On Health and Happiness: A Letter to the Class of 2017

June 12, 2017
Dear Class of 2017,

One of the sweetest things about teaching seniors is the chance to spend a second year with some of you who had been in my sophomore English class. I’m always stunned by the development that happens in just a year or two. And so on August 17, 2016, I felt a giddy excitement to meet you all–some older and wiser than sophomore year, but also, strangely, still the kid who had sat here two years ago. Many of you were new to me, a new enigma, new territory entirely.

You folks were the twentieth set of students to spend a year with me, 180 days in the same space at the same time, and as many things that are wrong with education, there is something magical that happens when a set of people go on a journey together, as we have during your senior year. I hope by this point in my career as a teacher, I’ve finally figured out to help you help yourself: to show you how to read and write the world, as my friend Sarah Zerwin says, or at the least read and write your world, since we can only really know our own. 

You know I love stories, and so here is one last story from me. My senior year of high school I had the gift of a transformative English teacher, Billy Kreigh. Billy had been my journalism teacher my sophomore and junior year, and I adored her. My senior year, I spent four periods a day with her: newspaper, yearbook, teacher’s assistant, and Honors English.

Billy Kreigh

Billy Kreigh was–is–a force of nature. In the early 1990’s, when I was her student, she always wore some sort of long tribal-looking skirt paired with a bright tunic, bold handmade jewelry, and her signature short haircut that framed her big eyes and sharp cheekbones. Her red fingernails were daggers, and she used them to hypnotize us as she gestured and pointed and generally kept us under her spell. This all makes her sound terrible, but the truth was, Mrs. Kreigh was the coolest teacher, writer–perhaps coolest person–that I had ever met. I’d do back flips for this woman.

Despite my love of English, of literature and writing and talking about literature and writing, it may surprise you to know that I got a D in Honors English. I was too busy writing for the newspaper and editing the yearbook to worry about silly things like Honors English homework. But I read all the books, and wrote obsessively, as I do now, in an agonized rapture, and Billy still awarded me the top department award for English my senior year. She knew, as I do, that there was more to life than letter grades.

On the last day of classes in my senior year in high school–May 1993–Billy sat before our senior honors English class and shocked me to my core–her hallmark move–one final time. She passed out a one page copy titled “The Desiderata of Happiness” and read it out loud to us.
Desiderata of Happiness

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,

and remember what peace there may be in silence.

As far as possible without surrender

be on good terms with all persons.

Speak your truth quietly and clearly;

and listen to others,

even the dull and the ignorant;

they too have their story. 
Avoid loud and aggressive persons,

they are vexations to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others,

you may become vain and bitter;

for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. 
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;

it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs;

for the world is full of trickery.

But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;

many persons strive for high ideals;

and everywhere life is full of heroism. 
Be yourself.

Especially, do not feign affection.

Neither be cynical about love;

for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment

it is as perennial as the grass. 
Take kindly the counsel of the years,

gracefully surrendering the things of youth.

Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.

But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.

Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline,

be gentle with yourself. 
You are a child of the universe,

no less than the trees and the stars;

you have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you,

no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. 
Therefore be at peace with God,

whatever you conceive Him to be,

and whatever your labors and aspirations,

in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. 

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,

it is still a beautiful world.

Be cheerful.

Strive to be happy. 
Max Ehrmann, Desiderata, Copyright 1952.
Now, in the Bay Area in 2017, this doesn’t sound like a big deal, but in the Bible Belt where I grew up, in the 90’s, this flirted with heresy. (And if you don’t know what “heresy” means, look it up.) Billy had already gotten in trouble when she assigned The Color Purple, which was subsequently banned (which backfired, of course–the school board only ended up making it the forbidden fruit, eaten by the class core and all), and stirred up more unrest when she had us read Jung and Campbell. That line, “Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be” — that line was earth shattering. What? You mean there was a choice? I thought.

A few minutes before the final bell of our school careers, she also made two requests. One, that we keep in touch, and two, that from then on out, we call her Billy. We were all adults together now, she said. Whoa. Call her Billy? I am an ADULT?

Billy’s bold request served as a rite of passage for me. I didn’t swim through a dangerous underwater tunnel like the protagonist in Doris Lessing’s famous rite of passage story “Through the Tunnel,” but like you, I did swim through the chaos, heartache, and joy of high school, and on the other side, the world beyond was mine, as it is now yours. 

In September of that following year, I put the Desiderata up in my dorm room at the University of Evansville, and whenever I felt overwhelmed and beleaguered, which was nearly every day, I would read it. Sometimes I would call Billy on an especially bad day. And during one of the hardest periods–when she heard I was thinking about dropping out of college after I got pregnant my sophomore year–she called me, and told me she’d kick my ass if I did. I didn’t drop out, and graduated in 1997 with both a BFA in Creative Writing and a toddler (now 21!)–a pretty good deal, over all. Billy has been my trusted friend and confidant for these last 24 years. 

