book again; but she knows it provided the motivation to reach out.

Rosa is an exchange student from South America whose English is not strong yet. She and I searched for books that would show her life in America, and ones she could understand. We found light “chick-lit” novels helped her understand the dynamics of high school drama. She also read Jane Eyre—in Spanish! I so enjoyed our conversations about Jane and loved seeing her through the eyes of another culture. Rosa was able to reach out to our culture while retaining her own through her choice of books.

Diane has been forced to read 30 minutes every day for years. She told me she hates to read, hates it, hates it, hates it. Yet her journals were full of original insights and sensitivity. She read challenging books for her AP English class, and nothing for pleasure. She struggled with her AP teacher, with her family, with her books—not chosen for her own enjoyment. She continued to pour out her soul and her conflicts to me. I knew A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly, was the right book for her: a young girl, just finishing high school yearns for her family to understand her love for reading and writing. She is ready to fly, and no one encourages her. Diane recognized herself and her battles. Those logs brought tears to my eyes.

Sam stopped coming to class last semester—went to work, instead. He enrolled in my class again this semester and has maintained a good grade. He told me he wanted to change my opinion of him from last semester. He’s recognized himself in Nick Hornby’s work. He reads everything by Hunter Thompson he can find. He has shared himself with me generously this semester, almost making up for his earlier desertion.

Robert is an English Language Learner, heavy-set and painfully quiet—shy of his lingering accent. A gifted artist, he couldn’t picture himself ever reading a whole book. As he talked to his family, he discovered his uncle enjoyed Harry Potter. So, what does my quiet ELL boy choose for his first book in my class?? HP #3! He struggled, but he persevered! His logs were short—not surprising since he still lacked confidence; but his responses showed a great empathy for Harry’s conflicts, and a desire to play Quidditch—if it was only a real game! When his English 4 teacher assigned their senior paper, a study of a British author, Robert was ready—Rowling, of course! He gave me a copy of his paper as a gift, and he gave me his cover illustration—a loving portrait of Harry and his friends. Now Robert smiles and greets me in the halls; now he sees himself as a reader! He and his uncle have lively conversations about their books!

Sylvia sauntered into class the second week of the semester—an unwilling addition. Because of our previous friendship, she left her ever-present attitude at the door but still tried to avoid books. She told me proudly she’d never finished a book—ever, not ever. She played around, picking up books clearly inappropriate for her below-level reading. In desperation, I handed her a book from a series called Bluford—contemporary novels all set in an inner-city high school. Written by different authors, some focus on the struggles of young men, some on young women. Sylvia recognized her own California background and experiences within these books, and began reading. Her body language changed; her nose was glued to these books. She was overcome with the sense of accomplishment: she finished a book! A book she loved! It was heartbreakingly touching to watch her carefully consider the other books in the series to read next—she’d never had that experience. What to read next.

I had 300 students this year, and many told me their stories. Some did not. Conrad, an avid fantasy reader, sits in front of me every day, reading. He won’t write logs to me; I don’t know his story. He’s fighting. I hope I have another chance with him. I’m not the person he wants to share with at this time. Alice and Mike also chose to shut me out. I must respect their choice and hope to see them again at another stage of their lives, and of mine.

My background, my training, my experience have all combined to give me tools to help my students. The librarian knows books and is always looking for the perfect book for each student. She knows how to sell a book to kids, and how to match kids with books.  The English teacher pushes their responses, challenges their ideas, supports their attempts. She can also discuss the high school canon with confidence. The reading specialist knows literacy theory.  She recognizes struggling students and can support their efforts, matching appropriate books with students, suggesting strategies for success. The special education teacher individualizes for every student, knowing when to push, when to accept, when to question, when to praise.

Every moment of my life, from those first months being nursed by my mother who held me in one hand, and her book in the other, to the college degrees, to the patchwork teaching experience, has prepared me for this class, for these students, for this challenge. How very lucky I am to be doing this work!

How blessed I am students tell me their stories.