Fast forward a few decades. I was the senior English teacher now, and I had a plan for your last day. On Wednesday, May 31st, I dragged myself to school, feeling terrible. I had gotten no sleep, my bones hurt, my mind wouldn’t stop racing, and I was wired and exhausted and overwhelmed. I knew I was sick, and that I should call for a sub, but the idea of missing my last day with you, of missing the final and the grand gesture I had planned (to give you an earlier draft of this letter that I had stayed up all night writing, with the Desiderata and a notebook for you to keep writing your life story) convinced me to tough it out. 

Halfway through 3rd period, I knew it was impossible. I was SUPER sick, and I stuck on a movie to distract my freshmen while I called colleagues and friends to come cover my class and drive me to ER, where they ended up admitting me to the hospital, and putting me off work through June 12th. 

Your classmate Shiri saw me crying in the hallway on my way out, and she was worried, and very sweet to me. And yes, I was crying because I felt terrible, but I was mostly crying because I was devastated to miss that last day with you all, and disappointed not to be able unveil my own Billy Kreigh style rite of passage. 

On Saturday, June 10, health much restored, I came to gather my freshman finals to grade and make some order in my classroom. On the tiny table that serves as my messy desk, I found the beautiful box of notes and pictures from you, and I can’t tell you how much your words meant to me. That box of notes on crazy donut-post-it notes is probably the best gift other than my own children I’ve ever been given. Thank you. 

You’ll be glad to know that I am feeling much, much better, and I’ve learned an important lesson you’ll need to remember next year: SLEEP, rest, relax, have fun–it’s critical for your health. Those all night study sessions are a sham and will eventually catch up with you.

Lucky for me, we have the magic of the written word. And even though I will always be sad that I wasn’t there for our last day together, our last party, I’m always here for you, people. 

So here is my request:

Keep in touch, please. I will always be interested in your life. And please, from here on out, call me Kate. 

We are all adults together now.

Fondly,

Kate Flowers

Facebook: Kate Inskeep Flowers

Twitter: @kate_flowers

Email: ms.kate.flowers@gmail.com

Blog: empoweredteaching.blog

 Slice of Life 3: Truth Speaking vs. Shit Talking 

I spend a lot of time beating myself up over things I say.

If you know me, you know I talk. A lot. And that I often say exactly what I’m thinking, as unwise as it may be.

People who like me might say that this makes me a Truth Speaker. And yes, in the best case scenario, this can be accurate.

But often it just makes me a Shit Talker.

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And so tonight, I find myself standing over the sink cramming handfuls of popcorn in my mouth, running the rewind reel of the day over and over.

I shouldn’t have said, I think.

That was pretty mean-spirited, I think.

Today, there were way too many moments where I was most definitely Shit Talking, under the guise of Truth Speaking. So, where’s the line? I know the line exists.

For me, the line between Truth Speaking and Shit Talking can be best defined by whether or not I am following the Four Agreements. (If you know me, you know I fervently believe that all of life’s “thorns and arrows” can be cured by the right book.)

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Like thousands of other people, I first read this book after the author, Don Miguel Ruiz, appeared on Oprah. I was freshly out of college, a single mom and new teacher, and the agreements seemed like a gift. The were simple, wise, indisputable.

Here they are:

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When I’m Shit Talking, I’m usually violating at least three of the four agreements. I’m not being impeccable with my word. I’m almost always making assumptions.  I am definitely not doing my best. And if I’m being honest, the motivation behind the Shit Talking is usually that I am taking something personally.

A bowl of popcorn later, all I can do is resolve to do better, starting now.

Thanks for reading my third entry in the Slice of Life Challenge. 

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Slice of Life 2: On Teacher Leadership and Educational Reform. Or, on the importance of Happy Hour.

March 2, 2017

by Kate Flowers, Heinemann Fellow

An algebra teacher, a Spanish  teacher, and an English teacher walk into a bar.

For real this time. Not a dive bar, either. A classy place full of leather and comfy booths and lots of lovely drinks on the menu.

This is the fringe benefit of professional development, not that it includes the alcohol–that comes out of our own pockets. But time, and fellowship, good food, and yes, alcohol–these luxuries are actually wise investments.

I’m a PD junkie. I always have been. I love going to conferences and workshops, and in the last three years, I’ve started to be one who occasionally leads them as well.

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I’ve spent the day with my principal and my colleagues Jen and Ji at the CalTurn conference at the Westin in Sacramento. We’re here with twenty-five people from our district, ranging from a school board member, district administrators, our teacher and classified union presidents, teachers, classified staff, and principals.

You might think that the real work happens during the conference meeting times. And sure, work happens. Information is shared. Conversations are had. Progress is made. Important stuff, no doubt.

But the REAL work happens after hours, during happy hour snacking on hor d’oeuvres, over leisurely dinners in restaurants–completely bell and duty free, too–and in bars during after dinner drinks. This is when ideas flow, when cross-pollination happens, when insight strikes.

Tonight, a teacher at our sister high school came to dinner with us. He and his team had been part of Cohort 1 of the labor management partnership work our district is undertaking, putting them a year ahead of us, and we desperately wanted to pick his brain. He’s not only a teacher leader at his site, but also the vice president of our union.

We Ubered into Old Town to eat at one of our principal’s favorite restaurants, a fabulous swanky place with a mile-long bar, a two story wine cellar, and waiters who probably have Masters degrees. After we had all ordered drinks and selected our menu items, I pounced.

“So, George,” I asked, “tell us the story of Wilcox and your labor management work.” And over the next hour, we heard how teacher leaders and admin had worked together to build collaborative structures to empower teachers and strengthen teaching and learning.

The truth is, this is a story that is happening all over the country every day, and it needs to be told more often.

Each school has to make its own path, but I can’t tell you how helpful it was to hear how our sister school approached the work. In my classroom, we study mentor texts to help us learn to write well. In the work of educational reform, our mentor texts are the schools a little further along in the journey than we are.

I respect that, just as I resist handing my students fake formulas for writing, CalTurn and the Consortium for Educational Change resist handing us a template for how we should structure our work. It’s frustrating at times, but it’s honest: as Katherine Bomer says, the journey is everything.

As a public school teacher, it’s easy to get discouraged by this new alternative universe we live in, the one where Betsy DeVos is Education Secretary. But days like today, surrounded by dedicated public educators who simply do the work that must be done, constantly striving to improve teaching and empower student learning, I can’t help but feel like we’ll be okay.

#sol17: Thai Food Saved My Life Tonight

by Kate Flowers, English Teacher, Heinemann Fellow

 

An algebra teacher, a Spanish teacher, and an English teacher walk into a bar.

Wait. Revise that.

An algebra teacher, a Spanish teacher, and an English teacher sit in a car.

For four and a half hours.

Yes, that’s right.

Four. And. A. Half. Hours.

And we’re just talking about 128 miles here.

And that, folks, is why I’m posting my first Slice of Life Challenge so late—but it’s still March 1 in California. I left school with my colleagues Jen and Ji at 3:30 today to drive to a conference we’re attending in Sacramento with our principal Thursday and Friday. Since our principal had a 5:00 school site council meeting, we decided to let him drive separately, joking that he might get to Sacramento at the same time we did.

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We knew we’d hit traffic, but the snarl we found ourselves in as we meandered through the sodden green foothills defied my imagination. I drove the first leg, until we stopped for Thai food in Tracy. Ji drove the second leg, while I answered parent emails on my phone sitting in the back seat. Why did I download that Schoolloop app? Now, instead of scrolling through Facebook, I feel compelled to answer emails IMMEDIATELY.

Over dinner at a Thai restaurant in downtown Tracy, we traded 9/11 stories. Jen told us about how she and her students listened to the horror unfold on the radio—they didn’t have a TV in her classroom. Now, at the same school, she could stream live video from her computer and project it from her LCD projector for the class. The world has changed in so many ways since that day. If 9/11 had happened now, we’d be watching it through Facebook Live and Snapchat.

Just fifteen miles outside of Sacramento, we hit our last traffic snarl. Jen checked Waze, which reported a major accident. Fifteen minutes later, we rubbernecked at an overturned flatbed trailer, and then stared in horror at the smoking shell of a car in the median, still being hosed down by a firefighter. Clearly, in that hour we sat telling our 9/11 stories in the Thai restaurant, something terrible had taken place along our route. I tell my students that telling our own stories can save our lives, but tonight that saying seems literal.

And yes, our principal arrived just ten minutes after we did, even though he left at 6:00. Bay Area traffic is not to be underestimated. “You guys grabbing a drink?” he asked.

Doc Z and the Paper Graders, Part 2: No Barking

It’s been over a month since I visited Doc Z and the Paper Graders at Fairview High School in Boulder, Colorado. But I find that as I prepare to return to my classroom this morning for the beginning of second semester, they are on my mind. Perhaps this is because I spent hours and hours this past week grading my students’ finals, always a fraught experience even in the best of times. Their work on how we can #StopGrading seems more important now than ever.

But that isn’t all they have to offer us.

As I mentioned in my earlier post about my visit, FHS is the first open campus I’ve ever visited. Because of this, I might have subscribed some behaviors I noted primarily to the school being open, but I wonder if that is the case.

The biggest difference I noted between FHS and the six schools that I have taught over my twenty years can be condensed to one word: barking. More specifically, the lack of barking. At Fairview, not once that day did I hear an adult raise his or her voice and bark an order. And there was a lot going on: Fairview is a big, busy place. If the adults had wanted to, they could have been barking at kids left and right. But they didn’t, and because of this, not only were things going smoothly, there was a happy atmosphere even in the midst of finals.

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This whole “not barking” thing might not sound like a big deal, but it is. It comes down to ownership and empowerment.

I’m not saying that the as the adults in the building, we should turn over all power to our students. But we should remember why the building exists in the first place, why we teach and get our paychecks: to serve students. To provide them with an education. To empower them with the knowledge they need in the world.

When we raise our voices and bark at students, we convey so much that contradicts empowerment: I am more powerful than you. I will use my power to control you. I can punish you if you don’t obey.

When I started teaching at twenty-two, I raised my voice all the time. I yelled to get my students’ attention. I lost my temper. In fact, I used my temper as my primary means of classroom management.

I remember once being furious that my principal at the time didn’t yell at a student, Ricky, who was absolutely a pain in my ass. After losing it one afternoon, I demanded a meeting with him and the principal. I ranted in front of the student, my voice probably so loud it could be heard throughout the office, listing my grievances to the principal while the student tossed back sarcastic comments, peppering my outrage even further.

My principal, when he finally got a word in, turned to Ricky and asked, in a calm, even voice, “Well, young man, this does not sound good. What’s going on here?” Ricky’s prickly, cocky attitude evaporated, and he and the principal proceeded to have a heart to heart. I’m not saying that Ricky was an angel afterward, but he developed a relationship with the principal that changed his behavior for the better in my classroom.

You would have thought that this experience showed me that engaging students from a position of respect goes further than talking down to them, but you’d be wrong. I was so caught up in my own outrage, I was furious that he didn’t yell at Ricky. Yelling at kids was what you did when they were out of line.

It took my many years to come to recast that day as a twenty-two year old teacher in different light. While I reformed my terrible habit of yelling at kids many years ago, I was very slow to see the importance of how we approach our students. My day visiting the Paper Graders crystallized something that has been a long time coming.

The way the adults in the building use their voices matters. A lot.

As I head back into the classroom for the first time in 2017, I’m making this one small resolution: no barking. My voice is one of the most powerful tools I have in my classroom, and I want to use it wisely.

 

Teacher Church: Transforming Collaboration 

This morning, I spent three hours in teacher church. If you saw me, though, sitting curled up barefoot on my dear friend Heather Seaton’s gorgeous grey sofa in her beautiful new living room, sipping a flat white she’d made me using her new Ninja coffee maker, you might not have realized it. But it was teacher church, and I left the way all believers are meant to leave—inspired, empowered, and renewed.

Heather, an assistant principal of a large suburban high school in Southern California, shared with me that she meets once a week with an eclectic group of teachers for teacher church: a French teacher, a math teacher, a science teacher, and a construction teacher gather to discuss ways they are developing growth mindset in their students. Each one is approaching the goal differently, but by sharing their journey, they learn from each other and motivate themselves to try new things. This is empowered teaching at its best.

I define teacher church the way Jesus defined church—“Wherever two or three are gathering in my name, I am among them.” Wherever two or more empowered teachers gather together in the name of growing as educators, it’s teacher church. There are many other names for it. Jim Burke calls it his Circle of Friends. When you look at the empowered teachers across the country who are writing about their classrooms, almost all of them have some form of teacher church. For many writing teachers, teacher church is their local affiliate of the National Writing Project.

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For others, it’s their local affiliate of the National Council of Teachers of English. But it doesn’t have to be formal—just two or more like-minded teachers who are willing to be honest, vulnerable, brave, positive, and encouraging.

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Another Teacher Church opportunity: CATE members meet for dinner at NCTE 2016 in Atlanta. 
Looking back over the twenty years of my career, I’ve always attended teacher church of one kind or another. I was lucky to start teaching at twenty-two while living with my aunts, both experienced, inspiring, empowered teachers. I was surrounded by mentors and colleagues who were always willing to sit down together for a short service of teacher church.

From 2005 to 2012, I taught with Heather and our badass best friend Ashli Kessinger, and we met nearly every Friday night to drink wine and plan our lessons for our freshman English classes. Later, we invited another young teacher, also Heather, to join us. Those years of close, happy collaboration, planning, talking and thinking together, transformed all of our teaching.

Our teacher church pushed me to try more group work, which terrified me. My first year attempting National Board Certification in 2001-2002, my low score on my small group video convinced me that I just wasn’t cut out for teaching using small groups. While I was able to focus on that one component the following year and passed the boards, the sting of that low score haunted me.

But Heather was a pro at small groups, and she coached me into trying it and making it work. It still took me a few years to move to small group work as the default for my class, but I’m convinced I would never have moved to the student-centered approach that defines my classroom now if it hadn’t been for Heather showing me how she did it in her classroom.

My years collaborating deeply and regularly with Heather and Ashli also gave me an insatiable appetite for collaboration that has been the foundation for a happy career. Much later, in 2013, I found organized religion when I participated in the San Jose Area Writing Project’s Intensive Summer Institute. Sometimes I still lament the fact I came to the Writing Project so late, but regardless, I’m grateful for the many powerful collaboration opportunities that the SJAWP has brought into my life.

Collaboration is uniformly recognized as a powerful tool for improving teaching and learning, and often, in an attempt to reap its benefits, it is foisted upon us by well-meaning district offices and administrators. The entire Professional Learning Community (PLC) movement started by Rick DeFour out of Illinois is built on the idea that a small group of teachers who meet regularly to plan, teach, assess and reflect make huge strides in improving learning outcomes.

Years ago, I served as staff development facilitator at Moreno Valley High School in Moreno Valley, California as the school began weekly PLC meetings. Some of the PLCs gelled right away and became everything that DuFour had promised. However, many did not. These grade level or subject specific teams varied widely in their effectiveness. So, what was the determining factor?

Spirit.

Whether or not these PLCs worked came down to the spirit that the teachers brought to the meetings. Those PLCs where a majority of teachers came to the weekly meeting with a positive spirit, determined to be honest, open, hardworking and respectful, found quick success. They encouraged each other, celebrated successes and non-judgmentally dissected failures, which they looked at as learning opportunities. They turned these weekly meetings into teacher church.

I do understand why to some teachers, collaboration is a dirty word. They’ve been forced into unproductive or negative collaborative experiences that were a waste of their time. Sometimes teachers are afraid to be vulnerable, worried they will be judged. A few bad experiences can poison a teacher’s perspective on the benefits of collaboration.

Empowered teachers don’t wait to be forced into collaboration, making their own teacher church wherever the opportunity arises. But they also transform forced collaboration into valuable opportunities to work together. They are masters of stopping by their principal’s office to say, “Hey, what if we tried this?” Or even better, “Do you mind if our PLC pilots this new idea?”

For me, collaboration is just plain fun. I collaborate regularly with about a half dozen teachers, and not only does this push my teaching into new territory, it makes me happy. It means that first period on Tuesday, I’m guaranteed to see my friend Jonathan Dune, our district’s ELA teacher on special assignment. It means that every Thursday, I get to see Dr. Jonathan Lovell, as he comes to work with my fourth period Freshman Honors class. It means Wednesday afternoons I meet with Hanna Andderson, and Thursday afternoons with Cory Morbo, the two young teachers I mentor. It means every other Monday afternoon I get to hang out with the SJAWP leadership team at San Jose State as we plan our Saturday Seminars and summer programs for teachers. It means that once a month I get to laugh my guts out during our Heinemann Fellows conference call.

If any administrators are reading this, I hope they’ll walk away with this key idea: if you want teachers to collaborate, don’t discount joy. Teacher church is fun, y’all. Fun matters. Agency matters. Joy matters. Teacher church happens any time collaboration is infused with the three—joy, agency, fun.

What’s your teacher church? Do you need more of it? If so, how can you transform existing opportunities to get more teacher church in your life? Who in your teaching life could you reach out to today? 

It doesn’t have to be complicated. Attending teacher church might be as simple as stopping by an old friend’s house to sip a flat white latte and talk about teaching.

Redefining Rigor: An Argument for Joy

It’s ten in the morning, and, since it’s my prep period, my classroom is quiet and peaceful, the thirty-nine desks empty except for the two that my colleague Jon and I use. Jon, a passionate teacher I respect for his vast experience and “big picture” mindset, currently serves as teacher on special assignment, a position known for its habit of turning talented teachers into district henchmen who spend their days crafting soul-sucking district assessments. Jon, however, fights against this, dedicating himself to fostering best practices in whatever covert ways he can, one of which involves his work with me. 

We’ve been sketching out the beginning of a pilot program to promote independent reading in our district, but had gotten a bit off track, talking about other issues, when my colleague shares what he believes to be a universal truth. 

“Of course, Kate, we want rigor in our classes,” Jon says, an aside to a larger point he is trying to make.

I pause, but he continues, not registering my hesitation or the fact that my attention isn’t with him any longer. 

Of course we want rigor in our classes. 

To disagree would be unthinkable. 

To disagree would be akin to saying: Of course, I want to be an irresponsible teacher who dooms her students to a lifetime of illiteracy. Right?

I’m going to share a little secret with you, though I don’t think I shared it with Jon at that moment. I loathe the word rigor. I know it is supposed to be untouchable, the one quality that all educators agree upon, but honestly, it’s been so abused and misused, I think it best if we just abandon it all together.

If we look at Merriam-Webster’s definition, you’ll see it’s a pretty horrible definition to begin with even before the misuse, nothing that any of us would want to use to define our teaching, student learning, or our lives. Merriam-Webster defines rigor as “(1) : harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment : severity (2) : the quality of being unyielding or inflexible (3) : a condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable; 4: obsolete: rigidity, stiffness ; rigor mortis.”

    I’m sure there must be a more depressing, joyless definition in the dictionary, but it would take a while to find it. Is this really what we aspire to in our classrooms? 

I hope not. 

Now, many educators would argue that this broad definition does not account for its specific use in education, that by rigor educators mean challenge. And often, I agree, this is the case. However, in my own experience, I have too frequently witnessed rigor used to defend teaching malpractice. 


While the vast majority of teachers I’ve worked with over the last two decades have been hard-working, innovative, caring professionals, rigor has taken its toll on the entire profession. How much of this pressure to idolize rigor stems from the mistaken idea that the problem with American education is that schools are too soft on kids? This belief casts rigor as the solution to all educational ills, and leads to the tyranny of standardized testing as a high-stakes accountability measure. David Denby exposes the impact of standardized testing in his article “Stop Humiliating Teachers” in the New Yorker:

“Public-school teachers have been trapped in a maze of standardized tests. There were the tests mandated by the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind program, passed in 2001, which yoked schools’ survival to test scores; and then there was the Obama program, Race to the Top, passed in 2009, which encouraged states to promote charter schools and the Common Core and linked promotion or dismissal to teachers’ ability to get kids to score well on tests; and there’s the Common Core itself, which has new, more difficult tests reinforcing it. Teachers run from one testing regiment to another.” 

Denby, it seems, has been lurking around schools, eavesdropping on teams of teachers toiling away on district committees as they race to modify benchmarks to measure the new Common Core assessments. California high school teachers didn’t even have time to celebrate the end of the California High School Exit Exam (itself the source of over a decade of stress and anxiety) this fall, as the first Common Core test results of the SBACC had arrived, with depressing results.

Just a problematic, though, is that rigor has become educational Kevlar for bad teaching. Jonathan Lovell, professor of English education at San Jose State University, says that there is a “knee jerk deference to rigor,” and this is clearly the case. While it isn’t an everyday occurrence, at least one teacher at every school where I’ve taught has used rigor as an excuse for bad teaching, and usually, when they use the rigor defense, people immediately back down. 

I’ve heard a colleague dismiss a high failure rate in his classes with the words, “Well, my class is rigorous, what do you expect?” I’ve heard teachers dismiss student disengagement, misbehavior, boredom, and truancy all due to rigor. 

Rigor, to these teachers, makes it acceptable for students to be miserable in our classrooms. Rigor makes it okay that only half the class turns in their homework. It makes it okay for teachers to obsess over curriculum while ignoring–or worse, disdaining–their students. It makes it okay if they assign the same boring paper, the same pointless homework, the same out of touch novel, over and over and over. It’s okay if school is painful for students because it’s rigorous. If the kids don’t succeed, it’s not the teacher’s fault–the kids couldn’t handle the rigor.

The problem is, exactly none of that is okay. It isn’t okay if our kids are miserable in our classrooms, or if only half the class completes homework, or if we ignore our students, or dislike them. It’s not okay if they don’t succeed. We can’t hide behind rigor and pretend that we aren’t responsible for the actual learning and growth our students make in our classrooms, and for creating the conditions under which learning and growth can take place.

Paradoxically, rigor works against the shift we are trying to make in our classrooms. We want students who are able to think critically, who are college and career ready, but we are preparing them with the idea that the best way to do it is to be inflexible, rigid, even cruel. Rigorous teaching, done badly, clearly communicates a terrible falsehood to our students: ideas and standards are much more important than you, kid–if you don’t get this, it’s your fault, and you should feel like a failure, because you are. 

Basically, my point is this: rigor is a jerk.

I know this sounds harsh, and that it sounds like I’m beating up on teachers, a group I not only belong to but revere above all others. It’s because I love education and teaching and teachers that I think it is the responsibility of practicing teachers to call bullshit when we see it. To put it inelegantly, in this rigor rigmarole, we are knee deep. 

So what do I suggest? I suggest that we replace the word–better yet, the idea–of rigor with a much healthier word: vigor. Merriam-Webster defines vigor as “strength, energy, determination; active mental strength; active healthy well-balanced growth; intensity of action or effect.” 

Rigor assumes rigidity, a white-knuckled approach to teaching and learning that is akin to eating spinach while pinching one’s nose closed. Vigor believes that learning doesn’t have to be painful; it invites joy, life, engagement and personality to teaching and learning. Vigor doesn’t shy away from challenge, yet it rejects the idea that learning should be dehumanizing. The vigorous classroom honors students at its center, operating under the belief that the best way into a kid’s head is through her heart. 

Writing for Freedom

In April 2014, a fifteen year old boy named Yahya from Santa Clara High School, where I teach, stowed away in a wheel well of an airplane, surviving the flight from California to Maui, a feat that carries a 76% death rate, according to the FAA. CNN reported that Yahya had run away from home after fighting with his stepmother. He boarded the first west bound plane he could find in hopes of making a trip to Africa, where his mother lived in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. He hadn’t seen her since he was seven years old.

 

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This graphic, published in The Daily Mail, describes Yahya’s death-defying journey from San Jose to Maui.

Yahya was not my student, but was friends with one of my sophomores at the time, Abraham. Like Yahya, Abraham was from Eritrea, and had moved to Santa Clara when he was eleven to live with his father. Like Yahya, he hadn’t seen his mother in years and missing her was like a toothache, constant and painful. I remember him telling me at the time that he completely understood Yahya’s decision. He himself would do almost anything to see his own mother.

I can’t stop thinking about this conversation today. Earlier this week, I got an email from Abraham, who graduated in June. I get lots of emails and Facebook messages from former graduates, and like all teachers, seeing or hearing from a student whom I had a hand in educating remains the most satisfying part of my job.

But this email was different. Abraham was writing from jail. He explained that he had made some bad choices at a local department store where he worked, giving away merchandise to friends when they came through his cash register if they asked. He had gotten arrested and was soon to be tried. He wanted me to write a character reference to the judge for him.

I’ve written hundreds of letters for my students over my twenty year career, but this is the first time I was writing to a judge. This was the first time I was writing in a situation where my students’ physical freedom was at stake.

Through the magic of Google Drive, I still had a copy of Abraham’s personal statement for his college applications, which he wrote in September 2015 as an assignment for my class. As I struggled to find the best words to share with the judge the young man that I had spent his sophomore and senior years with, I defaulted to embedding his entire personal statement into my letter. I let him speak for himself. Here’s an excerpt:

My mom still lives in Kenya. My mom has always been there for me since I was a kid and I really miss her because I haven’t seen her in 5 years. When we lived in Eritrea, we were a poor family and my mom worked two jobs to put food on the table for me and my siblings. My dad was never really around at the time because he had gotten shot during the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

I talk to my mom most of the time on the phone. She told me that I should never give up and keep doing good in school. I have changed a lot as a person since I last saw my mom. This last summer I worked at Great America and I sent my mom some money to help her pay her bills in Kenya. My mom has done so much for me and there’s nothing I can do to replace for everything she has done for me but to show her how much I appreciate her. 

Me and my siblings came to America for better education and better life. I’m really lucky because most kids my age back home would have to go to the military now and they wouldn’t get a chance to go to school. My parents want me to have a good future and  get a good job. That’s the reason why I always work hard in school and do all my homework and study for tests. From what I came from we were a poor family and we really didn’t have anything and now everyone depends on me to be something great. 

I concluded the letter with an appeal to the judge that the young man I knew was a good, kind, hard working young man, and that I hoped he would be shown leniency and have a chance to redeem himself. I have a nagging feeling that my words fell short—that I wasn’t able to capture the young man I know well enough to persuade a person who will only know Abraham in one context, in one moment, rather than over years and through his own story.

The writing we do in school so often doesn’t seem relevant to students’ lives. While I wish that this situation hadn’t happened, that it hadn’t been necessary to write this letter, to share Abraham’s own words with the judge who will decide his future, I’m grateful that Abraham had a chance to share his story, and that I was able to use it in his defense. In a way, all writing is writing for freedom.

We need to tell our own personal stories, perhaps most importantly, our own personal horror stories. Stories empower us. Stories free us. It’s my greatest wish that Abraham’s story empowers him, that it gives him a chance to write a new chapter. When I think of Yahya in the wheel well of that 767, I think of all the horrendous outcomes that might have happened. By grace, he was given a happy ending. I wish the same for Abraham.

Visiting Doc Z and The Paper Graders

Perhaps the most empowered teacher I’ve met lately is the indomitable Dr. Sarah Zerwin, Doc Z to her students at Fairview High School in Boulder, Colorado. I left California to head to Denver for my mid-year Heinemann Fellows meeting a little early so that I could visit Sarah and her colleagues, collectively known as The Paper Graders (thepapergraders.org).

Fairview High School is stunningly gorgeous. It sits next to Viele Lake, the snowy Flatirons adding a dramatic backdrop. My Uber driver dropped me off during second period, one of Sarah’s three prep periods. After stashing my bags in her office, Sarah gave me a tour of her school.

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FHS is the first open campus that I’ve ever visited, and right away, I noticed a different spirit than most high schools I’ve visited. Because students have open periods in which they may study or leave campus, the halls and common areas were bustling with people, but here’s the thing: it worked. Fairview, Sarah explained, is shaped like a wagon wheel on its side, with the Hub–the student commons–at the center and three levels of halls winding off of it.

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The Hub at FHS. Security office above, counseling office below. Ringed by student lockers.

We passed a pair of students rehearsing a scene from Romeo and Juliet, another pair pouring over their science books in a niche of the Hub, the student commons at the center of the school,  and students chatting with the security guards, whom they clearly adored. The halls were bright with student art, and even ceiling tiles had been painted by students to reflect the hall.

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Painted ceiling tiles reflect the hall. I wish I had taken a picture of the book cover tiles in the English hall!

Knowing my obsession with libraries, Sarah was happy to show me Fairview’s, and it’s clear where they got their name.

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The library at Fairview High School

A wall of glass invites the breathtaking view of the lake and mountains into the bustling library.

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The view from the library. Fairview is quite an understatement.

Students on their free periods worked at computers or studied in groups at tables and individually in study carols. A mural painted by an alum added even more personality to this unique space.

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Rise Above mural in FHS library.

After getting me a cup of coffee from the a staff room behind the library, where the library staff keeps the joe flowing all day for caffeine-deprived teachers, we headed to Sarah’s office for a moment. At FHS, no English teacher has their own classroom. They all have a small office, though, that they share with a colleague, and based on the amazing discussions I got to sit in on, the cross-pollination of ideas benefits not only the department but the whole school.

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Doc Z shares an office with her colleague Jaime.

While Sarah and I had become friends this summer at University of New Hampshire’s Summer Literacy Institute, I had also met her colleagues the Paper Graders a few weeks ago at NCTE, where they gave two presentations.

Their level of collaboration inspires me as much as it makes me envy them. I left FHS convicted that I’m not making the most of the partnerships available with my own colleagues.

Sarah’s seniors were presenting their United Nations Panels as their culminating presentations for the semester. Their guiding question for the semester was: “How are you going to make the world a better place?” Each of the four group members presented to the class for a few minutes, sharing a slide as well as their investigation into the topic they chose. They also shared a personal anecdote as well as content from in-person interviews they conducted.

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These were brave presentations. The one that stuck with me the most was on sexual assault. One girl shared that her mother had been raped. Another that she herself had been raped at a party. They shared their research, including Jon Krakauer’s Missoula. Sarah’s seniors demonstrated deep interest in each other’s presentations, leading discussions and showing respect for each others’ work and ideas.

The next evening, when I found myself in Reader Heaven–otherwise known as The Tattered Cover, Denver’s kick ass independent book store, I bought Missoula for my class library. When I book talked it on Monday back in my own classroom, it was checked out immediately. Cross-pollination indeed.

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The Heinemann Fellows storm Denver’s Tattered Cover. R-L: Tricia Ebarvia (PA), Chris Hall (NH), Kate Flowers (CA), Hollis Scott (CA), Katie Charner-Laird (MA), Anna Osborn (MO), Kim Parker (MA), Ian Fleisher (NH), and Aeriale Johnson (AK).

Sarah and her colleagues exemplify empowered teaching. In addition to observing Sarah, I got to attend a Pride and Prejudice Tea Party with Tracy’s AP Lit class–Tracy’s hat was worth the trip to Boulder in and of itself! Next, I sat in on Jay Stott’s freshman English class. Students were deeply absorbed in revising their writing for their final projects on their Chromebooks.

While the kids were working independently, I interviewed Jay for a few minutes, asking him what his thoughts were on empowered teaching. Jay frequently works with new teachers, and he mentioned how stressed they feel, and how much pressure they feel to do things the right way.

Jay said, “So many teachers feel like someone is breathing down their neck, but when I ask them WHO specifically in their world–students, parents, peers, admin–is actually requiring them to do the things that are draining them and stressing them out, 100% of them can’t name a single individual person. It’s their own perceptions of what they are supposed to do that is making them miserable.”

Jay captures a conundrum that I myself keep bumping against. So many teachers are disempowered by their own assumptions, their own perceptions, their own inner narratives they tell themselves about how school is supposed to be. To become empowered teachers, we must first confront ourselves and our assumptions.

My morning with The Paper Graders left me feeling so much hope about what is possible when a group of empowered teachers take ownership of their department and challenge their own assumptions.

I have so much more to say about my time at FHS, but I’ll save it for another post soon. Many thanks to Sarah Zerwin and her department for being such gracious hosts!

 

 

 

Contemplating Badassery

by Kate Flowers, Denver, CO (in town for Heinemann Fellows Meeting)


My journey to becoming an empowered teacher–which I like to call a badass teacher–is, like most journeys, long and winding. But let me just tell you about one moment that captures the excitement, hope, and fear that teachers feel when they start to own their power.

img_0867Fittingly, this story starts in an airport. And it starts with books. And writing. Three big themes of my life, and, if you are an English teacher like me, you know to pay attention to things that come in threes.

It was November 18, 2015, and after a frantic twenty-four hours involving writing lesson plans, packing, and preparing for my first ever round table, I readied to board my plane in San Jose.  I was on my way to my first ever Annual Meeting of the National Writing Project and my second National Council of Teachers of English conference in Minneapolis

The truth is, I was feeling as far away from being a badass as possible. I felt like a fraud. I was going to the Mecca of English teachers questioning if I could find a completely different way to do my job. I was still shell-shocked from spending hours and hours at Panera grading painful essays I inflicted on my students in order to prepare them for the upcoming mandatory district timed writing assessment. I knew how to teach writing, but this kind of writing, and the teaching it required in order to help students meet the district’s performance expectations, violated everything I believed about teaching and writing from my years in the San Jose Area Writing Project. But I was a team player, a good soldier, and hey, who the hell did I think I was, any way?

As my flight started to board, I made a horrifying realization. That extra carry on that the gate agent offered to check for free held all my reading material for the flight. (This happened again this year, too.) For a bibliophile like me, hours on a plane with nothing to read equates to torture. So desperately, as bored travelers filed onto our flight, I ran to the nearest news stand, which only had one small stand of business, inspirational, and religious books.

Scanning the titles, I grabbed a yellow book with an embarrassing title: You are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life. I was so horrified by the in-your-face title that after I had settled into my window seat, I stuck post-its all over the cover so none of my fellow passengers would think that I had the gall to think that I was a badass. Because, really, who do I think I am?

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An hour later, five chapters in, I had laughed, cringed and cried as Jen Sincero took me through the first part of the book, which she titles “How You Got This Way.” Another hour in, and I finished Part 2, “How to Embrace Your Inner Badass.” At that point, I started to wonder if maybe I really could be, maybe even already was, a badass.

I dug in my purse for a pen, and lacking any notebooks, which were also in the checked bag, I scribbled the following in the back of the book:

What if I never graded an essay again? What if we stopped the practice of single work summative writing grades? How would you give a writing grade then? Portfolios? Process?

Here’s the thing: I’d be a completely, blissfully happy English teacher if I just didn’t have to grade essays. What’s the purpose of grading an essay? It doesn’t make a person a better writer–it often hurts more than it helps. But effort grades seem fraudulent.

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As I closed the book, almost breathless with this crazy idea, my chest hummed with hope. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had just made my first foray into the land of empowered teaching. I was discovering my inner badass.